Fear of Flying. And Running. And Walking.

Before surgery, when I was at my heaviest, my exercise routine had a predictable pattern. I would go out hiking in the woods every day for weeks, maybe months, and then something would happen that would make me stop. Sometimes it was an injury or illness. Sometimes it was weather conditions that made walking in the woods unsafe (in windy, rainy weather, entire trees fall over). Sometimes it was something else, like the time a guy on the trail threatened to kill me.

However it happened, I would stop hiking. And then, after the illness/injury/weather/fear passed, I would still stay inside. Before my house burned down, this didn’t mean I wasn’t getting any exercise – I still had an elliptical, a stationary bike, and a treadmill at home, and I would just use them. But I don’t get the same kind of workout on a machine indoors. Running on a treadmill is a million times easier than running on the earth, because even the flattest places have those little up- and downhills, uneven pavements or no pavement, and places where I have to stop for a light or negotiate a weird bend in the road. All those things affect my speed, my balance, the amount of effort it takes to keep going at the same speed.

It means that, if I hadn’t been outside in a while, I would think about it and my mind would say “It’s gonna be haaaarrrrd” in that whiny voice my mind adopts when I don’t want to do something. Out loud, I might say “I don’t have time for a walk or a run,” but inside my mind, I know the truth. I’m resisting it because I’m afraid it’s going to be hard.

There was a time when taking a four-mile hike through the woods at a fast pace would mean that my hips and knees would ache for a few days, and heading out the next day on a hike would make the problem worse. There was a time when going too far or too fast, even in my walking shoes with my orthotics in them, would make my feet hurt. Sure, my heart and lungs were up to the job, but my skeleton was struggling. And during that time, I often listened to that little voice inside me that said “You stopped for a good reason. Don’t start again, because it’s going to be difficult and you’re going to hurt yourself.” A hundred pounds ago, that little voice was protecting me from doing myself an injury.

Now that I’m about 100 pounds lighter, I keep forgetting that it’s not hard. It’s just not. I can walk for miles in Converse (the shoes I wear most often around the house) and my feet will be fine. If I’m short on time, I can run my 3-mile circuit, saving 15 minutes off my normal walking pace (I walk with my dog, who slows me up considerably), and my knees and hips will be fine.

It’s hard work to re-program your brain. We’ve all got behaviors we’ve internalized over years – things that protected us at one time, but that aren’t helpful anymore. When I find myself in a situation where those unhelpful instincts kick in (a lot of them have to do with growing up with food insecurity, and so involve eating more than I need), it’s difficult tell myself “This is an old reaction to a situation that doesn’t exist anymore. I can react differently and it’ll be okay.”

Now I need to put that thinking to work in my running routine. It’s not as hard as I think it will be, it won’t take as long as I’m afraid it will, and I’ll be fine afterward. Thanks, little voice. I know you mean well, but you can stop now. You’re no longer needed.

You Can’t Outrun It

You probably won’t believe it, but even when I weighed nearly 100 pounds more than I do now, I liked to go running. There’s a perception that all you need to do to lose weight is diet and exercise, but as I’ve said before, it’s just not that simple. Even as I ran almost every day, I was still gaining weight. After a while, the running slowed to walking, although I was still walking miles and miles a day. But after a while, even that became difficult. I had orthotics for my chronic plantar fasciitis, but they did nothing for either my knee pain or my hip bursitis.

Right after surgery, I was counseled to walk. It’s well known that people heal better on their feet than on their backs, and since I like walking, it wasn’t difficult. As with most people right after surgery, the pounds flew off with very little effort. But, as with most people, the honeymoon phase is coming to an end. The pounds aren’t just falling away anymore. That’s fine. My BMI is within the “normal” range, I feel physically good, and I’m satisfied with how I look. Then again, I was always satisfied with how I looked.

Still, I was afraid to get back to running. Hip bursitis and plantar fasciitis are persistent, and while I have an entire regimen of stretches and exercises to relieve the hip bursitis, I was afraid of aggravating it again. I still use the orthotics for my feet.

So last week, I took the plunge. I’d been walking a three-mile loop around my neighborhood, and decided to see what happened if I tried running it.

