Friday, December 07, 2018

The Demon Hunter (Feat. Sheyna Galyan)

I had a wonderful conversation in this podcast, talking about everything from the importance of weather to the role of writing to hunting and vanquishing our demons. Includes a shout-out to Teresa Romain & Access Abundance!

The Demon Hunter (Feat. Sheyna Galyan): In this surprisingly cathartic and emotionally-draining 25th episode (!!!), Hal has a lovely, haunting conversation with critically-acclaimed Jewish novelist Sheyna Galyan. The two talk about her books and discuss the ways that we, as humans, can conquer and vanquish the demons of the mind, body and soul. Have some tissues handy!! This is a can’t-miss!!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Healing and Food

My turbulent relationship with food began when I was an infant. The story, as my mother told it, was that she was unable to nurse and had zero support with breastfeeding (not unusual for the late 60s). The pediatrician told her to put me on a formula feeding schedule, and to stick to it, no matter how much I cried.
Some variation of a schedule continued throughout childhood. Mealtime was when I was to eat, hungry or not. If it wasn’t mealtime, there was to be no eating, lest it spoil my appetite. I learned early that the availability of food depended on the clock, not on a sense of hunger, which I was feeling less and less.

Growing up in a family with chaos and often violence, and no boundaries whatsoever, I often felt like I had no control over what happened to me. And then I discovered as a teenager that I could control how much food I ate. Or didn’t. And I discovered that starving myself gave me a kind of emotional high, a temporary feeling of power that was intoxicating. By the time I graduated from high school, I weighed less than 90 pounds, and I was thinking that 75 was a nice number to shoot for.
Dieting was a common thing, growing up. My mother was frequently trying one diet or another. She had these “candies” called Ayds (pronounced aids) that I would sometimes sneak out of the pantry when I was really hungry. They didn’t taste great, but they stopped my stomach from hurting.

