Monday, December 24, 2012

Prejudice, in all its forms

When I lived abroad, people tended to make a lot of assumptions about me based on their generalizations or stereotypes about foreigners from America. I figured when I returned to the U.S., this would stop. However, it turned out that people are still making assumptions based on generalizations or stereotypes, they are just doing so with a different set of them.

Several weeks ago, I met an new acquaintance of my husband's at a coffee shop for the first time. At the early stage of our conversation, we were discussing size differences in beverages. The country I used to live in did not offer "venti" size drinks, but it did offer "short" ones. This talk about everything being bigger, including the spaces around the tables, in the U.S. prompted this new acquaintance to mention how large the people in America were. Clearly, she was referring to weight.

As a way of handling this somewhat derogatory remark, I mentioned that I felt American weight issues were largely linked to acculturation. We are acclimated to larger portions and find them natural and normal. My husband also pointed to his drink and said that it cost a mere 20 cents more to go from a large to a venti so you are economically encouraged to have more. We proceeded to discuss how the cost of food products is largely wrapped up in marketing, packaging, and sales and that the cost of the actual food you are consuming is such a small percentage that there is much more profit in getting you to fork over an extra dime or quarter for more food because of this.

This new acquaintance, who I actually really like and I was not offended by what she said at all, in large part because she accepted what I said about food and culture with a thoughtful mindset rather than a defensive one, made assumptions about me based on how she saw me as I am now. I'm fat, for sure, but she's also a little overweight. She was looking at me as a "normal fat" rather than an "abnormal fat" and had no idea that she was talking to someone who used to weigh 380 lbs. and who has lived most of her adult life over 300. If she had known, my guess is she never would have casually remarked about how large Americans are to me within the first 3 minutes of having met me.

It isn't only about weight that I've found people are reaching conclusions about me. My sister-in-law has had several conversations with me in which she's has taken to "educating" me about a variety of things which she has no experience with and that I have, shall we say, copious experience with. The absurdity of her telling me what it is like for people to grow up with an alcoholic parent, in poverty, or to be around seriously mentally ill was hysterically ridiculous.

It's as if she just can't hold the thoughts in her mind that I grew up incredibly poor, surrounded by dysfunction, worked with seriously mentally ill people, and with an alcoholic father when she looks at me. She simply can't reconcile whatever image she holds of the present me with a person who lived that life and takes to talking to me as if I were an idiot who can't possibly understand or empathize with the difficulties of the people she is talking about. I've literally had to repeat each of these points at least 3 times during various discussions to make her understand that I'm not some middle class entitled person (which, ironically, she is) who has landed on these shores after an exciting and privileged life abroad. I've worked hard, suffered greatly, and came from absolutely nothing.

The intransigence of the stereotypes and generalizations people form about another person based on present day limited knowledge is something I find very frustrating, especially since people instantly believe my life was an easy one. They see me as middle class economically (even though currently I have no income at all), educated, and out of touch with the difficulties of minorities and the poor. The idea of "white privilege" is all around me and people speak as if I have no idea what it is like to be a minority and to experience prejudice. They assume I don't know what it is like to be judged on sight, rejected based on skin color, or have doors closed to me based on ethnicity.

 I spent 23 years being gawked at, insulted, talked about, turned away, and having my opportunities severely limited because I was in a country where more than 99% of the people were not like me. I think I do have some idea what it is like to be part of a minority. What is more, I spent about 20 years of my life at home in America being marginalized because of my weight. I have always been part of an oppressed minority, at least up until now. But, people don't see that, and won't even believe it when I tell them, because they cannot break out of the thought box their generalizations about me lock them in.

I find that I was less frustrated by the prejudices I experienced abroad than the preconceived notions I experience back home. Part of the reason for that is that my former home abroad is not a country in which people are educated about prejudice and how not to act on it. Part of it is that I disconnected emotionally from those people as a survival mechanism and could do so because they saw me as outside and I could see myself that way. Here, the perceived inclusion is stifling because I'm in an individualistic culture which is fiercely intent on pigeonholing me as something other than an individual. Even when I assert clearly that I am not what people perceive me to be, they push back or refuse to see who I truly am in favor of their notions.

One of the sources of my depression has been a deep disappointment and frustration at how I am perceived and how I did not expect to have this sort of thing happen. While I did not expect people to look at me and assume I used to be much more overweight, I did expect them to at least be open-minded to the fact that I can't be sized up with little more than a look. People used to think I was a lazy, donut-scoffing pig before based merely on my looks. Now, they think I'm some easy-living, entitled, spoiled middle-aged white lady. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that losing weight would change the way people reach conclusions based on appearances. The cursory judgement didn't end. The conclusions people tend to reach just changed, and they're not really for the better in my experiences. They still diminish me. They still serve to elevate others at my expense. They still are shallow and self-serving.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Holding My Ground

I've been away from this blog for a long time because of the emotional difficulties involved in making certain transitions to the changes in my life since leaving the Asian country I had been living on for over two decades. The bottom line is that I've been depressed and sliding deeper into it for quite some time. The issues that lead to that depression are complex, and actually have only a little to do with weight, weight loss, or my relationship with food.

This blog isn't really a place for me to talk about other aspects of my life, including depression, but there are parts of it which fit the motif. Mind you, I know my readers would be more than happy to listen if I'd like to talk, and I may yet go into some elements of this depression which are not related to food or weight. The one thing about it that I can and will say is that people often believe that depression is about sadness. It is, but the greater part of it is more than that. Depression is a thief. It steals your energy, your ability to experience joy, and your resilience. During the last few months, my ability to cope, experience pleasure, be productive, and endure any hardship have been eroded by depression. I haven't blogged because I've been barely coping with what I have to do. I didn't have to blog, so I didn't.

Things are slowly getting better. Circumstances have actually not changed, but a turning point was reached in certain aspects of my life where I decided that I had to yank myself mentally out of the downward spiral I was in and start rebuilding mentally or I'd never climb out of the hole I was being dragged into. That is not to say this is a complete process at this point, but I pulled myself out by sheer force of will and a realization of the long-term cost if I did not  break the cycle I was in. I keep resisting being dragged back down. I am not always successful, but I am finding enough success to keep trying.

Before I go on, it is imperative that I say that I don't believe that people can overcome depression by will or by "snapping out of it". I am/was depressed due to circumstances and not due to innate biochemistry. I do believe that certain techniques can slowly help a person re-write their biochemical nature, but not if the roots of it are genetic. My case is unique, as am I. If anyone takes a message of pulling oneself up by ones own bootstraps from this post, then there has been a misinterpretation of my intent. What I've suffered is hard, and what I'm doing to deal with it is difficult, but it is not something I think just anyone can do. We all live in our own skins and within our own unique set of circumstances. 

The process by which I'm dealing with my depression and the situation surrounding it is not at all different from the "rewiring" that I did to help change my relationship with food. The biggest difference is that the results are absolutely faster because I haven't spent as many years building to this state as I spent getting to 380 lbs. It's a lot easier to overcome a few years or months of biochemical changes brought on by difficult experiences than to rewire decades of them.

Getting to the aspects which concern this blog, I wanted to speak of how this has impacted my eating/weight. My weight remains stable. I'm still not thin, of course, but I've been maintaining my 200 lb. loss without calorie counting, restriction, or extreme exercises. I have not found myself compelled to eat compulsively to deal with my feelings. Sometimes I have actively wished that that would still be effective for me, but I have undone the connection that says that eating will make me feel better. I remember that it might make me feel bad enough to forget how miserable I am emotionally, but I have not turned to that. The cognitive "rewiring" I did has served me well in this regard.

What no amount of mental conditioning can do, however, is take away the fact that, as a force which drains you resolve and resilience, depression makes it far harder to deal with additional difficulties. That is, I've found it harder to spend time being hungry or to resist eating impulsively rather than to simply wait for meals. While this has not had an impact on my weight maintenance, it has certainly hindered more loss as well as made my overall diet "noisier" than it should be. By that, I mean that I've been inclined to snack more and less healthily, though absolutely there is no issue with quantity.

I don't mention these things to deal with this punitively. Trust me when I say that I'm not beating myself up over eating 3 tiny pieces of candy a day instead of one. I mention this here merely because I want to say that my depression has had this particular impact on my eating. It dampens impulse control. It undermines the ability to endure discomfort, even routine hunger which is normal between meals for most people. It is a factor, though it hasn't been a highly destructive one for me.

In an odd way, this depression has revealed a certain triumph for me. My biggest fear upon returning "home" has been that I would re-gain the weight I'd lost as I dealt with the hardships of being here. I gained a lot of weight last time I made a move from my East coast home to my husband's West coast home because of the stress and emotional upheaval it brought. This time, it did not happen despite even greater difficulties that had to be faced. I attribute this to the mental groundwork I laid to change my approach to food as well as my increased awareness. My husband's support and cooperation are also a part of this. If he had invalidated my pain this time as he had done nearly two and a half decades ago when I made the initial move, I don't know where I'd be this time. Fortunately, his eyes are open this time and he has been a lot better about making the changes necessary to validate my concerns as well as be supportive.

It has been a hard road coming home, and I'm nowhere near riding out the bumps. This post is just checking in to let my kind readers know where I am and what has happened. I hope to tell more when I have greater energy, but, for now, I'm holding my ground.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Backward Slide

Before I get far, I have to make it clear that when I talk about sliding backward, I'm not talking about what most women who are talking about weight are discussing. This is not about regaining weight. It is about mental changes relating to food and the place it holds in my life. That being said, I do believe that those mental changes are where the potential for weight regain reside, so it's important to nip them in the bud now and deal with them.