Running on a treadmill the way I used to is very different than running on the earth, and my loop has a lot of uphills and downhills. The uphills are harder on my thighs, the downhills harder on my knees. I didn’t run the entire three miles, but I did a fair amount of it. My normal routine is to run as long as I can, and then count to ten. Only then can I slow to a walk. I start running again after 100 walking steps.

After three runs this week, I can tell you how I feel. Way, way better than I thought I would. Better attitude, better sleep, better energy. The biggest problem is the fact that it’s getting hard to sit still and work on anything, and with the covid lockdown, that’s difficult. My house is clean, my stuff organized, my yard immaculate. The only thing I have left to do is…go for a run.

Surgery: A Year On

If you scroll back just a tiny bit, you’ll see that I had weight loss surgery a year ago.

What I was told before and directly after surgery was that there would be a “honeymoon period” of twelve to eighteen months. During that time, the weight would come off kind of no matter what I did. And, for that most part, that’s been true. But a lot of things have changed.

  1. Nothing spicy
    My stomach is tiny. I can still eat only less than 8 ounces of food at a time. Spicy food has a tendency to irritate my stomach, making it even smaller than usual, making me instantly nauseated. It’s sad, because I used to put Tabasco on everything, eat pickled jalapeños with my eggs and beans, love a good vindaloo. Nowadays, if it’s spicier than green Tabasco, it’s out.
  2. Nothing bubbly
    For a while, I tried little sips of lightly carbonated beverages. I swished them around in my mouth for a while, then swallowed. It was fine. Then I tried with regular soda. Again, fine. Then I tried just drinking something carbonated. Tiny sips. I had maybe two, and then felt the most alarming sensation I’ve felt since surgery. One of my biggest problems is not being able to burp. It sounds hilarious, but the feeling that I’m going to burst from the inside out isn’t funny. The gas bubble makes it up to about my throat and no further. It feels as though I could I could truly injure myself.
  3. Nothing starchy
    As odd as it sounds, three bites of bread, pasta, rice, or potato fills up my stomach quicker than three bites of meat. Maybe it’s because starches have more air incorporated in them, and when I get air in my stomach, well, see above. I’m not saying I don’t eat starches. I’m just saying I can’t eat a lot of them at a time.
  4. But not too much protein either
    Back in January, I had an attack of gout. I’d never had it before, and it was kind of alarming, but I went to my doctor, got some meds, and it was fine. He asked me if I knew what caused gout, and I told him I had heard it was from eating a rich diet and drinking too much. It’s why it’s called “the disease of kings.”
    “Rich in what?” my doctor asked. I hate when people ask questions that they have the answers to and you don’t. It’s rude and wastes time.
    It turns out that the answer is “protein.” Which put me between a rock and a hard place because the additional protein was called for after surgery. I’ve cut down on protein, and I’m fine.
  5. Watch the sugar
    Thanksgiving. Christmas. Easter. Birthday. Halloween. What do they all have in common? Tons of sweets everywhere. And the problem isn’t so much the calories I shouldn’t have as the fact that the sugar hits my system like a ton of bricks. My heart races, I lose focus, I start sweating. It’s not a pleasant feeling at all.
  6. Alcohol is out
    The last time I had gin (my favorite) was in February, when I poured myself a nice gin and tonic to enjoy during a Zoom meeting (yeah! in February!). After a single sip, my face felt flushed. After a second sip, it felt sunburned and went tight. I excused myself and went into the bathroom to look in the mirror – my face was beet red and the kind of swollen where my smile lines were white creases. So…that’s out.

Before surgery, I would have looked at that list and thought “that’s not living,” but there are a few things that make it okay.

Before surgery, restricting my intake meant dealing with intense cravings. The kind of addict thinking where, even when I knew the thing I wanted was killing me, I rationalized why I needed to have it anyway. Every pound was a struggle, and I consistently lost. After surgery, I don’t miss the food. It’s alarmingly easy to forget to eat for long periods of time. The strangest thing to me is that things I used to love no longer appeal to me. Almost nothing is as tasty as I remember it being.

The result is that as of today, I weigh less than I have at any other time in my adult life. My BMI is within the normal range (not that I care, but my doctor seems to feel it’s important). I feel amazing – healthy and energetic and as happy as anyone can be in 2020 (although things are looking up).

