& Yo-yo Dieting! ©2006
By Lauralyn Bellamy, MA, MDiv, cert. Dream Coach(r)
The first time I was put on a diet I was 4 years old. I can be that specific because I was in pre-school when I began sneaking food. I would helpfully offer to carry our lunch debris to the kitchenette and, when the teacher wasn’t there, I’d peel off the ¼ inch-thick slab of chocolate icing that sat lightly atop the Entenmanns’ chocolate cupcakes, fold it in half and greedily stuff it into my mouth where it would slowly melt down my throat with a minimum of telltale chewing.
I can be that specific because I remember that as I scampered off the Jungle Jim at my upper Westside Manhattan playground to join the rest of the kids racing toward the ice cream pushcart, I’d be reminded to order a popsicle, since it was made with water, not cream.
I can be that specific because I remember how I had to reach way up in the refrigerator to grasp the aerosol can of whip cream and sneak a squirt directly into my mouth when Mom was at the other end of the apartment diapering my kid sister.
By first grade I knew who I was: a fat kid on a diet. In high school I managed to fit into a size 13-14 by smoking cigarettes, drinking gallons of Tab & Fresca, counting calories like Scrooge counted lumps of coal and, while away at college, having one or two sympathetic psychiatrists who would thoughtfully prescribe the latest diet pills. My wedding day was two weeks after college graduation, 1969, and I walked down the aisle a relatively svelte 160 lbs. I worked in advertising, journalism and pr, so living off of cigarettes, Tab soda and the occasional press lunch was easy.
It took me 10 months to conceive; but each month I was convinced I was already pregnant and began eating for two. When our firstborn arrived in 1977, I was 235 lbs. I felt like a beached whale. By the time Zachary was a year old, using my own grapefruit-and-frozen vegetables diet, I’d gotten down to a size 12 and confidently re-entered the workforce in a great PR job.
Over 2 years later, we were living in the suburbs of Houston, I was a pregnant, stay-at-home mom, and Zachary spent 5 mornings a week at a Montessori school. I’d never lived in the suburbs before and the lack of daily walking as a means of transportation did me in. By the time Luke came into the world in early 1980, I was up to 210 lbs. Again, I applied the grapefruit-and-frozen veggies diet and got down to a size14-16.
When we moved to the Northern suburbs of Atlanta the next year, I reluctantly decided that I would have to join a gym to have any chance at holding myself down to a size 14. I signed up at “Spa Lady” because it was women-only, had a free nursery, and NO MIRRORS!.
I went from obese to morbidly obese while attending Emory University’s divinity school in the late 1980’s. By now, both boys were in elementary school. I spent endless hours sitting in class, the library, the car, at home. I grabbed vending machine junk food “for energy” as I raced home after classes to arrive right behind the school bus. Staying up late to do my homework led to more “eating for energy.” By the time I graduated with my Master of Divinity degree in 1989, I was back up to 235 lbs., only this time I wasn’t pregnant.
Many parishioners would seek me out for hugs: I was big and soft, an Earth Mother archetype in the flesh! I was also not threatening to the married folks as there was nothing sexy or attractive about me, despite my having “such a pretty face.” Being geographically restricted and with denominational blessing, I founded a new congregation in our town and food became a central part of community life for me. By 1996, I weighed in at my internist’s office at 298 lbs. I was depressed, exhausted and feeling “so close to burn out I can smell the smoke,” as I told him. He put me on Optifast™ and I dieted down to 226 lbs. by the following spring. That’s when an unforeseen conflict blew up in my face and I realized I didn’t have “the heart” to fight for my ministry, so I resigned.
And the weight came back. As a hospital chaplain, I lived on cafeteria food, vending machines and the 24-hour McDonald’s in the lobby. On-call through the night every couple of weeks, responding to Code Blue’s, making the rounds of ICU, CCU, Neonatal ICU and the ER, I returned to my energy boosters from the vending machines and the McDonald’s. Gaining weight was easy. My doctor’s frustrated response: “Maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, which would you rather die from – a heart attack or cancer? With morbid obesity you’re more likely to have a heart attack.” I changed doctors.
I’d seen TV talk shows featuring people so big that hospitals used fork lifts to haul them out of their house into special ambulances so they could have surgery that “stapled” their stomachs. They lost weight. I’d also met a 600-lb. woman at the hospital who’d had that surgery, but had since “busted her staples.” I assumed one had to be at least 400 lbs. to get that surgery.
