As I’m writing this, dragonflies are hovering over my naked feet. Ah, September. If somehow the cool breeze and the longer shadows would fail to hint that fall is here, you can trust that the ever so punctual dragonflies sure won’t. We did, however, go for a swim just two days ago (60 F/16 C water temperature tastes remarkably sweet post long run) and this is being typed while sitting barelegged in a reclined chair, soaking up the last sunrays of this beautiful Sunday – and perhaps this summer. I’ve just washed my hands about five times to get all the dirt off after hours worth of butt-up-in-the-air, hands-in-the-dirt kind of activities. Michael has been busy inside, making granola, fresh mint ice cream and flatbread. In our world, the definition of a quite lovely afternoon, actually. This inaugural harvest time for us has taught us one big thing – September is a busy month! There are crates and crates worth of apples that need to be taken care of. Plums spread out to ripen wherever you look. Tomatoes screaming for your attention. A garden that needs to get out of its summer costume and dressed for fall. Lingonberries, chanterelles, blackberries and rosehips filling up the ditches and the woods, asking to be foraged and turned into something hearty and warming. And while this might seem stressful to some (and sure as heck to us too, from time to time), living in close contact with nature is so grounding, so decompressing, so healing. At least, that’s what we’re realizing.
I’ve spent the majority of my life stressing. Stressing here, stressing there. Stressing about studies, about deadlines, about family, about what’s in the past and what lies ahead. Stressing about what I look like, what I used to look like, what I will look like. What I eat, what I don’t eat, what I do, what I don’t do. And, of course, what others think of me. After 18 years of a head spinning faster and faster and a body losing all of its connection with the mind, I got sick. I had been balancing on the thinnest of lines for a long time, when suddenly – really, suddenly – I was headfirst into the dark, dark cave of an eating disorder. I believe our stress – whatever it’s generated by – can articulate itself in an endless number of ways. I don’t quite know why I was pulled into the soul-crushing world of starvation and self-hatred. I had never really been all that concerned with my appearance or cared much about diets prior, but had instead had a rather ‘normal’ approach to that whole… department. In retrospect, obviously, I can see why my stress took on a physical manifestation, and why it had to go down the way it did. While I might have thought I was ‘just’ stressed and feeling lost like any other teenager, I was forced to realize I had completely lost the very crucial connection between my mind and my body. Now, I went through some rather terrible events as a child, which were packed up and stored away in some dusty corner of my brain immediately. But as we’re all aware of, it doesn’t really work that way. Until I got sick and hit rock bottom, I was fighting tooth and nail to keep myself – to protect myself – from what was lurking underneath my own surface. For 18 years, I managed. And then, one day, I couldn’t anymore. The loss of the control over my mind was replaced by the desire to control my body – and more specifically, what went into it and what didn’t. Eating disorders belong to that delicate category of things I would not even wish upon my worst enemy. It hurts. It hurts so much, and in ways I didn’t even know things could hurt. The pain is overbearing, overwhelming, overtaking everything. And it hurts those around you, too. Thank you, mom, for holding my hand and never giving up on me. But you know what? The best part is this – if you make it through, you’ll have gained more insights than you would normally in a lifetime. You’re scarred, sure, but boy – you’re so strong. And that strength will carry you through anything.
The intention behind this piece, however, isn’t necessarily that of retelling my story of having an eating disorder and recovering it (but it does serve as a pretty good starting point). No, this piece is about the importance of decompression, of choosing a life with a lot less stress and what brought us there (here).
… but just to wrap it up, right? It took me a few years to get out of the sort of ‘acute’ stage of sickness, but it wasn’t until I was around 24-25 that I really got things to turn around. I had finally found a therapist that suited my taste, and I was literally checking of a painful memory a session with her. You know that downright awesome feeling of relief, when you’ve done something you’ve feared or loathed, but perhaps not realized exactly how much? Those moments when we go “oh god, I don’t think I even knew how much this has been wearing on me”? That was me, after every meeting with Eva. And then I went to NYC, and that’s where everything clicked and fell into place (those of you who have read the inaugural blog post will know all about that). While it might sound or seem like I’m downplaying and simplifying the process of ED recovery, I’m not. It remains – and will hopefully remain forever – the toughest time of my life. But once I understood the underlying causes and figured out how to literally unlock myself, the puzzle pretty much laid itself.
