On December 2, 2016 I began making some decisions about changing my life. For a number of reasons, it was quite an extraordinary day, but I am going to focus initially on one aspect – deciding to engage in a complete lifestyle nutrition change.
The years of being a caregiver and working full-time had gotten me to a pretty dark place. My weight had started to spiral out of control again last year. I wasn’t walking enough, save to play golf. I had given up hiking and backpacking because they made my wife nervous (me, out in the woods alone where something bad could happen) and because I couldn’t be away from her and out of touch all day, let alone multiple days. I quit trying to run again after brain surgery because any exertion triggers coughing and for a few years it was uncontrollable. I kind of gave up on being healthy.
Truthfully, this was not just the outcomes of the medical events of 2010. Nor of the buildup to surgery as my running and weight-training up through 2005 began to fall off, likely due, in part, to the compressing of my brainstem by the tumor. It was a pattern of my life that was reproduced far too many times. Finding relative fitness, slacking, decline, with a variance in weight of quite literally a hundred pounds.
Of course now, I am middle-aged white male, so that doesn’t really matter. It is kind of expected at certain levels.
What was missing each time was a commitment to ongoing self-care and engaging the self-discipline to do so. Then again, I don’t think ever actually decided to engage in self-care. I think my decisions were along the lines of “I will do this thing and take it as far as I can, and do the basics I need to support it.” For example, when I was running, or more accurately attempting to run, marathons and ultramarathons, I did not engage in enough of the solid background work necessary to to sustain the effort. I also didn’t do anything to change my diet or fundamentally change my approach to health, or even get enough sleep. I simply tried to put the hours and miles into my existing life without changing much else. This is not a recipe for success.
I did finish both marathons I entered, with respectable times for my size and level of training, and finished four ultramarathons, but the latter were with some terribly slow times. And it was never easy, nor quite as enjoyable as it might have been.
Going back to last December. My wife had nagged me to got a weight-loss clinic she was working with and was giving her some success. I had managed a set of changes in the spring to lose twenty pounds and kept that off, but I was stuck. So I gave in, figuring that maybe the behavioral modification coaching and accountability would succeed where I had not done so by myself. I am trying hard not to be overly self-critical in relaying all this, it is simply what was. I made the choices I made even though I knew most were suboptimal. I was practicing invulnerability to all things. Brené Brown talks about the price of invulnerability here, and yes, I paid that price, several times over.
During intake we talked about lifestyle, diet, and my weight goal. I was told my goal might be too extreme as I would end up “really skinny.” Well, no. That had been my normal weight for a few years at least and I was not skinny then . The only time I was really skinny past the age of 18 was at the end of basic training and that was thirty pounds less than my goal. We also discussed coffee at length. Or at least they tried to do so.
When asked how much coffee and soda I consumed, I told them. In explicit detail. I could have answered “four or five cups” and been completely truthful as to the nature of the containers. The number of ounces (40 to 48) they found somewhat disturbing. And then there was the (diet) soda. Add two or three 20 oz bottles.
“Could you cut down to say two eight ounce cups of coffee and a soda only every other day?”
“I probably could, but I am not interested in doing so. How about I just drop soda and we don’t talk about my love of coffee ever again? I’m serious about this.”
That day I went cold turkey on a lifelong soda habit. I also gave up putting any milk or cream in my coffee, and booze. I gave up all manner of alcoholic beverages. And butter. And a host of other things. I’ve changed what I eat, how I eat, and how I think about eating (albeit to a lesser degree than the other changes). As important (and successful) as these changes have been, fifteen weeks later, they are not the most important changes. What they are is a result of making prioritization of self-care a lifestyle choice.
Choosing to truly engage in self-care is the hardest thing I have done and that is, quite honestly, saying a lot. I’ve done a lot of hard things, some I never wish to do again nor wish that anyone else should ever experience. (Raising a schizophrenic child is a miserably devastating experience.) But making the decision to self-care after years of being a caregiver seems not only remarkably selfish, but scary. I know how to take care of others, but myself? Not so much. File this effort under “responsible selfishness.”
Some weeks ago I wrote about Fascism and the Caregiver. It turns out that for me, at least, I had to find and engage that inner fascist of mine and charge him with my own care. I needed to learn to practice that type of control over my own behavior, my own needs, without beating myself up. I had to redefine my environment to enact that control to make change a little easier. I also had to let that inner fascist also control my inner critic. I had to let my physical, emotional, and mental wellness take primacy in my life for the first time in decades.
It’s working. Slowly, it’s working. I’m losing weight at an appropriate pace, although I am admittedly impatient, but I have already had to replace most of my daily wardrobe. I’m feeling better; and I think I am also generally kinder and gentler on a daily basis than I was before, but that would not take much. Each day I think about the self-care I am engaged in, I study a bit on self-care, I meditate some, and I try let each new change happen when I am ready.
Self-care can be tough. Silencing the inner critic who seems to think I have better things to do, like be productive and not be still, or better yet, not spend an hour or more on the exercise bike trying to beat Super Mario Kart 8 (actually ends being a fantastic workout). I can selfishly set aside time to do these things. It is the responsible thing to do. The inner critic is wrong. These are the things that need to be done and the inner fascist has permission to commence beatings on the critic until morale improves.