Sunday, January 29, 2012

Respecting and Facing Fear

In the television series "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer", one of the characters is Willow, a formerly mousy nerd turned witch who spends most of her time on the show doing good things to help people. When her lover is killed as collateral damage by a murderer intent on killer Buffy, she goes crazy and turns bad. In her fury to exact revenge on the man who shot her girlfriend, she kills other people and eventually skins her prey alive.

By the end of the small arc in which Willow's character goes bad, she returns to her true self, but is afraid to use magic again for fear that she'll lose control and her sense of self again. In one of the follow-up scenes in a subsequent season, Willow is seen causing a small candle in a ball-shaped holder to hover over her hand with magic and repeats, "I'm facing my fear." Over the past two and a half years, I can't tell you how many times that scene has popped into my head and I have actually used that phrase.

Part of being fat is living in constant fear. Since I've spent the vast majority of my adult life between 300-400 lbs., I've lived with that fear more than without it. That fear is of both small and big things that diminish quality of life from fear of seats that are too small and not traveling to eating in restaurants to going to movies to the fear of social censure and ridicule to the fear of medical treatment. It extends into every nook and cranny of life. It keeps you off of scales and away from shops with narrow aisles. It keeps you from changing jobs and finding a significant other. It keeps you from getting regular testing like pap tests and mammograms. 

For quite some time, my sister has had anemia. My sister also weighs slightly more than I did at my highest weight and is two inches shorter than me. I'd guess that she weighs around 420 lbs. at 5' 2" (157.5 cm). The problem (her anemia) got so bad several years ago that she was put through a large battery of tests including copious testing for bowel and stomach cancer. The thing she did not get, however, was a pelvic exam or pap smear. Though she did not say it, I'm pretty sure that part of the reason she avoided those tests was her weight. 

Very fat people avoid medical intervention unless their circumstances are dire because there is so much fear involved. Will the doctor weight shame you? Will they complain about tests they cannot do or difficulties treating you due to weight? I know this fear because I avoided such tests for over a decade due to such fears. Mine were based on experiences in which I was treated horribly during one exam in particular. I didn't have a pap test for over a decade and had never had a mammogram. However, I was lucky. I gambled by not getting tested for a long time, and I won. I had no problems. 

My sister has not been so lucky. She has an enormous tumor which fills her entire uterus and her OB/GYN believes it is cancer. The test results won't be in for awhile, but all signs point to malignancy at this stage. I can't help but wonder if this wouldn't be happening if my sister had not been afraid of such tests because of her weight. I can't help but think that fear of fat shaming may result in her death, but I can't blame her for avoiding what she was afraid of. After all, I did it, too. Though I don't "blame" her at all, I'm deeply, deeply afraid of losing her. I'm very close to my sister, and this news has been extremely hard for me, though not nearly as hard as it has been for her. 

Fear is supposed to be an extremely potent as a motivator. You hear a lot of people try to push themselves to lose weight through fear of possible health problems. You also often hear about people who already have health problems, but can't lose weight despite dire consequences like having limbs amputated due to Type 2 diabetes complications and uncontrolled eating. The thing about fear is that it can motivate, but, in my experience, more often than not, it paralyzes.

Understanding that fear is more likely to cause inaction rather than action is the first step in dealing with it. If you realize it is holding you in place rather than pushing you forward, you can stop berating yourself for not moving and explore how to break out of the ice that holds you in place. This is what I started to do in 2009. I had lots of fears, and I started facing them one by one. It was horrible and overwhelming. Sometimes I felt like I was tied to the back of a moving car and being dragged along at a pace just a little faster than I was capable of running. Dealing with my fears constantly wore me out and made me want to slow down or just stop

The truth is that, had I not been on a concrete timeline, I'm not sure if my pace would have been as fast. I knew I'd move someplace in which I wouldn't have health insurance to pay for testing by the end of March of this year. I knew I had to be ready and face testing at least by the end of 2011 or possibly end up with a health condition and no insurance for treatment. Maybe I would have done it all anyway after losing enough weight, but I can't say for sure. The only thing I can say is that I faced those fears, but first, I regarded them with the respect they warranted.

Most people are dismissive of their fears and encourage "bucking up", "growing up", and "grabbing ahold of those bootstraps" and "bullying through". I didn't do that. I considered my fears and how they were based in real concerns and consequences. There were elements of irrationality, of course. With all medical tests, for instance, fear of a bad outcome is somewhat irrational because knowing the result doesn't change the underlying issue. Most of my fears, however, were related to very plausible circumstances - fat shaming, censure, humiliation, physical difficulty, and pain. All of these are absolutely rational fears based on personal history. 

A lot of people advise those wanting to lose weight to just ignore such things and get on with it. If you think that those feelings are not potent motivation for remaining stuck like a fly in amber due to fear, then I will kindly ask you to mail me a picture of yourself in a bikini or thong with your real name attached so that I can post it and strangers can pick you apart for your body flaws. It matters. It is real and painful and frightening, so respect your fears and validate them as absolutely justifiable.

Once you validate them, you are then ready to face them. For me, this started with going outside more to walk. I hated going out when I was in the range of 230-380 lbs. in weight. People stared, pointed, laughed and said unkind things. What was worse was that I had to stop and sit down every few minutes because of my back pain so people would see me walk a short distance and sit to rest. I'm sure a flood of judgment went through them as I stopped so often (like I'm so fat I don't have the stamina to walk far before I need to rest). Since I couldn't go far, they could gawk and make fun of me while I rested and there was no real escaping them because I had to wait for the pain to fade and the muscles to relax. I had to face the real fear of physical pain as well as the humiliation again and again, day in and day out.

When I was out walking, I would tell myself that I was facing the fear so that I could do things I wanted to do in life (like the relatively mundane pleasure of walking out the front door without fear of being in agony). I had to remind myself that I could only get from where I was frozen by moving through fear. Yes, it was incredibly stressful and tiring, especially at first when I was thinking so much about it. I repeated the mantra, "I'm facing my fear", and told myself that this hard and scary road was one that I had to pass through in order to get to where I wanted to be. 

