Moving the Needle

You’ve heard me say it before – the rules regarding diet and exercise are different if you’re fat. How many times did I exercise until I injured myself and diet until I felt faint, only to watch the scale fail to move, or worse, go up? Even my husband, who truly believed the “just make calories in less than calories out” lie, couldn’t believe it when I showed him that at the end of a week, the scale had crept up another two pounds.

Cut to now. For the last few weeks, my weight has settled into a range between 142.5 and 144.5. I weigh myself every day, and on those days I’m toward the top end, I limit my carb intake and when I’m at the lower end, I don’t worry about it. I always keep in mind the advice I received before surgery: Stop eating when you lose interest, not when you’re full.

Then came a day when I realized that I had eaten my normal yogurt breakfast, then a dozen graham crackers between breakfast and my lunch salad, then jellybeans until I had a whacking sugar headache. What the hell was I doing?

I needed to figure out a better way to deal with that cycle, otherwise I’d be right back where I started.

First, I stepped back. What’s going on with me? We’ve had some stressful uncertainty lately, and I realized that the stress was making me eat too much of all the wrong foods.

Second, I talked to someone about my anxiety. I admitted that I was terrified of having to move again, knowing that we would likely move to a place that was smaller and less well-situated. I was losing patience and hope about the rebuild – everything is taking months longer than it should. And also, I need to buy a formal for some upcoming events, and I’m terrified that, given my history, I’ll buy a dress and by the time I need it, it won’t fit.

Third, I took the time to address the sources of the anxiety. I increased my depression medication. I wrote to my county supervisor about the permit situation. I signed a lease for another year on this house, with the understanding that we may leave sooner than a year (but no sooner than 7 months). I know that I am exercising every day, with Sundays off. I acknowledged that I have the support of my family in eating a healthy, balanced diet, so there was no reason for my weight to go up.

Fourth, I took a day off. I have the privilege of not having to work, so I slept in. I took my time over my morning tea. I sat on the couch watching crappy television and doing crochet. I let the mental break sink in and remind me that nothing is on fire, nobody’s bleeding, and we’re not going to be thrown into the street tomorrow. I am fine.

After my day off, I had my normal routine: wake up, weigh myself, hit the stationary bike. When I stepped on the scale, my weight was down half a pound from the day before – down to 143.2 – still in the good range.

Back when I was nearing 250 pounds, this would be about the time that the scale would have started creeping up, not just because I would have been stress eating, but because my metabolism was trying to protect me from the danger by hanging on to every calorie. I would panic, exercise like crazy and stop eating in an effort to lose weight and when it backfired, I’d say “Fuck it, it’s futile, I may as well have some pizza.”

Now, even modest changes will move the scale in the direction I want it to go, and when that happens, I feel encouraged and continue to drink a lot of water, snack on fruit, and get on the bike every morning. I feel that I cannot say it often enough: weight loss works differently for fat people vs. thin people. As of this morning, I’m at 141 even.

A Country Where I’ve Never Been

I had a meeting with my bariatric surgeon. It’s only my second since the pandemic began, although I was supposed to check in twice a year. I reported my weight to him (142.6 as of that morning) and told him I had been stable, plus or minus about a pound and a half, for the last couple of months.

I’ve been struggling with the idea of having the excess skin from my abdomen, buttocks, and thighs removed. Right now, it looks like a deflated balloon – sort of limp and slack. It’s never going to go back, in no small part because I have never, even for one single day of my entire life, had a flat stomach. No matter how thin I’ve been, I’ve always had a flap of fat hanging off my stomach like an apron. I come by it honestly – my grandmother had the same thing, which she always called her “panza.”

I asked my bariatric surgeon how long I should wait before getting skin surgery, and he said now would be the perfect time. I don’t know why, but hearing from my surgeon not just that I should get the surgery now, but that he considered it the last step of the entire process, made me feel a lot better about it.

Now comes the really mind-bending part. At the age of 56, I will be getting a body that I’ve been wishing for since puberty. I’ll be able to wear any bathing suit I want. I’ll weigh less than I did in high school. I will wear an adult clothing size I’ve never worn.

Before the bariatric surgery, I wasn’t sure how my life would change. It has changed, but not a lot. And I’m wondering if it will change any more once I have skin surgery. Here are the biggest surprises from “I’m now 100 pounds lighter.”

  • When I find something really cute at a store, chances are better than even they won’t have it in my size. When I was heavier I never found clothes in my size because high-end stores didn’t carry them. Now it’s because they’ve sold out.
  • It doesn’t matter how great I look in clothes – my gray hair means that no one’s staring when I walk down the street.
  • Nothing ever fits quite right. It doesn’t matter what size you are, there is no way to buy clothes off the rack and have them fit perfectly. The places they’re too tight or too loose may change, but the lack of fit stays the same.
  • I will never have whatever body type is currently fashionable. And that’s okay, because neither does anyone else I know.

