*An essay every Friday in 2016*
Two weeks ago, after stepping on the scale, I made a decision to get my ass back into shape. I’d joked about the weight, saying that it was “love weight”; that it was because I was happy; that my partner and I, in our fresh and new in-love stupor, went out a lot, eating deliciously fatty foods far more often than we should have. But I know the reasons are far more complex than that.
Last fall I finally removed my mother from my life after receiving a scathing message from her that sent me over the edge. I slipped into a pretty dark depression not long after and the anxiety affected my physical health, primarily my lungs. I dealt with exacerbated asthma for months before finally getting it treated (thanks again to Katia), and that was followed by more weight gain and a sluggishness that plagued me for months.
I knew I’d gained weight. I felt it in my energy level and the way my clothes fit me. I’d developed chichos and a little muffin top over my jeans. I wasn’t feeling good about myself and that was taking its toll, but it was stepping on the scale that shook me out of my lethargy.
I’ve had to face that I have a longstanding terrible relationship with food.
It’s no secret that Latinos generally don’t eat well (a simple google search of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in our communities is sufficient evidence of this), but I can’t really say that I thought much about weight or food until boarding school. I gained twenty pounds my first year and kept packing on the weight over the next three years. Food was my escape. How I dealt with the loneliness and isolation.
I’d make waffle vanilla ice cream sandwiches with strawberry jam pretty much every day after school. I ate chips and cake and junk upon junk upon junk. Our cooks were pretty awful (gulash at least once a week where they threw the ingredients of everything we didn’t eat into a casserole) so I often snuck down to the kitchen to eat a huge bowl of sugary cereal late at night. Pizza was a food group and it was over those years that I discovered Girl Scout Samoas. I could easily eat a pack in two or three days. My junior year, I worked at an ice cream shop for a few months and probably ate my weight in ice cream over that time.
My horrible eating habits continued in college where I started smoking a whole lot of marijuana and learned the meaning of the munchies. My first year, there was a mini-market and grill in the basement of my dorm (John Jay Hall) where I ordered burgers and fries a few times a week and bought chips and salsa and dip using the Dining Dollars that I’m still paying for all these years later. (Not learning money management is one of my greatest regrets.)
It was the summer after my first year at Columbia when I discovered rollerblades that my fitness journey began. If I’m honest, I have to confess that it wasn’t fitness or weight loss that spurred me to start blading, it was the horrible relationship I was in that did that. I needed something to cope with the emotionally abusive partner I was with, his infidelities and blatant disrespect, so I jumped on my blades every day after work and ventured the city. Uptown Manhattan (Inwood-Dyckman/207th Street area) to the Village, Brooklyn and Queens, anywhere but on the block, where he sold drugs (yeah, I dated a drug dealer while a student at an ivy league, but that’s a story for a different time) and flaunted his money and all his women with little regard for me and my feelings. And, yes, I put up with it because I hadn’t learned, and wouldn’t learn for a long time after, that I deserved better. More.
I kept blading after I left that relationship and later added the gym to my regimen. I got into weights in my mid-20s, and spent years going to the gym at least 4 days a week in addition to my rollerblading, bike-riding, hiking, handball playing and overall active lifestyle. The thing is, I wasn’t happy in those days. I was still very lost and lonely and dealing with episodic depression, so working out was just another way of me avoiding all my shit.
I met my daughter’s father at the gym—we were both workout buffs. If I look back now, I see that the abuse in that relationship started early on. Unlike the other men I was involved with over the years, he didn’t cheat on me, but he did something worse—he chipped away at the little bit of self-confidence I had left—so I left that relationship two and a half years later with a daughter and a shattered self-image. What little faith in myself I did have, I threw into my writing.
Yes, I worked out over the years but I can’t say I put much stock into my health until I started boxing in the winter of 2013. At that point my brother was really sick and I needed something to help me not go crazy. I spent the last three months of Carlos’s life boxing and going to the hospital to be with him. I would write late into the night, chronicling the stories my brother and I shared, and the relationship we were restoring. Then, when I’d wake up with the heat of grief in my chest, I’d take it out on the bags and the stairs and whatever workout my coach gave me that day.
