I’m sharing this as a COVID survivor, so if you insist on finding a way to associate my personal story with body image issues, I guess I can’t stop you, but that is not what this is about.
I started 2020 with the declaration that I was going to “get my body back.” At the time, I meant that I had gained weight and it was getting in my way. I had no idea that just a few months later I’d be fighting for my life, and that “getting my body back” would include the ability to walk across the room without hanging on to anything.
Maybe some people can put on weight, and it’s mostly muscle, and it gives them power and vigor. I’m guessing. That was only ever the case for me for a couple of months out of my life, when I was training hard four days a week, right before I got my orange belts in Muay Thai and Krav Maga. I could do fifty burpees!
Usually, on my body and in my life, extra weight represents fatigue and illness.
One of those unfortunate signs has been respiratory issues. At one point I wound up coughing up blood, had to use an inhaler for months, and the nurses kept asking if I was sure I didn’t have asthma. (If I did, nobody told me). I was at least 30 pounds overweight back then.
I made the connection when I was sick with COVID. I spent a lot of time feeling very low and mopey, very much in the mood to blame myself for everything I ever did wrong in my life, wondering how I had brought this on myself. (By going to stupid brunch, that’s how). It occurred to me to wonder if I would have remained asymptomatic if I hadn’t put this extra weight on in the past year.
What the average healthy person does not feel is the sheer weight of having stuff on top of your lungs. It doesn’t matter what it is - a bag of flour, a book, a hefty cat, a pile of laundry, or an impressive pair of bazongas. When you’re having trouble breathing, you feel it. Your chest muscles start working much harder to get air into your lungs, and *shrug* weight-lifting is weight-lifting.
Same with the throat. The single biggest risk factor for sleep apnea is neck circumference, and that is probably why it is common in professional football players. Big necks.
Nobody ever says, Hey, if you drop some weight, your sleep apnea might go away, your asthma might improve. But they probably should. It makes me angry whenever I find out that a doctor has been withholding information from me that I could have used to make different choices.
Anyway. I’m finally starting to feel well enough post-COVID that I decided to try to drop some of this extra weight again.
I resisted Doing the Obvious, which I usually do because The Obvious is always annoying. Otherwise we’d all do it right away. In this case, I knew that keeping a food log was the only thing that ever helped me reach and stay at my goal weight. I did it for an entire year, and maintaining a steady weight was simple and easy. Then I figured I knew what I was doing, so I quit keeping the food log.
Then I started boxing, and I would need a three-hour nap after training, and my husband said, “You need to eat more, babe, you’re putting on muscle.” Nobody ever needs to tell me twice that I need to eat more! Almost instantly I put on 15 pounds.
Almost instantly, I started having health issues. Even as I was kicking butt (literally) in the mat room, working out harder than I ever had in my life, cranking out pushups like a teenage athlete, I started getting every cold and flu. Whatever I was doing, it was demonstrably not helping my immune system.
What a food log would have revealed at the time was a series of double helpings of oatmeal, two-hander sandwiches, energy bars, oh, and, a lot of pizza and Mexican food and donuts.
I’m not eating that way anymore; haven’t been since I quit the martial arts gym. As the months went by, I was stuck at a plateau and I couldn’t figure out why. Surely I eat sensibly!
I had gained ten pounds since I contracted COVID and I had no idea why. It wasn’t like we were going anywhere. No travel, no restaurants.
This is what I found out. It’s easy when you’ve done it before and you’ve learned the basics. It’s easy when you have a sincere desire to learn the truth and you know you are ready to make a change. That readiness usually comes out of frustration, annoyance, and maybe even a certain level of disgust with the current situation, such as: Why do I keep getting sick??
I was eating too much for breakfast.
I was eating too much for lunch.
I was eating an afternoon snack that I probably shouldn’t have been.
I was eating too much for dinner.
I was snacking too much on the weekend.
There ya have it. Same story as last time. Eat 5% too much at every meal and any mammal will steadily gain weight. Will a hummingbird or an iguana do that? Not sure.
I rolled my eyes, sighed passive-aggressively, and determined that I knew what to do. It’s straightforward when there is consistency across a day and across a week. I learned several years ago that it’s a lot easier to do body transformation if you eat basically the same things for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and beverages every day.
I cut back the double helping at breakfast. I cut the afternoon snack. My hubby and I both agreed, since we take turns making dinner, to add in more greens and cut back a little on anything that is not green. I’m giving a side-eye to our weekend popcorn and what exactly goes into Fancy Breakfast, but I’d rather make adjustments on the five days than on the two days.
Sure enough, I finally broke through the plateau that I’ve basically been stuck at since January.
I was so excited that I jumped off the scale, my mouth hanging open. What, already??
