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Severine and the Fundamental Laws of Time and Space


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I used to go on long walks with a friend of mine in Boston, talking about all manner of things; he is a compassionate person, wonderfully frank, and shared my willingness to talk about a near-endless random collection of seemingly unrelated things. We discussed anything and everything, and once I said to him jokingly that many of my problems in life stemmed from my fundamental inability to fully accept the basic principles of cause and effect. He asked me what I meant by that, and in the process of explaining what I had thought was a cleverly self-deprecating joke, I came to the terrifying realization that it was actually true.

 

Click to expand for the explanation. Warning: non-detailed reference to family violence.

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As a child, I remember being told that I would get cavities if I didn't brush my teeth. But, for various reasons mostly having to do with the texture of toothpaste, I hated brushing my teeth. So, each night, I would dutifully go into the bathroom, run the water, wet my toothbrush, and sit on the edge of the tub thinking about whatever book I was reading until the fraud was achieved and I could go to bed. I never had a single cavity as a child. Over and over again, like all children, I was told that if I did X, Y would happen, and my response was to test the limits. The vast majority of the time? No Y. I learned that an adult saying "Y will happen if you do X!" just meant "Y might happen but I really don't want you to do X." (Parents, take note!)

 

Then, all through high school, undergrad, and law school, I won awards and topped class rankings despite cramming at the last minute and writing papers in last-minute frenzies (@fleaball and I have talked about how people always seem to think we should be happy about this, but actually it was not great). I escaped what everyone told me were the inevitable consequences of shitty decisions for so long that part of me deep down just stopped believing in them. I mean, I believed that they were possible, just not predictable or guaranteed. And I believed that if I were lucky or sneaky or clever enough, I could evade them.

 

Another factor is that I grew up with violent, unpredictable, mentally ill adults who lied constantly. The childhood struggle to learn the rules, to learn what made people yell and become violent and what made them laugh and smile was maddeningly impossible. It was endlessly, terrifyingly unpredictable. I had many painful lessons that you never really know what's going to happen, and if you think you do you'll just be less ready when the punch hits. What I learned was this: collect as much information as you can, always be watching, always be ready, but never think you know for sure that A leads to B.

 

There are exceptions, of course. I wouldn't stick my hand into a fire because I know, viscerally and deep down, that a bad thing would happen. But anything that is not as concrete, immediate, and guaranteed as that tends to be dismissed by my brain as a far-off unlikely possibility that people are just trying to scare me with so I can't have or do the thing I want. So while I understand intellectually that eating poorly is likely to damage my health, that knowledge doesn't penetrate down to the level of belief; when I decide to eat a pint of ice cream for dinner, it doesn't actually feel like I'm choosing something bad for me. The connection between cause and effect just doesn't feel real.

 

I have this problem not only with food, but with work (procrastination and motivation issues), relationships (neglecting to keep in touch despite still being friends with the person in my head), sleep (not even really trying to get enough), various health-adjacent things (not doing PT exercises, following my skin-care routine, or flossing enough), and a host of other things including the very passage of time itself (I am chronically late because my brain can't seem to accept that if it takes 25 minutes to drive somewhere, watching a video on YouTube until 24 minutes before my appointment starts is not going to work out).

 

More recently, I was told by two different therapists that some of this struggle with cause and effect is potentially caused by executive function deficits linked to PTSD, ADHD, or both. I have read about the problems people with these issues experience with things like long-term planning, impulsivity, decision-making, motivation, concentration, etc. and a lot of it is hauntingly familiar.

 

I've been thinking about all of this a lot recently with respect to my goals and plans, especially after what I learned during the last challenge. Fundamentally, there are two major issues:

  1. When I do things that are likely to work against my goals, it doesn't truly feel (in a visceral, down-in-my-gut way) like I am causing any problems; and
  2. When I do things that are likely to get me closer to my goals, it doesn't actually feel like I am getting anywhere or progressing toward something good.

 

So, as insane as this sounds, my main goal for this challenge is to work on reconnecting with the fundamental truth of cause and effect.