In the end, I learned to just say that I was worth enough to continue on despite the difficulties and that the actions of the people that acted to make my progress difficult had to be something which I would have to regard as not mattering to me. My progress mattered. Moving on with my life rather than held in place by fear would be the thing I'd ultimately end up living with, not the words and actions of those people. Facing the fear eventually made it disappear. The more I acted in spite of it, the less I felt it.

The same applied to every situation that I had to deal with that I feared. I feared going to the doctor, the gynecologist, a restaurant, unpredictable social situations, and getting interviewed for a new job then starting that job. Every time, I validated then faced my fears and they slowly diminished. It's a little easier for me to talk about this now because I've both lost the weight that inspired many of my fears and have already faced so many of them down. However, I remember many times in the past several years when I told my husband that I was exhausted by going out every day and facing my fears. I felt like all was doing everyday all day was battle psychological demons.

Losing weight was supposed to make my life easier, but it very much felt like one challenge after another was being put in front of me because there was a domino effect of new fears to face once I faced the first few. It felt like a treadmill of stress and difficulty and that I was actually happier when I was 380 lbs. (and in some ways, I was... but that's a topic for another post). Losing weight was making my life harder and harder because it kept opening doors to things I was afraid of rather than keeping them firmly shut. This is a reality of weight loss and one reason that it is so hard. It is actually de-motivating "in the short run", where "short" means years and years of changes. 

It's important to note that I only lost weight because I faced my fears. Some of those fears were of being hungry, failing to lose weight, and loss of something (food) that was a huge comfort to me. Losing weight didn't make most of my fears vanish, not by a long shot. Most of them were faced as part of that process. There was no shortcut and being lighter didn't solve problems. I still had a tumor in my neck and needed surgery after facing a doctor's examination. Ultimately though, I was lucky. Nothing was cancerous and the surgery wasn't incredibly serious. I hid for years due to my fears and didn't pay a price.

My sister, on the other hand, is going to pay some sort of bigger price than me. The question isn't "whether" she will, but "how high". Even if the tumor she has is benign (my greatest hope), she will need at least a partial hysterectomy. If it is cancer, it will mean a far more complex and life threatening course. I'm hoping that she gets lucky, like I did, and doesn't pay the ultimate price for living in fear for so long. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rewiring Yourself

Recently, I was thinking about the process of rewiring myself to stop certain thought patterns from continuing to run roughshod over my emotions. This is the sort of thing that you do if you happen to be me. It's something I've done four times, but never really stopped to categorize and think about the stages. I don't know if it will be helpful to anyone else to talk about it broken into parts, but I'm going to do it anyway, because that is also the sort of thing one does if one lives with my particular brain.

The whole point of this process is to slowly change your response to a particular stimulus. Most people have an experience or thought and an automatic reaction. For example, you may hear a piece of news about the cost of oil possibly going up by 25% over the winter and immediately start to stress out and worry about affording to warm your home during the cold months. Worrying accomplishes nothing so you may want to have a response which is more level emotionally. This process would be one through which you eventually stopped having the unwanted reaction.

For me, the first time I did this was for temper. I was prone to immediate and intense anger. The second was about materialism. I wasn't especially into "stuff", but I did keep too many things around (though not like a hoarder). I had the idea that I couldn't "waste" things by throwing them away as long as they were theoretically useful. The third time was related to anxiety and spinning elaborate worst case scenarios over an isolated incident. I'd hear that my company was doing more poorly this year than last and would start to fret about my job security even though there was nothing I could do about it nor was there any direct or immediate threat to my employment status. Finally, I've been dealing with the biggest deal of all, my relationship with food.

The process is not easy and takes years for the changes to kick into "automatic". You have to work at it, but it is effective. Through time, what feels like you are playing the role of Sisyphus in your life starts to feel like you're pushing that boulder up the hill and it's not rolling back all of the time. Eventually, it feels lighter and easier. Finally, you're rolling along with only minor little pushes of a rock that is manageable in size. I won't say that tendencies and reactions vanish entirely, as we all have core character tendencies and they will never go away entirely, but "talking yourself down" from a response you don't want becomes much easier and much less frequent. It is worth the considerable effort.

Stage 1: Reflection
Reflection is when you experience something, have a reaction in the manner which is typical for you, and then think back on what happened after the fact. Most people reflect with a heavy emphasis on regret and self-punishment, especially if they are dealing with food and eating something they think they should not. It is imperative that reflection be productive and supportive talk, not destructive self-punishing words. If you use reflection as a platform for self-flagellation rather than positive thinking, you will not be able to change effectively as the focus will be emotional, not rational. Also, you will be undermining your sense of capability by giving yourself negative messages instead of positive encouragement.

The purpose of reflection is to increase awareness of the effect a stimulus has on you. For example, if I look at cooking web sites or pictures of food late at night, I become incredibly hungry. If I don't look at the pictures, I may feel slightly hungry before bed, but I tend to be able to decide not to eat anyway. Clearly, I respond to food cues with less control than would be optimal for someone who is trying to lose weight. While there is an easy solution in this particular case (stop looking at cooking or food blogs late at night), the larger issue is the response to food cues. I do not endeavor to avoid such things as there will always be the potential for food cuing. My aim is to temper my reactions to all food cues.

When you reflect, it's important to consider what elicited the behavior, how strongly the behavior occurred (in this case, how much and what it causes one to eat), and what you may be able to do in the future to alter your response. Reflection improves recognition of stimulus and response which will in turn improve your ability to move on to the next stage. Note that it is perfectly natural to have the same reaction many, many times and reflect on it dozens, possibly hundreds of times, before being able to incorporate the next step.

The purpose of reflection is to go from this:
Stimulus ----> (unaware, spontaneous, undesirable) Response

to this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, undesirable) Response

At this point, you only need to understand your reactions, not change them.

Stage 2: Delay
Once you become aware that a given stimulus is going to elicit a certain response, you have the capacity to start controlling your reactions. The first step in that control is not to stop or alter the responses, but to simply delay having them. This is the mental equivalent of counting to 10 before having a reaction in order to form a cooler response.