Body transformation projects will be different for different people. Mine is mostly about my lived experience, my mood and my energy level and my health results. It’s somewhat about awareness. It’s also about bodily autonomy. This is my vehicle to do with as I will. When I pay more attention to what I’m doing in default mode, I like my results better.
Two months have elapsed and I am totally not getting anywhere on my main goal for the year.
This is the important part to remember, because it’s not the nature of the goal itself that is the issue; the issue is that if I choose something for myself, then I need to know whether I am going to get it or not.
Am I making stuff happen, or not?
Is what I am doing getting me anywhere that I want to go, or not?
Am I making false assumptions as to what it takes to make my goal happen?
Do I actually know what I’m doing?
Have I been taking advice from “experts” and believing that it will work, when it actuality it doesn’t?
A month is both a very short period of time and also a really long chunk of time, depending on what you’re doing. If you skip brushing your teeth for a month, you’ll definitely notice, so will people around you, and your dental hygienist is going to tell you all about it. Same if you decide not to wash your dishes or anything else related to cleanliness.
On an academic calendar, a month is a huge chunk of a semester, term, or quarter. You can probably still pull at least a minor success out of the bag if you refocus and work hard, but skipping a month of study is making life harder on yourself.
If you’re trying to pay off debt or save for a big goal, a month isn’t necessarily going to make a huge difference. While it is one more month of stress and not yet being able to experience the victory feeling, in the grand scheme of things it’s okay. When you’re seventy, you probably won’t remember exactly which month you made your savings goal, and maybe not even which year.
If you’re doing another big project, like remodeling or landscaping, a month also isn’t going to make a huge difference. It is virtually impossible to plan well enough on a large-scale project to finish on a precise date.
I’m thinking about these things because I am trying to put my project into perspective, yet I am so frustrated with myself that this is hard to do.
What I am trying to do is to burn off the extra weight I put on over the past two years. I had a goal to lose five pounds a month, which is a very modest goal. It’s considered safe to lose two pounds a week, so I could have hit 8 or 10 pounds a month without putting myself in any kind of danger.
(Why are we actively encouraged to think of weight loss as potentially dangerous, yet we are definitely not allowed to think of weight *gain* as dangerous?)
I feel a sense of urgency about my goal, because I have a health issue that is being exacerbated by my weight gain. It’s actually been getting significantly worse. When I think about dealing with this problem for even another week, I feel almost panicky, and when I think that I added another month to my stress and suffering it makes me want to throw a brick through my own window.
My problem is night terrors. I had a couple in December and January, and I wasn’t happy about that at all. Then it happened again in February, which why wouldn’t it if nothing else changed?
Then one day my husband asked me, Do you remember what happened last night?
*cue horror movie music*
Okay, apparently I woke up screaming, tried to get out of bed, had an entire conversation with my husband, and went back to sleep. No memory was formed on my end. As far as I was concerned, I had a completely normal night.
This is the worst-case scenario, that I’m causing someone else to suffer because of my problem without even knowing I’m doing it. So, so not a great sign. I told him if it happened again, to definitely ask me about it, and I would make an appointment with my doctor.
On that note, I found a recommendation in my health records to get my weight down through diet and exercise. I just stumbled across it. Nobody called me or sent me a letter, I didn’t get a notification on the app, and no health professional mentioned it to me during any of my office visits over the past year. Officially, though, health advice corresponds with what I have already been trying to do.
Am I mad? No. Did this hurt my feelings? No. Do I want to rebel because how dare someone else tell me what to do? No.
Really it just makes me wonder, how many other people are failed when they pass some health threshold without realizing it. I wish I had known when I was younger that losing weight could help me get rid of my migraines! It makes me question the entire system. Why are so many people having so many health issues, so many issues with their quality of life, when health care costs so darn much? Is it actually doing us any good or are we just getting pushed to take more prescription medication?
I lost five pounds. It wasn’t enough to get back under the threshold for night terrors, which I had successfully beat for four years. Then I blew an entire month barely maintaining. We had guests for the weekend, went out for Mexican food, and I gained four pounds overnight. It took me two weeks to get it back off. *facepalm*
This is why I find the whole issue so distracting and frustrating. I don’t know whether it’s my underactive thyroid, or my age, or some other factor, but it seems to be much easier for me to put on weight now than it was when I was younger. It also seems to take superhuman effort and a million years to reverse the process.
What I want is a whole list of great stuff. I want to reach my goal so I can go out and buy several pairs of pants. I want to start running outdoors again without worrying about putting extra stress on my ankle. I want to sleep normally without sleep-screaming and waking my husband up on work nights. I want to “check the box” and be done with this goal for 2020.
I keep reminding myself of my goals, even as I feel discouraged, troubled, and generally irritated with myself and my glacial rate of progress.
