When did I go on my first diet? It was probably in fourth or fifth grade when my body started adding the padding in preparation for puberty. When did my first diet fail? It was probably in fourth or fifth grade.
At that age, I didn’t have much control over what I ate, but I could control how much I ate and if I ate. I started eating less of my lunch, then choosing to go without breakfast, skipping the after school snack, eating less of my dinner, etc. Those phases of eating less and skipping meals repeated throughout the years, never really making any difference in the fact that I was gaining weight. Nevermind that I was also growing up and should have been gaining weight. In my mind, I was gaining it too quickly and certainly faster than other girls my age.
I think the hardest time, for girls at least, is when their bodies begin to hold more fat to facilitate the changes from adolescence to adulthood. During that time, I self-labeled as “fat,” a label I would wear for many years to come.
One memory cemented in my history was an ad I read in one of those teen magazines when I was in junior high school. It was an ad for a diet pill — I have no idea what it was in, but with shipping and handling, I could get a 30-day supply for $13 (so I’m sure it was some quality stuff!) Knowing my parents would never help me with a check or credit card, I sent $13 CASH (yes, cash) with the completed order form. I raced home from school every day to check the mail, fearing my parents would find it. I was disappointed, though not terribly surprised, that it never came. In hindsight, I can see the lunacy of diet pills being advertised to teenage girls and I can be grateful that I never got them. But at the time, I was desperate for anything that might give me an edge in losing the weight.
When I got a little older and had more freedom and disposable income, I bought over-the-counter medications like Dexatrim and hid them in my room. Say what you will about them, they were actually effective in curbing my appetite and I lost a few pounds here and there, only to put them back on and more.
When I was an adult, my doctor agreed to let me try some prescription medication, phentermine, to lose the excess weight. Did it curb my appetite? It sure did! I could actually go for 2 or 3 DAYS without eating and I did! Not only did it obliterate my appetite, it gave me TONS of energy and kept me from sleeping. I got so much done at work and home with energy to spare. Mentally, the medication gave me a feeling of euphoria. This medication not only treated my appetite, but the underlying depression that had become part of my life because of my weight. I’m glad for the wisdom of my doctor who would only allow me to take the medication for a short time, during which I did lose quite a bit of weight. I was devastated when, after going off the medication, I put it all back on, and, you guessed it, then some.
It was during these brief periods of medication use that I began to associate success with medication. Perhaps I began to believe and accept that I could not possibly do it on my own because the only time I had enjoyed any real victory was when I was using medication. When that was no longer an option, perhaps I gave up a little.
Throughout the years, there were also many start-stops with exercise regimens. I never particularly liked physical activity. At school, P.E. was something I endured. I wasn’t athletically inclined, couldn’t climb the rope, couldn’t do a pull-up, and any hand-eye coordination I may have had, however meager, was completely nullified by the critical gazes of my peers. I played softball during the summer and enjoyed that, but besides that, my main exercise consisted of riding my bike to friends’ houses and back and forth to school. I watched a lot of television as a child and I enjoyed reading and other activities that introverts typically like.
But a few times as I was growing up, I made the decision to start exercising to lose weight. I worked out along with Richard Simmons via his television show and did a couple of mom’s workout records (this was before VHS was common). There were times when I decided I would just start jogging and I hated every minute of it until I gave it up again. I never stuck to the commitments very long and I think unconsciously, I let myself eat more as if the increase in activity allowed for it. I never had success through an exercise program.
The Straw that Broke my Back — Literally
When we moved to Noblesville, Indiana, my daughter was getting ready to start kindergarten and I was facing the reality of a complicated spinal surgery. My weight had taken a real toll on me physically. I had suffered debilitating back pain for a few years, beginning with sciatica when I was in my second trimester of pregnancy. At first, the flare-ups were fewer and farther between and I tried anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, and physical therapy. By the time I was 26 years old, I was in pain more than I was not. Percocet was the only thing that brought me any relief at all and even that was becoming less effective. One Christmas eve, I went to two different emergency rooms. I left work and went to one near the office where they shot me full of pain killers and sent me home.
