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An Agoraphobia Allegory

Once upon a November, a pecan tree shed the fruits of its spindly loins. Some nuts were rotten, some buttery, and one crunchy shell cradled a little girl. She cracked the hard womb in half and stepped out into autumn, shaking off gooey drops of amniotic fluid. She was a diminutive creature – only in the 5th percentile – and she loved reading about animated bears, altruistic trees, and saying goodnight to the moon. She feasted on bottom feeders from mud holes and swamps. She was born again in every thunderstorm in the summer. Her blood was so sweet it made mosquitoes drunk. She was home.

One day she noticed a lump on her heart. The doctors assured her it was benign. As long as she stayed and played beneath her pecan mothers and fathers, she was safe. True to form, the azaleas would burst forth in a mauve eruption every spring. The crickets and thunder and barking frogs engendered the daily euphony. She smiled at the little fires in the sky in the crepuscular hours.

It was safe, it was steady. Still, she thought often of her little heart lump. She thought it was making her heart beat more rapidly. What if it was swelling against her lungs? She breathed quicker. She thought faster. But she had so many dreams. She watched the woodpeckers soar and her heart ached for something more, for a different shore.

So she flew West to a place where rain never pattered and the sun blanketed every inch of parched ground. A place with many people, people who spoke more than they listened, and few trees, desiccated trees that groveled for a drop of water. A line of grey demarcation steadily separated smog from sky. Atlases and talk shows named it paradise.

The little girl noticed her chest becoming red and swollen. Her heart ached and itched and she could not seem to scratch it. The doctors did not meet her eyes when they said her heart tumor had metastasized. Inoperable, they said. Terminal.

She made a mourning nest with pillows and furs and lay paralyzed for a time. She cried, “I have to get rid of this ugly growth! It’s so heavy on my heart. It keeps me stagnant in my sick bed. I want to be kinetic.” She applied salves and balms to the affected area every night. She swallowed toxins that might draw swords with the angry cells. She took a dirk to her ribs and cut a crater. She pulled and pulled the carcinoma but it would not let go.

“It will not let go,” she stated plainly. “It will not let go. But I can let go.” She crawled out of her nest and traversed to the grocery store. She ignored the stares as best she could. It was uncomfortable, but she had so many dreams. The next day she went a little farther and a little longer. She still felt deep pain. But she had so many dreams. So she carried her cancer with her everywhere.

“I must marry my malignancy,” she decided. She said her “I do’s” upon an alter. She planted a kiss upon its lips and vowed to embrace her tumor as fundamental to her body, as important to her being as her heart. “Thank you, my little neoplasm. Thank you, foreign cells. Thank you for this lesson.”

Soon the deviant cells began to fuse with the pieces of her heart. They wed the ventricles and coupled with the atria. Rich burgundy blood enveloped and nourished the organ. All of the cells united to form one titanic heart, and with it her capacity to love and feel and empathize became her defining feature.

She went home to her trees and around the world again. Her heart still ached occasionally, and sometimes the size of it simply exhausted her. Still she said her thank you’s. Thank you, onerous heart muscle. Thank you, memories of disease. She lived so many dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eggplant Parmesan

My daddy was always a wonderful cook growing up, and one of his best dishes was eggplant parmesan. I stole his recipe and made a couple of tweaks, but the essence is the same – and delicious. This dish is very involved, so make sure you have a couple hours to do it right. Your tastebuds will thank you for the effort.

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggplants, thinly sliced
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup of milk
  • 1 cup of Italian bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup of flour
  • 2 tsp. ground thyme, plus 1 tsp.
  • 1 Tbs. dried oregano, plus 2 Tbs.
  • 2 Tbs. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper, plus 1 tsp.
  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes (14.5 oz each)
  • 1 small can of tomato sauce
  • 2 yellow onions, diced
  • 1/2 cup button or crimini mushrooms, chopped
  • 7-8 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 Tbs.+ canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp. fennel seed
  • 1 tsp. anise seed
  • 2 tsp. fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 cup shredded mozzerella
  • 1 lb. thin spaghetti

