Friday, August 1, 2008

Don't try this at home

Putting that picture up in the last post, I realized I'm in this incredibly ambivalent place about my body. A year ago--well, actually, more than that, I know since I blogged it--Z. identified me as her Big Mama and A. as her Little Mommy.

When we met, A. was a size 10 or 12 and I was a size 12 or 14. We are built roughly the same, and in my deep denial about what had happened to my body over the years of depression, I was still imagining us as basically the same size. A. had crept up to a 12 or 14, it's true. But I was up to a size 20 at the beginning of last summer. I was more than 70 pounds over the weight that was my stable adult weight from high school until well into grad school. I was carrying more than half again the weight that I thought of as "mine," and I was sort of pretending that it wasn't really there. In a way, what the weight did was make my body so foreign to me that it wasn't really there. My body was gone, someone else's had taken its place, and it was all part of the project of my depression: erasing myself from my life, one piece at a time.

Z.'s wake-up call jolted me into realizing that her mother, the mother she loved, the maternal body she took for granted, looked like a stranger to me, and even at the depth of my depression, Z. had been the one part of my life I refused to absent myself from. I didn't want Z. loving someone I couldn't look in the eye in the mirror.

Sugar blues, sugar blues...I began writing down what I put in my mouth during the day, and what I wrote down looked like this:

White flour
White flour
Maybe a little cheese
Whole Wheat Flour and some vegetables

I was going through my day from one sugar hit to the next. I was drugging myself with candy and pastries, basically.

I also wasn't moving my body much. I was walking Z. to school and back only when I didn't get lazy and drive (4 blocks! when I lived downtown, I parked my car five blocks away!). It was the end of May, and I knew even that little bit of walking was going to stop when the school year ended.

I made a commitment to swimming. I changed my diet not by setting out to restrict calories but by considering that I had a pattern of depressive eating that I needed to break, so I broke it. I had some issues with hunger that dated back to my halfway-thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1998, and I finally sat down and had a talk with them.

That talk went like this:
S.: I need to learn how to wait and eat when I'm hungry.
Issues: You can't let yourself get hungry! It will already be too late!
S.: No, I really need to do this.
Issues: You'll get dizzy! You'll get woozy! You might fall over and no one will find you for hours! Days! Weeks! You could DIE!
S.: Actually, I spend most of my day in the same building as a well-stocked refrigerator.
Issues: You do?
S.: Yeah.
Issues: Oh. (pause) You're sure about that?
S.: You need to trust me on this.
Issues: (crossing arms, chin on chest) Hmmph.

By the beginning of last Fall, I'd lost 20 pounds. My weight loss slowed over the past Fall and winter, when I stopped swimming altogether for four months during the bad part of my year, but even so, by Springtime I'd lost another five pounds. I recommitted to swimming at that point because without those endorphins and that time set aside for myself, to think and connect to my body's strength, my depression had bloomed again.

I have finally accepted what growing up in my family should have taught me, only I resisted learning it because it was being offered to me in the guise of lots of competitive sports: I may have the soul of a nerd, but I have the genes of an athlete and my body needs exercise, really probably a lot more exercise than other folks' bodies need. Since April, I've been swimming three times a week, 3/4 of a mile twice a week and a mile at some point on the weekend. I've found that 3/4 is about what I need to hit to reliably shift my mood. I think if I could be swimming a mile daily, I would be doing what I should be. But I'm getting close enough to what I need, now.

I've now lost nearly 35 pounds. I'm down to a size 16, and the 16's are already feeling a little loose. I am proud of that loss, but I'm also uncomfortable about it because I'm doing it against a background of deeply hating what fat has done to my body. There is a fine line between hating the bodily distortion that was part of the escalating cycle of my depression, and hating fat, period, and I fear I am not always on the correct side of it. I'm also very aware that what I'm doing is exactly not the typical weight loss story of restriction, plateau, and bounceback. I was a chubby kid, but was never fat as an adult before this escalation. I have no past history of dieting. During the period of losing weight, I have been doing what the fat acceptance movement calls for to learn to love your fat body: intuitive eating and healthy exercise. Except that I don't love my fat body and I do have a target weight, which is what I shouldn't have because it means my goal is weight loss, not loving my body at its genetic set point.

