There were some benefits to writing a book about my wellness challenges in tandem with actually doing them. One of them being: I couldn’t procrastinate. I feverishly recorded my experiences in real time, and wrote shorter recaps of them right here. But it also meant that I had to constantly push forward towards my deadline, when at times what I really craved was more time to pause and reflect.
The last few weeks of 2016, as I sprinted towards the finish line, were especially hard on my spirit (ironically, the theme I had chosen for the month of December). More on this below. My escape to Brazil, and all the relaxation and cheese bread that followed, was much needed. But when I got home, I just couldn’t face putting my feelings down on paper for a little while. And when I finally tried to, I felt unsure of how to sum up such a massive experience into a few short pages.
So I took a little inspiration from my friend Serena Wolf, who has a yearly practice of “emptying the nets.” I made a list of all the wins and losses from The Wellness Project, and used them to create a few simple intentions to carry with me into 2016. The good, the bad, and the healthy, if you will.
But first, for those of you who are relatively new here, let’s go back to the beginning.
Last January, I got out of the resolution business once and for all. Or, at least, so I thought.
In the midst of all that New Year, New You hope and angst, I took a huge leap and decided to recommit to all the self-care practices that fell by the wayside when I left the corporate world to become a professional chef and writer. Instead of resolutions, I was going to take on a series of short-term challenges to tackle my problem areas, one by one–to do what Gretchen Rubin did for her happiness, but for my health.
I wanted to stop feeling like a victim of my faulty immune system, and start building better long-term habits. I wanted to figure out what wellness products and experiences were actually worth the time, money, and energy I spent on them. And I wanted to do all these things while still having fun.
I called my pursuit The Wellness Project, and summed up my approach to this life makeover as “healthy hedonism.” I read hundreds of books, articles and studies, tried countless practices, and generally dove head first down the rabbit hole of healthy living.
Now that I’m on the other side, I can definitely say that there were some high highs, low lows, and many lessons I’ll take with me into 2016 as a result of both. Read on for just a few of the things l learned during my year pursuing that elusive “balance.” And make sure to check out my write-up for Yahoo Health that contains many more.
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
First, we’ll get the BAD out of the way. These are all the places where I felt I let myself down, or didn’t create a structure in which I could succeed.
1. It’s lonely at the top of the health mountain.
My pursuit of wellness was the most soul crushing when it got in the way of spending quality time with the people I love.
My sleep experiments made me feel the guiltiest. If went out on weeknights with friends, and they ordered another round of wine come 10pm, I could feel myself start to panic. As a result, my social life became a lose lose. When I was home alone, getting to bed at a decent hour, I felt lonely and isolated. But when I went to events, I couldn’t be fully present; my mind traveled to how tired I would be the next day, and the stress that followed me into bed made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m still struggling to find this balance. Drinking less on school nights helps. But I found that the weeks that get out of hand are usually the ones with too many obligations out on the town. It’s not necessarily just the alcohol, but the hustle and bustle that overwhelms my sensitive system. I try to enjoy myself when out, but I choose my events more wisely now and try not to top load the week so that I have some days to recover.
As much as my self-criticism got in the way of my own happiness when my choices aired more on the side of hedonism, I also found myself being unnecessarily judgey towards others. This had equally unfortunate consequences for my social life as drinking less and sleeping more. I would notice my friends’ eyes glaze over (and/or roll back) at dinner as I launched into fun facts about the toxicity of tap water, red meat, and hormonal birth control.
Charlie would probably say that he received these unwanted seminars daily. It was hard to have all that newfound knowledge and keep it inside! But going forward, I’m going to try to do a better job of accepting that everyone is on their own journey. And no one wants an unsolicited health marm at the dinner table.
2. There’s no such thing as clean.
Especially in New York, it’s impossible to escape the grit and grime of every day city living. For us “lifers,” this is a love-hate relationship. We love the smells, the buzz, the humanity. But at the end of the day, we’re also happy to retreat to our cocoons of cleanliness and quiet—the small four-walled sanctuaries we’ve established with our own chosen members of humanity, and their own special smells.
One of my gut health protocols (as recommended by Dr. Robynne Chutkan) was to live dirtier, for the sake of my microbes. This was something I had a really hard time getting past in the context of my home, where shoes come off right inside the door, and if those shoes are flip flops, those blackened toes go straight to the bathroom for a sponge bath.
