Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fit Body, Fit Mind

Baby fat - my lifelong
Before becoming a widow,  I considered myself active and healthy. I did Zumba a few nights a week, I took my dog and my daughter to a local park as often as weather allowed. We regularly went swimming and played racquetball as a family. Warren and I enjoyed going salsa dancing whenever we could find a sitter. I was careful to cook balanced meals, and made sure we always had fresh fruits and veggies in the house.

After Warren died, I lost all interest in taking care of my body. I didn't see the point. Warren had a clean bill of health and that didn't prolong his life. He never smoked, only drank socially, kept active, and had a rich spiritual life. All indicators would point to a long and healthy life, but that's not what he got. When the adrenaline of final arrangements had worn off and everyone had gone home to move on with their lives, my energy level was at an all-time low. What was even more warped, was my mind. I truly didn't care what happened to me, and keeping my body healthy was not a priority at all. The care I had taken before seemed like a waste of time when I could just as easily drop dead, too.

Fat with a fanny pack
I was a chubby kid. I started worrying about my weight around age 8. I hated being fat. For the most part, when I wasn't reading or playing Barbies, I was active. I rode my bike, roller skates and scooter from sun up to sun down. I played a mean game of freeze tag and cops and robbers with the neighbors. I didn't understand why I was so overweight because I wasn't one of those kids who hated gym class. I was on a tumbling squad. I played basketball in elementary and high school. I danced. But the bulge was always my steady sidekick. It wore on me to the point that I made a comment about preferring death over being a fat teen. I was 11. That put my mom on high alert. She took me to a nutritionist and changed the way she cooked and served food. The whole family got a food make-over. In sixth grade I spent hours working out to Richard Simmons's Sweatin' to the Oldies before school. By the end of seventh grade I had dropped some pounds. I was making wiser food and portion choices. It felt good to be smaller.

Chunky, but not horrendous
The sad thing is, that looking back at my childhood photos, I wasn't as fat as I thought I was. When I think back on my childhood I envision a HUGE little girl who could be mistaken for a Mack Truck. I look at the pictures and it saddens me to see that while I was certainly larger than average, I was far from the obese monstrosity that is imprinted in my memory. What is even sadder is that my twisted perception of self came in large part from comments and comparisons from those I was closest to. Questions like, "Are you going to eat all that?" and comments like, "You shouldn't wear that, it shows your chichos" (that means fat rolls), and being called "Gordita" as a term of endearment. Sorry, but calling me "little fat girl", no matter who said it or how gently it was said, did not make me feel endeared in any way. It reinforced my ill feelings about myself and my body.

In high school I would wake up at 5:30AM to work out before school. In college I was terrified of gaining the famed "Freshman Fifteen" so I walked everywhere even after I bought a car, and I swapped accounting notes for personal training hours from a sports medicine major in my class. I lived off-campus for most of college and cooked a batch of veggie stir-fry for dinner nearly every night. I stayed away from the plethora of free pizza and late night Gyro runs. I carried baggies of roasted soy beans and drank protein shakes for breakfast. I was the smallest I'd ever been. On the surface it looked like I was keeping fit in a healthy way.

The truth was much more disturbing. I severely restricted my calories. I was conscious of every morsel I ate and often didn't let anything sit in my stomach for more than 15 minutes. My roommate often threatened to call my mom and tell her what I was doing. I was 300+ miles from home. I knew her threats were empty and there would be no consequences for my actions. Of course, I was wrong.

Emaciated, wearing a
bandanna as a shirt
One night before Christmas break I went to a movie with a friend. I hadn't eaten more than 500 calories in four days. I passed out on my way back from the bathroom. I woke up to smelling salts and felt so weak that he had to carry me to the car. It scared the crap out of me. I knew I was killing myself to be thin. As soon as I got back from break (where I didn't tell anyone at home what happened or what I was doing to myself), I found an eating disorder support group on campus. I read everything I could about how to get better. The hardest part wasn't controlling my eating and purging habit, it was changing my thought process. I was less than 125 pounds but whenever I looked in the mirror I saw that fat 8 year old staring back at me and I hated her.

Gradually I kicked the habits. But I had a long way to go and I was getting there alone. One or two friends knew what I was going through, but most did not. Those who knew worried about me, but what could they do? By the time I was out of college and on my own, I was only throwing up about four times a week and while I was still careful about what I ate, I ate more reasonably. I didn't panic when the calorie count got higher than 300 per meal.

Then I started dating Warren. He was so smart and ambitious. He was kind and thoughtful. He told me how much he valued me, admired me, and wanted to make me happy. How could this man love me more than I loved myself? Being loved like that helped tremendously as I struggled to accept myself as I was. It might have saved my life.

