Fat Lady on a Bike: My Journey to Peace and Fitness

Join me and my wonderful Electra Townie bike on my continuing journey to inner peace and both inner and outer fitness.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taking It On the Road

I'm sitting at a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, on the brink of several days of meetings, followed by a weekend family visit, contemplating with much curiosity and a little trepidation what it means to have taken my current array of medical concerns on the road.

It started this morning, at the TSA checkpoint, where I didn't know that I was supposed to take the CPAP machine out of its case so it could be specially screened.  Actually, it started before that, when I had to shlep the additional carry-on with the machine, mask, hoses and cords.  I try to travel really light with respect to what I carry on, so this was a major shift, and one that I felt, literally, as I trudged around the airport.  Maybe this means that in future I can't bring my computer backpack, but should go with a wheeled carry-on.  Sigh.

I stuffed a little cooler into my backpack with lunch, since I was traveling at noon, and that was fine.  When I got to Madison, I immediately went to Whole Foods Market to get some supplies, and was dismayed to find that they don't sell a couple of key items that I'd been counting on, like the American cheese that has been a mainstay for me since day one.  Sigh.

Then I got to the Doubletree and was handed the famous warm chocolate-chip cookie of welcome.  Sigh.

No question, it's going to be a challenge.  I've never been a particularly demanding diner; in fact, I've always thought that people who demand changes and substitutions are kind of a pain in the neck, or elsewhere.  But meet me, newly minted pain in the neck, or elsewhere.  It's not going to be easy for me to be so assertive about food; as a life-long fat person, I've generally tried to disappear into the woodwork when it comes to making food choices in public. I've also taken for granted that I can pretty much go anywhere and eat anything.  Not any more.  I'm hoping for steak houses and salad bars, places where I know I can get plain foods on my permitted list.  Goodbye to the Afghani and Nepalese restaurants, the Jewish deli, and the cheese curds and fish fries of previous trips.  Sigh.

On the positive side, I have a fridge in my room, which now contains some wonderful organic Fuji apples, some organic cottage cheese, some baby cucumbers, sourdough rye bread that I plan to bring down to breakfast, and the rest of the American cheese I brought from home.  On the shelf above the fridge are my Wasa Rye crackers, my Brown Rice Snaps, and a jar of almond butter.  In my suitcase are the peanuts and cashews I brought with me.  I won't starve, a thought that is incredibly comforting.

And tonight, when I get ready for bed, I can fill my CPAP humidifier with the distilled water I bought, put on my nasal pillows, and feel as cozy and comfortable as I do at home.

Enough of sighing.  Enough of trepidation.  I'm looking forward to my dinner.

A hui hou.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ups and Downs

Sunday I went with a friend to an aqua fitness class at the Newton Boston Sports Club (thanks, Alesia!).  The class was fun, and a good workout, but I mention it because of the amazing pool in which class was held.  There is a moveable wall that can create a class space, while leaving lanes for lap swimming (though much shorter than usual), and there is a movable floor to that class space, so that it can adjust for the heights of the students or be raised level with the sides so that people with mobility issues can get in and out comfortably. 

When I first heard about that floor, I couldn't quite get my mind around the concept.  Where did the water go?  What would it feel like?  Now that I've experienced it, I still don't understand quite how the water gets around the floor, but I do know that feeling the bottom adjust, gradually feeling on firmer footing, is a perfect metaphor for so much about my life now.

Ups and downs:  it's all about ups and downs, treading in deep water and sometimes feeling the bottom solidify beneath my feet.  And occasionally swallowing water and sputtering when I can't quite find my footing or slip a little on the tiles. 

In the food department, I've had my moments of less than supportive choices (see Oops, my last post), but the other evening, when I was scheduled to add mint via some Haagen Dazs Five ice cream, when the moment came, what I really wanted was an apple.  So that's what I had, and I enjoyed it enormously.  I ended up having the ice cream in the wee hours when I couldn't sleep and was actually hungry, and enjoyed it enormously then.  Both of those decisions were definitely an "up" moment.

In the sleep realm, my ups are that I find the CPAP mask generally comfortable and the machine incredibly quiet, and I don't have any trouble wearing it all night.  But the downs are that I still have significant trouble falling asleep, and that I am not really sleeping very restfully -- lots more moments of conscious wakefulness, probably due to not being used to being tethered, than I had with the apnea.  I assume that the bottom of that particular pool will slowly, slowly rise until one day in the near future I will be waking refreshed and restored from a good night's sleep.

In the area of physical activity, the up is that I am starting to be more active.  The downs are that I am feeling more joint pain and am usually exhausted after I exercise.  I know that both of those things will get better as I keep going, but sometimes the feeling of treading water in an uncomfortable pool makes it hard to stay in the water, let alone move ahead.  Still, I know that persisting through the discomfort is the only way to lessen it, and so I continue to agitate hands and feet, metaphorically speaking, to keep my head above the water.

May we all feel the reassuring solidity of the floor under our feet.

A hui hou.

Friday, October 8, 2010


In the interests of honesty and full disclosure, I want to write about last night, which was not my finest hour.  After so much positiveness, I suppose a small step back was inevitable.  That doesn't make it any easier to experience, unfortunately.

I was ravenous yesterday.  I got up late and had to rush out of the house to meet a friend for a physical activity date, so all I had time for was a banana on the way down to the garage.  When I got home at noon, I had exactly an hour to eat breakfast/lunch and get ready to go get my hair cut, so I shoveled in some cottage cheese with pineapple (one of my favorites) and a couple of WASA crackers with some butter.  I enjoyed that, but didn't have the time to fully appreciate my meal.  When I got home a couple of hours later, hungry again, I hurriedly ate lunch.  I enjoyed that, too -- especially the lettuce -- but even when I was finished, I didn't feel particularly satisfied, which was odd, because I had had more than enough food by any standard.  Dinner was a hurried affair during "Grandma Thursday" -- never an occasion for eating particularly mindfully, with various grandchildren clamoring for attention, and when we got home at 9:30, I was hungry again.

Being hungry is not bad.  Eating when hungry is not bad.  If I had only eaten a snack or small meal in response to that hunger, I would not be writing this post.

But I was tired, I was aching (both my sore ankle and my arthritic knees have been causing me much pain the past few days), and I was, I think, feeling the cumulative effects of rushing around mindlessly most of the day.  So I had one snack.  And then another.  And a little later another. 

Any one of them would have been a fine choice.  Any one of them would have left me feeling comfortable, both physically and emotionally.  Instead, by the time I'd finished the last spoonful of cereal (the third and final snack), I was feeling incredibly stuffed and a little nauseated.  That was interesting in itself, because the fact is that the total quantity of food I consumed was way less than I might have in the bad old days; I think I have finally gotten used to eating the smaller amounts that are more appropriate for my current age and activity level.  But feeling that uncomfortable also made it very clear why overeating was not a very useful technique for managing whatever it was that I was trying to manage. 

