I remember the day my very kind endocrinologist told me “Your weight has gone up again. I’m concerned about the long-term consequences with the diabetes. We might want to think about the options you’ve got for addressing this.” I weighed 246 pounds that day, an eighteen pound gain since our visit six months prior. I took a minute, and a long breath, and said, “I guess it might be time to really think about it.” I knew the primary option to which he referred, bariatric surgery to assist me in losing and maintaining. Just a few months earlier, I had lost my 32 year old cousin to complications of the same kind of surgery. I was up at night regularly worrying about diabetes complications. I might wake up blind or with failing kidneys. I needed to make a choice about my future.
You know what a watershed moment is; you know those points in time that create our most significant changes? That conversation marked one of mine.
By this point, I had tried every fad diet. Low carb, low fat, calorie restricted, point counting – I had done them all. Sometimes, I’d lose large amounts of weight, only to put it back on virtually overnight – plus some. Often, I would lose interest in the technique I was following – more comfortable, as many of us are, in habits that contributed to my ill health. I had zero energy, I was sick all the time, my A1c’s were in the stratosphere, and I felt guilty and ashamed of the way I looked and felt. Walking up stairs had become challenging; I’d completely lose my breath midway and stop looking down at a too-tight waistband wondering how I had let myself slip so far down this unhealthy road.
The relationship I was in at the time didn’t help. We loved each other, but his alcoholism combined with my food addiction were a toxic combination, made ever worse by a lack of physical activity on both of our parts. It was time to change and I knew it.
The thing is, I had always known that the changes I needed to make weren’t just physical shifts. There were emotional and spiritual issues that impacted the way I treated my body. I had a vague idea of those pieces, but starting down the road to addressing them was daunting. I don’t know what gave me that final push to do the hard work of getting healthy – but I’ve always guessed, I was just ready.
Over the next three years, I studied. I read about eating disorders and about spiritual awakening. I read about diabetes and depression and the intimate ties between blood sugar swings and depressive episodes. I reread philosophy books I’d forgotten. I went to a counselor to address the underlying grief and loss that informed much of my “comfort eating.” I started writing daily. I visited a dozen churches and meeting houses on Sundays to tap into the celebration and mourning of others.
At the same time, I made significant physical adjustments, now inspired by a true desire to take better care of my body. I remembered the joy I took in swimming, so I started going in the spring, summer and fall to our town beach. At sunset, almost daily, I’d wade into the water and swim toward the horizon, comforted by the feeling of being healed by the movement of the waves. In the winter, I took long walks and sat thinking or writing in the woods by my home. I visited a nutritionist who helped me design more reasonable ways of eating. Portion control and food choices were difficult for me. Navigating a steady reduction in processed foods in favor of fresh produce and lean protein proved to be my biggest practical stumbling block. But it was an incredible help to truly understand that the vitality of my body was crucial to a growing engagement with study and activity I loved.
I lost 90 pounds in those first three years. Slowly, surely. My A1c improved. I was no longer having monstrous high blood sugars, my insulin needs were reduced. I was testing my blood sugar more frequently with the increased activity and paying more attention to what certain foods did to both my blood sugar and my energy levels. That time was filled with plateaus – both in my learning and my weight loss. I’d sometimes slip and eat more than I should have. I had weeks where I’d done everything right and still hadn’t lost an ounce, paving a path for unhelpful frustration. I’d miss days of writing or reading. I’d skip a counseling session here or there. Yet, even with all of those challenges, I was committed to being better – for myself and those around me. So, I persisted in my efforts.
Four years into this transformation of body and spirit, the relationship I’d been in for eleven years ended. It was time, and I knew it, but my heartache was so grave I thought I might break into a million pieces, or worse, fall back from all the progress I’d made. I leaned on my renewed spirit to help me through as I moved from the home I’d known to a strange city, away from a man I’d shared a bed with for over a decade. It wasn’t a graceful transition, by any stretch of the imagination. I fumbled in my handling of my own emotions and his. I raged at him and others over the inevitable end, I cried daily in the shower, I lost decades long friendships as sides were taken and I withdrew. I had an instantaneous rebound relationship, packed with many of the same addiction issues that had been such obstacles with my ex. It took time to get my feet under me, but once I did, I found that maintaining the physical course was that much easier with a renewed focus on self.
Freedom from a relationship had its privilege – in the form of time. I read constantly – the works of old masters and miles of poetry and journeys of self discovery. I tried new things. I learned to weld and forge metal. I started sewing again. I hiked and climbed all over New England. I went out and enjoyed great music. I gathered people in my home to talk about art and literature and performance. I wrote. I gave away my television set and microwave. I also started boxing, took dance classes, and discovered a love for running (something I thought I hated!). I even joined a dance troupe and became a paid entertainer. Thirty pounds more dropped off in the next couple of years. A weight loss I’ve been able to maintain for five years now.
What I’ve learned all these years and all these pounds later, is how important it is to focus on my mind and spirit as much as on diabetes and weight loss. Sometimes our physical health is tied directly to how we feel about our existence, about our place in the world, about our relationships with others and our knowledge of self. For me, when I started truly feeding my spirit, I didn’t need to overfeed my body. When I started eating up the life I was living, I didn’t need to overeat. When I started enjoying my space in the world, it became easier to enjoy the movement of swimming, boxing, running, yoga. It all began with that watershed moment that spoke not only to my physical self, but to something deeper in me.
The work continues every single day.