Music education always & always looking forward.

Sugar, Substances, Summer, and Self Care

Greetings friends.  I am a substance abuser.  In the image above, I am seen wearing a cool jacket and holding a receptacle of the substance I abuse.  This serving of my preferred substance contains a high dosage of sugar and caffeine.

Now I know what you're saying.  Addiction and substance abuse are not things to joke about.  (Although people do that pretty much all the time.)  I know this.  I am the daughter of an addict.  My father died of complications from alcoholism.  I am lucky enough to be able to engage in the social aspects of drinking alcohol without any sense of dependency on it -- lucky not just in an anecdotal sense but a statistical one, as well.  

But I did inherit the addictive personality.  I am obsessive and often fixated on tasks or ideas.  Because alcohol is not the thing I fixate on, this trait can often be used for good rather than evil.

Often.  But not always. 

Sometimes, this particular trait ravages me.

I have been teaching for ten years.  I've not done everything right but I feel that I have done everything I can.  This past year, in particular, having a stable nuclear family and a great deal of knowledge about my teaching field (as well as a very supportive administration) has allowed me to do my best work, and as a result I pretty much maxed myself out.  I did nearly everything I could to the best effect I could get with the resources I had.  You can always get better at what you do, and always refine your craft, but in this upcoming year, my biggest focus will be on garnering more resources for my kids.  

Being the band director, the chorus director, the choice academy teacher, the rock band facilitator, and the sole fundraiser for an active program is a good recipe for burn-out.  My students deserve the best of me, and that involves not the desperate-to-sell-Gatorades-so-that-we-can-pay-for-buses me, but the experienced-music-educator me.  I made it through this year intact, but it was an absolute slog at the end.

And if my students deserve the best of me, why shouldn't I put in the work to be the best version of myself?  This is the quandary so many of us face.

Image description: my desk, lots of post-it notes, and my lunch for the day -- a Twix bar, can of Pepsi, and a bag of Sour Cream & Cheddar Ruffles chips.

Image description: my desk, lots of post-it notes, and my lunch for the day -- a Twix bar, can of Pepsi, and a bag of Sour Cream & Cheddar Ruffles chips.

I posted this image on social media in 2014, with the caption, "the MPA [Music Performance Assessment] is tomorrow diet."  This is not unusual for teacher, for music directors.  Grab what you can and eat what you must to get through the day/week/month/year.  Have a Mountain Dew or a Starbucks Doubleshot before your top band class so that you are at your most energetic for rehearsal.  

The only problem is that the nutritional crutches you use to be "at your most energetic" are often the ones that will be your undoing years down the road.  

We do this all the time.  Drink lots of coffee when you wake up at 4am to get to school early to get everyone on the bus for the parade downtown (that will get rained out, anyway).  When I think about my professional and academic life, I think of coffee as my closest ally.  Sweets, in the form of chocolate, cookies, candy, ice cream, or whatever goodies I could get my hands on, are not far behind.  In that sense, an affinity turns into a dependency.  If you depend on a substance for your happiness or productivity, then you are circling the territory of addiction.

This past week was my first of summer vacation, and for the first time in my life, I voluntarily said no to added sugar, and along with that, my beloved coffee.  And I realized a lot in a week.

Image description: avocado toast, i.e. mashed avocado (I added fresh rosemary!) on super hippie sprouted grain bread, topped with tomato slices, a fried egg, and a little bit of arugula.  Sugar free is actually pretty "sweet".

Image description: avocado toast, i.e. mashed avocado (I added fresh rosemary!) on super hippie sprouted grain bread, topped with tomato slices, a fried egg, and a little bit of arugula.  Sugar free is actually pretty "sweet".

I was inspired by a silly Buzzfeed article I read, wherein the author gave up added sugar for 30 days.  It was indeed a challenge, but all of the avocados & sweet potatoes & creative recipes she went through made me salivate.  I was a vegetarian through college and loved getting creative with my food intake.  That all went down the drain when I started teaching at a school in a Checkers and Miami Subs neighborhood.  Upon reading the Buzzfeed piece, I missed making good food for myself and I decided to take on the no added sugar challenge for the first week of summer.  And I spent an inordinate amount of time cooking nutritious, ambitious foods for myself and my family.  That part made giving up sugar easy (not to mention the being off from work part).

