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This summer, my mental health took a dive. When that happens, I gain weight. Pounds accrued between a mix of inspiration/exhaustion, insight/grouchiness, hope/resentment. Between the extremes, I took refuge on the couch, watching TV to calm my ping-pong brain. I knew what could make me feel better. I just couldn’t do it. At this point, it was easy to sink into hopelessness — which I did. Eventually, when hope returned, a question arose like a buoy bobbing up from the deep:
When life gets hard, how are we supposed to keep going?
It sucks to be this stuck. I’m living a nagging paradox: feeling like less, but still wanting more. I float in lazy limbo, having lost my tether to any tactics I have used to keep going. Little stops and starts fill the time but get me nowhere. I resort to quirky, impulsive attempts at resuscitating hope (“Clear!”)
For example, this summer, I caught myself examining my hands a lot. I used them as a barometer for my entire body. Puffy pillows between my knuckles? Weight gain. Tendons pop as I flutter my fingers? Lost weight. This became my nightly ritual, catching clues out of the corner of my eye while reading in bed. Wrinkles reminded me of Reva. In her 80’s, she was a social sprite with a streak of moxie (the kind of gal I want to be when I’m that age). Sure, her fingers wore wrinkles, but she kept them ringed in cherished bobbles, so I didn’t get it when, one late night at Denny’s, she started crying.
Reva dropped her fork and floated both hands in front of her. Bobbles up, fingers shaking, she held the table in silence. I stopped chewing. Stillness is the best dish for digesting wisdom, and Reva was about to serve some. A tired huff rose from her throat. “These are not my hands,” she objected. I nested my own fork. “They used to be so smooth; they used to be so pretty,” she lamented in a teary tremor, palms up.
When I remember Reva, I wonder…
Will my body eventually drift that much out of reach for me? Will it become a stranger to me?
When life gets hard, and I get stuck, it sometimes feel like that day is closer than ever. Desperation drives me to JUST DO SOMETHING. I plan extreme workouts or consider starving myself. Like an animal caught in a steel trap, I would gnaw my leg off to escape the rusty clench of doom. That pain would be easier to bare than any loss of control. But they say control is an illusion, right? In cheerier moments, I remember that. Plus, I realize that I can micro-measure all I want, but it won’t keep me from finding some other body part to worry into a problem. There’s a better way.
What if I chose compassion over control? Could I learn to become a friend to my body? This is more than just accepting my body as it is (I still want to feel better; I still want to get fit.) It’s not acceptance but insistence. Insistence on kindness: towards me, by me, and around me. This radically-generous approach, in fact, redeems the only control I ever really have. I get to decide how to see myself. I get to determine what health looks like on me. So, recently, I had this thought…
I’m already taking up space with my body. It’s time to start taking up space in my life.
I started where I could. When my dog, Huxley, licked my hands to get me off the couch, I got up and took him to the river. When I arrived river rats were anchoring their kayaks or rafts after a sunny day on the water. I refused to resent their fun. Instead, I insisted on my own version. I threw a stick into the current, and Huxley vaulted in. I scanned the crowd: no kids. I shed my shirt. Huxley nabbed his treasure. I dropped my shorts. He dog-paddled back. I tightened my sandals. Just before he touched down in the shallows, I dove past Huxley – in all my nakedness – leaving him bobbing in my wake. I didn’t glance back. My belly, double-chin, curves, and ripples, they all came unabashedly with me.
By Labor Day, the spirit behind those chunky-dunks had trickled into other parts of my life. Ironically, tiny doses of kindness can bring big healing. Things I’ve tweaked so far:
As of this writing, the river has cooled to a brisk polar plunge. I’ve lost some of the weight I gained. Though, some days, I still brace for a crash on the couch. The hardest part is trust. Trusting my best self to return. Trusting my body to want to move when the time comes. I tuck my soft self between kindness and trust — holding both at the same time – waiting for energy to come. Compassion creates space, and I keep finding ways to take it up by living in the full spectrum of my life. It’s easier to move through the spaces in life (an old Chinese adage). Even if hard times get in the way again – as they undoubtedly will – I’ll have a way to keep going.