He looked lost. He asked us, “Do you know this area?”
He almost missed the window of kismet because he wasn’t asking the right question.
“Where are you trying to go?” I asked, assuming GPS could help us figure it out.
Veggie Grill, he said, and he was in luck, because that’s where we were going. Follow us, we’ll show you the way!
The first layer of the story: This nice man is picking up something for dinner for his buddy, who is at work.
Oh, and by the way, he’s never been here before, what should he order?
The second layer of the story: This nice man has just been put on an insulin pump, after less than a year of rapid weight gain. He shows it to us. He’s the kind of workaholic who will go twelve hours on a cup of coffee, and then eat a bag of fast food in the car because he got called in to cover someone else’s shift.
Changing jobs or getting a promotion are fairly common causes of sudden weight gain.
We see it all the time. Someone will beat themselves up for gaining weight, when it’s a natural and predictable result of their punishing schedule. Especially in a caring profession, like nursing, there can be a tendency to see self-care as somehow robbing others. How can I do things like, say, eat meals or sleep, when there are people who need me??
One way to reframe this is that self-care is a way of making sure that you yourself don’t become the patient. How can you help someone if you collapse or wind up in a hospital bed yourself?
Our new friend didn’t seem to think much of his own insulin pump. Meanwhile, if someone *else* got one he would probably be all sympathy, fussing over them and trying to make sure *they* had everything they needed.
Our position is that we must care for ourselves because we consider ourselves first responders. We never want to be someone else’s crisis if we can avoid it. We’ve figured out what we needed to do in order to fit healthy meals into our extremely busy schedules. If others are curious about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, we’re happy to answer their questions.
This is how it happened when we met the man with the insulin pump. First he asked us how to find the restaurant. Then he asked what we would recommend. We saw this as an opportunity, and we put our strategy into play.
We take turns, depending on who is asking and how they present their issue. I immediately passed this one on to my husband because he had more credibility in this case than I did.
One big dude to another, two tall and large-framed men of about the same age, both of whom look like they have a background in sports, and most likely impact sports such as football. Check, check, check.
“I used to weigh 305”
Head swivel: YOU DID???
Most people, and by “most” I include health professionals, teachers, parents, and other working adults, most people have no idea how to “eat healthy.” They are absolutely bewildered by competing plans and mutually exclusive directives. They have no idea where to start sifting through reams of information, misinformation, and disinformation.
I believe all of this will have changed dramatically over the next twenty years. A combination of big data, wearable tech, advances in research and medical devices, and snack marketing will make it much simpler and more straightforward for people to eat customized healthy diets. I also think that eventually, gamers will be the fittest athletes, but that’s a futurist article for another time. For today, everyone is as confused as possible. It helps a lot to meet someone who has something in common with you, and to hear them say, This is what worked for us.
We’ve lost a hundred pounds between us, and we’re middle-aged.
They’re surprised because we don’t look like we did fifteen years ago. Nobody believes either of us was formerly obese.
We know a few dozen diabetics. We also know a bunch of people on insulin pumps and/or CPAPs or half a dozen prescriptions, and several with foot-long incisions down their torsos. Sadly, we’ve also lost quite a few friends our age who had some of these health issues, or others, people who should by rights have had decades left ahead of them. We’ll mind our own business when it comes to issues like saving for retirement or estate planning, but here, we’ll share as long as someone keeps asking questions. We like this guy and we want him to have a better outcome than our lost friends.
The basic rundown my husband gave the man with the insulin pump was, yes, eating plant-based helps “guys like us.” We didn’t go into details, but he could have pulled out his phone and shared his recent lab results, including blood pressure, resting heart rate, glucose levels, and the rest. He could have shared that at 52 years of age, he doesn’t need any prescription medication. The question on the table was sustained weight loss, and yes, ten or twelve years of a 95% plant-based diet has successfully done that for my hubby, a man who used to eat a lot of Double-Doubles.
In a roughly ten-minute conversation, this is what he told him, one man to another:
It started with Weight Watchers. I learned how to track points and avoid the foods with the highest points, like cheese. One ounce of cheese was 1/6 of my points for the entire day, and it wasn’t worth it. I memorized the list of zero-point foods, like, you can eat an entire cabbage or a head of broccoli for zero points!
This is what I told him, one fitness coach to one willing listener:
Eat four cups of vegetables a day, and eat soup, any soup that isn’t cream-based. Get one of those four-cup Pyrex measuring cups and fill it full of veggies every day. Make sure you eat something at least every four hours and pack your lunch bag ahead of time, breakfast, lunch, and snacks for the whole day.
