Monday, August 31, 2015

What if?

Sorry for the prolonged absence and lack of new writing here - I've been so busy beating myself up for not being perfect that I just haven't had the time to sit down and write.

I wish I were kidding about that; I'm not.

Fourteen months ago, I weighed 18 pounds less than I do and had 7% lower body fat. For the second half of 2014, I pretty easily maintained my weight within 10 pounds of my lowest point and my body fat was about 3% higher. All the while, I beat myself up for having gained that weight and fat, constantly sniping in my head about how weak I was and how I just needed to get it together.

Then, in a few weeks - literally, less than a month - earlier this year, I had some serious binge eating episodes, the likes of which I hadn't seen since I'd started eating carefully and exercising daily, and I put on another 15 pounds on top of the 10 I'd already gained; suddenly, I was 25 pounds heavier. The trigger for this self-destructive behavior was my contracting stomach flu just four days before the Tinkerbell Half Marathon, a race I'd been training for since before Christmas: all of my hard work had been for nothing and the gorgeous finisher medal I'd been dreaming of on every single one of my mostly miserable training runs evaporated into thin air.

The anger and frustration I felt after that loss of dietary control was sharp and fierce. Once I'd stopped the binge eating, I buckled down with only one purpose: to get back down to that lowest weight as quickly as possible. I cut out all foods containing flour (no baked goods), all starchy vegetables (no potatoes, no corn, no peas), and any food containing more than 20 grams of sugar (my favorite Greek yogurt). And I clung to that routine, faithfully and strictly, for weeks without wavering, only to find that I'd lost about a pound in all that time, with all of that sacrifice.

I consulted a nutritionist to find out what I was doing wrong that the weight wouldn't come off. She asked me a bunch of questions about how and what I ate, then told me that it sounded like I was doing the right things and that perhaps it was environmental toxins that were keeping me from dropping weight. So I changed my toothpaste, my laundry detergent, and my vitamins. Still the scale kept showing me weights and body fat percentages that decreased by a minuscule amount each week, if at all. To say that I was frustrated would be a massive understatement.

As someone who has been known to "treat" my depression by making poor food choices, I'll admit that I resorted to that behavior once or twice in the last few months, so I'm sure that's part of what's going on. It's also true that I lost a tremendous amount of weight less than two years ago, so it's possible my body is just confused about what the heck it's supposed to do at this point - I know I am.

I was marinating about all of this - perhaps obsessing about it would be more accurate - as TCB and I strolled around my favorite indoor shopping center this weekend. I was in the middle of beating myself up again about all of the gorgeous clothes in my closet that I can't wear because they're too small and the need for me to "get serious" about losing the weight again before it gets cold here because I won't allow myself to buy all new cold weather clothes, too (I made a substantial investment in new summer clothes because things I wore this time last year don't fit right now and I swore I wouldn't do it again) when the strangest thought hit me: what if you didn't lose any weight ever again? I sucked in my breath, unprepared for the way my whole body seemed to seize up at the thought. But I kept going.

What if:

  • I stopped focusing on the scale and only worried about my blood sugar?
  • I accepted my body for the strength and stamina it has, instead of obsessing about the fat in my upper abdomen?
  • I unclenched everything for a while, stopped trying to fit into unforgiving high fashion clothes and instead focused on being comfortable (not frumpy, just comfortable)?
  • I ate foods that make me feel good and are good for my blood sugar, in reasonable amounts, without worrying about the calories and macronutrient content?
  • I stopped apologizing to everyone around me for having regained some weight and instead just accepted their compliments about how I look and how my transformation has inspired them to take better care of themselves, too?
Could I do that and be OK? Can I change the habits of a lifetime and just allow myself to be OK as I am for a little while?

What if.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Setting goals: Where do I want to be?