It’s not acceptance, but insistence, that keeps me going.
Is your fitness routine fading? Is that promise you made to yourself getting harder to keep? Welcome to the “3rd week wall.” There’s something magical about making it through the third week, and its common to get stuck just as you thought you were doing great. Don’t get down on yourself. Instead, read ahead for some tools and tips to help you clear this hurdle and go even farther (first published in Living Well, 2013).
We know what they’re going to say: eat better, exercise more. As soon as health experts open their mouths, we hear their advice like an overplayed pop hit. Our eyes glaze-over. Our minds go numb. Yet, knowing the latest research hasn’t kept us from a nationwide Obesity and Diabetes epidemic. Why? Is there a missing link between what we’re learning and what we’re doing? Or, is it how we’re learning? Maybe we need easier ideas, something we can do right now that translates all that advice into real results. We need tips that can come alongside us, not create more conflict with our already-busy lives. While we’re at it, let’s demand something we can do and still be ourselves. Make it not too far out of reach but still inspire us to be our best selves. In that spirit of uncomplicated accomplishment, here are three revelations which can revive any mission to become and stay healthy.
First, Take a Step Backwards
Alyssa Schrock, Mrs. Montana 2013, recognizes that gap between knowledge and know-how. At a young age, she was diagnosed with Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. “Here’s a pamphlet, go figure out a plan,” she quips, mimicking the limp advice she received from her doctor. “No one took the time to explain, ‘This is how you cope. This is what you do.’ As a result, it’s taken me all of fifteen years to learn how to manage my illness.”
Today, Alyssa lectures and educates others about how to navigate health challenges by developing a personal care plan. “I like to work backwards by starting with the end results.” Asking people to envision a fuller life, Alyssa poses questions like, “What do you want?” “Why are you doing this?” “What do you want it to look like?” For her, the answers included reducing her prescription medications, becoming strong enough to care for her family, and increasing her overall stamina. With those kinds of long-term desires in mind, Alyssa then considers short-term actions. “They need to be small steps, things we can do right where we’re at today,” she explains. Every time she progresses to the next step, Alyssa claims a win. It’s those tiny victories which keep her focused, so much so that she now has energy to support others. “I still have tired days when I have to remind myself this is normal for me, but I’m feeling good enough now that I can make my bubble bigger by reaching my arms out to the community, so that others won’t have to walk out of a hospital with a pamphlet and no idea what to do next.”
Think Big, Then Think Even Bigger
Just as Alyssa has learned how supporting her community helps her stay healthy, we may need to unite our health routine with a larger purpose. Often times, we find more motivation when connect with the “why.” Nurturing wellbeing can be an expression of our commitment to something bigger. This bigger picture provides fresh purpose to pluck us from stuck places and create momentum again.
The Women’s Club Health and Fitness Center of Missoula – one of the nation’s first women’s only gyms which started 30 years ago – takes that bigger purpose to heart. “TWC women don’t separate caring for their health from caring for the Missoula community; to them, it’s all connected,” explains Camie Evans, Manager and Co-Owner of the club. Their latest investment is a saline pool and hot tub. Recently, The Women’s Club converted to a salt water system. “We hear how important environmental stewardship is to our members, and they’re happier when they know their workout supports their values” says Cathy Schwenk, Facility Maintenance Leader. “We’ve been looking at a saline system for years, but it’s only recently that the technology has become compatible with our facility. We like to say, ‘We’re going green, so your hair won’t have to.’”
