The Long View

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As the summer season draws to close each year, I am reminded that taking the long view forward can have a toxic impact on my mind. There’s nothing like stacking everything that’s needs done in a year or more to provoke depressive feelings in me.

The half spent sawtooth sunflower shown above well represents where I stand at this time. If I focus on what is best in the present tense, I feel well, but if I mull over what is painful or yet-to-happen, I feel a bit crushed. It’s like dismissing the beauty of this plant just because it blooms for such a short time.

I’m already feeling a bit of nostalgia over my medical leave for back surgery this past spring. It’s not like this small era was packed with halcyon days. For two months, I had time to delve into the tangential things my ordinary schedule does not permit, yet I did not have the energy to accomplish much at all. Four months later, I regret that I tainted this time with any expectations beyond healing.

At the time, I wrote that my expectations were very low, but I now realize that such writing was my hope of deflating then-impossible goals. No, I was not going to craft a cookbook bursting at the seams with recipes both cheap and easy. I wasn’t going to document the daily unfurling of early spring with perfectly focused images. Worst of all, I would not have a house that was truly clean.

I did accomplish what needed to be done. My back is still fusing ahead of schedule. I was able to drive during my daughter’s spring break, so we were not stuck at home during the days of her vacation. After I came home from the hospital, I maintained my usual weekday wake up time (5:30 a.m., no less). This provided continuity for my family and ensured that I wouldn’t feel jet lagged once I returned to work.

Twice the time I had for leave has now passed since I returned to work. I can’t claim that the surgery was entirely successful. The symptom that made this procedure (an L4/L5 fusion) necessary was increasing numbness in my feet and in one of my knees. I had a long-term ruptured disc that exerted considerable pressure on my spinal cord. I had sciatica for a three month span prior to my surgery, but I didn’t have much pain obviously related to my back before that symptom began.

My MRI and surgery revealed that my disc ruptured 10 to 15 years ago. I had developed extensive arthritis and hypertrophy in my lumbar spine over that time. I’ve written previously of being stunned at my mental oblivion regarding this disease process. I literally had no suspicion of this degeneration, despite having several family members who’ve suffered from similar problems.

Looking back, the whole long interlude reminds me of that movie The Others starring Nicole Kidman, (spoiler alert) wherein she crafts an entire reality based on denial of her and her children’s passing. She has all sorts of elaborate excuses for why they can’t do the same things living people do, such as her warning to the children that they musn’t open the drapes because they are allergic to sunlight.

During Trick or Treat nine years ago, I barely endured walking my daughter around for a couple hours because my lower back was aching. Rather than go to a doctor about it, I decided that my problem was entirely due to obesity and lost 130 pounds over the next three years. I didn’t make any medical appointments whatsoever during that time (and for another year afterward) except for ear treatments I couldn’t avoid. Why? Because I assumed that almost every symptom I had was due to my weight, and my diet was the slow cure. How absurd that seems now!

Once I went back to my family doctor for myself for the first time in four years, she was so shocked at my change in weight that she sent me straight to a GI specialist. After running all sorts of tests on me (including colonoscopy, endoscopy, and biopsies), the GI doctor informed that I was the first 40 year old patient he’d seen who’d achieved a 50% weight loss without gastric bypass surgery or the misfortune of cancer. My advice to those who are planning a diet beyond a 10% weight loss: keep your doctors informed, or else they might assume the worst.

Now I wonder if my ongoing lumbar degeneration dampened my appetite. I didn’t struggle with eating less and walking more during those years. Now that I’ve had the surgery, my appetite and weight are much more of a challenge. I’m in the midst of trying to lose the 25 pounds I’ve gained over the past year, and the losing has been very slow this time around, 6 pounds in 8 weeks so far.

I started this post with the notion that looking too far foward can be depressing, but most of the foregoing is a backhanded homage to my recent past. The subject of my spinal woes is one in which I am better off lingering on the past than thinking too far into the future. Once I had my surgery, I started getting mild to moderate muscle spasms on the left side of my back and my left thigh. Physical therapy helped dampen this problem by strengthening these muscles. If I don’t do those exercises, the spasms are sure to be worse. Now here’s how I could depress myself with contemplating the future: I am not going to retire until I am 67. If I consider that I might be working with spasms for 22 more years, I feel steamrolled flat at the prospect of it.

