Living Lite

Meditating on the Potomac: First Steps to Regaining My Identity

June 25, 2017

I'm sharing my journey toward getting my life back, after some rough times, losing my health, and my sense of self, because I know the process can be difficult - and even painful - for anyone. I know, because it's been my job - and my passion - for more than 25 years: helping my clients transform their health and their lives to better themselves and to increase their happiness. Ironically, I haven't experienced these joys for myself for quite a while, so it's my turn to tough it out. And I can tell you, after many setbacks, it's not for sissies!

In my story's first installment, I described the importance of mindfulness as a foundation for self understanding and successful life change. It reduces anxiety, helps you focus, and leave worries about the past and future behind.  This helps you work through problems more effectively, according to scientific research from the National Institutes of Health. I needed to keep my focus on the present, to relax, to feel hopeful, and to force myself out of my depression. I needed to be willing to work at overcoming my exhaustion after almost two years of knee and back pain, ultimately leading to surgeries on both, and sidelining me for the duration.

Katherine Enjoying Kayaking Peacefully on The Potomac River (Photo by: Katy Handley) Katherine Enjoying Kayaking Peacefully on The Potomac River

You see, I spent a lifetime being physically active. This was a part of my identity, a way I excelled in the world. I started gymnastics in pre-school (it was called "tumbling" then). I went on through my adulthood to continue practicing gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, swimming, scuba, fencing, climbing, skating, archery, aerobics, strength training, stand up paddle boarding, yoga ...You name it, I've done it, and excelled almost immediately at anything I tried (even basketball, though I'm 5'2"). 

It's funny that I only recently realized that this loss of my physicality may have been the underlying cause of my depression and endless exhaustion - because it was an integral part of my identity and self-worth. I never realized how much pride I took - wrongly or rightly - in being fit, active, and in exceptional (not just good) shape. I was always a leader, a teacher, and set the example for thriving and living a healthy life. I bounced back from negative experiences easily, and taught my clients to do the same. But somehow I couldn't this time. I actually felt embarrassed to let anyone know, outside a few of my closest friends and family, just how badly I felt. I stopped exercising (by necessity), I gained weight, I stopped going out, I stopped socializing, and even dealing with my business. I isolated myself, even though I knew this behavior was hurting my health in every way. 

I finally came to understand why I was not recovering as expected while listening to a friend's account of his wife's reaction to the fear of potentially losing her singing voice (she's a singer) after the successful removal of a stage 1, non-malignant cancer on one of her vocal cords. The experience left her inconsolable, silent, uncommunicative, miserable, and angry with everyone. No amount of love, support, or reassurance from the experts helped. Her reaction and behavior went beyond normal proportions. Why? Perhaps because using her voice was an integral part of her identity, and the fear of losing it, even an irrational fear, was too frightening to face, let alone talk about, or deal with.

Facing and working through that kind of loss and fear can be paralyzing. Admittedly, it's taken me way too long to begin my recovery. And every day I'm too tired - or too stubborn - to advance, I damage myself further.

If you inexplicably don't take steps to improve your life in ways you know would be helpful - and your loved ones are encouraging - perhaps exploring how your self identification has been or will be affected, will help get you started. This is a major barrier to overcome for anyone trying to change a habit, even one which is self-destructive.

Mindfullness has been essential for me to finally start taking the small steps toward getting my life back, and feeling like myself again. (Funny, taking small steps is the cornerstone of my life-change programs, and my book, Diet Simple.) Studies clealry show you can achieve mindfulness through meditation. But I believe any activity that absorbs your heart and mind, relaxes you, and focuses you on the present moment, can improve your mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to work through your worries more effectively, to let go of thoughts and feelings that won't help, while concentrating on positive behaviors that will advance you toward your long term goal of increased happiness, however you define it. 

