I Needed to “Be Awesome.” Now I Need to Learn to Just Be.

Swimming laps over the past few weeks has given me a lot of time to think, away from the constant distraction of preschoolers, work, and technology.

One thing I started thinking about was, “if I know that I still have movement options available to me, and I know that intense heavy lifting is not necessary for good heath, why am I so up in arms about having to take a break from heavy lifting?” I mean, aside from the abrupt changes in routine and hormones, there was another feeling there. What was it?

It was fear. Logically, I knew that I was going to be okay. What was so scary? This was about more than fear for my health. I knew my health would be fine.

One day I realized that the fear was about the need to “do something special.” Or to be seen as special by others. When I lift heavy weights, people tell me they are impressed with me. In an age of fitness on social media, people lifting heavy things are “badass” and “inspirational.”

I realized that I very strongly felt the need to be seen as doing something inspirational and special. That felt really profound. I decided to sit with that, and have some curiosity about it.  What was behind that?

It took me a week or so of sitting with that self-awareness, and then I realized what was behind it.

I never felt like I met the cultural standard of beauty, in a culture that very much values physical beauty in women. From a young age I felt like an outsider. I didn’t fit in. My parents stressed about my weight and even though I know that they were concerned about my health (not my appearance), at the time, it added to all the noise and messages I received on a daily basis that I was not beautiful, and therefore, I was less valuable than other girls.

And so, in order to feel valuable, I had to be something else. I had to be smart. I had to be talented. I had to be the best at something. I had to do things that other girls weren’t doing. I had to be seen doing these things, so everyone could see those things as well as my fat. I couldn’t just BE, as a fat kid, a fat girl, a fat adult. I had to be fat and AWESOME at something, or I would disappear and be forgotten.

Looking back, I can see that this need to be seen as special and valuable drove a lot of things in my life. I was an accomplished musician with a conservatory music education, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore, and I felt lost. Why else would I, as a non-runner, decide to train for a marathon, instead of setting a goal to consistently run a mile 3 times per week, or to run 5ks consistently? I thought that by doing things other people didn’t do, I would be special…and therefore okay.

And so it didn’t seem like enough to just exercise like a normal human being. I had to do marathons 10 years ago, and in the past year and a half, I had to learn to lift as heavy as possible. To have a goal of a 300lb deadlift, and then be devastated when I learned it won’t be a good idea for me to pursue that particular goal this year.

Deep down in my subconscious, I believed it would be okay to be fat if I could also deadlift 300 pounds. I looked to Olympic athletes like Holley and Sarah as models.  And I pursued those goals, rather than work on the belief that it is unconditionally okay for me to be fat. It is okay for me to be fat even if I don’t accomplish anything  extraordinary or special or  inspirational or badass while fat.

The reality is I have no idea what I want to do with myself and my time if I don’t spend time on something that makes me appear special or different or inspirational. I had this deep seated need for so long, because I felt like I wasn’t okay. But knowing and acknowledging that I have that fear driven need is helping me to move past it. I feel seen and understood, if only by myself. I feel better able to ask myself “what do I need to care for myself today” and have it be okay and enough to say “laps in the pool. However many I feel like.” I am able to differentiate between  “things that will make me feel healthy” and “things that will make others see me as special /inspirational /valuable.”

So here I am, doing my thing, parenting my kid, working my job, rehabbing my injury, swimming my laps like the older people at the gym. Physically it feels quite satisfying. Mentally it is an adjustment. Having the awareness of why it is an adjustment is helping me settle in and enjoy it for what it is. It is taking some practice. Facing it head on, however, is helping me feel more peace about not being able to lift for a little while.

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What I Can Do Today

Content note: This post contains mentions of previous and present weight gains and losses (intentional and unintentional). It also contains considerations of how my symptoms may be affected by my current weight, and how I plan to handle that. If that’s not your thing, you might want to skip this post. I am saying these things in the most matter of fact way. I don’t mean to convey shame, as I would have in the past when speaking about weight; just transparency.

Here’s how things are moving along in injury-ville:

My mood is getting better as I am getting more used to my new routine and the new season at work is getting into a groove.

