Red Flags, White Flags and Non-Negotiables

It got real, real quick. Didn't it?! 

We've got a little catching up to do. I’ve been hiding out during what turned out to be a very bumpy start in my adjustment to the current times, and I just didn’t feel like I had anything valuable to offer you. I didn’t want to add to the noise on social media, or the piles of shit in your inbox, so it’s been bare minimum for the last six weeks. Admittedly, my bare minimum is what a lot of people strive to accomplish, and that's a hell of a lot of weight to carry.  My typical day has included homeschooling 3 kids and entertaining a wild pre-schooler, cooking, cleaning and trying my best to hold on to a shred of sanity. I’m coming around to finding some sort of new normal, but I’m not exactly there yet.  

But I do have some useful things to share with you now, and I’d like to do that by giving you a really up-close and personal account on what it’s been like for me, and some hard, hard lessons I’ve learned so far. The parts of my story that will be helpful to you are buried within the lessons I’ve learned, and mostly this me sharing in my own vulnerability to let you know you are not in this alone. We are all humans having a very human experience. We are all collectively learning and grieving alongside each other right now.

On January 20th, inspired by an amazing book called Quit Like a Woman, and two local experts who led a class at MIW called “A Break From Booze,” I decided to quit drinking alcohol. No more occasional glasses of wine with dinner, or a mixed drink when I’m out with friends. So now I’m a new non-drinker and pretty proud of it. For me, skipping the alcohol has been liberating in that I am no longer masking my introverted discomfort in social situations and that feels like I am able to just be myself more often. I tested myself and had a couple drinks while at a wedding at the end of February and it reaffirmed my decision to quit; brain fog the next day, regret of breaking a promise to myself, and just a general not-feeling-good for several days afterward. 

Quitting alcohol has meant placing a higher value on my well-being and being very honest with myself about the health choices that impact whether I feel good or bad, both emotionally and physically.  Knowing that my tendency is to operate in all-or-nothing terms, quitting alcohol completely was a good decision for me because I don’t suffer from decision fatigue anymore. I don’t have to decide in the moment if, when and how much is ok for me to drink. Now, to be clear, I’ve never been dependent on alcohol but I do come from a long line of alcoholism on both sides of my family and I’ve noticed that even a weekly drink left me mentally foggy and in physical pain because I have an autoimmune disorder and the name of the game is decreasing the inflammatory response, which alcohol accelerates.

Red flag #1: Several weeks ago I found myself seriously considering taking up drinking again. Wait. What?! Who in their right mind ever thinks that that “taking up drinking” is a good idea? Like it’s some sort of hobby, like “taking up painting?” As the words were leaving my lips, I knew how ridiculous it sounded, and my husband just looked at me, confused, without saying a word. I started laughing maniacally. If there’s ever been proof that this pandemic is sending me over the edge, here it is. Jessica Hill Powell, health coach and owner of an integrative wellness center, who has an autoimmune disorder that’s landed her in a wheelchair on a couple different occasions, has just said aloud that she is considering taking up drinking again. 

I gave myself some time to consider what led me to that conclusion that drinking is a good idea, and here’s what I came up with: My emotional bandwidth is dangerously low because of all of the changes brought about by this COVID-19 pandemic.   

  • I’ve found myself in the role of stay-at-home mom with 4 small children, plus I’m now their teacher. Yay!
  • My introverted nature calls for lots of time spent in quiet, contemplative work. My current environment is more like a circus. A very loud circus. (My kids are 10, 9, 7, and 3)
  • My mental overwhelm caused me to forget about my self-care toolbox, which is what I call all of my practices, routines, rituals that keep my steeped in behaviors that keep me physically and emotionally well. 
  • I was trying to keep up with ALL THE THINGS, and not respecting that my own capacity for getting things done has been severely diminished. 

After having myself a good laugh/ cry at the absurdity of it all, and ultimately deciding that taking up drinking was the most idiotic solution to a problem I've come up with in a long, long time, my stubbornness told me to just continue with business as usual. Here are some of the “business as usual” (aka bullshit) expectations I have of myself and my loved ones: 

  • The house must be clean! 
  • The children must listen to me the first time I ask them to do something! 
  • I must figure out a way to make money, and fast!
  • I must keep up with my appearance!
  • I must not gain any weight! 
  • I must contain my anger about having my work life interrupted!
  • I must ignore my fear that the business I just spent the last 2 years of time and resources building will not recover after the pandemic!
  • I must hide my grief in order for my children to be ok during this time. 