The bottom line was that I was still tired and still aching, only now I was also feeling sick.  Bleah.  So I finally did what I should have done in the first place and put myself to bed.

I write this not as a public mea culpa.  I don't feel guilty, only a little sorry that I didn't make a healthier choice.  Mostly, I found the experience extremely interesting and perhaps indicative of how far I have come.  And possibly of how far I have left to go.


A hui hou.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lettuce Rejoice!

So far, my fears about sugar seem to have been unfounded, and I am happy to report that yesterday's new food, which was lettuce, led to one of my more astonishing experiences.

I decided to add lettuce, even before some of the more interesting vegetables that I love, like zucchini and eggplant and cabbage, because I figured that when I go out of town in a couple of weeks and have to eat in restaurants, lettuce would give me access to a whole bunch of choices that will make my life much easier.  It's a rare restaurant that doesn't offer a Caesar salad with grilled chicken, fish or steak -- I never eat the croutons anyway, don't need the parmesan and usually prefer to have it without dressing, so if they can give me the protein without seasoning, I'll be fine. 

Now, like most perennial dieters, I have long had a love-hate (sometimes even a hate-hate) relationship with salad.  For the 4-5 years I followed the Carb Addict's Diet, a hefty salad was a required prelude to each "reward meal" -- the one where you could actually have carbs.  When I did low-calorie programs or old-style Weight Watchers, salads were the "free" food, the one you almost didn't have to count, unless you used a lot of dressing, which I never did, by choice.  Even at Green Mountain, where the program emphasizes the joys of eating rather than restriction and deprivation, salad is an ever-present entity, usually a planned part of every lunch and always a choice if you are still hungry after finishing lunch or dinner.  Though Carol thinks of salad (and also raw fish!) as comfort food, salad never did it for me.  Ever.

But yesterday, I can't tell you how excited I was as I picked out some succulent hearts of Romaine to have as the new food of the day, the accompaniment to grilled salmon and boiled Yukon Gold potatoes.  The excitement built as I assembled my salad -- tearing up the romaine, slicing some cucumber, washing a handful of super sweet grape tomatoes, and cutting some black olives in half to add a salty contrast.  And when I ate the first bite, I felt as though I had never tasted anything so delicious.


I'd have to say that I enjoyed that salad significantly more than the long-awaited almond horns I added on Sunday evening.  And I enjoyed the lettuce again an hour ago as I munched my way through the remaining leaves with my lunch.

Is this a simple case of absence making the taste buds grow fonder?  Or have I really changed in some very fundamental way in my relationship with food?

Only time will tell.

A hui hou.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I've been quiet this past week as dealing with a new physical pain drove out the psychic pain of waiting for my CPAP.  But I have not stopped my progress with the LEAP protocol, continuing to add a new food from my non-reactive list every other day.  Though I have mostly been going in order, according to the phases provided by the LEAP lab, I decided (with dietitian support) to jump ahead a little bit with certain foods that will enable me to eat out with a bit more ease when I travel on business in a couple of weeks.  So I skipped a bunch of fruit and cabbage in order to get to eggs, beef and lettuce.  But last night, as an extra special treat, my added food of choice was cane sugar.

It felt kind of dangerous and scary.  Adding sugar, after the addition of eggs, means that the world of baked goods is opening up, albeit gluten free.  Specifically, I ate two little gluten-free almond horns (courtesy of Aleia's), and I thoroughly enjoyed them.  As I opened the bag to share with my dining companions, I wondered whether I was actually opening a dietary Pandora's box. 

So far my experience with the LEAP protocol has been nothing short of amazing.  I have simply had no desire to eat any of the foods to which I tested as sensitive, and also have had no desire to jump the gun on any late-stage foods before their time.  Though I've occasionally had urges to eat salty/crunchy (usually satisfied by organic American cheese on sesame-rice crackers) or sweet (cashew butter with a little honey or maple syrup mixed in or some freeze-dried fruit), they have been momentary urges only and easily satisfied.  There was no "bag of cookies" option.  And while it has felt as though those particular cravings departed when I finally dealt with the buried feelings about my mother and her death (see my blog posts from June), being without emotional impetuses to eat is still an extremely new experience for me, and one that I'm having a little trouble trusting.

On the one hand, those almond horns sat on the counter for four days, waiting for me to pack them up for our trip to Vermont, without once calling out to me seductively.

On the other hand, sugar was not yet a permissible food.  Now it is.

Will things change now?  I don't think so, and I certainly hope not, but only time will tell.

A hui hou.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What if.....?

The problem with not living mindfully in the moment is that there are no limits to where your imagination can take you.  If you are truly mindful, accepting each moment as the only reality, there is structure; the only things or people or forces or problems that you have to deal with are what is right there in the moment with you.  The issues are concrete, in a way -- they are what is present and only what is present.

Take away the time boundary and all hell breaks loose.  You can worry about what might happen.  You can worry about what happened last time you were in a similar situation.  You can worry about the things that you don't even know enough to worry about specifically.  There is no end.

I've always occupied a funny sort of middle ground.  I almost never worry or get nervous about things that I understand and have experienced before.  When I first joined the Wholesale Klezmer Band, my first public performance was a free dance workshop at a local folk festival, and I was so nervous I nearly threw up, because while I had played many a classical concert, I had never played a klezmer gig before.  A year later, when we had the privilege of playing at the 100th birthday of Carnegie Hall with all the famous folk performers I had grown up with, everyone else in the group was throwing up, but I was calm as a cucumber; I knew how to do klezmer concerts.

Similarly, most of the time when I'm facing a difficult situation, I have been able to defer worrying until I knew there was actually something to worry about.  Carol, on the other hand, practices what has been called "defensive pessimism" -- going to the worst possible eventuality beforehand so as to work through all the possibilities and get comfortable with them before actually having to face them.  Though that isn't my way, I have, to an extent, learned to appreciate it as a valid coping mechanism.

But right now, in the limbo between my apnea diagnosis and the appointment that will give me access to treatment, I am inhabiting the vast vortex of uncertainty and it is driving me crazy.

What if the mask hurts my nose?  What if breathing through nasal tubes every night exacerbates the dryness and swelling of my mucus membranes that always plague me in the New England winter?  What if they don't offer me a really quiet machine?  And the kicker: what if the CPAP doesn't help and I'm still tired all the time?

