How Failing In My Career, Marriage & Veganism Brought Me True Success
My life has been a series of what I call "successful failures." Until my mid-20s, I changed career paths three or four times, looking for the one I thought would make me feel the most passionate and engaged. Each time, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the work, and I gave each job at least one full year, thinking that I needed this much time to become properly trained and to find out if the work was right for me.
After working for a year as an assistant media planner for one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world, I realized I didn't care about Clorox; I didn't even use bleach, so why would I want to spend my time selling it to other people?
I started talking to my friends about their plans and jobs, and I ran into a college buddy who was moving to Lake Tahoe to work at a ski resort. After a weekend visit and checking out the resort's job listings, I knew I wanted to leave the city and head for the mountains, where I could spend most of my time outdoors. My heart was saying that I wanted to be a ski bum, not a corporate drone. I was scared to death to tell my parents that I was quitting the great job I'd worked so hard to get. My dad had even helped me pay for my move to San Francisco, buying me the plane ticket for the interview that got me the job. Would he see me as a quitter? A failure? I thought about this, but realized that my dad would likely support my move, because even though I was giving up the trappings of success (the requisite work clothes, the daily commute), I would be making virtually the same money working at the ski resort.
I had to live with that fear until I made a decision. I spent a lot of time doubting myself and beating myself up, but once I gave notice and began the work of redefining my life, I found myself feeling much more energized and excited about the future. I was surprised that I also felt much more confident. I was beginning to learn that by checking things off my list of possibilities and trying new things, I was moving closer to being my true self. Saying no to the things that don't feel right is as important as saying yes to the ones that do.
Since then, every time I've left a job, a city, or even a partner, when I step into that vast unknown, wide-open space, I can count on something magical happening.
This is the space of possibility that exists for all of us. But we can only get there when we resist the cravings that keep us stuck in the habits of thought and action that are no longer working for us.
For me, this "in-between space" was, and still is, a place of deep physical knowing. Once I make the decision to change, my body responds with cues that say "Yes, good! Do that!" Every time I take one step in the next right direction, no matter how small that step may be, I leave staying stuck in a funk behind. I step out of habit and into possibility.
So I moved up to Lake Tahoe and got a job in a beautiful Sierra resort in the conference-planning department. I had always loved party planning, and the entry-level position took advantage of these skills, plus, the job provided me with full benefits and a ski pass. I was also surrounded by handsome, twenty-something ski bums who, while in the best physical shape of their lives, spent most of their free time smoking pot and snowboarding. Hanging out with them was fun for a few months, but "the life," as they called it, got old for me pretty quickly.
But I put in my time and after a year of lugging boxes full of binders for retreat meetings, dating "snow dudes," and dealing with stressed-out conference coordinators, I realized event planning wasn't my life's calling, so I moved to New York City, where my brother lived. I stayed in a spare room in his office in the East Village for a few months while I worked as the day bartender at a famous Irish pub on St. Mark's Place. This was an incredibly trendy spot, and I spent my days pulling pints for famous writers and actors. But before long, my body was getting that itchy feeling, that impulse to quite literally get out. Tending bar in the dark while the sun was shining began to turn my brain to mush, so I applied for a position as a legal assistant at an entertainment law firm.
You've heard sitting is the new smoking, right? Well, in my case, working at a corporate desk job turned out to be downright deadly. At the law firm where I worked, I sat in artificial lighting at a desk with a chair that gave me terrible backaches. I was not allowed Internet access because as an assistant, I might "abuse" the privilege. (I guess this rule didn't apply to the partner I caught watching porn on his computer.)
Ten-hour workdays were the norm, not the exception. I had toyed with the idea of applying to law school, but after a few months of long days and passionless work, I started to feel so physically awful that all I could think about was what I needed to do to get better. I was suffering from migraine headaches, almost daily, and I was going through handfuls of Advil in a failed attempt to dull the pain. I was depressed and exhausted, even after sleeping ten to twelve hours a night on weekends. My back was a wreck and I was eating candy bars and pastries and drinking caffeine all day in an attempt to manage all of this discomfort.