In college, eating was a when-I-have-time event, folded around writing papers and going to classes. In my junior year of college, in 1989, I was eight miles from the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake—the one that disrupted the World Series, broke part of the Bay Bridge, and collapsed a double-decker freeway in Oakland, killing quite a few people. We had so many aftershocks, I was terrified to cook in my apartment kitchen. We had no running water and no electricity for a couple of weeks. I survived on ready-to-eat snacks. I didn’t realize then that trauma is cumulative, and that the trauma I survived as a child meant that the earthquake trauma was that much worse for me.
After I got into therapy in the early 90s, as I began to deal with all that had happened and how it affected my current life, I was put on antidepressants. They helped with the suicidal thoughts (which I’d had—and acted on—since I was sixteen), but they also caused massive food cravings and weight gain. I gained 70 pounds within a year.
During the next ten years, I struggled with infertility. Most doctors blamed my weight. One doctor actually ran tests, and we discovered that I ovulated—at best—twice a year. My hormones were out of whack. I had too much cortisol, too much testosterone, and wildly fluctuating levels of estrogen. I added these to the reasons I hated myself. My weight continued to increase.
In 2000, the stars aligned and I got pregnant. It was, early on, a high-risk pregnancy. My blood pressure was too high, then my blood sugar spiraled out of control. I was on bed rest for half the pregnancy. I had hyperemesis gravidarum, a fancy term for morning/noon/night sickness, that lasted seven months. The only things I could keep down were Welch’s 100% juice grape popsicles and Betty Crocker Potato Buds instant mashed potatoes. I was on insulin until the baby was born, when my blood pressure and blood sugar returned to normal.
I got pregnant a second time, only instead of high blood sugar showing up at thirty-two weeks, it showed up in the fourteenth week. Four years later, I got pregnant a third time, and developed gestational diabetes 48 hours after I took a home pregnancy test, somewhere around five weeks pregnant. That baby was stillborn at five months. A few months later, I was diagnosed with fibrmyalgia.
In each of my pregnancies, because of the gestational diabetes, I was put on a “diabetes diet” for pregnant women. Once again, I was eating based on the clock, as well as counting carbohydrate grams and testing my blood sugar. I learned what my body liked and what made my blood sugar soar. After our daughter was stillborn, I gave up the diet. I figured I didn’t need it anymore and I was busy with a toddler and a preschooler and running a new publishing company.
In 2009, I tried a low-carb diet. I lost thirty-seven pounds in nine months, had a lot more energy, but wasn’t able to sustain it. It’s hard to eat so differently from everyone else. I already knew that, keeping kosher, but within my own home, at the dining table, it was harder still, watching everyone else eat bread and potatoes and I was stuck with a salad and a bland chicken breast.
Fast-forward nearly ten years. I’ve been working with a life coach for four years, doing in-depth healing for nearly as long, and in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) for trauma therapy for two years. I fully accepted that the loving people I’d been able to see and hear since I was three years old—but no one else could—were my spirit guides, and when I stopped arguing with them and really started listening and acting on what they said, my life got better still. My therapists had questions for my guides, and were impressed with the answers. They jokingly said that with guides like these, therapists weren’t necessary. (They are. Sometimes I learn best from people “with skin on.”)
I healed enough emotionally and spiritually that it was time to look at my physical health. I was about a hundred pounds overweight, if I went by numbers alone. I hated to count things (carbs, points, calories) and I hated the sense of deprivation I felt on a “diet.”
I took a year-long class on intuitive eating, based on the book by the same name. I learned how to not base my eating on a clock. I learned for the first time what hunger felt like. I learned to honor my body.
But I still felt unwell. I had frequent fibromyalgia episodes, depressions, panic attacks, and debilitating fatigue. An author friend posted about eating a keto diet, and recommended the movie Cereal Killers. I watched it and was inspired. So I did something that had not occurred to me to do earlier: I asked my guides for advice on how/what to eat, and if this way of eating would help me. They were immediately forthcoming.
Don’t eat, they said, the following:
• Wheat
• Oats
• Rye
• Barley
• Spelt
• Sugar
• Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose)
• High glycemic-index fruits (oranges, bananas)
• Most beans
• Most root vegetables (potatoes, carrots)
• Most starchy vegetables (corn, peas)

Oh, I said. So, like year-round Passover, but without the matzah or sugar?

Do eat, they said:
• Fish (no shellfish)
• Poultry (with skin)
• Beef (in moderate amounts, and grass-fed, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free wherever possible)
• Green leafy vegetables
• Berries
• Avocados & guacamole
• Eggs
• Nuts
• Seeds
• Plain, whole-fat yogurt
• Cheese
• Natural sweeteners (stevia, erythritol) in moderation

My Passover comment came back around when I started eating this way and within less than a week, experienced exponentially more energy, less pain, better mood, and a disappearance of my cravings. I realized that every year during Passover, I felt much the same way. I always figured it was because I liked the holiday: the special dishes, special recipes, eating at home. Now I realized while those might have been true, the real reason for my increased joy and energy was because of what I was eating.
I began this way of eating in early May 2018. I found a never-before-felt passion for cooking and low-carb/keto recipes. My guides told me not to worry about counting anything. This wasn’t about maintaining specific macronutrient numbers (as in a strict ketogenic diet). This was about eating food that nourished me and testing other foods to see how my body responded to them. I was to continue my intuitive eating—eating when I was hungry, not eating when I wasn’t, no matter what the clock said.