Planning for the Future

My weight has held steady at around 143-144 for the past couple of months, and I have created a nice routine of getting up and hitting the bike, and my eating is generally decent, but I’ve bumped up against a pretty big issue. I know I will have to buy new formals for the inevitable round of holiday parties at the end of this year. I’ve been looking at all the places I used to shop, and every time, it’s the same.

I’m terrified to buy a new formal, because there’s some part of me that says that because I have failed in the past, I will fail again, and if I buy something now, by the time I need it, it will be too small.

Those of you with weight issues know that sometimes, there’s literally nothing you can do. I would pare down my calorie intake to the barest minimum and work out for an hour a day (on top of holding down a job and maintaining a household) and I might still see the scale creep up. When that happened, it was easy to drown my sorrows in pizza, thinking “Fuck it. I can’t lose weight, so why am I making myself miserable?”

These days, when the scale starts creeping up, it does so by ounces, not by pounds. And normally it doesn’t take much to get it back to where it should be – an extra 15 minutes on the bike, skip the toast with my morning yogurt, that sort of thing. Still, I am having real issues overcoming the fear of failure.

Now that the weight loss has stopped, I still don’t have the body I wanted, so it’s hard to feel like it’s been a total success. In my dreams, I would lose weight and immediately become supermodel levels of beautiful, and I’m not even close. Decades of living in a larger body have left their marks not just where you’d expect – my stomach, butt, and upper arms – but in places I didn’t realize would be so affected. I now have deep nasolabial folds (the ones that go from the sides of your nose to the corners of your mouth). My neck looks like a cow’s with folds of loose skin hanging off it. Between the crepey skin on my body and the added wrinkles on my face, I went from looking 10-15 years younger than I was to looking 10-15 years older.

I’m struggling to tell myself that it’s natural to want to feel good about yourself, and that even if I don’t change another thing, I’m still a worthwhile person. But it’s hard. Right about now, I’m very much feeling like I traded one problem for another, and I’m not sure where to look for a solution to this new one.

Full Circle Crazy

It’s happened. I knew it would, but I was hoping it would take a little longer. I was hoping that there would be some period of time between the “honeymoon period” of my bariatric surgery to be over (that period where, no matter what you do/eat, you will lose weight, usually 12-18 months) and the time when I would look in the mirror and decide I was still fat.

To be clear, I now weigh just under 143 pounds — this is the lowest my weight has ever been in my adult life. The things I find wrong with my body have much more to do with folds of sagging skin, and no amount of exercise will address that. Getting those cut off would take another 5-10 pounds off my weight. I wear a size 6 to 12, depending on the garment and the brand (anyone who has ever bought women’s clothes can commiserate over the completely arbitrary nature of women’s sizing), although normally, 8-10 works just fine for me.

Now that restrictions are being lifted in my area, my husband and I have decided to go back to our dance class. For a few years, we spent an hour every Wednesday at the dance studio in our town learning salsa, and for those years, I was just fine looking at myself in the mirror that covers one entire wall of the studio. Yes, I was 100 pounds overweight, but I was fine with how I looked. I wasn’t comparing myself with anyone else in the class, because I knew that wasn’t going to be a productive or useful comparison.

“…compared to them, I was a walrus galumphing around the dance floor, jiggling my blubber from side to side in time to the beat…”

Last week, though, I looked at myself in the mirror, and all I could think was “I look fat.” At 143, I still have hips and big boobs, and as I said, I’ve got that skin that adds a layer around my middle that can be minimized, but never completely obscured. Now I can see the other people in the class, though. Like the woman who leads the class who is at least 20 years younger than I am, and who has been a professional dancer since she was a child. There’s a group of college students, one of whom is a woman who looked about 19-20, who could best be described as “willowy.” She was wearing those thin, bell-bottomed yoga pants that one can only carry off if one is emaciated, and this woman was carrying them off just fine. These were the only two other people I could see, and compared to them, I was a walrus galumphing around the dance floor, jiggling my blubber from side to side in time to the beat.

I wanted to run.

I am wondering if it took this long to happen only because we’ve all been staying inside during quarantine. I didn’t have anyone to compare myself with except my daughter, and she and I share the same clothes at this point (yes, that’s weird too). Objectively, if my daughter and I share clothes, that means we are roughly the same size, and I don’t look at my child and think “oh, jeez, she’s fat.”

I guess now is the time to not just continue taking care of myself by eating right and exercising, but by remembering three things:

  1. This is not a contest. No matter what anyone else may look like, the fact that I am bigger/smaller, taller/shorter, lighter/darker than they are has no impact on anyone’s worth as a human being. I don’t have to be the world’s most perfectly perfect person in order to be a good person.
  2. I am fine just the way I am. I have stamina, moving my body feels good, I don’t spend all my time feeling like I have no energy or motivation. If I never lose another pound, if nothing about my body changes between now and the day I die, or conversely if everything about my body changes between now and the day I die, I’m still fine the way I am.
  3. So are you.

