I think most of us (uh, myself VERY MUCH included) believe that we can only change a few degrees in either direction. We can become slightly healthier, slightly less anxious, slightly better with money. Welp, today Nicole is proving us wrong.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Nicole Antoinette, 30, from Bend, Oregon. I’m a former drinker, party girl, and couch potato turned distance runner who’s obsessed with eliminating the bullshit from day-to-day life and having more honest conversations about the wonderful, absurd, painful, and hilarious mess of being human. My current projects explore how we can use grit and grace to close the gap between what we say we want and what we actually do.
What did your life look like five years ago? What did an average Friday look like?
I was two things five years ago: drunk and lost. I was fresh off of quitting a five-year job as Director of a children’s summer day camp, followed by three months of backpacking around the US and crashing on the couches of people who were reading my blog, and I had absolutely no idea what was next.
I was down to just a few hundred dollars in my bank account, I had no job, no direction, and I had just moved to San Francisco for a guy who, I found out three days after I moved there, was secretly dating someone else. At that point, the only thing that was constant in my life was being a perpetual party girl, and an average Friday night was pretty similar to an average any-other-night: drinks, candy, and trying very hard to look like I wasn’t trying at all.
How did you feel physically/emotionally?
Wild. Lonely. Exhausted. Anxious. And, usually, hungover. Not taking care of yourself is a strange thing, because more often than not, we aren’t making the conscious decision not to care for ourselves. We’re not thinking, “You know, my health and well-being isn’t important, so therefore I’m going to eat cake and drink gin and stay in bed all day watching Grey’s Anatomy reruns and engaging in mean self-talk.”
It’s not that intentional – or at least, it wasn’t that intentional for me. It’s more that I had been eating unhealthily and drinking too much and making self-destructive decisions for so long, that it just felt… normal. I had grown accustomed to feeling crappy all the time. It’s all I knew.
When people talked about healthy eating or exercise or self-development, how did you respond?
I’ve always been interested in self-development, but if I’m being honest I have to admit that back then I was more interested in the idea of self-development than of actually developing a healthier, happier, more stable self. I loved that people saw me as this “Gives zero fucks, has fun all the time” kind of person. I’d get myself into situations that really weren’t in my best interest by saying, “At least this will be an awesome story!”
And, when you’re living like that, self-care is way down on the priority list. I didn’t eat well and I hardly ever exercised, which (real talk alert!) is because I wasn’t interested in losing weight. Growing up, I always associated exercise and being mindful about food as things that people only did if they were trying to lose weight, and since I wasn’t trying to lose weight I didn’t pay attention to being healthy at all. Plus, when you’re drunkenly eating Cheetos and mini doughnuts at 3am, it’s pretty tough to drag yourself to the gym the next morning.
And, honestly, I can’t even remember how I responded to people who talked about healthy eating or exercise, because I didn’t have a lot of those people in my life.
What made you decide to change the way you lived your life?
Throughout those years of drinking and being emotionally all over the place, I was also struggling with insomnia. For about six years, I only slept a few hours per night on average, and I was exhausted all the time. I had been to different doctors, tried different medications, but nothing had worked, which only drove me harder into my unhealthy habits as a coping mechanism.
In February 2010, still searching for answers, I wound up at an acupuncture appointment that changed absolutely everything for me. In just one appointment, she told me that alcohol was causing the insomnia and that if I quit drinking, I’d start sleeping.
Skeptical, I decided to give it a five-week trial run, which was a big deal given my life at the time, and I can’t even tell you how shocked I was when she was right. A few days after I stopped drinking, I was sleeping 7-8 hours per night, and I had never felt so energized and incredible in my life. I finished out those five weeks and then spent about a month testing things – having a beer, a few glasses of wine, a cocktail here and there, and every single time I’d be up almost all night and I’d feel awful for days afterward, so on May 1, 2011, I quit drinking for good.
To be honest though, I knew I needed to quit drinking well before that acupuncturist told me to, because the self-destructive decisions I was making (both in how much I drank and in how I behaved while drinking) were ruining my life. But since everything at that time seemed to revolve around drinking for me, I couldn’t get beyond my fear and overwhelm to take the first step. Having instructions from someone else to quit drinking for a reason unrelated to having a drinking problem gave me the social cover I needed to make the change.
So May 1, 2011 is the day I quit. It was also the day I decided to lace up some old running shoes and go for a jog around the block. “What the hell,” I figured, “I have more energy now, so why not?” I could barely run for two consecutive minutes that first day, but even that was enough to put the wheels of another big change in motion.