I still struggle with loosening my grip on the idea of clean. But ultimately, I realize it’s a myth. The trillions of bacteria already inhabiting our bodies out-number our own cells three-to-one. Our DNA is made up of the ghosts of viruses past. The toxins we so fear are present in our mother’s womb, and in the most “natural” product on earth: her breast milk. “We are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large,” Eula Biss writes in her memoir On Immunity: An Inoculation. “We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”
3. The monkey mind has its own agenda.
In many ways I took on all these challenges—especially the stress ones—so that when times got really tough, I would have a framework for coping. When shit really did hit the fan, I wouldn’t fly into the blades with it.
Last month, a few weeks before handing in my manuscript, Charlie’s father passed away. His illness had been on our radar, but the end was quick and heart-wrenching. It had already been one of the most stressful months of my life. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the timing was just an added test to see if all my new wellness practices would stick. The universe must have been having one hell of a belly laugh, if so. Because I failed epically.
Charlie’s pain was my pain. But it wasn’t. While I tried to absorb and ease and nurture it, I was also being pulled in another direction (my book). The prospect of failing on both fronts—love and career—was too much to bear. The pressure brought me to my knees. And everything I had learned about harnessing my mind went out the window. In my confusion and helplessness, I went against all my mindfulness instincts and tried to dull my senses with Xanax. It was hard not to feel like I ended my year of wellness back at square one.
Now, for the GOOD. These are the things that have seamlessly worked their way into my daily life or lessons that gave me a sense of accomplishment:
1. Give your skin a break.
Vanity is a powerful motivator, friends.
I had already experienced several light bulb moments around my health. But a raging case of acne, rosacea and Perioral Dermatitis was what really got me to stop what I was doing last January (which, at the time, I didn’t think was all that terrible) and find a new approach.
One of the strictest challenges was my vice detox when I gave up sugar, caffeine and alcohol for a month. But it was also the one that had the most dramatic impact. Giving my liver that reset was a huge gift to my skin. And the second was switching (overtime) all my everyday beauty products to naturals.
It may have taken some upfront investment, but for the first time I am really using my beauty budget wisely by spending it on things I use start to finish. The biggest lesson I learned though from switching my products was how unnecessary so many of them were. Now when my face flairs up, I try to just leave it alone, and it usually finds its way back to smoother ground without the help of a Clean and Clear cleansing cloth, or the natural equivalent.
It’s always hard to know which lifestyle changes really move the needle. I took on my health challenges in isolation in order to better tease out specific results. But even then, change always takes time. So it’s hard for me to know whether it was the outer changes (chemical-free face wash) or inner changes (diet, sleep, stress reduction) that packed the biggest punch.
I knew going into my project that there’s no one magic bullet. But I can report success nonetheless with this “all of the above, over time” approach. I haven’t had a single flare-up of Perioral Dermatitis since starting The Wellness Project. My most glaring, embarrassing symptom of my inner chaos has now washed away entirely. And I couldn’t think of a greater triumph than that.
2. Sometimes you have to embrace selfishness.
Many aspects of my project made me feel more selfish. Not only did I have to lay down the law in certain areas with Charlie (ahem, sleep). But honoring my energies also meant saying no to a lot of other people in my life whom I love dearly.
As an only child, I really struggle with the concept of selfishness. And that struggle came to a head during those last few dark days of the project. I hated myself for having a panic attack and forcing Charlie to hold me during his own hour of need. But I also realized that I could have avoided my own rock bottom had I set more boundaries. We can’t take care of others unless we take care of ourselves first.
As I scrambled to try and be a supportive partner, I put my own needs (sleep, sobriety, time logged in front of my laptop) on hold. And after a week of doing so, utterly emotionally and physically exhausted and with my deadline still looming in the not-so distant future, I totally cracked. The result was a streak of complete selfishness that could have been avoided had I found more balance in the first place.
When I’m feeling my best, everything else falls into place. The people around me become more alive. And the positive glow is contagious. This project helped me realize that allowing myself to get to that place often takes many selfish steps in between.
3. Try to forgive, but don’t forget.
In the process of being an unrestrained wellness school marm, I spent a lot of time nagging Charlie about his own health practices and stressing out about the advice he didn’t heed. More than anything though I wanted him to be aware of his choices. And though I failed in my judgment-free facilitation of that awareness, it did have a positive impact.
Before my project, Charlie never thought twice about how many burgers he had in a week. Now he comes to me with his own triumphs—including one whole week without red meat!! There’s hope for us all, friends.
To keep my judgment in line—towards myself and others—I try to remind myself that awareness is the first and, perhaps, most important step towards healthy hedonism. And forgiveness is the second. Because in many ways, we are all just doing the best we can.
And finally…the HEALTHY.
