So I’m Eating Meat Again: A Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves

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So I was vegetarian for a while. And for a while it worked…until it didn’t, or rather, I didn’t. This isn’t going to be one of those posts that tries to debunk the value of a vegetarian diet (sorry, carnivores, I know you love to find those stories online). I think they’re great and work quite well. I was the issue, not the tenets of a vegetarian diet.

My problem wasn’t that I suddenly became anemic or suddenly found myself spending inordinate amounts of time in my city’s hipster neighborhood. Rather, putting myself on a vegetarian diet triggered me back into restrictive/disordered eating patterns that I’ve had off and on since my teens. I’ve hinted at disordered eating and body image problems in other blog posts. I understand why those behaviors manifested in that way, I’m satisfied with my self-analysis, and I choose not to share it here.  Maybe in my book. 😉

Anyway, once I cut out meat, it was just too tempting to see where I could cut back further if not food types then at least the overall amount of food I was eating. I’d already lost a few pounds at the beginning of this year, mostly due to some still-unexplained gastrointestinal problems (Yes, I’m finally seeking treatment, which makes my mom happy). I was also struggling with some personal situations, and I chose to cope with that by restriction and controlling my weight.

O my brothers, you have no idea how the dopamine coursed through my little brain when I saw the numbers drop with the flattening of my waist and the growing looseness of my trousers. (I pretended not to notice the loss of muscle tone). Why, this was working even better than I imagined! I used my newly found vegetarianism to restrict even further. I’d found the perfect cover. Besides, I’ve never looked like someone with an eating disorder. No one would ever know.

This wasn’t a case of orthorexia, though. I wasn’t focused on “eating clean” or raw or only fresh produce or whatever. I just liked rules around eating. I’m a very organized person, which has served me quite well in the workplace, but rules and restriction and control taken to an extreme can be damaging. And since I made the rules I could carry them out in any way I saw fit.

By the end of my vegetarian experiment I was subsisting on junk food and very carefully counted out Saltines, which the latter, in my defense, were the only things my irritable stomach could tolerate sometimes. (In fact, today I had to settle on Saltines and plain Ramen noodles for dinner because my stomach decided once again to ruin my day.) My weight dropped to 110 pounds and occasionally below, which delighted that still lingering ED part of my brain, but the rational part figured I needed to nip that problem in the bud and go back to letting me eat pretty much whatever I wanted.

I realized I had a problem around April when I noticed that I was perfectly fine eating mashed potatoes and cake served at a commemorative banquet, but I sanctimoniously pawned off the steak and salmon that was also served. Granted, I would have axed the salmon anyway because I don’t eat fish at all (GROSS!!), but was I doing myself any favors by gobbling up potatoes and cake? It wasn’t even the nutritional deficiency or even the hypocrisy of my choice that got to me. It was my realization that I had very easily fallen prey to old patterns of control, frantic rationalization of unhealthy choices, and destructive self-consciousness that pushed me to release the rules I had placed on myself.

What rules and restrictions are keeping you in an unhealthy state of mind or body? Let’s step away from food for a moment. These rules could manifest in thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, or actions and may be your first line of defense against whatever is troubling you. You may place them upon any area of your life or in any relationship. Are you trying to be “perfect” so your partner will love you? (As if their love hinged on that). Are these rules created so you can live up to the expectations you created and projected onto someone else? Is it working?….you sure about that?

But are those rules ultimately serving you in the long term? Are you waiting for that magical person, situation, or thing to happen and only then allow yourself to be happy? Are you coping with a problem by punishing or controlling yourself? Do the rules soothe you in some way? Can you perhaps find that comfort in something else? Can you love and be gentle with yourself the way you are with other people you care about…would you at least consider it?

In late spring I started eating meat again along with a number of other foods. I let myself indulge. I gained a few pounds, but I attribute that more to dining out with friends and slacking off at the gym than adding meat back into my diet. I still think factory farming is horrible, and I do try to make mindful purchases of meat products. I just know I did the right thing for what my mind and body needed.

