I grew up in a home that was pretty health conscious. There were lots of home cooked meals, along with the occasional backyard garden. Yet despite those good aspects, and the fact that my family was vastly abiding by the 1980’s prescribed health recommendations (low in animal fats and high in whole grains), I wasn’t a particularly healthy kid.
In fact by age two I had already spent six months with chronic ear infections, and a pediatrician who prescribed an equivalent quantity of antibiotics.
Thankfully, my mother did her own reading, and had the wisdom to try temporarily taking the family off of dairy. This ended up completely eradicating the ear-infections (along with my older sisters tonsillitis.) So for the most part I was able to return to being a moderately healthy kid for the next few years.
Nonetheless, following this less-than-healthy start, I ended up being a chubby child. I can remember as early as age 7 or 8 feeling embarrassed about my weight, and being concerned that I was fatter than other girls my age.
I also distinctly remember some early binge eating related behavior, and developing a particularly strong comfort-relationship with bread, cookies, and the rarely permitted ice cream. But although I was chubby, I was also active, and mostly healthy for my remaining elementary years.
But then at the age of eleven I came down with a bad case of mononucleosis. I ran a high fever for six weeks, and basically I didn’t leave the green recliner that set in my families living room. Six weeks is a long time to be sick at any point in your life, but as a kid I was definitely beginning to forget what it felt like to be healthy and to feel normal. By the end of six weeks I was so weak that I could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded. My hair fell out in clumps (from the long fever) and I was poltergeist pale.
But in my mind, all those things were forgivable. For happily, among the unpleasant effects of my illness, over the course of a few weeks I had lost all my ‘baby fat’ at once. So for the first time in my wee life, I was a ‘normal’ weight.
I remember the delight of being able to shop in a smaller clothing size, and not feeling like I needed to squeeze or struggle to fit into clothing that I wanted to wear. I remember feeling small and pretty.
I also remember how more than one well-intentioned grown-up in my life complimented me on my weight – weight I had lost by not eating for six weeks. And the message was not lost on me. As I was entering my adolescence, and a time in life when my body would require a lot of quality nutrition, what I heard was, “You look good when you don’t eat.”
As I tumbled into my teen years I started to dabble in vegetarianism – but also constantly cut fat and any food that I thought would make me gain weight. I would frequently have weeks of eating low fat yogurt, mini-bagels with non-fat cream cheese, and fruit.
Not only did this low-fat, high-carb, under eating, not bring about health, I also begin to compensate for the periods of undereating with increased incidents of binge eating. I did not maintain any of the weight that came off during my illness, but instead I begin a pattern of gaining a steady 10 lbs. a year.
I struggled with depression, which I assumed was just a combination of being a teenager and having a somewhat melancholic disposition. I had no perception that it might be anything more than that. I became painfully shy, and hauntingly self-conscious. My social anxiety was almost unbearable.
Beyond that problem however, my health didn’t really bounce back from mono. I developed severe seasonal allergies, and asthma that would knock me out for weeks at a time. I constantly fought off colds, and at one point I even landed in the ER for a night, due to a massive GI infection that went crazy in my body.
As I moved into my late teen years, I remained depressed, shy, and self-conscious. However, I also become more interested in healthy eating and the possibility that my eating could help my other problems.
In fact, interested probably bordered a little close to obsessed. I started being more careful about eating whole grains, and natural products. My mom had a home economics background and so she was always interested in home cooking and healthy eating. However, much of the nutrition dogma of the late twentieth century was largely based around lots of whole grains and limited fat – especially saturated fat or cholesterol (which at the time were blamed for causing obesity and heart disease.)
Our diet was not really far off from the generally endorsed recommendations of the government and nutrition professionals, and my diet certainly continued to be heavily loaded with carbohydrates, and full of whole-grains (both in their unrefined whole form, but also lots of whole-grain flour versions.)
In fact, during my freshman year of college I progressed from a vegetarian to a vegan. And while I became less likely to binge on standard junk food fare, I would still find their health-food counterparts. And my body did not thrive.
