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.