When life becomes a numerical exercise

Today, I am stepping out of my comfort zone (historical posts with a little Anna spice) to share something rather personal. Oh, God: I can see some of you yawning at the thought—as you should, perhaps, seeing as my life is not exactly the stuff of which novels are made. Well, okay, I once balanced along the railing of a cruise ship in the midst of the Atlantic (and nearly gave my mother a heart attack) and there’s that other time where I snuck out of school to ride on the untamed horses grazing nearby. Did not end well. And yes, I have once fought very dirty with a man attempting to intimidate me, and there’s the time I ended up with half a sleeve in my hand when a would-be abuser turned and ran after I threatened to bite him. And I was once (mistakenly!) taken for a drug mule which ended up as one of the more embarrassing experiences I’ve ever endured. But other than that, mine is a pretty normal, humdrum life.

Mine has also been an overweight life. Somewhere in my mid-teens I turned to food to handle anxiety, anger, fear, joy, anticipation—you name it. At first, I was just “round”, then I became “very round” before becoming fat. Not that anyone ever called me that to my face, but some truths are such that you cannot shy away from them, even if I became an expert at never properly looking at myself whenever I passed a mirrored surface. For years, I gained weight, lost weight, gained weight. I did Weight Watchers—and succeeded. For a while.

My one saving grace throughout all these years was that I was always very physically active. Long, brisk walks. Body Pump. Spinning. And then, one day, my body had had enough.

In 2017, I began experiencing recurring flares of pain along my sciatic nerve—in both legs. Soon enough, the pain became crippling. I couldn’t walk. Sitting was excruciating. I could barely stand. The single most comfortable position was on my knees with my face to the floor, and let me tell you that is a very restricting position that has very little going for it unless you’re sharing an intimate moment with someone. I wasn’t.

I dragged myself to a doctor. For the first time ever, a medical professional looked me straight in the eyes and then went on to give me the scolding of my life while providing me with very graphic images of what my poor organs looked like, encapsulated in fat. Then he sent me on a scan which verified his suspicions: I had spinal stenosis and unless I had surgery, the pain would not go away. It would only grow worse, and my mobility would be permanently impaired.

Me, early 2017

I guess all of us have moments in life when we reach a watershed moment. This was mine—particularly as I was told that unless I lost 25 kilos, there’d be no surgery as the medical risks were too great. The back specialist gave me an encouraging look and squeezed my hand.
“You can do it,” he said. “Call us when you’ve lost 20 kilos.”

Err. I could do it? Ha! First thing I did when I got out of the doctor’s office was buy a huge Whole Nut chocolate. Halfway through chomping it down it struck me that this wasn’t helping. At all. I called my sister instead and cried. She made encouraging sounds—she is always my staunchest supporter—but ultimately no-one could help me with this. Loosing enough weight to have that surgery was something I had to do on my own.

A friend suggested a rather drastic dieting option. “Eight weeks of hell,” she said, “but the results are immediate.”
Hell? A good description, I concluded, as I read through the book promoting the diet. Did I have a choice? No. And so, the morning after splurging on that Whole Nut chocolate, I began a new life.

It is impressive what we can achieve when we have no choice. On crutches, I tottered out on long walks (the doctor assured me this was not dangerous as long as I could work through the pain). In between, I lived off vegetables and low-fat proteins. No bread. No rice. No pasta. No potatoes. No chocolate except for once a week when a square of dark chocolate was recommended. Nothing passed my lips without being weighed. Every single calorie was counted. And it worked.

In February of 2018, I underwent surgery having lost close to 27 kilos. By now, I was somewhat obsessed with this new life of mine. I weighed. I counted. I walked. I walked some more, and by the end of 2018 I had lost 50 kilos. That’s 110 pounds.

Me, in 2019

I had a new wardrobe. I walked with a new spring to my step. And I still avoided every single glimpse of myself in a mirror. When I entered a shop, I automatically made for the XL section. I was shocked when the clerk held up a shirt in size S and suggested I try it on. Even more so when it fit. I was a new me, but I wasn’t a new me, because the insecurities I’ve always struggled with were still there.  Now and then, I patted myself on the back and whispered a “well done, you” to myself. Far more often, I struggled with self-doubt and the fear that this time too, I would ultimately fail in my weight loss endeavours.

So I went even more control freak than usual. I counted. And counted. I weighed and planned my food, I walked and walked and walked and walked.