Between the age of 11 and 22 you could simply figure out my weight by adding a zero to my age. By the time I hit my early 20’s I was well into the 220+ lb. range. As a 5’2” female, 220 lbs. placed me solidly in the category of obese.
The Age of Diets
I begin to freak out about my weight with increasing consistency, and perpetual obsession. I was convinced that it was causing all the problems with my health. I even assumed that it was responsible for my depression, and reasoned that weight loss would definitely result in contentment. Worst of all, my perception of my body, and self-loathing, was beginning to take a massive toll on my self-worth.
Yet, I was trying everything I knew to lose weight. I believe there is often a perception that people struggling with their health (specifically their weight) maybe just aren’t trying hard enough… or they aren’t doing what the experts are telling them. But this is frequently an inaccurate perception
Besides dabbling in vegetarianism and veganism, I tried diets where I only drank fresh juice, diets where I only ate smoothies, diets where I ate nothing but broccoli and tempeh for a week, and diets where I employed flat-out starvation for as long as I could manage. I counted calories, and portions. I would faithfully count out ‘five crackers’ or measure strict ¼ cup servings of cereal for days on end. I employed extensive exercise programs, and walked miles and miles.
A friend once talked me into signing up for weight watchers (which was a lot of nothing sauce for me.) At another point, with another friend, we made weight loss scrapbooks, where we took top-secret before photos that we carefully printed out and pasted into our weight loss notebooks. We then made collages of ‘dream bodies’ and faithfully recorded our weight and measurements. I imagined what my life would be like when I was thin. We never got around to taking after photos.
Each time I tried something, I would be devoted for as long as I could manage the self-control in all of these endeavors. Yet ultimately, my self-control would wear thin, and I would always crack at some point.
And every failure solidified even more, how impossible the situation really was. Every failure produced yet more evidence confirming my belief in my inability to actually change.
Of course, all of this dieting and body obsession was done under the guise of “health” and “Self-care” Yet sadly, in reality it was being driven by the fear that I was always too much, and never enough, to belong in the world of all those beautiful, thin, girls.
The Emotions of Body Image
Regular life was often punctuated with pockets of the fatness nightmare, and there was hardly a moment that my fatness didn’t creep into my mental awareness. I was finding that in most moments I was either thinking about food, thinking about eating, thinking about how I needed to not be thinking about food or eating, thinking about needing to lose weight, or thinking about how my life would be on that magical day when I finally did.
There were, I should mention, three main reprieves from this cycle; one was my faith life, two was my immediate family and close friends (who loved me consistently), and the third was piano (which I started playing at the age of 6.) These three escapes brought salvation and some balance into my life –and are the reason that despite all my health struggles and personal weight-related self-loathing, I still had a wonderful life. But even with those things, there remained in me a vast sea of darkness.
Jean shopping was excruciating. The only store that sold plus size at the time, was Lane Bryant, and so I would fork over $80 for a single pair of jeans while thin friends bought multiple jeans off the sale rack. I would rewear the single pair again and again, partly because I didn’t want to ask my parents to buy multiple pairs. I was so ashamed of how much it cost, but ALSO I told myself (and them) that I didn’t want to buy more jeans because I was going to lose the weight. So buying more would just justify not losing weight, and it would be a waste of money. If nothing else was motivational, I thought, my lack of clothing would surely motivate me to make changes. I reasoned that buying pretty clothes I liked, and felt good in, must be a reward that should only be offered to people who had bodies that conformed to what a beautiful body should be. While no one else in my life told me this, these were the lies I told myself. And we believe ourselves more than we believe anyone else.
Trips to theme parks were annotated with thigh chafing, and the fear of being stuck on rides. Trips outdoors were consumed with the fear of being too out of shape to make it to the destination. And aspirations for my future? While other girls talked about their crushes and dating life, I kept mine entirely secret. Of all the places where my fat-induced self-loathing showed up most horrifically, romantic aspirations were hit the hardest. If I believed pretty, comfortable, clothing was a reward for having a thin body, than romantic love was certainly even more so that way. I would have never believed this about other people, but I was certain it was true for me. This was my self-story at 22 years old, and once again I believed myself.
