Apr 1, 2009

Goals are terrible things.

They set us up for failure, yet we need them to motivate us. I need them to motivate me. They excite me for that brief moment of newness, when I think—yet again—that this time will be different. This plan will work.

It never does; they never do. Not for me.

Yet, I keep writing them down, these plans, these goals, in my little red day calendar that I carry with me everywhere. I carefully plot out calories to burn and pages to write, and feel that rush that comes from looking ahead and seeing the ghost of the results of those intended goals. What a pile of pages I’ll have! What a slim, trim waistline I’ll have! But of course what I end up having is a boatload of disappointment sitting squarely on my shoulders. Over time, that disappointment turns to shame.

That’s where I am now. But here’s the sick part: shame motivates me better than goals do. Silly, isn’t it? And just a little sad. But true nonetheless.

I spent a long time and a tremendous amount of effort cleaning up my life these past ten years. I tried hard to do the right thing, even when it wasn’t the easy thing. And what motivated me to make those changes was this voice—this sneering, sarcastic, burning voice—inside my head that kept snapping at me, “You don’t want to be like that, do you? Like them? Those losers who are still making excuses for their childish behavior? Who still think it’s funny to stick out a foot and trip someone just to watch them flail their arms and fall? Who work a minimum wage job because they’re too lazy and short-sighted to see better for themselves? Who are too sissy-pants to say no to their friends’ constant invitation to party and Relax, dude?” That voice comes with a sharp-tailed whip, and I feel it making holes in my back every day.

It’s the way of things for me. Some people do better with an internal (or external) cheerleader. You should be proud of yourself for taking that walk after dinner! Go, girl, go! Some are more zen about things. I just do my best and know that good things will follow. But not me. Oh, no. I need a firmly planted boot up my ass in order to make things happen in my life.

My latest shoe-leather motivator is based on my past successes: I know I can make serious, lasting changes in my life because I’ve done it before. It was hard then, too, but so what? My motto, since I made those aforementioned life changes, has been “I do what I say I’m going to do.” And when I don’t…well, then along comes the bitch with the whip.

Even now, as I write this, I try to remember what got me through ten years ago. Quitting lying and drama was a lot like quitting any other drug, and when I did it, after I picked myself out of the rubble (ending addictions is always messy, it’s one of the reasons we addicts put it off so long) it took me a while to realize that I felt like a real person for the first time in my life. I had substance, a solidity of spirit. When I walked, I left a mark on the floor, the carpet, the Earth. Before, I was nothing but a ghost, trying not to be seen, drifting from one resting place to another, too afraid to stay long and plant roots because it’s hard to attach to people or places when you’re completely disconnected within your own body. My bones finally felt like they fit inside my skin instead of being too small and floating around loose. When I shook someone’s hand, I could look them in the eye. I was finally on a level with the rest of the human race.

When my health problems were first diagnosed, I wasn’t surprised. I felt a metallic shiver from my stomach to my throat, but no shock. I vowed that in honor of my ten-year life-change anniversary I would make another massive, permanent life change: I would discard my old food habits and replace them with shiny new determination wrapped in brown rice. I would become a health nut.

I can never do anything in half measures.

I failed, of course, but not completely. I made some changes, but not all of them. I lost some weight, but not all of it. I got healthier, but not completely. When I think back to the beginning of this particular struggle, I notice very clearly that had I started slow and kept things at a reasonable pace, I’d be far ahead of where I am now. Like with my running program. I followed its gradual pacing until I reached my goals, weeks ahead of schedule. But doing that with food was impossible. I tried to treat it—am still trying to treat it—like smoking, or heroin. Stop cold turkey. Suffer in the beginning for an easier ride later. Except that’s not how it works at all. I know this, but I keep doing it.

As my partner says, quitting bad food is harder than drugs or cigarettes because a person has to eat. They can’t hole themselves up in a room and avoid the sight or smell of food the way they could with nicotine or smack. Food is legal, cheap, accessible and everywhere. The smell of microwaved hot dogs drives me nuts on the train ride home thanks to the cafĂ© car. When someone at work heats up a Stouffers meal, I can almost always name it by smell alone. And any human being who orders a Papa John’s pizza within a hundred yards of me is in danger of having their eyes gouged out just so I can steal that steaming cardboard box and run away keening mineminemineminemine.

So here I am. Again. Making another set of goals, feeling that old excitement. In a week I’ll have a pile of pages! In a week I’ll have a trimmer waistline! But when that alarm clock chimes tomorrow morning, I have no idea if I’ll roll out of bed or just hit the snooze.