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a shallow bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. In a separate bowl, stir together bread crumbs, flour, and seasonings. Coat thin slices of eggplant in egg, then dust with bread crumb mixture. Let sit on a wire rack for 15 minutes. This well help the breading stick to it.
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Heat large skillet over medium heat. Saute onions and mushrooms for about 5 minutes, until onions are translucent. Add garlic and saute for an additional 1-2 minutes, until fragrant.
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Add diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. Season with salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, thyme, basil, anise seed, fennel seed, and sugar. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat and cover.
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Meanwhile, in a separate skillet over medium-high heat, heat canola oil. Lightly fry the eggplant in batches until golden brown on both sides, then drain on paper towels.
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Now it’s time to assemble the casserole. In a 3 quart casserole dish, ladle 1/3 of the sauce on the bottom. Cover this with fried eggplant, then ladle another 1/3 of sauce on top. Sprinkle with both cheeses. Top this layer with more eggplant, more sauce, and then top with with the rest of the cheese.
IMG_4273Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Broil for 2-5 minutes until cheese is bubbly.
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Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain pasta. Serve eggplant parmesan with the spaghetti. Enjoy!
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The Dangers of Not Giving a Fuck

Lately, one of the most prolific memes I have seen disseminated throughout social media are variations of this:

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I see this all over the Internet. There are several tumblrs devoted to “not giving a fuck.”

The problem is, I also see this in real life.

One could assume that this means that “not giving a fuck” is the new, cool thing to do, but let’s remember that correlation does not equal causation. Indeed, apathy has existed since the beginning of time… but it might be fair to suggest that it is becoming more common in today’s society – younger generations arguably boast a greater sense of entitlement, and, simultaneously, face fewer consequences and less accountability for misbehavior. Essentially, this breeds a lack of obligation and responsibility in our children. The modern day version of “being fed with a silver spoon becomes, “I got an iPhone when I was 8; now I’m 10 and I’m really good at posting selfies to instagram and #hashtagging #swag #shareforshare #followforfollow #lookatallthefucksigive.”

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Since when did apathy become something to aspire to?  Merriam-Webster defines apathy as:

1. lack of feeling or emotion

2. lack of interest or concern

You know who is infamous for apathy? Psychopaths… or, if we’re referencing the DSM-V, those with antisocial personality disorder. Brain scans of individuals with this diagnosis reveal that their amygdalas – the emotion processing center in the brain – are abnormally small. Symptoms include a lack of remorse, as well as the use of superficial charm and manipulation to obtain selfish ends. To not give a fuck is psychologically maladaptive.

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On the other hand, let’s remember those famous for giving a very big fuck: Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, and Anne Frank, to name a few. Their passion – and their compassion – were palpable; they left the world a better place because they cared enough to do so. This is the model we should be emulating and instilling in our children.

Ultimately, not giving a fuck gives rise to dysfunction in every arena of one’s life. For instance, it is one impetus for bullying: if a kid doesn’t care about the repercussions of his actions (potentially because there are none), and doesn’t care about the feelings of his peers, it is much more likely that he will torment someone he views as different or weak. On the other hand, a child who is strictly disciplined (both at home and at school) for breaking the rules, and a child who was raised to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging, probably won’t be calling a fellow classmate a nerd, a freak, a slut, a fatass, or a faggot.

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Additionally, sometimes I will post my opinion about a current event on Facebook. There are always those who respond with “Who cares?” or “Cool story, bro,” or “tl;dr” (too long, didn’t read). I cannot create within you an urge to care, and I can only respect your opinions (or lack thereof). However, I can assert with confidence that our world will remain stagnant, at best, and crumble completely, at worst, if the attitude of “Who cares?” pervades. Impassivity and aloofness isn’t cool or sexy – to me, it’s a sign of insecurity. Think of the sexiest and most captivating man or woman you know. I’d be willing to bet that one of the things that makes them so attractive is their passion and zest, not their disinterest and torpor.

Stephen Crane, a famous American writer, penned one of my favorite poems:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

The massive, nebulous, unknowable Universe could care less about our existence. It will keep trudging forward for eternity, with or without us. Some use this as justification for their apathy – if our existence is meaningless, what is the point of trying or caring? I agree that our lives have no inherent meaning… instead, I believe that we create our own purpose, in existential fashion. And, as far as we know, we only have this one life. What will your life’s purpose be? Will it be driven by pockets that filled with all sorts of fucks that you give – fucks about your family, fucks about your career and your education, fucks about the greater world in which we live? Your pockets might be a little heavy, even burdensome at times. They may cause you to walk slower, drag your feet. But when your pockets are empty of fucks, the problem is, you just might float away on a jet stream of indifference.