My fatness defined my life because I let it—not because those closest to me told me I should make it so.
But finally, by the time I reached my freshman year in college, I had reached enough with dieting. I didn’t know if, or how, I’d lose weight without dieting, but I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore.
I was entirely worn out with the cycle of self-loathing and failure– and so I made a really important choice. I stopped. I promised myself I would never treat myself in that deprivation mindset again.
The Other Side of Dieting
I will say that this was a noble intention — however, it would take a lot more work than I realized. I did however begin to move in that direction. And the funny thing was, I did not gain an extra crazy amount of weight at the point when I stopped dieting. Dieting followed by binging, versus not dieting at all, produced identical outcomes in my weight. However, I was somewhat happier. And that was a good start.
But then something interrupted my life. In my junior year, I was in a minor car accident that gave me some pretty rotten whiplash. Due to my injury, I started physical therapy. In an unexpected turn of events, I found that I really enjoyed having the weekly activity. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that when it ended, a friend talked me into going to ‘curves’ (a women’s gym that did circuit training.) Over the next year I went to Curves consistently–mostly for the enjoyment of moving and being active. However, in the course of the year I actually lost ten pounds.
Encouraged by this unexpected progression, I decided to try something else. I decided that I would simply not eat when I wasn’t hungry. I called it my ‘growl only’ eating — in that I would wait for my stomach to growl before I ate. I would cut portions in half, and when I got halfway through my meal, I’d ask myself if I was still really hungry. I told myself that I could eat anything that sounded good, but that I could only eat when I was growl hungry, and that I had to cut it in half (I could save the rest for when I was hungry again.) This process greatly resembled what I would now call mindful eating.
And it did result in weight loss. In fact, this will-power, portion cutting, regular exercising, resulted in losing 70 lbs. over the next 3 years. I was still technically overweight, but in a much more reasonable way. Between the lighter body, and the actual success in doing something that I had failed at so many times before, it was like getting a new lease on life.
I could once again shop in the size 12 to 14 section (something I hadn’t done since I was 14) and this meant no more plus size clothing! I finally could buy clothes I liked off of the sale rack. And most shocking of all, I even started hanging out with this guy I really liked. I had friends that I loved, and a social life that I didn’t dread. I became slightly less depressed, and slightly less shy, and things were certainly looking up. For a moment anyway.
But in the summer of 2007 everything came crashing down again. I lost a close friend unexpectedly to an overdose, my beloved pet cat, Sgt. Pepper, had to be put down due to liver failure, I experienced the dissolving of social community that I had been leaning on, and the guy I’d been hanging out with moved 2000 miles away, after going through his own traumatic life event. I went through four separate, emotional blows, in the course of two months … and I was devastated. I tried to keep doing what I’d been doing for my health, but it was becoming harder and harder. Many of the things I had been leaning on were no longer there — but food was. And it suddenly became increasingly harder to not eat.
And the truth was, while I had been cutting portions (which everyone claimed was ‘good’) I had not been focusing on the quality of my food since I’d vowed to ‘stop dieting’ and my body was beginning to show signs of nutrition deficits. I was suddenly always hungry, and the cravings that followed would not be muted.
In the fallout of that summer, I additionally begin to develop other symptoms that didn’t make sense. My legs would ache constantly, along with my chest. I talked to doctors, and they suggested things like sciatic nerve? But nothing was diagnosed. My chest pain was eventually called costochondritis—but it remained a mysterious name with no information about what caused it or what to do with it (other than take ibuprofen to dull it’s ache.) I struggled with constant carpel tunnel, and developed consistent hormonal migraines, that cropped up at both ovulation and menstruation. My energy became non-existent. Getting out of bed was a challenge, not to mention anything social would suck the life out of me. I could feel myself withdrawing, and pulling back into myself, just as I had in my teen years.