When I was trying to control my temper, I knew I was getting incredibly angry and was about to have my usual hostile response. I would try to hold it at bay for a time. When it came to eating, things were a lot more concrete. When I craved a food and wanted to eat it, I resisted the urge in planned increments of time. At first, I would try to wait 5 minutes and then I would have it. If possible, I'd extend that wait another 5 minutes. When I "gave in", I didn't view it as failure, but rather felt that accomplishing the delay was a success. Extending the delays over time is an exercise in finding more control.

the move is from this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, undesirable) Response

to this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, delayed undesirable) Response

Stage 3: Recognize
Delaying is essentially having the same reaction, but having it occur later. It is far easier to put aside an immediate response to a stimulus than it is to change it. Concurrent with delaying is starting to work on recognition that a response is coming and what it means. If the stimulus is a food cue (such as a pizza commercial) and my response is to want to eat the food, I need to work on recognizing that I am not really hungry, but rather being cued. I can start a process of being mentally engaged with the stimuli rather than simply reacting to it. Emotional responses are a chemical rush which tends to take control of you and just happen. At this stage, you want to insert some mental processing of the experience.

People believe they are more cognizant of what is happening to them than they really are. In a discussion of food cuing and the effect of commercials, many people would recognize that they can have an influence, but they don't necessarily see their responses to it. Humans are not designed to attend actively to every single experience with great attention and consciousness. We tend to sleepwalk through a lot of our lives because we are over-stimulated and can't tune into each experience fully.

At the recognition stage, you will try to pay full attention to your mental responses to particular experiences and try to explore why they occur and consider how to minimize them. For my anger issues, I recognized that my raging responses were role modeling my mother's behavior toward me. I was automatically doing what she did when she was frustrated. I tried to understand that the response was not only unproductive, but destructive as it brought on a loss of control and responses which often exacerbated rather than solved problems. Inserting a dialog into my response which guided me to a calmer, more measured response tempered the anger through time.

When I was trying to stop being so anxious, I focussed on a variety of thoughts. I recognized that I was feeling stress about things that no one could control and it served no productive purpose. I also figured out that my free-floating anxiety was habitual. I was so accustomed to worrying about things that my mind would drift around to find things to grab onto and fret about. I recognized that this was a pattern which I needed to try and stop.

the move is from this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, delayed undesirable) Response

to this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, managed or mitigated, less undesirable) Response

Stage 4: Interrupt
Delaying a response means that you try to control when it starts. Interrupting it means that you try to stop it in its tracks. With food, that means stopping a binge before it reaches its ultimate conclusion. For me, this started with not "finishing the bag", even if that meant leaving just one piece of food in there. As time went by, I could interrupt earlier and delay longer. This squeezes the undesirable response at both ends.

Interrupting is a powerful stage at which you really start to feel in control. When I was dealing with anger, an interrupt would mean that I could silence my loud voice and come to my senses rather than vent and rant. When I was dealing with food, it meant I could stop eating compulsively at some point and therefore mitigate some of the damage I was doing to myself.

For anxiety, I tried to catch myself when ruminating and think about more positive things. In the simplest sense, I tried to distract myself because anxiety for me was like a runaway train that needed to be derailed. Interrupts were very hard at first as my mind would fall back into the groove it was comfortable with, but the more often I practiced them, the harder it was for them to get back on track. As time goes by, you can also find yourself capable of multiple interrupts. For food, this might mean eating something, stopping, and then eating it again, then stopping again. This is good progress in interrupting, even if you eat everything in the bag. The important point is practice stopping yourself.

the move is from this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, managed or mitigated, less undesirable) Response

to this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, managed or mitigated, truncated, less undesirable) Response

Stage 5: Minimize/Reshape
Depending on what sort of thinking you are trying to change, the next step is to minimize responses or reshape them. Minimizing means making them smaller. For food, this means eating less in response to stimuli. For anxiety for me, it meant spending less time ruminating about things I couldn't control. With the ability to interrupt in hand, I could start to break apart the patterns in multiple ways. That is, I could both shorten them further and alter them more often.

For this part, you can consider a visual in which you have a well-worn road that your mind has traveled down that you don't want it to go down any longer so you are smashing up sections of it here and there to make it increasingly impassible. "Reshaping" is setting a new path by finding a way to respond differently.

When I was dealing with anger, my way of reshaping was to stop and consider a calmer and more productive way of expressing my feelings. At first, pieces of my frustration would come out more calmly and I would lose control and get aggressive again. Later, I would move in and out of a calm and aggressive state. Finally, I could remain calm most of the time and express my feelings in a constructive and passionate, but not angry way.

the move is from this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, managed or mitigated, truncated, less undesirable) Response

to this:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, mixture of  less undesirable and desirable) Response

Stage 6: Effective Elimination
It's important to understand that true elimination of a particular response to a stimuli is virtually impossible. Even a calm person will occasionally have an angry outburst. Even someone who generally does not overeat will pig-out at times. Even a mellow person will feel anxiety from time to time over things they shouldn't worry about. We are complex beings and you will never banish certain thoughts entirely because the variety of stimuli and conditions under which they can occur is too vast to completely eliminate unwanted reactions.

The purpose of "rewiring yourself" is to change your destructive mental patterns such that they no longer control your life to such a great extent that they cause you difficulty or misery. "Effective" means "enough" for a balanced life, not "perfection". If you think you can be "forever" about anything, then you are missing the point. Be happy with what you can achieve and focus on gradual movement toward a better place, not on being a robot that is programmed to do the same thing every time a particular input is received.

At the end of this, you are looking to be here:
Stimulus---> (aware, expected, desirable) Response

It's important to keep in mind that these "stages" blend into one another. You will find that you may be working on them simultaneously, but generally you will want to begin with trying them in sequence in order to ease yourself into each idea. It's also important not to "rush" the process. Trying to do it all at once is only going to make you feel like a failure when it doesn't work. "Cold turkey" isn't something that works with trying to remap the electrical and chemical responses in your brain. The goal isn't to make behavioral changes, but altering your thoughts so that it is easier to change your behavior.