I finally went to a doctor because the headaches were getting out of hand. My mother's stories of her sister's and father's suicide by overdose and their abuse of painkillers haunted me every time I took another two or three Advil, and I knew that having so many headaches meant that something was really wrong. Within minutes of sitting in the doctor's examination room, after I briefly explained my symptoms, the doctor handed me two pieces of paper: one was a prescription for painkillers and the other one was for Prozac. I froze. Everything in my body said, "I don't want prescriptions to mask the pain. I need to heal!"
I left the doctor's office with the prescriptions in my purse, but with no intention of filling them. Instead, I asked around and got a recommendation for a more holistic doctor, who agreed to see me the next day. Sitting in the waiting room at his office, I looked around at the Buddha statue, a tinkling waterfall, and live ferns that were growing beside a display of nutritional supplements. This didn't feel like any doctor's office I'd ever visited before, but there were diplomas on the walls, too, so I felt at least a little reassured. A nurse showed me to the exam room, and I sat on the examination table and waited.
The doctor came in and sat across from me. He introduced himself and asked me to describe my concerns. After a few minutes, he asked me what I was eating. I was a bit shocked. No doctor had ever asked me that question before. I described my diet: croissant and a skinny vanilla latte in the morning, fast food from Subway or McDonald's with a soda for lunch (the two-cheeseburger meal was my favorite), and Chinese takeout or pasta for dinner.
"No wonder you're sick. Your diet is totally refined and that's what is causing your headaches." He explained how the sugar and all the additives in refined foods were causing an overgrowth of candida, a yeast, in my body and thereby causing the headaches. Before I left, he handed me a list of foods I ought to eat (fresh, plant-based foods) and those I ought to avoid (dairy, coffee, sugar, wheat, corn, meat), and he suggested some vitamins I might take to help replace the nutrients my diet had been lacking.
No sugar? No caffeine? No McDonald's? This doctor was suggesting that I needed to eliminate about 75% of what I was currently eating in order to feel better. To say that these recommendations scared me is an understatement: I felt completely overwhelmed. But I felt so awful I was willing to try anything, so I left his office and went to the library to get some books on the subject. I found cookbooks that focused on this new, "clean" style of eating and also several books on nutrition for health. As I dug around, I began to realize that there were whole sections of the library devoted to healthy eating.
I started by stripping out the easy things, like pastries and fast food and deluxe designer coffees. But soon I went beyond the doctor's recommendation and started eating a 100% plant-based diet. Within a week or two, my entire body began to change. The headaches stopped. My depression and exhaustion disappeared. I started to feel focused, light and strong again. And the 25 extra pounds I had put on since I left my ski resort job melted off over the course of a few months, without my even noticing. Then, I woke up one day and I realized I felt amazing!
I knew if I was going to make this miracle diet stick, I'd have to learn how to do more than toss a salad with tofu. I found the Natural Gourmet Institute, a culinary school in Manhattan that offered evening and weekend classes using mostly plant-based ingredients. I signed up and took a basic cooking class over a weekend. By the end of the class, I was hooked. The idea that maybe I could create this kind of food for a living bubbled up inside me and I asked for information on the professional training program that the school offered.
With help from my father and stepmom, I took out another student loan, quit my legal job, and started culinary school. Over the next thirteen years, I helped conceive and make the Oscar- nominated documentary Super Size Me, earned a certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and published three nutrition books. I appeared in countless magazines, on news programs, and in documentaries sharing my story and my newfound perspective on food. I hung out with the "big vegans" in New York City, and spoke on stages about vegan parenting. I was married to a famous filmmaker, traveled the world and walked the red carpet by his side.
