There’s a topic I have waltzed around in my posts, but I’ve decided it’s time to address it head on. Participating in a project designed to aid caregivers, I recently watched a video focused on people who oversee their loved-ones’ care, and something really hit home: when you’re in the thick of prioritizing another person’s well-being over your own, you tend to become thick yourself. You don’t eat consciously or make time for exercise. So the “F” word I’m talking about here is a three letter one: FAT.
I have fought being overweight my whole life. Starting with my mother being summoned by the school nurse, I was deemed unhealthily overweight at 10. I began my first official diet, counting calories, when I was in the 5th grade. My weight decreased and I earned kudos from neighbors and friends, but I always fluctuated. I swung up and down, unable to maintain control in a household of over-eaters. Entenmann’s cakes were always in the kitchen “just in case” we had company. My mother always gave me mixed messages: “Don’t you DARE eat that!” followed by “What’s the matter? Why aren’t you eating?”
When I got to college, I lived at home, but spent much of my time away, exerting more control over my food choices and activities. I moved out when I graduated, at 20. Through adulthood, I continued the struggle to find sustainable ways to be healthy.
I got married at the age of 33 in a size 16 wedding dress. (I am 5’2″, so it should have been a 4 or a 6). When I saw the videos of our honeymoon hike up Dunn’s River Falls playing on an endless loop in our hotel lobby in Jamaica, I was mortified. I signed up for NutriSystem when I got home. I learned good habits and portion control. I lost 35 pounds in 1992, achieving the healthy size 4 body I sought.
Maintenance worked for me as long as I charted my food and exercise. After about 3 years, I got cocky and thought I was done having to watch myself. Big mistake.
I eventually gained all of the weight back. Around 2000, I got sick of myself and decided to re-implement my NutriSystem knowledge, tracking my food and exercise. During the high-stress interval following the 9-11-2001 attacks (I had seen the Towers ablaze driving from my home in NJ to the Lincoln Tunnel, which closed before I could enter it), I resisted the urge to over-eat. I told myself, if I screw up, the terrorists win. So I redoubled my efforts and used exercise to battle the stress rather than reach for comfort food. I got back down to my fighting weight again.
In 2003, my Dad got sick and I became intimately involved in his care. Moving my folks up to NJ from FL, I had them living with me for a while as I shuttled Dad from doctor to doctor. The more I learned about the gravity of his situation, the more the stress got to me. I saw a therapist and journaled through my misery. I missed work outs. I made poor food decisions. And here’s something you may not know about dementia: people who have it develop a wicked sweet tooth. My Dad NEVER liked sweets before. He loved spicy, fatty foods and eating way too much of them, very quickly. His attraction to ice cream and pastries was new. But we all agreed that if that’s what made Dad happy, quality of life beat quantity of days, and we indulged him. Being around that, it was often hard to resist imbibing myself (and I have ALWAYS had a sweet tooth).
I hung on, though. I put some weight back on, but not all of it. Until grad school that is.
In 2005, I was accepted to a Masters program at NYU. I went back to school full time at 47. I gradually fell back into bad old habits. I was in front of computers all the time, sedentary, nurturing my mind, but not my body. I would literally forget to eat and later binge. I paid the price in weight gain and debilitating lower back pain, featuring a summer of chiropractic treatments, doctor visits and pain killers. By the time I earned my MS in 2007, I had re-gained all of my weight along with my 3.75 GPA.
Again, I fought to get the weight off. I lost about half of what I needed to lose. Then Mom’s cognitive status went precipitously southward, and as chronicled here, she came to live with us for almost a year.
Having one’s mother living in their home is challenging enough when the parent is mentally able. Add dementia to the menu, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. I tried to cook healthfully for all of us, but it was really hard. I wanted to indulge my husband, who’s a steak and potatoes guy. He will only eat poultry if it’s deep fried. He likes salads but won’t eat most fruits. Mom pretty much ate anything I put in front of her, but as time went on, she needed more help getting it from the plate to her mouth. This impacted the menus, too.
I enjoyed all the stuff I cooked and ate way too much of it to fill the aching void in my center. Even with the healthful preparation techniques I’d implement, if you eat too much of anything (which gave me GERD*, another family curse) and don’t exercise enough (we’ll, I couldn’t leave Mom alone long enough to get in regular workouts, right?) you will ingest more calories than you burn, which results in weight gain. It’s simple math. Being in perimenopause, with the hormonal surges, mood swings and slowing metabolism, doesn’t help either.
The last straw, for me, was in late April. I was down in Florida, selling my parents’ apartment. Staying at a modern hotel, everywhere I looked I saw my reflection, and it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t just look fat, I looked OLD. I felt ancient. I needed to be retrained. So, one day, as I worked on my laptop in my lovely hotel room with all the stupid mirrors, I made an appointment with a Jenny Craig Center in Wayne, NJ, less than a mile from Emeritus, where Mom was then living.
I started the program in May and set my goal at 30 pounds. I wanted to be in good shape for my 20th anniversary in late October. Bob and I had decided to go to Hawaii, and I’d be damned if I’d go there and see a video in the lobby of our hotel featuring a huffing-puffing old butterball with my face on it.
Bob has been great about it. He makes his own meals now, so our arguments over what to eat and when have gone away. And he does like what he sees in me.
Last week, I got on my WiiFit board, and for the first time since I got the blasted contraption, it did NOT say “That’s Overweight!” as it revealed my BMI and weight. It said “NORMAL!” with a burst of fireworks and much rejoicing by my “Mii.” It was the first time I didn’t feel like throwing the bloody thing under my car wheels. (Note to Nintendo, the makers of Wii: the little voice that says “Oh!” when you step on the board makes you feel like you’re inflicting pain on it with your massive bulk. Stick with “Great!” It’s a lot more positive).
I have a way to go and about 6 weeks until we leave for Hawaii. I may not get to my ultimate goal weight before we go, but I should be close. Over 20 pounds down and I feel way better. Working out is SO much easier now that I’m carrying around less weight.
The more important thing, though, is that I finally get this: it’s not a temporary thing. It’s a PROCESS. I can’t EVER stop. I must ALWAYS track my food and exercise. I can eat or drink anything I want to IN MODERATION. As long as I do, I will stay where I need to be: healthy, present, mindful and self-aware. It’s my choice.
It is NOT easy. But if you are a care-giver, please don’t let your own needs go unheeded for too long, whatever they may be. If you’re unhealthy and unhappy, you’re of no value to anyone. Figure out how to prioritize your own needs higher. It’s a challenge well worth taking. After all, it’s your life. Don’t f*ck it up.
*Gastro-esophageal reflux disease, which my father had and my brother has too. Mom has also had ulcers. Since I’ve changed my lifestyle, all GERD symptoms have abated without drugs.