I was once a 300-pound, potato-chip-addicted couch potato, and lived that way for almost 20 years before getting a wake-up call five years ago when my weight hit an all-time high of 345 lbs.
There I was on Jan. 5, 2009, sprawled on the couch with my usual bag of chips, watching Oprah, when a miraculous vision appeared before my eyes: Carnie Wilson, who was, for the first time ever, thin, radiant, and happy. I’ve always considered her my genetic twin: a fat kid who became an obese adult struggling constantly with her weight. Seeing Carnie finally free of the “obesity demon” filled me with hope. I pried myself off the couch and shuffled over to the computer for a Google search. I found her fitness guru, who turned out to be a former pro wrestler who’d healed his battered body through yoga.
The vision of Carnie Wilson that day somehow dissolved the wall of apathy and doubt I’d been living behind for decades. I realized change was possible, but that I would have to work for it. I’d been on and off of diets enough times to finally concede there are no shortcuts or magic cures. I reached out to Carnie Wilson’s trainer via social media. When he realized I was willing to do whatever it took to change my eating habits and work out regularly, he agreed to mentor me long-distance. His support was crucial because I believe no one makes it out of a situation like mine on their own.
As for my new way of eating: I knew some boundaries were in order, but my one rule was it could not feel like a diet, so I set about making reasonable changes I could live with. At the request of my nutritionist I gave up gluten and dairy and watched in amazement as my energy levels soared and the weight began coming off at a steady pace. Also crucial: I had to come to terms with quantity — and agree to feed myself when I was hungry, not bored or trying to evade an uncomfortable feeling.
My new way of eating and living wasn’t always smooth sailing, but for the first time, I wanted change more than I wanted the taste of a binge food. After a lifetime of struggling with yo-yo dieting and regaining weight, I dropped 185 pounds without surgery, dieting, or drugs.
Aside from good nutrition, my transformation also required an honest look at what drove me to overeat. For many years, three main life situations contributed to me drugging myself with food:
- a toxic, hostile office environment;
- an unhappy 20-year relationship;
- and a deep sadness over the long process of losing my father to Alzheimer’s disease.
I didn’t deal with all three at once; that would have been overwhelming. But I decided it was time to wake up and face them.
My boyfriend at the time was not a bad guy at all, but we weren’t right for each other. It was a relationship of safety and convenience for both of us and we knew it deep down, but never touched the truth in terms of discussion. I chose to hide this way for 20 years, overeating to compensate for the feelings of emptiness that came from being in a romantically loveless relationship. When I realized I no longer wanted to live a lie, and live with stuffing myself as a way of life, I got courageous enough to be truthful with him and part as friends. I also made the bold move to quit my job and become a freelance writer.
The last hurdle was the most painful: witnessing my father’s transition, and what a long one it was. He lay in a nursing-home bed for nearly a decade, nonverbal and mumbling. The good part was he was unaware of time and seemed to be in another dimension most of the time. But my heart ached every time I visited him because I missed the man I grew up with and loved so deeply.
For the first half of his illness, I ate myself into oblivion. For the second half, I was front and center, standing squarely in reality and whatever feelings that brought. Overeating only compounded my problems and contrary to what I’d rationalize to myself, never really made me feel better. Stuffing myself till I was groggy with a hurting stomach didn’t alleviate the sad feelings — it only sent them deeper underground. It was actually a huge relief to have the luxury of feeling the feelings in the moment so I could let them pass through me. I was there for my father and for myself like never before. And when his time finally came, I was able to embrace it and be there at his side, fully present with my tears, my sorrow, my gratitude.
As for physical activity, I discovered I loved it! The lighter I got the more I wanted to do. During my first year of the transformation, I did my first (walking) marathon for the Avon Breast Cancer Research movement. I was down 100 pounds by that point and felt fantastic. Participating in that marathon changed me both physically and emotionally. I pushed past barriers I didn’t know I could push through and it was one of the most triumphant moments of my life.
This is what real transformation takes. The diet industry wants to keep us trapped. I’m just another average American hardcore overeater who made it out of the woods. I’m living proof that it’s possible. Especially since I was 44 when I began — the time in a woman’s life when metabolism is alleged to grind to a halt and life is said to be downhill from there. This year I turn 50 and I look and feel better than I did in my 20s!
I love food more now than I did in my days as an overeater because I eat with awareness, not in a trance. Breakfast will usually be a couple of eggs with sautéed vegetables, or if I’m in the mood for carbs, I make it healthy: whole-grain hot cereal with chia seeds and unsweetened shredded coconut, which is delicious. I love juicing and practice it regularly as a way to get more vegetables in. Nothing is off limits: I won’t play the “never again” game because that just sets me up for longing. I find, however, that I feel better when I avoid dairy and wheat products and use them very sparingly. I adore lentils and even bake with them! You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a piece of my coconut almond cake made from chickpeas.
I eat moderate amounts of carbohydrates, usually only once per day. Often it will be rice, potatoes, quinoa, or gluten-free pasta. I’m definitely “veganish” — I’m not 100 percent anything. I love vegan dishes, but salivate over meatballs too much to give them up! For dinner, I love grilled salmon or catfish with a side of sautéed zucchini, spinach, or asparagus. Another favorite dinner: a bowl of homemade lentil or tomato soup. Sometimes it’s all I want.
The amazing thing I discovered, as a lifelong emotional eater, is that when I dealt with the things that were plaguing me to overeat, I didn’t have to micromanage the food or obsess over it. Instead, I reconnected to my body’s wisdom and let it handle the speed of weight loss, and let my body tell me when it was hungry and when it’s had enough. We come into the world with this ability and all too often it’s conditioned out of us. I relearned it and it really wasn’t all that difficult.
I love being a smaller size, but I’m clear that it doesn’t make me a better person. What it does make me is FREER! And freedom is the biggest gift of all. I no longer panic when boarding a plane, wondering if my circulation will be cut off halfway through the flight because I’m too big for the seat. I go to plays and movies now with abandon and love shopping. No longer do I have to settle for what fits. I saunter up to clothing racks now and rifle around for my favorite colors. And by the way, it feels GREAT to wear color. For 20 years it was all black, head to toe. Even during heatwaves. Try to picture a 345-pound woman on a hot day wearing all black. I probably don’t have to go into much detail regarding how dangerously foul my mood was. Heatwaves, airplane seats, and delicate folding chairs no longer bring me to my knees. It feels so fantastic to be free.
If you’re willing to dig deep, look at yourself and your life, there are rewards to be enjoyed, I promise. I’m living a life I never thought would be possible. I’m the weight I was in middle school. I have a fantastic, loving, and romantic man in my life now who is a partner in every way. And my life purpose with writing is satisfying and fulfilling.