And then it all came tumbling down. Soon after our son was born, I discovered that I couldn't trust my husband, so we began counseling. The therapist made little headway in helping us heal our broken bond, and we began a long and slow divorce process. I felt like a complete failure. My career was floundering, my marriage was over and I was now a single mom. Something in my body began to shift, and my menstrual cycle started cycling faster; I started getting my period every fourteen to sixteen days. I was crampy, depleted and exhausted — and I was miserable.
And I started to crave meat. And sex. I hadn't had either in so long that the feelings of discomfort that these cravings triggered in me were impossible to identify for many months. I would find myself wandering the aisles of the grocery store looking for something to satisfy this deep wanting, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
One day I walked into my super-hippie grocery co-op in Brooklyn and wandered around for ten minutes with an empty basket. I must have looked like a crazy homeless lady, because I'd just dropped off my son at preschool and hadn't showered in days. Wearing stretched-out yoga pants, shuffling and mumbling as I looked for something, anything, to satisfy me. I left without buying a thing. I had picked up chocolate, ice cream, chips and even kale, but nothing felt like what I wanted.
I wanted — I needed — something, but I just couldn't put my finger on what that something was.
Around this time, I was out to dinner with a couple of friends in Manhattan and they ordered steak and fish. I got the vegan pasta dish, with tofu and greens, a glass of wine and a nice gazpacho. As our main courses arrived, my eyes rested on the meats placed before my friends. My torso and forehead became hot and yearning. My mouth started to water. I wanted to eat their meat.
This was bad.
I wasn't supposed to want meat! I was a vegan health counselor, for God's sake! I tried to ignore this "disgusting" feeling and focused on my pasta and drinking more wine. The talk turned to romance and my friends gently asked if I was ready to date. As I had been doing, I protested that it was too soon. This was the story I'd been telling myself for a while, and when my friends nodded in sympathetic understanding, I became annoyed. I was annoyed that they didn't try to talk me out of this idea, and annoyed that their food looked way better than mine.
I wanted meatballs. And I wanted a man.
One night around this time I was digging through my underwear drawer and rediscovered my vibrator. I hadn't used it in so long that at first I wasn't quite sure what it was doing there. I stood there, bewildered, until I felt a tingle of recognition that, while distant, was unmistakable. My body was telling me that it wanted to play, even though my brain didn't want to acknowledge this. Fortunately, I listened to my body instead of my brain. I found some fresh batteries, and I got busy.
All of these frustrations and "dead ends" were really opportunities for me to ask myself what I wanted. Career doesn't interest you? What do you want? Town too small? Where do you want to live? Relationship not stable or fulfilling? What kind of person do you want to be with? What is it that will feel good to you?
Are you willing to try again? And again, and again?
Yes. The answer has always been, will always be, yes.
Because every time I have tried something new, I learn something essential. Try a new man? I get to learn what your body likes and how to ask for what I want. Try a new diet? I discover what foods I am addicted or sensitive to and let them go. Try a new job? Learn a new job skill? I get to find new, more fulfilling work, a more supportive network, a more meaningful career.
And what if I "fail"? What if the boyfriend, the diet, or the job don't work out? Then I've still gained some invaluable information about what I need. I'm gathering the data I need to get closer to what I really want. The trick is to be ready to try again. Because every time I have taken the risk of finding out who I really am and what I really want, I've moved one step closer to being there.
This practice of saying yes to my yearnings, cravings, and desires has brought me full circle to a life and body I love.
I listen to "her," my body.
I ask her what she really needs. Every meal is an opportunity to have a conversation with myself about which foods will help me feel good — not just now, in this moment, but for the next few hours, the next few days, or in years to come.
I don't engage in exercise as a way to burn off calories or punish myself for last night's dessert; now I take advantage of those times when I can move and stretch in ways that make me feel strong, relaxed and sexy.
How I spend my time, what I eat, what work I do, who I spend time with now matches up with how I want to feel. And how I want to feel is safe, sexy, and free, shamelessly. Join me.