Ah, my years in NYC were the best. They were everything I could have ever dreamed of. I found Michael. I felt the deeply satisfying feeling of belonging to a place and a time. I was a part of a context (and a context I had happily chosen, for the first time of my life). I loved the feeling of stepping outside our door and being in the midst of Manhattan. I loved the vibe, the buzz, the energy. I loved walking the streets and seeing new things everywhere I looked. I loved all the unlovable things too – the ‘undesirables’ (that’s Michael’s aunt Tina’s word for bums, and we love it and use it all the time – thank you Tina, you’re one of our favorite people), the never-ending noise, heck – even the quintessentially New York-y garbage piles (although not so much towards the end, truth to be told). I was immediately enchanted. And to be honest, I still am. I think I’ll be forever enchanted by New York City, and that makes me feel so… rich. I’m fortunate enough to have two homes, two cultures, two home countries – and that is, pure and simple, an incredible privilege I treasure every day. However, living there – in Manhattan – is… intense. And that is why we now like to admire it from afar, most of the time.
And it also made us think – hey, maybe we should create lives for ourselves that don’t involve spending most of the time feeling like we’d run out of gas?
A few years ago, both Michael and I read a book called Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, written by Susan Cain. This book has come to play a huge part in both of our lives. I always knew I was on the shyer end of the spectrum. I always knew I didn’t seem to “need” people around me all the time to feel content and at peace with myself. I always knew I needed alone time to fully recharge. And I always knew (believe me) that I dreaded bigger social gatherings, where there would be mingling happening. But until I read this book, I never once thought of myself as an introvert. Because really – introvert is a word with a loud and clear negative connotation, no? That’s at least what I thought and felt. I associated introverts with grumpy, uninterested characters with a slight ‘off’ feel to them. This book taught me many things, but the two major things were: a. the characteristics I just listed are by no means those of introverts and b. I’m a bright and shining example of one. Now, I think this is a terrific read for anyone, but if you happen to feel as if you’re not quite as outgoing as “everyone else” and if you feel uncomfortable interacting with lots of strangers, I deeply recommend it (it’s available in Swedish too, called Tyst – De introvertas betydelse i ett samhälle där alla hörs och syns). I was almost overwhelmed by insights and aha moments while reading it, but in attempt to summarize my primary takeaways, these are some helpful definitions and distinctions Cain introduces: introverts reset and decompress in quietness and in solitude, while extroverts recharge surrounded by people. Introverts generally find it stressful to meet new people, whereas extroverts thrive in those types of contexts. Introverts like to work on their own, they’re geared to inspect and they often act according to an “what if”-approach. Extroverts on the other hand, love group tasks and open brainstorming, they’re geared to respond and they act upon “what is”. Today’s modern society revolves around an extrovert ideal, hence many introverts feeling out of place, ‘weird’ or ‘different’. In reality, there are probably just as many on either side of the spectrum – but one side is simply louder than the other. I think reading this book made both Michael and myself realize that a quiet, grounding place to live might be more our jam. I think we both understood more deeply how we function, and how we could potentially adjust our lives to suit our introverted preferences better. Somehow Cain’s explanations made it a lot easier to tackle feeling emotionally drained after a day at work, simply because it seemed there was a legit reason behind it. And it also made us think – hey, maybe we should create lives for ourselves that don’t involve spending most of the time feeling like we’d run out of gas?
I once had an excellent anatomy teacher named Prof. Ron Kornfeld. Besides being a wonderfully kind and caring man (and ridiculously funny, but without knowing it himself), Prof. Kornfeld was quite insightful – and quite wise, actually. But not in that annoyingly pretentious way, not at all. He would just blurt out ‘perfect’ words of wisdom left and right, words that would have loved to get printed on a t-shirt, typed as an Instagram caption or used on a fridge magnet, but without thinking much of it. One that stuck with me, however, is this one: whatever you do a lot of, make sure you also do the opposite. Prof. Kornfeld was talking about the importance of stretching as he said this, and already moved onto something else as the words he had just spoken were rooting themselves in my mind. But his point was basically this: if you spend all day sitting with your hips flexed in front of a computer, make sure you a. walk a lot, to balance out all the sitting and b. extend (i.e. stretch) your hip flexors, to counteract the shortened position they’ve been in all day. I didn’t think too much of this at the time, but as Michael and I have gotten more and more serious in pursuing our athletic careers, it has become my go-to advice to us both (and whoever around me is interested enough to listen J). I think it’s as brilliant as it’s simple, what Prof. Kornfeld said, and I think you can apply it to anything in order to try to create more balance in your life. Using the example of an athlete again, since this is what’s easiest for me to relate to – our energy output is quite significant, and so is the physical stress we put on our bodies. Now, the body is a fantastic machine built to adjust, adapt and grow stronger – given the chance to do so, that is. So we approach it like this – training a lot means eating a lot and resting a lot. Whatever you do a lot of (moving + high caloric output), make sure you do the opposite (rest + high caloric intake). We eat huge amounts of filling, nourishing food, and we prioritize our sleep very, very high. Other things that go into our decompression and recovery ‘routine’ are:
- yoga (just a little bit, close to every day)
- stretching (diligently, every day)
- no phone time after 8pm (sometimes we break the rule but we really try to stick to it)
- no phones brought into the bedroom (we ‘check’ them outside the bedroom door, in order to make it easier to pick up a book instead of, let’s say, browsing instagram)
- self-massage using arnica oil (makes even the most tired runner’s legs bounce back)
- long, slow walks – preferably in the early morning
It boils down to: if you stress a lot, you have to decompress a lot as well. If you sit a lot, make sure you move too. If you eat lots of crap, well – make sure you eat plenty of vegetables too! I think his piece of advice is worth holding onto because it doesn’t claim what’s good and what’s bad. It doesn’t suggest there is a right way and a wrong way, or that there are things that should be shamed or guilt tripped. All it says is – try to achieve some sort of balance, to the best of your ability. And balance, that was the last thing I had going on for myself around this time. I was studying two fulltime college programs from April 2014 to June 2016, in order to work out the equation of being able to afford living in New York and maintaining a student visa (my only legal way of living in the US at the time). I had to be a fulltime student in America to get my visa, but as a non-citizen, I could neither work nor seek any financial aid. So, I was also enrolled at my Swedish university as a fulltime student, in order to cash in the grants I was eligible to seek there. And it worked out. I could pay my bills, and in the end, I got two degrees. But in the meantime, I was a sleepless, stressed out wreck. And high achiever as I am, nothing but hard work and good grades were acceptable – so I worked hard and got good grades. I felt like one of those cartoon characters where the legs are drawn as a circle… boy, life was spinning fast.