I started to regain weight. Despite still eating as little as I could… I regained 10, 20, and eventually 40 lbs. from my original weight loss.
And my depression skyrocketed. I felt such shame and confusion. I didn’t know what to try. I didn’t know what to do.
Finally, I remember one night lying in bed, just prior to my 29th birthday, and thinking I don’t want to die—but I wish I could simply never have existed. I wish I could just not be. It wasn’t quite the same as wanting to end my life, so much as it was a desire to not have had a life at all.
It was certainly one of the darkest moments in my entire life.
But in that moment, I do remember praying. I said, ‘I don’t know what else to do—I’ve done everything I know, I simply don’t know what else to do. Something has to change, I need help, I can’t do this anymore.’ It was a prayer of complete surrender and desperation.
And then I went to bed.
Discovering my Creative Power
It was about a month after that, when I picked-up my first book about fibromyalgia. As I read through the author’s description of symptoms, and various common experiences that people with fibromyalgia share, it was like reading from my journal. So many of the aspects were familiar. At the end of the book there were some recommendations for supplements to take. I had always hated swallowing pills and loathed taking anything… but also… I was desperate. One recommendation was for something called 5-HTP. It was supposed to help with pain, sleep, and depression. I wasn’t really sure what I was signing up for… but nonetheless, I went onto Amazon, and ordered a little happy orange bottle of 5-HTP. It arrived the day after my 29th birthday.
I wondered if I would notice anything different, or if I did… how long I would have to wait. Turns out, I didn’t have to wait long. A few days after starting my first dose while I was working at my job as a tutor, one of the kids I worked with smarted off at me. Instead of handling the situation in a normal way, I did something that was not particularly professional — but I started laughing. I mean like, really belly laughing. I wasn’t laughing at him or anything — I just was laughing. Laughing so hard I could hardly get myself stopped. The kid looked at me like I’d lost it (which was understandable) and then he started laughing too. And then (thankfully) he just went back to work.
As I was driving home from work, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed like that; that real, cosmically joyful, mirth-filled laugh. I had no memory of the last time I had spontaneously been joyful and happy.
From that point on, my mental health started to do a 180 degree turn around.
And as it did, I begin to wonder: maybe I wasn’t just depressed. Maybe my body actually needed something that it hadn’t been getting. Maybe I wasn’t just broken and dysfunctional. Maybe my body was simply lacking crucial ingredients that it needed in order to thrive. I continued taking things, and started reading more about what I was taking, along with the stories of other people who shared similar symptoms. The Paleo and Ancestral Nutrition movements were just beginning to gain notoriety, so I started experimenting with grain-free eating and lowering carbohydrates. I had officially stopped being vegetarian when I gave up dieting, however, I had never really included meat back in my diet in an intentional way. Learning to cook meat, after years of unintentionally avoiding it, was an adventure. Over the next few years my health radically changed. I lost the 40 lbs. I’d regained, and then some.
I also became intentional about reprogramming my self-talk. I started telling myself what I wanted to be true, rather than what I feared was true. And as before, I started to believe what I told myself. But this time I wasn’t telling myself junk thoughts. This time I was telling myself the kind of thoughts and words that spoke to my highest aspirations. I started talking to myself the way I would talk to a dear friend.
What I discovered changed how I thought about myself. And more than that, I became endlessly curious about nutrition and biochemistry. So curious that I knew I wanted to study it professionally and pursue a Master’s degree. I knew that while my experience was individual, it was not particularly unique. So many people were also struggling, and wanting to learn. And they would need people who could come along and help them write their wellness story.
It’s been seven years since that darkest night. I still continue to tweak my health, and learn about my body. I am always adjusting and listening and learning. I now understand my wellness story as being a continual story, that I will write for my entire life. I have learned to be grateful for my story – for all the things that it has made me –and for all the ways it has prepared me for the work I now do.
I hope in sharing my story, you will be encouraged in your own wellness writing. It doesn’t matter how many times you may think you’ve failed before, your story isn’t over yet, and I would be honored to help you write your wellness story.
Are you ready?