Planning challenges for myself is fun. Like researching and planning to observe the rules of an Orthodox Lent, and to give up all spoken word audio, nonessential driving and spending is fun while I’m chomping on quesadillas and churros. But eventually you have to stop planning and actually do it. Some people may enjoy the act of exercising self-discipline. I do not enjoy discipline, which is probably why I suck so bad at moderation. But as someone who would eat cake for breakfast, cookies for lunch, and ice cream for dinner, I like what discipline gives me: basically the appearance of being a normal person with self-control. Here’s what happened in the first week of my Orthodox rip-off Lent.
I woke up on Monday with a gulp. I would be kicking off the 48 days of my ripped-off Ortodox-ish Lent with three days of full fasting. I had never fasted for more than 24 hours before. The last time I tried it, I started puking my guts up around the 24 hour mark. I was pretty sure I’d come down with a really poorly timed stomach bug, but I was never quite sure that the fasting wasn’t to blame.
Because of completely unrelated things, I had planned to take the day off of work on Monday. That wound up being a huge help because I was off of my routine and so wasn’t expecting meals at certain times of the day. I’d read plenty of places that you don’t really get that hungry when fasting, and that it’s food that makes you hungry… but that sounded like a cartload of bullshit to me. I was really surprised to find that in this case it was true. I stayed busy all day, and never really felt hungry, weak, or lightheaded. My blood sugar stayed consistently between 75 and 85 mg/dl through the whole day, which is actually on the high side for me. I did let myself have tea, lemon water, black coffee, and a chia/apple cider vinegar concoction, so between the lemon juice and the chia thing I probably had 200 calories throughout the day.
I didn’t just sit on the couch like a slug all day either. My day included some errand running, a 3-mile hike, about 4 hours of stressy work, and a 3-hour-round-trip drive. Harder than doing all of these things without food was doing them without audiobooks or podcasts to listen to. It wasn’t so much that I was bored (although I did almost fall asleep on the drive home), I wasn’t. But without a constant narrative to bring my focus back “home” I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. I would open my phone and stare at it thinking, ENTERTAIN ME!!! And realize that I had no interest in anything that any of my apps could show me. Then I would look around at a loss for what to think about. I did not achieve enlightenment during the uninterrupted think time of either my long drive or my silent hike in nature.
On Day 2 I was back to my routine. This day I woke up with a sigh rather than a gulp. I didn’t really feel any differently than I do on a normal morning, but it was very sad that I wouldn’t have yummy, delicious meals to look forward to today. If one didn’t have food to reward you for getting through every few hours of your day, then why even bother getting out of bed? The idea of possibly having emotions and not having food to swallow them with made me feel a little… well… empty inside.
I took the dog for a short 3-mile run and was surprised that I felt fine throughout, even if I was running about 10-15s/mile slower than I normally would. I also did not feel particularly drained on my 7-mile bike ride to work. If the science was correct, nearly all of my energy would be coming from stored fat at this point, but I did not notice a significant slow-down in baseline efforts, nor did my blood sugar dip in response to exercising. This was really interesting, because I had a history of setting off low blood sugar warnings during regular workouts.
One thing I did notice was that exercise made me hungrier. It wasn’t so much that my tummy was hungry, but the smell of food was very hard to ignore. Part of my job involves handling food, and I had more trouble than usual tearing myself away from the cookies and cheese platter.
The non-fasters are always afraid that going without food will make you cranky and distracted. Experienced fasters always argue that fasting actually brings improved mental focus. I am inclined to agree with the fasting camp on this one. This day was the first day of work for a new person that I was responsible for training. I found that my explanations of things were clearer and less rambling than I often am when I try to describe my work.
I also wasn’t as cranky as I would normally be. This happened to be the one day a quarter when my Work Nemesis comes to our office and drives me crazy. To make matters worse, I was supposed to stay late for my Nemesis’s event. Instead of letting her get under my skin, I gave her what she needed and got out of her way. And when I found out that she had changed a plan without telling me, and that change meant that I would likely have to stay an hour later, I calmly texted my dog walker and asked her to feed Oscar dinner, then got back to work.
