2010 wasn’t just another plastic-free year. True, I cut my plastic waste to 2.18 pounds (60% of last year’s total and only 2% of the national average.)
But the year was really about facing another kind of challenge, one that is more personally fraught than the decision of whether to buy coffee in a disposable cup or not. Last year, I had to find a way to live with a broken brain.
For much of 2010, I simply could not think.
Turns out I have ADD (attention deficit disorder.) But I didn’t know it until very recently. Last year, anxiety, fear, worry, and dread were ever present and available when clarity, focus, and creativity were not. I blogged a lot less than in previous years because so often the words would simply not come. Or the ideas I did have would not stay still long enough for me to organize them into coherence. Many times last year I cried, “What’s wrong with me?!” I blamed my doctor for not finding me the right medication and cursed one useless plastic prescription bottle after another.
I blamed my ovaries for the crazy-making hormones they produce. I blamed my friends and family and co-workers just because they were there.
Sometimes I stopped blaming and did the things I knew what help me feel more connected to life… to the planet. I meditated. I had conversations with some amazing people, like Joanna Macy, for example, who writes about how we can feel the suffering and fear for our planet and still keep working towards what she calls “The Great Turning.”
I met up with inspiring people like reader Tracey TieF, whose story will knock you out. We talked for hours in person and then on the phone. Posting her story has been on my To-Do list since August. But like I said, my brain hasn’t been working. There are a ton of stories on my To-Do list I have yet to get to.
In July I took off on a breathtaking road trip with my dad, helping him to move back to Maryland from Hawaii when my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease became too hard for them to manage far away from the rest of the family. Worried about my parents, worried about my mom, worried about her disease and what it might mean for my own brain prognosis and that of my sisters, I welcomed the chance to escape for a while
The trip was one of the best experiences of my life. My dad and I talked the whole way. About nothing. He couldn’t remember what stories he’d already told me, so he just kept telling them over and over again. It became a joke. Neither of us could remember the names of pretty much anything. And it didn’t matter. Thinking didn’t matter. The content of the conversation didn’t matter. The only thoughts that mattered were the practical ones about how to get where we were going and how to avoid hitting other cars. What truly mattered was love. Me for him. Him for me. And we for the wondrous beauty of the country around us. That sky. (And of course, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.)
All year I took breaks to play with my kitties and in September hung out with other non-human beings at the Farm Sanctuary in Orland, CA with my friend Heather Clisby, where I discovered a deep connection to… goats. Goats don’t care what’s going on in your brain. They just want to eat your shirt.
I had already suddenly and without warning, become a vegetarian. It’s probably the greenest change I made all year, and yet it happened almost by accident. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t try to. I listened to the audiobook Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer for the BlogHer book clup in March, subjecting myself day after day to stories of atrocities committed against the animals we eat, and almost immediately the idea of eating a cheeseburger became unthinkable to me. As readily as I gave up plastic, I gave up meat. But while that change made me feel better about one aspect of my life, it did nothing to assuage the terrible anxiety I felt in general.
I went on long bike rides with my friend Elizabeth, which helped get me into my body and out of my head for a few hours. And I rescued an old beat up piano from another friend, thinking that playing would help relieve my anxiety and calm my brain (despite the fact that I haven’t played in about twenty years and only know a handful of pieces.)
But when drugs or meditation or talking or furry animals or Für Elise didn’t help, I tried to quell the anxiety and feelings of ineptitude with too much food or sleep or Netflix movies. I confess, I even spent a month drinking my cleaning fluid again. It wasn’t pretty.
See, I had things to do. Public things. Things that involved generating words that other people would read and hear. And when your brain is only working intermittently, those things are terrifying.
In January, An ABC7 news crew came to my house to interview me about living without plastic. Cool. But I worried I’d sound stupid. What if they made me look like a crazy extremist? What if I stumbled over my words? What if? What if? The day came. The interview happened. And then it didn’t run. I waited. And waited. And waited. I convince myself that they’d changed their minds. That the interview went so poorly that they were never going to run the segment. And finally, when I’d forgotten about it, it aired in March. And it was great. All those anxious thoughts? Pointless.
Several more times throughout the year I gave talks and interviews. A talk at the Rethinking Plastics conference in Marin in January was well received despite my feeling rushed and ill-prepared. I felt fine during my talk at the Hooked on Plastics talk event in San Francisco, but afterwards Michael said I um’d and uh’d a lot. I noticed during radio shows “Your Supernatural Life” with Beth Greer and “Good Green Witch” with Rhonda de Felice (you can listen to both radio interviews here) that my brain would sometimes freeze in the middle of a sentence, and I’d have to switch gears to finish my thought.
So you can imagine how nervous I was to speak at the TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch event in L.A. in November. In fact, I was so tired and anxious upon arrival that I couldn’t get out a complete sentence during my speaker training session the night before the event. That’s not an exaggeration. I literally couldn’t finish a sentence. The morning of the event, sitting and listening to the speakers who went on before me, I alternated between focused listening and sudden flushes of anxiety that would take over my body and heat up my head. I didn’t know if I was going to pee on the floor or pass out.
Once I hit the stage, of course, all the crazy brain stuff went away. I just talked to the audience like I would to a friend, and mostly the words I needed where there for me.
If public speaking weren’t bad enough, perhaps the biggest anxiety instigator this year has been my decision to write a book about my plastic-free life.
I’ve been wanting to write this book and scared witless of it for the past year. I created an introduction that turned out really sucky and scrapped it. Every time I think about it, I want to throw up or pass out. I’m getting nervous even writing these words right now. But maybe, just maybe, by putting it out there publicly like this, I have to do it.