Again though, the honest story beneath the story here is that running was a way out of the hole for me. It was a way to go from one addiction/obsession to another, which might not work long term but it’s absolutely what I needed at the time.
What, specifically, are the changes that you’ve made to your life in the past five years? And how did you go about making those changes?
It’s been almost five years since I quit drinking and started running. Since then, I’ve also switched to an entirely plant-based diet and done quite a bit of experimentation in my relationship to sugar, my sleep habits, my inner self-talk, my spirituality, and more.
Those are just a few of the wellness related changes, but there have been others as well. Like ending a long-term relationship that was a “yes” but not a “hell yes”, moving to a city where I didn’t know anyone, getting married, starting my own business, changing that business through multiple iterations, and finally starting a podcast that has become the creative love of my life.
When I look at that list of changes, it can seem like a lot. I’m all, “Woah, I did WHAT?”
But that’s often the case with gradual changes, you know? I didn’t wake up one day and say, “No more tequila! No more candy! No more cheese! Running every day! Working for myself! All of that forever and ever and ever, amen!” That’s not how sustainable change works.
For me, the first step was to focus on changing my story – the one I had been telling myself my whole life about how I started things but never finished them, how I couldn’t stick with changes, how I was a perfectionist that gave up whenever anything went even the slightest bit off track, how I couldn’t have fun unless I was drinking, how exercise was pointless if I wasn’t trying to lose weight, etc. Those stories, those self-limiting beliefs, that’s what had really been standing in my way all along, and it wasn’t until I identified those beliefs that I could start to make changes.
The process of changing my life was more about giving myself permission to experiment than anything else. Just trying things, seeing what made me feel good (and keeping at it) and what made me feel bad (and trying to move away from it). It’s so easy to look at people who have made big life changes and think that it was just this “poof!” moment, after which everything was easy, but that’s not how it works. There’s no “poof” moment, and change is hard. It’s pretty much always just about taking one step at a time over a long period of time. Unsexy, sure, but it’s true.
How did the people in your life react to those changes?
Honestly, the reactions were all over the place. Some people didn’t care, most were supportive, and a few even tried to subtly sabotage what I was doing – especially once I fully committed to getting sober and then again when I went vegan. There’s just so much emotional stuff we all have about food and fitness, you know? And I finally had to accept that other people’s reactions about my decisions had almost nothing to do with me and everything to do with how my decisions made them feel about their own life choices.
What does a Friday look like for you now?
Cooking dinner at home with my husband, maybe watching a documentary or meeting a friend for tea, in bed around 9pm – really no different than most other nights of the week these days.
What are the biggest benefits to your new life? Have there been any drawbacks?
The biggest drawbacks are the people and activities I’ve had to let go of because they’re no longer a good fit for me. But that’s true with any kind of change, or even just with the passing of time, I think. And the biggest benefit? I finally feel like I know who I am, and that I care enough about that person to treat her with respect and kindness.
If someone we love has decided to make big changes in their life and we’re feeling nervous but we want to be supportive, what should we do? What should we say to them?
This is an amazing question. And, honestly, I think the best thing is to direct this exact question at the person you love. Maybe hold back from giving advice or anything and just say, “It sounds like you’re super excited about this, and I’m so excited for you! How can I support you to help make it happen?” That alone would have meant the world to me a few years ago.
What’s one thing you learned from your life overhaul that any of us could apply to our day-to-day life?
Pick one small habit that you can use as an anchor, and focus exclusively on just that to start. My personal anchor habit is to drink 65 ounces of water per day. That might sound silly, or insignificant, but being well-hydrated has so many physical benefits for me (fewer sugar cravings, clearer mind, more energy, etc.). More importantly, though, it gives me one concrete thing to focus on so that I don’t fall into the trap of trying to change too much at once and overload myself. Plus, an anchor habit is really helpful to come back to if/when you feel like you’ve gotten off-track a bit. Because, duh, that happens all the time.
The key is to remember that what you do most of the time matters more than what you do once in a while, and that progress isn’t made in one direct line from point A to point B. It’s gradual, it’s messy as hell sometimes, and it requires you not to be an asshole to yourself while you’re in the middle of it.
So I guess, to sum up: less of being an a**hole to yourself and more water, ha.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Nicole – I looooved this! Do you guys have any questions for her? Have any of you changed your life in really huge ways?