I have had a lot of success in creating healthy habits in the past by setting SMART goals. For those not familiar with this concept, SMART stands for:

  • Specific - simply and clearly spell out what you'll do
  • Measurable - make it something that can be tangibly proven
  • Attainable - should be challenging but defined enough to be achievable
  • Relevant - choose goals that matter and are important to you
  • Time-bound - define a time frame for completion of the goal that creates some sense of urgency
For ages now, I've been floundering along without setting any proper goals. (My current obsession with "taking off this stupid 20 pounds that I regained" isn't cutting it because it's not time-bound nor is it attainable in a short period of time.) In an effort to set myself up for success, here are some goals I've created for myself:
  1. Lose 5 pounds and be under 30% body fat by Labor Day (six weeks from now). I have my annual with my general practitioner mid-September, so it would certainly be good to be back in the realm of merely Overweight before that get together.
  2. Lose another 5 pounds and be under 28% body fat by New Year's Day (22 weeks from now). This would put me squarely back into my cold weather clothes, none of which fit me at the moment. I bought all new summer clothing because I had no other option, but I'm drawing a line in the sand: back in my happy size by the time it gets cold here or else suffer the cold.
I'll do these things by attending (a minimum of) twice-weekly Pilates Reformer classes, abstaining from anything containing flour, and not eating anything before bed. My physical therapist is optimistic I'll be able to start running again on a regular basis by my birthday mid-October, so that would certainly help with the second goal, too.

I have been making a lot of healthy changes to my life in the last few weeks without seeing much change on the scale, so it's possible that will continue despite my best efforts. Adding back the Pilates Reformer classes that I stopped in March should help things move in a better direction both weight- and body fat-wise, and I have renewed hope for good outcomes.

Anyone else want to declare some SMART goals? Share in the comments or shoot me an email - knowing you're not alone can do wonders for staying the course.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Mental Health Monday: Make up your mind, for goodness' sake!

Welcome to another installment of Mental Health Monday!  This regular series of articles from writers across the blogosphere was born out of a session on Depression, Anxiety and Healthy Living from Fitbloggin’ 15.  Every 1st and 3rd Monday there will be a link up for writers to share their experiences with mental illness – either from their own experience or from the experience of helping and walking with others.  The goal is to reach out to the world and let people know that they are not alone in their struggles.  You are never alone.  Join us – link up, visit new blogs, support others.  Speak out:  “I am crazy…CRAZY AWESOME!”

My particular flavor of mental illness (a mild form of bipolar disorder) comes with many fun habits while I'm in a manic period, such as:

  • My mind flying along at a million miles per hour, which can lead to and enhance,
  • Difficulty concentrating on any one thing and a tendency to be more easily distracted than usual,
  • Extreme optimism (this is usually when I decide to sign up for a crazy athletic event or take up some other time consuming new hobby without talking it through with TCB).
Of course, what goes up must come down, and my depressive episodes are more extreme than my manic ones, so these symptoms are more pronounced as well. They include:
  • Wanting to cry for no good reason,
  • Withdrawing from friends and family because talking to anyone feels like too much work,
  • Trouble concentrating,
  • Irrational irritability (TCB is usually the worst victim of this gift).
As miserable as all of those are, it's the in between times that are the worst for me. The medical community refers to it as "cycling" between the two extremes and that's a pretty benign word for something that feels absolutely wretched. Again, my highs aren't very high but my lows can get very low so that's a long way to go when you're in free fall.

Wonder if the designer of this title sequence had Cyclothymia?
When I'm in the middle of cycling, I usually have the fleeting thought that I'd rather stay depressed than keep going back and forth; it's miserable. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days for me to realize what's going on and that I'm back on the swing again, during which time I used to yell at those around me for no good reason other than what I thought was just a "really crappy mood". 

These days I generally pick up on the signs fairly quickly and remind myself that it's not TCB or anyone else's fault that I feel this way so I need not to make others suffer for my pain. And, as with most of my symptoms, just realizing what's going on in my head usually brings quite a bit of relief on its own.

Other habits I've picked up along the way to help with the cycling blues:
  • Dial back on non-urgent and/or non-important commitments - if it can wait, let it wait,
  • Get outside on my regular walks and listen to something upbeat,
  • Go to bed a little earlier, if possible - nothing is worse than being in one of these moods AND being physically tired, too,
  • Be kind to myself, listen for clues about what my body needs to feel secure and safe while it's dealing with this - this isn't a character flaw, it's a mental illness and I don't need to be punished for something I can't control.
Understanding how to take care of myself has made a world of difference in the way that I approach daily life, so I can't recommend strongly enough having a "sick day" plan that details how you'll handle your day-to-day routines when a mental health challenge arises. Think it through now, while you're feeling strong and capable, and perhaps you won't suffer quite as much with the next episode.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Depression and Weight Loss: Is it hopeless?