Later that night, when the medicine wore off, I was back to another emergency room closer to my house. They injected me with more medication and sent me home with a prescription for Percocet. By the time we finally found a place to fill it at midnight on Christmas morning, my injected medication had worn off and I truly believed I may not be able to get out of the car and into the house. That was a merry Christmas.
A few weeks after that, I was at work and bent over to pick up a stack of chairs. I felt my back go out again and when I got home that night, I grabbed a bottle of Percocet and managed, with a lot of pillows, to get into a position in bed in which the pain subsided enough that I could breathe. I remember swallowing one pill after another, thinking to myself, “I am going to keep taking these until it stops.” I wasn’t sure if I meant the pain, or…something else. I wasn’t suicidal and I didn’t want to die, but I just couldn’t keep living like that.
I ended up having spinal fusion surgery (L4 – S1) in January of 2001. My weight had ballooned to well over 250 pounds by that point. The clinical diagnosis was, “degenerative disc disease,” but I know my back just broke under the immense weight I carried. Pick up a weight and hold it in front of you for a few minutes. Your back will start to hurt. Now walk around with it for 5 or 6 years and see how your back feels.
The surgery was one of the hardest things I have had to endure in my life. I had been told recovery could take 18 months. Thank God, though, the procedure did bring me relief from my pain. Two weeks to the day after my surgery, I was putting up wainscoting in our living room. I was pain free but I also knew that if I didn’t lose the excess weight, the relief would be short-lived.
It was during my recovery from surgery that I took a job in the office at our church. My previous job as an activity director at a retirement community was very physically demanding and my surgeon would not release me to go back to it. I needed to go back to work to stay sane, so I changed jobs.
While working in the office, a woman in our church who herself had struggled with weight started a group called, “Lite Hearted.” The tag line for the group was, “Spiritual choices for healthy living.” The group was open to women who wanted to support one another in their efforts to live a healthier life. Participants would weigh in each week and the leader would share recipes and tips for weight loss and living a healthier lifestyle. Even as I helped prepare some of the flyers and class material, I felt a conviction in my soul about my own struggles.
The leader invited me to attend and I didn’t take that very well, to be perfectly honest. I was offended because I still didn’t want to believe I had a real problem. I didn’t want to get on a scale in the privacy of my own bathroom and I certainly didn’t want to do it in front of anyone else!
I am also extremely introverted, so a, “support group,” isn’t really something that I would enjoy. But I went. Maybe I was just being nice. Maybe I didn’t want to admit how offended I was to be invited or that I really needed this. Maybe I wanted to pretend to be a good sport.
Or maybe I went hoping to finally find help.
But I Still Wasn’t Ready
I only attended a few times, coming up with some excuse why this wouldn’t fit into my schedule. (Please remember this group as it comes up again later in my story. God has an incredible sense of humor and irony.)
I don’t think I really wanted to change yet. I still managed to convince myself I was somehow OK. My blood pressure was OK, so I was healthy, right? Just because my health hadn’t completely unraveled yet didn’t mean it wasn’t coming. I hear that excuse from people a lot. “My cholesterol is fine.” Or, “My blood pressure is in a healthy range.” Or, “Yes, I’m overweight, but I’m healthy otherwise.” Those are the same things I told myself to rationalize my condition. I even told people I was happy.
I lied to myself and I lied to others. I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t happy.
But I loved food — fried foods, sweet foods, fast foods, rich foods, all foods. And I loved eating.
And unfortunately at that point in my life, I still loved food and eating more than I loved myself. I loved food and eating more than I loved my husband and daughter. I loved food and eating more than I loved life. I loved food and eating more than I loved God.
Did I really? I didn’t think so, but my lifestyle told the truth. Food was the most important thing in my life. Food was an idol. Food was my god. What was it going to take to fix that?