Who’re You Gonna Trust?

Spring is here! And with it comes Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and all the other rich, sweet foods that have always been my Achilles heel. I had gotten pretty sloppy with my eating, but after all those cookies, candies, and pies, I knew I wasn’t doing as well as I should be. Whenever I get anxious about my weight, I do that thing most people do: stop weighing myself. But if I don’t know the truth, I’m free to imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios.

And that’s exactly what I started to do. Because I wear leggings a lot, my shape is right there on display. Leggings may be able to even out a bit of cellulite or smooth a silhouette, but they can’t disguise the extra pounds you may start to pack on. I would look at my calves and think that they looked huge. My stomach looked bigger. Everything just started looking like I had gained at least 15 pounds, and I was panicking.

Once the orgy of Easter gluttony was over, I needed to get back to some discipline. I went back to recording my food intake (one of my main tools), and weighing in.

Which do you trust – the scale, or your own eyes?

The first time I stepped on the scale, my heart was pounding. It was first thing in the morning, I had just peed, I was completely naked, I had even taking off the three rings I habitually wear. If I could reduce a 15-pound weight gain to a 14.8 pound weight gain, I’d consider it a victory. The little digital numbers started at zero and went up, and….I had lost two more pounds.

This is part of my dysmorphia. At my heaviest, I couldn’t tell what I looked like, and often thought of myself as much thinner than I was. Now that I’ve lost over 100 pounds, my brain is still telling me I’m fat, even though I exercise every day, and I mostly try to stick to foods I know will work for me – salads, chicken breast, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and vegetables. But I haven’t said no to treats, and spend a decent amount of time planted on the couch, and all my past experience tells me that if I’m not starving myself and working out 10 hours a day, I will never lose a pound, and in fact might actually gain weight.

The knowledge that most people stop automatically losing weight and start having to be more mindful of their habits 12-18 months after bariatric surgery is always at the back of my mind. My surgery was at the end of October, so I’m right at that 18 month mark. I don’t know what it will look like when the honeymoon period is over. My weight loss has slowed from a high of 10 pounds per week (the first couple of weeks right after surgery) to about half a pound per week for the last six weeks or so, but it’s still heading downward.

How is it that, even as I continue to lose, my perception of my own body is that it’s getting bigger? Now I have two competing feelings to muddle through. Even though my clothes aren’t any tighter and my measurements continue to go down, all I see is the fat. At the same time, even though I’m still more than 20 pounds away from dipping below a “normal” BMI, I worry that I’m never going to stop losing weight. That I’m going to dwindle away into a sack of bones. My desire to keep to a healthy diet and exercise routine is always at odds with my desire not to disappear.

All this is to say that losing weight is great and solves many problems, but getting the pounds off is just the start of the process. Understanding how to take care of a body that’s changing all the time – with age, with the seasons, with stress – and how to feel good about the body I’m taking care of is a much, much longer journey.

Tomorrow Is Yesterday In a Different Place

One of the many things I lost in the fire was all my archery gear. I had a beautiful one-piece recurve bow and dozens of arrows, a left-handed hip quiver, a couple of arm guards – all the stuff. And then I didn’t.

I’ve been part of the local archery club for a couple of years, but first the coronavirus hit and nobody could use the indoor or outdoor ranges, then I lost my house and all my stuff and was relocated too far from the range to make using it practical. In the time since I last saw them, I’ve lost over 100 pounds, and when I went to replace my bow, quiver, arrows, etc., nobody at the archery shop I’ve been frequenting for years recognized me.

I’ve seen lots of episodes of different television shows about exactly that scenario. A person walks into a place they’ve been in many times, and the people there don’t recognize them. On television, the person runs around screaming at everyone they meet until they wake up, or the devil shows up and tells them they’re in hell, or until they go running out of the shot, driven insane by the knowledge that nobody knows them.

In real life, I mentioned that I’d been in various archery leagues and done well. That I am an archery club member. That I was on a team with the club president and his family, that I had just been to the house of the club treasurer. That I’d taken third in the last league I participated in at the archery range all of us frequented.

Nothing. Not a glimmer of recognition.

Then I started thinking about other places I used to go a lot, and other people I thought I knew, and wondering whether they’d recognize me. When I had an office downtown, I would walk down the street from my office and run into half a dozen people I knew. Would any of them recognize me?

That feeling of disorientation I feel is battling with my deep need and desire to be left alone. Maybe this is fulfilling my dream of being able to walk through the world invisibly. Which is better? To be completely visible, but no one recognizes you, or to be invisible?

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.

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?