 

1. Walking: at least 15 minutes every day and 30 or more at least four days a week.

The positive effects of walking are as follows:

  • Immediate: time to myself for listening to podcasts and music and thinking, spending time outdoors, and feeling the mood boost of motion.
  • Medium- to long-term: better cardio fitness, wide-ranging physiological effects of exercise ranging from blood sugar regulation to neurological benefits, strengthening joints and stabilizer muscles, and mental health benefits.

CONNECTING TO CONSEQUENCES: I will write a little mantra to focus on the immediate consequences and repeat it at the beginning and start of my walks. To help keep the longer-term benefits in mind, I will read at least one scientific paper or article each week on the long-term benefits of exercise, and I will, each day, actively imagine a version of a future me who is active and healthy and doing things I really want to do, e.g. hiking in the mountains without collapsing.

 

2. Keeping a food record: any format, any level of detail, as long as I'm actively recording my food choices in some way.

  • After a lot of reflection, I think what I like about food tracking is that it makes eating feel real and concrete; it helps me remember that I am a biological organism ingesting molecules with specific chemical compositions, not some character in a book or movie who eats and sleeps when it fits with the plot and the scene and doesn't eat or sleep when it would be boring to show it, and the connection between eating and sleeping and the rest of life isn't treated seriously because it's not an important part of the story.
  • The point of this challenge element is not to change what I'm eating. I can eat whatever I want. The purpose of this is just to pay attention and remember that it's real and it matters.
  • Some days I might use my app and some days I might just write things in a notebook. It all counts.

 

3. Do one thing each day from my list of "things I theoretically want to do for self-care but never seem to actually do" and actively remind myself why I am doing it.

This is an embarrassingly long list. Some examples:

  • Flossing
  • 10 minutes of using my neck traction device to help with my shoulder/neck issue.
  • PT exercises for my shoulder and neck.
  • 10 minutes of Headspace meditation.
  • 10 minutes in the garden.
  • Normal (non-PT) stretches.
  • Moisturizing my chronically dry feet.
  • Doing my (face) skincare routine.

CONNECTING TO CONSEQUENCES: before or after or while I am doing the thing, I will say out loud (whispering is fine) something like, "by doing this, I am helping myself because..." with the appropriate details. I will consciously focus on and visualize the positive impact I am creating and imagine my future self thanking me for taking good care of her.

 

I have no idea if any of this is going to work.

 

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Oof. Swap out physical violence for mental\emotional - we're twins. TWINS. I think that's why I keep going back to the little things that fundamentally drive the changes I want to make. At work I've learned if something REALLY needs to be done, I have to do it now because if I don't..... it won't get done until the last second - and while it's still "This is GREAT STUFF" from management, I know it was half assed\last minute. I've seen REAL changes in my mood\attitude by cleaning the GD kitchen EVERY DAY and cooking real meals. It literally takes less time than going to eat out even if it is more effort - but less time, less $$, better for me and my mental health. But BOY did it take a loooooong time to get there.....

So - I'm here to root for you!

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11 hours ago, Tanktimus the Encourager said:

Wow, that's an amazing challenge. What you wrote makes so much sense. 

 

It would be hard to overstate the value of the feedback and support I've received here from various people, yourself included. I have gained so much insight just by actually taking the time to reflect on how I'm feeling and why, and evaluating challenges to find out why certain things didn't work out the way I wanted. It's pretty magical to have a space where one can do such things not only without fear of judgement but with near certainty that people will have your back. So thank you and everyone else for all the cheering over the years. I may still be en route to where I want to be, but I'm a lot further along than I would otherwise be.

 

6 hours ago, Athaclena said:

Oof. Swap out physical violence for mental\emotional - we're twins. TWINS. I think that's why I keep going back to the little things that fundamentally drive the changes I want to make. At work I've learned if something REALLY needs to be done, I have to do it now because if I don't..... it won't get done until the last second - and while it's still "This is GREAT STUFF" from management, I know it was half assed\last minute. I've seen REAL changes in my mood\attitude by cleaning the GD kitchen EVERY DAY and cooking real meals. It literally takes less time than going to eat out even if it is more effort - but less time, less $$, better for me and my mental health. But BOY did it take a loooooong time to get there.....