I’d say it was worth it.

Not Handicapped, Not Disabled, Not Mentally Ill

A few days ago, in the midst of talking about the effects of the fire on my life, I slipped in the news that I now have a label – “autistic.” I’ve had the label “high functioning” forever, but there was nothing after that modifier to explain why functioning well was in any way exceptional. And now there is.

Let’s back up a bit. Ever since I was a child, my mother has joked that I am her “crippled” child, because I’m left-handed. “Poor baby, you can’t do it because you’re using the wrong hand,” she’d say when I was struggling with something like using a can opener or pair of scissors. I knew she was joking. I knew she didn’t really think of me as disabled, but it left me with an important piece of information.

Differences are something to be mocked and pitied.

It doesn’t matter how one sees oneself. If others see you as being less than them, they pity you. And any difference that’s not commercially exploitable (extraordinary good looks, athletic ability, brilliance resulting in salable products) makes you less than.

I’ve had to adapt, adjust, and mask all my life, and for most of my life, it didn’t help. When I was a child, my intolerance for enormous family functions, for overstimulating environments, for physical discomfort was seen as my being willful, and I was lectured, yelled at, sent to my room. As an adolescent, I was ostracized, humiliated, and ridiculed. As an adult, I have been passed over for promotion, given poor job performance reviews (not for the quality of my work, but for the quality of my social interaction), and been largely discounted.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as autism.

There were disruptive kids, angry kids, bored kids. They were behavioral problems that kids, with proper guidance and discipline, would grow out of. The lack of any kind of clinical label meant that nobody felt sorry for us or thought we needed any kind of special consideration apart from detention.

This morning, my sister sent me this article, and when I read the title, I immediately felt insulted. Now there’s a label for me that other people use for themselves. I don’t know what to do with that label, because it feels to me like another way of manipulating people. Just as I reject the “victim” label after the fire, I reject the “autistic” label, not because I don’t fit all the criteria, but because I can’t stand the fact that people who didn’t like me or didn’t understand me before will suddenly cut me slack because of that label. Because they think that they know something about me now that they didn’t before. And that’s not true.

If you’ve spent any time with me, you know as much about me as there is to know. Any label applied to me – “writer,” “depressed,” “autistic,” – is irrelevant because labels are stereotypes that homogenize everyone to whom they’re applied. I’ve spent years trying to tell people “yes, I’m [insert label here],” only to have to explain that it’s true, despite my not fitting their notion of what a person with that label looks or acts like.

If you have known me for a while, you know that I’m not disabled, handicapped, mentally ill. I’m just me, and I’m just fine, regardless of what label you choose to use for me. And if you feel the need to apply those labels to me, I have a few of my own that I’ll apply to you.

Putting the “Morph” Into “Dysmorphia”

I have never been able to look at myself in a mirror, then look at a crowd of people and point to one who looked like me.

For years, I would point to someone and ask whoever I was with “Is that what I look like?” It must have felt to them like I was fishing for compliments, because that’s usually what I got in return. What I really wanted to know was how I appear to other people, because I can’t tell.

What I did know was how much space I took up. I knew how far back the seat of the car should be. I knew looking at a chair whether or not it would be comfortable. Whether there would be enough room for me on a bench with other people sitting on it. Whether a particular pair of pants or shirt would fit me. Whether, if I parked my car in a certain place, I would be able to open my door wide enough to get out.

But things have changed.

I recently bought some new jeans, because the old ones were uncomfortably large. What arrived was a size smaller than I thought I had ordered, and I held them up and thought “I couldn’t fit one leg into these things.” And yet, not only do they fit, they fit loosely. I can park in smaller spaces and still get out of my car. I can sit in an armchair and cross my legs up on the seat and still fit.

You would think that would be a good thing, but what it means is that my dysmorphia is now complete. I have lost the one thing about my body I thought I knew – how much space I took up. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see that my body has changed, because although my face looks thinner, my proportions are still the same. When I look in the mirror, I have nothing else to compare myself too, so I can’t see that my body has actually gotten smaller.