If I take this problem day by day, it is just a pain that is fleeting, a sensation that reminds me that I need to keep building my strength.

The Unbearable Fatness of Being

I find it best to delay discussing a goal until some steps have been made toward achieving it. Otherwise (at least in the history of my life), speaking or writing about an aspiration seems to be a certain talisman against it becoming a reality. For example, about a year ago, I wrote about how I was hoping to get back to the weight I’d achieved at the peak of the long-term diet I started back in 2010, when I lost 135 pounds over the first three years of this decade. So what happened after I wrote that? I gained 25 pounds over the next year.

It’s true that soon after I wrote that post I started having knee trouble, the first of several physical challenges I’d face. The knee issue was just the door opening to the revelation of my ruptured lumbar disc and eventual spinal fusion surgery. I remained as active as possible with the challenges I faced, but I did not want to focus much on what I was eating.

I do fix some indulgent desserts and dinners from time to time, but I am not going to blame my cooking for my predicament. I really believe that the lack of home cooking leads to more weight problems than cooking itself does. I have found that I can eat whatever I want. I just can’t eat as much of those things as I’d like to.

A couple weeks ago, my sciatica resurfaced, like heat lightening spotted far into the horizon. These flares first appeared in the wake of eating something disagreeable in volume or content. I figured that I may have been approaching the tipping point where my back might be straining over the weight I’ve gained. From seeing the multiple images of my spine through x-ray and MRI images, I can see that I still have the exaggerated lordosis, or back curvature, of someone who was seriously overweight. Gaining lots of weight again certainly would not help this situation.

As last weekend began, I woke up with the certain knowledge that the time had come to do something about it. It was one of those moments when you know that you must turn back and choose a different path, that change could grow so hard that only a future “rock bottom” moment could right your course. I had to stop myself from doing a Nestea plunge version into obesity: a trust fall into a sea of french fries and Little Debbie snack cakes.

I had taken that plunge before, more than once unfortunately. In my early 30’s, I reached a the point where I felt so at home with my fatness I justified it sometimes as an act of subversion. Being fat seemed to be the ultimate protest against consumer culture. I wouldn’t buy what was being sold if I couldn’t fit into it. Never mind that I didn’t consider that food is a huge part of consumer culture.

I was secretly pleased when people I didn’t like spotted me and couldn’t completely disguise their shock or displeasure with my size. When I despaired over waking up in the middle of the night to eat ice cream once again, I’d take comfort in a photo moment that never happened: how great it would be to see my daughter’s absent father be shocked if he finally returned and saw me weighing 300 pounds. I imagined that the look on his face would be priceless.

I did not reach 300 pounds. My rock bottom moment was discovering that I weighed 260 pounds at a doctor’s appointment seven years ago. By the way, I am only 5’1″ tall. For a person my height, just 26 pounds separates a borderline healthy BMI (24.9) from start of obesity (30.0). While I was gradually putting on weight this year, I kept thinking that I still weigh so much less than I did way back when. My excuse was the error of my past ways. I didn’t stop to consider that I’d crossed back into obesity.

Since my reckoning last Saturday, I have lost five pounds. I’d like to lose all of the weight I gained this past year. I’m sure that my back will thank me for it.

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Fitbit and Sleep

This week my Fitbit Charge 2 started offering me data on the “quality” of my sleep. It has presumed to know when I’m sleeping as long as I’ve been wearing it, and it has been wrong only when I’ve managed to stay awake through an entire episode of a TV show while lying on my couch. Truth be told, I struggle to stay awake watching TV unless I am riding an exercise bike or elliptical machine the whole time. If I stay still, I will fall asleep within 20 minutes. My dad, my husband, and I all share this affliction, but I am the only one who tried pedaling while watching to stay awake. If not for my exercise bike, I wouldn’t have had the privilege of seeing every episodeĀ of Man Men, Foyle’s War, and George Gently.

My sleep data that I’ve seen on my Fitbit app does not motivate me in the slightest to use this information to “perfect” myself. Actually, it makes me question if using a fitness tracker has helped me at all. While I will not blame its use for my decline, I will confess that my fitness and weight have not improved at all during the two years I’ve been using a tracker. Having the charts of my steps and exercise minutes has not inspired me to move more. Instead, this data makes me feel like a hamster on a wheel who’s earned a more sedentary life, at least for this evening, and that day, and so on.