Since returning to the U.S., my life has been immensely stressful. I cannot begin to make anyone understand the effects of the reverse culture shock that I'm experiencing because one would actually have to have been in this situation. The best way I can say it is that I feel like everything around me is wrong and these differences are a consistent source of stress. I feel tense every time I go shopping for food. Walking along the street and having someone pass by me gives me a tiny amount of anxiety. Getting into the car makes me tense up.

There is no cognitive processing underlying these responses. I am not afraid of anything nor do I have a concern for doing the wrong thing, looking foolish, or appearing out of place. I simply feel like the world is askew relative to how I expect it to be. This is a neurological response issue, not a choice on my part. It's one that I cannot over-write by force of will and has to do with brain chemistry patterns and systems that are laid down by association with situations and people of a particular type. Time and experience are the only things which will make it better as new experiences and patterns are allowed to emerge. I understand the underlying neurological and chemical issues, but I will not trouble my readers by going into jargon-filled explanations.* Suffice it to say, this is not something that can simply be gotten over.

The everyday actions of others that they blithely carry out in the normal course of their days are an effort and stressful to me. The range of "easy" choices for me in a given day are tiny now. The range of "not easy" and "difficult" is huge. I'm exhausted everyday, even when I appear superficially to just be doing a normal amount of activity. Every night, I'm incredibly tired, even when all I've done is the type of thing I did before in the country I previously lived in.

There are, of course, other issues. I don't have a job. I'm not yet living in my own place (that will come very soon though). My husband and I continue to deal with bumps along the road in our relationship as the result of the changes in our lives (as should be expected). I'm not sure where my life is going, but I do know that I'm unhappy where I am. Sometimes, it is manageable as it is today and sometimes I just want to leave and go back to where I was.

Hating it so badly that I am driven to tears is something that I can't say is uncommon. However, I have to accept, at least rationally, that this will change. I have had experience before with this sense of suffering. When I first started college, I hated it so badly that I'd come home everyday and cry. I desperately wanted to quit and abandon the whole idea. Since I'd borrowed a lot of money to go, I didn't feel free to simply walk away. By the end of the first year, it was okay. By the end of the second, I loved it. I hang on to that experience as an indication that things will get better, even if I hate it now.

Yesterday, I had what can best be described as a meltdown. This has happened several times since coming here, but it was the first time that I sat there, alone and crying, thinking that, "if I just ate, this wouldn't be like this." I knew that, if I started to stuff myself again, I'd be both comforted and uncomfortable enough to ignore my feelings, and fall into a pattern that would distance me from the suffering I've been enduring. I could do the equivalent of getting drunk or high to put myself out of my misery rather than sit there just stuck in the pain of the moment (or the hour or two, as was the case).

I didn't do that, of course, but there have been other mental backslides as well as some behavioral ones. One is that I've been finding myself devoting about 400 calories a day to incidental snacks like cookies, pretzels, chips, etc. I'm not overeating, but I am eating smaller amounts of healthy food and then eating these other things. This is not a good pattern. What is more, it is starting to feel more compulsive than mindful. I decided that this has to stop. Sure, I can have my treats, but not like this. Eating 200 calories of "dessert" after both lunch and dinner as well as another 200-400 calories at tea time is not necessary to satisfy my sweet tooth. That is an immense daily calorie dedication to gratifying my desires as opposed to eating nutritious food. I need to get back to smaller, more mindful, and discrete habits.

Finally, there is a return of my treating my body as a garbage can. One of the things that I forced myself to stop doing was eat things which didn't taste good because they were there and I didn't want to waste the money. Since I'm not working and my husband and I are drawing on savings, I have increasingly started to eat things which are old, poorly made, and not especially tasty (but at least nutritious) because I feel they should not be wasted. This is not the end of the world, of course, but it is the start of placing the small value of food above myself. I need to stop doing this as well.

I'm hoping that recognition of these issues at this early point will help nip them in the bud. I'm sure that this is happening because I'm deeply unhappy where I am and with what my life is like at present. However, I knew that things were not going to be easy when we moved and I know that I have to be able to hold my food habits together at the worst of times as well as the best. If I don't have the mental tools to manage it now, then I need to do some more exploration of what is going on in my head and find some other coping methods.

It's not enough to be doing well only when life is good. I have to maintain the same relationship with food regardless of my current circumstances. I believe I can do that, but only if I actively attend to my feelings, experiences, and needs. That's what I'm going to do. The first step is right here and that's awareness.

*If anyone wants the deeper explanation, e-mail me and I'll tell you about it or send reference links.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Price of Change

My life is an unusual one in many aspects. I know a lot of people believe that, but, in my case, it really is true. I have access to my past in a way that few people do because of the unique nature of how my husband and I came together. When people hear that I married a pen pal, I'm not sure what they imagine constituted the content of our distance "courtship". No matter what they may speculate on, it's almost certainly not the reality.

I have a large box of greeting cards, postcards, and letters that my husband and I exchanged over our year of separation. They paint a certain picture of how things were between us, but they are actually far less descriptive than may be expected. Most of them talk less about our thoughts and lives and more about our undying love and missing one another terribly. I wrote to him nearly every day in one form or another. He wrote to me less, but there was a reason for that. The printed material we have is revealing, but not nearly as much as the other materials that we kept.

My husband and I primarily talked to one another on old-fashioned cassette tapes. We didn't merely send a few hours here and there, we narrated our entire lives, played games together (question-based ones), talked about the mundane and the epic details of life, had fights, made up, cried (mostly me), and expressed joy. The full range of a life "together" is on those tapes. We didn't save every one of them, as it would have been economically unfeasible given the cost of tapes at the time, but we saved about 50 of them. This constitutes a broad cross section and hours and hours of our lives at the ages of 22 and 24.

I have been listening to these tapes over time and, while I'm delighted by my husband's old tapes as they bring me such joy, I'm fascinated by mine as well. The truth is that the emerging me, the one that went from being in control of her weight and her lifestyle habits to plummeting back to super morbidly obesity is right there. In fact, she deconstructs herself, tears down the psychological walls that gave her the toughness to make hard changes, and becomes a creature of utter vulnerability. When I finally got together with my husband, I was a nicer person, a better partner, a more rational, productive and constructive communicator, and one small psychological breeze away from utter physical destruction.

There are two instances on tapes in particular which I listened to which were utterly devastating in revealing what I had done to myself. The shocking part is that the process is so obvious, palpable, and can be pin-pointed directly to my technique of mental rewriting. I was actively rewiring as I spoke to my husband, and I was falling apart emotionally as I did so. It was hard, painful, and it tore down defensive walls that were hurting him. Until I listened to those tapes, I had no idea that I had started doing this to myself so early in my life. I also, of course, did not conceptualize it for what it was. I followed the process, but this was me "feeling my way through it." It was a process as it unfolded, not consciously undertaken.

I don't want to be cryptic here, but it is hard to detail the contents of hours of self-reflection spoken into tapes. The first stage of this is seen when my future husband and I suffer a conflict in which I am angry with him and confront him in an aggressive and "attacking" manner. When he asks me if I could talk to him about these problems in a way which is loving and supportive rather than hostile, I respond to him by saying that I want to do that, but I have no idea how. I tell him that all of the role modeling in my life and all of my experiences were carried out in the manner in which I dealt with him and that I would try, but I didn't know how just then to be the better communicator in the midst of heated conflict.

On another later tape, after some particularly stressful and difficult times in my life, I tell my husband that I believe that I am "sick" emotionally and psychologically and I'm not sure that I know how to get well or if it is even possible. I was at an acute turning point at which I realize that behavioral changes alone were not going to "fix" me in a meaningful way.

I was a staunch follower of behaviorism, a psychological philosophy which neatly addressed stimuli and responses in order to change, but it came crashing down on me that this sterile and ordered way of dealing with issues was not nearly enough. Yes, it helped me lose weight and gain a sense of control in my life, but it didn't deal with the deeper issues. I looked better, felt better, and had all of the trappings of external accomplishment, but I was filled with pain and lacked emotional control. No matter how disciplined I was, I was not happy and still dealt with people, and my then-boyfriend-now-husband in destructive ways. Behaviorism was not the answer, at least not the all-healing and encompassing one.

Surrounded by people who were as "sick" or "sicker" than me, I could not see how I behaved as anything but a reflection of "normality". My interactions with him and how I dealt with him, because he was and still is the most psychologically "well" person I have ever known, revealed the depths of my dysfunction. Those issues hurt him, and they hurt out relationship and I wanted desperately not to infect him with my "sickness". At that time, though I loved him deeply and completely and wanted nothing in life more than to have a future with him, I told him that if he didn't want to deal with someone as messed up as me, I would understand if he ended our relationship. Being the person he is, he said that my perspective was that he may catch my "sickness", but his was that it was possible that I might not instead catch his "wellness".

During a long-running conflict over interactions with an ex-girlfriend of his who we were both still in communication with, I engaged in another long and tearful period of self-revelation. It was this tape that was pivotal in the sequence of tapes I was listening to that made it clear to me that I was now practicing the "reflection" phase of my rewiring as well as having an emerging awareness of patterns. While listening to this tape, and realizing what my 22-year-old self was doing, I started to weep. There was a truth that I have been rejecting that was undeniable after what I'd heard my younger self say.