Whatever you do a lot of, make sure you also do the opposite.
Then we spent the summer of 2016 off from work, together in Sweden. During this time, which was kicked off by our wedding, we had – naturally – plenty of time to ponder our future. I had been teasing Michael by dropping little hints and pieces of information about what life in Sweden could be like (free education, free healthcare, paid parental leave etc. – all those goodies), and then one night on our honeymoon, Michael just said “I think we should just move”. And I, perplexed as I was, just said “what do you mean?”. Never in a million years did I think we would uproot ourselves from New York (or at least not the US), and not even in my wildest dreams had I dared picturing us creating a home in Sweden. But we made up our minds that same night (over double scoops of ice cream), filed the necessary paperwork the same day we came back from our trip and spent the coming year saving up enough money to go all in and take a whole year off work. At the same time, it became clear that my family’s vacation home was essentially up for grabs (in exchange for money, I should add). We jumped on it, and in the blink of an eye we had committed to moving not just away from Manhattan, but to a small island off the Swedish east coast with roughly 100 permanent inhabitants. We could hardly wait.
We drew up a giant excel document, where we listed all of our monthly expenses, (current and coming, once we moved), all the things we wanted to do (renovate the house, take trips, build a garden) and the savings we didn’t want to dip into. We got a clear idea of how much we needed to save – and then, we got to business. There was no lunch buying anymore, no eating out unless a special occasion. There was a whole lot of walking happening, rain or shine (once you start to add up the costs of public transportation… well, you start walking). This also had us double-check to make sure Stockholm sees less rain than NYC (it does). Textbooks, unused clothes, unnecessary stuff was put up for sale and shipped left and right. Food shopping was done carefully thought-out, once a week (boy, I think my arms grew an inch or two in length from schlepping those bags four avenues home!). And our savings grew. Steadily. And, despite a few soaked appearances at our respective work places from walking through yet another NYC downpour, it seemed they grew somewhat seamlessly. The ‘sacrifices’ were easy to make, knowing what was lying ahead. And the few times we did treat us to something, it felt so special. We hade close to a religious experience when revisiting our favorite donut place Dough on 19th and 5th, for a good bye-NYC indulgence, for example (the dulce de leche one is literally to die for, for those interested). But before you start to question exactly how ascetic our lives turned this last year in NYC and feel worried we took it one step too far, let me tell you this – there was a good sum of money allocated to ice cream only. Call us ice cream snobs, but we like ours both handcrafted and served with a heavy hand, and in Manhattan, that means at least 15 bucks for 2 people.
We were yearning for quiet, for nature, for no stress. And that’s what we found. Our days are filled to the brim with training, farming, cooking, foraging – projects of all sorts. But the agenda is our own, and amidst the things we do, there is infinite space for recovery. The trick is to find what suits you. I can’t think of a more calming thing to do than foraging berries, for example. I forget about time instantly. But it took us almost a whole year to fully decompress. We finally feel balanced, in tune with ourselves and ready to invite the rest of the world into our little universe. Hence, the birth of this website and blog. We never ever want to stress again – or at least live a life where that’s more the rule than the exception – and we are more content than ever before, despite the lack of fancy titles, fat pay checks and the feeling of being ‘important’. We have made ourselves important, and we have comfortably arrived at the conclusion that we don’t need all that much, in the end. A pair of running shoes, a vegetable garden, fresh air to breathe. Any sacrifices are long forgotten.