My struggle with obesity started when I was very young. The child of a single mother who worked long hours as a nurse, I spent a lot of time alone in our NYC apartment. But in many ways, I wasn’t alone at all. I had a companion—its name was food. Food was creamy and salty, and sometimes it was sweet and buttery. It was always nearby, and we shared a common language. It would beckon me into the kitchen along a well-worn path of hallway that ran from my bedroom. Like most, our NYC kitchen was tiny. It should have had a sign that said, “maximum occupancy not to exceed one person.” No worries, there were rarely two people. My mom would be working, and I would be alone, hanging off the side of an open fridge, contemplating my next meal.
I Never Met an Emotion I Didn’t Eat Over
When I was sad, I ate. When I was happy, I ate. When I was nervous, I ate. When I was bored, I ate. When I was scared, I ate. For almost every emotion I felt, and any that overwhelmed me, I went to food. It quelled those emotions with such perfection that I started to think of food as a friend. We all know that some friendships can be toxic. Mine was.
After years of being there for me, food turned on me during adolescence. My bulges, plump face and chafing thighs soon let me know that “food as friend” had a nasty habit of sticking around in all the wrong places. I dieted my body into submission, getting as low as a size 6 and then ballooning back up to a size 15. Most major milestones in my teens and adult life took place under the shadow of feeling fat—my graduations from high school and college, my wedding, pregnancy, and the beginning of midlife. I yo-yo dieted for decades, settling into a dangerous pattern of going from a weight of 240 to 200 and then back up again.
Then, in my 50s, in part due to health concerns related to perimenopause (particularly troubling heart palpitations), I was scared into adopting a healthier lifestyle. I lost more than 60 pounds (going from 240 to 178 pounds) by eating a whole-foods diet with little-to-no sugar and engaging in lots of exercise (rowing, strength training and walking). I’ve settled into my healthy habits, maintaining the same weight for a record three years. I enjoy working out now and have stayed the course with healthy eating (definitely much harder than exercising).
Shouldn’t Weight Loss Make Me Happier?
For years, I dreamt of the time when I would be a “normal” weight. I thought about the new clothes I’d wear and how pleased I’d be with my slimmed-down face and sleek, muscular arms. I relished a time when my family, doctors and assorted strangers would have something other to talk about than my weight. Losing the weight was wonderful, but there were some unexpected side effects that never really crossed my mind while I was dreaming of a thinner me.
It turns out that along with the joy and a sense of accomplishment from losing weight, there was also a feeling of sadness that lay just below the surface of my everyday emotions. It’s not quite regret, but more a sense of melancholy as I think about how long it took me to make healthy choices and allow myself to feel this good.
The Other Side of Slim: Negative Side Effects of Weight Loss
Losing weight in my early 50s meant I would undoubtedly have some negative side effects, like sagging skin (along with sagging body parts), decreased muscle mass and tone, and neck and face wrinkling (the kind that only looks cute on certain dogs). But since I’m also going through menopause, you can add other unpleasant body changes: more grey hair, hair loss on my head (that’s ridiculously replaced with hair on my chin), and hot flashes that insist on preventing me from looking pulled together no matter how hard I try.
There’s a feeling that no matter how good I look now, perhaps I could have looked better if I’d lost the weight in my 20s or 30s or 40s. If I’d lost weight in my 20s, my skin would have snapped back, a bikini might have been an option, and I would have saved myself hours of searching for fashionable clothes in my size. Perhaps I do feel regret, mixed with a touch of vanity? How would I know? I never sat with my emotions long enough to be able to identify them. Is this regret? Am I vain? Am I angry? It beats me. Since I ate over my emotions and stuffed them down, it’s hard to recognize all their permutations without an experiential reference point.
Sitting with Sadness
I know I feel sad, but I’ve never really sat with sadness. My whole life, I ate when sad because I couldn’t handle the feeling. Sadness was difficult because I had no idea how long it would last or if I’d make it out on the other side. Since I used food to cope at the very start of my childhood (and through every phase of my consciousness), I had no way of knowing if I could handle feeling bad for any period of time. Sitting with sadness hurts. Rationally, I know that it will subside in time, but I don’t want to wait it out. And yet, I must. Isn’t that a lesson of adulthood? I’m just learning it at age 55.
Saying Goodbye to Food as Friend
I don’t have food as friend anymore. I have some new friends, and instead of numbing my feelings the way food did, my new friends help regulate them, and that’s helping me cope. Let me introduce you to my new friends: Exercise (especially strength training), Meditation (when I can stop telling myself to stop thinking) and Dancing (when Drake, Kehlani, J. Cole or Post Malone are on repeat). I’ve got lots of healthy-habit friends now, and they help me when sadness or anger or frustration come to visit.
When I stopped eating high-fat, high-sugar foods, I eliminated many of my binge foods. They were gone from my diet. It’s pretty hard to binge on brown rice and beans, blueberry/banana smoothies and roasted vegetables with salmon. At first, I was delighted that I was losing weight so consistently. The truth was, on a day-to-day basis, I felt really good—too good to go back to overeating. My energy was through the roof and I didn’t have food cravings. I was feeling better in my body, and wearing clothing was a dream. Still, after a few months, there were periods when I fought off sadness or anger, wishing I had food to make me feel better. I needed to develop coping mechanisms for when my moods took a dive.
Since I’m going through menopause, I also have insomnia more often than usual, and the combo of a sleepless night and sadness is awful. These days, I try this coping strategy: I get up out of bed and sit on the couch in the living room and have mini-therapy sessions with myself. I tell myself that these feelings will pass and that they won’t break me because I’m strong. I tell myself that I can handle them (and I believe that), but I’ll feel messy and a little unhinged when the feelings are strong. By morning, the feelings have usually subsided. It turns out that I am blessed with sadness that’s relatively short-lived, and since I’m in the midst of menopause, my brain fog helps erase the most crushing aspects of sorrow within 24-48 hours. Who said there were no benefits to menopause?
My New Bestie
It’s been hard to part with my old friend food. It served an important (although unhealthy) purpose for decades, and when no one else would. On the other hand, now that I’ve lost the weight and started taking better care of myself, I’ve made a new best friend. She comes around sometimes—her name is Empowerment. When I lift weights at the gym, she whispers in my ear, “You’re a badass.” When I ask for coffee with no sugar, she says, “You got this!” When she watches me work up a sweat while dancing, she says, “Looking fine over there.”
Yes, my girl Empowerment is slowly taking the place of food, but it’s a daily grind. I wonder if the next three decades of my life will erase the memory of my days of food as a friend. Will Empowerment be with me in old age? I hope so. For now, I’m learning to sit with sadness when it comes but call on Empowerment whenever I can.
Sometimes it can feel like we’re alone, especially when we put down the food. I know I felt that way, but building a community of friends at my local gym and through social media has helped me connect to other people who share my struggles—and want to help me celebrate my successes. Join us. Drop me a comment below, and tell me how you’re handling emotions during weight loss. Connect with me on social for daily tips, inspiration and support.
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