This is a call to end the culture of not giving a fuck. This is a call to stop bragging about an ostensible deficiency of humanity and emotion…instead, let’s make a commitment to cultivate empathy and compassion towards our fellow man. The world is only getting bigger and more complicated every day. Progress has never been inspired by apathy – progress only occurs when someone cares enough to take a stand, when they alter their behavior on a micro- and macro- scale, and when they scream from every rooftop that they, for one, are not ashamed to give a fuck.

Do you suffer from OCCS?

Do you suffer from Overactive Cerebral Cortex Syndrome, also known as OCCS?

Individuals with OCCS report symptoms including but not limited to: relentless rumination of regretful experiences, waking phantasms of future fortuities, diurnal episodes of spiritual somnambulism, a dogmatic belief that the eloquent raconteur within dictates one’s external existence, and, last but not least, deathbed discoveries that the entirety of life was driven by unexamined assumptions, a dense fog that dulled even the most vibrant sensual experiences.

If you have experienced any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about Panacea®, an elixir that has been proven highly effective to treat OCCS. Long term studies of patients who have taken Panacea® report an improved sense of well being, highly successful careers, unparalleled sexual stamina, perfectly symmetrical facial features, an immunity to most modern diseases, a sizable bank account, a comfortable social status, and a guaranteed spot in a white and bright afterlife.

Side effects included nausea, headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, sensitivity to light or sound, increased appetite, decreased appetite, liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease, throat cancer, brain cancer, lymphoma, cancer of the soul, impotence, burning or tingling urination, room-clearing flatulence, unexpected growth of extra nipples, anxiety, paranoia, drooling, and shortness of breath. Talk to your doctor if any of these side effects are persistent or severe.

Tell your doctor if you have a history of cultivating mindfulness, practicing meditation, or living in the present moment, as interactions with Panacea® can be life-threatening or fatal.

Fried Chicken and Waffles

A true Southern classic: crispy fried chicken served atop fresh buttermilk waffles, drizzled with homemade honey mustard and syrup. Sweet and savory is one of my favorite flavor combinations, and this dish hits the nail on the head. My fried chicken is adapted from one of my favorite Emeril recipes; you can find the original here. I also used a traditional waffle recipe from AllRecipes, which you can find here. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup of bread crumbs
  • 2 Tbs. garlic powder
  • 1 Tbs. onion powder
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. red pepper
  • 1 tsp. rosemary
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup hot sauce
  • 1 quart vegetable oil

Whisk together buttermilk and hot sauce. Submerge chicken in the mixture, cover with plastic wrap, and marinate in fridge for 1-4 hours.

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After it marinates for a few hours, mix together flour, bread crumbs, herbs, and spices.

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Remove the thighs from the buttermilk mixture and place in a large plastic bag. Add flour mixture to the bag. Seal the bag tight and shake it up until chicken is thoroughly coated.

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Remove thighs and place on a wire rack. Let sit for 15 minutes. While it rests, heat up vegetable oil over medium-high heat.

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Flick some water droplets into the oil. Once they start to bubble, the oil is hot enough. Place half of the chicken in the oil, and cook until golden brown, about 8-10 minutes, or until juices run clear.

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Drain on paper towels.

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Use any waffle recipe of your choice, or my favorite, this one:

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbs. sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/3 melted butter
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl until evenly combined. Whisk buttermilk and butter together in a separate bowl; add eggs. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just combined and batter is slightly lumpy; add vanilla extract. Preheat a waffle iron according to manufacturer’s instructions. Pour enough batter into the preheated waffle iron to reach 1/2 inch from the edge. Cook according to manufacturer’s instructions.

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I made a few adjustments to this recipe: I added 1 tsp. of salt instead of 1/2 tsp. Also, I added the buttermilk to the flour mixture first, stirred it up, then slowly stirred in the butter, and then whisked in the eggs. It’s also best if the eggs are room temperature. I found that pouring the hot butter directly into the buttermilk made it curdle, and of course, if you pour cold eggs into hot liquid, it will scramble.