The thing about not restricting is that I don’t want to pig out on really…anything. Many people who restrict food or diet are afraid that giving up their rules means giving up hope of giving their bodies what they truly need. That hasn’t been the case. That Whataburger meal I promised myself over Labor Day weekend was awesome, and I don’t feel like having another one for a while. I also made a pork roast with homemade gnocchi and marinara sauce over that same holiday weekend. I put a lot of love and effort into the meal, an homage to my Italian heritage, and I was satisfied with a small amount (plus my body doesn’t like digesting pork so that’s an occasional thing anyway). I made the meal because I wanted to introduce a friend to my family’s traditions, not to “reward” myself for a workout or promise myself I’d eat carbs just this one time as a “cheat day.”

If you need more examples, how about these: I had a bag of Cheetos in a basket on top of my fridge that I completely forgot about, and I was annoyed that I still had a box of Pop-Tarts to finish after several weeks of seeing them on my kitchen counter. I would have been obsessing over those silly trigger foods back in my worst disordered eating days. The fact that I didn’t is a small but distinct point of progress for me.

Now I don’t think about food as much, and adding meat back into my diet helped kick-start a more balanced approach to how I chose to nourish myself. If I wanted to eat crappy food, I did, and I learned how to listen to what my body wanted. My body still gets mad and reacts unpleasantly to certain foods, and hopefully with the help of a doctor I can figure out what to avoid. My body likes fries and chocolate, but guess what? It also more often than not likes fresh fruit and vegetables, no guilt tripping necessary. I just wasn’t listening.

I’m still not where I thought I was at the end of last year, although I’m in a much better place than I was many years ago. I don’t know how long it will take me to break old habits or if I’ll ever be able to entirely, and I’m okay with that. I like being a few pounds lighter than I was a year ago. I like that a skirt that used to be too tight now fits just right.  I’m not getting rid of my digital scale that I step on just about every morning. I’m going to continue exercising because I like it, not to punish myself for imagined sins. Swimming, ballet barre, and taekwondo are fun! Moving my body has always been a joy rather than a chore for me, and lately my body is telling me it wants more so I’m listening.

I also know what will ultimately serve me best is a shift in focus away from judging myself by how I look (and how I foolishly assume other people are judging me by that) and how I choose to nourish myself. I look forward to the time when I give little to no judgement to what I’m eating. Being that self-centered all the time is exhausting.

It’s time to break some rules.

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Two Months Until Second Dan Begins With Rest, Wine, and Whataburger

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YAS! That’s how Texas black belts fuel themselves!

So it’s still the plan that I will be testing for second degree black belt in about two months. Even though I’ve had two years to prepare for this test as opposed to six months for first degree, I’m more nervous and leery about it this time around. If you’d like to read more about the psychological aspects and musings on it, read this post. I’ll continue with that theme in another post. Now I’m going to talk about what I plan to do with myself until that eagerly awaited day.

I’m kicking of my two months of training with…rest. I have a few minor lingering injuries that keep getting aggravated by training, plus I’m getting mentally burned out from taekwondo, so I’m taking the week off. No taekwondo or ballet barre although I’ve been walking and doing yoga, plus I’ll try swimming if it doesn’t aggravate my shoulders, both of which are snapping at me with memories of old injuries. I need to stop and let my body and mind heal and reset. My biggest hope is that the swelling in my sprained finger will go down, and I can wear my favorite ring again. #taekwondivaproblems.

Next week I’ll get back to reality with getting my physical fitness in gear. And boy do I need it.

My physical health and fitness isn’t quite at the level it was before first degree even though I weigh about the same, actually a little less. Most people would probably agree that I needed to gain weight this year. At one point I was below 110 pounds, and I know I’ve lost muscle tone. Maybe I’ll talk about that in another blog post. I’ve put a few pounds back on although these extra pounds I’ve put on are not muscle but rather the result of Texas-shaped waffles, chocolate, and what may very well be the best pizza in my city.  Worth it.

I still fit into my favorite short black skirt (which I couldn’t last year), and the slacks that used to be snug are still too loose, so psychologically I’m satisfied. After this forced week of rest and a few final indulgences, namely wine and the most unhealthy and delicious food I can find, it’ll be back to chicken breasts, brown rice, vegetables, and fruit smoothies. A healthier diet and an increased exercise regimen will hopefully help me build back some muscle in a few weeks. I’m also giving up alcohol until my test so I’m sure I’ll deflate in no time. Today, though, as I write this, I’m drinking a giant glass of pinot noir so I can, you know, remember what it tastes like through two months of agonizing dryness. And like a good Texan I’m going out this weekend in style with a Whataburger meal.