So - I'm here to root for you!

 

Things you write often resonate with me, so I'm not shocked to find out the inverse is true! I'm sorry you too had bad experiences that impacted your point of view.

 

And isn't it a crap feeling to turn in something you're not proud of and get praised for it? I always feel so slimy. Like you, I try to avoid putting myself into situations where it's likely to happen, but I don't always succeed.

 

And yeah, the times in my life when I have successfully instituted good habits (like with you keeping the kitchen clean and cooking) I'm almost shocked by the fact that it works, you know? Like "Huh, this concrete, simple thing I'm doing seems to be making my mood and health better. Weird!" which is kind of the flipside of something else I've done, i.e., eating crap and being sedentary and it not really sinking in that it's going to bite me in the ass. It's that fundamental disconnection I'm trying to address.

 

Because, in the end, it's all little simple things applied consistently. You can do it and so can I - we just have to actually do it. And I think the "getting shit done" problem is less about willpower and more about feelings/perspective than I used to think.

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Wow, I am seriously in awe of this...a lot of what you said resonates with me but I've never been able to put it together like you have

 

12 hours ago, Severine said:

I have no idea if any of this is going to work.

 

giphy.gif

Whole lotta truth right there

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Wow, some really great thoughts. I will have to ponder on that. I have struggled to connect my actions with consequences too.  I like your idea of reading about why something is helpful. I find having that kind of information helpful. I like your thoughts about why you find tracking food helpful.

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Thanks everyone for the encouragement and kindness. I did a thing today that I think is going to help.

 

I said above that I'm going to try to make the future consequences of physical activity seem more concrete by "actively imagine a version of a future me who is active and healthy and doing things I really want to do, e.g. hiking in the mountains without collapsing." I was thinking today, and that reminded me of this study I read about years ago that showed that people made better decisions about saving for retirement when they were shown computer-aged photos of themselves. It helped them feel connected to their future self (thus wanting to help them) rather than thinking of them more as a stranger.

 

So I thought hey, maybe that'd work for me too? I found a photo from 2018, before the thyroid cancer and associated weight gain, and ran it through a computer-aging app I found. I used the photo of me in better shape/at a lower weight because it seemed like aging it would yield a better approximation of what a more active older me would look like.

 

image.png.5dea0c0f3c49d01b87fe98289332e38c.png      image.png.af6526e970585433908faf97856ad931.png

 

This was an interesting exercise. Looking at the aged photo gives me feelings I'm not sure how to identify or explain. But it feels somehow important. I've put the photo on my phone and computer in places where I'll see it daily, with the idea that seeing it regularly will make older Severine feel real. (The hair should be grey but my computer-aging skills are limited)

 

Today was good! For my three things:

1. I walked for over 30 minutes! I ad-libbed a mantra but I need to write one down that I like more.

2. I kept a very loose record of my food intake in a notebook. I did notice the way it made me feel more....present? More attentive to the process of choosing and eating food.

3. I moisturized my stupid dry feet and focused on the fact that I really hate it when my heels crack from extreme dryness (it's painful) and moisturizer would help prevent it.

 

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On 8/5/2022 at 1:56 AM, Severine said:

. I moisturized my stupid dry feet and focused on the fact that I really hate it when my heels crack from extreme dryness (it's painful) and moisturizer would help prevent it.

 

My feet get so dry, especially in the winter, and I forget until my heels start cracking. Woot for putting on the lotion now.

 

Interesting experiment with the photo. 

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I'd do that with a photo - but mom and I are pretty much twins - so she's kind of done it for me LOL. I actually have more sun sensitive skin than she does so I might slow the process a tad - but she and I both look a ton younger than we actually are. Most people think she's in her late 40's\early 50's (my age) than the 74 she is....

