Coming Out Of The (Fat) Closet
I worried that my brain was in trouble. But I kept telling myself I was being silly. It’s a thing I do…I imagine the worst. Every lump or bump is cancer, every ache or pain is scleroderma, mesothelioma, an impending aneurysm. I kept telling myself it was just stress, anxiety, the busy pace of my life. Maybe it was just an inner ear thing. Maybe it was my migraine medication. Maybe they would just go away.
But they didn’t go away. And I soon became frightened enough that I visited my family doctor hoping to get some answers. She suspected an inner ear disorder that causes vertigo called Meniere’s, but due to my long history of severe and debilitating migraines, ordered an MRI just to be safe.
I received a call at 7:00 on a Friday evening. My heart sank when I realized that it was my doctor herself calling; not the nurse, not the receptionist. That’s never good news. She told me gently that my brain showed three distinct areas of damage, which were evidence of stroke. The most severely damaged area of my brain was on my cerebellum, which controls fine motor functions and regulates balance and equilibrium. The dizziness and clumsiness I had been experiencing was explained at last. Also, the right side of my brain showed large areas of “diffuse speckling”, which were areas of damage consistent with a long history of migraine.
As I said, I was terrified. But I was puzzled too. How on earth can a person experience something as devastating as a stroke, much less three, without realizing what was happening to them? My doctor told me that certain types of strokes have symptoms that are very similar to migraine symptoms. She asked if I had recently experienced an unusually severe migraine. I had. I had lain in bed for four days, gobbling pain pills and praying for an end to the pain. If you know anything about me you know things have to be very dire for me to offer up a prayer. The doctor suspected that I had actually experienced that series of strokes, but wrote them off as migraine symptoms, never realizing that my life could have been in danger.
A follow up appointment the next day revealed that my blood pressure was 130/120, although honestly, I think that reading was affected by the fact that I was absolutely terrified. She explained that the strokes I had suffered were warning signs, and that the risk of suffering another more debilitating or possibly even fatal stroke within the next 12 months was about 30%. She put me on beta blockers to lower my blood pressure, blood thinners to prevent the formation of a clot or narrowing of my arteries that might precipitate another stroke, and an anti-anxiety medication to help me cope with the stress and the fear I was experiencing over the obviously serious state of my health.
I didn’t want to die. I had spent the last fifteen years focused entirely on raising my boys. I hadn’t yet written that novel, or travelled the world, or learned to play the piano. I hadn’t seen my boys graduate or get married or become parents themselves. You hear a lot of people say it, and it always sounds a little trite, but it really is what goes through your mind at such a moment; “I still have so much to do!” And of course, being a writer, my brain is the tool of my trade, as well as the essence of my identity. If I lost my leg in a car accident, I could and would adapt just fine. But without a healthy brain, I wouldn’t know who or what to be.
Clearly, something had to change.
About that time, we attended my husband’s 25th high school reunion, where a professional photographer took each couple’s picture. I remember picking out my outfit for the evening and doing my hair and make-up. I felt pretty and confident, but when we got the photos back three weeks later, I was appalled. I did not see the pretty, confident woman that I felt myself to be. I saw a fat, unhealthy woman whose face was that of a stranger. I’m not a woman who is given to fits of pointless hysteria, but I cried looking at that picture.
The next week I joined Weight Watchers. My first weigh in was on October 1st 2009. My parents had been doing the program since April and both of them had experienced very good results. I was encouraged and decided that if they could do it, I certainly could. But when I saw the number that registered on the scale and realized the full scope of the challenge ahead of me, I thought it was impossible. I would never succeed. Eighty four pounds seemed like a huge amount of weight to lose. But I realized that I really had very little choice. I had to succeed. My life quite literally depended on it.
The same week that I started Weight Watchers, I began walking every day at a local park. There was a nicely paved path that was exactly one mile around with an inner track that was a half a mile. I thought it would be a cinch. I guess it still hadn’t really sunk in just how far I had allowed my physical condition to deteriorate. I made it around one and a half times, but just barely. My back hurt, my shins hurt, my knees hurt and my feet ached terribly. I was red faced and sweating profusely.
I did not enjoy that first foray into physical fitness. But I walked every day until the weather got too cold. I was doing four miles at a really brisk pace by that time, and feeling pretty good about that. I had actually begun to enjoy my walks. There was something very Zen about putting on my iPod, cranking up the tunes, and just boogying around that track as fast as I could. I realized that the sunshine and fresh air really elevated my mood and I began to find that on the days I couldn’t or didn’t walk, I was grumpy and out of sorts.