As for exercise, I’ll go back to ballet barre class, which is fantastic for my lower body, increase my swimming sessions, do my balancing exercises on my BOSU at home (I finally broke down and bought one after getting really good results in physical therapy), and work in extra cardio and yoga at my gym since I’ll be decreasing my time in the dojang from six days to three or four. My taekwondo classes are usually intense enough that I get a very good workout each time anyway.

I’ll go back to my regular classes although I’ll teach less other than testing and tournament weeks to avoid burnout again. As much as I love all the students and the opportunity to improve my teaching skills, I need a break. Given that I have a full-time job (which also involves public speaking and coaching) and a household to manage I really need some quiet time at home. Perhaps my introverted tendency to be drained by too much interaction has finally gotten the better of me, so for a while I’ll only attend the classes designated for higher ranking color belts and black belts. Something is telling me that right now I need to focus on being solely a student.

Rest assured the post-test celebration of Champagne and cupcakes will once again happen, and it will once again be glorious.

Black Belts Can’t Have Eating Disorders, Right? I Mean, That’s Just Silly…

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Maybe I can cinch this belt just a little bit tighter…

114.8

That was the number blinking up at me from my digital scale at 8:57 PM a week or so ago after three hours of taekwondo training. I smiled. It was exactly one pound less than it was at 5:21 AM that morning. Ahh. At least I had that.

Then I ate a small meal, sat on my bed and cried for a while, and took some medicine to help me sleep. That’s been happening more often lately. My weight had nothing to do with my mood (other than giving me a little boost), but I’ll get to that later.

So I guess I have to eat (ha ha, no pun intended) my words a bit. A few months ago I wrote this big manifesto about how I was finally over the disordered eating and body image problems that had plagued me since I was thirteen years old. I stopped restricting calories, ate whatever and whenever I felt like it, and got back into cooking traditional Italian dishes. I was really proud of myself.

Then some strange gastrointestinal problems hit me around Christmas and lasted up until…hmm…about this time last week. I had to follow a healthier, more whole foods diet and cut out junk food. I love junk food but eventually lost interest in it other than an occasional taste. Some days I simply couldn’t eat because I felt too sick. I lost seven pounds, and oh my God, you guys, it was like the hit of a drug. Seven pounds doesn’t sound like much, but I’m 5’3” and small to begin with, so it’s noticeable. I look leaner, and my clothes fit better. I’ve been this weight before, and I was fine. I LOVE being smaller. I LOVE the way my clothes fit. Those dropping numbers on the scale were emotional cocaine. I was triggered, y’all.

I can get addicted to things very easily, and weight loss is one of them. I like seeing the “trouble areas” get leaner. I like seeing the muscle tone peek out around my triceps and the ripples on my upper back. I like that I recently had to buy a smaller size pair of jeans than I’d been used to. I like that my tight lycra stretch pants I always wear to the gym are just a wee bit looser than usual.

It’s not like I don’t eat. Here’s a typical day for me: bowl of cereal with banana and raspberries and maybe half a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. Tortellini with vegetables for lunch and a spicy chickpea and tahini wrap for dinner. I just hate feeling full. I wonder if I should have had half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a whole sandwich after class tonight. Maybe I should just eat a protein bar after taekwondo practice, especially on my late nights. Or maybe…

Let’s get something straight. I don’t binge, and I don’t purge. You guys, I eat, I swear…but maybe, just maybe, I could get the number a little lower. Just for fun. Just to see if I could do it. Just to have a low baseline so I could put weight back on. That’s okay, right?

To me it’s not that big of a deal. I’m not “skinny.” I have curves and muscles. Skinny girls look like prepubescent boys. I’m fine. I’m still flabby in one area so I HAVE to sacrifice everything else to make that part thinner, right? I have it in my head that I’m deceptively thin: I look tiny and fit from the outside but up close it’s a different story. Who is going to be attracted to me if they find out my secret? Am I right? (Then again I’ve never had any complaints other than that one time you can read about here.)

And it’s not like I’ve ever had a full-blown eating disorder. Well, there was this one time in high school where I exercised excessively for one summer. I mean, it stopped my period for three months, and I barely slept, but I was fine. I scaled back once I got into my senior year of high school. I started eating more, but I just exercised a lot and never really “purged,” so that shouldn’t count, right? If I’m ever vomiting it’s either because I’m drunk, have food poisoning, or have a very rare stomach flu. I won’t throw up perfectly good food.