This weekend, mindfulness came to me through kayaking with a friend on the beautiful Potomac River. What wonderful resources in Washington, DC (we rented a kayak from the Key Bridge Boathouse)! I was able to step into another world, completely relax, and focus on Mother Nature, just a few blocks from home. A couple of weekends ago, I escaped to the Pennsylvania countryside. Music and reading elevate me too (anything but the news, please).

Personalize your way of becoming more mindful so you can start making small steps to improve your life. And try to be patient with yourself.

More later ...

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Swedish Crepe-Style Waffles with Succulent Strawberries

June 18, 2017

If you're in the mood for a special treat, this week's strawberries were especially sweet and succulent. While relaxing during a recent respite in the Pennsylvania countryside, I experienced a very decadent way of enjoying them with my friend, Anna: On heart-shaped Swedish waffles. These aren't ordinary waffles; they're crepe-thin, crispy, buttery, and simply divine. Traditionally served on "Waffle Day," in Sweden, celebrating "Our Lady's Day," on March 25th, 9 months before Christmas (also known as the Christian holiday of "Annunciation"). Enjoy...

Katherine & Anna's Scrumptious and Luxurious Swedish Waffles with Strawberries

Serves... You decide the number!

3 eggs
1 dl (3.4 ounces) Flour
6 dl (2.4 cups) Whole Milk (or 1% Milk)
1/4 cup melted, cooled Butter (or Canola Oil or Walnut Oil for a nutty flavor)
Pinch of Salt, Sugar, or Vanilla (optional)

1/2 cup (or more) Plain Yogurt or Whipped Cream
1 cup (or more) Strawberries
1 teaspoon Maple Syrup
A sprinkling of chopped Roasted Nuts
1 sprig of fresh Mint (optional)

Add ingredients to a pitcher and whisk together. Grease the waffle iron with butter or oil for the first waffle. Since butter (or oil) is in the recipe, the waffle iron will not need to be greased again.

Pour a small amount of the mixture into the Euro Cuisine Eco Friendly Heart-Shaped Waffle Maker per instructions. When golden brown, carefully lift the waffle and place in the center of your plate (smother in butter if you're being especially decadent). Place the yogurt, berries, and roasted chopped nuts, if you wish, on the waffle. Drizzle maple syrup on top. Finish with a sprig of mint.

NOTE: Using butter and whole milk are occasional treats to be used sparingly. When Anna and I prepared them last weekend, we used 2% milk and butter in the recipe. I topped my waffle with Chobani nonfat plain yogurt with a little maple syrup drizzled on top. Anna used whipped cream!

Bliss (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) Bliss

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How Mindfulness Meditation & a Little Help From My Friends Saved My Life!

June 11, 2017

I've experienced tough times during the past couple of years. Of course, I'm no exception. We all have tough times. That's life, isn't it? "You can't feel joy unless you've felt pain... blah, blah, blah..." Yes, I know already! How about a little joy, folks? God? Higher Being? After so much pain and stress, I've gotten to the point where I'm physically and mentally exhausted. Symptoms like debilitating headaches and stomach pain have now taken over and are keeping me from living life fully. I had to change, but it's been tough. I've been taking one step forward and two steps back for a while.


We'll talk about my personal "issues" (no one has "problems" any more!") during the past 18 months at some later date. For now, I'll be in the present and try to talk you into the same. You may know that I work with clients helping them turn their lives around, to live healthier, happier, and more energeticly, through gentle counseling in nutrition, exercise, spirituality, stress management, and life organization. So, I feel fortunate to know the process... Duh, Katherine! I'm sharing my "metamorphosis" with you, so perhaps you could gain some insight for yourself.


Attempting to recover, my first step has been allowing myself to have more positive experiences. I say "allowing myself" because I alone had to take the responsibility to make the necessary changes in my life and get out of my negative state. I forced myself to start listening - and responding - to the friends, loved ones, and health care professionals in my life to get back to socializing a little more with good people, participating in good causes, and exercising. This meant "working through the pain," an admonishment I came to detest, but one I knew was true. (I had already been evaluated by doctors).