Friday, January 27, 2012

De-centralizing Food

At the start of this process of weight loss and changing my relationship with food was the decision to leave the foreign country I live in and go back home to America. That was more a "theory" than a reality for a long time. Now, it is not what might or will happen, but what is actually happening, and I'm both in a place I'd like to be and not where I thought I'd be. I thought I'd be at a certain number on the scale (150 lbs.) and I'm not there. I'm at 175 lbs. However, I'm mentally in a place where I never imagined I could be, and that place makes me care very little about that number.

One of the things I've been doing to prepare to leave is try and eliminate anything I can from my apartment which is not essential to surviving the last two months in our home. This has meant tossing away giant trash bags of things which are too old to be sold or given away like yellow plastic storage bins which have had their fair share of age-related distortion and scratching. It also has meant getting rid of what was in those bins including dishes, tools, and various apartment-related items which cannot be carried across an ocean without incurring an expense far greater than the value of those items.

It has also meant looking at the accumulated food in our pantry and trying to figure out a way to use up canned items, a big collection of various types of tea, staples (like oatmeal), and what is probably for most people a scarily large number of partially consumed bags of snacks. As my regular readers know, I eat chocolate, cookies, cakes, etc. in small portions everyday. As they may not know, I also crave novelty. I buy a bag of something and eat it for a few days then want something different. With this sort of approach, it takes a long time to get through anything and even longer to get through "everything".

Since I don't want to waste food and I need to use up what is on hand, I have found myself looking into how I deal with food and food shopping in a different light. I know that I have used food shopping as a means of entertaining myself and would go into bakeries, snack shops, and supermarkets and look at sections just to see what sort of novel thing I might want to buy. The truth is that I did this when I wasn't even especially hungry or interested in different things and had plenty of treats on hand. It's almost as if I was trying to find a way to convince myself to buy more of such things rather than acting on a true desire.

The situation with our overabundance of snacks and a need to clear everything out has lead me to change my approach and I believe it is one I should try to apply consistently from this point on. I need to question the urge and desire to look around for food for the sake of looking around for food. I've got plenty of goodies (both "healthy" and "not so healthy") on hand and I think these actions are another way of keeping food as a central focus in my daily life.

One might say that there is nothing "wrong" with this if I've got control over what I eat and continue to lose weight, but this isn't about "right" or "wrong", but rather about behavior patterns which are not conducive to a lifestyle in which food is put in its proper place in my life. Food has to be just "food" and not something I seek to fill a mental vacuum. There's no reason to go into a bakery and browse when I've already got baked goods at home, am not hungry, or have no plans for a special treat at tea time. It's just part of a pattern I've developed to keep food central in my life and my thoughts. So, unless I have a deliberate and considered need or desire (yes, desire, too!), I won't be looking at food in various shops.

I must emphasize very strongly that this has nothing to do with trying to "clean up" my eating. I have zero desire to banish any type of food from my life. In fact, I have every desire to be more inclusive of all sorts of food and to enjoy each and every bite of every one of them more and more. I've spent much of the last year going to restaurants and sampling new types of cuisine in an effort to be more expansive and fully appreciate food more. However, I want food not to be something I casually shop for just because it's what I've always done, and am grateful that moving has given me this new perspective.

One final thought, for what it's worth, I wouldn't trade the psychological changes in my relationship with food for the perfect body if it was on offer. This mental stuff is forever and leaves me at peace and not obsessed. I'd only screw up a perfect body without this sort of mental progress. If I never get any lighter, I'm okay with that as long as I don't have to be tortured by how I feel about eating and food anymore.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Matter of Trust

If you can't trust yourself, who can you trust? I ask this as a serious question because the truth is that most of us don't trust ourselves. We set up a bunch of rules for ourselves and wag a metaphorical finger in our general direction and essentially say, "don't cross these lines." This feeling that we are not to be trusted likely stems from childhood and being scolded by our parents or warned about doing or not doing things. They often did not trust us, and in my case they didn't trust when there was no reason to mistrust, so a pattern is established in which we believe we cannot be trusted to do what is best.

Recently, I talked about my half-assed approach to calorie counting because I was feeling that I didn't need this tool to know how much I was eating to the same extent as I did when I started in June 2009. I absolutely needed it when I started as I had no idea how much I was consuming (likely up to 3000-3500 calories a day, I'm sure). I only knew what I was eating and felt I ate pretty healthily. As I've said many times before, even healthy food has calories and you can get fat as easily on nourishing food as on empty calories. I realized that, unless you educate yourself fully (and that includes looking at the weight of food and weighing and measuring it to see what a portion should look like, not eyeballing it or guessing), you really can't know how much you are eating when you have the type of distorted perceptions I had.

A few days after writing that post, I decided that it was time to give it up entirely. There were several things that I realized. One was that I was using calorie counting more often than not to decide to eat more. I was looking to see how much wiggle room I had. The other thing I realized was that I was ready to test fly listening to my body more carefully rather than using artificial constructs. I have a very good idea not only of how much I need to eat, but also how much hunger I need to endure. The latter is very important for me because when I was much heavier, I never knew true hunger. I simply ate any time I was not full. A truly empty stomach was not something I often experienced. Now, I know what it feels like to wait until I'm genuinely hungry to eat.

So, with the experience and education of the past few years behind me, I thought it was time to trust myself with food to a much greater extent. It feels strange at times not to count at all (which I'm trying not to do, not even in  my head), but it really isn't nagging at me as much as I may have expected. I've been in a certain food space for a long time and I have a body that is better adjusted to less food and smaller portion sizes. I also have a mind that knows what is "enough" to keep losing weight and I know when I'm eating more than necessary. Counting calories doesn't really change either situation.

