I was in sixth grade when I became acutely aware that I was the fat girl. I was listening to a cafeteria conversation amongst my classmates about weight. The number on the scale, they said, offered a guide for how they would eat that day. Maybe even the next.
"Why would they worry about such things?" I thought to myself. "I don't think about those things."
I looked down, my eyes catching the way the denim of my black jeans was strained by my thighs. Those jeans, with ankle zips and bow detail, were a size 14 in the girls department, the largest size they had.
A couple years later, my freshman year in high school, I was still wearing a size 14. It just came from the misses department. It made me feel embarrassed and unworthy of boys attention. I just wanted to be like my friends who could roll their uniform skirts to show off sinewy limbs. And so I vowed to do crunches and walk with a friend. I also made my way to the drug store and bought Dexatrim.
Several days later, I flushed the Dexatrim down the toilet. I was scared. It made me feel scared.
I spent the remainder of high school in a blur of misery – self-inflicted and as a result of family trouble. I never tried to lose weight again. Instead. Instead I ate. There was the after-school stop, with friends, to the bagel shop where two bagels constituted a snack. Bagels are healthy, after all. Right? Right. I found espresso and began the trend of ordering sugar- and fat-laden beverages on the weekend night spent at the hip coffee shop.
Come graduation, I couldn’t find a white dress to wear underneath my robes. The other girls from school wore dresses from the Victoria’s Secret catalog and Dillards. I ended up wearing a khaki skirt that belonged to my grandma and a white T-shirt from Old Navy.
Going off to college, though, afforded me the opportunity to be someone different. Someone new. I became a vegetarian, albeit briefly, and began going to the student rec center. I participated in intramural volleyball and water polo. By the time I went home for Christmas break, I was down a size. I might have even squeezed into some size 14 pants from Old Navy.
The time home, though, made it possible for me to revert to the habits that had helped me gain weight. The weeks with friends were spent at our favorite coffee shop and the pizza place. I couldn’t exercise without the student rec center, could I? (We know the real answer to this and it isn’t don’t exercise.)
I returned to school my old self, even if the weight took a while to creep back. But it did creep back – and then some. Or a lot some. Over my sophomore and junior years, I got bigger and bigger. I drank Mountain Dew as if it was water and stuffed breadsticks, dipped in ranch, became a mainstay in my diet.
The summer after my junior year, at age 21, I went home to Cincinnati to spend the summer working at a country club. My weight was never a “problem” until that summer. Working as a buser at the club, I had to maneuver around tables and a tight kitchen. I found myself having to squeeze between chairs when others didn’t have to. It made work very difficult – and very embarrassing.
I couldn’t do it. Not anymore. So I stepped on the scale and promised myself that the number, whatever it was, would go down by the time I went back to school. It was 235.
I made sweeping changes to my diet. No more Mountain Dew. No more late-night runs to Skyline Chili. Breakfast was cold cereal with skim milk, and lunch was often cottage cheese with tomatoes and corn. My grandma made well-rounded dinners such as ham steak with vegetables. I might have even had a slice of rye bread on the side. My daily intake, obviously strict and depriving, came in about 1,200 to 1,500 a day.
I might have been miserable but the weight came off. Quickly, too. I went back to school just under 200 pounds.
It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to maintain a weight-loss with that kind of eating but I did pick up one healthy habit that summer: regular walking and yoga. It was a practice I was able to continue with for the first semester of my senior year.
Come second semester, though, things got different. My living situation was not ideal, and I found myself going out to eat with a friend just to avoid my apartment. I was also interning an hour away at a newspaper where dinner breaks were unheard of. Dinner? You ordered Chinese or went to fast-food alley and came back to work immediately.
The weight started to come back.
It wasn’t until graduation, and the year that followed, when I experienced my most significant weight gain. I was hired at that newspaper after graduation, moving to a new city where I knew virtually no one. I didn’t want to be home alone so I went out to eat – by myself. Steak and Shake and Ruby Tuesdays were my favorites. At Steak and Shake, it was a double cheeseburger with steak fries, chili and a shake. I got the salad bar and a heavy pasta dish at Ruby Tuesdays. Both meals probably coming in at more than 2,000 calories.
Of course, my lunches didn’t help, either. I was working at a restaurant, in addition to the newspaper, to help pay off debt. I often had to go straight from the restaurant to the paper with just enough time for a shower. Thank goodness, McDonald’s and its drive-through was on the way home.