This truth is one that I have not expressed in this blog because I have largely rejected it to date. My husband said to me quite some time ago and on several occasions that he believes that I regained weight because of the way in which I tore down my defensive walls and made myself greatly more vulnerable in order to be a more suitable mate for him. The woman he met was superficially "stronger" than I feel I am now. She exhibited mental toughness that I feel I no longer possess. As my mother used to say, I didn't "take any guff." People were intimidated by me, and that made sure they didn't find a soft spot from which to hurt me. I stood alone, and I made my own way.

Instead of being hostile, defensive, and keeping people out, I became positive, loving, and accepting to let him in. Unfortunately, this change opened me up to a world of suffering. Though he did not hurt me, what was to come when we finally got together physically and moved to his home area, absolutely destroyed me. I had put down my emotional shield and sword, and I got slaughtered.

I resisted this truth for a variety of reasons. One was that I did not want to "blame" him for my weight gain in any way. I felt that even considering his observation as the truth would be tantamount to doing so, albeit in an indirect fashion. Another was that I felt it was wrong to not take full "responsibility" for my fatness, especially since doing so allowed me to hate myself and confirm a poor image of myself.

Another tape revealed the completion of my alteration from the tough and combative "bitch" I was when I was upset to what I was by the time our distance courtship reached its conclusion. I was combative with my mother's verbal and emotional abuse when my then-boyfriend and I came together through our pen pal relationship. By the time I was packing up and leaving to join him in his home area, I was not engaging angrily with people anymore. When my family dealt with me with hostility, I would calmly say, "there is no need to be hostile." They would angrily mock me for having taken on this new pattern of behavior. I had changed fundamentally.

The reason I'm writing about this is that I have a record of myself which is detailed, covers a long span of time, and is historically undeniably accurate. As a record of personal change, it cannot be doubted in any way. I can see how changing to become a better person in one way took away the fragile structures which held my weight maintaining and loss habits in place. When I could not fight back, I had to seek solace and comfort. I couldn't cope by being angry and hostile, so I turned inward and ate and self-hated. The price I paid for the changes I made was that I got super fat again, and I stayed that way for over two decades because I couldn't turn back to what I was without damaging the relationship I had with my husband or hurting him and I couldn't move forward because I didn't have the self-understanding required to build new coping mechanisms.

My husband was right. The changes I made did have a profound effect on me such that I regained weight. Of course, that's not the end of the story, but it is a very important piece of it. This piece reveals that we operate in balance in our lives and that the ability to operate in the world in a particular fashion is impermanent. When a critical change occurs and the balance is upset, the ability to make positive choices can crumble like a house of cards.

The truth is that I let down dark, spiky and hurtful defensive walls before putting solid, stable, protective mechanisms in place. I did not know that I was attempting to address this very problem over the past three years as I have lost weight again, but I had a strong sense of the price I'd have to pay this time when I lost weight if I didn't dig down deeper than simply deciding to "eat less" and "move more". Yes, I needed to change behaviors, but I needed to know why I engaged in those behaviors in the first place and what changing them was going to mean to me emotionally.

A big reason that I explore the psychology of weight loss is that I was terrified of losing a lot of weight again and then regaining and I wanted to make sure that that did not happen again. I knew identity would be an issue and that I'd have to work on building a new one. I knew I was losing a source of comfort and would have to find other ones. I knew my routines would be lost and I'd have to find more productive ones. I knew that I couldn't dismantle one critical aspect of my life (that with food) without building others simultaneously or I'd be at risk again. I just didn't know that I was actually attempting not to repeat a particular mistake that I'd already made 24 years ago.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Birthday (what makes me happy pt. 2)

This past weekend was my birthday and my husband and I took a road trip with an overnight stay to celebrate. In the previous posts (and some others far back in the buffer), I've mentioned that food was the part of any experience I most looked forward to in the past. The idea of going to a new place and sampling a restaurant or finding a novel item at a bakery was something I really looked forward to. Even as I went down in weight and controlled portions and overall nutritional content, I still looked forward to these experiences.

When birthdays approach, many people see them as a time to indulge in a fashion which they would not normally do. I also was this way. I'd think about what sort of special dessert I would permit myself or the meals that would help me enjoy the day more. If my birthday happened to fall on a day that I was in one of my many failed weight loss attempts, I would utterly resent the idea that I had to be denied a cake or other indulgent food, or I would see it as my one big chance to do what I really wanted to do (eat food which was high in calories and very enjoyable).

This year, because something in my head had changed, the food aspect of the celebration didn't even enter the picture. Of course, when the idea of eating came up because we were hungry, I talked about what we'd eat with my husband. However, the truth was that it didn't matter for the most part what we ate. Each time, he'd ask me what I wanted and I'd say I didn't care and he could choose. I think, at first, that he felt I was setting aside my desires and deferring to his, but the truth was that I really didn't have much of a preference.

The food simply wasn't that important a part of our celebration. I cared about the time with him, the activities we did, and talking with him. I wanted to enjoy the food, of course, and I wanted to eat when I was hungry, but it was merely a small piece of the experience which carried less weight than other aspects. Trust me when I say that this surprised me as much as it may anyone else. I remember that emotional hunger to indulge as well as anyone else. It just wasn't there. There was no fighting or struggle, no emotional tug of war with what I "should" do and what I wanted to do.

I wondered if this is what it feels like in people's heads who don't have serious issues with weight and food. Do they live each day without longing and torment and simply in accord with their hunger and tastes of the moment? Do they approach their days thinking about other things and only consider food when hungry? Is this where the successful journey to having a healthy relationship with food ends?

I don't want to convey the impression that I don't care about food at all, nor that I ate in a spartan or nutritionally pious fashion. I had an egg and toast for breakfast (made at home), shared a chicken/bean wrap with my husband for lunch, ate some grapes and half of a Luna bar as snacks, and had 2 slices of pizza and a little garlic bread for dinner. The following day, I had 3 mini muffins and coffee for breakfast and Indian food for lunch at a restaurant, and chicken, rice and a salad for dinner with a modified "Eton Mess" for dessert (two crumbled meringue cookies with sugar free jam and low fat whipped cream). I was not sacrificing food enjoyment, but I wasn't thinking about food or the food aspect much at all. I took things as they came and ate when I was hungry. It only occurred to me as an afterthought that I skipped the cake/special dessert entirely. It just didn't matter enough to pop into my head.

Looking back over all of the changes I've made, especially de-centralizing food and trying to focus on other interests to cultivate pleasure in other areas, I recall all too vividly how hard it was to do these things. It was like being torn away from joy. It was like a child clinging to her mother for comfort and screaming in pain because someone was pulling her away. There were times when I felt I'd go mad trying to disengage myself from food in the manner I was connected to it. I hated it so much and I felt that the rest of my life would be this mental battle between my desires. I can't convey enough what an enormous relief it is to find myself here after all of that hard work.

It's like I've been dragging myself up a long mountain for years without being able to see the summit. Slogging my way up, I'm certain I will never reach the top and the rest of my life is just going to be this hard journey every single day. Suddenly, I'm simply there.

Friday, August 24, 2012

What makes me happy

 After an emotionally difficult morning, my husband and I sat looking at each other over our respective lunches. I asked him what he was thinking, as I am wont to do, and he said, "I want to make you happy." I told him that he makes me happy. Jogging on my mini trampoline makes me happy. Writing makes me happy. Talking to my friends makes me happy. Playing RPGs online makes me happy. Taking a walk makes me happy. Cooking makes me happy. Having new experiences makes me happy. Doing work (both house cleaning and paid work), oddly, makes me happy.

After I said these things, I happened to look down at the table and saw the "fun size" candy  bar which I'd eaten half of and wrapped the remainder back up with a rubber band. I said, "this doesn't make me happy,  but I enjoy it." At that moment, I realized that another fundamental change had taken hold with me. It was a long, long time coming, but an immense step forward. It's okay to enjoy food, but it shouldn't be one of the wells from which my happiness springs.

In past posts, I've talked about how food was often the part of any experience that I most looked forward to. I have talked about how it made me happier than anything else and that limiting its role in my life made my life feel dull and lifeless. The lights didn't shine so brightly. There was nothing to look forward to. There was an  empty hole that used to be filled with the happiness food gave me, and with all of the pain I felt everyday from my body and my mind, it was extremely difficult to bear, especially in the earliest stages of trying to lose weight. At that time, I had no new sources of happiness or pleasure and the misery of all of my limits and physical pain.

For a very long time, there were only two things in life that made me happy - my husband and food. My husband couldn't fill my need for happiness alone. Food shouldered the rest of the burden. When I took that away, I asked more of him than even he could bear and we had problems. 

Through time and mental conditioning, it seems I've reached a point whereby food has lost that central role in my life. I enjoy it, certainly. I'd still like to eat more than is required to maintain a desired body weight because I'm no fan of being hungry and hate to sit around waiting to eat. However, food is not a source of "happiness", but rather a source of "enjoyment." There is a big difference. One is the fulfillment of a deep psychological need. The other is sensory pleasure.