My Fitbit sleep charts represent another set of information that only makes me feel more fatigued in the knowing:

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The sleep stage tracking is particularly pointless because it only estimates the depth of sleep based on user pulse rate and movement (btw, this feature is available for Fitbit Blaze, Charge 2, and Alta HR). It’s not like the numbers provided can approach the accuracy of a medical sleep study. I doubt my Charge 2 unfurls a micro EEG that seeks out the appropriate contact points on my scalp once I fall asleep.

Here’s a stage chart for one night of this past week:

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The start and end times on this chart are pretty typical for a week night. I try to go to bed by 10:30, and I wake up at 5:30. Those who knew me well in my youth will recognize that my early awakening is a daily miracle that cannot be improved upon. For the first thirty years of my life, I struggled with a second shift circadian rhythm, and I never had a job with those hours! The thought of embarking on some program to improve my sleep “quality” brings to mind the scene from This is Spinal Tap when Bobbi Flekman complains about the band’s offensive album cover for Smell the Glove, and their manager assures her, “You should have seen the cover they wanted to do. It wasn’t a glove, believe me.”

Despite these complaints, I’m not ready to give up on my Fitbit. I still dread the thought of my data coming to an abrupt end. Someday soon I might forget it at home while it’s plugged in for charging, and I won’t care that I left it.

500 Calorie Dinner

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My ongoing recovery from spine surgery makes traditional dieting an ill-advised move. While gaining significant amounts of weight would complicate my healing, trying to lose weight at this point would be more risky. I feel I’m better off erring on the side of excess to optimize my recovery, especially since I lost a considerable amount of blood during the surgery itself.

I figure the best approach is to forget my weight for the next couple months and try my best to eat what I need every day. This afternoon I picked up some ham and cheese from the deli, something I seldom do because the sight of all the variety in a deli case somehow baffles me. I typically walk away with my purchases wondering if I could have made better choices in taste or value. In the interest of better disclosure, I will tell you that my job complicates my deli uncertainty: I happen to work for a grocery distributor that offers even more varieties of salads, meats, and cheeses than one would ever see in a single deli case. When I look at a grocery store deli case, I also have an implicit awareness of what is missing, and I wonder why this or that cheese log or cured meat isn’t in the case. Stated otherwise, I have a hard time picking the items that are available in a reasonable amount of time, so I usually skip the deli section.

This afternoon, the deli counter was empty of customers as I walked by, so I picked a proven honey ham and a hot pepper cheese with no agony whatsoever of what I may have missed by making those choices. I also picked up some 80 calorie buns and once home built a sandwich and salad dressed up with some hummus and salsa (because I think that the best way to dress up a salad is with sauces or spreads made mainly from vegetables).

I was able to fill my stomach with gusto while getting some of the protein and calcium I need to assist the bone building in my lumbar fusion.

The Benson and Hedges Bias

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My Honda CR-V in opal sage metallic

I am inclined to reflect on the past, and I have uncovered a benefit to looking backward: detecting bias. My recent post about Columbia House helped me identify another irrational preference. I considered how 70’s and 80’s magazine advertisements led me to imagine being grown up and smoking a particular luxury cigarette brand. When I looked at my car today, I realized that I had chosen a vehicle in the same color as that brand, Benson and Hedges Menthol. Thirty odd years after first seeing those cigarette ads and being awed by the luxury and minor hedonism shown in them, I still gravitate toward the color of that product.

When I picked out my car a couple years ago, I looked at its metallic sage green paint and thought it showed a bit of grace and indulgence against the chaos of this life. That’s the same thing I thought about Benson and Hedges Menthol back in the 70’s! I’d imagine smoking them on a penthouse balcony, safe from all the bustle on the city streets below.

That bias is fairly benign, setting aside that I did become a smoker. My taste for pale green did not lead me to exclude people or opportunities. When I painted rooms that color, I wasn’t letting that bias guide me at the ballot box, for instance.

