Maybe 30 is just a number. My body didn't catch that memo. Since hitting the milestone birthday, I've noticed that routine work stresses and minor, one-off injuries leave a deeper impact. Extra pounds arrived on my frame slowly but steadily, no matter how much I exercise. My right ankle is held together with twelve screws and two metal plates , and I wake up stiff.
I'd always been an anxious, Type-A person. Coveting every gold star and extra-credit question, I say "yes" to everything, even when I know the rubber band of my sanity is about to snap. If this is who you've been your whole life—and I do mean "whole life," like since age 5, when I worried that not giving all my stuffed animals equal face time would make them feel unloved—it's amazing how long you can go on walking that tight rope with no awareness that anything is wrong.
One month before my thirty-fourth birthday, I realized I was afraid to leave the house. I've dealt with mild bouts of agoraphobia throughout my life, but now getting out of bed and walking down the stairs seemed impossible. When forced into public outings, I relied on a few drinks to smooth the edges of my panic. I was at a wedding, many cocktails deep, when the following sentence fell out of my mouth during polite reception conversation: "I'm too far in my own head to give love like I want to."
I don't even know where the sentiment came from. Was I pushing my boyfriend and friends away? Something was wrong. Something needed to change. So I vowed something drastic, as many a Type-A person would do: I quit alcohol, sugar, and caffeine for 30 days. And started a daily exercise regiment, too, because why not?
The first day, I woke up early and excited. In my bright kitchen, I searched YouTube for workout videos and dove into a 10-minute cardio barre routine before eating breakfast. I nearly passed out…which is why you need to hold onto that barre, apparently.
After the workout, I had a serving of steel-cut oats with whole-fat yogurt and one cup of decaffeinated coffee in my beloved Phyllis Diller mug. Okay, this wasn't so bad. Lunch was a salad with avocado and a hard-boiled egg. How refreshing!
All was well on day one until around 9 pm. My boyfriend was drinking a beer, and we were watching Cheers (a show about a drinking), and I was...not drinking. The next day, I bought eight cases of La Croix sparkling water, with the hopes it could serve as my new social crutch, and maybe keep me awake during Cheers.
The rest of the week, I stayed the course pretty easily. Then came Halloween (whammy!) and my period (double whammy!).
We'd been invited to a party where I didn't know anyone, and where I wouldn't be able to binge-drink or binge-fistfuls-of-candy as I would normally. I was armed with only the power of La Croix. I bypassed the table of sugary treats, finding that knowing they weren't for me made it easier to avoid them. My period started, but I had none of my usual cramps and no emotional whiplash. I did, however, pop open can after can of soda water, keeping myself busy, making small talk with strangers. While it's not super-fun to be around screaming, inebriated people, I was fine.
The next day, I had no hangover. I got up and worked out, and looked in the mirror and saw a vague suggestion of muscles on my abdomen, muscles I hadn't seen in six years. Emboldened, I instructed my boyfriend to hide any leftover candy in a cupboard, but I was surprisingly sated (out of sight, out of mind), and unexpectedly. Guiltless!
Guilt is something I was taught early on in Catholic School. Despite my subsequent loss of faith, my guilt still shows itself in strange moments—like any morning I wake up after drinking alcohol. It's not like I think drinking is some sort of shameful evil. In fact, my family owns and operates a neighborhood bar, where I worked when I was a kid. Alcohol gave me a roof over my head and a lot of fun times.
But after two weeks without it, I felt lighter in both my body (by about six pounds) and my mind. I was more present with my boyfriend. I was able to focus on one task and see it through, and I was happier for it. For the first time in a long while, I didn't just know I should feel grateful and appreciative for all I had, I really felt it. I took long, leisurely walks around my neighborhood, stopping to pet all the cats. At night, I still wasn't exactly hitting the party circuit with friends, but I also didn't fear the possibility.
Is this what normal people feel like all the time? When minor stresses popped up, I found myself saying, "I can handle this. I've done this before, and it was fine."
Oh, and my clothes were fitting again. People gain weight; it's not a big deal. I don't mind my body fluctuating throughout the months, but I do mind when that weight gain is a result of something negative (stress) and not something positive (vacation). Now I felt more confident, more calm, more healthy. On a walk with my boyfriend, we came to a set of stairs, six long flights. I typically get anxious on stairs, which leads to dizziness. This time, we just walked and talked the whole way down. "Old April would have freaked out," my boyfriend pointed at the bottom. And he was right.
My birthday was coming up, and to celebrate that and the end of my 30-day challenge, I threw myself a "Turning 21 Again" themed party at a bowling alley. Leading up to the event, I had some anxiety, but it wasn't about the normal stuff—I was worried I would undo all the good I had done in the month of purging. But I told myself that I couldn't fear alcohol, sugar, and caffeine, or they would just be three more anxieties in my life.
My plan was to indulge on my birthday and on the next day, Thanksgiving. From there, I'd keep the lessons of the last month, incorporating alcohol and sugar here and there when I was happy and wanted them—not when I wanted a crutch. Caffeine, however, I would cut out completely. By week four, caffeine seemed irrelevant. My body had retrained itself to be alert.
My birthday happened to fall on a full moon called the "Mourning Moon," which is meant to be a time of reflection. Even though I was drinking at my party, I realized I was unintentionally drinking less. I felt present in my conversations. I wasn't just giving all my stuffed animals equal face time anymore.
My boyfriend and I tore into a piece of cake to celebrate, and I was genuinely happy. I'd lost 9 pounds in the experiment, but that really wasn't the best part. I'd realigned how I relate to the world. There's a new baseline of calm, something I can remember so that when an awkward moment strikes, I can take a few deep breaths and say, "I've done this before, and it was fine."
Now I've decided to renew this experiment every year as my birthday challenge. Thirty days out of the year isn't so much when it comes to taking care of yourself. I'll use it as a way to become more aware of my emotions and body, to gear up for getting out of my head. And for giving love like I want to give it.
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