And I guess I’ve kinda had a mini version of anorexia over the years, like that one time I got down to 108 pounds right before I started taekwondo…but I mean, it didn’t cause any lasting damage, and I didn’t think I was THAT thin. I didn’t have heart palpitations or get that fine layer of hair all over my body. My face was haggard, my clothes were baggy, and coworkers asked me if I was sick (of course I lied and said I was fine)…but my stomach still wasn’t flat and I still had cellulite on my thighs, so it doesn’t count, right? You can’t be “skinny” with a tummy and cellulite. Why didn’t they see what I saw? AMIRIGHT?? I can’t even do anorexia properly. Food is just too good.

I don’t have an eating disorder; I have disordered eating (it’s different) and some lingering body image problems. That’s all. I mean, it’s just this one problem area I can’t get rid of, so it’s okay for me to continue losing weight, right?

Obviously I am in a state of denial.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know I’ve written about strength, confidence, and loving yourself. Was I bullshitting all of you to mask my own insecurities? No, not really. Whatever I’ve written has made perfect sense at the time. I believe all of that, but obviously I just can’t allow myself to truly feel that way.

I know damn well this current period of restricting really doesn’t have anything to do with controlling my weight. Clamping onto my recent weight loss that originally was unintentional and now intentionally trying to stay thinner is my way of coping, just like it always has been throughout my life. There is something deeper emotionally and mentally going on, and I’m using my body as a way to gain control of the situation.

I’ve identified what’s bothering me, but I won’t share that here. I won’t even share it with the people I’m closest to. I have to keep up my responsible, high-energy, high-achieving front because there is absolutely no one to pick up the slack if I fall down and have to give in to what’s troubling me for a while. There never has been, and I don’t trust anyone to fill that role. If you ask me if I’m fine, I’ll say “Yes,” so don’t bother.

I’m taking a huge risk by admitting this here. What will my coworkers think? What will the parents of the taekwondo students I teach think? What will the people closest to me think when they find out I’ve been keeping these feelings from them? I want somebody to tell me I’m okay, but I’m too afraid to ask and be vulnerable. This blog post may seem like a big ole cry for help, but I won’t accept it. I have to keep handling this alone.

This begs the question: Am I a person with an eating disorder who happens to do martial arts or am I a martial artist who happens to have an eating disorder?

I got curious about sports and body image/eating disorders. We typically associate those problems with body conscious activities like gymnastics, ballet, cheerleading, and sports with weight classes such as wrestling. Surely a martial artist, whose practice is based on the tenets of confidence and self-respect, wouldn’t be capable of succumbing to the tempting, lying, hate-spewing devil of food restriction and excessive exercise. Right?

Yeah, they do that too. Some of them anyway.

Dangerous practices of cutting weight are well-known in certain martial arts arenas, such as professional MMA fighters, so I didn’t want to focus on that. I’m more interested in the everyday martial artist, the people who have jobs, school, or family obligations, and practice martial arts as a very enjoyable past time.

The problem was I kept running into dead ends. I used to do medical research for a living, so trust me, I dug. Research was either tied to professional athletes, or the studies on perfectionism and athletes was more generic rather than focused on a specific sport.

So what does the lack of evidence mean? Am I the only martial artist who has body hangups? Where are the other stories of struggle? Am I a bad black belt because I’m insecure and don’t always appreciate my badass black belt body? Am I setting a bad example for other martial artists? Some days I don’t feel like I deserve my black belt, and not just because of my body hangups. This makes me question whether I can handle it or not. Should I even be testing for second dan this fall if I can’t get my shit together?

Okay you guys, don’t worry, I won’t REALLY starve myself, but if I didn’t have sports to keep me honest I might very well go over the deep end. Here are all the reasons why I’m fine, no really, I am:
(1) Food is hella delicious, and I like to cook
(2) I need fuel for swimming and taekwondo, which are two very demanding sports
(3) I need good cardiovascular health to hold up during cardio drills and sparring
(4) I don’t want to lose the badass muscle tone I’ve built up over the years doing taekwondo and leg-blasting physical therapy exercises
(5) I need strong bones to keep me intact when I slam into other people…or get slammed into the floor
(6) This anorexic bullshit is for white emo teenage girls, so that’s not really what I’m doing, amiright? I’m too old to have this problem.
(7) I’m too responsible to totally ruin my life, as tempting as that is sometimes.