Some biases can be self defeating, such as my presumption that I would be forever rotund. In the penthouse daydream of my youth, I’d picture myself as a semi-plump woman trying her best to look like Sheena Easton in pumps and a slimming black pant suit. I wore the self defeat of that I-will-always-be-fat bias every I went on many yo-yo diets. People have asked me how I memorized the calorie content of so many foods, and I tell them this information comes naturally to a person who has been on as many diets as Oprah has.

After I had surrendered completely to this problem, I had the lucky accident of delerium that showed me what I’d look like if I were a supermodel. This image of me without the extra weight busted that bias, and my weight was reasonable for the first time at age 40 (actually for the first time since I imagined that I’d grow up to be a heavy woman).

What you truly believe will come to pass. Once I reached the sometimes cold, hard reality of adulthood, I assumed that facing some adversity meant that I would always struggle. I would never prosper. Circumstance dared me to do better. I didn’t think I’d ever own a car that runs, let alone drive a CR-V the color of Benson and Hedges Menthol.

I’m also glad my youth gave me opportunities for biases that sweeten my perspective. When I was in grade school, I had a dear friend whose parents had a wall display full of political buttons of the past. The one I held most dear was the button that proclaimed, “Remember Harvey Milk.” I feel blessed that I learned about him when I was so young.

As the election approaches, I will take the time to learn more about the candidates, sniffing out what they really stand for as opposed to the biases they might be wearing to promote an empty brand image.

Finding Balance

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Nearly two months have passed since I sprained my knee and began a hiatus from daily mindfulness about diet and exercise. In that time, I have seldom exercised beyond physical therapy and walking. I am pleased to report that I have not inflated in size and am enjoying a break from my workouts. This injury was not a setback but a call to balance. Looking at my Fitbit logs was starting to make me feel like I’d become something of a hamster running on a wheel, a daily grind whose reward did not justify neglect in other matters, such as the dust and unsorted piles of paper in my house.

I am emerging from this break thinking that I’ll focus on walking for exercise and do a harder workout once or twice a week. My sprain was an overuse injury, so higher impact exercise was not as helpful as I thought it was. If the price of all that intensity could be arthritis or a knee replacement in my later years, I would rather be walking, especially since that type of exercise seems to work best for me at controlling depression.

This week I recalled the moment that made me bold enough to believe I could walk away from a lifetime of poor body image, which was crucial to my later weight loss. Several years ago, I had a brief delirium during a bout with the flu. I looked at myself in the mirror and in that reflection was a hallucination of my body perfected. Instead of seeing a morbidly obese women with tangled hair, I saw a supermodel in that mirror. I have held onto that image ever since. Not long after that fever, I met the man who would become my husband, and I started slowly losing weight. How I thought of my looks made all the difference.

As I make less of a priority of watching my weight, I am not so worried that I will fall off the proverbial wagon. I am enjoying getting back to the kinds of things that can’t be multitasked so well with working out, such as writing. Even if I were to fail eventually with my weight, I have the comfort of a good body image that I’ve held so long that it would be unshakable even if I were to become super jiggly once again.

Down Time

Last week I sprained my knee and am awaiting the start of physical therapy to remedy this injury. My husband is also getting rotator cuff surgery tomorrow. Between these two events, my exercise regimen is definitely on hold. I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve had the time and wellness to sustain my fitness goals for several years. While I do ordinarily have plenty of competing demands on my time, I have found a way to keep going. It’s almost as if I have been blessed with time again and again, even with working full time and raising my daughter all the while. Just when I’d lose hope that I wouldn’t be able to fit in a workout or make a decent meal, the pace of my day would slow down just enough to make these priorities a reality. I haven’t had to cope with a true hiatus since before I started getting in shape in 2010.

I’ve had to reassure myself that a couple weeks of down time won’t ruin my efforts. This time is crucial to the healing of both my husband and me. Without a pause, one or both of us may not be well enough to be active in the long term. In the meantime, it’s been harder to eat well because I’m accustomed to thinking of diet and exercise together. I don’t want to think about how much less I should be eating.

Thus interlude will be over soon enough, but it has already given me some insight into why people can be apt to gain weight after injuries. It’s much harder to make a priority of eating right when there is less opportunity for exercise. There is more time to be tempted by food, yet you need to eat less to keep off extra weight that can aggravate your injury.