Sunday, August 01, 2004

Weightlost

From my mother I inherited high metabolism. From my father, I inherited a raging sweet tooth. The combination of these two made me a kind of Archie's Comics "Jughead" when I was growing up: in spite of all the cookies I had for breakfast and bowls of ice cream I had after school, I was a skinny kid. Almost better than my birthday, was the day after my birthday when the supermarket cake with the piled-high frosting would be waiting for me, half-eaten and ready to be my breakfast. When I graduated from high school, I was 5'3" and weighed all of 105 pounds.

In college I gained "the freshman ten." Dazzled by the unlimited dorm food, I was especially excited about the desserts. I could have donuts at 7:00 a.m., pie with lunch, and cake and ice cream after dinner. It was a dream come true. During the five years I was in graduate school, my weight climbed steadily as I seriously used sweets to deal with stress. Grad school triggered a bad depression marked by mild panic attacks and total sugar binges. I sometimes ordered a cake from my favorite bakery and hid it in my room, like a secret lover. Returning to my cake throughout the day made me feel so much better. I'd go through a three-layer, nine-inch-diameter birthday cake in less than a week and the only reason I didn't keep a cake constantly was the expense.

In my mid-30's, as a sit-on-my-butt-all-day administrative assistant, I discovered the boredom that leads people to snack all day long. Depression still came and went, but usually my sugar-eating was simply a way to kill time. By now I was fully aware of my emotional dependence on sweets, but it didn't seem so bad when everyone around me indulged in the same way. It was when my body mass index (BMI) officially moved into the overweight category, that I decided enough was enough. I feared that gradual blobitude was my inevitable fate as an American, but I refused to accept it.

Around this time my doctor prescribed an anti-depressant for me, but not one that causes weight gain. To get rid of the extra pounds, my chiropractor gave me nutritional supplements to reduce hunger. I also increased exercise and managed to rein my BMI back in to a marginally healthy number. But I wanted to be slimmer than just-this-side-of-fat, so I decided to go for losing another ten pounds.

It didn't work. I had "plateaued," that is, I'd hit a weight my body was content to maintain and it was going to take another level of effort to get past it. For months I struggled, gradually increasing exercise to several days a week, but a combination of genuine hunger and my continuing emotional dependence on sweets kept my calorie-intake too high to lose anything. Around the Christmas holidays, as I continued to struggle with depression in spite of the medication, my old cake behavior came back. I didn't start ordering them again, but I discovered a supermarket that sold yellow cake with the thick layer of white frosting, by the slice. I had found a new supplier.

Sugar was my crutch, my worst friend. I could identify where the pattern came from and why, but I couldn't break the need. As long as I felt things were missing from my life (a boyfriend, professional success, self-confidence, sex), I tried to fill myself with food. It was only when I was savoring a mouthful of moist cake, the creamy indulgence of too-much frosting against my tongue, that I felt like my life wasn't missing anything. As I struggled with my biology (the depression), I found the sweetness that was missing from my life in cake, cookies, ice cream and chocolate. A part of me never wanted to give up the sugar addiction, ever, but the greater part of me knew it had to go.

Way past the holidays and into the winter I fought myself: up at 5:00 a.m. every day to get that workout in, then calorie-counting all day long, just to end up with my cake in front of the television most evenings. It was hopeless. My sugar addiction was at a new high. Neither my weekly therapist nor my psychiatrist had advice that I hadn't heard before.

As desperate as any smoking addict and driven by my fixation on weight, I knew I had to stop bingeing on sweets. Since regular therapy and raw will power didn't make any difference, I looked for a different approach. Full of doubt, I decided to try hypnotherapy. It focused on the subconscious, bypassing the conscious mind that I knew could fight itself right back into the kitchen. Maybe there was some hope in this new approach, although having tried to kick my ferocious sugar habit before, I felt pretty sure this would be another failure.