This isn't exactly a transition to "intuitive" eating because my body is not one that has a sufficiently altered biochemistry at this stage such that I can eat when I'm hungry (or "think I'm hungry"). I still have to push the margins a bit and wait to be hungrier before eating or I will fall back into a pattern of habitual overeating. However, between mental and physical changes, I think it's time to fly without a net and move a little closer to a normal relationship with food by kicking out the use of a food logging program. It's time to build more trust in myself when I deal with food.

Time will tell if I'm as ready as I think emotionally and physically. At this stage, I'm looking to continue very slow losses.  My initial goal was to be at 150 lbs. by the end of March of this year, but it is clear that I'm not going to get there unless I go into some sort of dramatic weight loss plan. I'm absolutely unwilling to do so because I refuse to adopt a highly dysfunctional relationship with food, even in the short term, to reach an arbitrary number. I've come too far to step back to that sort of life. I see that as more destructive than remaining fat. What is more, I do not think such measures are really necessary (and might make things worse in the long run because of metabolic slowdown

Last time I weighed myself, I was around 170-175 lbs. (at 5' 4"/164 cm. in height). From now, I'd be happy to just average a 1-2 lb. loss per month, mainly to get out of the weight ranges that qualify me as "obese". This is overwhelmingly because of health insurance costs, but I also wouldn't mind having a smaller belly apron so there was less skin on skin contact (which causes sweating and chafing, still). I also think it would help my gimpy knee and sometimes still aching back after walking to take more pressure off of both. However, I'm not going to sweat it so hard for a magic number or to fit a beauty ideal. I'm in perfect health and quite mobile. I only suffer pain under specific conditions (walking more than 4 hours or certain weather conditions). Beyond that, I just want to continue to put food in its proper place in my life by not thinking about it anymore than necessary or analyzing its composition. You know, the way people who aren't defined by their bodies live their lives.

Friday, January 13, 2012

No longer the fattest in the room

A lot of women who are fat or trying to lose weight talk about entering a room and comparing themselves to the other women there to determine if they are fatter than them. This is something I have not developed a habit of doing because when I was very heavy, I was always the fattest one in the room. There wasn't even a contest. At nearly 400 lbs., I didn't need to look around to know who was fattest.

Even as I have lost weight, I haven't made those comparisons for two reasons. One is that I don't like this habit in general as it is a form of assigning value to people based on body size. I don't care how open-minded a person believes her or she might be, this screening and evaluating based on weight is a way of establishing a pecking order. One is, essentially, comforting oneself by determining one is not longer "at the bottom" (i.e., the fattest) by performing this act. It's a bad habit and reflects poorly on those who do it.

The second reason I have never done this is that, even at around 175 lbs., it is simply second nature for me to believe that I'm still likely to be the heaviest woman in the room. I'm in a culture of petit women who are not only slim 98% of the time, but small-boned and short. I'm never going to be anything, but the fattest in the room as long as I live where I currently reside.

This situation has never really troubled me because I don't care how heavy others are and I don't preoccupy myself with my body size relative to them. That being said, I can't help but realize as part of internalizing a new body image that there are women around me on occasion who are proportionally fatter than me. This isn't about ranking, but about no longer seeing myself as a lumbering behemoth that elicits of stares and nasty comments.

My thinking is more along the lines of "if there are those who are fatter than me, then there is no reason for people to treat me as some freak of nature" as I am now within a range of "normal". Since I continue to view myself as incredibly huge, this is part of a process of normalizing my body image, not seeing myself as somehow "better" than fatter women. The fact is that I see bigger women as within the range of "normal" as well, which helps me feel less like the gigantic person I saw myself to be and more deserving of being seen as "human". Such has been the damage to my self-image that I must constantly work to adjust my thinking so I feel I can call myself a regular "human", a privilege I have always afforded others but has not always been given to me.

Generally, I don't think about this "fattest woman in the room" situation, but I had a recent experience which made me consider how so many women establish a pecking order of beauty and weight. Since I was always relegated to the bottom rung both by  myself and others, I don't really consider this when I talk to other women. Something happened recently to make me think that this was being done to me and that perceptions of me have altered now that my physicality is quite different.

Before I get any further, let me say that I have never subscribed to the idea that there is all sorts of jealousy that results in sniping and bad behavior because of weight loss. I don't think the other woman that I'm going to mention in this post was "jealous" of me or my fabulous beauty as I don't feel I am some gorgeous babe now. I'm also pretty sure that most people would believe me to be a fairly average woman in her late 40's with some nice features and in need of some weight loss. The person I'm going to talk about in this post never knew me except at a weight marginally higher than it is now. She had nothing to be jealous of because this was our first, only, and likely last meeting.

Some time ago, I met a friend of my husband's for the first time. He has described her on many occasions as "a sweetie". She's very positive and educated and he has been quite happy with his communication with her and the progression of their friendship. One of the reasons that he wanted me to meet her is that he felt that it would facilitate more communication with her if we both could be at social interactions with her at the same time. This is especially the case now because our time has become more limited than ever. It is extremely difficult to sacrifice time for socializing as well as spend time with each other due to work and preparations to move.

This woman is much taller than average, somewhat overweight (perhaps proportionally as much as me, possibly a bit less) and somewhat mannish in appearance. She's a native of a Western culture, though not the same one as me. She's also married and participates in the same volunteer work that my husband has been doing. The bottom line is that we didn't hit it off. She came across as reserved and answered my questions in a way which was guarded and steered topics of interest from items of depth to banal superficialities. In the end, I felt as if merely asking some questions (such as why she loved the culture we both reside in, a reasonable follow-up question to her assertion that she was so fond of it) were intrusive and put her on the spot. I didn't feel my questions were too personal or invasive, but her responses seemed to indicate otherwise. My husband was also surprised at her level of reluctance to travel beyond the surface in the conversation as that had not been his experience with her to date.

When I deal with my work, I'm content to deal in superficialities, but not when I'm dealing with people from my own culture or in social situations. I get more than enough talk about the weather, food, trivial experiences, and holidays through my job. As readers of my blog are fully aware, I'm a person who likes complexity and depth. It's a genuine joy to plumb the deeper recesses of an issue and explore facets of a topic. This woman was certainly capable of such a discussion as my husband said she'd had some communication with him on that level before, but she wasn't like that with me.

