Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Confessions of a Workout-aholic

December was the month that everything I know about myself and about life came crashing down.

OK. So that may be a bit dramatic. (There's a rumor going around that I have a tendency to do that.)

As a result of spending my childhood in a constant battle with myself, mentally and physically, I, as a twenty eight year old, had grown to believe that I was really freaking tough. The strength and willpower of a giant. Although, if you've read much on giants, not sure on the willpower thing there... (there's a slightly more damaging rumor going around there that they eat people... no control - it's a shame, really).

The war began on a very average autumn morning when I was in fourth grade, just a lovely little nine year old. I looked in the mirror. Stupid little me (or rather, how I felt that day, not so little me), looked in the mirror and suddenly, all at once in one big, loud, tidal wave size moment, every message I had every heard from my friends, family, kids at school, in magazines, on TV, and in movies suddenly broke through some kind of barrier that every little girl is born with. I. looked. fat. Oh my god, I was fat. One second prior I had never called myself or any other person fat, and suddenly, all at once, it all broke through. Fat. Fat. Fat.

I started sobbing, curling up into the fetal position, and in my head there was a voice screaming at unbearable volumes, "you are ugly! you are fat! you shouldn't let others see you like this! how could you even think of going to school when you look like this?" My mom came to find me and I, completely ashamed, still sobbing, managed to get out (between hyperventilating-style shallow breaths every ten seconds or so), "I don't want to go to school. I can't go to school. I'm fat. I'm ugly." (you see, I had already managed to tie the words "fat" and "ugly" together - so advanced for a budding nine year old). My incredible mother let me stay home that day. She also told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world. (She's pretty great, eh?)

Pretty sure there is not a single word I despise more. FAT. My future child will, mark my words, believe that when someone in his or her first grade class talks (in a hushed whisper, of course) about how they heard someone say "the 'f' word" on the playground at recess, they referring to the word "fat." (Not sure how I'll deal with the nutrition facts panel on every single thing in the pantry, refrigerator, and grocery store, but I'll come up with something. I'm a creative Catherine.) Fat, when used outside of talking about the nutrition content of foods, is only a destructive and mean word. No, you are not simply commenting on the poor-health of a fellow human being when you talk about them as "fat." Fat is a loaded word. It is never, ever, positive, kind, or uplifting. You are not simply stating a fact about their potential health risks. There is a lot of baggage tied up in that little three letter word.

These beliefs and convictions come out of nineteen years of consciously internalizing the world and all its messaging around body, size, and beauty (and nine years of subconsciously doing the same). While this war has been raging for almost twenty long and often exhausting years (which yes, does indeed totally blow), I have somehow managed to become a very high functioning, happy, successful, and healthy late twenty-something female. Yes, this is in spite of spending the majority of this time battling eating disorders (while on that subject - we really need to get some awareness out about eating disorders and how serious they are... the amount of people - people that I love and care about - that flippantly make "jokes" related to or insinuating things connecting dieting, vomiting, etc. is ludicrous). Sitting from my vantage point now, I am willing to wage an all-out war of my own on the f-word and everything it is loaded with.

However, I seem to have digressed (shocking, I know).  And no, I wasn't actually an overweight nine year old, I may have grown in to the adult sized me starting at a much earlier age than most kids, but I definitely was not fat (we call that last sentence progress).

The moral of all of this is that, thanks to being in a constant battle with myself, my body, my ego, and my sanity for most of my life, I have managed to become (in my opinion, clearly) a pretty tough and strong willed individual. My personal struggles, battling anorexia, then bulimia, then depression, and now anxiety have helped me learn to be deeply, deeply empathetic for others.