About once a day, when I am on my computer doing something actually useful, I find myself drifting over to Google to look up something else about CPAP use.  Engaging with information seems to calm me down, if only for the minutes I spend reading.  I've learned that there are lots of potential solutions to most of the problems CPAP newbies seem to experience, and I do trust my health care providers, who have a good track record of staying on top of issues until they get resolved. There really isn't anything objective to be worried about.

So what's the problem?

I think it's more about the waiting than about the specifics.  I feel as though I am simply marking time, that my "real" life and routine cannot start until I can wake up in the morning with some energy and focus.  And that feeling of being in limbo is driving me crazy.  Before I knew about the apnea, I figured the fatigue was simply one of the factors I have to deal with right now, like ankle pain or asthma.  Knowing that there is a good chance that it will disappear in a couple of weeks makes dealing with it now almost intolerable.

And so I sit back, take a deep breath, and try to center myself in the current moment.  And the next one.  And the next one.  October 8th can't come soon enough.

A hui hou. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Remembering My Biking Triumph

Today, thousands of bicyclists are riding the annual Hub On Wheels event, an annual ride around Boston's neighborhoods to raise money for computers in the classrooms of Boston Public Schools.  Three years ago, for the first and only time, I rode in the 26-mile version of that event; in fact, the picture that heads this blog is from that momentous day.  I was training to do it again last summer, but a major respiratory infection that began last Labor Day weekend put an end to that dream, and this year, my continuing health problems similarly made participation impossible, so I am left staring out the window, remembering.

Here's what I wrote to family and friends a few days after the event:

So, there I was, last Sunday morning at 7:15, feeling extremely excited and kind of sick, watching my fellow bicyclists lining up for the 8am start of the Hub on Wheels ride around Boston.  Supposedly there were 4000 riders registered for the event; 3800 lean, sleek cyclists, 197 regular people, and 3 really large people, of which I might have been the largest.  I had a moment of wondering what on earth I was doing there, but then the still, small voice I've been learning to listen to during the past couple of months of coaching sessions with Teri from Green Mountain took over and said I am what I am and I'm doing the ride anyway.

It finally got to be 8am, and off we went.  It was a perfect day to be out on a bike, and absolutely awesome to be riding down the middle of several of Boston's main streets with a police escort and no traffic!  Riding up the ramp to Storrow Drive was amazing and exhilarating, only I almost immediately slipped my chain off the derailleur.  But even that was amazing, since one of the riding marshalls rode up with his little bag of tools and not only helped me get it back on, but adjusted something so it wouldn't happen again.  When else in life does that happen?

The first 7 miles or so were pure joy, though riding home afterwards I realized I hadn't taken in a lot of specifics about where we were riding, at least then.  But then we got to the Jamaicaway, which had a fairly narrow bike path that was really neat until I realized that it was a steady uphill pull.

Let me stop a second and explain the physical difficulties I was facing.  For starters, the day before the ride had been Yom Kippur, when, among other things, Jews are supposed to abstain from food and drink from sundown to sundown.  I had actually had to break my fast in the afternoon because of really bad asthma, which can happen if I use my inhaler in the absence of liquids.  So, I was starting out with something of a deficit.  Then on Sunday morning, I was so excited/nervous/agitated I couldn't eat.  I knew I needed to and I tried, several times, but I just couldn't do it.  I knew I'd pay the price, but there really was nothing I could do.

Back to the Jamaicaway, in the absence of glycogen stores.  I was tired, but Carol was waiting along this part of the route, and so were Dan and Nathan, to cheer me on, which I much appreciated.  After I got to the top of that incline, slowly but surely, there was an exhilarating downhill dash into the Arnold Arboretum, and that's when things got tough.  There was a hill.  I pedaled and pedaled, and finally I had to get off and walk the bike up to the top.  People were very encouraging, as they rode by, which was nice, but let me tell, you, pushing a bike up hill isn't so very much easier than riding it!  But finally I got to the top, and then there was a rest area but I wanted to push on.  I was drinking from my personal hydration system and eating my Sports Beans (jelly beans specially formulated with electrolytes, etc.), and didn't want to stop if I didn't have to. 

And then there was Forest Hills Cemetery.  Another long uphill.  It was very hot at this point, and no shade, and I stopped and called Carol for an encouraging word.  I told her my dilemma and that I had no energy and that at least if I died it would be convenient because I was already in the cemetery.  She laughed and said I could do it, so I did hung up and did it.  And just before the gate out of the cemetery, I did stop at the rest area and sucked on some oranges -- I still couldn't stomach the idea of eating anything more substantial than the Sports Beans, even though they had all kinds of things there.  I did take a mini Cliff Bar in case I needed it later, and I tried to find out if there were more hills coming up, but nobody really knew.  So I flung myself back into the fray.

Fortunately, there weren't any really bad hills, but I was so exhausted (this was about 11 miles in) that quite a few of the inclines along the route got the better of me, even though they might not have under normal circumstances.  I really enjoyed pedaling along through Franklin Park, where my family was again waiting to cheer me on, and through Roxbury and Dorchester.  It was especially fun to suddenly recognize an intersection that I had driven through, seeing it from a totally different perspective.  It was hard, though, and I was getting more and more tired, but I just kept pedaling.  Most of the time there were other riders around, especially at the major intersections (where there were marshals and occasionally police or rangers to stop traffic for us), but quite regularly I was chugging along on my own.  It made me feel a little better to see other folks occasionally stopping or walking uphill, and I was leap-frogging with a whole group who were faster than I but stopping more often.

Finally, at about 16 miles or so, I reached the waterfront and knew that the rest of the route was along the shore, which meant no more hills.  But I was horrified to realize that I was only able to get up about 7mph on a totally flat path!  This was NOT GOOD, so I stopped on a bench overlooking a gorgeous harbor view and choked down that mini Cliff Bar I had snagged from the rest stop.  It tasted like sawdust, but I knew I needed some fuel.  I have no idea how long I actually sat there trying to finish that lump of food; I intended to stop for only a few minutes, as I was planning to take a longer break at the next rest area, which was coming up, but I actually sat there for about 45.  It was, at least, a beautiful place to sit and contemplate the water.

Eventually, I got back on the bike and slogged along the mile or so to the rest area at Carson Beach.  I sucked down some oranges again (I had always wondered why they always gave out orange wedges at the Boston Marathon, since they didn't seem like they'd give you enough of either liquid or calories to do you much good, but now I GET IT), took a banana (which I absolutely did NOT want to eat) and refilled my water reservoir (I'd just finished the half gallon I'd started with), collapsed on the curb of the parking lot and called Carol to see if they were nearby.  She was, though they were just getting ready to leave, thinking they had missed me (due to my unanticipated stop); so they came over and Nathan came running up the wonderful way he has and flung himself at me -- all the other bikers in the parking lot said "aaaawwwwwwwwww" as if on cue -- and Carol got me more water and made me eat the banana.  I stayed there for about half an hour -- Holly, who had just been swimming with the girls, drove over, too, and gave me a much needed pep talk.  Nathan also kept finding interesting rocks to give me; after the first two, which I put in my back pack for luck, I had him give them to Carol to hold.  Left to himself, I think he would have emptied the parking lot for me!