Movement-wise, I have a full plate of activity between swimming 3 times per week and physical therapy twice per week, plus physical therapy exercises to do at home. Swimming is getting easier and I am able to enjoy it now. So much, in fact, that I would consider continuing even after I am cleared to lift again!  I have physical therapy exercises to do at home, and sometimes I do bodyweight exercises like assisted pull ups or incline push ups at the park. I am anxious to get back to lifting but nervous too because I don’t want to make my spine worse.  I still sometimes feel some tingling in my feet or in my right quadricep. I have a follow up appointment with the doctor in a couple weeks.

I still have back aches when standing or walking for too long. That definitely makes me miss lifting.

I’m starting to feel more open to the idea of losing some weight. Well, I guess I was always open to the idea, because of the whole thin privilege thing, but it didn’t factor into my decisions on what habits to choose to work on. If only diets worked for more than a minority of people in the long term (ha!)…..

A bit of history:  When I was 8, 9 and 10 months pregnant I had back aches when standing or even sitting for long periods of time. Back aches are common in pregnancy so I treated them by going for massage twice a week in the later weeks and resting my back a lot.

After my son’s birth, my body went down below my pre-pregnancy weight very quickly and without any effort on my part. It hovered about 10 to 15 pounds below pre- pregnancy weight for about a year. (Before you say “aren’t you lucky,” ask me how I felt physically during that year, with undiagnosed sleep apnea and a high needs baby who didn’t like to sleep and liked to nurse 20 times per day until he was over a year old.)

Currently, I am not pregnant, and I weigh 25 to 30 pounds more than I did when I was at my heaviest in pregnancy (so, about 80 pounds heavier than I was during my son’s first year). Some of that weight gain is undoubtedly muscle from increased activity and lifting heavy weights. But knowing how these things work, I doubt that more than 15 to 20 lbs of it is muscle. So, we are talking at least 60 to 65 pounds of water, glycogen, and fat gain. My body naturally gains a lot of fat above my waist (belly and boobs), and very little below the waist. So, according to my back muscles, I doubt this weight gain feels any different from my pregnancy weight gain (though the muscles are stronger and had a higher limit this time…since I did not gain as much weight during pregnancy).

So, knowing my experience with back aches while pregnant, and knowing that my body is now holding a similar or greater amount of weight in my upper body as it did while pregnant, I am pretty sure that my back aches can be partially explained by weight gain. (And of course, partially explained by my two herniations and older compression injury).

Now, what does that mean for me in the context of knowing that diets don’t work, and most people who lose weight in the short term regain it in the long term, and often gain more weight than they lose?

Well, I am feeling slightly defeated, in all honesty. I am regretting the years I spent dieting. I am wishing I wasn’t put on my first diet as a child, which damaged my relationship with food.

But I can’t change the past. I can only ask myself  “what can I do today to care for myself and manage the aches and set myself up for less pain and better function in the future, to the degree that it is within my control?”

Knowing that diets don’t work for most people  (statistics), and knowing my own personal outcomes from dieting (both physical and mental), dieting is not an option.

Looking at my current lifestyle and habits, an area where I do have some room to play is with Intuitive Eating. Specifically honing in on “distracted eating / distraction eating.” I never thought of myself as an emotional eater because I don’t tend to eat when I feel sad or angry. But recently I realized that I do tend to eat sometimes when I am not hungry. For example, needing to take a break from what I am doing, and reaching for a snack even if not hungry (distraction eating). Or, taking seconds at a meal even if I am not hungry, because the meal tasted good,or because I am watching TV and not thinking about it (distracted eating). I wouldn’t so much call it emotional eating as eating out of habit. I am realizing that these are long standing habits. I remember staying up late in college and we would eat snacks or go to “fourth meal.” My husband and I have had the habit of snacking at night too (incidentally, my husband is thin and always has been).

So for the past week or so I have been working on establishing a new habit: if I am eating, I ask myself “why do I want this?” If I am hungry, that is an easy question to answer. If I am not hungry, the answer is usually “I need a break or a distraction” or “I need to decompress at the end of the day” or “eating this is pleasurable” or “I dunno, I am just reaching for it out of habit.”