Incredibly, it worked! I'm still not sure how, but the surprisingly simple exercises and meditation techniques actually broke the lifelong hold sweets had on me. I can still hardly believe it. Within months I was able to pass up desserts and completely give up the yellow cake slices. Today I can actually stare down a plate of fancy frosted cookies, rationally decide whether or not to indulge, and then walk away without a nibble or an inner quibble. It's the closest thing to a miracle healing I've experienced. With the sugar monkey off my back for the first time ever, I felt hope that the pounds would melt away.

Nope. Even with my freedom from sweets, snacking all day kept my weight up. And this wasn't eating out of boredom or depression, either. With my sugar addiction cured, I stopped using food to medicate and truly only ate when hungry. Unfortunately, I was always hungry. I also had a very limited tolerance for hunger since low blood sugar quickly drained my energy and darkened my mood. My hypnotherapist suggested reviewing my diet and eliminating high-calorie foods. I did it. I reviewed. I eliminated. I bought a copy of Dr. Shapiro's Picture Perfect Weight Loss and memorized his method of filling up on low-calorie, high-satisfaction foods. I fought off cravings with dried fruit and LifeSavers. Surely this would do it.

Nope. The numbers on the weight scale still didn't budge. Even with fruits and vegetables instead of cookies and cake, my daily net total of calories was just too high. But I only ate when hungry. What else could I do? Someone suggested overhauling my workout to burn the most calories possible. Of course! I hired a personal trainer who worked me hard. My 5:30 a.m. workout became a daily marathon-tough slog, sweaty and heart-pounding. We also reviewed my diet. Eating well was getting easier as I released the habit of self-medicating with food, and my body began to crave clean foods. I never ate so much produce in my life. Burning hundreds of calories every morning, I felt my clothes fitting better as I honed my body. Now I'd see a difference on the scale!

Nope. After four weeks of this new regimen, my weight still didn't budge. I couldn't believe it! I double-checked with my psychiatrist about my anti-depressant, but he confirmed that it had no history of causing weight gain. What was I still doing wrong??

Neither I, nor my personal trainer, nor my chiropractor, nor my regular doctor (I saw him, too), nor my hypnotherapist, nor any of my fitness-minded friends had any more ideas. I knew the best way to lose weight was to exercise more and eat less, but I couldn't possibly add any more exercise, and each time I tried to make it through the day on fewer calories, the light-headedness and crankiness and would force me to eat. Also the more I exercised, the more calories my body wanted. I felt stuck in a loop.

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's this: when the going gets tough, quit. So I gave up. I kept eating well and exercising hard because these new changes were already habits and they felt good, but I gave up on the goal of losing weight. I just gave up.

And still I struggled with depression. I finally asked my psychiatrist for an adjustment in my medication so I wouldn't have to scrape through every day, fighting the gloom, so he added a second anti-depressant to my prescription. After just three days I noticed the difference. I felt cheerful. I could smile again. The mood swings were gone. Another miracle! After a week of feeling good, I decided to make one more attempt to curb my calorie intake.

And it worked! The new drug combination reduced my hunger and evened out my moods. I had finally achieved the conditions I needed for weightloss: my sugar addiction was gone, my exercise habits were solid, I was now hooked on healthy foods, my body accepted fewer calories and I could finally manage hunger without an emotional crisis. The weight began to come off. Finally.

So that's the secret to my current slenderness. I can't believe how much money, time and effort it's taken. Trying to lose weight turned into this complicated process that involved many professionals, a lot of support and thousands of dollars. But that's what it took as I grappled with my emotional dependence on food and then had to figure out all the other pieces of the puzzle. No wonder it's so hard to lose weight when you only focus on one of the factors.

Today I am finally free to eat what I choose. And I'm finally choosing what I eat instead of just reacting to whatever my body or emotions demand. Losing weight permanently really did require me to change my life, on many levels. And from now on, I will forever understand what people are talking about when they say they have trouble losing weight.

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