For anyone who is here for the first time, today I'm writing about my struggles with mental illness, so if reading about that topic will cause you distress, you may want to come back tomorrow when I'll go back to my normal content.

Welcome to Mental Health Monday!  This regular series of articles from writers across the blogosphere was born out of a session on Depression, Anxiety and Healthy Living from Fitbloggin’ 15.  Every 1st and 3rd Monday there will be a link up for writers to share their experiences with mental illness – either from their own experience or from the experience of helping and walking with others.  The goal is to reach out to the world and let people know that they are not alone in their struggles.  You are never alone.  Join us – link up, visit new blogs, support others.  Speak out:  “I am crazy…CRAZY AWESOME!”

Since I spend a lot of time talking about weight loss here and because I know that some people with mental health challenges also struggle to attain and maintain a healthy weight, I thought I'd talk about how my bi-polar and binge eating disorders affect my healthy living journey.

I was never thin-thin (I weighed 125 pounds at 5'3" without much effort or thought throughout junior and senior high school) but I didn't develop a real weight problem until I left for college. I felt so overwhelmed by how much was expected of me - I'd always coasted through classes in high school - and by the freedom to eat whatever my heart desired instead of what my mom bought for the house, that I spent much of my freshman year shoveling Pop Tarts and the like into my mouth. I ended that first year about 60 pounds heavier than when I'd left home the prior September, so I tootled off to Weight Watchers for the first time over that summer. I lost about 45 pounds before I once again turned to food for soothing when my grandpa died just before I went back to school; by Christmas that year, I'd regained all 45 pounds I'd worked so hard to lose plus a few more for good measure. That pattern has repeated itself with regularity over the intervening 29 years, leaving my metabolism and self esteem pretty much destroyed.

Starting in January 2013, I managed to lose 99 pounds and kept off all but 17 pounds of that - I'm working on it! - since then. My regular bouts with depression certainly posed a significant challenge as I worked first to lose that weight, then to maintain the loss. I didn't have any sort of "backup plan" to deal with my uncomfortable feelings other than food, since that had always been my default.

In case it might be helpful to someone else out there struggling with the same feelings, I'm going to share a few things I've learned - am still learning, really - in the last 30 months:

  • Get regular, moderate exercise. Even when I'm fighting off a horrible bout of depression that leaves me feeling worthless and alone, I still get up and go for a walk for 45-60 minutes. By making that routine non-negotiable, I not only burn some calories but also get outside and create endorphins (the feel good hormone). It's a lot harder to feel isolated and not worth caring for when you're out in nature.
  • Remember why losing weight is important. When the depression gets really, really bad and I question why I deserve to breath air, it's all that I can do to get up and go through the motions of daily life - everything gets so much harder and resisting the darkness seems really futile. Fortunately for me, I only experience that level of depression once or maybe twice a year. Most of the time when depression hits it's a lot milder and I can recognize it much quicker, too. For those times, I can frequently stave off a binge by looking at the piece of paper with my hand-written list of reasons that I want to be a healthy weight. A picture of the list is the screen saver for my phone, so I can look at it any time I like without carrying the paper itself. Finding something more powerful than the urge to eat away the discomfort helps me a lot, and my "losing list" is really effective in that regard.
  • Seek help in advance from a mental health professional. When things get very dark, the last thing I think about doing is reaching out to my therapist, so I made sure that I found an eating disorder specialist/psychologist and established a therapeutic relationship with her before one of those super-bad episodes hit. Now I check in with her once a month and have the option of dropping her an email for an appointment in between if needed. If for some reason I didn't show up for our monthly appointment, Dr. Jennifer would reach out to me and to my husband, via electronic and voice mail, to make sure I was safe. I cannot recommend this step strongly enough: find your mental health professional while you're feeling good so that you have one less hurdle to clear when the depression hits.
  • Continue to weigh in at least weekly. For me, checking my weight on a regular basis keeps me accountable. Yes, the stupid numbers sometimes make me crazy because they don't always track to my behaviors properly. (I'll gain when I've been letter perfect all week or, equally perplexing and frustrating, I'll lose after a week with a few slips.) Scales are not the greatest measurement of how I'm doing with my journey to a happy, healthy life but it's part of my routine to check in at least weekly and keeping that commitment to myself is a way to reinforce my portfolio of lifestyle changes.
Even with those things going for me, I still sometimes fall back on food for soothing my feelings. The week of Fitbloggin', ironically, was the last time it happened. I try to remember that I'm human, that I struggle with mental illness, and that there are far worse things to do as a human being on Earth than binge eating a whole bag of granola in a sitting. Probably the most effective way I know of dealing with these behaviors is to recognize them and turn things around as quickly as possible without punishing myself. Which thought leads me to the last thing I've learned since starting on my journey this time:
  • Do not rebound from a binge or unplanned indulgence with self-hatred or a desire to "make up for" that behavior with extra strict eating or exercise. It's not easy to move forward from overeating by countering with a simple return to my normal healthy living routines but that's exactly what I've found works best for me. If I go crazy with restricting my food then I'm reinforcing the idea that my eating - and, by extension, me myself - is "good" or "bad", and that's not true. Instead, I look at what might have led to the disordered eating to see if there are lessons to be learned for next time, then I go back to eating normally with the next meal.
All of these things sound simple and easy, don't they? They aren't and I certainly do not always follow my own advice, but when I do it's remarkable how quickly I start to feel better.