The mental clarity didn’t feel like a brightness or a sharpness. It was more like a kind of surrender. Although I didn’t feel low energy, it was like I had no energy to engage in extraneous thought or emotion, so I surrendered the inefficiency of feelings and just got on with it. It wasn’t like rejoicing in freedom from worry, but it wasn’t quite apathy either. I’ve heard that the “marathon monks” who have completed the full 1000 day, 8-year quest for enlightenment describe enlightenment as realizing that your suffering means nothing to the world. Maybe in that way I was starting to get a taste of enlightenment. If that is the case, enlightenment is bleaker than I thought.
This day I woke up with a yearning for food. I wasn’t necessarily body hungry, but I was really missing the reward of food. I was starting to learn that I could live with much less food than I thought I needed. If you don’t really need food every day, then each meal should have a purpose and be celebrated, shouldn’t it? I swore that I wouldn’t take my food for granted again. When I ate it, I was going to love it and cherish it. Even a bowl of plain brown rice would have made me rejoice.
I wasn’t sure what my blood sugar would do this day, but to my surprise it didn’t just hold steady, but had actually risen slightly in the two and a half days since I’d eaten last. I went for a slightly longer run (4 miles instead of 3) and continued to feel alright.
However, I was freezing. I tend to run cold anyway, but am rarely so out of whack that I can’t coexist with those around me. On Day 2 I had stayed huddled around my space heater until my coworker insisted on opening a window. Now on Day 3 I felt like I had ice in my bones. I would put on extra layers and couldn’t heat them up with my body heat. Between my morning run in 40º temperatures and my ride to work I could not get warm, even in my house crouched in front of the heater.
I also felt like my sense of smell was really heightened. I could smell onions frying from people’s houses 25 yards away. I could smell the Burger King a quarter mile away. I stopped at a stop light where I had never smelled food before, and I could smell croissants baking. I looked in all directions and could not see a single bakery or commercial kitchen, but the smell was so intense I could practically taste every croissant I had ever eaten in my life. I also felt like I could smell the smells that we’re not even aware of; the ones that trigger emotions. Like a dog I could walk into a room and smell people’s personal scents, and the smell of paper in the office or the smell of a settled area versus nature.
By 2pm my stomach was rumbling uncontrollably to the point where I thought it was going to disrupt my meeting. I was so cold I almost felt tingly, and I was starting to feel the beginnings of a cramp in my butt cheek that ached like growing pains. Worse, I was starting to lose the ability to focus on anything but food. My blood sugar was in the 90’s, but I was hungry. Had it been a quiet Sunday I would have pushed through and gone for a walk or something, but I had a job to do. I gave it about an hour to pass and drank plenty of fluids, but finally I gave up and went down to the kitchen.
I had planned to eat only a few nuts to get me through, but the salty almonds and peanuts tasted SO good that I had a lot of nuts instead. I ate probably about 1 cup of peanuts and almonds and was going to stop… but then I saw that there was leftover pineapple in the fridge from yesterday’s event that was the perfect ripeness. Perfectly ripe pineapple is a celebration indeed, so I also had a very large fruit salad. Then I stopped eating again.
On the ride home I felt bionic! I did not ride fast, but the pedals turned themselves without effort, and the time and miles passed easily. My blood sugar had spiked up to the high 180’s after the pineapple, but now 2 hours later with the bike ride it had dipped below my fasting levels in the 80’s back down to the 60’s. Maybe it’s true that carbs really do make you hungry. When I got home I was hungry again, but not so hungry that I couldn’t ignore it. I had some herbal tea and worked on some projects, and managed to push through until bed time.
Day 4… and a little beyond
In the morning I woke up excited for food, and disappointed that life responsibilities would prevent me from focusing on my feast as I really wanted to. I immediately had some macadamia nuts. I had been fantasizing about a fried plantain, so I attempted to have one of those as a pre-run snack. The problem is that I haven’t really figured out how to fry plantains, so I burned the shit out of a plantain that I had been saving for 2 weeks. Who cared? I ate it anyway. It was disappointing, but I didn’t really have much around that fit the Orthodox Lent requirements of no animal products, no leavened bread (or gluten… since I’m still going on that experiment), and no olive oil. Then I headed out for a run.