We have a lot of practice at this conversation, my husband and I, because it comes up a lot. We’re unusually fit for people of our age. That will most likely be even more true in another ten years than it is today. We found a way to avoid the pitfalls of others around us, like going hungry all day and grabbing fast food every night because we’re too exhausted to do anything else. Even more than that, we’ve found a way to avoid winding up on prescription drugs or medical devices, something that is distressingly common.
“You can get off that thing,” we told the man with the insulin pump, “and it doesn’t even have to take very long.” He has every motivation to listen hard and then try it for himself.
“I can tell the difference already,” he said. “You’re back up to a seven.”
I’m six weeks into my post-surgery recovery plan, long enough to notice some changes. He’s been out of town just long enough to see that things have changed since he left.
These aren’t physical changes in *me* - it’s everything else. The ripple effect.
I spent four days rearranging our apartment, including the contents of all our closets and cabinets. The place is gleaming from stem to stern. It’s the sort of thing I like to do as a surprise, or at least the sort of thing I like to do when I’m feeling energetic and upbeat.
On the opposite end, one of the first ways I can tell that I’m coming down with something is when I somehow don’t feel like I have enough energy to make the bed. It takes 45 seconds. I’m usually done before I’m even awake enough to realize I’ve done it. If this is disrupted for some reason, it’s a telltale sign that something is off.
I rate my mood and energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 on the low end and 10 on the “someone I like is planning a wedding” end.
After I took up distance running, I started to realize that it had worked some impressive changes in me. Not in my physique per se, but in my general attitude toward life.
“It’s like my baseline mood when I was chronically ill was a 5, or a 4 when I had a migraine. Then when I got better, it was more like a 7. When I’m running it’s like... a 9!”
It’s true. When I’m running twenty or thirty miles a week, I feel like I’m getting ready to go to a parade or something. Everything seems simple or easy and I’m brimming over with fun ideas. I used to say I had so much energy, I felt like I could kick down a fence. Sometimes I would be running, and around the 45-minute mark I would just jog along with my arms over my head in victory. Sometimes I would burst into song.
Then I blew it. I overtrained and borked my ankle.
I had to quit running because I was in so much pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night because it would feel like someone was kicking me in the ankle with a cowboy boot. I had to wear a brace. I had two MRIs and I spent six months in physical therapy. I spent a truly stupid amount of time with my foot in a bucket full of ice cubes.
I was mad at myself and mad at my ankle and mad at asphalt and mad that we had to move away from the regional park where I used to train. I used to see other runners pass by and I felt like a dog on a leash, watching other dogs chase a frisbee.
I changed sports and started getting quite fit doing martial arts. There were physical changes, yes, a different type than the changes that happened when I took up running. It seems that if you dedicate yourself to any one type of training, you can tap into a certain variety of super powers.
Running gave me mood powers and endless energy.
Martial arts permanently removed my needle phobia and the white-knuckled anxiety I used to feel on airplanes. It helped me eliminate my stage fright. Martial arts gave me an extra dimension of executive presence. I finally learned to really use command tone, and my dog suddenly started paying a lot more attention when I spoke. I learned to make a convincing war face, a crazy expression than can quickly cause people to back up a step with little more than a widening of my eyes. My arms and shoulders bulked up. I found that I could suddenly intimidate big dudes twice my size. For superpowers, these are pretty excellent!
I missed the mood effects that I got from running, though.
Then I went through a rough patch. I had minor surgery that resulted in an incision right in the middle of my torso. I couldn’t twist, bend, sit up straight, or even move my arms much. After a month of doing hot compresses every two hours, I had to start a routine of changing bandages. This was all very tiresome, but it did provide a massive surge of motivation to start working out again as soon as I legitimately could.
I got back on the elliptical. We had to sell ours when we downsized, but there is one in our dinky apartment gym. Nobody is ever down there and I get the whole room to myself. I call it the “news machine.”
An hour a night.
The first few nights were rough. Not only had I not been working out, I had barely gotten off the couch in two months. I was out of breath and I wanted to quit after twenty minutes.
I know how to distract myself, though. I had a long news queue to work through. I focused on how much I wanted to “catch up on reading.” I only let myself do this type of reading during my workout. It felt like a reward. After the first week, it was more like playing a game than exercise.
I started getting a taste of the old post-workout glow. If I work out long enough at a high enough level of intensity, I can get an endorphin rush that lasts for two hours or more. It feels awesome, wipes out soreness and fatigue, and helps me sleep better.
I didn’t really notice the change as it happened, but over the next several weeks, my baseline mood and energy level started to improve too.
A couple of months ago, I was at a real low point. I couldn’t do much of anything, three courses of antibiotics made me sick and headachy, and my incision hurt. I would definitely have agreed that my mood hovered around a five most of the time.