Get off the Guilt-Go-‘Round
I once heard a young mom with a large family lament her sedentary lifestyle. “I know I need to get me and the kids exercising more, but it’s not easy,” she groaned. “They say this town is such an easy place to be active, but you either have to have lots of time or lots of money, and I don’t have either.” I nodded my head. She indeed was one of the busiest moms I knew. I also knew, however, that there was a public trail system just minutes from her home. Spotting the gap between what she said and what she could do, I surmise her frustration served more as a deflection of guilt.
Come to think of it, criticizing the sometimes conflicting health advice we receive is an effective deflection, as well. Resistance can cover up guilt over not being healthier. Here’s the good news: guilt doesn’t work, so you can let it go. Guilt is a disconnecting force which short-circuits our best intentions. Guilt acts like static to our souls; keeping us judging ourselves and arguing with those judgments. It fuzzes that heart/mind connection where creativity and motivation abide. So let go of guilt about not exercising enough or eating bad food.
You can create a vibrant lifestyle when you cultivate these ideas. First, begin with your vision for a healthier you. Then, support that vision by connecting with a bigger purpose. Finally, release energy-sucking guilt. Now you can harness all that energy you’ve been using to simply survive the stuckness and shift your focus into drive.
We need tips that can come alongside us, not create more conflict with our already-busy lives.
I’ll never forget an interview with Jillian Michaels (of Biggest Loser fame). When asked why she became a personal trainer, she answered (I’m paraphrasing here): I noticed that overweight people were shut off from many areas of their lives. I want to help them live life fully, and weight loss is one doorway to that.
That’s bang-on with my experience. Losing almost 100 pounds has blown my doors way open. However, they weren’t the double-doors of Destiny guarded by a Butler of Truth wearing white gloves and checking for dust. No, I’ve come through a wormhole of sorts, squeezing through and going where I hadn’t planned. Sure, I wanted to lose 100 pounds, but I had no idea that I’d have to root out the cause of those pounds. Jillian Michaels would probably say, “Of course!” Actually, she’s witnessed enough psychological breakthroughs to know it’s always about more than the weight. For me, those added pounds were tangled up in finding my purpose.
I’ve been searching for purpose most of my life. There are worse things to go OCD over — and everyone wants to be special — but I needed a purpose to feel my specialness. I created tons of pressure for myself, and that’s where I got into trouble. I ate and ate just to relieve my burden, so it’s not hard to understand how something as promising as purpose can become a 100 pound problem.
There’s another problem, though (one uniquely tied to purpose). It’s a closed loop of sorts, setting purpose up as both my drug and my cure. When food didn’t relieve the pressure, I’d get down and dirty with all my unanswered dreams, as if mud-wrestling with my angst would earn me a victory, and the prize was my purpose. Often, nothing gelled, so I became even more desperate. How convenient, then, when a new prospect supplied fresh desire (“Ooh, shiny!”) The cycle rebooted. I was an addict addicted to rehab.
I’ll admit, this routine became a delicious distraction. It’s more fun to dream than to actually do the work of making those dreams come true. Plus, I wasn’t alone. Most everyone wants to align their work with their passion, and many people think they need to find their purpose before they can be happy. We get lots of help forming that idea. Experts admonish us to follow our passion, but here’s the rub: they’re usually already passionate about something, and they’re usually talking to people just like them. To be clear, I see nothing wrong with setting goals or achieving dreams, but words like “passion,” “parachutes,” and “out-of-the-box” have become as sour as summer bed sheets to me. These are things that come after, not the things themselves. (Full disclosure: my first email address started with “outta_d_box.”)
What do I mean by “after?” After the wormhole. After the work. Unfortunately, I’ve not found any easy way around either. The only way I’ve found is through. Purpose hasn’t validated my life. It came already embedded, and I was always in it. It took going through the wormhole to see that. Even when I’ve tapped out, I was still just recouping on the couch – living off a trickle-charge of hope – until I could get up and go again (“What’s next, Kemo-Slobby?”)