When my brother died, I reeled into the darkest place of my life. A darkness I’m still climbing out of. And it’s now that I’m seeing the light ahead, that I’m making beauty out of all this tragedy, in my writing and mothering and teaching and the way I exist in the world, that I am finally looking at my health as the next phase in my healing.
I’ve lost 5 lbs in ten days. I’m bike riding and doing work out tapes and watching what I eat and how I eat. I’m really paying attention to my body and what it needs. I’ve never been one to obsess over the scale. Those height to weight ratio charts are insane. I don’t want to be a stick skinny woman. It’s not my body type, anyway. I love my curves and my big ass and wide hips. I just want to be healthy and I know I’m not healthy at this weight. I know when I’m sluggish to get up in the morning and when I don’t have the energy to do the work I need to do.
I’m 40 years old now. It’s only going to get harder to stay in shape from here. I’m still navigating the triggers that send me reeling—the unmothered girl in me that still longs for her biological mother’s love but knows that it’s unreliable and unhealthy and inconsistent. The woman that is still learning that she deserves better than that. More.
It’s a lot of multi-level healing happening but I can’t heal my heart and not also work on my physical body. Everything’s connected, right?
I stopped boxing after my brother died. It was hard enough to exist, much less work out. That’s when my asthma got really bad. I remember at least four times when I had to talk myself out of panicking because my emergency inhaler wasn’t working and I wasn’t near my nebulizer.
Once I was in the woods on a hike, not far from civilization but far enough that no one would find me for a while if I passed out. A few days later, I was doing interval training, running up the hill at top speed when my lungs locked up. I had to sit and put my head between my legs, taking slow, methodical breaths, telling myself over and over, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” I was not okay.
Another time I was on a cruise with my family. I was in the gym trying to push myself out of my sadness. My lungs clenched while I was on the treadmill. The albuterol inhaler was useless. I was all the way up on the upper level while my cabin was deep in the cavernous depths of the ship. I had to talk to myself as I walked slowly, first to the elevator then down the long hallway to my room. As luck would have it, they were cleaning my floor with those sharp chemicals that were poison for my already challenged lungs. When I opened the door to my room, I crawled to my nebulizer which was parked next to my bed. That’s when I finally let the tears slip down my face.
I never did get that exacerbation treated. Somehow my lungs healed on their own. Later my herbalist friend would tell me that grief is centered in the lungs. I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
The asthma came back after I walked away from my mother early last fall. I just couldn’t take her cruelty any more. I reeled into depression but refused to face it. How could I be depressed? I rationalized. I was newly in love and my partner was fantastic. She was gentle and caring and supportive and kind and everything I’d been looking and hoping for…but the mind can avoid what the body won’t let you. I dealt with the exacerbated asthma or better said, didn’t deal with it at all, for months. There were times where I would lose my breath walking a block. Stairs were a nightmare and working out was out of the question. I resisted getting help and resisted facing my depression until the beginning of this year when I finally went to the ER and got the meds I needed. The prednisone gave me debilitating anxiety that made me stay sequestered at home for a week. It was then that I had to face my depression and decided to take steps towards healing… I’m in therapy now. I’m working out now.
What I’m speaking on is the importance of self-care. Taking care of ourselves, our hearts, our spirits, our physical bodies.
Caring for ourselves not as escape but as tenderness, as demonstration of love and want to be well.
It’s a revolutionary act, to be sure.
Yesterday, after sharing this with my therapist, these moves I’m making to heal and be well, my therapist said, “You’re mothering yourself, Vanessa. Do you see that?” I swallowed my lips and held my breath while I processed, avoiding his blue eyes which were staring intently at me, waiting for a response.
“I hadn’t given it that language but I guess I am,” I said. I felt a lightness in my chest I hadn’t felt in a long time. I had to sit with this before I finished this here essay, hence why it’s late…this discovery: that I’m mothering myself. That I’ve learned how…