Now I’m heading back in the direction where I like to be. I’m starting to feel like the person I think of as the “real me” - upbeat and cheerful. I’m ready to head into Phase Two, where I start running outdoors and enjoying the scenery, hunting for the payoff that keeps all distance runners inspired and motivated. A few months from now, I could be feeling like a nine every day again.
Sugar might feel like a love language, but it isn’t one, but dang it sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? My relationship with sweets is probably more nuanced and affectionate than my relationships with specific people in my life. It’s the bad-news rebound boyfriend and the great frenemy of my days. I know this, and I set decent boundaries for myself at home. Still working on those boundaries around others, particularly with my cake friend.
My husband and I used to have several food rituals when we first started dating. It felt like romance. One was that we would keep a package of Oreos in his freezer and eat them with the Very Vanilla soy milk. Another was to make root beer floats. That was separate from the giant waffles we might have eaten that morning. Part of how we lost 100 pounds between us was that we had to notice our patterns and agree, together, that we would replace them with something else.
It’s a lot easier when you both agree.
That’s not always as easy to do with more sporadic relationships. When it’s someone you don’t see as often, it doesn’t feel like a pattern - until it does.
Until you catch it in action.
Through a research and investigation process that included astrophysics-level mathematics, I figured out how to break my personal code on weight gain. I reached my goal weight and was able to maintain it almost effortlessly for over five years.
Then two things happened. One, I changed sports and took up martial arts. Two, I made a new friend - my cake friend.
Boxing made me ravenously hungry. My performance improved when I started eating more, and things were great for a while. I put on a bunch of muscle and had fun kicking people across the room. There’s this thing, though, called “dirty bulk.” You can add a certain amount of muscle by eating more, but it tends to bring a certain amount of adipose tissue with it, a.k.a. body fat. For women that tends to be in a ration of 1:1, so every pound of muscle walks in with its arm around a pound of fat.
It was all fine until we moved to a new apartment, downstairs from a family of chaos muppets, and suddenly I could only get half as much sleep as I needed.
I didn’t see it coming because I had been feeling so strong. Since I was doing something new to me, I felt like I had broken my pattern, and I didn’t realize it would happen again even though I’ve been through it half a dozen times in the past twenty years.
All the symptoms that, for me, are correlated with higher body mass came back. All of them! The migraines and the night terrors and the depleted immune system.
Suddenly I was getting sick a lot. That led to missing a bunch of classes. Then I couldn’t keep up. Just as I was in need of more and more recovery time, I was getting less and less sleep. Finally I had to drop out of my gym and try to take some time off to recover.
Did you know that? That working out in the 90%-capacity range too often without enough downtime will affect your immune system? It happens to endurance athletes but it didn't occur to me that it could happen from any sport.
Anyway, there I was, all dirty bulked and back in the same spiraling pattern that drove me to try body transformation in the first place. I knew - I knew through spreadsheets and years of tracking metrics and enlisting an engineer to crunch my data - I knew I needed to drop weight. I needed to be able to sleep, and I needed to corral my dirty-bulk eating habits. Otherwise I didn’t see how I could get back to any kind of fun or interesting workout again.
We moved, I started getting the sleep, I cleaned up my diet. I would drop two pounds and gain it back, drop two pounds and gain it back. Stalling and stalling.
Finally it clicked. I was nailing it in all areas, doing what I needed to take care of myself. Then I would literally lose all my progress because of this one particular loophole.
The cake friend!
I had to tell her. “I’ve gained weight.” “Me too!” “Nearly 20 pounds since we met.” “GASP”
“But we lose it so quickly!”
“*I* don’t! It takes me three times as long to lose a pound as it does to gain it. I can gain two pounds over a weekend and take the rest of the month to burn it off.”
Then we started talking about how much we love our favorite neighborhood restaurant, the one with the gorgeous glass display and eight flavors of vegan cakes. Every time we went out, brunch lunch afternoon tea or dinner, this is where we went, and we always got cake.
We agreed to stay out of there until we were both back on track, and we did. We tried a few new places. I went there with some other friends, all of whom were also doing the whole January thing, and lo and behold, no cake!
Then my cake friend and I went out again. The waitress brought out the dessert menu. I was *completely full* and cursing myself inwardly for not putting half my food in a box. I realized my friend was fluttering her eyelashes and looking completely stymied over the dessert menu.
“Oh! I see. You’re not going to eat dessert in front of me.”
“And I’m definitely not going to share it!”
We both laughed, and the waitress laughed, and then we both got desserts and we both ate them.
I was still full the next morning when I woke up, like Thanksgiving-dinner full. Granted, I ate a pound of Brussels sprouts, but still, it’s not the best feeling.
Why can’t I say no to you, my darling?
