How I Did It (The First Time)

Here’s how it all happened.  The first time.  I offer the story in detail, because merely saying “I lost 90 pounds and changed my life” doesn’t offer any context or insight – what’s the point?

I was always on the big side.  I ran the gamut of nicknames and euphemisms.  Chunky, puffy, fleshy, husky, hefty, zaftig, curvy.  Pudgy, overweight, fatass, cow, house, Moby Dick.  Pleasingly plump.  Fluffy.  She has such a pretty face.  She has such an amazing personality.  If only she’d … if she wasn’t so … it’s a shame she can’t …

It’s extremely important to emphasize that I was, and am, a happy person.  When you look at “before” pictures of me, you’ll see a big smile, lots of laughter.  You’ll see many different kinds of friends and adventures.  I did not hide in a corner.  While I was ashamed of how I looked (from the neck down), I didn’t let that shame keep me from leading a full life.  I think there’s an impression that fat people are lonely, weak, and foolish.  Sure we are, sometimes.  Just like everyone else in the world, sometimes.  But other times, we’re vibrant, exciting, ambitious, and beautiful.

Why did, and does, this intelligent person struggle with the simple notion of healthy living: eat as much as you need of foods that are good for you, and be active?

It’s simple.  But it’s not easy.  I spend a lot of time unraveling the difference.

Why am I a Big Girl?  I place that question in the present tense for two reasons: one, I’m heavy at the moment in post-baby-land, which is a region in the United States of Backsliding.  Two, even when I am skinny, there’s still a Big Girl inside.  Sometimes I see her in the mirror even still.  You know how they say inside every fat person is a skinny person trying to get out?  Inside every former-fatty skinny person lurks that fatty.  If you’re going to be healthy and heal in a lasting way, you have to make peace with that fatty.  Because she’s still you, you’re still her, and there are things about her that made you who you are today.  Acknowledge her, thank her for her lessons, and move on with kindness.

Society, my parents, my friends, a metabolic disorder … none of these is to “blame” for my weight struggles.  My parents never pressured me or made me feel bad for being heavy.  They worried, and they wanted to help me, but they didn’t make me fat.  They didn’t make me hate myself for being fat, and they didn’t enable my fatness.  My mom is very health-conscious, and she cooked good food.  I just ate too much of it.  And because there weren’t any Little Debbies and Nutter Butters in the house, I would trade my friends for them, or buy them from my friends, or give my friends money and get them to buy junk for me at the convenience store.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

I knew what to eat.  I’m a good cook.  I just ate too much.  I didn’t have a shut-off button, or if I did, I plowed right through it.  Somehow, in my mind, “fun” and being “fun” were connected to food (and as I got older, booze).  I ate to celebrate, I ate to mourn.  I ate because I was bored, because I was lonely, because it was time to eat, because it was almost time to eat, because other people were eating, because the food was there.  I ate and ate and ate.  I ate to kill pain, out of habit, and because it’s just wonderful to eat.  Food was/is inextricably entwined with Who I Am.

I wasn’t sedentary, but I wasn’t particularly active, either.  Growing up, I gravitated toward the performing arts.  One has to have a lot of stamina to survive in that arena.  I danced and sang, stage combat-ed, slogged through marathon rehearsals and interminable runs of shows.  I was generally healthy.  Diagnosed as an asthmatic in my early teens, there were a few things that I couldn’t do, or at least that I thought I couldn’t do, or that I told myself I couldn’t do.  I wasn’t athletically gifted: I was book-learnin’ gifted.  So I spent my time on the stage and with the books, and that was just fine.

Fast-forward to my late twenties, when I was living a happy life writing and acting.  I had a great career and a great social life.  But I wouldn’t call it a healthy life.  A typical Friday night would consist of an improv show ending at around midnight, with a trip to the bar afterward for my favorite post-show snack: a quarter-pound hot dog (Kosher, all-beef.  You know, the healthy choice) smothered in Brunswick stew, a plate of steak fries, and five Budweisers.  Then home to sleep and start it all again the next day.

I belonged to a gym, and I went frequently.  I lifted weights and walked on the treadmill or did the elliptical trainer.  I didn’t lose weight, and I guess I didn’t care, because I didn’t adjust my nutritional intake.

I was in a bit of a rut in this great career, but things were trucking along fairly well.  Then my grandparents became ill and died.  Their decline and departure is not an excuse for how out-of-control I was, and how bad things got, and how I ballooned to at least 225 pounds; rather, it’s an example of how things can pile up and pile up, and before you know it, your own life has slipped through your fingers and you’re just doing your best to sleepwalk through your day.  And you don’t even realize what’s happening, or what happened.  Or what should happen.

