It’s almost Pesach. Time for celebrating freedom, and I’m finally starting to feel free again. For years, I did not. Yes, we have never lived in such a free society as today’s. We can be anyone, do anything, and no one can hold us back from nothin’!
The days of being enslaved to a Pharaoh in Egypt are so yesterday, but we are still suffering tremendously. We are far from free. In our path toward personal growth, we often stumble across a huge roadblock. Very often, that roadblock is…one’s self. We stand in our own way.
Life is interesting. Just when you smugly think to yourself, ‘I’ve got this!’, circumstances change, and you are thrown another curveball. When this happens, there are a few options. You can either sink, tread water, or learn how to swim.
For a while, I felt like I was sinking. I was treading water for so long that I was about to give up. It was overwhelming to be on top of my game. I am a working mom—enough said! Some days, I would leave my house at eight in the morning, rush out to take the kids to school (and you know how that goes: this one can’t find his shoe, and this one doesn’t like her lunch, and this one looked at that one the wrong way…the usual), then I would head to work, put in a full day, and then go pick up the kids and come home to a house where the breakfast dishes were still on the counter, milk spills and all. And with herculean strength (and a little chocolate), I would find the wherewithal to smile (on a good day) and chat with the kids, while cleaning up the soggy breakfast mess. It still amazes me, after all these years, that supper has to be cooked EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, and my hungry kids are always waiting for ME to do it!
After settling the kids into bed, the work continued. It never ended. The guilt never eased off either (I’m Jewish!). I was either failing on the home front or I was dropping balls on the work front. It felt like a no-win situation. Where exactly did people stick in self-care? (And what’s that, anyway?) Nurturing a marriage? By the end of a long day, my husband and I barely had the strength to nod to each other! I was performing in ‘survival mode’. ‘Functioning’ on the outside, and struggling on the inside. This is not sustainable long-term. Trust me, I know; I was living like this for a long time.
But not anymore.
I’m putting myself back in the front seat of my life.
I think that in the process of living such a hectic life for so many years, I had forgotten about the things I used to love doing. I had forgotten what makes me tick. I used to love dancing and using my creativity in so many ways. Once upon a time, I had hobbies. These things gave me life. They made my heart sing. How had I let them go from my life? I have no idea! Who gave me permission to put them on the bottom of my to-do list and not to honor that part of myself? Huge mistake. When I let these things go, I gave up an important piece of myself. As Marc Anthony once said, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Everyone else always came first. I was giving and giving and giving, but my gas tank was on empty. With time, guidance, and maturity, I started to slowly bring the things I loved back into my life. I started to take care of myself. Self-care became a priority. All of a sudden, the sun came out. Everything seemed much more manageable. The cheerful smile I put on for the world did not take effort anymore. It was real, and it came from within. Because I was honoring myself. And just like that—I got my shine back on! This newfound love and respect which I found for myself overflowed into other areas of my life.
Over the last few years, my weight had also increased. I hid it well, but my clothes were tight. I couldn’t continue blaming it on the fact that I had just had a baby, as my ‘baby’ was almost 5! I started avoiding the mirror, not liking what I saw in its reflection. I felt powerless in what I could do. It took a huge toll on me emotionally. Every day, I tried to eat well. I’d start off on the right foot with something like a kale smoothie for breakfast and a tuna salad for lunch, but by nighttime, I was out of control, shoveling down any quick, sugary fix to pull myself through the stress and exhaustion.
Nothing I tried was working. In desperation, I tried ‘magic’ diet pills and other fad diets. The scale kept climbing. I never once made it through an entire day without binging on some unhealthy food. I was ready to give up. I was speaking to a friend of mine and telling her that, “I guess I just don’t have the willpower to stick to a diet.” She looked at me like I was from Mars. She said, “What are you talking about? You have so much willpower! You keep kashrut in a city that doesn’t have many kosher options. Every day, you make choices that take massive willpower. You choose to dress modestly, to spend time on prayer, to observe Shabbat…” She went on and on, and I felt myself getting taller and taller. This friend believed in me, even when I had given up on myself.
Yes, it was true. I had chosen my life. And I choose every single day. It was true that if I could do all of that, then I could do just about anything. I felt empowered. Why couldn’t I apply that to other aspects in my life? Why couldn’t I decide how to live, what to eat, and how to overcome any hurdle, especially the hurdle of silencing that negative voice inside my head which was always telling me that I wasn’t enough?
It was as if a switch had turned on inside of me. Eating well is a form of self-respect. I started believing that I was worth it, that I was enough. I recalled a famous passage in Ethics of the Fathers by Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself then who will be for me? …And if not now, when?” I was back in the front seat of my life. And for someone who had never successfully lost a single pound in her life, I was amazed to see the pounds melt off. Within a few weeks of believing in myself and sticking to a strict diet, I was down 10 pounds. And within a few more weeks, I was down 15. I reclaimed my power. The switch that went on in my mind was making me realize that I was valuable. I was owning the belief that I was a worthy person, created in the image of G-d, fashioned with a body that encases a holy soul. Taking care of my body with respect and dignity is holy work and is not to be put on the bottom of any to-do list. It says in the Torah, “V’nishmartem Meod Le’nafshoteichem”—that you should take very good care of yourself. This work is holy.
Another hardship which I had to face was getting on top of my finances. We were heading into some serious debt. This was the elephant in the room. We didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t want to talk about it, and certainly had no clue how to change our situation and ever get out of it! As the years went on, the debt was becoming deeper. The expenses kept climbing, but our income was not coming in as fast. We were in over our heads, and simply did not have the tools to break the cycle and change our bad habits. Until…we DID.
How did we do it? We simply decided we would. We decided we could do it, because we could do anything! We took a 10-week course on getting out of debt, and my husband and I took it very seriously. We started telling our money where to go. We cut up our credit cards (my husband actually put each one through the shredder, as I looked on in complete horror), we painfully made a budget, and we used a system of cash envelopes for all of our spending. When the money was gone…the money was gone. Even if that meant beans for supper. It was extreme, but it was the only way. No more leisurely clicking on my phone to make an impulsive order on Amazon Prime Now. No more swiping a card, trying not to think of the ramifications. This was serious stuff, and it was incredibly empowering. We felt it was such G-dly work. We felt like we were finally being mature adults. It was very freeing.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” This was a big deal in our life. My only regret was not doing this 10 years earlier. We still have a long way to go, but we are on the right road to becoming debt-free.
It’s been an intense few months of hard, yet exhilarating, work. Undoing bad habits and creating new ones can take a lifetime of effort and commitment.
But as my husband said, “When you got it together…you got it together.” It seems like one thing is leading to the next, and every area of our lives is feeling more intentional.
It started with a switch in my head—that I was enough. That I was worthy. With that power burning inside, I felt like I could do anything I put my mind to. If I can do it, I promise, so can you.
Stop treading water and learn how to swim. Get the support you need in any area of your life. Get out of your own way. And taste what true freedom is like. It really tastes so sweet.