I never set out purposefully to change this, though I did try to remove food as a central focus in my life (hence the reason I stopped counting calories and measuring food once I had an awareness of portions and general calorie content). This was not a goal I purposefully set up but a consequence of a multitude of related goals and actions that included an alteration in habits, attitudes, and thought patterns. The most important of which, in my opinion, was slowly building my repertoire of alternate things that could make me happy. However, I think this was a million little switches being thrown at different times resulting in a light finally going on. This light was one which I didn't even realize existed.

One thing about behavioral change and especially mental change is that you can't do it on a dime. You can't say to yourself, "okay, today, I'm not going to allow something that has made me happy for decades to make me happy." You can't hate something you love and need out of your head. If that were true, no one would ever suffer unrequited love as they could banish their unwanted affection for another. It took a long time to get here and the things that bring me happiness now were rather dull colors in my daily life at first. I did them, but it took time and repetition for them to gain brightness and meaning, just as it took time for food to lose it's glow.

I think that finding happiness is integral to banishing a bad relationship with anything. I have been reviewing old correspondence with my boyfriend at the time (now husband) that I first lost a tremendous amount of weight just after college and I am talking to him about how falling in love with him made me stop thinking about food obsessively. I inaccurately say that the love made me stop, but it wasn't the love. It was the happiness. After a long separation, he and I finally were able to live together in his home state. When I moved there and experienced things which made me incredibly unhappy, I turned back to food for happiness. I had never changed this dynamic.

I can't say that food will never be a wellspring of happiness for me again. I can say that I'm happy that things are as they are now and I believe I have a strong foundation for not falling back into the food for happiness trap. Anything which brings you pleasure can once again assume a central role. I can say that having this experience and awareness is something I find comforting. I knew a lot about how I dealt with food 25 or so  years ago, but I didn't know enough to stop me from sliding back into old patterns. This time, I'm hoping that when something difficult happens, I don't go back to overeating for my needs.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Preoccupied with "beauty"

As anyone who has been following this blog knows, I didn't lose weight to attain beauty. I'm 47 years old, soon to be 48, and I know that the best I could hope for physically was to escape the stigmatizing and physical pain that come along with being nearly 400 pounds. Nonetheless, the idea of "beauty" has been on my mind a lot lately, and I want to explore why.

One of the things that makes me think about beauty in this way is the manner in which some of my friends talk about how men interact with them. These women are contemporaries of mine, a few years older than me. One of them lost 40 lbs., but is still a little chubby and decidedly looks like your average middle-age lady from a physical characteristics point of view. Even at her lightest weight ever, she has had a flabby neck and double chin (much to her chagrin).

There's nothing wrong at all with her appearance, but she's also not some hot mama who you could see strange men walking up to and hitting on her. She has been married, happily from all external appearances, for a very long time. She mentioned on Facebook that a guy hit on her in the supermarket while she was buying a deli salad.

Another one of my friends is very, very short (4' 11", I think) and somewhat apple shaped with disproportionately large breasts and possesses a classic middle-aged Italian lady look (if you're thinking Sophia Loren, think again). Again, there's nothing wrong with her appearance, but she's no Roman beauty. She's just an average woman in her early 50's. She has mentioned that a friend of her ex-boyfriend has always wanted her and started hitting on her after her former relationship ended. I believe that, from time to time, she has talked about other men wanting her, but her having no interest in them. She is unmarried (never has been) and is actually one my my husband's former girlfriends (though he chose her, like he chose me, for personality, not appearances).

After losing so much weight, I feel as if something must be very "wrong" with my appearance when I hear about contemporaries getting hit on despite the fact that they don't appear to possess any special beauty. I realize that this is unproductive for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I'm pretty sure I'd be creeped out if a man tried to pick me up and I am utterly devoted to my  husband. However, a part of me wants this sort of validation, and I'm not happy about it.

I've been pondering why I want this because my husband is the only person whose opinion matters, or at least it should be the only one that does. He adores me and tells me he feels I'm beautiful. I adore him and think he is the sexiest creature on the planet. I have never wanted another man after committing to a life with him, and the truth is that, if something horrible were to happen and I lost him, I don't think I'd ever want another man in my life again.

I should also note that I don't like being touched by people other than my husband, but I absolutely love to be touched by him (as much as possible). We are incredibly physically affectionate, sometimes to an extent which makes other people a little uncomfortable. We always hold hands when we walk together, kiss or hug intermittently when walking around, put our arms around each other, and sit in contact with each other if it is at all possible and not socially inappropriate. I am not one of those people who just doesn't want to be "pawed". I love it, as long as it is coming from him.

Despite my high level of comfort with being physical with him, it's sometimes an effort for me to engage in social hugging because I really don't want to have such contact with others. This probably stems from a certain amount of distrust of others as well as deeply ingrained fear that they secretly are repulsed by touching me, a remnant of being so overweight for most of my life and knowing people were repulsed by touching a morbidly obese person. I mention all of this because I want it to be clear that I'm not sitting around desiring other men in any way.

Though I've been picking at this psychological knot for awhile, I haven't quite untangled it. I think that there are a variety of insecurities at play in this. One is that, when I was much younger and lost weight, no men expressed any interest in me. I look back on pictures of myself from that time (age 21-22, around 170 lbs.), a time when I thought I looked pretty good "for my weight" and wonder what was wrong with me. At that time, I believed it was because I was still fat and any fatness at all was a huge turn-off to men. There was a man who was far fatter than me (about 75 lbs. overweight) who I was interested in who did not return that interest. There was a man who I had a crush on for over a decade who was not particularly attractive who turned me down even after I'd lost weight. In both of the cases I'm citing here, it's important to note that I knew both of them well, socialized with them a lot, and made my interest clear. I didn't hint, I directly asked, and was nicely told I wasn't seen that way by them.

I never got any validation that I was physically appealing even when I was younger and had a greater potential to be seen as such. Since my picture is not on this blog, you'll have to trust me when I say that I do not have any unappealing facial features. I don't think anyone would look at me and say I was "ugly". In Asia, where I was considered "exotic", I was often told I was "beautiful" by the natives. Their standards are different and some of them were almost certainly just flattering me, but I think that if I was actually strongly physically unappealing, they wouldn't have said that.

Looking back at some women who had boyfriends at the same age as me (in my early 20's), frankly, I think they were not very visually appealing at all and many of them were as dull as dishwater to boot. In retrospect, this continues to baffle me. Not only did young women get more attention than me then, but middle-aged women I know get more than I do now.

So, I wonder, what was/is wrong with me? Well, the answer is that I still am seeking external validation for my worth based on my appearance. This is not a good thing for two reasons. First of all, even if I got it, it would never be enough. In fact, getting it would very likely make me want to seek more of it and start to hang more of my esteem on a continuation of such validation. Second, it's more of placing control of my sense of worth outside of myself.

I think what I'm experiencing here is a re-occurrence of a life-long pattern. People have always invalidated me based on appearance and I have accepted that that is their right. Now, I want them to validate me based on appearance because I think that is also their right. I'm so accustomed to my appearance being a critical factor in how my value is determined that I continue to look for cues that I am valuable (or value-less) in this area. Clearly, this is a point which I have to work on.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Discomfort Zone

Living life in accord with your fears is something that has been much on my mind lately. One of the reasons for this is that I'm living in the house of a woman who did that so much that her world grew tinier and tinier. Another is that my father-in-law, who isn't really fearful, but operates almost completely within his comfort zone and won't try much of anything new, has been showing me a level of rigidity that I would like not to demonstrate in my life.

When I was still in Asia and in the process of losing weight, I had to push myself everyday to go beyond my comfort zone. Actually, at that time, it was much more about spending more time deeply in my "discomfort zone". I walked when it hurt. I didn't eat when I was hungry. I went out in public when it brought on mockery and made me embarrassed.

It's important to emphasize that I did these things at a slow pace. I wasn't one of these "give until it hurts", "no pain, no gain", or "no excuses" sorts of people. I walked until it hurt and stopped for awhile. I didn't eat when I was hungry, but not for hours. I put off eating for 5 minutes or 15. I endured discomfort, but it was a slow, relatively gentle stretching of my boundaries. I see no virtue in excessive suffering and have nothing to prove to anyone in regards to my character strength. The sole purpose of living in my discomfort zone was growth in a particular direction, not to prove how tough and committed I was.

Since my weight seems to be in an extended plateau (around 185), and I'm okay with that, I've been focusing on finding other ways to grow that do not relate to food or weight. I was doing this before by doing normal things that average weight people did without thinking. After I could go to restaurants, take a walk, go to a movie, etc., I decided that when I returned to America, I was going to keep pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone by doing things that even average weight people of my age may not be comfortable doing. Since I'm still fat, some of these things are more intimidating, but I'm doing them anyway because I want to build a level of comfort with my body as well as enjoy things.

Last weekend, I took part in a market test for a console game. In and of itself, this probably doesn't sound too adventurous, but this was a fitness game. Taking part in the test required me to go into a big room with strangers, watch an instructor on the screen and see a silhouette of my own chunky body next to him doing exercises.

I'm in very good health, and I can walk for hours, but I don't have the greatest overall capacity to do exercises well. I do table push ups, but I can't do a real push-up. I can run in place, but not with my knees high. I can jump, but not very high. I did all of the things I was asked, and I did them poorly in front of a stranger. And, in the end, I didn't care. Sure, I was self-conscious at first, but I got over it and in the end I was glad to have put myself to the test. Even if the woman who watched me though I was a huge lumpen failure (which she probably didn't care at all), what of it? I was still walking away with my loving husband to live our new life. What was more, I had grown from the experience. It may have been a small thing for other people, but I'm pretty sure that even people who do not have weight problems would have been reluctant to do that sort of thing.