If you suffer from occasional bouts with disordered eating, are there tried-and-true strategies you have found helpful when dealing with them? Share in the comments, please!

Monday, July 06, 2015

One week down: What now?

So it's been seven days now and I'm happy to report that I've done really well with my commitments this week:
  • Zero flour,
  • Nothing with more than 19 grams of sugar,
  • Three days of drinking 64 ounces of water, at least 48 ounces on the other four days,
  • Ten minutes of mindfulness on five nights,
  • and this is my third post of the week
Field of Hope
Field of Hope by Road Fun via Flickr

For the next seven days, here's what I will do:

  • Continue with no flour - I feel good and my blood sugar is starting to go back down again, so why not?
  • Continue with less than 20 grams of sugar - again, I feel great and my diabetes seems happy, too,
  • Seven hours of sleep at least four nights - I'd like to see what the extra sleep will do for my diabetes and my outlook on life in general,
  • Ten minutes of mindfulness at least five days (not nights) - being present is great for keeping me away from both doom and gloom thinking AND dark negativity,
  • Post at least three times this week - by knowing that I have to report my progress here, I'm far more likely to follow through on my commitment.
OK, what will you work on this week to improve your health?

Crazy Awesome: the inaugural Mental Health Monday linkup

For those who have been following along here from the beginning - or at least for a few years - none of the following will come as a great shock. For anyone who is here for the first time, today I'm writing about my struggles with mental illness, so if reading about that topic will cause you distress, you may want to come back tomorrow when I'll go back to my normal content.

Welcome to Mental Health Monday!  This was born out of a session on Depression, Anxiety and Healthy Living from Fitbloggin’ 15.  Every 1st and 3rd Monday there will be a link up for writers to share their experiences with Mental illness – either from their own experience or from the experience of helping and walking with others.  The goal is to reach out to the world and let people know that they are not alone in their struggles.  You are never alone.  Join us – link up, visit new blogs, support others.  Speak out:  “I am crazy…CRAZY AWESOME!”

Growing up, mental illness was something that happened to people in movies but never to anyone I knew (or so I thought). When I spent two days curled into a ball on the floor of my college apartment, unable to anything except cry and wonder why I was still alive, I figured I was overtired from all of my studying. Just after college graduation, when a close relative had what was then called a "nervous breakdown", we never spoke of it except once when my mother told me that it must have been because the relative was doing too much and "just needed a rest". Lots of tired people in my family, apparently.

I saw my first psychotherapist in my early 30s, when I was having a lot of trouble dealing with guilt over my recent divorce. She was a very kind woman who listened to me and told me that I was probably depressed. She never suggested any sort of medication nor did she provide anything for me to work on to improve my quality of life. As I recall, I started to feel better so I stopped our sessions. It was another few years before I saw another therapist. This time, she clearly told me that I suffered from depression (without any sort of diagnostic tools), and offered me anti-depressants to accompany the cognitive behavioral therapy we used in our sessions. Once again I attended sessions with her until I felt better then stopped. [Note that while I had some success with the second anti-depressant she prescribed - the first did absolutely nothing for me, my insurance would only pay for the generic version of that medication, which did absolutely nothing for me. I will save my rant about insurance coverage and mental illness for a future post; it will be a good one, I promise.]