The best moment of my rest stop was when Nathan looked at my bike, furrowed his brow and asked, "But where does the gas go?"

So, it was now 12pm and I'd completed 20 miles, with six miles to go.  I didn't think I could do it, but with encouragement from my wonderful family and a promise to myself that I'd stop every mile if I needed to, I got back on the bike and started off.  To my amazement, the next four miles were totally enjoyable (must have been those calories!).  Then, all of a sudden, with just under two miles to go, my butt went numb and my feet went numb on the pedals and I had to get off the bike that very minute.  So I found a congenial bench on Fan Pier and stretched a bit and got back on the bike for the final push home.

The last mile or so was the scariest of the whole ride -- on Atlantic Avenue with all the traffic, and having to turn left across all those lanes with only one marshal to show us the way, but no one to make it safe.  Then, on State Street, with the end in sight, I was making my way between a bus on one side and parked cars on the other, and feeling a bit apprehensive about that, but then all of a sudden the road opened out and there were Hub on Wheels volunteers yelling and ringing cow bells and making me smile so I rode across the finish grinning as widely as when I started.  I called Carol, who was just parking the car, and told her where to meet me, and then found a place to sit and collapsed, barely containing the emotions welling up inside until she and Nathan got there.  Poor Nathan; when I was done sobbing I tried to explain to him how grown-ups were kind of strange sometimes and cried when they were really happy.  He was looking really distressed, since in his world you only cry when you're sad or you have a boo-boo.

We parked my bike at the bike valet and I collected my free lunch from Redbones (the best barbecue place in Boston and a great supporter of biking), which I actually managed to eat about half of, with some enjoyment.  About every 10 minutes, Nathan asked me if I had won, and I would patiently explain to him that everyone who had done the ride won, that there were lots of ways of winning, that it wasn't a race, etc. etc.  And 10 minutes later he would ask me again, "Sherry, did you win?"  Finally, I just said "YES", and that was the truth, too.

I still can't believe I did it.

And I can't believe how much I've been learning from the experience.  New ways of looking at food.  How my body reacts to extreme physical stress (I didn't actually feel hunger until Tuesday lunchtime, then went through two days of getting ravenous every few hours all night long, and I kept falling asleep Monday and Wednesday, and even today (Friday) I'm feeling totally unenergetic.)  How it feels to set a goal and train for it -- something I've done in other areas of my life, but not in terms of physical activity.  How much I love riding my bike -- I rode for an hour yesterday and enjoyed it enormously, though I realized I have no reserves still, and couldn't push myself to reach my normal riding speeds.  How much I want to do this again next year, and how I might train for the hills.

It was an amazing journey.  26.3 miles, in 3.5 hours of riding time (not quite 5 hours by the clock).  I'm grateful that I was able to do it, and even more grateful for everyone's support and good wishes. 

Looking back on that event now, the lessons that I've taken from that whole experience are a little bit different than what I reported at the time.  For one thing, the post-ride week was really the first time in my adult life when I really paid close attention to what my body was signaling about its physiologic needs, and that I gave myself complete permission to satisfy them.  During the first 48 hours after I got home, while I was mostly sleeping, all I could stomach was a little bit of sharp cheddar with a challah roll -- I think the contrasting sweet and salt tastes were what made that palatable.  On Tuesday, when I experienced actual hunger, I got a message as clear as a neon sign that what I needed was protein, so I downed a can of tuna fish, nothing else.  Then for the 48 hours after that, when I was ravenous every couple of hours, all I wanted was carbs -- crackers, pretzels, cereal, bread.  After that I went back to normal.  It all made sense, and it all felt fine.

The second important lesson was the nature of the training I did.  I was basically following two of the programs set out in a wonderful little book called How To Get Wheely Fit.  The first four week plan took me from first mount-up to riding 60 minutes straight, and the second from one hour at a time to two hours.  Each plan called for specific length rides on four days per week.  So each week I would figure put in the ideal schedule -- in pencil -- and then figure out what I could actually manage that would be close to that ideal.  Sometimes I did exactly what the book said, but often I couldn't.  But if I couldn't ride enough to advance to the next week's level, I made sure to do enough to maintain where I was, with the result that the Tuesday before the ride, I made a glorious 18-mile circuit on the bike paths along both sides of the Charles River, passing through four different towns in the process.  Somehow, I've never managed yet to be that flexible with myself in any of my other endeavors, though I've consciously looked to that as a model for how it can be done.

I still love riding my bike more than any other physical activity I do, and I don't doubt that I will sign up for Hub on Wheels again.  Maybe even next year.  I look forward to seeing what I will learn from that experience.

A hui hou.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I am generally a patient woman.  Ask anyone.  I am content to read the same story to my grandchildren six times in a row;  listening to my grandparents tell the same stories over and over again was actually a pleasure.  As my fifth year anniversary post attests, most of the time, I am content to sit back and see what unfolds. 

Not now.

I still have two weeks to wait until I go for my follow-up appointment and get outfitted for CPAP, and the waiting is driving me crazy.

Every morning, I wake up in a fog of fatigue, and every afternoon I have to struggle to keep awake and alert.  The effort I'm expending to stay moderately functional is more than I can spare, and I can't seem to find the inner resources to get myself on a better schedule.  Knowing that help is in sight, but still at a distance, is torturing me.

Apart from the physical discomfort of being tired all the time and moping along through days that  might otherwise be envigorating, the major dilemma I face is this:  Do I spend time and energy now on trying to deal with adapting to a less than optimal schedule, or do I simply wait to see if the difficulties I face go away once I am (I hope!) getting more restful sleep?

I am, despite my current apnea issues, basically a morning person.  Morning is the only time I can work effectively.  Morning is also the only time I can comfortably and effectively exercise.  Obviously, this makes the morning hours prime temporal real estate for me.  And now, with my horrible sleep patterns and the constant exhaustion I feel upon waking, those hours have been whittled away till I'm lucky if I get moving by noon, leaving me with, at most three useful hours before my brain fuzzes over completely.

If I could only wake at 6am, ready to hit the floor moving, I'd be able to enjoy the best part of the day and probably find it much easier to get myself to do the strength training that is so important.  There is simply no way that that is realistic right now.  Maybe that will be possible once I'm sleeping better; I hope so.  But for the moment, what do I do?  I need to impose some structure on my life, but can I do it now?  Should I?  Or do I just muddle through until I know what I am finally dealing with.

Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

October 8th can't get here soon enough.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Back in June, when I had my functional medicine evaluation, one of the things that I learned was that my adrenal system was on the edge of collapse.  While my cortisol levels were technically normal, they were the lowest they could possibly be and still qualify.  My doctor explained that I seemed to be able to produce sufficient hormones, but that my system was not draining them away adequately after the moment of need was past.  This seems to be, at least in part, a function of the constant state of stress most of us are in these days.  The adrenal system was designed, as it were, to deal with fight or flight situations, which in the very old days came along only very occasionally, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors ran up against creatures that might like them for dinner.  The body would produce adrenaline to enable said ancestors to get the hell out of town, and then drain the excess away once the danger was over. 

In the modern world, while we rarely have to face errant saber-tooth tigers, we live in such a way that small stress is piled on small stress until our systems are in a near constant state of red alert.  One of the first things I learned at Green Mountain was the need to provide some respite, through deep breathing or meditation, or even through a mindful walk, throughout the day.  But as my test results showed, those techniques were not getting me to where I needed to be.  So my doctor prescribed some supplements to support my adrenal system, advised me to get adequate sleep, and also gave me an exercise prescription.  To promote adrenal healing, stretching and strength training are key, as is keeping aerobic exercise at low and moderate levels only.

I confess, I was dismayed at hearing that last part.  As regular readers of this blog know, biking is both my cardio activity of choice and my joy, and the idea that it was not actually good for me was too horrifying to contemplate.  When I raised this to my doctor, she said I could keep biking if not doing so would be more stressful than the actual biking and suggested that I lower my gears a notch or two to keep at a lower level of exertion.  That seemed okay, though I figured it might be hard.  I like to pedal at a certain rate, and biking is the one activity I do where I don't mind working at the vigorous level.

Shortly after that evaluation, I embarked upon two months of pretty solid traveling, so I never did get back on my bike.  It felt a little scary, to be honest, so I didn't make any extraordinary efforts to ride, even when I could.  When the travel ceased, I tried swimming, which had been recommended as an every day activity, but though I like swimming and used to be a major lap swimmer.  I didn't manage to get into it in any meaningful way.  So, finally, earlier this week, I got back on my bike and decided that I would do whatever I had to in order to keep riding.

It wasn't bad.  I suppose that from a biker point of view, what I need to do now might be considered wimping out, as I drop down in gears at the first sign of an incline, however small.  And every now and then, despite my best efforts, I end up on a course where I have to peddle harder than might be ideal.  But I feel so good on the bike, I think it's worth it.  I love all the sensory aspects of biking, I love moving through space, and I love being a person who bikes.

So I'm back in the saddle again.  And very grateful to be there.

A hui hou.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Knitting Up the Ravelled Sleave

When I came home after my first semester of college, my parents took one look at me and offered to rush me to the doctor.  I was deathly pale, had huge bags under my eyes, and presented a generally dull and lackluster affect.  I told them I was fine, but that I had been getting by on about two hours of sleep a night.  It wasn't that I was a partyer -- on the contrary, I was studying and talking into the wee hours, not wanting to miss a single moment of the intense experience.

That was the last time I so cavalierly tossed away opportunities to sleep.

My real love-hate relationship with this most essential activity began in my early thirties, when I developed asthma.  For more years than I like to contemplate, I was up until 3-4am every day, hacking my guts out.  It was partly a side effect of taking theophylline (a close cousin of caffeine), and partly the result of the disease itself, which tends to be more active nocturnally.

Eventually, my asthma got better controlled and I went off theophylline, but that was about the same time that I became a gigging musician, with a band out in Western Massachusetts.  At least once a week (for rehearsals), but often two or three times, depending on our gig schedule, I was driving home in those same sleepless wee hours, totally disrupting any chance of having a reasonable sleep schedule.  I felt as though I was always catching up, trying to fill a deficit that never stayed filled for more than a day or two.

When I finally got to the point where I couldn't deal with that any more, I began staying at motels after gigs so I wouldn't have to lose so much sleep.  That was fine, until menopause struck.  That brought me two years of 3am awakenings.  These weren't the usual, sleepy arousals that usually lead peacefully back to bed; these were springing into action awakenings.  I thought I would go mad, as I tried to deal with that in the context of trying to maintain a "normal" schedule.  Eventually, I consulted a therapist, who advised me to get up and do my work at 3am, if that was when I was awake, and take naps in the afternoon.  Duh.  That advice got me through the hormone frenzy.

I had a few peaceful years.  But for the past couple of years, I have had the worst sleep problems of all.  Half the time I can't fall asleep, even though there's nothing particularly urgent on my mind.  It's partly discomfort from my various physical aches and pains, and, to be honest, partly anxiety about sleeping.  The other half of the time I sleep for many hours, but I wake up feeling exhausted.  The result is that I'm tired all the time.  It takes me forever to get moving in the morning, and I'm often too tired to sleep when I do go to bed.

For a long time, I thought that I was deliberately keeping myself awake past the time I first felt sleepy so that I could have the house to myself for private eating.  Night time was always worst for me in that regard.  But since I cleared out the emotional mess that was behind most of my inappropriate eating, I've still been unable simply to put myself to bed at the first yawn.  Despite fairly rigorous exploration of other possible motives for me to keep myself up, I've come to the conclusion that sometimes I just can't sleep.  Of course, the most frustrating part of all is that even when I do sleep, it doesn't seem to do any good.

Lately, I've spent some time researching insomnia, everything I've read suggests that the best way to deal with it is "good sleep hygiene," by which they mean going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.  The trouble with that, of course, is that if I get up really early after a night of insomnia, I'm useless for the entire day.  And if I go to bed at the designated bedtime and can't sleep, I have to keep getting out of bed until I get sleepy, which does away with the whole notion of a standard bed time.

Fortunately, the physician's assistant who provides most of my primary care is a very smart and supportive person who believes that her job is to keep me safe while I work my way through to better health and fitness.  At my annual physical in August, she again suggested that I have a sleep study to see if I had a disorder.  Last year, when she suggested that, I put her off, since my experience of Carol's severe sleep apnea didn't seem to resonate at all.  But this year, she convinced me that an undiagnosed disorder could be putting additional stress on my heart and lungs, and I agreed that checking it out would be prudent.

Lo and behold -- I have sleep apnea.  It's on the mild side, but still significant.  I had a second study done to titrate appropriate CPAP levels and am now waiting -- impatiently -- for the follow-up appointment at which I will get my equipment.  Interestingly, though the night of the second sleep study was not exactly restorative, in the sense that I went to sleep later than usual and got up way earlier, I felt much more refreshed than after the first sleep study and the next night definitely felt sad that I didn't have the CPAP to put on.  I interpreted that as my body telling me that it liked the experience.