I walked away distinctly feeling that she did not care for me, but not that she formed some deep-seated hate or anything. It wasn't such a greatly negative encounter. It just didn't go very well. This actually didn't bother me at all. I absolutely do not need everyone to like me. I didn't give what had happened much thought until recently when my husband invited her and her husband along with another couple to accompany us to a goodbye dinner. We're leaving the country we're in and so are she and her husband and getting a group together seemed like a pleasant and expedient way to bid farewell.

The response that we received is what has sent me into my current reflective state. She politely refused and effusively thanked my  husband for the invitation, but she also mentioned just the two of them (my husband and her) getting together for a goodbye and "anyone else" he might like to invite. I may be out of the loop on social convention in Western culture, but I believe when you have met someone's wife and actually sat down at a meal and spoken with her for over an hour, it is polite to at least mention the spouse by name rather than just say "anyone else". Even my husband felt that the wording was potentially quite meaningful as a message conveying that she might tolerate my presence, but would prefer that I not be there.

This, in and of itself, is not really a big deal to me. I don't mind that she doesn't want me around. That being said, I was perfectly fine to associate with her again with the possibility that things might go better on another occasion. However, my reflection is actually about why things didn't go so well the first time. There are, of course, plenty of reasons including the very real possibility that there was simply a clash of personalities or she simply is not interested in someone with my personality. It's also possible that I seemed too negative or aggressive for her tastes. I am not a "Debbie Downer", but I do tend to see things very much through the filter of yin and yang. I see the good side, but I also see the bad, and I will talk about both equally. This woman is more of a positive type and may find whatever focus I had on the negative unappealing.

The reason why this has made me pensive is that my experiences have generally been quite positive when meeting new people. I'm socially quite adept, but I am, and I hate to say this because it sounds like bragging, quite intelligent. My intelligence has never been anything but an asset for me throughout most of my life. In fact, I have often felt that it was one of the things which persuaded people who might simply have dismissed me based on body size that I may indeed be worthwhile to know. It is this thought which occurred to me as I mulled over the snub in her letter.

It is absolutely clear to me that I am treated very, very differently now compared to before. People are nicer to me in every way. I attract far less negative attention. When I get stared at because I'm a foreigner in another land, people no longer look my body up and down and stare at my stomach, but rather look at my face. I wondered if this situation was yet another occasion in which my changed appearance was affecting a response to me, but this time, in a negative way.

I've written before about how one of my husband's former male friends looked me up and down and then ignored me. He judged me as unworthy of his attention and behaved as though my large body rendered me invisible. Dismissiveness as a result of fatness is very common. I wonder now if achieving parity in terms of the assessment of my appearance has changed some balance whereby my speaking and display of intellect is regarded as overbearing. In the past, the state of my body dipped me so low into the negative territory that my positive attributes, whatever they may be, could be digested as welcome counterbalances. Without that glaring aspect of my physicality to make the other party feel superior, is the way in which I present my mental capabilities coming across as overbearing, smug, or too much?

Obviously, I cannot know what is going on in another person's mind, particularly in what I would guess is their unconscious reasoning. It could simply be that I am unlikable to her personally even though I tend to be quite likable to the vast majority of people I meet. I can say that after announcing that I was going to leave the country I'm in and return to America, four adults over the age of 30 broke into tears at the news. Clearly, I must not be too odious an individual or they wouldn't have been so upset about my departure. At any rate, this could also be that I'm making too much of poor phrasing in a message and "anyone else" was not a snub, but an indication of careless writing or poor social skills. I don't know what the truth is and I doubt I ever will. However, I think the possibility that people may perceive my personality differently in a manner I would not have anticipated based on having a much smaller body is one worth contemplating.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Those Mechanistic Processes

I don't talk much about the mechanics of what I'm doing anymore, because I have made a strong effort through time not to focus on them. Early on, because my habits were so destructive and distorted by a sense of food relationship "normality" that was beyond what my body required, I had to educate myself and attend to what I was doing with greater vigilance. Once I got healthier habits and more understanding in place, I slowly started to kick the training wheels off and operate less artificially and somewhat more naturally.

It's important to say that, when I say "healthier", I don't mean embracing food puritanism as I eat everything (candy, cookies, cake, chocolate, salted snacks... all of the "evils" in the dieting world). I always ate healthy food like fruit, vegetables, and whole grain and continue to do so. That was never my problem. My problem was too many calories and that likely is the problem most people have when they overeat. Most people aren't fat because they're scarfing down donuts and fast food. They're fat because they eat too much of everything, including healthy food.

I've written about this before, but far too many people attach moral judgment to food choices and body size rather than address the issue rationally. If you eat cake, you will remain fat and are weak-willed. If you eat whole wheat pasta with olive oil and vegetables, you will be thin and health and have will power. This thinking contributes to obesity problems because so many people eat well and are still fat. They believe that their food purity should insulate them from fatness, and believe it is inevitable that they be fat because their pious consumption results in obesity.

You can convince yourself that you are eating well and a healthy and reasonable amount of food if you don't dig too deeply into the facts. I know I absolutely did this. Once I dug into the facts (a process that I hated doing with a burning passion), I knew that I was habitually overeating. What was worse was that I discovered just how little extra food it took to send my daily caloric intake into the stratosphere. After taking a good hard look at what I was eating, I slowly adjusted downward. After two and a half years of doing this, I have a much better idea of how much is "enough" to maintain a smaller weight without as much diligence and scrutiny. I have, in essence, created a new "normal" for my life.

To that end, I find that I count calories in a very half-assed way now. I often track breakfast and lunch and make a good guess at dinner. While many people would see this as "slipping", I see this as progress. I don't want to be clinging to calorie counting for the rest of my life to reassure myself that I'm doing "okay". I want to live "normally" on all fronts, and, if at all possible, that will include not applying artificial measurements to my food intake. At the moment, I'm not quite ready to stop entirely, but there are days when I just don't bother at all.

