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,
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.