This is Not Normal
A year ago, I was trapped in a cycle of anxiety and lethargy, mania and depression. I was drinking almost daily, but I didn’t know for sure if it was a problem or if cutting back would help with my ever-present melancholy. The evening drink was almost the only thing easing my troubled mind. I didn’t quite acknowledge how my consumption habit influenced decisions about what I ate and when, whether or not I got good exercise or sleep, and how I engaged with others and my work. This cycle had gone on for so long, I sort of assumed my problems were all givens, that the anxiety would exist with or without my beloved wine.
My weekdays generally involved getting home from work wiped out, popping open a bottle of increasingly fine wine to accompany me while cooking dinner, then collapsing on the couch with HBO. My weekends were manically cleaning and organizing my apartment, trying to compensate for the night before and then dinner and drinks with my fiancé or, once that ended, whoever was around. Hangovers were common. Exercise was inconsistent at best. I felt foggy and nauseous, barely writing or making anything creative. Life was mostly work and dissociation on repeat with a real effort to appear fine. My ‘normal’ was sick, cynical and depressed. Health and happiness seemed next to impossible.
I experimented with cutting out alcohol on a whim. I didn’t plan it; I just got desperate. It was the Wednesday going into Thanksgiving weekend and I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up on Monday feeling regretful. The long weekend was luxuriously healthy. Monday came and went and I continued to abstain; I was enjoying my newfound clarity, integrity and making better choices. I liked not having to justify my drinking behaviors to my sober self. I wanted my life to feel energized and beautiful. Taking out alcohol resolved not just the unpleasant physical effects, which are hard to overstate, but so much more. I got my time back with an ability to sustain focus. That one decision changed my whole lifestyle. It created a new ‘normal’.
Now that I’m a little further down the road of sobriety, the change I made seems almost comically obvious. Cutting out alcohol was a catalyst that quickly normalized new habits. Once I got some momentum, my wellness and creativity and relationship practices became routine. I spend the time and energy I was using on drinking, thinking about drinking, or recovering from drinking in wonderful ways — writing, working out, cooking, drawing, painting, reading, connecting with a neighbors and family and friends.
Cutting out alcohol was a catalyst that quickly normalized new habits.
My present day reality is something I could only dream of from a wine-soaked Saturday night a year ago. Now I can look back and acknowledge that all those bottles weren’t bringing me closer to my desires. In fact, they caused me to make decisions counter to my goals, placing them further out of reach. It makes me think about how we often lack imagination of what else is possible from our current point of view. To even entertain change, we need to realize it’s available to us.
The emotional labor of change is no small thing. Many people spend their lives avoiding it entirely. But when we boldly enter new territory and experiment with new perspectives, we get to put our existing behavior and beliefs under review. We get additional context for our ‘normal’ that allows us to lay the groundwork for change. And challenges that once felt insurmountable become manageable, even exciting. With unfamiliar perspectives and the endorphins of working new muscles, the good kind of change becomes practically inevitable.
It was a supremely happy outcome of sobriety that gave me the energy, gratitude and focus I currently have. But I’m only just beginning. The life I want is sumptuous, abundant. Is there a way to move toward more of my goals by intentionally creating new definitions of what’s ‘normal’?
Coming in strong off a life-changing Marie Kondo kick, I wanted to next focus on my finances. I discovered a disempowering belief that living in the Bay Area was making it impossible for me to be financially secure. Rent is indeed expensive and down payments here are six figures, but salaries tend to be higher too and I’m doing okay in that department. I recently made my way through Dave Ramsay’s Total Money Makeover thanks to a friend who knew I needed it. He points out that it might be good to shoot for ‘weird’ if ‘normal’ means being in perpetual debt and constantly stressed about money like so many. I was right there with the Jones’, making impulsive, unexamined financial decisions that weren’t creating a secure and prosperous future. The fine (read: expensive) wine habit I was developing deceived, I was literally buying into a sense of ‘normal’ that was making me poor.
It dawned on me that, like alcohol, a lot of the things I think I really neeeeed, I simply don’t. I don’t need dinner out to socialize, or the new Outdoor Voices leggings to exercise, or the $40 salon shampoo to look good. I don’t need to fly across the country multiple times a year to maintain relationships with friends and family on the east coast. Dave Ramsay’s approach doesn’t suggest living bare bones forever, but by cutting back now, I can eventually do more of what is important to me. Once I have a stable financial foundation I can more confidently invest in my relationships, make a meaningful social impact, and buy luxury goods that I can actually afford. A new ‘normal’ of financial literacy and knowing that I am not one disaster away from being broke is incredibly appealing.
I can start to shift behavior to support me reaching my goal, reinforcing a new ‘normal’ in this category. It snowballs as these decisions change my routine. For example, biking around Lake Merritt to work (for a $15/month Ford GoBike membership) gives me a healthy flush, it’s fun, and it’s faster than the $5 per day bus commute! I don’t have to stew in that sense of powerlessness of wanting something but feeling that it’s always out of reach. I don’t have to embody Einstein’s definition of insanity. The behaviors that support my new ‘normal’ become obvious. And it’s satisfying to see the progress. I can even (Gasp!) enjoy the process of change.
Like everyone else, I have in my 34 years normalized all kinds of negatives — gender inequality, my parents’ divorce, my grandfather’s alcoholism, my community’s racism, fat-phobia, the list goes on and on. Our psyches have the ability to cope with terrible things by making them seem ‘normal’. But ‘normal’ is a construct, it is not a law of physics. What’s normal today would be inconceivable to Adam and Eve, my grandparents 60 years ago, even my generational counterparts around the world. In many ways, “normal” is anything but.
Rather than trying to fit into prevailing trends, normalize yourself to what you aspire to. Use our psychological ability to “get used to” things by choosing the things you get used to. Surround yourself with people who are doing what you deep-deep-down want to be doing. Make a change, however large or small, to help shift your perspective. Give up your vices for a while, change your commute, see what ‘necessities’ you can live without.
Normalize yourself to what YOU aspire to.
What got us into this mess can, indeed, get us out. We just need to re-examine whether our ‘normal’ lives are getting us there. And if your ‘normal’ is not cutting it, go out and get a new one.
Glittering and remarkable futures depend on it.