Op/Ed

Lessons in listening: The lessons of Veruca Salt

It is sometimes pleasurable and sometimes it’s painful, and there is as much insight in sorry and loss as there is in good fortune.

Having grown up as a child of the 1970s, one of my favorite movies was Gene Wilder’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” I was captivated by the wonder, fantasy and downright creepiness of the film. My mother would indulge my sister and me with a periodic couch showing, with a choice of candy in hand. I would usually settle in with a full-sized Tootsie Roll or box of Milk Duds, and the necessary chewing would prolong the sweetened delight. Of all the characters, I was most intrigued by Veruca Salt and her unabashed bratiness. Even 40 years later, my memory is etched with the image of her rigid and fist-clenched rage as she demanded, “I want it now!”
Veruca is no doubt an outrageous exaggeration of unrestrained indulgence and greed, and thankfully most of us took the “bad egg” lesson to heart and have devised ways to curb our inner id. Of late, though, I have been hearing her British-accented refrain in my head all too often. My clients and patients want their desired health change, be it weight loss or increased physical fitness, and they want it now. To the casual eye, that may sound like they are on the fast track to success, with the assumption of their readiness to change. In actuality, though, it can present a hurdle to the necessary process of change, as desired states rarely materialize instantly.
The clients I see have usually exhausted their attempts at the promised bliss of jump starts and quick fixes from the aisle-side magazines and latest fads. They may have found initial inspiration and short-term success with a particular trend, but are sobered by the inevitable backslide of quick change and find it nearly impossible to muster enough excitement to hit repeat. So there we sit, with a narrative of past failures and the challenge of delayed gratification. Real change is a slow road and requires a certain leap of faith. Sustainable change isn’t merely a doing change, it is a being change.
As I hold space for my clients’ frustration and doubt, I reflect back on two key elements that are necessary to enable steadfastness as they walk their path.
Acceptance. You are not a bad, lazy or gluttonous person with a deep seated character flaw just because you have habits that are less than desirable. We habituate into patterns, healthy or not, because they serve us. The nightly ice cream and Netflix binge provides comfort and entertainment from our over-scheduled lives. The afternoon vending machine foray or cigarette permits us the break from the monotony of our work. A nightly six-pack with friends facilitates the feeling of connection and a carefree life. We started these habits as acts of self care. That fact persists, despite them being slowly morphed into self-destructive patterns.
Acknowledging the origins of habit formation without judgement is essential and is the doorway to freedom. Saying and thinking mean-spirited statements only impedes your way forward. As an example, I recently established the habit of lounging in bed each morning and waiting for my partner to bring me a cup of tea. This started mid-January when I had a very painful back injury. I was physically unable to partake in my normal morning exercise. The pattern makes sense — I was hurting and needed to feel cared for. It is now the end of February and I’m thankfully essentially pain-free now. Interestingly, though, I’m still cuddled into my down comforter at 5:45 a.m., awaiting my first few sips of Earl Grey as my body gets stiffer each day. If I can see my habit for what it is, without attaching the heaviness of judgement, I am free to choose something that serves me better come spring. I don’t actually need this type of care from my partner currently. What I need is to feel strong and able-bodied so that I can ski and hike, enabling connection with friends and the outside world. Accepting these truths helps me find the floor and my running shoes more easily.
Curiosity. The clients who are most successful with long-action change are those who replace their “should” mind with a curious mind. One client that I worked with last year lost over 100 pounds in the course of a year. She accomplished this using an assortment of strategies. She reached out to various professionals for support and guidance. She transformed her diet. She went from being sedentary to adding in small walks and strength training. Those were the actions she took, but the real success was born in her approach to all these actions. She was curious about what rutabaga tastes like. She was curious about how she would feel to visit southern friends and not partake in their customary fried feasts. She was curious about how weight loss might change her dating life. She was curious about her fear of entering the fitness center at her workplace. She didn’t attach to a story-line of what would be “good” or “bad” about her journey with weight loss. In short, she stayed curious about potential pleasure and displeasure and accepted her responses to them as emotions, ones that would come and then go.
We have a predilection to joy and often harbor a warped belief that life is supposed to be pleasurable. But the truth is that life is just life. It is sometimes pleasurable and sometimes it’s painful, and there is as much insight in sorry and loss as there is in good fortune. Bringing openness to our experience of change sets us up to gain a deeper understanding of who we and what we value. May you find interest in the questions as you continue to learn and grow into yourself.
Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Integrative Health Coach at Middlebury College. Learn more about her and her coaching at middlebury.edu/middleburyintegratedhealthcoach.

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