What I’m supposed to write is an exposé about how reaching major goals isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’m supposed to feel nostalgic for Past Self. Maintenance is supposed to be this total pain in the neck that isn’t really worth it. I know it but I can’t write any of that. My experience is that life is easier in the “after” photo. The more I have succeeded in reaching goals and eliminating persistent problems, the more I have realized that the same skills can be applied in different areas of life, and that it is indeed worth every effort to do so.
This is most obvious when it comes to eliminating debt. When I graduated from college (a few months before the photo on the left was taken), I had two separate student loans, two maxed-out credit cards, an overdraft I didn’t even understand, and some small personal debts. Then I added a car loan. For the first several months, every time I would make a payment on my student loan, the balance would increase, and I would cry. There was a period of time when I had maybe $30 a month of discretionary income. That was my lever to try to get out from under the snowballing consumer debt. It felt like it would never end. I checked all my balances every day, picked up pennies off the sidewalk and deposited them in my checking account, read the entire personal finance section at the public library, and continued to do odd jobs cleaning houses and babysitting. Fortunately, I also continued to demonstrate hustle at my day job, and I got some raises and promotions. I’ve been free of consumer debt for several years now. I paid off my Perkins Loan six years early. I still owe $7000 on my main student loan, and I never stop thinking about it. Mainly, though, I enjoy swiping my debit card at the grocery store and knowing that the payment will go through. The freedom from constant financial stress is fabulous. I think my shoulders have dropped two inches. That would be a great before/after photo opportunity: ‘Before’ with the dark circles under the eyes and the forehead creases. ‘After’ with shoulders back and head held high.
Getting organized is another area where ‘after’ is so much better, I’m not even capable of going back to ‘before.’ I had chronic disorganization problems from grade school through my early 30s. I was late for everything. I lost stuff, including gloves, scarves, hats, wallets, day planners, my ID and debit cards, and even a library book once or twice. There was always a pile of unsorted, unopened mail on my desk, and probably more in my backpack. My closet was full of unfinished craft projects. I wouldn’t have considered it that way at the time, but I was unreliable. The struggle was real. I kept a fairly clean house, but the bureaucratic machinery of my life smelled like burning rubber and had springs flying out. It took a long time, and dozens of books on organization, but I finally learned how to manage the details. I sleep better. It seems counterintuitive, but I spent probably 5x as much mental strain worrying before I got organized than I do now. Does peace of mind show up in photos?
Controversially, the most dramatic change in my before/after photo would be the physical differences. I’ve lost 35 pounds from my top weight. I ran my first marathon about six weeks after I took the photo on the right. I look better as a fit person, even though I’m 10 years older. This is mostly because being heavy made me physically miserable. I had thyroid disease, chronic pain, and migraines, and my sleep disorder ran my life. My ‘after’ photo includes so many changes, from better posture to muscle, and I’ve traded from dark circles to having color in my face. Maintaining my food log every day takes about two minutes. Being overweight and ill took up about 98% of my time and attention. Maybe other people prefer being [choose favorite euphemism for excess adipose tissue], but their experience must not have included anything that was a part of my experience. Nobody goes around claiming that “Headachy girls are better than thin girls.” My before/after picture is about bummer/happy, exhausted/rested, cruddy/high energy.
If I made two lists, of Past Self’s typical daily actions and the stuff I do differently now, Past Self would freak. It would have looked terrifying and not fun. Past Self would most likely go off on a rant about what kind of crazy person would waste their life doing all that stuff. It wouldn’t have worked if I’d tried to make every single change all at once. What happened was that I would make a small change, it would work out well, and then later I would make another small change. Year after year, the effects of those small changes added up, giving me more time and energy to focus on other areas. I changed from broke, scatterbrained, and fatigued to solvent, productive, and fit. I still like to think of myself as the ‘before’ and wonder what the next ‘after’ will look like.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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