In my third year of college I was diagnosed with PCOS, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which is often associated with insulin resistance issues, and after further testing I was also diagnosed pre-diabetic. Although I had been an avid gym-goer since being a senior in high school, and was at a healthy weight, the specialist I was seeing told me, ever so casually (in a voicemail, mind you), "maybe just try and lose a few pounds." Dear God. She just went there. She just told a recovering bulimic (less than six months clean) who was at a healthy weight, to just lose a few pounds. My heart is racing again just remembering that moment. I sobbed like a small child on the front steps of the building I was supposed to be inside, listening to a lecture from quite possibly my least favorite professor ever (at least the a-hole doctor saved me from that?!). Thank goodness for the kindness of an amazing friend who sat on the steps with me when she saw me run out of class crying and listened to my completely irrational rant, I'm sure.

From that day forward, I never stopped exercising. I have spent the last eight years of my eating-disorder-free life exercising almost every single day, running half marathons, full marathons, working out for 2-3 hours a day. To most people I seem like very fit person, who really likes working out - and I am. I love it. I don't love it because I love working out, however, I mean, seriously. Who wouldn't rather wake up each morning, have a nice hot cup of coffee, a hot shower, and get ready for work or spend a cozy Saturday morning in their pajamas? Instead, I choose sweating at 90% of my max heart rate for around two hours. Sometimes in rain, snow, or Antarctic-like temperatures. I love it because it keeps me sane. It's a coping mechanism. Yes, significantly healthier than eating a half a cracker and a pickle slice a day for months at a time, or eating a full meal only to regurgitate it all back into a porcelain bowl, but still an addiction. Still a way of coping with the f-word, as I see it. What I have managed to trick myself (and many others) into believing was actually strength and incredible willpower has been none of those things. Working out is a crutch for me. End of story.

Just kidding, come on. Clearly I'm not done. We still haven't gotten to the part where everything I know about myself and about life comes crashing down.

Let's get there now.

What I believe(d) about myself and about life (we are talking about the pillars of my sanity here):
  1. If I don't work out, I will get "fat." I will become that nine year old or third-year college student me all over again (neither of whom were overweight) and see myself as nothing but a tub of lard in the mirror. People who work out and have extreme discipline don't get "fat." Working out everyday is essential to happiness and sanity (they are pretty reliant on each other). If I don't work out I am terrible, lazy, and without willpower (oddly enough this is something I have only ever projected on and believed about myself, not others - thankfully, as that would make me a terrible person).
  2. Eating healthy is key to being healthy and fit. Eating healthy takes knowledge and willpower. If I don't eat healthy foods I will get "fat." Immediately. I will literally wake up the next morning with twice the jiggle.
  3. I can control anything if I put enough energy into it. I can control my body, how I am perceived, how successful I am, my emotions, and so so so much more. With my unwavering willpower, if I commit to something, even something crazy or far too ambitious, I will not fail. People who have willpower are strong and can accomplish - and control - anything they choose.
Then? Then the month of December came. Well, first came the month of November, which caused the month of December, which caused the crash and burn that is right now, which is eventually going to cause the incredible rebuilding of a much, much healthier me. Thank God someone invented dominoes.

#3 was the first to be tested. After many months of testing, diagnosing, and then failed attempts filled with oh-so-much hope, in November the wifey and I were blessed with the news that we had a miniature me on the way, we were going to have the chance to raise it to be just as crazy, loving and kind as the two of us - hopefully much more so, in fact. However, something wasn't right with my blood work and things were not progressing as they were supposed to and November was filled with endless tears, anxiety, doubt, and a serious pressure test on my faith. Oh, and a constant need to be in arms length of an emergency room. Shortly after Thanksgiving the pregnancy was confirmed as ectopic, the worst possible scenario, and as a result I took a nasty and oh-so-toxic injection of a chemotherapy drug in order to induce a miscarriage.  Never before had I been able to have so little control over something, outside of other family deaths (which I am notorious for being unable to process in a way that matches my age or maturity - just picture more sobbing). It's incredible how quickly you can fall in love. There was nothing I could do differently.