 

I ditched lotion and now use body oil on my feet and any other "dry" areas (elbows and my hands). Doubles as massage oil as a bonus :) I rub it onto my feet\heels\ankles  after a shower and then put on breathable socks. There has been a noticeable improvement. It may have been all of the lotions I tried weren't enough, but I've been so happy with stuff I've gotten from Indigo Wild (I started small with their laundry soap, then added a few things here and there to add enough to my order stuff to try to get free shipping) - that I had to try their body oil my last order and I LOVE it. I also use their face oil and under eye butter (and shea butter lotions). I have extremely sensitive skin that's on the dry side - and I have no irritation from their products.

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On 8/4/2022 at 4:47 AM, Severine said:

1. Walking: at least 15 minutes every day and 30 or more at least four days a week.

Here for support! (albeit a teensy bit tardy). Walking is highly underrated as a form of exercise. Some of the most brilliant thinkers out there were walkers. Aristotle, Beethoven, and Charles Dickens were big on walking.

 

 

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Update! I have been doing really well with this challenge (so much so that the level to which this theme/approach has resonated with me has caused me to do a lot of thinking) even though I've been rubbish about updating. Happily, the lack of updating was for a good reason: it was my birthday on the 9th and I decided to take an impromptu mini-vacation to celebrate, think, and relax. It was awesome and I regret nothing.

 

A collection of things I have noticed so far with this approach:

  • I've told a few close friends about my challenge and/or the underlying idea, and I was shocked by the fact that every single one of them, when I explained that I struggled with cause and effect, said some (kind) version of either "oh yeah, I've noticed that about you" or "now that you mention it, that does seem true about you." It was weirdly validating yet simultaneously surreal. Part of me is wondering what would have happened if someone had pointed this out to me years (or decades) ago...because apparently, other people have noticed!
  • I have previously felt like eating healthy takes effort, but I would now say that it's actually the paying attention that takes 80% of the effort. Once I pay attention, I make decent choices (as long as I'm not bingeing on something sweet) that don't feel hard or deprivation-inducing simply by virtue of the fact that I like a lot of healthy food. But paying attention does take a lot of effort. The usefulness of this realization is that I can focus on making the paying attention part easier.
  • To the extent that I can afford it, paying to outsource things I hate doing is a very good idea. The meal prep service has dramatically improved my health, mood, etc. and I absolutely love it.
  • There is a finite number of things I can care about/pay attention to at any one time. Maybe there's a way to increase the number of slots but, if so, I haven't found it yet. So for now, success means being realistic about how many slots there are and choosing carefully what gets a slot.
  • It is possible for multiple things to be bundled into one thing that takes up one slot. For example, my personal hygiene has never been an issue because I shower daily and always soap, shampoo, condition, exfoliate, etc. But all of that feels like one thing to me, not multiple things. Sometimes D. takes a shower but only soaps up and doesn't wash his hair because he was tired or whatnot. It's fine because of how short his hair is (he doesn't need to wash it daily), but it still never made sense to me because for me, once I'm in the shower, it's all included. Showering only takes up one slot. So if I want to floss regularly, for example, I need to find a way to combine it with tooth brushing (which I do not struggle with) so that "tooth care" just feels like one thing. And I don't just mean habit stacking (my brain is like "f*$% you, you can't trick me with that shit), I mean a way to make it really feel like part of the same task on an irrational emotional level. Still working on how to do this consciously, because so far the things that are bundled didn't get that way intentionally.
  • Relatedly, I am realizing that whether something feels like one thing or multiple things is 100% subjective, and the amount of work something feels like is also very subjective. I have made a lot of progress in the past couple of weeks by paying attention to what feels onerous and what feels easy. Example: I manage all the household finances and it feels easy to me. Paying all our bills, managing work benefits and investments, updating our budget tracking software, and dealing with the accountant feels essentially like one thing, and a pretty low-effort thing at that. Whereas taking out the recycling/compost/trash every week feels like three hard things. This is despite the fact that I spend like sub-10 minutes per week doing the latter and easily 2-3 hours per week on the former. Totally illogical. Yet it's the way these items feel, not the subjective amount of time they take, that governs how hard they are for me. I need to get a lot better about understanding, respecting, and managing/manipulating this reality.
  • I feel silly repeating little mantras/encouragement to myself, and then it helps anyway. This feels kind of annoying (as in, I resent it for working/helping despite feeling silly) but is still ultimately useful.
  • Time is finite and thus I cannot do, learn, or try everything I want to. I am not being facetious when I say that I am deeply bitter about that and need to do some emotional work addressing that resentment.
  • I find research/science super motivating when it comes to things related to health, biology, fitness, etc. Motivating might not even be the right word. More like it just feels very real and relevant to me and I seem to take it on board in a way that is useful. It's as much about how it increases my knowledge/awareness/attitude as it is about behaviour change. At any rate, the approach of reading research papers and/or associated news articles has been super positive for me and helps me keep paying attention to health-linked goals.
  • I can easily forget things/goals/ideas/problems exist if I don't physically see them. This might sound infantile, and it's kind of embarrassing to admit that I essentially struggle with object permanence, but one of the themes of this challenge appears to be owning up to potentially embarrassing truths that insist on continuing to be true, and accepting that it's better to admit that they're true and deal with them than let them quietly wreck my life. To a much greater extent than ever before, I have put up physical pictures/lists/etc. to remind me about challenge stuff (in various rooms of the house, on my phone, calendar reminders, etc.) and it has made a monumental difference in how engaged I am and how easily I stay engaged. Like, a ludicrously significant difference. I am in the process of buying visible storage solutions for my office (wall hooks, those wall-mounted document shelves, see-through containers for shelves, etc.) because I am trying to extend the benefit of this effect into other areas of my life.