Under the weight of all those expectations, enter Red Flags #2-5: I am screaming at my kids, constantly. I feel like I am coming out of my own skin with the noise level in my house. I have an unexplainable, very physical sensation of weight and muscle soreness in my ribcage that won’t allow me to take anything but super-shallow breaths. My mind is cycling between “my business will never make it out of this pandemic and all is lost” to me scrambling for ideas to help keep it afloat. 

What happened next was so predictable, yet I didn’t see it coming. Full blown autoimmune flare up. Everything in my body physically hurt.  I emotionally hurt for the better part of two weeks, with tears seeming to just leak out of the corners of my eyes even when I wasn’t actively crying. Deep grief and anger was literally just pouring out of me. Since learning how to feed my body appropriately, and protecting my gut health at all costs, I have never had another flare up. Maybe some minor aches and pains if I got off track with nutrition, but they were subtle and served as reminders. This autoimmune flare up felt like absolute defeat.

After posting this article, an editor from Today's Woman magazine asked if they could publish part of it in their upcoming May 2020 issue. They wanted to show what #healthyathome real life looks like for Kentuckians. Naturally, I put on some mascara and picked up discarded snack wrappers from the living room floor for the photo they requested. You know, because I didn't want to look too trashy in a published magazine. However, after taking the photo I remembered that I still had on my favorite Pink Floyd shirt that I slept in the night before, I hadn't even put on a bra, and of course, the 3 year old is a blur of blonde hair and nakedness. Very fitting for the times. 

I’m only writing this now as I’m on the upswing, because I just didn’t have it in me to try to find the nugget of wisdom that the universe was offering me in this catastrophe. My mind, body and spirit were furiously waving red flags and I chose business as usual instead of taking the time to investigate. Finally choosing to stop the fighting against reality and wave the white flag, here are the lessons I've learned:

  • Lesson #1: For the love of God, don’t ignore the red flags. They’re waving for a good reason. 
  • Lesson #2:  Lower my expectations of myself and others; they aren’t fair to anyone involved. 
  • Lesson #3:  In the hardest of times remember to lean into my support system and my self-care toolbox, not away from them. 
  • Lesson #4: Make room for emotion even when it’s severely inconvenient; it’ll come out anyway. What? No one else has leaky eyes or raging hearts?!
  • Lesson #5:  I need to work with just being with what is, not moving to force change. 


I thought that if I am having trouble with these hard, hard lessons and wellness is literally my JOB, some of you may be struggling too.

I used a group call with the MIW team to discuss what’s in our own personal self-care toolboxes, and I want to share those with you. This is just a list of things that we, as experienced wellness practitioners, do to keep ourselves feeling balanced. Some of these things are non-negotiable and must be done frequently, others are optional and done according to the circumstances. These practices don’t make us immune to pain or hardship, but they do keep us more resilient. 

  • Getting outdoors, going on walks, prioritizing movement and outdoors as a part of daily routine
  • Painting
  • Intentional communication: check-ins morning and night with partner regrading your emotional bandwidth 
  • Workouts
  • Video games and board games
  • Movie Nights
  • Daydreams (with or without others) for future plans
  • Naps
  • Cooking
  • Writing/ journaling
  • Playing the guitar
  • Breaks in between working
  • Eating healthy
  • Breath work and meditation
  • Gardening
  • Household projects
  • Morning Rituals
  • Reading, audiobooks, podcasts
  • Limiting social media and news

The most important thing for me right now has been lowering my expectations of myself and everyone else. So when I think about what I want to get done in a given day, I’m cutting that down by about 75%. When my kids aren’t cleaning up to my standards and my inner critic takes the stage to tell me I am raising lazy, disrespectful children, I’m politely telling it to shut the hell up. 

Now that I spilled my guts to you, it’s your turn. Just kidding— you don’t have to tell the world you aren’t coping well like I just did, but just take a moment to check in with yourself. Maybe write in your journal. How are you feeling this week? What are your self-care non-negotiables? If your non-negotiable somehow turned negotiable like mine did, how will you get back on track? 

If it would serve you to have some additional support through this crisis, I’ve got your back. I’ve been through the wringer and I know how to support you. In the words of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, we will get through this, and we will get through this together. Reach out, even if you just need to vent or check in with me. 

All the best, 

Jessica Hill Powell, NBC-HWC, RYT-200
Founder + Health Coach at Meridian Integrative Wellness

3 Comments

  1. I can definitely relate in that I too find it difficult to adjust my high expectations and it always catches up with me one way or another- heightened anxiety, inability to take a full breath, for me there’s been anger, yelling, and lots of tears. Balancing it with time outdoors and prioritizing my training has saved me on the tough days. Thanks for sharing your experiences, super helpful <3

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