This was the worst run yet, despite having eaten beforehand. I felt uncoordinated and had very low energy. Where my blood glucose had stayed in the 70’s and 80’s on my fasted run days, this time it dropped into the high 50’s. Somewhat predictably, the food was sitting in my stomach like a rock, and felt terrible. Toward the end of the run I actually had to slow down and walk to prevent another public pooping incident. The strangest thing though was that my arms began to cramp. While my legs had plenty of energy and felt fine, my arms felt like they were bonking hard. I felt like if I had tried to do a push-up, my arms wouldn’t have held me up and I would have fallen on my face. My liver had clearly been generating enough glycogen for the muscles that I was using every day, but I felt like it had left the muscles on my arms to whither and die. I resolved that the next time I fasted, I would also do some push-ups and pull-ups to prevent “unused” protein/muscle loss in my upper body.
A couple of interesting things happened in the aftermath of the almost-3-day fast. First off, my fasting glucose was slightly higher than it had been before the fast. I interpret that to mean that there was less insulin circulating around in my blood to push glucose out of my bloodstream and into storage. Either that, or my body had gotten better at burning fat for energy by both burning fatty acids for fuel and turning stored fat back to glucose in my liver. Or maybe it was a combination of both. I’ve been doing a little more reading into what happens to other metabolic hormones during fasting. Glucagon is the hormone responsible for telling your body to break down fat for energy. They say that glucagon is like insulin’s alter-ego, they’re never seen in the room at the same time. Which makes sense, since insulin is the hormone that tells your body to store glucose as fat, and glucagon is the hormone that tells your liver to burn fat for fuel. With the insulin from constantly eating every few hours out of my system, glucagon reigned supreme and I was able to increase the total concentration of glucose in my blood, even though I didn’t have any food coming in. …Or that’s what seemed to be happening anyway.
But what about the supposed “path to enlightenment” from fasting? I didn’t expect to become the next religion-founding prophet in just 64 hours of fasting, but I wasn’t sure whether to expect visions of saints or other hallucinations either. I have been struggling with an ongoing dynamic at my job that has turned to toxic. For a couple of years the situation and my conflict over it has been eroding my physical and emotional wellbeing. I didn’t know if the struggle was a sign that I needed to grow up, change priorities, knuckle under and toughen up in order to be successful, or if I really was in a losing and unhealthy situation. On the morning after I broke my full fast, the toxic pattern played out again.
Without comforting gluten-y carbs, delicious cheese, or even warm and milky coffee and tea to soothe me, and no stories in my ears to distract me, I had to sit without distraction in the icky feelings that came from the uncomfortable situation. I couldn’t even go onto Amazon and buy something exciting to assuage my dissatisfaction with the state of my life. I sat and I sat in my icky feelings, and I icked and I icked around in circles in my head. I mentally told off the person that was antagonizing me over and over. I silently went on long diatribes to friends familiar with the situation that laid out the arguments that justified my point of view from every possible angle. Because there were fewer distractions, I was able to get further and further into my internal depositions each time. Eventually I ran out of things to add after, “…and another thing!”
I had played each argument all the way to the end. There were no new angles on my complaints to explore. The only options were to start again with the pity party from the beginning, or start working on solutions. Until now I had been playing through the same narrative with the same narrow list of possible solutions over and over, but now I was slowly started to see where there were alternative paths that I hadn’t considered before.
Perhaps this is what the religious side is talking about when they say that fasting makes it easier to pray and brings them closer to God. Perhaps this is why there is always an isolation element in the paths to enlightenment of the best-known prophets. Certainly this is why I always have my best ideas when my pants are off –– in the shower or on the toilet –– because those are the two times that I sit still and let my mind wander without distractions.
In the end I didn’t reach Enlightenment, but I did reach a kind of clarity. I finally knew without doubt or inner conflict what direction I wanted to take my career. Within 24 hours of making my decision, my boss and I calmly discussed the challenges I’d been having and mapped out a new path that was more aligned with my goals and values. I felt like I could breathe for the first time in years.
If all of this happened in my first week of my six-week rip-off Lent, I wonder what rewards might come from the remaining 5 weeks.