So, I am in a month-long limbo, knowing that relief is coming and feeling its lack even more intensely than before I knew that it was possible.  I have learned that in addition to fatigue, apnea can adversely affect both blood pressure and muscle/join achiness.  October 8th looms large as my day of salvation.  And then I worry that having the CPAP won't really help and I'll be stuck in this cloud of tiredness forever. 

Clearly, the best thing for me right now is to go with the flow and try to stay as functional as I can.  Trying to get on a reasonable bedtime/waking schedule certainly won't hurt, and it might prepare me for the good things to come.  And worrying never helps.  Maybe if I say that out loud enough times, I'll actually believe it!

A hui hou, and sweet dreams!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Five Years on the Path

It was exactly five years ago this week that I first crossed the threshold of Green Mountain at Fox Run, the amazing women's health and fitness retreat that has so profoundly changed my life for the better.  That was also a year when the Jewish High Holidays were in September, and I deliberately planned my trip to coincide with them, partly because it was a time when the band I was in did not have gigs, and partly because it felt fitting to spend those deeply introspective holidays learning to take care of myself.  Before I left home for my month-long sojourn, I made two promises to myself:

1.  I would try everything the program offered, every class, every therapy, every form of physical activity.

2.  If I felt that the program made sense, I would keep on coming back to Green Mountain as many times as it took to get me to my goal of fit and healthy.

I kept the first promise easily.  I did try everything and learned that I loved cardio on the fitball and that I could dance my heart out without being afraid of reinjuring my knee.  I also learned that I hated Pilates and found yoga way too difficult and painful to be enjoyable, at least for the present.  I had my very first massage, which was moderately enjoyable, but discovered that I liked Reiki way better.  I also learned that despite my usual linear thinking, I responded readily to both art and movement therapy.

I've also kept the second promise.  Most years I have gone back to what feels like my country home in both the spring and the fall, and when I got really sick during my visit last fall, I ended up doing most of my active recuperating there.  Each time I have learned the next important issue to work on or the next technique I needed to adopt, in the same way that when we hike over lava in the dark we have to use our flashlights to find the next segment of the path.  That first trip, what I took back with me was a reconnection between my head and my body; I had not realized before how much I was living from the neck up, not so much out of shame, but because I was constantly afraid of injury.  Other trips got me involved more in intuitive eating, intrinsic motivation, guided imagery for stress management, and, most recently, functional medicine.

When a new crop of participants converge on Green Mountain every Sunday, the second thing people ask each other, after establishing where they come from, is whether this is one's first visit to the program.  Over the years, I've seen the flicker of dismay in my questioner's eyes when I reply that this is my 3rd, or 7th or 12th visit.  Mostly, the flicker stays a flicker, and they she goes on to say something like, "you must really like it here."  I usually answer both the spoken and the unspoken question by saying that my whole life has changed, even though I haven't lost any weight yet. 

Some people get it; they understand, even before completing their first day in the program, that this isn't going to be a quick fix.  All of us who deal with weight management issues know how complex the problem is.  Others are politely noncommittal.  Only once did anyone actually manifest scorn; I avoided her for the rest of her time there. 

For five years, I have steadily and steadfastly pursued my goals of increased health and fitness, believing with my whole heart that, as the program taught me, if I did what I needed to do to take better care of myself, I would lose weight, eventually, as a welcome side effect of my efforts. I became again a person who moves, who enjoys being active whenever orthopedic or respiratory issues don't get in the way.  I've become calmer and more mindful, not just about hunger and satiety, but about everything.  I've learned to turn the compassion and patience I have for every other person on the planet towards myself and stop thinking of my body as my enemy, even when it keeps me from doing what I want or need to do.  I've continually dredged the pits of unacknowledged feelings that were driving me to eat for reasons other than hunger and finally cleared out what I believe to be the deepest one. 

And I still weigh pretty much exactly what I weighed on my very first visit.

Does this bother me?  Sure, I wish I weighed a hundred pounds less.  Or even 20.  But most of the time, I'm content to be patient because I know that I'm doing what I need and want to be doing to take care of myself.  And I'm not depriving myself of anything or twisting my life into some unnatural, ultimately unsustainable round of rigors, so there is really nothing to do but what I am doing.  I trust that if I keep doing it, and keep learning what "it" is, eventually the weight will let go, and let me go.  If I didn't also feel the onrush of impending mortality (I turn 60 next year), I'd be perfectly happy to let things take their course without a panicky moment. 

And the really good news is that I think that I am finally moving, albeit slowly, towards a lighter body and better health.  Between purging myself of the guilt and grief that kept me stuffing my emotions down, dealing with low thyroid, metabolic imbalances, food sensitivities and, most recently, sleep apnea, I am finally starting to see movement on the scale, without actively trying to limit my portions or "exercise."  Since the day I had my functional medicine evaluation, back in May, I've lost about 8 pounds.  While the current lack of strength training in my life has meant that I don't feel that absence in any meaningful way, I know that this is huge for me, and the harbinger of many good things to come.

So, happy anniversary to me, and thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone at Green Mountain.  And, as they say in Hawaii, imua -- forward!

A hui hou.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Year in Review

Every year, in December, newspapers and magazines are filled with retrospectives, lists of events or musings on what took place during the previous year.  We Jews tend to do this in September/October, the time of our new year and a period devoted to introspection and making one's peace with both people and what may be defined variously as God, one's higher power, or one's own conscience.  Though I began this new year in a frenzy of childcare, which didn't leave a whole lot of time for introspection (or anything else!), I was struck by how intensely I felt the presence of a threshold between the new year and the one that was about to end.

Since I tend to pay attention when my emotions get that intense, I thought it might be helpful to do a retrospective on my own year as I step over the threshold into 5771.

This was the year I had H1N1 and pneumonia, spending 8 days in the hospital and six months recovering.

This was the year that Carol and I endowed the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, making several of my dreams come true:  a permanent home for KlezKamp (the Yiddish folk arts program of which I am associate director) and my collection of Yiddish 78rpm recordings and a partner (the Mills Music Library) willing to make those recordings available online to anyone wanting to hear them.

This was the year I co-produced a 3-CD boxed set of recordings from my collection, to great critical acclaim and enormous personal satisfaction.

This was the year I discovered how badly my body has been beaten up by the life I've led, and also how to fix it.

This was the year I finally came to terms with the ravages of my childhood.

This was the year I got my mother back, in a small but extremely powerful way.

This was the year I got to introduce my sister and brother-in-law to most of my grandchildren.

This was the year I finally started to feel some peace around food.