All of that being said, I can't emphasize  enough the value of knowing food information early on when trying to deal with your relationship with food and I think that calorie counting as an educational tool has value. "Dieting" culture is so pervasive and extreme that it is easy to view all practices related to it as distasteful, obsessive and destructive, but it is not the tools that are the problem. It is the way in which they are misused, overused, and relied upon exclusively that are the issue. They are not a way of life, but a helpful way to forge a path to a new way of life.

It is this confusion that makes people obsessed with weight loss and body composition so obnoxious. They never move on to normality (life without "dieting") and cling forever to the tools of diet culture because they don't believe they can get by without those training wheels. What is more, they become angry at any suggestion that anyone can be successful without them. In essence, they are people who believe they can never walk without this crutch and grow hostile at the suggestion that anyone can as it makes them feel bad about themselves as they're convinced they can't.

Though such people give calorie counting and the tools of dieting a bad name, for people who are greatly obese as I once was, your body chemistry is so imbalanced that it is difficult (in my experience) to rely on intuitive eating. Sometimes, the only way to really understand what you're doing is to pick up some of those tools and learn. It takes a very long time for the hormones and neurological responses to realign themselves to other patterns and your body will fight you all of the way, so you can't just eat what feels right. "What feels right" is often going to be too much because that's the message a big, fat body is going to send as it will endeavor to maintain the status quo. That is what bodies do.

In fact, some short-term research indicates that bodies never adjust hormonally or neurologically once one has been fat, but frankly, I believe the studies are poorly constructed. They are based on following people for little more than a year and having put small numbers of people on severe calorie restriction (600-800 calories). In my personal experience, it takes just under a year for the first sense of realigning to occur and more years for it to continue the process. I don't have people measuring my leptin and ghrelin numbers, but I do know how my sense of hunger and satiety have changed as time has gone by. Of course, I've eaten relatively close to the edge (1500-2000 calories) and engaged in modest exercise all along. Perhaps my body was not shocked the same way study participants bodies were. Perhaps I'm simply a freak of nature.

All I can say is that, in my case, something in me at a basic level changed and changed again. It is a lot easier now than it was in June 2009. This is not mind over matter nor "willpower" (a word I detest). It's not about my superior character strength or psychological integrity. It's about the changes I've been making slowly coercing my body's chemistry into a new normal in which I am accustomed to different energy consumption patterns. I've written about this before, but patterns are not merely psychological, but biological and the mind can be slowly changed and the body will, eventually, go along with it.

So, now that my body is responding with less intensity to eating a healthier (i.e., smaller) quantity and at less frequent intervals, I've been able to strip away some of the mechanistic support structures such as careful tracking of food. I feel good about this because, ultimately, I want to be able to just go about my life knowing how to eat without having to give calories a second thought. I feel like I'm on the right road to this particular destination. I'm in no hurry to get there and that makes it all the easier to keep going, but I am pleased at the progress I'm making away from anything resembling "dieting" structure in my life.

It never ends, so it's not worth caring about

My husband and I were riding the train home together from work last week and stood somewhat near an older couple (around their late 50's or early 60's) who was seated. Bear in mind that I live in a non-English-speaking country when I say that they sat there openly discussing fat Americans in their native tongue. This discussion included the husband making hand gestures to indicate a large and bloated body.

If you want to see how I look now, the picture attached to my previous post should provide a pretty good idea. Yes, I'm still fat, but hardly gigantic. I'm 5' 4" and the last time I weighed myself, I was 175 lbs. My face is actually quite thin for my weight. In fact, I've been told by multiple people that I have the sort of face that the locals "envy" because even though thin bodies are common here, many women feel they have "big" faces. I don't agree with this conclusion about their faces, as I think this is merely a genetic facial shape difference and not any sort of "fatness", but I've been told many long for a more angular, longer face. My point is that people aren't going to be thinking I've got the look of a "fat person" from my face (which is masked in the aforementioned picture). What you don't see in the photo is actually the thinnest part of me.

It's important to keep in mind that my face is an issue in this situation because I was wearing a winter coat and scarf. The only visible parts of me were my face and from mid-calf to my feet. Since I wasn't wearing tight pants, one could not tell my leg size very well. However, based solely on the vague shape of me in my coat, these people were remarking on my fatness.

The lesson I learned from this wasn't that I am still fat and therefore open to mockery, but rather that there will always be people who need to elevate themselves at your expense such that they will find something to mock or deride. This couple couldn't even see the really fat part of me (my hips, belly and thighs), but were speaking poorly of me anyway. If I had been thin, my guess is that they'd have found something else to deride us about. Of course, they figured my husband and I didn't understand what they were saying because it is so often the case that they arrogantly believe their language is beyond us (this is a common conceit here), but they weren't talking for our benefit. They were talking to make themselves feel superior to us. 

One of the ways in which I finally convinced myself to start walking when I first started changing my life was to tell myself that what I did for myself, exercising to help my back pain and gain strength and stamina, was more important than anything others said about me. At nearly 400 lbs. and needing to stop every 2-3 minutes because of the agony of my back pain, this was something which took a great deal more strength than standing on a train listening to a sad old couple make fun of fat Americans. I just had to throw away caring about how they reacted to me. Each time I was mocked, made fun of, pointed at, stared at, or treated in a de-humanizing way, I repeated to myself that it was more important for me to do what was good for my body than to hide from cruel, judging eyes. I didn't really feel it at first, but after saying it enough times, I believed it. Now, I deeply, authentically and truly don't care what they say about me. It's not the, "they suck so who cares about them anyway" response that people have when angry. It is actual apathy with no emotional component.

Though certainly it is a lot easier now to brush off such bad behavior than it was at a much higher weight, the principle is the same as is the motivation of people who say such things about others. What you do for yourself to improve your quality of life is the top priority and you can't allow what others say to stop you. You have to convince yourself that your progress toward whatever your particular goals are is more important than what others think or do, because the truth is that it absolutely is. 