To make the honey mustard, simply combine equal parts Dijon mustard with honey.

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To assemble, place four waffles on a plate, top with fried chicken, and drizzle with honey mustard and syrup. Yummm!

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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I’ve decided to expand this blog beyond just recipes and fashion… Don’t get me wrong, I love to cook, I love to bake, I love makeup, and I love clothes… But in my personal life, I have been going through myriad challenges, and I thought that perhaps it would be mutually beneficial if I showed my followers a more vulnerable side of myself. I want to be able to connect with you all, so I am going to open up about my personal struggles in hopes that any of you out there, in the far-reaching corners of the internet, who deal with similar struggles, may not feel so alone.

I have struggled with overwhelming anxiety for as long as I can remember. I have let it hold me back from doing so many things that I wanted to do. Worry and stress have been a constant in my life. But up until recently, I had only occasionally experienced what I now know is diagnosed as a panic attack. Since moving cross country, though, I have been suffering from full blown panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Some of you may have experienced this, whether you knew what it was or not. (The NIMH estimates that over 6 million Americans suffer from panic disorder.) For me, I develop tunnel vision. My heart starts pounding out of my chest. I start to feel faint, I break out in a cold sweat, my stomach churns, my breath becomes short, and all my thoughts become focused on how I can escape whatever situation I am in, in that moment. Perhaps the worst one I experienced was my first day on a new job soon after I moved here. It hit me hard; it felt like I was dying. I told my supervisor I had to leave, that I just wasn’t ready to take this step. At the time, it was humiliating. In retrospect, I’m almost glad I didn’t make it through the day. It felt like rock bottom, and that was the motivation I needed to get help.

For months, I was scared to leave my house, save to go to the grocery store from time to time. Before we embarked on a weekend trip to Las Vegas, I started gagging. It took every ounce of will power within myself to not turn back around and go home.

I realized that I was wasting my life away. Someone close to me recommended Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT (pronounced like the verb – this is important). I researched psychologists in my area who specialized in this form of therapy, and made an appointment with one who seemed good. My first session with her, I knew she was the perfect fit for me. We shared a similar background (and a similar love of Harry Potter), and she was incredibly warm and compassionate. This was, admittedly, a relief. I have had some sour experiences with therapists. I saw a psychiatrist in Baton Rouge, who, after I gave him my family history, he laughed dryly and said, “Well, you’re fucked.” I saw another woman who judged me harshly within the first 10 minutes. As such, it was a welcome experience to find such a friendly and impartial ear. She diagnosed me with panic disorder with agoraphobia, and she wondered if I had something she called “neophobia” – a fear of new things. I thought this was pretty spot on.

We began by reading Russ Harris’ “The Happiness Trap,” over a period of several months, a book which I vehemently recommend to anyone and everyone. This book, along with the skills I have learned in ACT, have dramatically changed my life.

Harris starts by arguing that our general definition of happiness is fleeting and unattainable. When we define happiness as just positive, joyous feelings, we are doomed to remain in a constant game of cat and mouse. However, what if we were to redefine happiness? What if happiness is the more sustainable sense of fulfillment that comes by acting on what we value? This is a process that is not always pleasant or comfortable…for instance, if you value being healthy, working out at 5 a.m. will not always be a pleasurable experience. But the rewards that come as a result of living in accordance with this value are far more indelible.

We, as a society, are constantly searching for a quick fix to what we perceive as our problems. We do everything in our power to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, emotions, and urges. We take a pill for everything, we distract ourselves with reality television, we eat our feelings, we abuse substances, we we are workaholics, we sleep our days away – all this to avoid feeling bad. But these avoidance measures merely beget more painful and uncomfortable feelings. ACT teaches that instead of running from these feelings, we should embrace them – anxiety and depression are completely NORMAL emotions in the vast spectrum of human experiences. In this day and age, it is more abnormal NOT to ever struggle with such things. To experience these uncomfortable feelings is to be fully human.