There are a bunch of answers to this conundrum. I’m extremely fortunate and privileged to be in this situation, rather than, say, an alcohol or heroin situation. I don’t have to shut down my friendship to save myself. I could invite her over to our place and cook at home. I could (rather easily) make a list of new places to try that don’t have a tempting dessert menu. I could ask to have half my entree boxed up and save it for lunch the next day. I could get a Sharpie marker and write NO! on my hand, since I can’t seem to get it out of my mouth.
Or I could do the more fun version, which is to start distance running again.
My cake friend and I have talked several times about run-walking together. I realize that I am the gatekeeper on this, and I’ll have to be the one to choose the time slot and get us going. We could both be running a 10k together by this fall, no problem, or maybe even this spring.
Then we can eat all the cake we want, which is probably the only situation in which you can really have your cake and eat it, too.
Sitting around with sutures in my midsection has given me a lot of time to think. All sorts of things have been on my mind, but they always circle back to my current situation and how bored and restless I feel. I’ve also been contemplating how completely and totally this stupid medical issue has managed to derail my workout goals.
I think it’s the fitness stuff, more than anything else, that makes people quit making New Year’s Resolutions.
Naturally the cruddy winter weather and holiday feeding frenzy have most of us at our most well-padded at the changing of the year. We completely forget what it feels like when the weather is fine and our schedules aren’t triple-booked. Skip winter and only count the other three seasons.
(It’s the opposite for those of us in hot climates, when winter is actually the best time for outdoor workouts and summer is the one we need to skip).
I had this great idea that I was going to win 2019 by spending the last two months in the gym, finishing the year on a high note. I was going to start running again! I was going to train for a race in March!
Literally two days later, I woke up with a weird hard spot, spent a month on antibiotics, gained 7 pounds in 5 days, had surgery, and then spent nearly two weeks changing bandages and trying not to move. Now I’m waiting for the nurse to call me back because this special butterfly bandage fell off, and it was supposed to last ten days.
No running. No yoga. No bending or twisting. Actually no sweating.
I feel exactly like a display butterfly with a pin through its thorax.
I was talking to a friend who has (totally unwarranted) body image issues. I told her, Whatever you feel that you look like, at least you don’t look like a surgical incision with sutures poking out.
Anything and everything is better looking than an open wound.
Enforced gratitude is universally annoying, but hey. Why is it that we insist on taking what we have for granted? We always have to seek out whatever it is that bothers us, and harp on it, no matter what else is going well in our lives.
Waaa, waaa, I hate going to the gym, everyone snivels. All the time. Well at least you can go if you want to. At least you’re allowed.
Go for me, will ya? Someone? Use my energetic voucher, it’s just floating around out there.
I’m climbing the walls over here, figuratively, because I can’t actually climb anything in the near future. The thing I would most like to do is to sprint up a staircase, like in the Metro station. But I can’t even get down and do a plank.
Not that I “can’t” do a plank - I can probably still hold plank position for a full minute - just that this wound in my midriff is still trying to heal.
It’s been a rough year for me. While we finally moved and I’m starting to recover, a year of chronic sleep disruption and deprivation was really affecting my health. I was exhausted all the time, having migraines and night terrors again, and coming down with a cold once or twice a month. I put on weight and that only seemed to make it worse.
Some people claim that they feel their best, happiest, and most powerful when they’re bigger. Good for them. Must be nice. Enjoy in good health.
For me, weight gain is always a symptom that something is wrong. I think it has to do with my thyroid. The more I gain, the more I feel chilly, tired, sad, and prone to headaches. The first sign is when I’m so tired that I don’t bother to make the bed.
As I turn it around again, which so far I have always managed to do, I start to feel more alert, cheerful, and busy. It’s like a spell wearing off.
This is why I’m on a plan to get my weight back down even though I still have to try to move as little as possible. It just isn’t helping. For whatever reason I magically enlarged while on antibiotics, it’s not making my life any easier.
The most obvious reaction to a situation like mine would be, “I couldn’t help it, what do you expect me to do about it?” Shut up and leave me alone, right?
I see it differently. I see it as an alien interloper trying to claim my poor middle-aged carcass as some kind of host. I’ve seen too many Alien movies to think that’s any kind of good idea. Get the heck out of my body! Begone!
“Me” is my spirit, the part of me that thinks and speaks. Whatever my body is doing at the moment is changeable. My physical vessel looks a bit different from year to year, similar to the way I might change my wardrobe and hair style. I don’t identify with *looking* a certain way, I identify with *feeling* a certain way. I prefer the upbeat energy level to the mopey, tired level.
I’ve taken off 5 of the 7 attack pounds already. Nod to the restoration of my normal balance, now that the antibiotics are out of my system. Also, I have been diligent in staying on track with what I eat, ignoring the typical background noise of cookie, candies, and other holiday treats.
