Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Avoiding junk, and other things

Habit, addiction, or ritual—and do the distinctions matter?

Between September 11 and October 10, I took on another 30-day challenge, this time to give up four things I enjoy: wine, junk food, dessert, and caffeine. During that time, friends would ask how it was going. Some shared willingly what they would or would not be able to give up if they too were to take on the same challenge. One said that she could give up wine but not coffee. Another shared that he could easily give up coffee but not his evening drinks to unwind after a long day at work. Another said she could never give up chocolate for that many days. Thirty days go fast I would say.

The challenge brought many insights, especially around my tendency to consume without thinking. I noticed how easily life can turn into “It’s in front of me, therefore I must have it.” Rarely do automatic impulse and awareness occupy the same space. On the first day of the challenge I reached for some chips at a BBQ. On occasion I caved in when company came for dinner with a nice bottle of wine. At a catered event I ate half of a cream-filled pastry for dessert before realizing it. The hardest to give up for a whole month was coffee. Headaches came on everyday for nearly three weeks. Soon into the challenge I came to grips with my habit of drinking coffee to fight tiredness and to numb headaches.

Why alcohol, junk food, sweets, and caffeine—all at once? Whether out of guilt or curiosity, this was often the question I got. I replied with being inspired by a TED speaker and by Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown speaks of the tendency to numb. While not everyone is an addict, she says, everybody numbs the painful or uncomfortable aspects of life in some way. Brown has inspired me to examine the ways in which I numb my fear and sadness in watching my son struggle with a tumor condition and facing difficult choices regarding his care. No parent likes the feeling of being unable to help his or her child.

To numb is really to avoid. And there is no shortage of things to avoid. I find it easier to go to the pantry or fridge than figure out where to begin with papers to file, unopened mail, bills, email, writing projects, house work, phone calls, not to mention if and when to have our son’s left eye pulled and to put in a prosthetic so he can look less deformed.

People thought it was extreme of me to give up alcohol, junk food, sweets, and caffeine for 30 days (it’s been longer for fast food as I’ve broken my custom of driving thru for a burger or taco). Others suspected that I was some addict or alcoholic, perhaps even a poor example of a Christian or no Christian at all. Before the challenge, I never thought about the controversial aspects of what I ate and drank.

As it turns out, opinions and attitudes vary greatly on what is OK to eat and drink, particularly in light of people’s religious perspectives. Guilt and shame set in for those who feel they’ve gone from moderate enjoyment to excessive dependence. Compare this to people who adhere tightly to dietary restrictions. Growing up in the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, I see nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, chips, fast food, sugar, caffeine, pork, etc. Perhaps foods and beverages are, in and of themselves, meaningless until granted power and meaning.

Back to caffeine, a key ingredient for many lives. Giving up it up meant that I drank a lot more water and milk. And as it turns out, vegetable juice provided just as much energy as coffee to get me going in the morning and to keep me energized during the day. Yet, I noticed a dip in my mood for which V8 juice had no cure. I was missing a ritual that I looked forward to each day. After putting my son down for his mid-morning nap, I would always grind beans and make some extra-bold brew topped with cream. Just the anticipation of making coffee boosted my spirits. Habit, addiction, or ritual? I wanted to know.

An insight followed shortly thereafter while at the dentist. Cleaning the stains off my teeth (far fewer because of my challenge), the tech said, “I don’t even like coffee, but I love the smell of it in my house each morning. It’s a psychological thing, getting up and making coffee.” Her comment brought to mind a recent interview I heard on end-of-life care for the elderly. The expert stressed the importance of keeping with rituals. Whatever it is that gets you up out of bed in the morning, whatever keeps you motivated, whatever brings you joy—going out for coffee, taking a walk, brewing tea or coffee, getting a doughnut—stay with it, she said. Rituals have their place as long as we are alive.

It dawned on me that I could have kept my custom of making coffee with decaffeinated beans. Instead, I gave up coffee altogether until someone had mercy and bought me some decaf Via (instant Starbucks) near the end of my challenge. To have a cup, all I had to do was nuke 8 ounces of water in the microwave, open packet, pour, stir, done.

But . . . ritual replaced by convenience just wasn’t the same.

1 comment:

Marley said...

Lace can you email me at marleyboss@usfamily.net? I can't wait to catch up with you!