This year was one of the hardest I've ever experienced, but also one of the most rewarding and meaningful.

In a way, stepping across into the coming year is similar to the journey one takes across the vast distance between the intensity of mourning and the return of "ordinary" life after sitting shiva, the week of mourning when a parent or other close relative dies.  Jewish tradition wisely has friends accompany the mourner in a walk around the perimeter of the house on that last day of mourning, girding the day as a chassid girds his waist to separate the spiritual head and heart from the worldly loins.  I remember when my father died, how disconcerted I was at the end of shiva, and how grateful and relieved I was to begin preparing for Passover, another intense, spiritual event, just a few days later.

Perhaps I need to go walk around my building.

Leshana tova -- a happy, sweet, healthy new year to all of you, and peace to everyone as we celebrate this birth day of the world.

A hui hou.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Deprivation Redux

This morning marks the seven-week anniversary of my starting the LEAP protocol to deal with food sensitivity.  It's been an interesting journey, so far, and I would say a very successful one.  My body seems to be very happy eating this way, and I'm finding the challenges of cooking with a limited universe of foods interesting and fun.  Because of a bunch of other factors, I've been moving really slowly through the addition of foods phases -- I'm still technically in phase two, but about to jump into phase 3 with the introduction of chicken tomorrow night for Rosh Hashono dinner.

I think that perhaps the most amazing aspect of this adventure has been the extent to which I am perfectly content with my limited food choices.  On the whole, I have not spent a lot of time and energy missing the things I can't have, and have reveled and delighted in the ones that I can.  This seems like a very useful paradigm for life.

This is not to say that I have never felt a wish for ano of those other foods.  Sometimes when Carol makes toast for her lunchtime sandwich, I breathe deeply the bread aroma and remember yeastier times.

The past two weekends, I've been on my own; Carol has been off having adventures of her own, leaving me to my own devices.  Always before, her departure would have signaled the beginning of self-indulgence -- bringing secret eating out in the open.  This time, while I didn't have that particular need, I did spend the time grazing rather than making "proper" meals, but my food choices were fine. 

What was interesting, though, was that I was tired and not feeling particularly great, and I did find myself thinking more about the foods I am not (yet) eating.  As I watched pizza commercials, I could momentarily taste the contrast between the salty cheese and the tang of tomato sauce, or between the creamy cheese and the crunchy crust.  I vicariously enjoyed turkey sandwiches, hamburgers, and popcorn.  It was amazing how vivid the flashes of sensory memory of those foods were.

But the really amazing thing was that, with the whole universe of food available to me and not a soul watching, it never even crossed my mind to eat any of those restricted foods.  Not even once.

Clearly, I'm not in Kansas any more. 

After 50 years of both behaving and thinking in certain ways about food, finding myself behaving and thinking in totally different ways is both stunning and exhilarating.  Does this sea change mean that I will never struggle with food again?  I doubt it.  But every day that passes with my choosing only those foods which make me feel healthy and content strengthens my ability to make that same choice again, so I am hopeful that any future struggles will be less intense and shorter lived.

Deprivation, I think I've finally got the upper hand.

A hui hou.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Life with Lydia

Recently, I got a Droid phone, which I have been enjoying immensely.  One of the best things is the navigation feature of Google Maps and the associated programs that locate coffee shops, places of interest, etc. near where you are travelling.  Last month we put it through its paces on a road trip down to Virginia, and really enjoyed it, so much so that we felt moved to name the calm, female voice of the program, and the name we decided on was Lydia.

Lydia is a near perfect companion.  She is never ruffled, never loses her temper, and is immediately responsive to changes in the route.  Unlike some GPS units we've experienced, she is very willing to follow your lead if you ignore one of her instructions and come up with the route you had in mind rather than the one she had worked out for you.  Without losing a beat, she tells you the next thing to do along the path you've chosen. 

Yesterday, I persistently ignored her instructions on the way to the house of a friend.  I basically knew how to get there, except for exactly where on the street my friend's house was located.  For once, Lydia's chosen route made no sense to me, so I went my normal way, and at every turn, she very calmly gave me the next instruction to get to her route, which was parallel to the one I was taking, until at last she gave up and went with the flow.  But at no time did she raise her voice or admonish me for not sticking to the plan.

It occurred to me, as this was happening, that what I was experiencing in my relationship with Lydia was a useful life lesson.  I am a planner, in general, and specifically at this moment in my life I am focusing a lot of energy into planning:  my time, my food, my activities.  Only it seems as though every time I decide on something, be it an activity or a schedule or the next food to add, something happens to get in my way and make that decision impossible to follow.  Unfortunately, I don't have Lydia's equanimity and I sometimes do give myself a hard time when thwarted by circumstance.  I would be much better off if I could do as she does and just quickly re-evaluate my situation and adapt to the new route.

I look forward to spending more time with this delightful guide and learning from her worthy example.

A hui hou.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Yesterday, as part of my plan to get back into regular physical activity, I went to my health club for the first time in well over a year.  They have a really nice lap pool, and I determined that I need to be swimming right now.  I figured that as a start, I just try to swim as many lengths as I could, since I've had trouble getting into the Zen of swimming of late, and see if I could find some joy in it.  I figured I'd do maybe twice up and back.  Instead, I did 10 lengths and felt pretty good -- a lot of stretching helped, and I didn't push to swim without stopping, and I believe I did find some meditative joy.

That was the good part of the experience.  The rest of it was incredibly difficult and led to my feeling as though as hard as I am trying to take better care of myself and do the things that are right for my body and spirit, the world right now is a very difficult place to be.

First, there was parking on the sixth floor of the garage and walking down six flights of stairs, which I did because the elevator was all the way on the other side of the garage and is kind of slow.  Then, there was the fact that though my Reefs had just about fit my very wide foot when I arrived at the pool, somehow during the swim my right foot had swollen and wouldn't fit all the way in, so my heel was hanging out at the back.  This made walking kind of awkward, but the real problem was in the shower -- I keep my shoes on there as the mats etc. that they use for drainage hurt my feet -- they don't hurt normal weight people, but my body pressed the soles down into the bumps more.  And balancing on the edge of one shoe while trying to shower was not fun.  In fact, it felt like a core workout!

Then there is getting dressed.  I hate getting dressed in locker rooms, not so much out of modesty, but because it's hard to get dry.  And my Green Mountain buddies will know what I mean when I say that trying to insert one's damp body into a sports bra requires contortions fit for Barnum and Bailey.  My arms are short and my torso is wide, so I can't reach back very far.  Oy.

And then, when I got to the elevator, already exhausted, I discovered that the one up to the sixth floor was out of order, so I would have to go to five and walk up the rest of the way.  This felt like the last straw.