One thing I realized is that an after effect of the pattern through which I lost weight has followed me beyond the process. That is, I've learned the benefits of slowly stretching your boundaries on a regular basis. I don't want to end up with a shrinking life as I get older because I live in accord with my fears. I want to end up with a bigger life because I conquer them one piece at a time.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Sister

People who follow my blog regularly may recall that my sister has been battling uterine cancer for the past half year or so. Since being treated with radiation and chemotherapy, she has been in a holding pattern waiting for the date of her surgery to come. It was several days ago and she had a full hysterectomy.

The surgery went fine, but not without some peripheral issues thrown into the mix. They suspected she had type 2 diabetes because her blood sugar was 187, but her HbA1C test was 5. For those who don't know, fasting blood sugar numbers, which are considered "normal" as long as they don't exceed 100-110 (depending on who you talk to), measure one day. The HbA1C test measures over the last 3 months and is a stronger indicator. 

My guess is that the number was abnormally high because of stress, saline solutions with glucose that were given and somehow not factored into the situation, or the fact that she may have eaten some liquids within the time frame and no one realized it (or she forgot). I don't know, but I do know that a patient recovering from cancer doesn't need to have additional false information heaped on her while she's spending her first day with a big incision in the stomach and having had a bunch of her internal organs cut away. It is irresponsible, in my opinion, to even speculate to someone at that point in time. Do the test and be sure, but don't push her into another hole before she's had a chance to climb out of the one she's in.

The other bit of bad news they gave her was that they suspect she has sleep apnea. They did this based on the fact that she wheezed as she as coming out from under anesthesia. I don't know if a snore or breathing issue when you've been under general anesthetic can be interpreted so broadly or not. I suspect the answer is "not", and that they are diagnosing by her weight (around 400 lbs., possibly a bit more), not by anything scientific. 

The good news is that the cancer has been carved out along with her reproductive system. They discovered that she had a severely malformed uterus which was nearly in two parts as well as two giant cysts on each ovary. One was the size of an orange and the other the size of a grapefruit. She also has a conjoined kidney and there was concern that if anything went badly during the surgery, this single kidney may fail or be damaged and things would be very bad indeed. 

My sister has to do many more prophylactic rounds of chemotherapy, but this crisis seems to be coming to a close. As I have mentioned in other posts, I strongly believe she did not seek routine pap tests because of her weight (and economic issues) and the humiliation people often face when they are obese and visit doctors. The level of difficulty and pain she has endured could have been greatly reduced had this been discovered much earlier. The lesson to take away is not that fat people are at higher risk of cancer so don't be fat, but that fat people need to get the same level and type of treatment as those of average weight or they are at risk of dying from diseases that are detected too late. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Not "worthy"

As discussed in the previous post, I've been wrestling with my unemployed state, searching for work and not getting any responses to my applications yet, and the freedom that I may or may not take advantage of. For those who didn't read or don't remember, the situation was that there was a job that was mine for the taking, but paid very poorly and wasn't what I wanted to do. It was part-time, and would have made enough money for me to pay my rent (and greatly reduce the dip into savings). With my history of childhood poverty and my feelings of worth (or lack thereof), I was pressuring myself to grab the first thing that came along. It was a monumental struggle for me to turn down the opportunity because I grew up being told not to say no to any opportunity because there may not be another chance.

Part of wrestling with this issue has been talking about my tendencies in this regard with my husband. He told me that I have taken any job I have been offered each time regardless of whether I actually wanted it. Now, the truth is that most people don't apply for jobs that they don't want, so this doesn't necessarily mean that I've been living on whatever crumbs have come my way. However, it is true that I have felt that I have a habit of taking whatever I can get when it comes to work and some of those decisions have had a very bad impact on me.

As I look back over my employment history, I have taken three jobs that I really wanted and experienced personal growth from, and several others that I took because I felt I "should" that didn't turn out very well for me. One of those jobs was one that initially was good for me, but grew into a bad situation in which I overstayed and ended up clinically depressed and gaining about 100 lbs. or more over the years I worked at it. I did that because I was afraid to leave and thought I'd never get another job if I quit.

People change jobs all of the time in America. They step up or step down based on the prevailing economic winds. Sometimes, they stay in a state of unemployment for a long time. Many of them will not take work which does not suit them and will choose to remain jobless for a longer period of time rather than take something which is simply a way of making money if they have that luxury. Some people have little choice but to do what it takes to put food on the table and cannot afford themselves the luxury of being picky. I know this well as that was what slowly ground my mother down through the years. She worked because she had to, not because the work was good for her in any way.

At any rate, I've been considering why I don't take the path that my husband has said is available to me. That route is one in which I do what I want (mostly write) for the next 2-3 years while we live off of our savings and my husband pursues his new career path. At the end of his study and internship, there is an excellent chance that he will get the sort of job that will allow him to support us both on his income if we live in the same modest fashion that we have for most of our lives. Instead of waking up every day and feeling so stressed out that I get headaches and feel exhausted by early afternoon, instead of pushing myself to apply for jobs regardless of whether they suit my skills or desires, instead of eating myself up inside with worry, why don't I just decide to walk down that road?

The answer, as is so often the case, is not simple. Part of growing up poor means growing up with an immense amount of insecurity. The potential outcome of the path he's taking is hard for me to comfortably live with. I want a promise of something more concrete and that means that I want to be relying on income I generate now rather than something which may or may not happen later. In my world, "may not" is always stronger than "may", but this is an issue I need to deal with, not necessarily a reflection of reality.

The second aspect of this is that we worked hard for those savings, and part of the reason we did so was that the money was ear-marked for retirement, not for me to "squander" by sitting around doing nothing. Though I had begun the process of wrapping my head around the idea that the money was not promised to the little grey-haired old lady that will be me in another 20 years and could be used by the somewhat grey-haired lady that is me now, that psychological transformation was incomplete. 

Third, I want to work. The truth is that it's about feeling productive and engaged. I want to be a part of mainstream society here in my home culture again. Though I can get that through other means (other social groups, volunteering), I'd prefer for it to be something I'm paid for if that is at all possible.

Finally, and this is probably the biggest part, there is an identity issue at play which is interwoven with my self-perception based on, you guessed it, my weight. To put it more accurately, it is based on my former much weightier self. Though I'm still fat (I'm currently 185 lbs. and seem to have stuck there for the time being - and that's okay), I'm not the sort of fat which is considered freakish or unusual in current society. However, I still see myself in a particular way based on having lived most of my life between 300-400 lbs. My sense of self is still at a much higher weight.

Primarily, I see myself as the sort of person who isn't looked after or cared for by someone else. Pretty girls, that is to say, thin girls, get to marry and be supported by their husbands. Cinderella had her prince come and save her while her evil, ugly stepsisters were left in the dust. When I was growing up, my fat mother had to work at a series of minimum wage jobs while the thin, middle class moms of my friends were housewives. I'm not from a stock or a class that gets to be taken care of. 

Deep down, I feel like I'm not attractive enough to live a life in which someone else earns the money while I pursue my own interests. I'm not worthy of that. I have to be a beast of burden. I have to work, even if it harms me because I'm doing something which is emotionally hard for me. Those soccer moms buying expensive food at the high class grocery store I sometimes peruse? Their husbands work and they are cared for because they are prettier than me and they are "prettier" because they're not fat.

I've talked many times before about identity, and how I've tried to rebuild mine as I've lost weight. I've dealt with a lot of it, but this was a facet that hadn't been discovered until now. I still see myself as fundamentally unworthy of certain things because I grew up being told so often that I was sub-standard. And it wasn't even what I was "told", but also what I experienced. No one wanted to date the fat girl. No one wanted to hire the fat girl. No one wanted to be friends with the fat girl. If you're the fat girl, you have to grab the first thing that comes along because you won't have another chance. Your stock is so worthless that you're lucky to get any buyers.

Though I've had years of a husband who loves me unconditionally (truly) and who told me how valuable I am, deep down, I'm not convinced because the person who has to convince me of my value is me. One bit of irony is that an option that may come easily for many, that is, deciding to kick back, not work, and be taken care of by someone else, is coming so hard for me. I have to at least entertain the notion of "letting myself" be taken care of with equal weight to the idea of working. At the very least, I have to want to work for reasons that are healthy, not because I believe I'm fundamentally of lesser value than women who are also supported by their husbands. The bottom line is that the best thing I may do for my self-esteem at this moment is to perhaps act in a manner which many may view as incredibly indulgent. I'm absolutely not there yet, but it is something I need to at least entertain as a possibility. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Arbitrary Goals

Earlier this week, I started job hunting. As anyone who is unemployed knows, this is an odious and onerous task. Even when you possess good skills (as I do), it is very hard to find a job in a sluggish economy with a high unemployment rate. There are lots of people out there looking to secure a decent job and lots of others who have jobs they don't like who are looking to find something better. The market favors the latter over the former, and I'm one of the former.

As part of my job hunting, I've set up a spreadsheet of all of the ways in which I'm looking. It includes temp agencies that I have applied to, individual jobs I've applied for, the dates I've applied and responses, if any. I started looking on Monday and today is Friday, so it's a little soon for responses. However, I'll be adding in "follow-up" letters to job applications as one of the things I track soon. I think it's silly that I should have to remind people that I sent them my resume, but I've been told it is a good technique to help you stand out a bit more in the crowd.