Then, once I answer the question of “why do I want this,” I have the option of choosing what I want to do with this information. For example:

  • “I am hungry so I am going to eat this” or
  • “I need to take a break from my desk so I am going to take a walk or go run an errand or browse at the bookstore” or
  • “I need to decompress so I am going to change into my pajamas and read a book or watch a show upstairs away from the kitchen” or
  • “eating this would taste really good but I am not hungry now so I am just going to have a bite and then find something else to do.”

Notice that I said “I have the option of choosing what I want to do with this information.” I did not say “I have the obligation to do a certain thing with this information.” This is very important for me because I have a history of being forced and coerced by others into dieting. When I was growing up, “are you sure you are hungry for that?” was always a loaded question, dripping with fear and concern. Now that I am an adult I don’t want to put myself through the same sense of obligation and coercion. So I’m just experimenting with it to see how it feels.

One concern I have about trying this habit that may lead to some weight loss is that I may become attached to the outcome of weight loss. The past year and half has felt wonderful for me mentally, as I shifted my focus onto other things. I fear the possibility of going back to a place where I obsess about the way my body looks and nothing is ever good enough.  For now, in order to mitigate that concern, I remind myself the following:

  • Intuitive Eating is not a weight loss program. Some people lose weight, some people gain weight, and some people stay the same.
  • Regardless of what happens to my weight, becoming more conscious of and reducing distracting/distracted eating will likely have positive effects on my budget, my mental health, and perhaps my hemoglobin A1c.
  • If this stops feeling good to me for any reason, I can stop or do something else or explore why it doesn’t feel good.

I have some concerns about what this means for me and fat positivity. But I am tired of having back aches and so I am willing to explore this rather than holding onto an ideology. Rigid thinking hasn’t  worked out for me in the past. So I can absolutely advocate for fat acceptance and treating fat people with respect while also trying something that might help my back stop aching.

And for anyone who thinks this means that because I am experiencing a health problem means that HAES doesn’t “work”, have a read: Am I Healthy At Any Weight? by Dare to Not Diet.

Now, we all know that IF weight loss happens, it may be very slow and it will likely not be permanent. So I find it helpful to ask what else can I do TODAY to help me feel good and manage the back aches, besides tuning into my feelings when I want to eat (because IF that helps with back pain, it will be “eventually,” not “today!”).

Today I can go swimming. The water helps. This morning I had some back pain. I tried an aqua Zumba class, then swam laps for a few minutes. Then I sat in the hot tub for a few minutes, applying the jets to my lower back. That helped a lot. So, consistency with movement that feels good to my current body is something I can do today.

Pacing myself with activity that requires standing and walking for long periods is something I can do today.

Doing my physical therapy exercises at home is something I can do today.

Having patience is something I can do today.

Keeping my self talk constructive is something I can do today. When I find myself thinking “I wish I could hike like I did last summer,” I can acknowledge that feeling, and then be glad that I can go swimming instead at least, and that swimming feels great.

Those are some things I can do today.

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How’s Swimming?

The most common question I am getting asked this week is “how is swimming going?”

Swimming is coming along well. I am getting used to it again. I swim laps. Right now just freestyle and breast stroke. Sometimes I play with a toy like a kickboard or noodle, but mostly I find that boring and I prefer just swimming laps. I still need to focus a lot on my rhythm, form and breathing, so it feels very meditative.

At physical therapy they have me hanging out from these floating dumbell  things in the deep end, dangling my legs to take some pressure off the compressed portion of my spine. So, at the Y, I started leaving some dumbbells at the side of the pool, at the deep end of my lap lane. Then, if I get bored or tired and need a rest, I rest in the deep end instead of the shallow end, just hanging out dangling my legs. It’s pretty relaxing.

I have a good system down for showering at the Y now.

Oh, and I signed up for an Aqua Zumba class that starts next week. I am looking forward to trying it

The one piece of the routine where I dropped the ball last week was packing food to eat after swimming, so I could just go on to my next thing without going home. I also had a very busy week at work, and I started physical  therapy. I ended up buying a lot of meals out last week,  as a result.