I saw a cookie and I didn’t put it in my mouth. Santa Claus fainted and the reindeer crash-landed in a tree. The North Pole tipped over and rusted out. It was me, I did it.
It just so happens that I should be good to go just in time for New Year’s Eve. Nothing more than a coincidence. Every day is just as good as any other for reclaiming your body and your physical power base. I see it as a sign, though. The first day that I can, I’m lacing up my shoes and getting my beat back. Just because I had a do-nothing year of exhaustion, does not have to make it permanent. When I look back thirty years from now, it will just have been a fitness speedbump.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute. Who am I quoting?
That’s Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov. It’s my favorite literary quote and I keep it inscribed in my journal. That doesn’t, of course, make me any less susceptible to fooling myself or giving myself BS explanations of my behavior. It just reminds me to check in more often.
Right now I’m confronting my own sketchy stories about this supposed goal that I have and how much progress I’m making, which is... not much.
There are a bunch of different types of goals, of course. There are:
Other people’s goals for us, type 1, that we think we want but really don’t
Other people’s goals for us, type 2, that we pretend to want even though we know we don’t
Other people’s goals for us, type 3, against which we rebel rather than pursue our own plans
Goals we know how to reach
Goals we don’t know how to reach
Goals we hold in tandem with mutually exclusive goals
Goals we try to reach simultaneously with other very demanding goals
Goals we publicly set without privately forming a clear plan
At this moment, I am supposedly doing something that I already know how to do, which I have successfully done before, and that is to drop excess weight. I have made zero progress in the last week, even though I set myself a really appealing incentive.
See, I lost my AirPods in Belgium. This has been driving me up a tree. My daily routine is built around listening to audio books, and now I have to do it with cords dangling down my torso, just like the bad old days. They keep catching on every single door handle and drawer pull. I can’t help but notice several times a day that one of my favorite personal objects is now gone.
I decided I would wait to replace them until I hit a certain body weight milestone. Not the ultimate one, which is “healthy weight for my height,” but the closest that ends in a zero.
This incentive is very lively and real to me. These are two things I want, so let’s go! *clap clap* Get a move on!
What is happening is a classic example of a hollow goal without a system.
I have the clearly defined metric. I have the highly desirable incentive. I know both how to reach the goal and how to attain the incentive. I have the next steps of the plan laid out.
(Get replacement AirPods, start outdoor running again as soon as fall temperatures kick in any week now)
What I have not done is the one thing that I know really works, which is to keep a food log and write down everything I eat. I did this meticulously for over a year, out of sheer interest, and then I quit, and then I gradually gained weight again.
There are a lot of cute little lies that many people tell ourselves. The crowd will join in. “It’s muscle!” they cry. Uh, no. “You don’t need to lose any weight!” they cry. I could make a bingo card with all the predictable responses. Everyone understands a bunch of things that pop culture demands of us around body image and women’s body transformation, to wit, adding weight makes people smarter and sexier, losing weight drives women insane. Simple, right?
In my case, I understand that gaining weight on my own personal body, the body that I inhabit and which is my only possession in this world, causes me suffering. It is highly correlated with migraine and night terrors. I was free of both of these conditions for four years, and then I gained weight, and then at a predictable level, they came back. I snapped awake with night terrors again just last night.
The Venn diagrams of “body image” and “quality of life” don’t overlap in my world.
How can I care whether other people think I look cute during a migraine? OR during night terrors?
That’s not what this is about.
What it’s about is whether I do the things that make sense to me and whether I can tolerate the consequences.
It’s true that there is a lot going on in my life right now. We just moved, and we had a chaotic summer, and our dog has been ill, and my husband has been traveling a lot for work, and our schedule is all over the place. Those are elements of background information, not explanations.
The root cause of my problem is that I don’t want to spend three minutes a day writing down what I eat.
Then I remind myself that night terrors are also annoying, and through my inaction I have bought myself an extra week of stasis.
This is where self-compassion comes in. It is more compassionate of me, toward myself, to work toward inner peace. That comes not from ignoring my body or tolerating the intolerable, but from caring for my body.
I could try to fake some level of pretense that I don’t really mind night terrors, that at least it isn’t something else. Actually no. In the moment, my limbic system is busy telling me I’m being chased by bears and wolves and snakes and I’m about to die. There is nothing further from inner peace. It is the worst feeling that I have in my life.
I just don’t think about it much when I’m on vacation, eating dessert every day.
I’m always going to be a “live to eat” person and I’m always going to be tempted by the whole package. Large portions! Desserts! French fries! Five meals a day! I have the appetites of a backpacker, boxer, and distance runner even when I haven’t done any of those activities in months or years. I have to balance that against reality, my desires in the context of my behaviors.