There are several important tenants to ACT that Russ Harris describes in his book. The first of these is defusion: you must understand the fact that your thoughts, feelings, and urges are just that – thoughts, feelings, and urges. They do not have to define reality. If you think in your head, “I cannot stand up right now. I can’t do it. I can’t stand up,” does this thought actually prevent you from standing? Your thoughts do not have to feel threatening or scary. The metaphor he uses is a radio: your thoughts are background static and noise on the radio. We need only tune in when the thoughts are helpful.

Another important exercise Harris describes is expansion. When you feel an uncomfortable sensation or urge in your body, focus on where you feel it physically. What color is it? What shape is it? Spend a few minutes just observing it as it is, without judgment. Then breathe into it. Welcome it into your body. Let it exist.

Defusion and expansion operate on the idea that the more we actively struggle against uncomfortable feelings, the worse they will become. The more we try to control them, the more they control us. When we devote so much time and energy into trying not to feel bad, we take away precious moments that could be spent doing what we value. This is why ACT is pronounced like the verb, act, and not A-C-T. At every turn we have a choice. We can stop and realize we are fusing with our thoughts. We can commit to taking an action in a valued direction, instead of in a direction that is intended to avoid “negative” feelings. And then, we ACT. We move forward.

Mindfulness is incredibly important in ACT. You are encouraged to connect with your “observing self” as often as possible, as opposed to your “thinking self.” Merely observe where you are, what you are doing, and how you are feeling – without any judgment. My therapist always reminds me that whenever I get caught up in some thoughts, to ask myself: “Where are my feet?” Right here. Below me. Feet flat on the ground. This is mindfulness.

Before you can act in any way that is meaningful, of course, you must define your values. These are different for everyone, and there are no wrong values. You can value family, work, leisure time, romance, education, exercise, and so on and so forth. Determine the values that make up your ideal life. Remember that values are different from goals: values always exist, goals have a definite end (they end when you accomplish them). If you value education, one of your goals might be to get a bachelor’s degree. But your value doesn’t stop once you have graduated. Throughout your life, you can act in accordance with that value.

One exercise that helps you to decide what kind of life you truly want to live is to write your own eulogy. You can write a eulogy of what people would say about you if you died today, and then write a eulogy of how you would want to remember people you. What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

The point of this post isn’t to judge anyone. It is completely natural to have uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and it is just as natural to try to avoid these feelings. I certainly had (and sometimes still do have) many methods of avoiding feelings of discomfort. I took lots of naps, took various medications, procrastinated, spent countless hours watching Law and Order: SVU. But I am learning to face uncomfortable feelings head on. I am learning to take the thoughts that fly in and out of my mind with a grain of salt. I am learning to welcome unpleasant sensations into my body, instead of fighting against them. I am learning what my values are. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. So, I am ACTing. I am embracing life. I am moving forward.

 

What struggles and experiences have you had with anxiety, panic, depression, etc.? Please, feel free to comment or send me a private email. I am happy to answer any questions, give advice, or simply provide a listening ear.

 

Arugula Pesto

This is a quick and delicious week night meal. In my house, we are arugula fiends – we use it liberally in salads and pastas. It has a peppery bite, and is much healthier than just your run-of-the-mill iceberg lettuce. Plus, it’s affordable: we can usually find it for $2 at Trader Joe’s.

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1.5-2 cups fresh arugula
  • 5-6 crushed garlic cloves (or less, depending on how much you like garlic)
  • 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup of almonds
  • 1/4 cup-1/2 cup of olive oil
  • Vermicelli noodles, or pasta of your choice
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Put the first 4 ingredients into a blender. Pulse until roughly chopped. Then drizzle in olive oil until it is the desired consistency (we like a thicker pesto, but you can do it thinner if that’s what you prefer).

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Add salt and pepper, to taste. I recommend being stingy with the pepper, as the arugula is already naturally peppery, as is the raw garlic.

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Boil vermicelli, or whatever pasta you have on hand.

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Drain pasta, and add a few tablespoons of pesto. Toss, and top with extra parmesan.

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And voila! A unique and delectable twist on a traditional pesto.

As an added twist, you can roast the garlic to add a more nuanced flavor. You can also substitute different kinds of nuts for almonds, or exclude nuts altogether if you are allergic.