During the winter, I did Walk Away The Pounds in my living room, gradually increasing the number of miles and upping the intensity by using a stretchy band and then free weights as I did the moves. When I mastered that, I graduated to step aerobics and even some introductory level kickboxing. By the time spring came, I was really curious to see how many miles I could do at the park. I was ridiculously excited when I found I could complete five with no problems. Soon I began running small portions of each mile, beginning with .10 and working up gradually to half a mile. But I didn’t really enjoy running at all. It was simply a mechanism to burn calories.
When I reached -50 lbs in April, I found that my losses slowed dramatically. I really had to fight for every pound. And some weeks, no matter how disciplined I had been with food and exercise, the scale just wouldn’t budge. I began to get discouraged and wondered if my body was just not meant to be any smaller. I had already lowered my blood pressure enough that I was able to stop taking medication. I had gone down 5 clothing sizes. I was physically active and feeling strong and fit. My body looked completely different and sometimes people who hadn’t seen me for a while would walk right past without recognizing me. Clearly, I had made a lot of progress. Had I done all I could? Maybe. But I am a goal oriented person, and that 84 lb mark taunted me. I decided that there had to be a way to get my momentum back. But how?
My Weight Watchers leader, who has been an absolutely amazing source of support, information, and encouragement during my journey, suggested that I try something entirely new; new foods, new routine, new exercise. She suggested that I try Zumba. She told me that her sister-in-law owned a Zumba studio that did not require lengthy and expensive membership contracts. A person could pay $8 to drop in and try it. Though that idea really appealed to me, I procrastinated. I thought I would look and feel silly out there shaking my forty year old butt. But eventually, desperation drove me to give it a try.
I attended my first class on a Saturday. I was completely unaware that I had chosen one of the most challenging instructors! But I was immediately charmed by Gisela’s energy, enthusiasm and engaging personality. Because of residual balance and fine motor impairment, I felt less than graceful. But I stumbled through the moves as best I could. Some I mastered pretty quickly, others just seemed hopelessly complicated. It wasn’t long before I realized that nobody was paying any attention to how poorly I was executing those moves, because they were all too focused on getting their own moves right. That really helped me relax and I found, to my astonishment, that I absolutely LOVED it. I had forgotten how much I loved to dance. And to me, it wasn’t exercise, it was just dancing.
But make no mistake…my body was working and working hard. It was by far the most challenging work out I had experienced up to that point. But I never found myself counting the minutes, or gritting my teeth to just make it through. The hour flew by and I was genuinely sorry when it was over. I had to do it again. And again. And again. And so I did. But not just because it made my body feel great. It was also because the owner Shana and the entire staff at FitU were so incredibly welcoming and genuine. They did and do make me feel like part of a great big family. That’s not a feeling you can get at a fancy gym with 4,000 members.
After doing Zumba, for one week, (4 times) I lost four pounds. I was ECSTATIC! I hadn’t had a loss that big in months! But the real shocker was that I had lost a half an inch off my waist and hips and ¾ inch off my thighs. WOW. Needless to say, I was sold. I had found a way to lose weight, sculpt my body and feel terrific that was also amazingly fun. You really can’t ask more than that from a fitness program.
A year after beginning my journey, I have not reached my goal. But I’m oh so close. And I know that it is within my reach. I have lost 9 inches off my waist, 8 inches off my hips, 4 inches off my arms and 6 inches off my thighs. I look and feel like a different person. I don’t really know that woman in my before picture. Who was she and why did she let herself get so desperately unhealthy? Examining that has been life changing as well. Shedding the pounds has made me physically fit, but it has also made me take a long, hard look at what I want for myself, and given me the drive and determination to go out and get it. Because I figure…if I can transform my body, I can transform my life as well.
I still experience occasional bouts of aphasia (language deficit) and I will never make my living as a tightrope walker, but I have several exciting possibilities in my life now, one of which is pursuing certification as a Zumba instructor myself. Because of my medical history, I absolutely have to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. What better way to achieve that than by making it a career? Once, I would have laughed at such an idea. Me?? A fitness instructor?? Impossible.
And today…((deep breath))… I have an interview with Weight Watchers. Sometimes, when I really sit and think about that, I am stunned. Once I would have scoffed at such a notion. Me? Teach? Lead? Inspire? Ridiculous.
But now, I believe I can do it. And love it. And love my life because of it. But most of all, I believe I can help people like me achieve all the wonderful things that life has to offer them. I want everyone to know that change is within them. The first step is really and truly the hardest. I am profoundly grateful for those who have walked beside me on my journey. So if I can encourage someone else to pick their foot up off the ground that first time and put it forward, I will consider myself fortunate and fulfilled beyond all reason. You all have heard me say it before…"Life is too short to hate what you do." If you're going to do something day in and day out for the rest of your life, you should love it. And this….this I can love.