I didn't see another therapist until after TCB and I were married. This time, my therapist asked me if I'd ever experienced manic episodes along with the depressive ones. At first I laughed and told her that I absolutely had not ever had a manic episode but then she told me they can be very mild and that she wanted me to see a psychiatrist for a diagnostic test. Turns out I have a mild form of bipolar (formerly manic) depression, where my depressive episodes are far stronger than the manic ones, and the transitions between the two are some of the toughest times I experience.

The symptoms of bipolar depression that I can relate to most strongly are showing poor judgment and taking more risks than normal - I spent so much of my life going through periods where both of those behaviors took over my life and I thought they were just signs of my weak character. Ten to 25 percent of those with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed as suffering from depression, probably because it's so much easier to name than mania, particularly in its milder forms. Unfortunately, medicines used to treat depression can be dangerous for those suffering from bipolar disorder because, by elevating moods, they can enhance the manic behaviors. This is why it's so important to screen for bipolar with any new diagnosis of depression!

My hope is that, by speaking publicly about this part of myself, I can contribute to more understanding of a poorly understood, poorly treated disease. I'm linking up with others who are also affected by mental illness in one way or another and I hope you'll take some time and read through their thoughts and experiences, too. No one tells someone with a broken leg or the flu to "just get over it" so why is it OK to say that to someone suffering with mental illness? Because we allow it to be so. For me, that stops today.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Day 6: Steady as she goes

As I sit here now, I'm nearly through six days of my "no flour, less than 20 grams of sugar, meditate 10 minutes every day" commitment, and I am doing pretty well.

  • No flour since Monday, not even a little bit. I really wanted a bagel yesterday when we went out for breakfast, but even though I ordered the egg, cheese, and sausage sandwich on a bagel thin and I had more than enough calories to eat it, I knew I'd committed to giving this a shot, so I tossed the bagel and ate the innards with some fruit.
  • Nothing with more than 20 grams of sugar. This one wasn't nearly as hard as the flour part but that won't always be true so it's a good habit to start.
  • I drank 64 ounces of water three of six days. If not for my commitment, though, I wouldn't have even done that three days. For the days I drank less than what I'd planned, I still got in at least 48 ounces, so I'm pretty pleased with that. The key to hitting my goal more frequently is making sure I have cold, filtered water available at all times.
  • Ten minutes of meditation is a lot tougher than you might think. I do my 10 minutes right before bed and I keep getting a horrible case of the fidgets. Still, I got in at least five minutes on five of six days, so I'm pleased with that. To increase my frequency (and enjoyment), I need to give it a shot earlier in the day, perhaps on my lunch break at work?
  • This is only my second post this week, so I'm short at least one for my goal of four before tomorrow night. Still, that's more than I've done in a while, so I'm giving myself credit for making progress.
I'll be back tomorrow with an update on the rest of today plus tomorrow, as well as sharing how I feel and what my plans are for the following seven days. I'm still thinking about what I want to do in terms of eating, exercising, and mindfulness; I'll figure things out by tomorrow night.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Day 1 of my no flour commitment is in the books

Today was a vacation day for me and, with TCB off at work, I was pretty much left to my own devices, which made it much easier for me to focus on making healthy choices.

Progress report on the items I committed to in yesterday's post:

  1. Today I ate no flour;
  2. I also ate nothing with more than 20 grams of sugar;
  3. I drank 48 ounces of water (my goal was 64);
  4. I meditated for just short of 10 minutes last night (my monkey brain was on overdrive);
  5. I'm back here, writing, today
I had a check-in with my Weight Watchers Coach today and I told her about my commitment to giving up flour for a week. While the Weight Watchers program allows for a variety of food options, she was very supportive of my choice, especially when I explained why I'm doing this. I know I'll feel better without eating baked goods and high sugar foods, plus I need to get a better grip on my emotional eating and that's nearly always centered on those highly processed foods containing flour and sugar.

I don't know if I can or will do this forever, but a week feels very achievable; I'll evaluate and adjust at the end of the week if needed.