I hate the word detox when used in the context of diet, because your liver does have a function.  I accepted the no sugar added challenge because I was curious, and although I didn't eat junk, I still ate a lot.  It was part of my decision this summer to try to use my downtime to be healthier.  And in terms of health, my family not only has a history with addiction, but also diabetes and depression.  Oddly enough, it seemed to me during my week without sugar (and almost entirely without coffee) that sugar and to a lesser extent, caffeine affected depression, too.  

When I was in 3rd grade, during a very rocky time in my family wherein we were dealing with my father's then-raging alcoholism, my 3rd grade teacher made the off-handed suggestion that sugar made me excessively emotional.  That histrionic behavior showed itself sometimes at recess, and almost always when I did not finish my extended worksheet's worth of long division problems without some sort of emotional breakdown.  Sugar intake was clearly not my only problem, or even my worst problem, but I was never officially diagnosed otherwise, probably because my grades in everything but math were stellar.  

My 3rd grade teacher's words echoed in my ears this week, as I switched out my coffee for unsweetened black tea with milk (only as much as twice a day) and nixed fast food, sweets, ice cream, and alcohol.  My husband, the brilliant mental health counselor he is, reminded me that, "Food is medicine: it's stuff you put in your body that changes you and what you do."  

I've always been known for being energetic and fun, as a teacher, a friend, all my life.  But cutting out sugar & caffeine has made me wonder about my real identity beyond stimulants.  A favorite playwright of mine wrote about Tom Waits giving up alcohol.  Waits, a perpetual favorite songwriter of mine, asked himself upon going sober: "I was trying to prove something to myself, too. It was like, 'Am I genuinely eccentric? Or am I just wearing a funny hat? What am I made of? What's left when you drain the pool?'"

Today I broke my first fast, as we're celebrating my mom's birthday early, and I'm on my 1 & 1/2th cup of coffee today (which included a small bit of white sugar).  I feel more anxious already.  I've lost the happy calm I was riding all week and I can feel the tempo of my heartbeat pick up.  I put something in my body today and it made a change.  It's a change I don't feel particularly good about.


As I mentioned before, I'm lucky.  I'm lucky that despite whatever issues I dealt with as a child, I made it through.  I graduated high school & college with honors, and have a master's degree.  I'm doing what I always wanted to do and am 10 years into my career.  I have a supportive spouse & we have a beautiful child.  And I have enough to support the rest of my family in times of need.  I get to make music all the time.  Go me.  

But as we get to a break in the action, I know I'm not on the road to long-term wellness.  I only have to take an emotional inventory and look in the mirror to tell you that doing all of the things (and my substantial dependency on sugar & caffeine it takes to do all the things) has an effect on my health.  I have far fewer emotional meltdowns these days than I used to over my job and professional status (the first few years there was at least one a week).  But much of what we do and much of what we put on ourselves is not healthy.

I know I am far from alone.  I know that the life of a teacher and the life of a musician create circumstances ripe for a multitude of addictions.  I know that many people like me are dealing with far worse addictions.  I know that for many of my students, cutting out unhealthy substances in their diet is not an option and that their families would do better for them if their finances & transportation circumstances allowed.  (And the federal government is in the process of rolling back school nutrition standards championed by the former First Lady.)  Eating good food is not easy in our society.

But I challenge the rest of you: teachers, who are reading this.  If you find yourself in position to take better care of yourself this summer, do so.  I have found it nearly impossible to do so during the school year, so use this time in the best way possible.  Make a change.  And hope you're so accustomed to the change that by the time next school year starts, it has become routine.  Get more exercise.  Stop stress eating.  Take interest in self-care beyond just mani-pedis.  You owe it to your students, your community, your families, and most importantly, yourself.  

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