I started reading a book recommended by the Reverend Timothy A.R. Cole, the rector of Christ Church Georgetown, called The Book of Joy co-authored by The 14th Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu. Two of the most positive, spiritual, and productive men on earth who have suffered unheard of atrocities. If they can overcome their obstacles - exile, refugee life, apartheid, targets of hate and prejudice - can't we?


In The Book of Joy both spiritual leaders emphasize meditation or prayer as the foundation of a happy life. They meditate, pray, have quiet time, for several hours every morning. Can I do that? Will I do that? Should I expect my clients to do that? Well, probably not. But, I'm going to turn my life around using these methods - my own way. In the 1990s, I worked with - and sent my clients to - a psychologist who specialized in biofeedback (Karan Kverno, PhD, no longer in private practice), and learned then how effective - and scientifically proven - deep breathing can be for improving various health conditions, but I got away from the practice.


Second step: I decided my personalized way would be Mindfulness Meditation with a little yoga thrown in. I do a little in the morning, and spurts here and there through the day. And if I can do it, you can do it - that is, in your own way. Like you, I'm a hard working professional (and I'm including stay-at-home Moms and Dads). I don't have a lot of time, but as a health care professional and life coach, I know through many years of experience that there are certain priorities in life that cannot be ignored, or the consequences are dire. 


Changing the way you think and calming your mind are the cornerstones of any behavior or life change. "Mindfulness is the ability to be present, more focused, and clear; for concentration to be more sustained, and for attention to be on what’s happening, instead of on thoughts, memories, and associations," said Jack Killen, when he was the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


"There is neurobiological research that demonstrates that mindfulness engages pathways in the brain ... [they] allow your brain to be focused on what is here and now... [so you're] more able to think through a problem, less likely to be distracted by issues that won't help," said Killen. "Meditation is a way of exercising neurological pathways in the brain which help us become more mindful."


So, how do I or you choose a way to become more mindful ... a way that fits your lifestyle, beliefs, and personality? Here's what I did this weekend toward that goal: I left the city I love to visit a good friend in the beautiful and serene Pennsylvania countryside. My Swedish friend, Anna, is one of the warmest, kindest, most loving people I know. She exudes elegance in a simple, down-to-earth (very Swedish) way. I love visiting her.


On the way to the Pennsylvania countryside, I called a few friends I haven't talked to in a while. That felt good. I was enjoying the drive. My headache was disappearing. When I got there, my happines was overflowing, my headache was gone. Being here, and with a great friend, somehow motivated me to get out of bed early (my headache came back during the night, ugh!). I started with a cup of coffee (strong and smooth Swedish style), then sat in a comfortable chair facing the trees. I started deep belly breathing, centering my mind on the moment, checking each part of my body for signs of stress, and then relaxing it. I put on some favorite music (rock 'n roll was my pleasure at the moment). I spontaneously got up and started dancing. I continued with the deep breathing and started some yoga exercises. My headache finally left me again. The worst of the stomach pain disappeared when I recently stopped taking anti-inflammatory medications, based on my doctor's and pharmacist's recommendations.


Am I cured? No. I have a long road to hoe. My headaches - probably a symptom of stress left over from my issues of the past 18 months - are not gone entirely, but at least I know I have some control over them. I have to work at my deep breathing, stretching, and light exercising continuously. Training your brain to be more mindful "is a bit like going to the gym and working out your muscles. It takes time and practice for the beneficial brain pathways to become established, similar to building muscular strength and flexibility," said Killen.


Along with the deep breathing exercises, and light yoga, I need to make an effort to stay in touch with and socialize with the people I care about. But those are only steps one and two! Exercising my body more regularly is my next big hurdle. I don't know how long it will take to get to my former fit self, or even a better self. But at least I'm off to a good start. And you can be, too! Though, be sure to check with your doctor to rule out any serious medical illnesses. 


I'll keep you posted!

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