My cycle of escalating desperation came to a head in 2006. I got off the couch (Actually, the couch was more like a cliff, and I jumped off.) I quit my full-time job with benefits to make myself “available.” I wanted my willingness to attract fate to my feet, where she would scoop me up in her arms and let me ride that stallion of destiny across the sand dunes of life. Well, the last day of work, I remember thinking, “I don’t care. Even if I go down in a ball of fire, I’m doing this.” Six months later, I smelled like smoke. I hadn’t found anything. Nothing found me. Instead, I grew angry. That’s when I made fiery speeches to the Heavens. They went something like…
“No, seriously, this is not what I meant.”
“Great. What am I supposed to do now?”
“Fine. I quit.”
“We’re going inside.”
“Uh, yeah, I think you misunderstood me. I’m going out, not in.”
“We’re going inside.”
“Inside? Heck no! I’ve seen the inside. I’ve had enough of what’s on the inside.”
Eight years later, inside is exactly where I’ve been. I sank into that place — reluctantly, furiously, and bitching the whole way – at least until I started to see real answers there. (Learn from my mistakes in my weight loss eGuide, “I Want My Outside to Match My Inside.”) For sure, the idea of going inside is scary – no one wants more pain – but what I discovered is that all my avoidance was more painful than actually sinking into the hurt. And there was hurt, lots of it. Once I looked at what was there, though, it was a relief. Plus, the hurt did not stay. It didn’t go away, either. Rather, it decayed on a curve. In its wake, healing happened. I relearned that I could affect my world. I owned my pain, and I was doing something about it. I became the healer of my own wound. That was more satisfying than any purpose I could have claimed.
Is searching for purpose a worthwhile endeavor, then? I still say “yes,” but if I skip over the obvious, then the search can be more of a hindrance than a help. On this side of the wormhole, more than having a purpose, I practice purpose. I plan. I do. I dream and make goals. I still want my life to have meaning, but how can it not? That’s what I ask now, and that’s the difference. My core desire remains active, but I’m not driven by it. This is a good thing. I am happier.
I don’t have to be all fixed up to practice purpose, either. My wound is still healing from the inside out, so I walk through life with a limp. However, I’m slower to judge and quicker to listen. Otherwise, I’d probably become like those experts, only more annoying (“Hold my green tea and watch this.”)
I recently discovered the German poet Rilke. He described what I’m trying to explain when he wrote:
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees…This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.”
Being overweight is a symptom, but it’s so much more than that. Big bodies can become gateways to healing. Every wound is an invitation to live life large. The hurt won’t disappear, but it will transform into an entry point for joy. The tenderness left behind becomes a safe place. That kind of recovery is contagious. It seeps out the sides, and purpose can’t help but gush from it.
For sure, the idea of going inside is scary – no one wants more pain – but what I discovered is that all my avoidance was more painful than sinking into the hurt.
100 Pounds weight loss eGuide, “I Want My Outside to Match My Inside.”)
Lately, when sharing my story, the same question keeps popping up: What does it take to get unstuck and make the healthy choices we already know to make? It’s as if there’s this mysterious black box that we cannot see into, but which holds the key to flipping whatever switch inside, so we can make the choices we want to make — but for some reason — haven ‘t. I cannot know what will flip the switch for you, but I can suggest one way to feel for it. I call it “Micro-Meditation.” I started this practice as a way to calm my monkey mind. To my surprise, it also helped me make better decisions, including the ones about what to eat and how to move.
I started inside my car, waiting for traffic. I focused on where I placed my hands on the steering wheel, which finger reached for the stereo, or how I slid my sunglasses around my face. Then, while getting out of the car, how I grabbed my purse strap before wrapping it around my shoulder. How I leaned into the door to unlock the car. Which foot hit the ground first and how my balance changed as I closed the door. You see what I mean? It sounds too simple to make a difference (Typing this paragraph took more effort than the actual doing of it.) However, if I wasn’t practicing micro-meditation, I would be busy worrying, planning, or just being numb. There’s lots to gain and nothing to lose.