It isn't about dismissing them though. It's not about telling them to f*ck off. It's about telling yourself that you are valuable. This distinction is very important because hating back isn't going to make you love yourself, but deciding to act in your own best interest will. It's about saying you matter and what they say or do does not with a much heavier emphasis on your value as a person each time you say it to yourself. By focusing on you and your needs rather than on diminishing your detractors, you not only gain strength to endure such comments, but a better sense of your self-worth.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Making peace with the body

In my home, I do not have any full-length mirrors so most of the time I have been seeing my body in fragments. When I started a new job at the end of last spring, I started working in a place that has an enormous mirror across from the toilet. It is virtually impossible not to see my half-naked body without a supreme effort to look away. The mirror takes up half of an entire wall.

In clothes, you can't really see, but I'm a disaster underneath. This was in a fitting room when I tried on this shirt. It was the only way to get a picture of me in the mirror since I don't have a big one. You can see that I definitely have not lost any hair along with weight loss. I've got plenty. 

When I first started using that bathroom, it was very hard for me to look at what my body had become as a result of weight loss. Little blobby side-cars of wrinkled flesh hang on my inner thighs. My stomach is still very big, and hangs down like a crinkled semi-full sack of potatoes. When I sit, it rests on my lap like a floppy, thick blanket. My breasts hang like an old grandma's. They are slack and lacking in fullness. When I cram them into my C-cup bra, it's mainly extra skin rather than breast tissue threatening to send me back to a D. Even my calves have wrinkles on them where the skin has slackened and is creasing. 

My husband, bless his sweet, loving soul, sees the state of my body as a sign of success and never flinches, criticizes or shies away from touching or looking at me. I see it as a vast collection of  battle scars from a war with food that I've fought for many, many years. This war has resulted, not in victory, but in a peace treaty that is better than an all-out win.

I never expected to be toned, taut and gorgeous at the end of all of this. In fact, I expected something not too dissimilar to what I have. You can't stretch out skin for that long and expect it to snap back, not even with very slow weight loss such as mine. No amount of exercise will change how I look without my clothes and I know that. There will likely always be sheets of extra skin hanging from my body, adding both weight and crepe-like wrinkles. I will never be thin, and I know that my weight will always be higher because of all that extra skin.

Despite the fact that I hardly expected to come out looking like a beauty queen, I have found it difficult to accept my body in its naked state. I feel like I've abused it physically because I suffered so much emotionally. Rather than feeling that my vanity is suffering because I lack bodily beauty, I feel sad that years of psychological difficulty have left these marks. For that, I forgive myself, and I have learned not to be sad at the state I'm in. I'm learning to see my stretched out and wrinkled body in the mirror and feel that it's okay. I'm starting to see that slack, wrinkled flesh the way my husband does - as a trophy of my success in repairing my relationship with food. I'm not there 100% yet, but I'm on my way. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"Bad" Thoughts

As "the fat girl" growing up in the 70's, my life was one in which I could not wear the fashionable clothes of my peers. At that time, "plus size" clothes only came in a few flavors and for pants, it was mainly polyester stretch pants. While other girls wore jeans, corduroy, and velveteen, I was clad in the trappings of old ladies. What was worse, I was at the mercy of my mother's fashion sense. I would prefer a parade of dark brown and black to mask my fat thighs, hanging belly flap, and voluminous ass, but she would sometimes buy hot pink, light blue, and lime green (most likely because these were unpopular colors and cheaper - she did not buy similar colors for herself).

At some point in junior high school, I found myself capable of squeezing into a pair of the biggest jeans I could locate. I was so happy to have a chance to wear something other than stretch pants and feel like I marginally fit in with everyone else. On that day, those too tight pants split across the seam in the back and I had to walk around for the rest of the day with a sweater tied around my waist to cover up the huge rip.

One of my classmates, Julie, who was a cheerleader took no end of joy in this incident. She carried on and laughed through several classes about what had happened. Her mirth at my embarrassment was something she could not contain and when we got to Spanish class she was bubbling over in giggles. The teacher asked her what was so funny and she asked the teacher how to say "rip" in Spanish and she constructed a sentence which said, "Shari's pants ripped", and she burst into new gales of laughter at the renewal of my humiliation. I just put my head down and endured it because there was little else I could do. Needless to say, I never wore jeans again in school.

By graduation, Julie was starting to show signs of pudginess herself, though she edged away from becoming genuinely fat. In addition to her making fun of my ripped pants, she enjoyed criticizing my lack of athletic aptitude due to my weight and overall lack of grace and coordination. When she struck out while playing softball and one of her friends called her some derogatory word for doing so, she looked my way and said that being caught out on base because you were too slow to run to them made you this unkind term (which I cannot recall), not striking out. Her failure was okay, but mine was not because I failed due to my fat.

Recently on Facebook, I have been reunited with a lot of people who both were and were not my friends in school. This is a situation which taxes my ability to be mature and kind to the hilt since these are people who dealt me a great deal of damaging cruelty and contributed to the psychological burdens that I continue to carry with me to this day. I have to admit that part of me is very ugly in response to how their lives have turned out and that I am more than a little happy to see that many of them are aging far worse than I am, and that includes the formerly skinny and pretty girls who are fatter than me at my current weight.

Julie was persuaded by one of the people I am friended with to get onto Facebook, but she hasn't uploaded a picture and hasn't interacted with anyone. I'm unhappy to admit that I have a strong hope that she amply fulfilled her propensity for chubbiness through the years and that she got very fat. This is a truly awful thing for me to wish on anyone as I know extremely well how difficult and painful obesity is. The part of me that longs for karma to be real and desperately wants empathy to be bred in my former tormenters can't be denied though.

I realize that these sorts of feelings are "justifiable" in one way. I was hurt and it's not uncommon to want those who hurt me to learn a lesson in the pain I lived in by living in it themselves, but this type of thinking is poison for the soul and the psyche. I need to focus on positive motivation and my own successes and growth, not wish misfortune on others who once hurt me. As I have said before, I also realize that the people my classmates were at that age are not who they are today and I need to learn to forgive them. This sense of wanting them to be worse off than me is not conducive to that sort of mentality and something I need to work on.