It was nerve-wrecking, but I found the courage to tell Warren what I had been doing to myself and how much I was struggling to be healthy. He wasn't repulsed or disappointed. His look of concern is stamped in my memory forever. I remember him holding me close as I trembled telling him more details than I had shared with anyone. There was no judgement in his voice when he asked what he could do to help me get better. Knowing I wasn't facing it alone anymore was the relief of the century. I promised him that I would never allow myself to self-harm that way again.

It has been a battle, but I have kept that promise. I hope to never break it.

When he died, my old friend the toilet bowl whispered to me to let it all out; reminded me how good it felt to be empty - that I needed to release all the sadness and pain like I did so many years earlier. I stood over my friend, toothbrush poised to gag myself into reprieve. But I didn't do it. I couldn't.

But at the same time, I didn't go back to being active and eating healthy. I did the opposite. As I stated earlier, I didn't care about proper nutrition or taking care of my body. I ate what I had conditioned myself to avoid or only eat in moderation. I didn't set foot in a gym, I didn't take the dog for walks or go on bike rides with my daughter.

After about a year and a half of this unhealthy pattern, a fellow widow and an incident at school turned me around.

The incident: In grad school I had to go up four flights of steep stairs to get to my workshop. When I got to the classroom I was so out of breath that I prayed to God that the faculty member who sat next to me wouldn't talk to me because I knew it would be a while before I could breathe normally enough to speak. That prayer wasn't answered and I sounded like an asthmatic chain-smoker after a marathon. I was mortified and felt terrible that I had allowed myself to get so out of shape.

My friend and fellow Grief Warrior had started seeing a personal trainer and her energy and overall demeanor had done a 360. She was much more positive and seemed to have turned a corner that I wanted to emulate. I asked her to share her secret. She told me about her trainer. She talked about it like a woman in love. I wasn't sure about it, so I asked her more questions. A few weeks later she gifted me a session with her trainer. I hesitated two months before using it. After the incident at school, I got back and made an appointment. I am so thankful for her generosity and intuition. I wish I had done it sooner, but then again, perhaps the timing was just right for what I needed at the time.

The first few sessions were brutal. I couldn't remember sweating that hard my entire life. She expected me to lift weights that made me dizzy, and to do so for multiple sets. I didn't understand how my friend could be in love with this torture. But, I wanted that buzz so I bought my own personal training package and kept at it. I knew I needed a firm and knowing hand to get me out of my funk, and my trainer had that, plus an understanding heart. She was patient and persistent. From day one I felt that she cared about my health and I did not want to let her down. If she thought I could crank out one more set, then I was going to do it. My friend joined me for joint sessions and we pounded bags, did an insane number of planks and lifted weights that sculpted muscles in places I forgot I had. It was an excruciating hour that I looked forward to as much as I dreaded. The companionship and activity became the highlight of my day. A month in I was hooked on the high of making my body stronger.

It wasn't just my body that was changing. My mind was getting healthier, too. I became addicted to the endorphins that surged through me after a workout session. I wanted to do better by my body. I wanted my moods to be tolerable. I wanted to care again.

Personal training isn't cheap. It's an investment. Not only monetary, but that session can sometimes feel like the longest hour of your life. If I was putting that much time and money into working out, I wanted to match the efforts with my food intake. I decided to cut simple carbs. If there are any Puerto Ricans reading this, you know that we survive on rice, platanos and bread. This transition was hard my mother. I was saying no to comfort food she thought I needed. In the morning I replaced pan con cafecito with kale and pineapple smoothies. I made arugula salads and chicken breasts instead of arroz con pollo, and I refused to eat anything but fruit after 8PM.

After a few months, the weights weren't as challenging and the sessions didn't feel as long. I was becoming physically stronger but better yet, I wasn't living in the fog I had been under. I was seeing life through a different lens. I was starting to realize how much there was to live for. In a way, it felt like I was honoring Warren by acknowledging that I was alive. He wouldn't have wanted me to feel dead inside and I was tired of feeling like I died along with him.

I am renewed when I workout. I love being stronger and not getting winded. I look forward to running 5Ks. When thinking of things to do with my friends and daughter, I try to come up with things that will get us moving. I've tried (and love) new forms of being active, like aerial fitness where I hang from fabric that dangles from the ceiling.

When I do these things I feel proud that I have chosen a healthier path. Sure, it's still possible that I can follow in Warren's footsteps and meet an early death. But at least for the time I have on earth I know that I am doing exactly as he would want me to - taking care of myself the way he wanted to take care of me. It's not always easy and some days I really want a Krispie Kreme doughnut for breakfast, but I know that it won't be as fulfilling as doing something good for my body.

The change inside has been as powerful as the change in my physique. On days that I workout I am calmer, sleep better, cry less. My moods are completely turned around for the better after a good sweat session. Having energy again reminds me that I have a lot to live for. If Warren were here, he would certainly tell me to take care of myself so I can fulfill all the dreams he is no longer able to pursue. That is a grand reason to keep sweating it out.

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