So yes, overall this is all going very well, and part of me is really happy and optimistic about the implications of how I can apply what I am learning, and some of me is still stuck on:

giphy.gif

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45 minutes ago, Severine said:

I can easily forget things/goals/ideas/problems exist if I don't physically see them. This might sound infantile, and it's kind of embarrassing to admit that I essentially struggle with object permanence, but one of the themes of this challenge appears to be owning up to potentially embarrassing truths that insist on continuing to be true, and accepting that it's better to admit that they're true and deal with them than let them quietly wreck my life. To a much greater extent than ever before, I have put up physical pictures/lists/etc. to remind me about challenge stuff (in various rooms of the house, on my phone, calendar reminders, etc.) and it has made a monumental difference in how engaged I am and how easily I stay engaged. Like, a ludicrously significant difference. I am in the process of buying visible storage solutions for my office (wall hooks, those wall-mounted document shelves, see-through containers for shelves, etc.) because I am trying to extend the benefit of this effect into other areas of my life

I hope that's not embarasssing, because that it so me.😉 Took me forever to figure it out, and changing it up so I can see  the reminders really helps.

 

Lots of great insights!

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49 minutes ago, Severine said:

So yes, overall this is all going very well, and part of me is really happy and optimistic about the implications of how I can apply what I am learning, and some of me is still stuck on:

giphy.gif

standard therapy answer: you weren't in a place where you could recognize/address these things. I'm glad it's starting to come together for you though!

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1 hour ago, fleaball said:

standard therapy answer: you weren't in a place where you could recognize/address these things. I'm glad it's starting to come together for you though!

 

I am teenage eye rolling so hard at the standard therapy answer because it's right and I am grumpy about it.

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12 hours ago, Severine said:

To the extent that I can afford it, paying to outsource things I hate doing is a very good idea.

One of the more valuable lessons I learned in my accounting classes is that time has monetary value and to think of the time I spend doing stuff in terms of being paid a wage. Yes, I can spend an hour cutting grass myself, but that doesn't mean the grass-cutting is free. It means that an hour of my time (and whatever that hour is worth) is being spent on grass cutting.