I knew what I was doing was unhealthy but I couldn’t figure out what else to do. On a summer afternoon, walking with my aunt (she was visiting), she asked me what happened. She asked me how I had gained back the weight. I searched for excuses but couldn’t find any.
The truth: I was doing bad things because I was unhappy. Unhappy in my job, unhappy with my long-term, long-distance relationship. Things would have to change for me to be happy and maybe, one day, be healthy.
That change came just more than a year after graduation when I landed a job in Fort Wayne. (The guy and I broke up a few months prior.) Yes, I was moving to a new city where I knew virtually no one. Yes, I would be lonely. But I could do things differently. Within a month, I had joined the YWCA and began working out. Come New Year, 2005, I was ready to again make sweeping changes.
I stepped on the scale that January. It read 245. Who knows what it would have said in September when I joined the Y.
I cut calories, kept working out. By summer’s end, I was down 50 pounds. A few months more, and I was down 70.
I felt fantastic. I had a sense of pride in my new body. I no longer had to shop at Lane Bryant. I had energy and I could even run a mile. I was also getting some attention from boys. One boy in particular – Mark, whom you all know as my husband.
Mark was not the kind of guy I thought would be interested in me. He was thin, fit and active. Cute, too. I began to feel that I wasn’t skinny enough for him, and the more pressure I put on myself to be thinner, the more I tacked on weight. At least twice between when we met and August 2009, I gained and lost 20 pounds. I never managed to go back over 200 but I never managed to get below 172.
I hit 172 right before our wedding in December 2008 but shortly after, life took an unexpected turn. In March 2009, my mom died.
At age 50 and 600 pounds, Mom was diabetic and her kidneys functioned at less than 50 percent, preventing her body from properly processing fluid. On a Monday that March, that fluid filled her lungs. She stopped breathing. Her heart ceased to beat. Paramedics were able to revive her but doctors kept her in a medical-induced coma until the fluid could be removed. For a week, we held out hope that things would turn around. It was discovered, though, that she suffered extensive brain damage due to oxygen deprivation. Eleven days after the first incident, we withdrew care. Fifteen hours later, she died.
Those days in the hospital showed just how my habits had changed. Food was comfort. Coffee with cream kept me awake. A beer at night put me to sleep. The days after her death showed me just how much I needed to change.
It just took me four months to figure it out.
In August 2009, after witnessing a friend’s success with the program, I joined Weight Watchers. A pay to lose program may not be for everyone but I was floundering and desperately seeking the structure WW provided. It is also a program that does not encourage deprivation. I knew what I needed to eat but I also knew that I could eat ice cream. I would never have to quit the diet because I wasn’t on one.
The program also encourages exercise and so I made an effort to go out and move. At first, it was just walking. I would walk a couple miles a day with our new puppy (Denali), making an effort to do more that week than I had the week before.
Slowly but surely the pounds came off. I began to feel good again. I began to have more confidence. I even – gasp – found a desire to run. I started with the Couch to 5K program, which I finished in November. I really wanted to do a Thanksgiving Day 5K but the only race in town was a 4-miler. No way. I couldn’t run 4 miles. A co-worker told me that if I could run 3 miles, I could run 4.
I didn’t sign up for that race but I did run 4 miles on Thanksgiving Day. It was my long run and the start of base-building for the half-marathon Mark had tricked me into signing up for.
Over the course of the next six months (December to May), I continued with Weight Watchers and began to follow and expanded half-marathon training program. I also lost 50 pounds, putting my net loss at 100 pounds. By my year anniversary with WW, I was down 70 pounds for a total of 120 and had finished a second half-marathon.
I don’t know if it was the Momentum Plan or the running or the training but things clicked. I found a discipline … a drive … a desire that I had never been able to find. Things weren’t always easy and there were times I wanted to say, “Eff it! I want a giant milkshake,” but I never did. I just made myself a banana milkshake, at home, with a frozen banana, low-fat ice cream and almond milk.
I was able to make that substitution, partially at least, because I began to look at food differently. By reading healthy living blogs, I saw that food isn’t always about filling a want but by filling a need. The need, though, could be filled in an unexpected yet delicious way. Greek yogurt, quinoa, turnips, vegetarian meat substitutes all began to make their way into my diet. I began finding foods that fit into my WW “Points” requirements but tasted good and left me feeling satisfied.
Of course, I am still learning. I think I will always be learning. I hope to share that journey with you, along with a few tips, a few tricks. Maybe even a few laughs.