Only my target weight is (I think) the weight point my body is set for, the weight my body always used to want to be. I have been losing weight steadily for 14 months without much effort only because during the years of depression I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing to override my body's programming. Crappy food and a sedentary lifestyle. Now I'm reversing that. I'm listening to what my body needs and is comfortable with, satisfying that and then letting myself go until I'm hungry again. I'm not as good at thirst, but I've gotten pretty reliable about hunger, and feeding myself what I need, when I need it, and stopping when I'm done with hunger, before I feel uncomfortable.*

One of the greatest reliefs of where I am now is that the bones of my face are less padded, so my features are clearer than they were a year ago. When I look in the mirror, I recognize myself again. Thank god, thank god, thank god. I hated seeing a bloated stranger in the mirror. My face was the last part of me to show the fat as I put it on, and it's been the first part to re-emerge. But in some ways, that makes the strangeness of my body in pictures even stranger.

How is it that I still look like that?


*(So's y'all understand my complicated eating history a little more: hiking the Trail, I needed so many calories that eating to the point of discomfort was necessary. I only fired up my stove twice a day--what I ate then needed to last. I was trying to maintain my weight during my hike, so on top of those two big meals, and I was eating 6 candy bars a day and chowing down in town--typical meal, a pizza, a pint of Ben and Jerry's and I would be raving with hunger again in an hour--and I still lost five pounds during those 2.5 months.)


Magpie said...

Brave and good post, S.

I think I'll go have a peach instead of the ice cream sandwich I was contemplating...

Julia said...

I agree-- brave and good.

I actually disagree with the fat acceptance movement that wanting to lose weight is a bad thing (tm). I can feel the extra weight, and the restrictions it is putting on what I can accomplish, and I want it gone for that reason-- so I can do certain things again. It's not like my frame is built to do these things with any amount of weight on it-- there are engineering considerations. Long way of saying I am not buying the dogma, even if I like the prescription. Much like you, I guess.

Jenny Davidson said...

I throw up my hands at the whole notion of bodies, I do not understand why we have to have 'em, I am more on the disembodied brain wave side of things myself! However swimming is very good...

susan said...

That is very loving, insightful, and disciplined progress, S. Good stuff, and complicated.

liz said...

Julia, I don't think that the FA movement thinks that wanting to lose weight is a bad thing. What they think is that losing weight is generally a temporary thing. Only 97% of people who lose weight keep it off for five years. And that means that exercising and eating healthily for the sole and exclusive purpose of losing weight is counter productive. And that most diets bring people down to caloric intake levels that approach starvation levels.

FA encourages exercise and healthy eating for their own sakes. And if you HAPPEN to lose weight while moving and eating in a way that is fulfilling, more power to you. But that should not be your expectation.

liz said...

And S., I'm sincerely proud of you for getting up and moving. That's phenomenal.

kathy a. said...

i said something more thoughtful that got lost. but, this post speaks to me. i know i'm too fat now; i know that is due to depression and stess issues; and i'll get around to it soon. when i do, it will not be a fad diet, but just being busier and happier, making sure i only eat when hungry.

the body hatred, that is a bad thing.

and kudos to you. xoxo

Jena Strong said...

I am just in the past few days feeling ready, for some unknown reason, to make a shift - away from the sugar (i.e. pints of Ben & Jerry's) to drinking a lot of water, eating more healthfully and frequently throughout the day instead of overeating at night... etc. History (ancient!) of eating disorders, but those "Issues" don't seem to know how many years have passed. I found myself on your blog tonight - three degrees of separation I think - and was taken by your honest post here. Thanks for sharing. I especially loved the conversation you and your issues had. I may have to try that.

Anonymous said...

great post.