By the spring of 2002, I’d begun hearing about laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery for the morbidly obese. Incredibly, at 280 lbs. I didn’t consider myself a member of that club. Then in June, during my 6-month check up to monitor medication for high cholesterol and triglycerides, my new internist expressed his concern over my “morbid obesity.” The label shocked me as if I’d stuck my finger in an electrical socket. His disgust was obvious: he’d put me on diet pills for five months but I wasn’t losing at his required rate of 2 lbs. per week, plus my feet and ankles were now swelling up so I was taking Lasik. “What about weight loss surgery?” I asked him. He dismissed that option out of hand as too risky; adding that he didn’t know any doctors to refer me to and wasn’t about to go research it.
A few weeks later, I saw a newspaper ad for an information meeting on laparoscopic weight loss surgery. I called the number listed, asked them to send me an information packet and began educating myself. I put off attending the monthly meeting until September, 2002. I even arrived about 10 min. late at Emory Dunwoody Medical Center’s meeting room. It was standing room only, and I had to shoehorn myself in. Dr. James K. Champion was talking about the facts of laparoscopic Roux-en-Y surgery. The next day, I made an appointment to have a preliminary consult with “Dr. C” 2 weeks later, so that my husband’s concerns might be addressed. They were and Jim became an unwavering supporter of my choice to have the surgery. United Healthcare approved me a week after getting the materials assembled by Dr. Champion’s staff. My surgery date was 3 months out; but, that was fine with me. The thought of facing Christmas as a new post-op was terrifying to me.
The decision to turn to WLS brought me face to face with my profound revulsion at having to live in a physical body; a revulsion so deep that I lived most of my waking life, “up in my head.” I was so oblivious to my body that the sight of me in a photo would catch me totally off guard. “Do I REALLY look like this?” I’d sometimes ask my husband or best friends. They’d just nod in the affirmative. I had absolutely no emotional connection with the huge woman in the photos, the woman whose smile was determined to hold your gaze above her neck.
I had my proximal lap-RNY at 11am on 2/13/03. At my 3-week check up, I was told that it was time to begin weightlifting, in addition to the daily walks for cardiovascular exercise. Providentially, LA Fitness had just opened a new center not 2 miles from my home. I not only became a member the next day, I signed a contract to have a personal trainer give me 3 weightlifting sessions per week for 6 months. So far, I’ve renewed that contract twice!
And this, Dear Reader, is where I began the adventure that led me out of the lifelong drama of dieting/gaining. It was the sessions with my personal trainer that, over time, helped me learn to pay attention to, really look at and, finally, consciously live in my body. Unlike the treadmill or exer-cycle cardio workouts I give myself 5-7 days a week, those weekly weightlifting sessions are done while observing my body in a mirror. I need to make sure my form is correct because I don’t want to injure myself.
I began the weightlifting wearing size 3x sweatpants and XX-LG T-shirts. I couldn’t grab my ankles or tuck them behind foot supports on some of the equipment. But I learned how to stretch, I learned to lift weights, and I got familiar with my body – how it looked and felt as I exercised. After 5 months of this regimen, I went for my 6-month exam and Dr. C and I happily noted my 77+ lb. weight loss. On my first anniversary check up, Dr. C handed me my golden “century” pin for losing 100 lbs. To his pleasant surprise, at my 2nd anniversary exam, I’d lost an additional 20 lbs. bringing me down to 155 lbs. And almost 2 ½ years out, I’m down to 145lbs. and wearing size 8 skirts, women’s “small” tops and regular size 10 Gap jeans.
So why didn’t I abort my weight loss regimen when I started looking “normal?”
Why didn’t I experience the usual anxiety when catching glimpses of my diminishing reflection in mirrors and store windows?
Why didn’t I get angry the first time a guy turned his head or made an appreciative comment when I passed by?
Why didn’t I start to crave the comfort foods of my pre-op life and “reward” myself with a personal size thin crust pizza?
Here are the keys I discovered to unlocking the secrets to overcoming self-sabotage and yo-yo dieting.
1. I began spending more and more of my waking life consciously living in my body. I’ve become a sensualist! I enjoy working up a good sweat as I exercise, feeling my muscles get stronger.
• I use the fitness room in motels when I travel because I like the way I feel when I’m exercising.
• I love feeling the heat of summer without gasping for air or dealing with prickly heat rashes.
• I look forward to shopping for new clothes after taking my larger clothes to the nearby community charities clothes closet.