Staples in the Elf Diet.
Plus Cheesecake.
So, that was December 5th. And thus, #1 and #2 spent the month of December being unraveled. With poison coursing through my veins (never had I have more empathy for my mother and the inconceivable amounts of chemotherapy she endured) and the still-present risk of my tube rupturing and sending me into shock and a life threatening situation, I wasn't allowed to (or physically able to, thanks to the poison) work out. Hell, I could barely muster the strength to make it through 4 hours of sitting. Not only was I unable to workout, not even walk, I had no appetite - well, except for all things sweet. Candy, cookies, cake... it was all I wanted. And, since nothing else sounded good, I ate nothing but cake, cookies, and candy. Cheesecake, lots and lots of chocolate covered cheesecake.

What the inside of my body looked
like. (Also, our gingerbread house.)
In fact, from December 5th through January 5th I ate pretty much nothing but lots and lots of cookies, candy, and cake. Unless my lovely wife or mother was forcing me to stomach something else (which usually meant pasta, as it was the only thing that didn't make me nauseas), I ate nothing but sweets. I called it the "Elf Diet." I ate nothing but chocolate and sugar for one month and I did not work out for one month. Thanks to doctors orders and the injection, I wasn't even allowed to take my multi-vitamin for the chance to have some semblance of nutrition enter my body. According to my core understanding about myself and how life worked, this meant that I should be having a nervous breakdown from not being able to control life,  be totally insane, and of course, most namely, I should be FAT. A terrible, lazy, weak, ugly, shameful human being - all that lovely baggage I associate with the f-word.

Here is where it gets really crazy. I didn't look in the mirror and hear those voices. I didn't feel fat. I didn't look fat. For the first time since this crazytown mental disorder had set into my brain many years ago that caused me to see someone twice the size of myself whenever I looked in the mirror, I didn't see someone "fat." I saw me. I still saw a happy, healthy me. WHAT. THE. HELL. All three core beliefs that I had been operating my life around for most of my life - my entire adult life - were proved untrue. In fact, I had not gained a single pound - quite honestly all of my clothes were looser than ever. Makes me a little nauseas just thinking about it, honestly. Totally unfair.

[Tuesday morning was the final crash and burn when I put on my under-armour running pants, pants that are usually so skin tight you can actually see cellulite through them, and yet they were... baggy. For the duration of my walk yesterday morning I was constantly pulling them up like a teenage boy and cursing my last eight years of crazy being all-for-nothing (and also - naturally - partially pleased-as-pickles that I was so damn fine)...however, turns out, they weren't my pants. Sigh.]

So... the breakdown on my breakdown:

#3 - I cannot control everything. It doesn't matter how strong I am, how smart I am, how much willpower I have, I cannot control everything. Some things, like creating little humans, is totally, completely, 100% out of my control. Willpower cannot make you superhuman.

#2 - I can eat candy, chocolate, and sweets without waking up the next and growing to twice my previous size. I can eat sweets, lots of them, and not feel like an awful, terrible, weak person. (I will throw out here that I don't recommend the Elf Diet - or, if you try it, at least take a multi-vitamin.)

#1 - I do not have to workout every single day. It will not result in me losing my mind, getting "fat," or becoming a terrible, lazy, no good human being. It will result in me having virtually no muscle strength,  having to ask for help opening can of Fresca, and being totally winded (doubled over trying to catch my breath winded) from a single flight of stairs. But I can still be a happy, successful, functioning adult without working my body to exhaustion every day.

Am I working out everyday again? Clearly. Having the strength of a seven year old girl is not my idea of beautiful, skinny, or fit. As soon as the fatigue subsided and I was no longer in the arctic midwest I got back to a moderate routine of walking, yoga, and some light weights.   Is it a totally different feeling to view working out as something I am doing to strengthen my body and increase my endurance rather than a coping mechanism for my sanity? Of course. It's the best thing ever.   Is it pretty freaking awesome to know that I can eat dessert and sweets a little more often and my thighs won't grow in proportion to the number of calories I ate? Hell yes! Do I still think I can and should control absolutely everything and get really anxious if I can't? Yes, indeed. Yes, yes, yes. Oh my poor wifey.

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