It doesn’t help that I am still wearing a lot of the clothes I wore at my heaviest. My leggings, for example, wrinkle even at my widest points and no longer compress me at the waist, but they don’t fall off. I have a drawer full of t-shirts that have gone from painted-on to a bit loose, but they still fit. Almost 75 pounds down, I am still wearing the same underpants, although I am less prone to wedgies.

Part of me wants to believe that I will come to recognize this new body. Not just how much space it takes up, but its shape and texture. But when I do, will I love that body as well?

 

Weight Loss in the Time of Coronavirus

There’s a well-understood phenomenon that comes along with bariatric surgery called “dumping syndrome.” When a person who’s undergone bariatric surgery eats too many carbs, their body can respond with vomiting, diarrhea, extreme fatigue, rapid heartbeat, flushing, sweating, light-headedness, loss of concentration, and unconsciousness. It sounds dire, but it’s not life-threatening and usually just signals that you should knock it off, for crying out loud.

But then, along comes COVID-19, and all bets are off. Stress is at an all-time high as people are told to stay home, grocery store shelves are empty, infection rates and death tolls rise, and the truth about our poorly-managed healthcare system is revealed. Being unable to leave the house while simultaneously being bombarded with terrible news is a perfect recipe for stress eating, and stress eating is very often carb-rich. Snacks, baked goods, comfort foods – they’re mostly carbs, and therefore off limits for the bariatric patient. And yet, like everyone else, I’m only human and I only have so many outlets for relieving stress when I can’t leave the house.

Couple this with the fact that it’s spring. Here, it’s been raining for days, which means a lot of mold, to which I’m allergic. And when it dries out, everything is in bloom and spewing pollen into the air, to which I’m allergic. My nose is running like a marathoner and I’m sneezing constantly, and even though these aren’t symptoms of COVID-19, I’ve gotten death stares from people at the grocery store.

Which brings me to the point where I’m sitting on the toilet in some pretty acute distress, my forehead beaded with sweat, worried that the next time I sneeze I’m going to spew from both ends in a way that will involve a whole lot of cleaning up. And because it’s March 17, 2020, my mind does not go immediately to the tamale and beans I had for dinner last night. It goes to coronavirus. And the fact that my daughter, who was staying with us for the past few days and has only just gone home, has a compromised immune system.

It took me way too long to connect my symptoms to dumping syndrome, and once I made the connection, I immediately felt better. But it’s scary that this is what life looks like right now. Every time my nose itches or I feel a little warm (so, add climate change into this mix) or I have a tickle in my throat, I worry that I’m a plague victim, and a danger to the people I love most.

Like everyone else, I don’t know how long this is going to last, or what the world will look like once it’s over, but I do know that the only way to get through this thing will be to take great care of myself and the people around me. I hope you all can do the same, and that if you’re in a tight spot, there will be people there for you.

 

Physical Therapy

Our daughter moved into her own place, and my husband and I have been making her room over into a guest room. The bed wasn’t as cushy as I’d like, so I put one of those memory foam mattress toppers onto it. This thing was a Costco special – fully three inches thick and, for a queen-sized bed, weighing about 20 pounds. As I wrestled it from its packaging and turned and twisted to distribute it over the mattress, I pulled something in my back and ended up in bed lying on a bag of ice for a couple of days.

About 17 years ago, I had a similar incident. I was sitting on the couch, sneezed, felt my back pop, and was immediately in agony. Back then, I went to my regular doctor. He prodded my butt, announced that I hadn’t done any permanent damage, told me it was probably due to my weight, and gave me nasal spray for my allergies.

I couldn’t stand for long. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t lie down. In order to bend over, I had to keep my right leg straight and extend it behind me. The only time I wasn’t in agony was when I was walking slowly, but I had an office job and two small children and so couldn’t do that all day. So I gritted my teeth, ate ibuprofen like candy, and bore with the pain.

I went to another doctor, and she said the same thing – “You’re too fat.” No offers to give me anything to alleviate my pain, no recommendations for ice or heat or stretching or goat sacrifices. Just an opinion about a tangential fact.

The frustrating thing wasn’t that I went to at least one more doctor who also told me it was weight-related. By that time, I had become resigned to living a life in pain and being unable to get medical help. The frustrating thing was that, as an office worker, I had a limited amount of sick time, and, since I was new at this particular job, no vacation time. Taking half a day off to see a doctor who didn’t even try to help, and having to cough up a $20 copay for the privilege, was a classic example of adding insult to injury.