So this past Sunday, I chose to to stay home instead of going to visit my inlaws with my family. I needed to decompress before the next work week.  I didn’t feel emotionally up for a two hour drive one way, and getting home late on a Sunday before  a work week.

I stayed home, cooked a bunch of food for the upcoming week, and binged on season 4 of Orange is the New Black. It was a good choice. I made a huge veggie tray, hardboiled eggs, baked teriyaki chicken, a couple meals (lentils and rice with fried onions, and noodles with sausage, bitter greens and broccoli). Plus a birthday cake for my husband.

Last night I knew I was planning to go to the pool today, so I packed a couple sandwiches for us ahead of time.  So far this week is going more smoothly, thanks to giving some conscious effort to self care this weekend. It is a new routine and has a learning curve but I am starting to get the hang of it.

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The Best Self-Care Method Isn’t Apparent

I’m having trouble knowing what the right thing to do is, right now.

I’m on a break from lifting, because of a disc herniation. I just started physical therapy for it. I know that if I allow the herniation to worsen, the consequences could be pretty serious.

But I am feeling challenged in this moment, because without being able to lift regularly, I notice that I have back pain a lot more frequently, and I feel sadness or anxiety much of the time. Lifting was my primary way of managing both back pain and depression, and without it, those symptoms are coming back. That scares me. It makes me feel anxious as I ask myself “am I doing the right thing here,” knowing that the consequences can be serious if I make the wrong decision. Which makes it a vicious cycle.

I’m considering going back on antidepressants for the first time in over a decade, because I don’t have my primary depression management tool available to me right now.

I’m also considering waiting another week or so. It happens to be the busiest month of the year for me at work, so I know I am under a lot of pressure right now and that could also be a contributing factor.

I’m also considering going rogue and doing some lifting again. Only certain lifts that won’t put pressure on my spine (no back squats!), and only at 50% of the weights I normally lift, to see if it makes a difference in my mental symptoms and/or back pain, without worsening my nerve symptoms.

I’ve written before about how keeping my body a comfortable place to live is my primary motivation right now. I feel worried that the best way to do that right now is unclear. I feel scared that I might not feel well for a while and there may be nothing I can do about that, other than do what I can so I don’t get even worse.

Today’s self care plans include my physical therapy exercises, a swim, a visit to the garden. Possibly some bodyweight strength work while I am at the park. My husband is on vacation from work this week, and my kiddo is currently all about dad, so I should get some peace and quiet too.

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Channeling My Inner Manatee

This week I joined a nearby YMCA. I’ve gone swimming twice.

The first day I think I was too ambitious.  I brought my kid with me. I put him in the childcare room while I swam. I went to the lap pool and attempted to swim laps and was surprised that I couldn’t swim more than 50 yards continuously. I swam a lot of 50s with rest in between. I played with some of the toys like kickboards and noodles. I lasted maybe 30 or 40 minutes, then sat in the hot tub for 10 minutes or so.

Then I went and got my kid, and we ate our lunch in the lobby. Then I took him to family swim. I didn’t bring anything inflatable for him to float in, so I had to hold him in the pool. I lasted about half an hour at that. My back was killing me by the time we got done showering and changing and walked to the car. I laid down for the rest of the day.  I was too achy to fight with my kid when he didn’t cooperate on getting ready for gymnastics class. I called the gymnastics studio and told them we wouldn’t be coming. I cried for an hour on the couch. I felt really sad and hopeless and angry that I couldn’t lift.  My kid went upstairs, came back downstairs with one of my husband’s bike bags, and told me “It’s okay mom; I have something that will make you feel better,” and whipped out a fucking power drill. That got me off the couch really fast. I hid the power tool and sent an angry text to my husband. Good times, really.

As far as the actual swimming, it wasn’t that bad, but I was surprised by how out of practice I was. I took years of swimming lessons as a kid, and I couldn’t believe how awkward I felt in the water. Also, my CPAP machine has me pretty well trained to nose-breathe, so mouth-breathing in the pool felt awkward. I felt very uncoordinated.

