One Year Later: What I’ve Learned

Now that I am at a fairly comfortable weight (fairly, I say: I’d still like to be leaner and stronger), I wanted to put down some thoughts about what I’ve learned in this year-long effort to improve my health.

Of course, I say “improve my health” but it didn’t start out that way. It started because, like anyone else, I wanted to lose weight. I was tired of feeling fat and I was tired of struggling to breathe. So, on December 27, 2011, I got my butt to the gym and started exercising – three days a week the first two weeks, then up to four, then five, then seven. Before I knew it, the weight was falling off, I started running, and the rest is history.

Sort of.

What started out as a singular focus to be “thin again” turned into something else entirely, something much deeper. How could it not if it is meant to be long-lasting? That’s the hope, isn’t it? So here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. The cliche is true: find a physical activity you love so you can stick with it. When I first started exercising, I made frequent use of the elliptical machine. It was a great fat burning tool and served its purpose well. Then I started running and I realized how much I had simply been suffering through those machine workouts for the sake of burning calories. I loved running; I hated the elliptical. If that were all I had the option of doing now, I would find it extremely difficult to continue exercising every day. For me, the joy is in running. For others, it’s cycling or swimming or kickboxing or basketball or any combination thereof. Whatever works. I found something that I will do forever, no complaints. That’s what counts.
  2. I hit plenty of plateaus, physically and mentally. I was sometimes frustrated, apathetic and angry, all in one day. I had times I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. But I didn’t give up. The one idea that I held on to was that no matter what, I had to keep going. Sometimes I binged. Sometimes I binged for days. It didn’t matter as long as I kept going. Like a mantra: keep going keep going keep going. Never give up. Persevere and in the end, everything works out exactly as it should and all those bad days mean nothing.
  3. Know what else means nothing? The scale. I am so much happier without it. If I died tomorrow, no one would ever talk about how many pounds I weighed. They wouldn’t even know. I don’t even know. That 50 pounds I keep quoting is probably a very close estimate, but I really can’t tell you for sure because I haven’t weighed myself in almost 4 months. I couldn’t do it anymore. It made me feel low about myself the mornings after I overate. It made me feel like beating myself up for hours after I looked at it and it hadn’t changed from the week before. Or two weeks before. Even when I had lost pant sizes, if the scale hadn’t moved, I ripped myself apart for it. That stupid piece of metal did nothing but make me miserable. It’s ridiculous. So now I measure my accomplishments in smaller clothes (and even that can be a tricky business), or even better, in inches, body fat percentage and fitness level. I heard that advice so many times through the years, to measure differently, to get rid of the scale, and I took far too long to listen.
  4. There is no finish line. As David Wong at Cracked puts it: “People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result.“ And he wasn’t even talking about weight loss. But it’s true of self-improvement in any regard – physical, spiritual or mental: the good work never ends. It really is a lifelong shift in thinking and behavior. I will never reach some magic moment where I will be finished and accomplished and not have to think about my health ever again. Yet where I may have let that distress me before (i.e., “What’s the point then? It’s so hard and I’ll never be done!”) I now let it make me feel free. If there is no deadline, no end point, then I can just keep doing one right thing after another and know that all will be well and right and good as a result.
  5. My commitment to cooking all of our food has never felt so necessary. If I want to eat well – and by well I mean both healthy AND deliciously – for the rest of my life, I have no choice but to cook. I am lucky that I love it, I know that. If you don’t love it, I’m sorry. I still recommend figuring out how to do it anyway, at least five days per week. There’s no way around it.
  6. This one’s the biggie, the heart of the matter: food issues are not about food. I always knew that intellectually, but I didn’t really know it until now, a couple of years into sobriety. It is astonishing to me how eerily, frighteningly similar the mental and emotional processes are between binge drinking and binge eating when you lay them out – knowing I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing but feeling unable to stop myself, hiding my intake, latching on to the thought that I need it I need it I need it and going to whatever lengths I had to to get it, overindulging day after day, waking up full of shame and self-loathing, promising myself I would do better, only to repeat the cycle all over again that very night. Alcohol, food… unbelievably, I could be talking about either one. So, when I feel like shoveling food in by the handful, I am aware now more than ever that it is not about the food. What it’s about is being at peace with myself. Once the alcohol and cigarettes and food are stripped away, all I am left with is me. Just me. Fidgeting, awkward, ill at ease me, never feeling like enough, unable to be at peace. But that peace must be found.  Otherwise, the raging monster inside that cannot ever be calmed with chemicals and food will always return, roaring to life to wreak havoc on my mind and body. The alcoholic will relapse. The smoker will light up again. The overeating will resume and the weight will come back. I know I am not alone here and I don’t just mean you, my dear readers: my father died much too young because he never found his peace. He tried, bless him. He got sober before I was born, then spent the rest of his life flitting about from one spiritual path to another, trying to find his way, find himself. But in the end, he died of excessive amounts of cigarettes and food. I understand that now and I understand why. And I will not let the same thing happen to me. Most days I succeed and live in serenity and happiness. Other days feel like a battle. Some days I lose my footing entirely. But I never give up.

So that’s it. One year on. I am not done. I will never be done. This is just a rambling introspection and one year seemed like a good time for it. In another year, I hope I can say I have learned even more about my health and about myself.

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