This time around, I went straight to a chiropractor*. We talked extensively about my medical history. He asked me to stand and looked at me from many angles. He had me lie on my back, front, each side. He poked, pressed, probed and asked “How is that?” Finally, he did some adjustments and some deep tissue work, and I walked out of there feeling much, much better.

The entire time I was there, I fully expected him to say something like “I can work on you, but I’m not sure how effective it’s going to be, considering your weight.” Or “We can try to fix your back, but your best bet would be to lose weight.” When I went into the exam room and looked at the table, I thought There’s no way I’m fitting on that table without my hips hanging off the sides. When he took me into another room with a table specifically for lower-back stretching, I had a flash of fear that I would be too heavy for the table to work.

None of that happened.

This guy was polite, professional, competent, helpful. When I sat or lay on the tables, they didn’t even squeak, let alone groan with strain. I walked out of there feeling like I had been thoroughly listened to by a person invested in my well-being, and it felt a little surreal. Is this how it is for thin people all the time? And if it is, do you understand what a gift it is?

So now I’m angry on behalf of past me, who endured two years of unspeakable pain because the medical establishment couldn’t be bothered to look past an appearance they found displeasing to do their jobs, and I’m angry on behalf of everyone who is still suffering because of the judgement of medical professionals.


*The first time this happened, it was a chiropractor who finally figured out what happened. I blew a disc in my spine, and in the two years I couldn’t get treatment, the vertebrae on either side of it had fused, very slowly killing the nerve between them. Which is less pleasant than it sounds.

You May Not Be Fat, But You’re Still Fucked Up

Ever since I started these posts, people have been flocking to me, wanting to talk about their own experiences of weight. Many of them have BMIs* in the “morbidly obese” category (a BMI greater than 40), but just as many of them are what I think of as a “media-normal” weight, that is to say close to the size and shape that people in the media tend to appear.**

When thinner people want to talk about fat, the conversation always starts out the same way: “I lost a lot of weight, and…” But drill down on what “a lot of weight” is, and it almost always turns out to be 30 pounds or less. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fucking HARD to lose weight, and 30 pounds is a considerable accomplishment. Anyone who’s lost 30 pounds has a great deal more sympathy for those still struggling than people who cry about wanting to lose “that last 5 pounds” but have never had a BMI above “normal.”

What’s sad to me is that even those 30 pounds are enough to make many people panic, and to have friends and family begin the cycle of well-meant advice and snotty, skinnier-than-thou remarks. To these folks, those 30 pounds are often admitted to like a dark secret (as though people who saw you in the past could see how your thighs touched or your upper arms wobbled or whatever your hallmark of fat was), and I suspect the reaction they’re looking for is “NO! YOU?” That would reassure them no one could see the moral stain of excess weight. As though knowing they weighed more in the past would make me think any different about them than I do in the present. As though 30 excess pounds is the equivalent of murdering kittens.

It breaks my heart to hear how those people who’ve had a few excess pounds and shed them often talk about the unpleasant things they did to lose the weight. “I gave up all starches.” “I exercised three hours a day.” “I ate nothing but celery for a week.” “I fasted for 20 hours a day.” None of them say “And the whole time, I felt like Superman!” But they did it because they felt they had to suffer and sacrifice, not just to lose weight, but to atone for having gained it in the first place. And the more extreme and unhealthy their dieting journey, the more skinny people laud them for having endured it to re-enter the Company of the Comely.

Weight fluctuates for such a huge variety of reasons, from a slower metabolism due to aging, to the body’s need to conserve resources when it thinks it’s in crisis. People should be kinder to themselves about their bodies’ own changes. Love yourself, not by ensuring that you look attractive to someone else, but my making sure that you feel healthy, strong, and at peace. And if you feel those things at 30 pounds more, you’re fine.


*I use BMI here only because it’s a commonly-used metric. Please remember that both the entire notion of “body mass index” that supposedly measures your lean/fat ratio and the labels attached to various numbers on that index are utterly arbitrary.

