A month ago, I added a big Roman numeral to the timeline of my life. (Imagine life divided into major parts, like a book, marked by Roman numerals. Mine would look something like this: I. Childhood; II. College and young adulthood; III. Marriage, Motherhood and Academia; IV. Things fall apart; V. My healing path and Healing Path Coaching; and VI. Peace in my aging body).
Part VI began when I embarked on my intuitive eating and eat-to-love path. [Pausing here for a moment to thank the authors and pod-casters who helped me wake to this: Jenna Hollenstein; Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch; Sonya Renee Taylor, Christy Harrison; Linda Bacon; Connie Sobczak. Oh, and Shrill on Hulu!]
I’ve always micro-managed food to micro-managed my weight. I was always “within normal limits” as defined by whoever gets to define these things in our culture and medical system. I got a lot of benefits from my appearance, I now realize. The fear of my body growing larger haunted me all the time. I compensated for over-eating by under-eating. I had weekend vs. weekday rules, party and holiday “exceptions” to the rules, time-of-day rules (it’s ok to cheat at night) and on and on.
Every day I spent some of my precious mental and emotional energy struggling to either shrink my body through food restriction or accept my body as it was. I could never stick with either path. I craved peace but it eluded me. The thought pattern formed its own kind of pendulum, alongside my weight and eating pendulum. “I don’t like how I look - I’m gonna lose the weight.” “No! That’s BS – I am gonna love myself the way I am.” “Ick, I don’t think I can do that. I’ll be really good this week.” “Food is pleasure, why deny myself? Everyone else is eating it.” Crazy making. I see now that I was swinging between internalized body-image and diet culture messages, on the one hand, and my intuitive self, which values pleasure, connection, and spontaneity and hates (HATES) rules, on the other hand. The anti-dieter was always in there – she just couldn’t fully “come out.” The constant tug-of-war was stressful and painful and it kept me stuck.
Along the way there were added challenges. At age 24 I developed chronic back pain. Two things happened at once: I went on a medication for pain that caused bloating and weight gain, and I lost the ability to exercise because it exacerbated the back pain.
Then there was pregnancy and post-partum, with all of its weight craziness. I thought pregnancy would finally free me from body-consciousness – oooooh was I wrong! I’ll never forget that pre-natal appointment at 16 weeks. I’d gained 10 lbs that month. The midwife said, “ok, but you can only have ONE ten-pound month!” Or when I was 8-months huge and a friend said, "you don't even look pregnant from behind." Really? After two kids, I was up another size.
In 2006 I developed IBS and was constantly bloated. I became painfully self-conscious about my belly and obsessively tried to find the trigger. I got a full GI workup which turned up nothing at first. I was eventually diagnosed with SIBO (a topic for another post). Nothing worked - antibiotics, herbs, elimination diets. It always came back.
Then in 2012 I had a major surgery which immobilized me completely for 3 months and partially for more than a year. I ate what I wanted and I barely moved. I look back on that as a peaceful time when I was well loved and cared for by my partner, my family, and my friends. I had absolutely nothing to prove. All I could do was heal. And, in the end, I was one more size up. And the tug-of-war between “I’ll lose it” and “I’ll accept it” ramped up a notch.
In 2013, as I was finally emerging from the fog of surgery and its aftermath, I began my health coach training. In that small group setting I learned about gluten (I am not sure I’d ever heard that word before!) and organic, grass-fed, pastured, and GMOs – all of the pillars of wellness diet and clean eating. It made sense to me in that context. The surgery had not relieved all my chronic pain. I learned that inflammation was perpetuating it and I believed that an anti-inflammatory diet was the answer. I read and listened to endless integrative and functional medicine and nutrition experts espousing this belief. One moment really stands out in my memory: I was seeing a physical therapist for the back pain. She explained that the pain I was having in my neck and shoulders was from my vagus nerve, which facilitates communication between the gut and the brain. Because I was eating gluten, which was irritating my gut, the vagus nerve was constantly firing and this was causing the tissue in my chest, neck and shoulder to constrict and hurt. Now this statement seems utterly ridiculous to me. I never asked for any evidence to support it. I just believed it. I went gluten free.
Then I read more and decided I should be grain free. Then carb-free. Pretty soon my diet was protein, vegetables and “good” fats. (Except when I cheated because I have never been able to stick to any rule 100%). But 80% of the time, I was paleo/keto “for my health.” It would take a book to detail the energy, time, and money I spent maintaining that lifestyle. Suffice it to say, it involved a lot of things made with coconut!
The chronic pain did get better over the next few years, but there were 10,000 other variables that contributed to my healing. I started a mindfulness meditation practice and found a community of fellow practitioners who I love. I stopped over-functioning and learned how to adjust my activity level to fit my actual energy level (huge! More on this later). I was (am) in a loving and supportive relationship. We bought a beautiful house together. I did 3 years of amazing therapy with a Somatic Experiencing practitioner. I found work I loved that felt like my deepest calling. I let go of toxic friendships. My kids got older and were thriving. I made peace with my family. I rescued a dog. And I made many other changes to reduce stress, increase joy and fulfillment, and be more present in my life.
And yet I believed that it was largely food that had “healed me.” There was no evidence to support that. Just ideology. I was swimming in the kool-aide and I had no idea that there was another way. And now here I am one month into a commitment to get off the roller coaster and trust my body. At first it was exhilarating. I went to the store and marveled at all the choices – you mean I can have any of this?? Granola for breakfast. Peanut M & M’s for snacks. Popcorn for dinner. Pizza and beer. Burgers with buns. And so much ice-cream! I felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz – the world was in color.
It’s calming down now – sometimes I want that stuff and sometimes I don’t. But my body has gotten bigger and it’s terrifying to NOT have a plan to shrink it. Terrifying to watch it get bigger and know, deeply know, that I can’t – won’t - ever try to fix it again. I’m 53. I’m done. I am working on the being-ok-with-it part, but I know that’s going to take a lot more time. Writing this is a way of reaching out to others for support, for a reminder that my worth, my work in the world, my loveability, has nothing to do with my weight, size, or shape. And yet, it’s still jarring when I catch a glimpse in a mirror. I am acknowledging the negative thoughts when they appear, showering myself with compassion, and connecting with other amazing women doing anti-diet advocacy. And I am integrating these concepts into my work with clients, which is where the real magic happens! There is such a hunger out there for peace and freedom with food, with our bodies, and in our minds. I am filled with a new level of creative energy and motivation to help others find peace and joy and truly WHOLE health.