Then something did happen – I shook everything up.  I chucked the status quo, amusing and pleasant as it was, and I up and moved to Mississippi to go to graduate school.  And there’s where it started.  I wish I could say I knew what I was doing, that I knew I had to save my own life.  I wasn’t nearly that smart.  The little voice telling me to “get out and do something” was just really loud, I guess.

When everything changed, then, well … everything changed.  My environment, my routine, my purpose, my goals, everything.  The first key, therefore, was getting away from all the old triggers for my bad habits.  Bear in mind that I’m sharing these tidbits from the perch of retrospect.  At the time, I had no idea what I was doing!

I was more challenged that I’d been in a long time.  I was focused and happy, and I was enjoyed the newness of it all.  We didn’t have the best eating (and drinking) habits, but I was walking more and working more, and I had less time to gorge myself.  The weight started dropping without my even trying.  Not much, and not fast, but enough to get my attention.

I also fell in with a very active crowd.  My roommates were runners and cyclists – and amateur gourmands and party beasts.  We went to the gym on campus together sometimes.  One of my best friends in graduate school was also a runner, and I went to Yoga classes with her.  Here’s when peer pressure is a good thing.

The real catalyst, though … the thing that showed me what I really wanted … came from ESPN.

The network ran a reality/competition show to be the next Sportcenter anchor.  I thought, that’s me.  I love sports.  I’m a media slut from way back.  It’s me.  Auditions were scheduled for my hometown of Atlanta.  I decided to sneak into town and give it a try.  I also had a fleeting thought – the fleeting thought that ended up changing my life:

“You know what?  I’ll feel better if I drop a few pounds before the audition.”

The wording is very important.  I did not think, “you’re such a chubby wad, nobody would ever put you on TV.  They’ll laugh at you.  You’ll never make it.”  Et cetera.  All I thought about was how I would feel in my skin, and how much more confident and comfortable I would be if my pants weren’t so damn tight.

I had no idea that my lifestyle would change so radically.  If I’d set out to reinvent myself, I might have had fewer pitfalls and made fewer mistakes along the way – which is why I preach so hard that when you start this journey, you’d better know where you are today, where you want to be tomorrow, and why you want these things.

So I did what anyone who wants to lose weight fast would do: I went on a fad diet, a high protein, low-carbohydrate marketing juggernaut that rhymes with “Fatkins.”  Like everyone who does one of these diets, I lost quite a bit of weight, rather quickly.  My pants were much more loose and comfortable for the audition.  [I didn’t get on the show.  The producers liked my energy, but I didn’t do very well on the sports knowledge quiz, which covered everything from football (a strength of mine) to boxing (eeewww), to horse racing (uh … Secretariat?), to the Olympics.  I did, however, know that Jackie Robinson’s number was 42.  Nyah.]

I decided that I liked how it felt to lose weight.  I liked being careful about what I ate, and I liked seeing results.  While I would never recommend a drastic diet like the one I tried for life, I will say that the experience taught me how to say “no.”  Now, saying “no” to an entire food category is not a good idea in the long term.  But if you’re like me, an omnivore with no shut-off valve, forbidding a few things at the start can be a good start.  Just know this: your body needs carbohydrates to live.

I learned this lesson after a couple of months on the Program, when I noticed I was getting light-headed in Yoga class.  Hm, perhaps I should eat some cereal or something, I thought.

Then I transitioned to the eating approach that still works for me: strict portion control and Rain-Man-like calorie counting using a computer program and lots of Googling.  I also discovered a true love for physical activity.  The on-campus gym, while free, wasn’t the right place for me.  Too many Skinny Girls.  Instead, I found a small gym that was in walking distance from my house.  There was a diverse clientele: professors, stay-at-home-moms, a World War II veteran, firemen, and more.  They were not like me at all, but they were just like me.  They encouraged me and they made the health club experience fun and social.  If I missed a couple of days because I was slaving over a paper or a project, someone would be at my door – literally – reminding me that no matter what, I could take 30 minutes to move around.  It was important for my brain and my body.

I fell in love with Pilates and, with lots of prodding, became a certified instructor.  I started gingerly running on the treadmill and, with lots of prodding, took on my first 10K in April of 2005.  The new obsession had fully taken hold.  That December, I ran the St. Jude Half-Marathon in Memphis.  I ended up on the cover of a magazine about weight-loss success stories.  The next December, I ran the full St. Jude Marathon and could hardly see the finish line through my tears.

At my heaviest, I didn’t stand on the scale, so I don’t really know how bad it was; however, folks who know what they’re talking about have looked at my “before” photos and pegged me at 225, at the least.  So in about three years, I lost at least 90 pounds and found a new life.

There are a few reasons that my story is a success story: I started from a positive place.  I learned what it felt like to have control.  The approach that I eventually settled on, after much experimenting, fit into my lifestyle.  Ultimately, I committed to a life that’s not always easy to live, but a life that’s full, rich, and worth all the effort.  That’s why I’m here.

Now it’s your turn.

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