Tuesday, May 12, 2009

improving a relationship

I rarely walk away from relationships lightly. Whether it is a casual friendship, a romance, a family member or a long standing friendship, it takes a lot for me to give up and stop trying. I will fight to bring life back to a dying friendship. And I have done this. Sometimes a relationship cannot be saved and I am forced to accept defeat but I make a commited effort to not give up until I have exerted as much effort as possible on my end to make it work.

Somehow this tenacity has not always carried over into the relationship I have with myself. I am more critical, judgmental and defeatist with myself than I would ever be with any of my friends or family members. It reached a point where I had to ask myself why.

Sure, self-criticism can lead to new goals and efforts toward improvement but it can also result in a reduced sense of self, a warped perception of oneself and unnecessary feelings of isolation and worthlessness. I would never tell a friend her butt has grown out of control or scold her for eating those two extra cookies, so why do I say these things to myself?

I am not going to blame the media with its unattainable images of beauty or over the top obsessions with dieting.

I am no longer going to blame my own self-criticism on my ex-husband either.

I am not even going to blame myself. Instead, I decided to just change it, regardless of the genesis of these thoughts and feelings, I need to be the change. This is the turning point.

As I mentioned last week, over the last several weeks I have been taking a closer look at my relationship with food as I have delved into a stricter exercise routine. You see, and don't hate me when I say this, growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. I could eat and eat and eat and I never had to think about consequences. Oh, and I could eat. And luckily I had friends who were the same. There may or may not have been a point in time when one of us uttered "is this heaven" in a tacky booth in a Vegas casino after returning for another helping from the endless buffet lines. And that buffet may have been located at Circus Circus, no accounting for teenage taste buds. Ahem. We were lucky. We were able to enjoy our teenage years free from the guilt and calorie counting, fat watching, carb depriving pressure that is everywhere these days. The 90s were a special time with the oversized grunge clothing - but maybe that was just my personal oblivion.

That doesn't mean I didn't have my own health obsessions. As a general rule I did not (and still don't) like fast food or chain restaurants with their disproportioned servings. I stopped eating hamburgers when I was 17 or or so. Growing up I preferred wheat bread to white and recall a family road trip when I threw a fit over being forced to eat white bread when I was too old to be throwing such fits. As a sophomore I took a salad for lunch every day. Granted, that salad came with a side of ranch dressing and a packet of oyster crackers, but still. It was what I liked and it wasn't about weight. My college nutrition course set me off on a philosophy of omitting excess salt, avoiding processed foods (despite a freshman diet comprised almost exclusively of mac & cheese and ramen noodles) and shunning vitamin supplements in favor of seeking the nutrients out in real foods. I still ate chocolate and baked goods and fries but I was focused primarily on balanced meals - which I cooked.

I'll skip over the crazy ex-husband inducing weight paranoia phase for now and refer you to the sidebar for my divorce story if you want more insight into that shift and skip ahead a few years.

To the end of my 20s. When my weight, for reasons I did not fully understand decided to settle about five to ten pounds higher than where it had always been. I didn't understand this but I was comfortable in my body and I was in great shape and working out on a regular basis.

But then, I hit 30. And I moved back to New York City. And I was diagnosed with asthma. And I had knee surgery. All in about a two-month span which was immediately preceded by the ailments that led up to diagnosing the asthma, the symptoms that caused the knee surgery and a breakup that left me . . . broken emotionally.

When I landed back in NYC four years ago I reaquainted myself with Ben & Jerry pretty intimately and stopped working out and started ordering in. Another ten pound reality check later, I settled up to my larger size (I often fluctuated between two anyway) and blamed my job for the shift. And ultimately felt awful inside which often reflected on the outside as I turned into myself more and felt self conscious and out of sorts in social situations. I was hyper aware of the fact that I had gained weight since I left New York two years earlier and felt this was everyone's first impression of me. I kept having this feeling of "this is not my body!" reverberating through my head and convinced myself that I was being ignored or neglected or snubbed or whatever because I wasn't thin like everyone else.

Rationally, I knew I wasn't actually overweight and in fact I was still within my recommended body mass index. I knew then, as I know now, that I am not fat. I am not gross. I just did not feel like myself and that was being reflected externally to others through a lack of confidence, a lack of comfort in my own skin.

I hired a trainer and started re-dedicating myself to working out. But it was hard. And I was sporadic. I tricked myself into thinking I was doing more than I really was and usually only managed a couple of workouts a week, and nothing too tough. I had phases where I was regularly going to yoga and I made small improvements but I easily fell out of those habits and slid back into feeling slugish.

I forced myself to start eating salads for lunch, switched to diet soda and I tried weight watchers. My weight dipped briefly as I obsessed over points and portions but mostly I was just hungry. All the time. Losing 4-6 pounds did not seem worth the effort.

Another year or two passed of up and down workouts and takeout meals eaten at my desk or in front of my tv until another 10 pounds had crept their way onto my thighs, my butt and my stomach. I was uncomfortable in everything I owned. I felt awkward. I became hyper critical of every image of myself. It never seemed quite right.