I have to keep watch on my own lie, every hour, every minute, either that or scratch those lines out of my journal.
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
Sleep is on my mind, as usual, and this time it’s because I got bad news at the dentist.
I need a root canal due to this mysterious process called ‘resorption.’ Nobody knows precisely what causes it. Don’t you love it when you’re on the cutting edge of research? Two things that could have triggered it are grinding my teeth, and inflammation in general.
Both of these things are related to sleep. Bruxism is something I do at night, especially when I’m in pain or my stress level is high. Inflammation is reduced through sleep.
Note that there are no known medical connections between lack of sleep and root canals. This is just a possibility that, for my own purposes, I want to explore.
I’m short about 2-3 hours of sleep a day on average, and sometimes it’s 4-5. Sleeping more is going to benefit me no matter what else is going on. It’s free and it doesn’t have any side effects. It won’t negatively impact anyone else, not like my upstairs neighbor running a high-powered blender over my bed at 6:00 AM.
If I never need another root canal, and I never have resorption problems on another tooth for the rest of my life, I won’t be able to prove whether my behavior impacted that in some way. That’s because this is a complex issue, because I would be an anecdote, and because I don’t even know how to submit data in the world of dentistry.
Still, I add ‘root canals’ to the list of Reasons I Should Probably Sleep More.
File Under: SleepQuest
This approach is consistent with how I approach every problem, not just health issues but problems in general.
I refuse to live with a persistent problem. I won’t accept it. I’ll find a way to work around it somehow. I’ll research it. I’ll test it. I’ll experiment on it. I’ll reframe it. I’ll read up on it. I’ll measure it and document it on a spreadsheet. I’ll ask people from other disciplines what they would do differently.
My endodontist lectured me about not wearing my night guard. He showed me on the scan exactly how he could tell from looking at my teeth that I “clench and grind.” Then he told me that AT MY AGE I couldn’t afford to ignore this and that it would definitely start wearing away my teeth.
Mmm. Love it. I’ve finally reached the point when medical professionals start using the phrase “at your age.”
Night guard. The one in the brightly colored plastic case. In the drawer where I see it at least twice a day.
You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to your dentist. I had to admit that I was not, in fact, doing 100% of every possible thing to take care of my precious teeth.
I care about this significantly more now that I have a ballpark estimate of how much preserving a single tooth costs out of pocket. Without dental insurance, ugh. I wonder if this endodontist needs some back-office help?
As these thoughts swirl about my chronic sleep deprivation, my incipient cash deprivation, and my poor middle-aged teeth, I think about the concept of “trying everything.”
Everyone says this, all the time, about everything, but it’s a scam.
There is NO WAY that anyone has ever “tried everything” because not even an expert in a given field even KNOWS everything. There is nowhere that is capped on research, human knowledge, or potential technological development.
We also tend to have mental blinders about thinking that one single input is responsible for stuff. We think that making one change will fix a problem, and if it didn’t work, then the problem is unfixable.
There are so, so many problems with this approach!
One is that we may simply not have tried long enough.
Another is that we may not be doing the thing we’re trying in the right way.
Yet another is that the thing we’re doing may only work in certain situations, but not this one.
More likely, what we’re trying is just very far down the list of Things That Work. Most people will skip the first ten items on the list of Things That Work because we desperately want it not to be that. Please, not that one!
The way I look at it, there is a paradigm or a set of behaviors that goes with a certain issue. The group of people who have the issue tend to have a group of traits in common. Then the group of people who do not have that issue have an entirely different set of traits. There tends to be very little overlap.
For instance, my clients who hoard all tend to scatter coins, save expired food, stuff clutter into plastic bags, and have a plain rock somewhere in the home. Nobody else has rocks!
When I want the results of the “other” group, I observe them, ask them, research around what they’re doing, and then try it out. This is what I did when I started running, when I learned about minimalist travel, and when I finally decided to lose weight.
Obese Me had a lot of habits that Athletic Me finds comical, or sad, depending on the day. While I can sum up the habits of Athletic Me in a brief policy statement, it would take pages to try to describe just what the heck Obese Me was doing. Example: Getting a 64-ounce Pepsi with pumps of blackberry syrup. Please, for the love of your pancreas, do not try that at home.
While attempting to figure out what was different about athletic people, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated and impatient. I’m working so hard, I thought. I did not think “I’ve tried everything” because I knew I spent most of my time lounging around reading and eating cereal.
I’m in a similar state right now with my sleep problems, which are dominating my attention. Certainly I’m as frustrated and impatient as I’ve ever been.
What I wonder is, when I look back on this period of time, what will stand out to me? What could I be doing differently that I already know about? Have I really tried everything?
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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