Where do I net out on all this wellness mumbo jumbo? Honestly, I still need some time to just “be” for a little while without any monthly rules and regulations. I have the wins above in my pocket. But to give myself a few formal intentions for the New Year, I’ve settled on the following:
1. Limit my alcohol by staying off the sauce the first month of every year, the first week of every month, and the first day of every week (Monday). This is definitely more rule oriented than I’m inclined to be, but given the power of my vice detox, I’m excited to see whether this becomes more second nature. Since we were in Brazil the first week of January, Charlie and I are doing dry February instead! Anyone want to join?
2. Move for 30 minutes every day. Exercise month was one of my challenges that I loved, but still struggle with. Especially in the winter months, it can be so hard to leave the house. So 2016 will include recommitting to simple, daily movement—even if it’s just walking! With exercise especially, I found that perfection was often the enemy of good.
3. Eat more meals in than out. Though there was probably less room for improvement on the food front than any other wellness area, my challenges totally made me recommit to “living my message.” I cooked more than ever before and learned to unequivocally commit to higher quality ingredients when I had access to them. Because I didn’t have as much time to blog, it also was a refreshing excuse to cook more just for me. And though I’m excited to share more creative recipes with you this year than last, I want to make sure to keep up my simple cooking for one practices. Sometimes it’s okay to feed yourself things that are too minimalist even for a Nordic Instagram queen.
*** help me, help you! ***
I’m dying to hear what you guys thought of The Wellness Project series in 2015. Not only was it one big personal experiment, but it was also a very different mix of content for this site! I would love to hear what you liked and what you’d like to see more of in the coming year now that the monthly challenge recaps have concluded.
Do you want more quick tip posts on various wellness practices (through the lens of healthy hedonism)? More talk of autoimmune disease and various medical diets? Or should I just return to the business of creating recipes for healthy comfort food?
As I head into the next stage of my manuscript, I would also love to hear more about which parts of my curriculum you’ve applied to your own life! Anything you want to know more about? Months that resonated with you? Tell me everything!
Thank you as always for following along. You kept me accountable and motivated. Encouraged and supported. You made it much less lonely at the top of health mountain.
I love the idea of going dry 1 month/1 wk/1 day a year. I m might actually succeed at that. I’ll wait til April to do a whole month though. It’s so cozy to curl up with wine during the cold months.
Phoebe Lapine says
agreed. maybe i should rethink!
Little Cooking Tips says
It was so great coming back to your blog and find this beautiful post as the 1st thing to read!:) Hope you’re doing well dear Phoebe, this winter has been crazy busy at the office for both of us.
Now regarding the wellness project post; WE LOVE reading your posts on health issues, your personal advice (and struggle) for a healthy hedonism is both informative and inspiring for many people out there (us included). So please, keep sharing your beautiful recipes, but also keep sending all those informative posts. You really make a difference.
As for the specifics of this post, what we do in comparison is this:
We also try to sleep early on weeknights, which does have an impact on our social life as well. But hey, we can’t have it all, can’t we?:) So what we do is once or twice per week go out to a movie or a dinner with friends, but finish by 22:30-23:00 so we can sleep at least around midnight. We do feel less energized the next day, but it is also necessary for the spirit to do something midweek, right?:) So we try to balance social life and work and if we fail sometimes, we try not to be judgmental with our choices. We have a more “que sera” approach on this:)
Regarding the criticism of friends when you share valuable info with them; we know EXACTLY how you feel:) Been there many times. You share facts that you truly believe may help them, but they’re so brainwashed by tv sometimes that they won’t accept something different. In these cases, we don’t try harder and get into an argument. We let the information out and each and every one is responsible for his/her life, right?:)
We’re very sorry to read about Charlie’s dad passing away. We hope everything is now better and also realize how stressful the situation must’ve been for both of you guys. Keep in mind though, that sharing such difficult situations are strengthening your love. Being there for each other. And don’t feel bad if you had a crisis of your own, it’s not something you asked for.
Now, regarding the sugar and alcohol; we limited our alcohol consumption on weekends mostly, and we rarely drink (perhaps 1 beer each) when we’re with friends on weeknights. And we mostly drink a good bottle of wine (over the weekend) and that’s it. No more than that.
The sugar those, is a tough subject. We both love desserts, and honestly feel the urge to devour something sweet after lunch/dinner. What helped a bit to cut down on sugar, was having half a 100g chocolate bar each. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step, right?:)
We also started using organic soap, made with olive oil, which stopped many skin irritations after a month of usage. We’re experimenting with different essential oils (that give some fragrance to the soap bar) and it’s really fun. We also switched to organic fluoride free toothpaste and we also used salt (yes salt) to rub our gums and teeth which strengthened our teeth AND gums, just like our forefathers did.