Today, two days later, I tried again. Since my husband was home I brought him along. We went during family swim time. We brought an inflatable tube for kiddo. Since this Y has family locker rooms, I had help getting kiddo ready and didn’t have to lug all the gear myself. I started in the shallow end of the pool with my family. Then I left kiddo to play with my husband while I swam laps.

I felt much less awkward than the other day because I figured out a good stroke rhythm for a pace I could sustain.  I realized that I needed to slow my strokes WAY down. If I am not used to sprinting on land, there is no reason I need to do it in the water. At first it didn’t feel natural to slow my strokes down because on land it would feel way too slow. But the water adds extra resistance, so using a speed that feels natural on land will be more difficult in the water. So I decided to visualize manatees leisurely floating under the surface.

Visualizing manatees helped me slow my strokes down and feel more coordinated. I was able to maintain a breaststroke for several hundred yards at least, without a break. (I’m not sure exactly how many because I don’t have a watch and I haven’t taken the time to figure out a lap counting system yet. ). For freestyle, I was able to go at least 100 or 150 yards continuously, once I slowed the stroke down and figured out a good breathing pattern for me.

I didn’t swim laps continuously; I took a few breaks to check in with my family, and to use the bathroom (I know Michael Phelps confessed to peeing in the pool, but I still can’t bring myself to do it). I also sat in the hot tub for 10 minutes after swimming, which felt great (my husband and kid were still playing in the pool). I didn’t count laps or time anything, but I know my family was in the pool for roughly two hours, and I was probably in the pool for maybe an hour and a half or so.  I’m not concerned with counting my laps or times right now. I know that right now, it is more important for me to create the habit of going to the pool than it is for me to stress about what I do once I’m there. In fact, in order to create the habit, it is really important that I remove as much stress as possible.

My lower back feels fine. My traps feel fatigued. Having my husband there to help with kiddo and gear helped make it a lot less stressful.

Takeaway: It may not be realistic for me to always bring kiddo swimming when I am on my own. It may be more manageable for me to leave him in childcare on some of those days, and then bring him to family swim on days my husband can join us.

Also, I feel kinda calm and tired and mellow, so maybe swimming later in the day is a good option when possible.

I thanked myself for giving swimming another try today even after the first day didn’t go so well. I reminded myself that my first night of CPAP use went horribly too, and I am so glad I stuck it out.  So, hopefully I can make this work too.

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How a Body Positive Mindset Helps Me Move Forward from Injury

I’ve been writing about how I need to take a break from lifting due to an injury. And people are telling me they appreciate and admire how I am moving forward with a positive attitude.  I actually don’t feel all that positive, but I am moving forward anyway.

I don’t think I would be doing nearly as well had I not been working on a more body positive mindset.

Five years ago, if this happened, I think I would have been nearly paralyzed with fear about what would happen to my bodyweight. Today, yes; I am still somewhat scared about that. I know I’m not “supposed” to be, but I’m also not here to lie to you ;). However, today, that fear is not driving my decisions and actions.

Some people have told me they are impressed with how I am quickly looking to find alternative ways to move. And the reason I feel this drive to do so, is because I’m highly invested in keeping my body feeling like a nice place to live. I know that continuing to move will help with that. I also know that if I don’t take a break from heavy lifting now, I may be forced to take a break later, with a lot more pain and/or loss of function (and that will mean that my body will definitely NOT feel like a nice place to live).

I also know from experience that I tend to hate being outside in the heat, and I tend to move less in the summer. So, getting into the pool more will probably help with that.

So, while I do feel some fear about how my body may change, the primary motivation for finding new things to do is taking care of my body, giving myself what I need, and keeping my body a comfortable place to live (as much as that is within my control).

I do notice some old thoughts creeping in. For example, I had some mental resistance to trying lunges and other alternative strengthening exercises to barbells. Yoga too. These exercises remind me of the days when I was working out to change how my body looked. I’m acknowledging that resistance….and I know that if I want to keep myself feeling well, I may have to get over that association and try them again now.