And then, this last spring, my control slipped. It was in March or so and we had a pandemic growing into ginormous proportions and suddenly I just couldn’t be bothered. Not that I started stuffing my face with cake all the time, but there was cake. And chocolate. Every day. I ignored the scale, promising myself I’d weigh myself next week instead. But I still walked. And walked. Walked some more. I averaged 25 000 steps a day and reasonably—or so I told myself—with so much exercise I not only deserved a nice slice of chocolate cake, I had already burned it off. Except I didn’t, and so, come summer, I had gained too many kilos to be entirely comfortable.

People, I had failed. Well, that’s what I told myself, because I am so much better at wielding the whip at self than carrot.
“Useless person,” I muttered, “how could you fail yourself this way?”
Obviously, penance was in order. June and July were months spent severely restricting everything I ate while keeping up a tough exercise routine. Results? Not much. Yes, I lost a couple of kilos, but the reward versus effort coefficient was very low. Scared me silly, it did. Plus, I was SO tired. I just…*sigh*

Today, I am still tired. I am still scared. My body, I believe, is exhausted after years of efforts. Not only has it carried me through years and years of overweight, of pregnancies and childbirths, but since three years back it has stood by me as I starved it (relatively speaking) and demanded more. And more. I count steps. I count calories. I have become an expert at assessing the weight of everything from a chicken fillet to a grape. I measure my waist. I stand on a scale and record my weight. I have, I fear, lost sight of life in all these numbers.

At the same time, I am not willing to give up control. I refuse to once again add kilo after kilo to my body. It deserves my efforts, it deserves my TLC. So, as of now, I am embracing me as I am today. My numerical efforts going forward will be focussed on maintaining this status quo, on finding a balanced approach to food and exercise. Somehow, I suspect this will be a much, much bigger challenge than the original weight loss. Gulp. Double gulp.

My mother once said to me that she found it so strange that I, who did everything I set out to do, failed so dismally at the one challenge that was essential for my health: losing weight. Had she lived, she’d have been proud of me for what I have achieved. I also think that she would have grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it while reminding me that life is for living, not for counting it to death.

Will I find a happy balance between my need for control, my fear of failing and living life to the full? I sure hope so! Will I tell you if I don’t? Probably not—but should I emerge from all this wiser, I will likely be back to share!

9 thoughts on “When life becomes a numerical exercise”

  1. This is a very beautiful post, and I’m glad you’re finding a balance in your life. At the same time, I’d say you should be allowed to expect a bit more support from your doctors than a scolding, a “you can do it” and a “just walk through the pain”. I’m sad for the past you who had to endure that.

  2. Such a hard thing you’ve done and are doing. When I’m full, and over-full, at night I tell myself “tomorrow I will fast!” and, a little later, “…or, only eat really healthy, salad and maybe chicken breast.” The next morning I’m back to my same routine. I’m fortunate that though I way more than I would like, ever since losing my pregnancy weight 26 years ago I haven’t gotten too large, but each year I establish a new, slightly higher, baseline as at 60 my metabolism continues to slow. I worked with a nutritionist last April for a few weeks who was wise and wonderful and said she won’t help any client wanting to lose weight on their diet until she helps them uncover the underlying emotional issue behind their desire to lose weight and behind what’s caused them to overeat or eat high calorie foods. She started that mandate after helping people lose lots of weight only to see them a few years later gain it all back because the emotional issue underlying the weight issue hadn’t been addressed. It’s hard but I guess it’s one more way our bodies try to send us messages as to what patterns we need to change, what growth is required to be our best selves.

  3. A really good read. I also am chubby and have to diet and exercise. My friend Claudiu tells me it’s a lifestyle choice. You choose to incorporate it into your routine. Don’t give up.

  4. Anna, I watched your weight loss journey from afar with considerable interest, as I have struggled with the same problem all my life. You were lovely before your weight loss, lovely in a different way afterwards, and now I hope your main focus will be on your health. Like you, I’ve settled in to a weight that’s a bit higher than I would like, but much lower than it has been for most of my adult life, and to my great pleasure, my weight now seems stable. I hope the same will be true for you. Take good care of yourself – your friends and readers want you to be well!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story so similar to mine though I never loved exercise as you did. I don’t know what makes us give up and regain all the weight. Losing weight certainly gets more difficult as you age. Here’s to success and good health to both of us but maybe we shouldn’t drink to that! PS Enjoy your history posts.

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