One thing that I did early on was decide that I would apply for at least three jobs a day. I set that goal because I figured that it would push me to look more aggressively. On the third day of looking, I was struggling to find a third place to apply to and decided to send my resume for work that I had done before (residential assistance to the mentally ill), but wasn't necessarily keen on doing again. This is the sort of "last ditch" job that pays so poorly that it would be hard to live on the income, but I was scraping the bottom of the barrel that day for my third application and it fit the bill.

A problem arose when they called me pretty much immediately to schedule an interview. It became clear that I was a perfect fit for this job because I'd done something very much like it before. If I interviewed, there was every chance I would have gotten the work. Unfortunately, I didn't really want the job. Upon reflection, the prospect of doing it made me feel terrible about myself. I felt like it was a step backward and was the type of work that would not challenge me or increase my skill level or knowledge. The pay was dramatically less than I made before. Pondering taking this job made me feel less valuable and as if I would never be offered anything better. I felt like it would be cramming me into a slot that said I couldn't move on in life to better things. It made me feel right back where I started from economically (poor) and emotionally (worthless).

I've mentioned before that my mother pressured me just after college to take the first job that came along. In that case, it was work as a waitress in a mall snack bar. She always engaged in "the sky is falling" thinking and talked as if you had to take the first thing that came your way because there may not be another chance. This mentality was drilled into me as I grew up, and it is very hard for me to walk away from a job opportunity because of it. It didn't matter that the job was not "right" for my goals, the cost of living where I'm going to set up my life, or in line with my skill set. Someone was offering me a job! I "had to" take it.

As I was emotionally struggling with this, I talked about it with my husband. He said that he was worried that this sort of thing would happen when I started to job search. I told him that I couldn't just sit around and do nothing while he was in grad school (which he just started). He said to me, "actually, you can." And he's right. I can. We saved enough money to live without either of us working for about 6 years. While it isn't preferable to drain our savings in this way, it is possible, and he will likely finish his path to a new career within about three or so years tops. That means that we have more than enough to live on until he gets a professional job most likely.

Despite all of this, the only reason I gave up on interviewing for this job (and the idea of taking it) was that my husband did something he has never done before. He directly told me what he felt I should do. He told me to cancel the interview and start writing the book I should write in relation to this blog and what I have accomplished while continuing to search for appropriate jobs that I want to do. It was only because he gave me "permission" to "fail" that I could make that leap. He said it was okay to break out of the box I'd arbitrarily put myself in, and so I could. Otherwise, I don't know if I could have done it at this point in time. Since I trust his judgment more than my own, I could manage this. I  hope next time to do it on my own, but this is a leap I wasn't quite able to make alone.

One of my problems throughout my life has been the setting of arbitrary goals which do not line up with rationality or sometimes reality. I set up a set number of jobs to apply for and when I couldn't locate three, I made a bad choice which landed me in a difficult situation emotionally. Had I not set that meaningless goal, I wouldn't have applied for a job that I didn't actually want and then been put in a bad position when it was almost certainly going to be offered to me. The fact that it was so quickly tossed in my lap in a difficult job market is an indication that it is not a desirable job and that they are having problems finding someone to do it, yet I felt that I had to take this scrap that was being tossed my way because I had another arbitrary notion that I "have to" work as soon as possible.

Of course, the desire to work isn't an arbitrary one. The truth is that I want to work for a variety of reasons. The primary one is I'd rather make money than use savings, but I also simply want to be engaged in meaningful and stimulating activities. I want to make connections with people and engage in my home culture again. I also want to start paying into the Social Security system once more so that my retirement benefits will be better. Working isn't merely about making money to get by everyday for me at this point in time (a luxury I earned through decades of hard work in Asia, frugal living, and an emphasis on saving), and that is exactly why it was a bad idea to take a job which was little more than shepherding and babysitting people with physical and mental disabilities. It's not that the work is beneath me or anyone else, but just that it is not a challenge for me. I've done that already. It's not bad work, but it's not a personal growth or learning opportunity. Frankly, I'd rather go back to Asia and do what I was doing before than return to the job I did just after completion of college.

Getting back to the point, I have this tendency to set up a rigid framework for myself and then feel trapped in that box. In this case, it was the goal of three job applications per day and the absolute necessity that I get to work as soon as possible. The fact of the matter is that there is no reason for me to apply for  a set number of jobs at all costs and I don't have to start working as soon as humanly possible. There is little logic in these goals and they ignore some important realities, especially emotional ones. Primarily, it ignores the fact that there may not be 3 jobs that are right for me everyday. This is something which is beyond my control. I should apply for 10 jobs if there are that many available or none if that is the case. Beyond that, I disregarded my needs to be stimulated, creative, and to learn entirely by placing a (very small) paycheck above my mental health.

This situation is not isolated. It is part of a pattern in my life and a pattern I see among many other women who are overweight and trying to lose weight. They set arbitrary goals and then feel stressed about not meeting them or like failures. They say their goal is to lose 2 lbs. a week, 10 lbs. a month, etc. The truth is that no one has any control over how much weight they lose. You can control the actions that may lead to weight loss, but you can't simply decide to lose "x" number of pounds and force your body to do it. Your body will metabolize fat or consume muscle tissue and reduce your mass in ways you can't control.

Similarly, people will choose exercise goals which are arbitrary and try to stick to them regardless of their health condition. They will work out "x" number of days per week for "x" number of hours/minutes and if they are injured, sick, or exhausted, they will push to do it anyway because they set an arbitrary goal and they are going to make it. The goal is health and fitness, not figures on a spreadsheet. You can't have good health if you do things when you are not well enough to do them. It flies in the face of logic.

The goals we set should be logical and flexible. Rigidity only serves to create stress and conditions under which we will have an increased likelihood of failure. That applies to all things, but it tends to happen more in weight loss for a variety of reasons. One is that we don't trust ourselves and we set the bar strictly to provide motivation. Of course, if you end up defeated by a bar that is set too high, it's hardly a good motivational tool to set an arbitrary goal.

Another reason that we make such arbitrary goals is that they give us a sense of progress. It's gratifying to know by the numbers that we're doing what we set out to do. That sort of feedback is a lot more rewarding than a general sense that we listened to our bodies each day and did what felt right. Our school systems reinforce the idea that measurable goals are important and rewarding when they give us grades for our work. Striving for excellence as reflected in an "A" is something we can relate to. Getting a perfect "score" by exercising for an hour five days a week provides a familiar sense of accomplishment. Getting a less than perfect one by being sick one day and only accomplishing it for four days gives a sense of being inadequate.

I'm not suggesting that people not set goals for themselves, but rather that those goals not be arbitrary or rigid. They should be flexible and reflect reality rather than a box we place ourselves in because we feel that is the framework we need to operate from in order to measure progress or motivate ourselves. For me, I've pondered why I have this tendency in general (my husband does not, he is rational about such things). I believe that it reflects my need for security and predictability in life. I grew up in chaos and being told the sky was falling so I have to construct boundaries to make me feel protected and ensure that I'm moving ahead. Those boundaries offer the sense of structure I didn't grow up with, but they can also be prisons. This is something that I have to be aware of as I navigate my entire life, not just in dealing with my relationship with my body and food.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shopping rather than doing

During my transition back to my home culture after more than two decades living in a foreign one, I've spent time in three different homes. Two of them, including my current residence, belong to my in-laws. Those two places were decorated by my mother-in-law, who passed away last November.

I didn't know my mother-in-law very well because I had a rocky road with my in-laws in general. I've written here before about their social skills, or lack thereof, and the way in which my fragile esteem was damaged by the way they treated me as if I were a burden or simply invisible shortly after my husband and I started to live together.

Before I get to the meat of this post, I should explain a little about the background of my relationship with this woman. Before we married, my husband lived and worked abroad in Asia for a year while I remained in the north east in the U.S. We conducted a relationship over our year's separation by post. The separation was terribly hard on us and when his contract ended and he finally came home, we were desperate to be together. We knew we'd live in his home state on the west coast, but he was coming in fresh from life abroad with no job or apartment. His family have a very big house and they had a spare room that people slept in on occasion. My husband asked if we could temporarily stay with them until he and I pulled our life together. His parents said, "no".

The main reason for their refusal was my father-in-law didn't trust that my husband would get a job and move out fast enough to suit his desires and he didn't want to face the prospect of an indefinite term in which we would be invading his privacy. This was fair enough. However, when we were offered a room in the home of my husband's best friend's parents' home, my mother-in-law's response was  essentially 'we can't let them do that because it'll make us look bad.' So, they didn't want to offer us a temporary place to stay while we found our footing (finding jobs, getting cars, etc.), but she also was not comfortable with our staying with someone else even though it meant that he and I could be together immediately.

During the time we resided with the friend's family, my husband's mother didn't have much of  a relationship with me beyond occasionally making passive aggressive comments related to our progress in getting out of another party's home. When my husband and I once got some take-out food from a local restaurant, she said, "you won't be able to keep doing that if you don't get a job." She also mentioned that we really should move on and stop inconveniencing his best friend's mother.