**I say “tend to appear,” because we all know that anyone who looks “normal” on television or in the movies is likely a miniature stick figure in real life. I’ve seen Jane Fonda in person. She’s 5′ 8″ and weighs 4 pounds.

Thanks For Your Concern

“I just want you to be healthy.”

“You look so uncomfortable.”

“You’d feel so much better.”

I’ve heard it, usually coupled with some kind of advice that I’ve heard a thousand billion times before. Advice like “get more exercise,” “eat more vegetables,” and “drink more water.” I’ve done those things, and was probably still doing them. And I’ve lost weight. And then gained it back. And then lost it again.

And people say those things as though I might not have thought these things myself – as though I hate myself with such intensity that I’m committing suicide by cheese (although if I were going to off myself, that would be my choice).

But they’re not saying it because they’re actually concerned. They’re saying it to signal disapproval without sounding actually mean. “I just want you to be healthy” is code for “I feel disgust watching you eat.” “You look so uncomfortable” is code for “I feel uncomfortable when I look at you.” “You’d feel so much better” is code for “I’d feel so much better.”

But none of these barbs disguised as concern or advice help, because that’s not how it works. If it were as easy as “eat less move more,” everyone in a wheelchair or hospital bed would be obese, and everyone who ate vegetables and exercised would be skinny. But I’ve been obese my entire adult life (with occasional flashes of thin), and I know as well as you do that it’s so much more complicated than that.

Environment is a factor. Hormones are a factor. Psychology is a factor. Genetics play a part. If your family is heavy, you’ll be heavy. My mother’s family is from Scotland, and that side of my family is typically short and sturdily built. We totally look like the kind of people who can throw telephone poles and carry a sheep under each arm. My father’s side of the family are Mexican, and are generally taller and thinner. I started out with a 50/50 shot. Guess which I got (cue sad trumpet).

Long before I even considered surgery, I ate a healthy diet and got plenty of exercise, and seethed whenever someone expressed “concern” about my size. So I just stopped listening. I cordially invited those people who felt the need to comment to shut the fuck up.

If you were really concerned about me, you would tell me you love my dress. You’d tell me you read that story I got published. You’d tell me you think I’m smart. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t want me to feel like crap about myself by not-even-subtly telling me that you feel bad looking at me. That’s your problem, not mine.

 

 

Clothing a Lava Lamp

Two months after my surgery, I have lost 40 pounds, and I’ve started The Pile – all the clothes I can’t wear because they’re now too big.

At my heaviest, I had three kinds of clothes – those that were slightly too tight, but I could still fasten, breathe in, and move around in; those that were big and loose and baggy (and therefore comfortable); and the Goldilocks clothes that fit just right. By far, this was the smallest group, and now, it’s even smaller.

Clothing you buy off the rack was designed to fit one specific shape of person, and odds are excellent it’s not you. It doesn’t help that for women, clothes sizing has come unmoored from anything as objective as measurements. The dresses I fit into have all come from the same brand, and range in size from 16 to 22. Apart from that brand, I’ve got 14s that fit. Most women I know would give up vanity sizing just to be able to go into any store and know that every garment of a given size will have consistent measurements.

But even if you know that you’re, say 5′ 7″ and weigh about 200 pounds and know your measurements, you’re not going to be able to breeze into a store and find a garment that fits and flatters. Everyone carries their weight a little differently. What’s worse is that as the weight comes off, it’s not like it comes off evenly all around. My face got thinner immediately. My calves and thighs got thinner because I exercise by running. My belly? Not so much. I worry that I’m going to end up like some kind of bug – a gigantic body being held up by tiny stick limbs. What kind of clothes fit Gregor Samsa?

What’s even more frustrating is trying on all the clothes in my closet that used to wear before I gained weight. Many of them don’t fit, even though I weigh less than I did when I wore them, because I’ve changed shape. I had some clothes I really loved, and now I’m worried that I won’t ever be able to wear them, because by the time things fit around my hips, they’re too big in the waist, or by the time I can button a shirt over my boobs, it’s huge and boxy around the middle.

The biggest challenge, though, is the changing size/dysmorphia/specific taste trifecta. I know the look I’m going for, but I have no idea whether, when I hit my goal weight, it’ll look good. I guess I’ll have to do what I’ve always done: I just assume I’m the most amazing looking person in the room.