Within five months, I’d released an unnecessary thirty pounds. (I no longer refer to “losing” weight. It’s not misplaced and I don’t want anyone finding it and returning it to me.) I felt better than I have in…probably decades.
And then came my first real test.
Within the space of a month, I attended two conventions and a multi-day training workshop, involving flights to both Vancouver and Los Angeles. At first, I was careful about what I ate, despite what I perceived as limited options. But “just a taste” of one food became “just a serving” and then “just a meal.” I continued to test my blood sugar, and was amazed that my body didn’t respond adversely to a small piece of cheesecake and some rice with my chicken. Maybe this meant I could loosen up a bit?
No. It did not. Just a small amount of wheat, and then oats another time, sent my body into a painful spiral. For days at a time, living out of a hotel, I was eating at restaurants, not all of which were keto-friendly. Several times, I chose being with new and old friends over eating at a restaurant that would support my way of eating. And because I didn’t value myself enough, I put their restaurant preferences over mine. I didn’t advocate for myself, and they never knew that I was going to pay with physical pain for eating with them at that restaurant.
That was a disservice both to me and to them.
Once I returned from Los Angeles, my final trip for a while, it took me three weeks to finally get over the carb cravings, regain my energy, and stabilize my mood. That was a painful lesson in making my needs important.
I realized that I was also looking at my way of eating with some judgment. I was looking at it the way my mother looked at my keeping kosher—as being a “picky eater.” She had nothing nice to say about my keeping kosher, or eating anything different from her, for that matter. If it inconvenienced her, it was unacceptable.
I was expecting everyone else to see my way of eating as a choice, something I could simply choose not to do when it might impact others. I never checked that out with them, but knowing them as I do, and taking my own judgments and pain out of the equation, they would have absolutely supported my way of eating, up to and including going to a different restaurant.
Then I read a book about eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Recent studies have strongly indicated that fibromyalgia (along with depression, bipolar, and possibly chronic fatigue, among others) is caused by neuroinflammation in the brain. Reducing inflammation in the body (and brain) by eating foods that are anti-inflammatory and avoiding foods that cause inflammation can drastically reduce symptoms.
How interesting that my modified-keto/no sugar way of eating is nearly identical to an anti-inflammatory diet. The only difference is that the anti-inflammatory diet has more carbs—mostly from beans, rice, and root vegetables—than I can safely eat, given my blood sugar.
My brain latched onto this: now I can tell people that I’m eating an anti-inflammatory diet for my health, and then it’s not a choice!
My guides shook their metaphorical heads. Why must I defend what I eat based on an assumption of others’ judgment? they asked. Why is it not enough for me to say that I eat what supports and nourishes my body? Why do I feel the need to explain that I regularly test my blood sugar to keep close tabs on what carbs I can and cannot eat?
Here is another area where the lesson I learned well in childhood—that others’ opinions matter more than mine—continues to play out in adulthood. The wounded child is certain that friends would choose their preferred restaurant over eating with me, thus proving my low self-worth, proving that I don’t matter.
The reality is, any friend who would value their choice of restaurant over eating with me is not truly a friend. It’s better that I not go to lunch with these people. There are plenty of people who want the best for me, who do believe I matter, and that what I need to support my physical health also matters. There are plenty of those people. Even when the hurt child within doesn’t think they exist.
We women are conditioned to play to others’ preferences and interests, even to the detriment of our own. And anyone who believes deep down that they don’t matter has it even worse. But your health does matter. My health matters. We matter.
And now I’m going to go own that while eating my keto-friendly lunch.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Beauty in Loss

May 9, 2018

Nine years ago today, my mother was dying. It was sad, and painful, and beautiful.

Let me explain.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2008, my mom was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. She was given six months to live. One week later, I pulled my kids—then seven and five—out of school and the three of us drove from Minnesota to California so we could spend some time with my mom. We stayed nearly a month.

I’d like to say that this time was pleasant, full of fond memories and loving connections, but that would be a lie. My kids enjoyed getting to see their grandmother, but I was already grieving. My mom’s diagnosis meant that all the hopes I had of ever having anything like a normal relationship with her, one in which she wasn’t constantly tearing me down, were also dying. This was confirmed a couple months later when chemo failed and my mom chose to go on hospice.