Look, it’s not really about weight. Most days I’m good, feeling happy and upbeat and enjoying my work and personal life, but there’s an underlying darkness. I’m keeping myself extra busy so I don’t have to face the emptiness, loneliness, and restlessness I’ve been feeling for the past few months…. But on the plus side my weight was down to 114.2 the morning after my previously mentioned weigh-in. At least I have that.

The game continues. I’m fine, really. Besides, black belts are too strong for these types of problems…right?

My Favorite Posts From 2016

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2016 is almost over, much to the relief of just about everyone. Thank you all for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s been a busy writing year for me. I posted to the blog every month, am in heavy editing mode of my book, and most notably I started writing guest posts for the website BookMartialArts.com. You can read them by clicking here.

In other exciting news, I got my “Instructor” patch, so now I have to act like I know what I’m doing, at least when I’m wearing the particular uniform I sewed the patch on. I cut my coaching/refereeing teeth at two black belt tests and several tournaments. Some things remain the same: I still can’t get through self-defense and hapkido practice without giggling, I still can’t do a decent spin kick, I’m still going to physical therapy, and I’m still rank and disgusting after sparring class. At least I’m consistent.

Now I’d like to share with you my favorite posts from 2016:

1.A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class – I started taking a ballet barre class at my gym in February, loved it, and have kept it up ever since. My core and legs, on the other hand, are furious with me.

2. Love is Like Grape Soda – In my Valentine’s Day post I revel in the fact that for the first time in my life being single is (1) a choice and (2) a non-issue.

3. When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A sub-par art museum event showed me the importance of sticking with my true community.

4. Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class? – I still feel this way. Every. Single. Wednesday.

5. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four – One of my most popular posts and one that helped me get a very hurtful and embarrassing moment off my shoulders.

6. What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders – There are more similarities than you’d think!

7. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long  – Some insight from my musician brother showed me the importance of balancing the enjoyment of our past accomplishments with the challenges and possibilities of the future.

8. How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think – Aw, I miss the summer Olympics, don’t you?

9. Black Belt: A Year in Review – I celebrated my one year anniversary as a first degree black belt, and I learned several things along the way.

10. Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt – Since change seems to be the constant in the workplace, you might as well put on your sparring gear and brave the fight.

11. Are You Driven by the Process or the Project? – What motivates you – the end or the means?

12. The Case for Getting Your Ass Kicked – We all need challenges.

13. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two – Teaching, learning, and leading all go hand-in-hand.

14. How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body – I finally had a body image breakthrough over the Thanksgiving weekend, of all times. I also sneak in my recipe for gnocchi.

 

 

 

How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body

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Foundation of the old school food pyramid, yo! But really, who ever got 6-11 servings in a day? Eleven servings??

After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.

I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.

At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.

Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.

I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)

Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.

Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.

I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.

“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.

Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.

Gnocchi to the Rescue

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.

After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.

Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.

I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.

And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.

I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.

Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.

Why I Like Mean Girls

little mean karate girl

“So I was working with this cute little girl who looks just like Tweety Bird. She kept wanting to do the one step [self-defense technique] with the takedown. She had this crazy smile on her face and kept saying, ‘Takedown! Takedown!’ I like this kid!” I said to one of my fellow black belts. He paused for a moment and then looked pointedly at me.

“Why, because she’s like you?”

Absolutely.

There’s a running joke at our little dojang that all the females are mean and crazy. We move fast, fight hard, and go for blood….all in the spirit of good sportsmanship of course. One teenage girl has earned a reputation for kicking everyone in the face during sparring. It’s like a right of passage to get smacked in the head by her. Another woman regularly kicks the crap out me, and to add insult to injury, she punches me right in the chest. (It just HAS to be there instead of my stomach for some reason. And this is during “no contact” sparring, mind you.)

Meanwhile, tiny Tweety Bird, with her glasses and giant blue-green eyes, kicks really freaking hard for a little kid and ki-yahps with loud maniacal glee, especially when she’s tossing around her older sister. My instructor has trained me to be aggressive during fighting and move in quickly on my opponents during self-defense practice. I get a sick pleasure from breaking boards with my hands. Sometimes he seems surprised that he’s created all these monsters.

The underlying theme in our Taekwondo Mean Girls Club is CONFIDENCE. We might not all be the best, but we won’t go down without a fight.