As for reminding Charlie to be healthy, we also do the same with each other. It’s out of love, and even if we’re not perfect and don’t conform to strict instructions, we try our best. Just as Charlie did with his burger/read meat.
The walking thing that you mentioned is very very important. We used the excuse of bad weather to avoid it during the lazy winter afternoons but it’s something we must start now that the weather is far better. We have a grove nearby and it’s a shame not to take advantage of that.
Finally, we totally agree with using high quality ingredients. It’s something we do for the past couple of years. You do pay a little (or more than a little) extra, but you do enjoy something that’s better for you and tastes better as well. So KUDOS on that!:)
Thank you for taking the time to inform all of us dear Phoebe, and for having the strength to share so many personal fears. We really appreciate that. And we know the rest of your readers do as well.
Have an amazing wellness year ahead Phoebe!
Sending you all our love,
Panos and Mirella
Last year was my year to start my own Wellness Project despite that I did not know about your book until April 2018. (Does “reading” an audiobook count?) Anyway, here is what I discovered:
Caffeine – the BEST thing I’ve done for my body is give up this vice. My nervous system and endocrine system are STILL thanking me. I sleep better, have fewer mood swings, and glands in my neck and throat do not swell as often. I still drink some caffeine in the form of decaf coffee, but it is about 75% less per cup less AND I drink 1-2 cups most days. When I had a Starbucks habit, it was ALL day and the larger the cup, the better. I LOVE the smell, taste and warmth of coffee, so my hedonism says one cup of decaf every morning is ok… I do drink more hot water and tote my own decaf tea bags to ensure it is truly decaf and sugar free. I discovered upon less than 1/2 cup of Teavana that most of their teas have a huge amount of sugar! They are NOT healthy!
Sugar is hard for me because like so many others, I like a little sweet after a low-sugar meal. To defer my sweet tooth, I blend frozen fruit with sugar free almond milk. Many times I can eat it with no added sugar, with no honey or date syrup. But if I need more sweet, I add 1 teaspoon at a time of raw honey or date syrup until it is satisfying. I still LOVE plain Lays potato chips, but I buy a single serving bag to avoid eating all of a large bag because I cannot differentiate between multiple serving bags and single serving bags. I believe they are ALL single serving bags. My process for this year is to read labels and avoid sugar as much as I can despite my crazy timing (work schedule) and that often I’m caught with not enough packed food.
Alcohol is not as hard. My boyfriend is 27 years sober! Because he does not drink, it gives me freedom to make a true choice of why I want a glass of wine. It does not affect him if I decide to drink especially since I made it a habit of no more than 2 glasses of wine (only half-filled) a night. Most bottles get thrown out half emptied because they’ve soured before consumption.
Movement – this one is my biggest challenges and one I am wrapping my head around. As a professional driver (I’m a chauffeur, for now, by trade), I sit A LOT. But I hear the guys in my industry talk about kidney stones, muscles or tendons that won’t stay connected and cause missed worked days as well as tremendous pain, getting “old” when they’re only a few years older than me, and other ailments that make me want to blurt out, “If you’d only….” Hearing their stories fuels me to move a little more. So, can we walk while you tell me about that medical event?
My vice is a weak core. My body conveniently stores fat in my mid section, probably not just because of genetics but also because it knows I won’t “disturb” it much. I feel somehow my body is trying to hold on to its spare tire like a child holds to his safety blanket. When I drive, I find myself uprighting my body like I used to straighten my dolls when gravity took hold and caused them to slump a little to one side or the other. I know my body; my core is weak. But I REALLY don’t want to do core exercises. They’re boring and tedious. What I discovered – most insanely in shape people don’t like them either. Then why do they do them? They have a goal! So, I keep finding more reasons, and keep tying those reasons back to my dreams and goals so that I am beginning to desire the end result MORE than the discomfort of losing sleep, the sore muscles until I am acclimated, the possibility of failing completely and having to restart my goals until I make it a practice into my daily life. (Sidenote: I REALLY want to learn tap dance beyond the beginner steps I’ve learned so far. A strong core is essential to balance and picking up steps quicker. So I keep thinking about what being a better dancer would like and how a stronger core is so desirable.) I’m warming up to losing 15 minutes of sleep (maybe I should say more sleep) to get it in before my day starts. I surely won’t do it any other time of day. Still, it would not be a good project if I did not have obstacles to overcome. This is my biggest one but the one I believe I will benefit the most from by exercising daily discipline.