12 hours ago, Severine said:

Example: I manage all the household finances and it feels easy to me. Paying all our bills, managing work benefits and investments, updating our budget tracking software, and dealing with the accountant feels essentially like one thing, and a pretty low-effort thing at that. Whereas taking out the recycling/compost/trash every week feels like three hard things. This is despite the fact that I spend like sub-10 minutes per week doing the latter and easily 2-3 hours per week on the former.

That budget / investment management / accountant wrangling stuff is kinda fun though, isn't it?

12 hours ago, Severine said:

Time is finite and thus I cannot do, learn, or try everything I want to. I am not being facetious when I say that I am deeply bitter about that and need to do some emotional work addressing that resentment.

I feel this.

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3 hours ago, KeysMcGee said:

One of the more valuable lessons I learned in my accounting classes is that time has monetary value and to think of the time I spend doing stuff in terms of being paid a wage. Yes, I can spend an hour cutting grass myself, but that doesn't mean the grass-cutting is free. It means that an hour of my time (and whatever that hour is worth) is being spent on grass cutting.

Yes, exactly! After doing the math of how much time I'm not spending on preparing food, not to mention the money we're saving by not ordering takeout and the health benefits of eating home-cooked food tailored to our nutritional goals, I feel comfortable that the meal prep service is very good value for money despite not being cheap.

 

I also think there's something to be said for respecting certain tasks that are traditionally thought of as "chores" (cooking, cleaning, lawn care, etc.) as work that it's reasonable to pay for. I was raised in a working-class, low-income household and there was very much the attitude that people who, for example, pay others to mow their lawn or clean their house were lazy people with no work ethic, so for a long time I had hangups about hiring anyone to do anything I could technically do myself. I think this was a defensively motivated belief (we couldn't afford to pay people to do anything for us, so it was comforting to believe that it was somehow better or more noble to do it ourselves). But I've since come to believe that there's no shame in hiring someone to do something I can't or don't want to do as long as I'm paying them fairly.

 

3 hours ago, KeysMcGee said:

That budget / investment management / accountant wrangling stuff is kinda fun though, isn't it?

 

Haha yesssssss! People think I'm such a dork, but I actually really enjoy this stuff. It also gives me a feeling of safety and security to know that I'm keeping our finances stable.

 

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2 hours ago, Severine said:

People think I'm such a dork, but I actually really enjoy this stuff.

Dork's of the world unite! 

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On 8/21/2022 at 2:31 AM, Severine said:

 

I am teenage eye rolling so hard at the standard therapy answer because it's right and I am grumpy about it.

Right there with you. A couple hours before I posted that I was thinking about something and wound up saying that to myself and immediately going “ugh, really?” Stupid therapy. 

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I just finished an awesome lunch of chicken milanese with two grilled portobello mushrooms and a side of black beans, sweet potatoes, and cilantro. All I had to do was assemble it from the containers and heat it up, and I am basking in the feeling of happiness that comes from eating a well-balanced, healthy, delicious meal that I didn't have to do any work to make happen. I should have signed up for a service like this years ago. Life-changing, without hyperbole.

 

 

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On 8/21/2022 at 3:24 PM, Severine said:

I also think there's something to be said for respecting certain tasks that are traditionally thought of as "chores" (cooking, cleaning, lawn care, etc.) as work that it's reasonable to pay for. I was raised in a working-class, low-income household and there was very much the attitude that people who, for example, pay others to mow their lawn or clean their house were lazy people with no work ethic, so for a long time I had hangups about hiring anyone to do anything I could technically do myself. I think this was a defensively motivated belief (we couldn't afford to pay people to do anything for us, so it was comforting to believe that it was somehow better or more noble to do it ourselves). But I've since come to believe that there's no shame in hiring someone to do something I can't or don't want to do as long as I'm paying them fairly.

I've had this exact mental battle three times this week. I'm so relieved now that I've realized I can just *pay* for help, although there's some residual shame around that that I need to dismantle. 

 

Your update of realizations was so thoughtful and clear... Wow. Well done. 😊

 

 

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