Nothing makes me prouder than to see a girl kick ass, but it’s not for reasons you might think. Sure, I want to see them stay out of trouble, build healthy minds and bodies, and earn their black belts. More so, they have the power to avoid the pain I’ve experienced by being a lifelong doormat. Since childhood I’ve been bullied, teased, humiliated, and harassed. Other than crying or getting angry I never fought back. (Except that time I slapped a boyfriend in the face for calling me fat. God, that was satisfying.)

I let myself be abused in various ways over and over again, and that is my deepest regret. I was a lonely, sensitive child and a jaded, skittish young woman who retreated further and further into herself as the only means of self-preservation. I didn’t think I could defend myself. I didn’t know how, and my mind didn’t work fast enough to save me. Even to this day in all my black belt glory I find myself in situations where I later regret not saying or doing something to stand up for myself. I still have a moment or two of being in shock when someone crosses my comfort zone and chips away at my dignity. Do people really think it’s OK to act like that? I’m reluctant to get close to anyone again, be it friend, romantic partner, or otherwise for fear of being hurt again. My outer shell grows thicker by the day.

I have pain and damage to undo despite the huge strides I’ve made in taekwondo. I’d like to think most of the young girls I work with in the dojang aren’t burdened with that, at least not yet. It hurts my heart to think of them feeling scared, angry, in pain, or helpless. I can’t protect them all the time, and neither can their parents. They are going to make mistakes. They are going to get their hearts broken. They are going to do and say things they regret. What I hope they can avoid is the pain and shame of not standing up for themselves when they felt threatened or mistreated.

So yes, I like mean, aggressive, and most of all CONFIDENT girls. They are proud of who they are and won’t compromise to please someone else. They have self-respect and know when to speak up and speak out. They can value themselves highly despite what a friend, a boy, a teacher, a boss, or total stranger might think of them. They can avoid the mistakes I made and the missteps I took. They can have bright, bold futures filled with love and happiness. I can’t change my past behavior, but going forward I can be as tough and fearless as these girls I admire so much.

Martial Arts Ruined My Love Life…or at Least Ruined What It Used to Be

istock-single-and-happy

“Keep your heart open,” my mom said with a fake-sappy smile as I hugged her good-bye at the airport last week.

“Oh gross, don’t let that be the last thing you say to me!” I said. Since Mom and I primarily speak in sarcasm and South Park references, we both knew it was a joke. A few days earlier and after several glasses of wine, I had admitted to my parents that I rejoined an online dating site that I’ve used in the past, so Mom was probably just half-heartedly teasing me about the reservations I expressed about dating again (although I sensed a glimmer of seriousness in her voice). Now I didn’t actually rejoin the site after several glasses of wine–that was merely brought on by a short bout of temporary loneliness and boredom, a blip of having my guard down in my otherwise very busy (and guarded) life.

I was genuinely curious to see if my feelings had changed since I published my “Love is Like Grape Soda” post on Valentine’s Day. At the time of that post I had absolutely no interest in dating or getting into a relationship after being out of a serious relationship for nearly a year. I didn’t dislike love or relationships. I regarded it as a neutral, non-meaningful entity, much the same way as I regard grape soda: I don’t really like it or dislike it. I simply can’t be bothered to care. It doesn’t interest me. I fully support other people’s decision to drink themselves sick on grape soda, but none for me, thank you. I don’t know if I’ve ever even had grape soda.

I’ve been out on a few dates, talked to a few guys, and have had a nice time. The men were warm, funny, good looking, and accomplished, and I’ve enjoyed some great conversations…and I also didn’t feel any connection, spark, whatever, and I doubt they did either. I haven’t heard from any of them in a while, and for once, I’m not upset about it. At first I actually felt pleased at my feeling of no-feeling because I proved to myself that I had broken my habit of instantly falling for whichever guy happened to be nice to me and putting them on a pedestal while devaluing my own worth. It truly is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” I am not going to force myself into a relationship just because I’m lonely or just because a man pays attention to me for a brief moment in time.

Maybe at this point for me love is less like grape soda and more like popcorn and ice cream. I’m interested, but not so much that I’m willing to pig out. I like popcorn and ice cream and even have both in my house, but…still…meh. I forget they’re there. I don’t get the allure. I roll my eyes when people say they’re giving up ice cream for Lent. I don’t understand how people go absolutely apeshit over the free popcorn at the hospitals where I work. There’s even a sweets shop in my city called “Popcorn and Ice Cream,” but I have yet to walk through its doors. I like popcorn and ice cream more than I like grape soda and even crave a taste now and then, but I don’t want to commit to a whole bag or a whole carton.