That one thought dogged me throughout the first part of the year. I rewrote the introduction and then got stuck. How would I ever organize all the information? I was fortunate to find a wonderful literary agent in February who took me on after reading my intro and looking at my blog. But still, I couldn’t get the book organized. I agonized and agonized. And I procrastinated. Each time I’d try and come up with an outline, too many competing thoughts would put my brain into free fall. I felt dizzy.
Finally, at a meditation retreat in May, during which my anxiety had reached Mt. Everest heights, I lay in bed one night utterly convinced I had developed inflammatory breast cancer and was going to die before getting my book written. The next morning, I poured out my fears to my meditation teacher, sobbing that this book was like a child that wanted to be born and I was stopping it from coming out. And suddenly that afternoon, the dam burst. We’re not supposed to write during retreat, but I didn’t care. I sat in the courtyard with a pad of paper and multiple pencils and wrote and wrote until my hand was numb. The entire book took shape before my eyes. The structure. The focus. And I could breathe again.
Until I couldn’t. Because after creating the outline and brainstorming all the stories and information that would go in each section, I now had to fill it in. At home, I would sit in front of the computer, and my mind would swim again with thoughts. I couldn’t focus on one chapter at a time. Too many ideas rushed in, and I’d give up and watch a video. And then summer came and with it a ton of activities that needed my attention. The trip with my dad. The BlogHer conference in New York. Various events and projects and commitments that also required brain resources. For several more months, I froze.
Then, in September, I finally finished my book proposal. I knew my agent wanted to send it out in the fall and somehow having that deadline gave me the motivation and focus to sit down and bang it out. I wrote for hours. I wrote until I couldn’t see and was squinting at my computer screen. The project became like a puzzle, as enjoyable as any computer game, and somehow, I got it done. My agent sent it out, and we found a publisher! My book will be published by Skyhorse Publishing. I’ll spend the next few months writing it.
And I’m no longer anxious.
ADD and Relief
After trying drugs all year for this, that, and the other, I’ve finally found a medication that helps me focus and think (and is also not a stimulant like most ADD meds are.) We had been focusing on the wrong symptoms. Instead of treating my anxiety and depression and racing thoughts, we’re targeting the cause of those issues in the first place: my inability to focus on one thing at a time. It seems I’ve always had this problem but have been able to get things done because of another attribute of ADD: hyperfocus. When push comes to shove and the incentives are high enough, I can focus like nobody’s business. It’s why all throughout school I could never write a paper until the night before it was due. And I always got A’s on them. In the hyperfocused state, I won’t hear you talking to me from a few feet away. I wouldn’t notice if someone broke into my house and walked out with my living room. But without the pressure of an immediate deadline, I was all over the place. A mess.
And now I’m not. Which is a big relief, and not just for the reason you might think. Yes, it’s great to have found a treatment that helps me function in a way I never have before. But it’s also a relief to once again realize (as I have during many meditation sessions) that we don’t control our thoughts. Our thoughts feel like they are us, but they are just products of our particular brain chemistry. Change the chemistry, and the thoughts change. Change the thoughts, and we feel like we have changed. But can we actually take credit for any of it? I know I can’t. Suddenly all my previous self-recrimination seems absurd.
So why am I telling you the story of my broken brain? It’s just to point out that we all have fears and guilt and dread at times. None of us is perfect, but somehow we have to keep trying and doing the best we can. This year, I learned that I can do things in spite of my worries and fears. I learned this fact because every time a challenge would come up, I’d get freaked out, convince myself I was going to fail miserably, spend several days or weeks in denial and depression, and finally rise triumphantly from the ashes, only to start the cycle again when the next challenge arose. I’ve gotten so used to watching this process that I can laugh at it now. But at the time, each situation seemed utterly dire.
And right here I have to segue into a plastic-free message: If you’re worried about participating in the Show Your Plastic Trash Challenge because you think you won’t be able to handle the guilt, just freakin’ do it anyway. You might feel guilty. Or you might not. You might get depressed. Or you might not. You might feel anxious about it. Or not. You might even think there’s no point in even trying to change your habits or lifestyle because it won’t make any difference. Or you might not think that at all. All these thoughts? Are just thoughts. You can’t make them go away, so just let them be. The real thing is not what you think but what you do.
Plans for 2011
It’s a new year and a new blog name. This brings me, finally, to my 2011 resolutions.
1) Obviously, the first one is to finish my book. And thankfully, I know I can do it. Treating my ADD makes writing the book easier than writing the proposal was.
2) Resume running. We all say we should get more exercise, right? Well, a few days ago, I signed up for the 2011 Disneyland Half Marathon in September. I ran it in 2007 and haven’t really run since. I said last year that the one plastic item I wanted to collect more of are Tyvek race numbers. I plan to make that happen in 2011.
3) Consume more fruits and vegetables. I read somewhere that many vegetarians should more accurately call themselves “grainarians” because they live mainly on pasta, bread, rice, etc. and less on fruits and vegetables. It’s certainly true for me. Four years ago, I was someone who lived on frozen dinners and energy bars because I couldn’t bring myself to cook. Giving up plastic means that I have to actually use the stove, but I still find myself doing as little work as possible in the kitchen. This year, I’m going to up my intake of veggies, even if it kills me. (Insert chuckle here.)
That’s it. Those are the only resolutions I’m going to make. I want to leave room for spontaneity and surprise.
How about you? What were the themes that shaped your 2010 and what plans do you have for 2011?