Bottom line is – I am very grateful to have been working towards loving my body more. That doesn’t mean I always love the way it looks, although I am having more days like that than I used to. More importantly,  it means I love myself enough to give myself what I need to feel well TODAY, even when things aren’t going my way. I love myself enough to give my body the break it needs, rather than operating out of fear about what will happen if I take that break.

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Injury Update – Forced Routine Changes, and the Feelings They Bring

I want to share how the past week has been going for me. If you’ve been following, you know that I have been sidelined with an unexpected injury, and that I have been having a bit of trouble handling it emotionally sometimes.

I went to see the spine specialist this past Tuesday. I had been nervous about going, so I decided to bring a friend. When the friend who was originally planning to come with me couldn’t make it (since they got me in on very short notice at the doctors office due to a cancellation), my one of my coworkers came through and came along with me instead. I feel lucky to have a job where I work with such amazing people!

The appointment itself was fine. The doctor prescribed physical therapy and a follow up appointment in 6 weeks. He said that I probably could get back to lifting, but not right now while I am having symptoms. He did mention weight loss, but I didn’t feel he was shame-y about it, so that’s probably as good as one can expect from a spine surgeon.  He did a full exam asking about pain and testing strength. No pain or weakness, just the tingling in the legs. So for now he said “no knives, no needles.” I am really relieved about that.

I have my physical therapy evaluation in a few days. From there, they will tell me how many times per week I need to go.

I also cooled down after last week’s temper tantrum and decided to join the Y. My family applied for financial aid and received a partial scholarship. I went to join last night, and the person at the front desk told me that if I want to save money, they are waiving the joining fee on Wednesdays this month. So I will wait a few more days and go back on Wednesday, since the $100 joining fee is no small chunk of change.

The bathing suit I ordered for lap swimming arrived this week, and thankfully, it fits.

I learned a few things about how I can move this week, also.

For example, I tried doing lunges. In the past I always hated them. I felt wobbly and my ratio of bodyweight to single leg strength made them kind of unfavorable. Well, I tried them out of desperation (because I can’t do back squats right now with a spinal issue)….and now I can do them pretty easily, despite being at a higher bodyweight than the last time I tried them. So, I learned that even if I think I hate something, it pays to try it every few years 😀 .

I’m also pretty sure I can keep working on assisted pull ups.

I also figured out that if I push my kid’s stroller while I walk, I don’t get much of a back ache. Which shows me something about my alignment, because it is a bit different when I push a stroller. I’m paying more attention to my alignment and breathing when walking around and I think it is helping.

So, logistically, I’m dealing with everything. Emotionally, there are some things that are coming up.

This time of year I always have a long to-do list at work. And not having my regular routine to hang onto at home is making me feel very discombobulated. You know how child development experts stress how much small children crave structure and routine? Well, I can see this in myself too. Not having my usual structure and routine is making me feel more anxious and more sensitive to stress and things not going my way.  I notice that I have less patience and a very short fuse.

I know that within a few weeks, I’ll be settling into a newer routine, as I will have figured out my physical therapy schedule and have joined the Y and figured out when to go swimming. So it should calm down by then. For now, I’m just noticing the feelings, and telling myself that it won’t be forever.

The other day I realized another thing. One of the reasons it was so hard for me to take the news that I need to to take a break is that I made this hobby so much a part of my identity the past year and a half. It has been my passion outside of raising a kid and going to work. So it’s not just losing the hobby temporarily, but also about not knowing who I am or what to do with myself.

It is also a little scary because I’ve gotten used to receiving a lot of validation for doing heavy lifting and sticking with it. People think it’s cool and they tell me so, often. Sometimes I fear that without it, I will become invisible.

I am still not really ready to give it up even for a short period. I plan on asking the physical therapist for loopholes. “I know I can’t do back squats, but want about front squats? Just at 50%? Please?”

It’s also disheartening because I have spent a year and a half building a solid routine that fits well into my life…..so, being told I need to refocus and do something else is very frustrating and disorienting.

Again, I’m handling it, logistically….and I also find it healthy and helpful to acknowledge the feelings along the way.

Today my friend at Outside of the Comfort Zone reached out and let me know she is in a similar place. It was really good to talk with a friend who could related to all these things.

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