I tried one of those meal delivery diet plans. You know the kind that deliver all of your meals each day, including snacks? I hated it. I hated every last second of those three test weeks last October. I starved and starved and my hunger controlled my every thought. I got to the point where I eyed dinner rolls on tables on sidewalk cafes and seriously contemplated snatching one for myself. They gave me a shockingly low number of calories to begin with. Low enough that I doubt they could have sustained a gnat for very long. It was bland and life felt tedious.

So I decided working out was the key. Last summer I felt strong and capable and confident on my river trip. I trained in the months leading up to it with workouts tailored to build muscles in my back and arms. I walked more to prepare for hikes. I was not one hundred percent happy with my weight or dimensions, but for that blissful week in Idaho and the weeks that followed while my skin was still tanned and toned, I felt good. Until I no longer had a goal.

So I prepared for my trip to Peru with extra workouts and truly pushed myself by climbing the 40 flights of stairs in my building a couple of times a week. My body refused to lose weight because the holiday season was in full swing and the food was too good to ignore, but I started to once again feel better physically which again led to more confidence. At one point my trainer made an offhand comment about how I would probably be very athletic if I didn't work so much. And I allowed her to hook onto the excuse I have made for myself - I work too much to worry about ridding myself of 10-20 unwanted pounds.

But suddenly that excuse seemed lame. This is my body and I know what it is capable of and it has the potential for so much more than I was currently allowing it.

For me, I was doing the little things. I was taking stairs and walking to and from work and fitting in moderate workouts here and there. I was eating what I call "cheat foods" that have lower calories and lower fat but are most often not sustaining and are only covering up the hunger rather than satisfying it.

None of it was enough for me because I know what my body can be. And I don't mean the body I had when I was 19 or even 25. I want to know that my 33 year-old body is at its best. That I am striving toward and reaching my own capabilities today. Because when I put in the effort, this little relationship I have with myself thrives.

I decided work could no longer be an excuse. I no longer wanted my age to be an excuse. I no longer wanted to hide behind "bad knees" or asthma. I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin again and recognize my own body in the mirror.

I started small and quiet.

In February, I did not eat any meat for a month to show myself I have restraint and to see what, if any effect, the ommission had on my body. Granted, I don't eat a lot of meat so this was not a challenge initially. But by the end I was happy to reintroduce meat into my diet. Vegetarianism is not my goal. I admire and respect those who live that lifestyle but it isn't a permanent choice for me. This deprivation did not lead to weight loss. It simply gave me the confidence that I am in control of my choices.

In March, I cut out soda. I knew I could tackle this one because I have had several phases in my life where I didn't touch the stuff for years. I don't think I drank carbonation through all of high school and very rarely in college. I distinctly remember becoming reaquainted with coke during my study abroad in Europe the summer of 1997. Even during law school I managed to steer clear of a soda addiction other than during finals when my diet consisted primarily of Dr. Pepper and Triscuits. Those two products practically sponsored my finals! But working in a law firm requires long, tedious hours. Often on very little sleep. And since I don't drink coffee, soda crept its way back into my life and over the last couple of years it had managed to make itself a permanent fixture with my lunch. I told myself it helped prevent me from snacking all afternoon. Despite the whole springing forward thing, some long hours and a cross-country red eye flight, I made it through March with only one or two sodas. And despite the fact that I have a Coke Zero on my desk right now (the first in weeks!), I have rarely touched it since. (Today was terrifically stressful and I'm here late, that is my excuse.)

In April, I decided to give up something a little more difficult for me - M&Ms. Not a big deal, right? Have you met me? No? Well, do you know that my absolute favorite snack is popcorn with peanut M&Ms tossed in? Do you know that my secret single behavior includes (included, I should say) indulging on this snack multiple times a week? It is an easy one to rationalize because it doesn't seem like a terrible thing. Light popcorn, just a handful (or two) of m&ms and you have something to munch on. But like anything, this snack can be abused. And abuse it I did. So I cut out m&ms. Not all chocolate, just m&ms. And I haven't had any since.

BUT that does not mean I did not devour every last chocolate covered treat from my Easter basket (and there were a lot) in a record two days. That was the breaking point when I realized enough was enough. I could not complain about my body if I was treating it like that. Exercise would only get me so far, my eating philosophy needed to be set back on track as well.

I was a couple of skeptical weeks into my couch to 5k program and I did not want to diet. I fail at diets. I hate diets. Diets make me irritable and food obsessed. Diets make me crave everything that is forbidden. Diets make me think thoughts like: I have given up so many things for religious purposes - coffee, tea, alcohol, drugs, smoking, SEX! (um, not that I have or have not partaken in any or all of these things, just that I refrain from them already) - that I should be allowed this one thing. That, my friends is a dangerous line of thinking. Because it made me feel I was entitled to and deserved this one good indulgence of being able to eat whatever I wanted. Which would not be a problem if I was comfortable with the results. Except I wasn't.