In the meantime while I’m psyching up for core work, I am fostering a 6-month old dog that requires several walks a day. I also use my FitBit to meet a daily goal of 7,000 steps a day. I chose this target because many days I have to consciously push myself to do an extra 500 to 1,000 steps to hit goal although those days are fewer now that I walk the dog. I wanted something to push myself, yet not have to spend 1-2 hours making up the difference. And I sneak in steps in other ways. When I arrive early to pickup locations, I get out and walk, even if it’s around the vehicle. People might think I’m crazy, but I don’t care. They won’t be taking care of me if I cannot work because I’m sick due to no exercise and the lack of immunity I get from moving. I just don’t care what looks “crazy” when I know it’s helping me. Usually, it opens a dialogue when someone asks me what am I doing. I share my story of going from couch potato (a heavy, almost 200 lb bag of potatoes) to a healthier, 45lbs lighter bag of potatoes. I look to be an even lighter bag, but this is a huge step in the right direction. Just a little more movement here and there as well as choosing a smaller bag of chips and no dessert most days helped me get here. I am looking ahead to an even healthier physical version of me.
My home detox – I do not purchase a lot of cleaning or beauty products, I find a few products cross-over to do double, even triple, duty, which decreases clutter in my 1,100 square foot condo. So giving up the number of products is easy. Using the EWG app, Healthy Living, I can quickly get the “scoop” on products and whether they should ever make it into my basket let alone come into my home. I just purchased new personal beauty products and was pleasantly surprised to find that one brand I love, Shea Moisture, is EWG friendly. Everything was 3 points or less (the higher the points, the worse it is for exposure to humans.) including deodorant. Just before writing this, I purchased counter-top and shower filters. Since we rent, it was easier choosing because I had to find ones that were easily removed and required no drilling and no plumber to install/uninstall. This one was fun because I got to shop! Plus, I was pleased to find brands in my local stores that were easy to replace and inexpensive compared to Whole Foods brands. I do not like being in the Whole Body section of Whole Foods because all the soap fragrances compete for attention. Together, it is overwhelming to my senses. I find myself holding my breath just to walk in.
My wellness project 2018 – I have an Excel spreadsheet with simple information about what I want to do, why (this is sooo important) and how I feel about the outcome. It’s basically a journal. Each month is a tab, each tab has a list of small steps to take that month to reach the ultimate monthly goal listed at the top. I even made the goal stay at the top as I scroll down so that I can review each little step against the ultimate goal. If it does not align with the monthly goal, it goes on another month or does not belong on the sheet at all.
What I’m most proud of is NOT procrastinating. Time marches on. I see no reason to wait until New Years 2019 to start. I started this week with my beginning month being April 2018. Hell, it’s even the middle of the month, not the beginning. My inner Tony Robbins is coming out – start right where I am, right now. The timing gets no better.
My ultimate goal is to cure an auxiliary swelling problem I experience in my groin and neck areas. They are not painful like they used to be, but my body is still telling me that I’m not quite healthy yet. Secondary goal is to increase core strength so I can dance more and survive this business into my 50’s with no injury. Another goal is to learn to detox on a budget so I can share with others how to improve their own lives and health.
My professional goal is to help others in lifelong, positive ways. However, I have to get myself better along the way. I can do quite a bit of good by being non-judgmental when I share my story of what helped me. Then, others can take what they can apply now and what their minds/psyche will accept. Later they can be in a better place to continue the journey to good health. And good health, as you state in your book and blog, is different for everyone!
Overall, I LOVE your approach of find out what works and decide if it can be sustained. Sometimes it will “stick” and other times it just seems too overwhelming. I can fit what you did into my own life. Plus, the approach is so simple (not always easy). Book after book says to expect to implement these techniques over the long haul. However, your book makes it more practical and for some reason, I finally “got it”. By choosing an area to focus on for a month, draw conclusions and decide what, why and how much of each to incorporate into my daily routine made making changes come to life for me. Practical, is the best way to say it. I understood what others were saying and I took much advice to heart and made positive changes, but this was likes someone came into a dimly lit room and turned on the light. I had enough light to see, but the extra light made everything clear and sharp, in focus. Now – it’s time to go to work! I will keep checking in to the blog, especially for the recipes! Yum!
Feedback – keep doing what you feel led to do and when you feel led to do it. I believe in timing. While some believe it is God, fate, or luck, it still has the same result. Those who need this site will find it refreshing and will find it strengthens their own journey. There are tons of sites out there, most with good advice. If some who come to your site do not find what they need, it is not you who should show them. They will find it elsewhere. I want to help as many as I can as well, but I am often asking God to narrow my focus enough to be the most effective while finding that balance of being open enough to take on a new opportunity. Your site is awesome just the way it is with your story and how you tackle challenges, whether they worked out and recipes. I would follow that strategy. It’s what I need!