My impression of my mother-in-law was that she had little personality aside from that of someone who fretted over all sorts of things, both trivial and large, and a selfish concern for how our actions reflected their lack of generosity toward us. When we made a trip home after a few years in Asia and visited them, she was more preoccupied with our not dirtying anything which her first grandchild might end up crawling on with our clean stocking feet (shoes are taken off at the door) than spending time with her son and daughter-in-law who had not been around for 2 years and were going to go away again in 5 days. Nearly all of my interaction with her was critical or as a third party observer. She had no qualitative relationship with me at all.

I had heard and continue to hear a lot of stories about my mother-in-law from her children. My husband long ago told me about many incidents in which her anxiety and overly cautious nature created problems for him. When he was 12, he told his parents that he could go to an amusement park with other kids if he sold enough papers. When he proceeded to work hard to sell enough, his mother wouldn't allow him to go because she was afraid that something bad would happen if he did and she was unwilling to go along to assuage her fears. She simply exercised her paranoia at his expense.

To her kids, she was responsible for denying them pleasures because she spun unlikely scenarios of doom. Even her husband has told me tales of how she had a great many irrational fears, but he would allow her to dictate that her children live in accord with them while explaining to them that the world wasn't all that dangerous, but it would make their mother feel better if they just did what she wanted.

From my limited (and largely negative, though not horribly so) interactions as well as the multitude of stories I was told and continue to hear, I knew my mother-in-law to be a person who lived captive to her fears and anxiety. Only yesterday, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law in which she told me that she feels that her mother was always passive aggressive with her and that she feels that her mother slowly destroyed herself from the inside out with her emotional problems. She felt that her mother accelerated her decline into dementia and that her lifelong health problems were the result of her inability to come to terms with her panic and anxiety.

I mention all of this because it provides context for the point I'm trying to make. Two of the houses are reflections of this woman. The current place is more her than the other, and it is a very telling situation indeed. This house is liberally peppered with Buddhist paraphernalia. There are no fewer than three Buddha statues, two signs which say "namaste" on them, bells, beads, and copious numbers of books with themes about not sweating small stuff, meditating, relaxing, and finding inner peace. This house is a shrine to a mentality that my mother-in-law never possessed, not for a moment.

I asked my sister-in-law about this contradiction in her mother's personality and the trappings I saw all around me. She told me that they represented what her mother wanted to be, but could never succeed at. No matter how many Buddhas, singing bowls, bells, or books she bought, she couldn't purchase the inner peace she craved.

This situation strongly reminds me of how women approach weight loss. They buy exercise equipment, diet books, packages of diet food, and take part in forums. What they don't do is actually change enough to lose weight and keep it off for good. If throwing money at problems could make them go away, my mother-in-law would have had the inner calm of the Dalai Lama and most fat women in America would be thin.

The problem isn't that people aren't trying, but rather that they spend more effort on the trappings than on the actual work because they think that the trappings are the work.
My mother-in-law's problem wasn't that she didn't try. She went to meditation classes, listened to lots of relaxation tapes, and read about and practiced a variety of techniques to achieve inner calm, but she didn't deal with the core issues. Those were that she was playing fear and anxiety recordings in her brain in a continuous loop. Rather than focus upon finding a way to stop those recordings, she just tried to paper over them with a lifestyle she hoped to emulate. In other words, she tried to fake it until she made it, but faking never resulted in making.

I've written before about rewiring your mind. This is a Herculean mental task which requires millions of adjustments in thinking through time such that you stop going down mental routes that you are comfortable and familiar with. People don't want to do this because it's incredibly hard and taxes the blood glucose in your brain such that you are exhausted. It also forces a complete change in self-definition and an alteration in how you view your identity. Though it is far more effective than trying to buy a lifestyle you want in the hopes that it'll somehow magically replace whatever your problems in your current one are, it's also far less immediately gratifying. I don't know if my mother-in-law could have found some peace had she spent more time trying to stop her worry train before it left the station, but I'm pretty sure that trying would have been better than continually buying Buddhist paraphernalia and scattering it around her home.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's not how you do it

This isn't the sort of blog in which I write about the details of my daily routine and weight loss, at least not anymore. It's not that I don't believe such things may be helpful to some people, but rather that I realized a long time ago that each person has to follow a different path in terms of the mechanics of what they do to manage their daily food and exercise routines. I mainly try to address the broader issues that affect the relationships that people, especially those with life-long problems and severe overeating or compulsive eating problems, have with food.

That being said, occasionally, I do pause to talk a bit about the smaller things. I do so mainly to offer a realistic portrait, track my own behavior more concretely for my own records, and to show people that I'm human, too. To that end, I want to talk about how things have been going since I went through the monumental changes I've been through in the past 3 or so months and where my relationship with food stands at present.

Left: now, right: about 25 years ago (not my lowest ever, but the pictures of my lowest ever aren't as well posed to display my body)

First of all, I've been looking at  old pictures of myself from 23-26 years ago when I initially lost a lot of weight and seeing my body at its thinnest. I never weighed myself at that time so I don't know what my  lowest weight was. However, I think that I am probably about 10-20 pounds heavier than I was at my absolute smallest ever, and I certainly didn't spend long at that weight. That weight was achieved at the height of my exercising (that's 90 minutes a day - 45 of aerobic and 45 calisthenics, 5 days a week). It was done by not eating any fat or sugar and eating a lot of whole grain carbs, low fat dairy (especially cheese), and fruit. I ate salads, but vegetables weren't as big a part of my life then as they are now (because I'm a better cook and have broader tastes). It was done in a way that was nearly impossible to sustain without devoting my life to my body, and that is why I regained.

The body I have now, which is slightly heavier, was achieved through the processes described in this blog. That is, moderation,  no limiting of sugar, fat, or any particular type of macro-nutrient (such as limiting carbs or whatnot). Because of physical difficulties and the bare basic facts of adult life (having to work and have time for relationships), I could not exercise beyond walking and modest weight lifting and stretching. In other words, my current body, which is very much like my hard-fought body of two and a half decades ago, was achieved with far less time spent daily on exercise, far less Draconian dietary changes, and a lot more mental effort than physical. The irony is that it was achieved in almost the same total time (in years), and beginning from a likely higher weight. Certainly, it was achieved with a less youthful metabolism.

Of course, my current body is far from ideal. I'm still technically obese. I'm still fatter than I'd like to be from the viewpoint of going out and looking for jobs, but at least I can move. I can go out and play Frisbee in the park with my husband (and I have!). I can walk without back pain. People aren't staring at me or making fun of me all of the time. I'd like to lose more weight and will continue on the path I'm on with moderation in all things. However, I have to accept that this may be where my set point is likely to stay.

When I say that, it is not an admission of defeat, but an acceptance of some real possibilities. First of all, I'm not in my early 20's anymore. The reason I'm holding my arm and making a muscle like that is so you can see all of my bat-winged glory. I've been working on building arm muscle for firmness slowly through the last 3 years and I have muscle definition in my upper arms, but I will never lose that extra skin. It has been stretched out and no longer has the elasticity to retract. The same goes for skin in all areas of my body, especially my lower belly, hips, and behind. There will always be a lot of excess skin, probably as much as 10 lbs. of it, on my body. I can live with this because I'm 47 years old and I would not subject my body to the mutilation of plastic surgery (cutting away healthy skin) for aesthetic reasons or to bring down a number on the scale. I also note that my waist is not as small as it got before, but that is the effect of gravity. I will never have the shape I had before. 

 Me at high school graduation.

Second, I have been obese my entire life. I was a fat child and finished my teens at a very high weight. The number of fat cells in my body is much higher than that of a person who was thin when younger and later gained weight. My body will deflate those cells, but it will never eliminate them. Fat cells, once added, are forever. This I have known for a long time. Having a high number of these cells causes fat bodies to be different (hormonally, neurochemcially, and likely more) than thin ones and that is the case forever.

In order to be appreciably thinner than I am now, there is a distinct possibility that I would have to devote my life to weight loss and only weight loss. I don't have the time, joints, or desire to become a slave to my body in this way. I'm in excellent health with no problems at all. There is no reason other than vanity to push so hard, and I'd rather be mentally healthy and fatter than obsessed and thinner. I do not want to be obsessed for the sake of acquiring a particular look and nothing more, but more than that, I want to live my life fully, not spend hours and hours pushing myself to exercise or fretting over whether I can eat anything at a social function because my diet options are so restricted.

My feeling right now is that I will continue to lose weight, but it will happen at a trickle over years. I think that it will be hard for my body to go lower, but it will slowly happen over time. It will probably be pretty inconsequential and only noted over a long period of time. It's also going to be very "up and down" based on having good days and bad ones through time. That's okay. I will just  stay the course and see where it leads.

The odd thing is that, though I'm not especially pleased with my body, I'd rather live in it as it is with the lifestyle I have than go back to the thinnest I ever managed with all of the time and effort I had to put into it. It's not ideal, but little in life is. I find more happiness in moderation and in not pushing myself to spend 90 minutes most days on hard exercise or depriving myself at every turn. If people want to judge me for that, then they're welcome to do so, but they can keep their thoughts to themselves because they're the only ones who are reflected in them and going to be affected by them. In fact, given all the talk about health and weight, anyone who does judge me negatively will endorse the fact that fat disapproval is about beauty, not health. My heart is in good shape. My insulin function excellent. I was thoroughly tested late last year, and I'm in better health than thinner people of the same age. 

The bottom line is that, looking back over my two great weight loss experiences in life, I ended up at almost the same place doing it two dramatically different ways. It doesn't seem to matter how you do it, as long as you keep doing it and keep moving in a particular direction. There is no one path for anyone, and sometimes, there's not even a single path for the same person.