In April 2009, I got the call that it was time, and a day later, I was on a flight back to California. I was very clear that I was doing this for me. My mom had said to me that she didn’t really care if I was there or not when she died. I’m not sure if that was true, but I was sure that to be in integrity with myself and my own belief that family means something, I had to be there.

For two weeks, my brother, myself, two personal aides, and the occasional hospice nurse cared for her, talked to her, sang to her, and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible. One time, she told me that we should let bygones be bygones and leave the past behind. My hopes of making peace with her perked up. Then she said she could never forgive me for how much I’d hurt her. Those last weeks were an emotional minefield and every night, I’d collapse in my hotel bed in tears, echoes of countless nights as a kid when I cried myself to sleep.

I have a gift, though, that saved my sanity during this time. I’ve been able to see and talk with my spirit guides since I was about three. They offered me comfort and love, and over the years, they also gave me a broader perspective of life and death, of what family truly means, of how unconditional love feels, of Home. And so, after a long day of caring for my mom, trying not to take her hurtful words personally, I’d share what I was going through with my guides. My fears, my pain, my grief, my anger. One of my guides told me I was here for a reason, and it wasn’t for my integrity.

“What, then?” I’d asked.

“Pay attention. You’ll know.”

Despite not eating or drinking for nearly two weeks, my mom held on. She’d wake (or regain consciousness) and demand to know why she was still here. Why she hadn’t died yet. She said she was ready to go.

One week into May, I half-joked that maybe she was holding out for another Mother’s Day. My mom said she thought that idea was stupid. I paid attention, watching the comings and goings of the hospice people and a handful of relatives. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

Until one day I did. I was sitting in the chair I’d appropriated next to my mom’s bed, sitting near her head, when I started to hear what sounded like a radio being tuned. Voices, sometimes overlapping, slightly echoing, clearly having a conversation. Sometimes it was louder, sometimes I could barely hear it. I thought maybe a radio or computer had been turned on, and I did an inspection of the house to make sure. Nothing turned on. Nothing coming out of any speakers. The sole TV was off. The voices continued, and as I caught snatches of the conversation, I made out that they were planning something. Who was going to be where. There was talk of a meeting, and who would have the honor of meeting “her.”

As the day wore on, I became more and more aware of movement in the room where my mom’s hospital bed was. I could make out figures, though not much more. Some were standing, others sitting, seemingly half in this world and half not. Gradually, the room filled with these beings. Some acknowledged that I saw them and nodded in greeting. All were giving off a palpable feeling of love and acceptance.

I knew that whoever all these beings (people?) were, they were here for my mom, and I realized that they saw her differently than I did. I’d like to think that they saw her soul, saw its inherent beauty and love. I saw more movement near my mom’s head and then could clearly see sparks of light dancing just above her forehead. I was entranced with this sight, feeling pure joy. I wondered if that was her.

Later, the low hum of voices from the various beings in the room was getting louder. I suddenly felt hands on my shoulders from someone standing behind me. The presence was familiar and reassuring, and then the hand on my right shoulder squeezed briefly. When I turned around, hoping to see (or verify) who it was, the space was empty. And no bodied person could fit behind my chair.

My mom unexpectedly cried out my deceased dad’s name, half- conscious. She woke, looking around. “Where is he?”

“Did you see him?” I asked.

“No.” My mom seemed agitated at this. “He’s waiting for me. I need to get to the harbor. I don’t want to miss the boat.”

I asked her more about this harbor, about the boat she was going to take, about how she knew where to go. She seemed to know exactly where to go until she tried to describe it, and then it wasn’t so clear. Mostly she was anxious that she wouldn’t make it in time. I asked her if this boat was waiting just for her or if it was picking up other people too. She thought about it and concluded that it was just for her. I suggested that they wouldn’t leave without her, and she relaxed, agreeing.

Nine years ago tomorrow, my mother died. It was Mother’s Day. It was sad, and painful, and beautiful.

Mom's hospice bed and the flower left by the mortuary.
May 11, 2009.