• I buy clothes that really look and feel great on me. I can look at myself in the dressing room mirrors without fear or shame.
• I savor my foods as I slowly chew them until pureed before swallowing. But I also look at my food and smell it appreciatively before eating.
• Through classic behavioral conditioning, I’ve learned that when I eat the correct foods in the correct way I feel satisfied and energized; when I don’t, a trip to the bathroom relieves me of the contents of my pouch that felt stuck directly behind my sternum.
2. I never resumed “eating normally, only less of it.” That’s like getting out of a 3-month residential treatment program for drug abuse/alcoholism and going straight to the old neighborhood bars to hang out with your addict friends. Before surgery, I was a lifelong “carb addict:” rice, pasta (my Mom’s Sicilian American), wonderful breads, Danish, bagels, pizza, cookies, scones, canolli – mama mia! I could not imagine life without them.
• After surgery, I didn’t want to squander precious space in my little pouch on simple carbohydrates and sugar.
• Immediately after surgery, I lost my taste for those foods. By not reintroducing them into my food plan the cravings have not returned!
• I want you to understand I am not talking about clenched teeth, white knuckled willpower. I have no emotional yearning to “give in” and eat those foods Dining out, instead of having my meat or fish resting on a bed of rice, a bowl of pasta or a mountain of “smashed” potatoes, I’ll nest it on spinach or shredded lettuce or (gasp!) nothing, with fresh veggies on the side. From time to time I’ll try a few tablespoons of rice (say, in an Indian restaurant), or a few fork-twirls of pasta to satisfy my curiosity; but it doesn’t lead to a return of the cravings.
3. I became familiar with the world of normalcy; I came to accept myself as a person who fit into this normal world.
• I had my picture taken every week during the first 4-5 months, and every month from then on. I still do! I use disposable cameras and hand it to my husband, a friend or a co-worker and simply ask them to take my snapshot.
• I make sure to use up & print out a roll of film every month (nowadays, every other month) and really look at the photos of myself.
• I put them in a travel size album to carry around to encourage myself and other post-ops.
• The act of seeing me in a mirror has become so familiar it feels natural.
• As I watch my weight-lifting body change its shape, I find myself feeling awe and respect for my body.
4. I rejected the thought that people were not responding to the “real” me as I achieved a normal body image.
• Lugging around a heavy body, only people who could “see past” the superficial package to “the real me” had value to me. If you paid too much attention to the physical façade, I dismissed you.
• Now I value my body as being an inseparable part of “the real me.” I’m no longer “stuck with” the burden of having a body. I embrace the reality that I am spirit embodied, enfleshed, incarnate.
• The “real” me is a normal person, having a normal relationship with food: I eat when I’m hungry, I stop when I’m not and nutrition guides my choices. It’s similar to when I quit smoking during my first pregnancy. At first I thought of myself as an ex-smoker, but after a while, without giving it conscious thought, I heard myself identify as a non-smoker.
5. I realized that the sabotaging behaviors were misplaced efforts to comfort my fears and anxieties about an unimaginable future by rescuing me from it! I’d had a lifetime of being fat and dieting was all I knew. When my fear of becoming an attractive woman became intolerably dangerous, I’d calm myself down with food. Until I was willing to imagine a different future me, to “see” her emerging and welcome her rather than run from her, I was doomed to yo-yo. I had to choose to befriend that fearful part of myself and find other ways to comfort me.
6. I spend time trying new activities and thinking about new options for myself. I am resilient, curious and enthusiastic! At times I catch myself still thinking like a fat person with severe limitations. For example, when I read on the ObesityHelp.com Georgia message board that several of our peers had completed this July Fourth’s Peachtree Road Race, I realized it never occurred to me to even think about running. I associate running with injuring my knees and ankles. I saw that this was a remnant of my former self. I’ve decided to see what running feels like. I get to choose!
7. I stay connected to sources of support for my continued transformation and wellness. Social isolation, being a Lone Ranger, is a sure path back to obesity. I still go to WLS support groups, read the Obesity Help website daily, go to the gym 5-7x weekly, work out with a fitness trainer, check in with a psychotherapist and turn to personal life coaches as needed.
Ultimately, the key to overcoming self-sabotage is to make an absolute commitment to doing whatever it takes to not only save your life, but celebrate it! Once I entered into that agreement with myself and God, I became very resourceful and creative about making it work. I am becoming versatile at brainstorming and “thinking outside the box.” My life is an adventure and I get to be the hero! You can, too. Join me!