Enough was enough. It was time for me to stop adjusting my waistband out and to stop accepting that another 10 pounds isn't really so bad and was probably just a sign of getting older.

So I embarked on my own intensive spring training routine. I told my trainer to work me out hard twice a week. I committed full throttle to the 5k goal and began running three times a week and attending pilates class once a week. On the 7th day I sometimes rest. And sometimes I run some more. I'm in the midst of week seven and I feel better than I can remember feeling in about five years. I mark my workouts on a calendar with stickers and somehow that feels like a bigger incentive than you would think. I absolutely love looking at my kitchen calendar with only a few solitary days without stickers.

On Sunday I realized I am reminding myself what it feels like to be athletic. To have muscle definition and tone. To feel strong and capable. To have confidence in my body. For the first time in my entire life I ran more than two miles without stopping and without walking. It felt great! I felt like I was capable of improving and going further and going faster. And this morning I did. I ran 2.5 miles at my best pace yet. All along the way I had to keep checking in and reminding myself that I am capable of running this distance but I did it. I ran in the cool morning air along the river and felt a unity with the other runners and walkers and cyclist who were out in the chilly sunshine. I felt privileged to see the family of geese swimming near the shore just below the trail. My body felt invigorated and alive as I slowly worked myself through my stretching routine and I took note of my marked flexibility improvements. My knees did not hurt. My lungs did not burn. I realized today I can comfortably call myself a runner.

I have lost six pounds so far but the overall effect is so much more than that. My waist is about an inch smaller but looks so much less blah. My legs and arms feel muscular. I remember why I have always striven to be physically active. I do not necessarily love every minute of my workouts - especially not mat pilates class which always feels like a chore - but I love how my body feels when it is over. I also love the shift in my mindset. I love that despite only subtle changes, I now look in the mirror and see ability. I am more comfortable with myself and so I view my body through a less critical eye.

But I am not just working out, I am cooking. I am focusing on fresh produce, whole grains and home cooked meals. I am paying attention to my ingredients but not obsessing over them. I choose lower fat dairy products in general but I have not omitted butter or bread from my diet. I have not eliminated chocolate or sugar. I am just refocusing on real, natural ingredients that do not come from a bottle or can. And I am planning ahead. I bring snacks to work. I pack dinners for work. I make a week's worth of oatmeal on Sunday night in the crock pot. And it is working for me because I feel better.

And when I feel better, I view myself in a much more favorable light than when I do not feel good inside my body.

My starting goal was to run a 5k at the end of this spring training. And I am signed up for a run on June 11th. I had a secret hope to lose 10 pounds by June. I'm more than half-way there. My next secret goal was to lose the next 10 pounds by the end of August. But I am revising both of those goals. I know it is not about the weight. The weight is a concrete measurement that can signal success. But what I am really seeking is so much more subjective. I want to continue to rediscover a love for my own self. To remember that life is not about deprivation, starvation and guilty binging.

Ultimately, my goal is to not compare my outward appearance to those around me to measure my own worth. I am learning how to accept who I am and loving myself in each stage of the process, even as I strive to reach my full potential with constant improvement. I just have to remember, now that I have started, it is easier to just keep going than it is to stop and have to start from scratch all over again.


Sarah, a.k.a., the one with the accent! said...

A powerful post!

Artax said...

Congratulations on your improving relationship with self. This is an important message for all of us.

Tiffany said...

Great, great, GREAT post! Very inspiring!

RJHnrksn said...

Ahhh, I wish I had that courage and incentive! Maybe next week...I've heard you mention in a couple posts now about your crock-pot oatmeal and was wondering if you'd mind sharing the recipe. I love steel-cut oatmeal, and would love to have it ready in the morning!

Jen said...

Hey, I started a spring training regimen, too! Must be on the same wavelength, your story sounds a lot like mine. I bought a 30-day exercise DVD program and have followed it religiously, only resting on Sundays. I haven't totally deprived myself food-wise, but I'm trying to make smarter choices. I haven't lost much weight, but I've seen major changes in my muscle tone and definition. It feels so good...

the swope family said...

I feel like parts of this story are my exact story! I started running again on Monday and so far it is killing me but I know it will get easier as I continue to do it!

Congrats on changing your mindset, I think that is the hardest part!

michele said...

inspirational! i have a REALLY hard time not comparing myself to others, not just in physical appearance but in all aspects of life. i have been trying to focus on the things i am good at not at the millions of things i am horrible at, but it's hard. keep it up!

autumn said...

Thanks for sharing! I've been struggling with similar issues for awhile now and I too, cannot diet. I hate it more than anything. Excellent post. I really think it's more about being healthy so you can enjoy life than a number on a scale. I also hate the comparison thing. Drives me crazy.

Emily said...

I'm late to this post (see: two weeks' worth of traveling), but I'm SO glad you wrote it! What an inspiration!

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