The Worth of a Normal Human Being

I've been away from this blog for awhile and I apologize to those whose comments languished for a little while in moderation. I've completed the third transition to a temporary domicile since returning to America. Each move requires adjustment, not to mention very practical considerations such as packing and unpacking. Settling into a new space always requires adjustment, especially since each time there is overlap with the owner.

In this case, we are staying in my father-in-law's house while he stays at the cabin we began our return in. We were there for 2 months. He plans to stay for 3 and we'll be in his place until we find our own and start paying rent again. While I'm not looking forward to the large bites that will be taken from our savings when that happens, I am looking forward to being autonomous again. Living in other people's spaces means living by their rules and in a space shaped to suit their individual desires.

This place is rather different than the others because it is familiar. I didn't spend a lot of time in this house before I went off to live in that Asian country, but I did visit all too frequently... far more so than I would have liked at the time. The seeds of the changes which lead to my regaining weight were fertilized here, though I imagine they were already planted none too shallowly in my psyche. I'm not sure if they can ever be dug out and removed, but I can continue to hope.

I used to be extremely bitter about how I was treated here by my in-laws and, at that time, felt it was an indication that I was worthless. Since I was raised and conditioned by experience to believe that others were entitled to assess my value, I embraced deeply the notion that I was inadequate. Now, I know that it had nothing to do with me. 

A lot of people say that sort of thing when they want to explain that others are mean to you because they are acting out on their own problems. That's true. However, that's not what I am talking about. In this case, these are people who are so self-involved and socially inept that they have no clue that they are behaving poorly and making others feel bad. Sitting at a dinner table with them, supposedly as their guest, and having people talk as if you weren't in the room would clearly be an epic act of rudeness to most people, but not these ones. They are most comfortable with each other and will focus on each other because they do not know any better. I'm not sure they even realized what they were doing on any level.

So, now when they act in a self-involved manner, and they do so less now than before because life has changed for them, too, I take it in stride. I see it for what it is, and it's not a reflection on me. I'm actually a little surprised at how I've completely let go of the bitterness and anger that I had about this for so many years. I think part of the reason for that is maturity and self-reflection. Part of it is also that my husband has become so much more clued in about the truth and has been supportive of my viewpoint (he has changed, too). Another is that I've lost weight again and that sense of worth that was lost because of the way I was treated due to my body has returned.

When I say things about my "sense of worth", I in no way mean that I'm the greatest thing on the planet. I mean that I no longer believe I'm a sub-human piece of garbage that deserves to be looked upon with disgust and disdain or treated as invisible. My "worth" in my estimation is that of a normal human. If you've never been super morbidly obese or if you did not grow up fat, you can't know what it is to walk around day after day feeling as though you are nothing and contemptible. You haven't been conditioned by thousands of external cues, both subtle and gross, that make certain that you know that you are a pariah in the eyes of the world.

A lot of people will say "get over it". A lot of people lack much depth of understanding and sensitivity. Those same people will cry and say how sad they are if they learn that a child was verbally abused and told he or she was stupid and worthless by an angry parent for years. They'll know that cripples that person's esteem in a way which the adult may never fully recover from. They can understand how the abused may seek abusers in relationships in the future because they associate love with abuse.

However, they fail to see that being fat and being mocked, derided, and belittled day in and day out for your entire life has exactly the same effect. They don't see it because their prejudice against fat people is too great for them to set aside and find compassion. It is a powerful and painful way to have grown up, and it is the ugly ground upon which all of the seeds of my psyche were sown.

Monday, July 2, 2012

It's so easy (part 2)

In the previous post, I talked about how the food culture in America has problems for variety of issues compared to what I experienced while living in Asia. In this post, I'd like to talk about how things aren't all bad and the fact that there are positive aspects to the food culture, especially for people who are trying to lose weight or who have special dietary concerns.

One of the differences between where I lived before and being home is that the selection in America is broader than that Asian country by far. It's not just that the shops are big, but that they offer so many colors of any particular aspect of the food rainbow. In the country I was living in, organic food was scarce, expensive, and poorly presented. It was often wilted or looked as if it were close to going bad. I'm guessing this was because their infrastructure, which was highly developed and actually superior to that in most parts of the U.S., was not designed to support rapid movement of food from place to place. It also didn't help that their farming culture was vanishing and they were getting most of their food from other countries.

Americans who live in areas which are not food deserts (that is most people, really) have access to more locally grown food and food grown without chemicals than I experienced in that Asian country. This is because we live in a huge country with a large number of farming areas and can get produce from where it is grown to where it is purchased more rapidly (as we don't have to rely on other countries) and because the demand for organic food is much higher. The country I lived in had consumers who prioritized how the produce looked, not how it was grown. If it looked good, they never questioned whether it had been sprayed with pesticides or chemcially treated so the demand for organic food was too low to see the economies of scale that you see in the U.S. And while organic food is more expensive than chemically treated food, it is still cheaper (and better) than it was in the country I used to live in (by far).

In regards to "processed food", and I view most food as processed in some way, America has better and wider options. It's important to realize that humans almost always "process" food in some way and it is the level and type of handling as well as the added ingredients that are the issue. Cheese is a processed food. Coffee is as well. The sugar-free whole grain muffins I bake on a regular basis are a processed food comprised of other processed foods such as flour, baking powder, peanut butter, etc. If you cut up, cook, or season your fruit and vegetables, you are "processing" them. That doesn't make these things unhealthy. The depth of processing matters and we have great choices in this regard compared to other parts of the world. There's a vast difference between the gallon of milk you buy and a Lean Cuisine, though both are processed.

If you are trying to eat more healthily or lose weight, you have many excellent options in the U.S. and these were ones I did not have in Asia. For example,  one of the things I have fallen in love with since coming home is almond milk. Yes, it is a processed food, but it is a simple one which can be bought containing ingredients which are not particularly alien or beyond what I willingly ingest as part of a multi-vitamin. It is no more processed than cow's milk, possibly less so. Almond milk is lower calorie and more nutritionally dense than cow's milk. It has a very long history as part of food culture (it was used for cooking in the middle ages) and, at least to me, is not far removed from what I make when I cook my own dishes. And, in fact, purists can make their own almond milk if they don't like what is sold in cartons. At 40 calories per 8 oz., it eclipses skim milk as a "diet food" option, and it tastes good and is better for you. By contrast, the country I lived in had cow's milk and soy milk. The soy milk always had sugar added and was high in fat. 

Beyond that, if you are a person who wants or, yes, "needs" to eat sweet treats or salted snacks, America is the place to be. If you can't fathom transitioning from your current food life to one of "pure" eating practices, there are options here. In the Asian country I lived in, it was "all or nothing". On the one hand, I am glad that I lost weight in that situation because it forced me to learn portion control. If I wanted a salty snack, I could ingest a lot of calories knowing I'd end up hungry for it or I could eat just 2 or 3 chips or I could choose something more nutritionally dense and forgo my craving. Here, it's not so hard. I can have Pop Chips, Skinny Cow ice cream, or some other reduced calorie snack. The "crutches" for dieters are numerous.

Of course, the diet food culture is like a minefield rife with danger. I can have Pop Chips, but I can't eat the whole bag. Portion control is still important, but the portion I can have here isn't 5 chips for 50 calories, but 10. Part of the problem for many people is that they see "diet" and think that they can lose weight and eat a lot. Perhaps the presence of such foods actually is a part of the larger problem as having the choice to eat more for a lower calorie amount encourages the continued consumption of large portions. I can't say for sure. All I can say is that it feels like a dieter's paradise here. If I wanted a bite of ice cream before, it would cost me 75 calories for two or three small spoonfuls. Here, I cut a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich in half and have that. And, yes, I do eat only half of it, even if it is reduced calorie. That's all I "need" to be satisfied, possibly even a larger indulgence than necessary at that size. It seems to me, after living in a "dieter's desert", that the American market makes it much easier to have your cake and eat it, too, but that people end up failing anyway.

To me, there is a difference between various types of processed foods in terms of the position they take in our food life. The problem in America isn't that I'm buying ice cream sandwiches rather than making them myself. The problem isn't that they are buying dried pasta rather than hand-making their noodles. The problem is that they are buying entire meals that are frozen or dried and seeing that as the end of their meal preparation and those meals aren't nutrient-dense. I think that it is convenience that is killing us more than the presence of cheap, crappy food. Even instant ramen (which I don't like and don't eat) can come close to being healthy if you use only half the seasoning packet and add a boiled egg and some fresh vegetables. When we look to processed food as a complete solution, it is then that we start to have issues.

As someone who has found health through small steps, I believe that the first stage of improving the American diet on a personal level is to start adding in small amounts of food preparation to augment to often nutritionally deficient processed options. If you can't give up macaroni and powdered cheese packets, then at least try stirring some canned tuna into it or having broccoli (either in it or on the side). If you can't stomach plain, low-fat yogurt, then you can mix in a tablespoon of instant pudding mix (lemon is awesome for this) to make it sweeter, thicker, and more dessert-like. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. The point is not to make ourselves miserable eating food we hate because it's "good" for us or wearing ourselves out making everything from scratch, but to start a transition from where we are to someplace a little closer to where it might be nice to be. Once we start down that path, it becomes more possible to move a little closer to a life which is increasingly independent of having machines make our meals for us and eating them out of the can, freezer, or packet.