(If love were like Doritos and cookie ice cream sandwiches washed down with cabernet, on the other hand, I’d be married by now.)

Then it happened a few more times–that feeling of no-feeling– and I was struck with a confusing and profound sadness. While these dates had proven that I can wait to see if someone is right for me rather than jumping prematurely into a relationship and hoping for the best, it’s also hinted to me that perhaps I’ve become so independent and self-sufficient that I am not capable of sharing space, time, energy, and love with a man. It has proven to me what I’ve been casually tossing around since my tongue-in-cheek Valentine’s Day post: I want to be single and alone. I cannot have a relationship again, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s over. I’m done. That part of me is dead…or okay, maybe undead and waiting to come back years from now. It wasn’t the loneliness or longing for a relationship that made me sad–it was the absence of that longing that confused me and broke my heart just a little.

There is a part of me that is afraid if I enter into a relationship again I will lose the gifts taekwondo has given me: confidence, self-respect, independence. The feeling I get in taekwondo class feels so damn good that I don’t want to let anything bring down my high. It’s been my savior and my drug. I don’t want to lose that unique feeling of elation I get in class. It’s a high that lasts longer than any kiss or coveted text message.

I don’t want to go back to being the Old Me. I don’t like who I was when I was in relationships. I was needy, self-conscious, self-deprecating, and sad. I let men treat me like dirt. Rejection destroyed me. I didn’t have the peace that I have now as a single and unattached woman, and if relationships only bring out the worst in me then I want no part of them. I’d like to think I’ve changed enough that this time around things would be different, and I think most of the men out there are genuinely good guys, but without solid proof it’s hard to want to take the risk.

I like who I’ve become. I’m stronger, more confident, funnier, and frankly, much nicer and more pleasant to be around. I’m happy with who I am and have started to open my eyes and see how I can help the people around me. I’ve found my niche and how I can contribute to the world. Taekwondo has made me more empathetic, mindful, and hopeful. It’s help me accept and appreciate my body. It saved me from self-destruction, some of which was wrapped up in how I handled relationships. I’ve learned to find happiness within myself.

Several years ago a priest asked me if I considered the thought that God might want me to be single. I was furious and felt like he was giving me a death sentence. Now, after many years and many more emotional growth spurts, I’m starting to wonder if there might be a grain of truth to his question. I’ve considered the thought, and at this point, I’ve accepted it if that is indeed God’s plan for me.

I’m okay with it now. I would rather be alone than stressed out over whether a man approved of me or not, whether he was attracted to me, whether he wanted to spend time with me, whether he thought I was worthy. I have found a rhythm to life that works for me. I don’t want to compromise who I’ve become and what I’ve gained with something that I have learned the hard way won’t bring internal peace and happiness. I’ve found my bliss and have become the woman I used to hope would be magically conjured up by a man’s love and approval.

Maybe it’s not so much that I am incapable of dating, but that my standards have changed, and I still don’t quite understand how to navigate the dating world armed with them. I know now that I deserve respect, honesty, and compassion, not just fleeting attraction and hollow promises of love. That’s all thanks to taekwondo, and if I have to be unattached to be the New Me, then so be it.

I’ve since cancelled my online dating subscription. At some point I became bored with the whole process and eventually forgot I had my profile up altogether. When I first got into online dating I was delighted about how many interesting men I was able to meet that I would have never encountered in my regular daily life. Now it just felt limiting and like a chore. If and when I do “meet” someone again, I think I’d like it to be the old fashioned way. For now I’m going to continue to enjoy doing whatever I want whenever I want. I have a book to finish writing, after all.

The only person I initially told about my tentative foray back into the dating world was my brother. I expressed doubt and regret over restarting my profile and wondered if it was just misguided loneliness. He cautioned me to not get into something I didn’t really want to do, and added this statement:

“We just want you to be with someone who deserves you.”

Yeah, that’s what I want too. If I meet that guy who makes me feel as good as I felt in class Monday night or who even makes me want to skip class to spend time with him, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll consider taking a swig of the proverbial grape soda. Until then, I’ll see you in class.