Soon after starting this practice, my insides started to change. It’s hard to describe, but it was that same feeling when every light turns green, you take curves with the perfect balance of speed and torque, and seas of traffic part with mere intention. In one word: flow.
I’ve since fallen in love with “Micro-Mediation” (when I remember to do it). It works instantly at any moment without extra equipment. It takes nothing from my day and, in fact, saves time because I make better decisions with more clarity. When it’s time to choose a meal or workout, the switch almost flips itself.
Dear Phat Girl,
I need your help. I’m sick of weighing myself and chasing the needle up and down the scale. I want to be free of obsessive weighing, but I don’t want to lose momentum. Honestly, I need the feedback. How else can I measure my progress without feeling like a slave to the scale?
Ready to Fly in Florida
Dear Ready to Fly,
I love this space you’re in. At times in my life, I have felt like my body was bigger than “me” on the inside. Where you’re at, it feels more like you’re bigger than your body. That feels good! I get the sense that you’re expanding into new possibilities and have the energy to create solutions that work for you. Your weight-loss journey is maturing (Queue the weepy mom: “My little baby is all grown up and ditchin’ the scale!”)
I’m a fan of minimal weighing. Imagine me at my annual doctor visit: “Can I stand backward on the scale? Don’t tell me; just let me know if it went up or down.” Obviously, I agree with your desire to be free of a number. We always hear, “you’re more than a number,” but rarely does anyone follow up with solid ideas for collecting valuable feedback (The reason why we started weighing in the first place!)
What’s great about weighing is that it’s personal. It’s about you and only you. That’s a rarity in the health industry where – in a span of 24 hours – we can hear or read lots of conflicting advice. I’ve learned to take my health advice like I take my religion. I keep it personal by sampling new ideas to see how they work with my life and my body. In truth, most health news applies to a small subset of a very specific population that was studied, so it’s silly to plaster our lives with everything we hear; just like it’s unrealistic for the entire world to express their beliefs with the same, exact customs. (Confession: I used to wander self-help isles, waiting for a diet book to call out to me, much like how I played “Bible roulette” by opening up the book with my eyes closed and landing my finger on some random scripture.) Today, I appreciate solid data – like a number on a scale – as one way to side-wind all the superstition and crossed-fingers that go along with trying to lose weight. There’s other ways, too.
Let’s keep the scale’s benefits (personal, meaningful information in a format easy to gather) but break free from the scale’s oppression. Enter: Weekend Way-Ins (as the way into you!)
Dial in your observation skills. Practice noticing. Notice how you need to work stronger now just to get your heart rate up. Spot little changes in your body, like less puffiness in your fingers or ankles. Note how your jeans feel looser. These tiny victories – Weekend Way-Ins — point the way into that amazing person who has always been inside, just waiting to get out.
Along with that new body, you’re going to need a fresh body image. Otherwise, you risk regaining the weight. So you need one more — but critically important – step beyond just noticing. You need to retrain your brain. Marking tiny changes can literally rewire your neural net by breaking the old, “I’m fat” ruts and forming new thought pathways which accurately reflect the emerging you. Unfortunately, brains don’t speak English. Repeating positive statements about becoming thinner won’t get the message across. Visualization – ideas and feelings — is the brain’s language. You’ll need to use an image to celebrate your tiny victory. Sometimes, that “one great picture” is all we need to undo self-criticism. I suggest you pare your tiny victory with a picture from the internet or a magazine. Post it (along with a proclamation of your victory).
You can become free from the scale while still measuring success with personal, easy to gather feedback. Weekend Way-Ins are a fun, creative way to feel like your efforts make a difference. Plus, they do the legwork of consistently, persistently retraining your brain. By using Weekend Way-Ins, you’ll continue to feel your best long after the weight comes off.
These tiny celebrations of sassy victories – Weekend Way-Ins — point the way into that amazing person who has always been inside, just waiting to get out.
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