I try to keep a positive attitude in life.  And I try not to feel as though the universe is out to get me, since most of the time I feel that it treats me with incredible care and generosity.  But yesterday, all I felt was that it was trying -- trying my patience, trying my good attitude, and trying to make it harder for me to do what I need to do.  I felt like crying.

But I dragged myself up the stairs between 5 and 6 and dragged myself home, where Carol and I brainstormed about how I could alleviate some of the obstacles I had encountered. 

Today is another day, and I will try again.

A hui hou.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Best-Laid Plans

I have always been a planner.  Maybe I learned it from my father, who carefully planned our family road trips and taught me to be his navigator and expense-recorder; I know I grew up enjoying my own road trips twice, first in the planning and then in the doing.  I don't think I'm rigid about sticking to my plans, most of the time, and one of the things I love, especially when traveling, is deciding in the moment to take a side trip to see something that sounds interesting or drive to the end of a road just to see where it goes.

Unfortunately, this open and adventurous attitude has often seemed to fly out the window when I contemplate anything having to do with self-care.  Somehow, I feel that unless I make some very detailed plan for myself, I'm not in control and destined to failure.  Whether in the realm of exercise or food, having a set plan and following it has always seemed like the secret of success, and if I can't get it together to plan my meals or follow the schedule I've set for myself, I am a loser and not worthy of taking care of.

Needless to say, this is not an attitude that has helped me much in my recent struggles to get healthy and fit.  I am the Queen of Impossible Expectations, or at least I have been, and every time I don't manage to stick to the program, I've landed in a slough of despond.

Fortunately, I think that all the thinking about and practicing with mindfulness that I've been doing has started to bear fruit, and I use that metaphor deliberately.

Last Friday, the third opportunity I had to add a new food to my current restricted fare, I had planned to have broccoli, as I was sorely feeling the want of variety among my vegetable choices.  I went to the grocery store, fully intending to purchase said broccoli, and looking forward to steaming it for dinner that evening.  But when I stepped through the doors of my local Whole Foods Market, there, in rosy, succulent glory, was a mound of gorgeous apricots.  Apricots were also on my Phase 2 list, but I didn't feel in a rush to add them because I felt perfectly fine in the fruit department.  But as I stood, riveted by their sensuous beauty, I thought how the apricot season is so short, and I immediately jettisoned the broccoli.  That evening, I enjoyed my steamed cauliflower and had three tiny, perfect apricots for dessert.  And I felt just fine about having to redo my entire plan.

A hui hou.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Craving Cucumbers

The yogurt I added on Monday caused no ripples in my well-being, so this morning I stand on the brink of adding cucumbers and am contemplating what it means to crave a simple vegetable.

In physical/taste-bud terms, it means that I am longing for the slightly bitter, slightly sweet, crunchy, juicy properties of cold cucumber slices or spears, a welcome relief from the sweetness of red peppers.  Unfortunately, I don't particularly enjoy raw celery, except in tuna salad, and green pepper goes too far over the bitter line.  Cucumbers are just right, the perfect foil (and conveyor) for smoked salmon or cheese or (be still my heart!) the hummus I plan to make next week when I've added chickpeas, sesame and garlic.

I've learned, these past two weeks, that I do crave variety in my foods, particularly at dinner.  Though I'm perfectly happy having the same exact breakfast six days out of seven, and fairly content to have the same thing for lunch for quite a few days in a row, when my dinners get monotonous I start feeling as though food has become simple fuel and not the pleasure it often is.  And without that source of pleasure in my life, I feel like I'm living behind a scrim, with everything looking dulled and washed out.  I'm speculating that this feeling comes up in relation to dinner more than the other meals because those other meals, functionally, are much more about fueling the activities of my day.  Dinner is the transition time to leisure, whatever that means to someone who's self-employed and self-driven.  Dinner is a moment to pause and appreciate life, so much more than a simple pit-stop.

As important as that insight feels, it isn't the most important thing I've learned from my cucumber cravings.  "Cravings" is a loaded word -- so often we tend to look at the things we most yearn for in a negative light.  "Craving attention" is generally a pejorative description of someone, and "food cravings" most often pop up in discussions of how to eliminate, ignore or otherwise get the better of them. 

In truth, cravings can be a positive tool, a way of hearing directly from your body what it needs.  Though I have had my share of the less than helpful kind of food cravings, the ones that stand out in my mind are the times I've craved healthy things, like the time I was on the Atkins diet, when even carbs from low-calorie vegetables were verboten, and I found myself rooted to the floor in front of a pyramid of succulent Brussels sprouts in a sensuous reverie imagining how their sweetness and slight bitterness would contrast with the tang of mustard-mayonnaise.  More recently, during my travels this summer, I realized I was absolutely longing for a salad one evening and realized that the previous three days had brought me nothing but sandwiches and fried food, with nary a vegetable in sight.  And now, with my vegetables severely limited during these early weeks, I long for the variety of tastes and textures and colors they add.

I've also recognized that sometimes cravings can come from your spirit and tell you just as clearly what you need to nourish your soul.  The other morning I was writing an email to my sister in which I was describing my longing just to sit somewhere for a while with no demands, when I suddenly realized I could satisfy that longing by beginning again to meditate regularly.  At other moments I have craved sleep with an urgency that made me feel as though I would die if I didn't immediately lie down.  And with increasing frequency, I find myself yearning to be out on my bike or in the pool, moving.

With cravings representing such primal wisdom, why do they have such a bad reputation?  Perhaps because so many of us are oblivious to anything but the most obvious cues and don't pay attention until it's almost too late for satisfying those needs to do any good.  But more likely it has to do with the fact that most of us don't seem to feel that we deserve to satisfy ourselves, to nurture ourselves and give ourselves what we truly need.

I'll be thinking more about this as I enjoy my cucumbers at lunch.

A hui hou.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Freedom in Restriction

For the past two weeks, I have been following the first phase of something called the LEAP protocol, which is basically an elimination diet based on elaborate food sensitivity testing. That testing was done as part of my functional medicine evaluation.  In phase one, you basically eat the 12-15 foods to which you produce the least antigens while your body gets rid of those that have been produced by the foods in your normal diet to which you do react.  In phase two you add the next least reactive foods back, one at a time, and so on for five phases, during which you monitor for bad reactions.  When you are done with that, you've basically added back all the foods that tested in the "green" or low reactivity zone.  After that you can experiment with adding untested foods, in the hopes that after 4-6 months, possibly longer, you might even be able to try again some of the foods to which you did react.

The underlying idea is that by removing foods to which your body has developed a sensitivity, you rest your system and let it heal.  Ironically, the LEAP material explains that people often find that the foods they crave are precisely the ones that cause the strongest antigen production in their systems.  My pre-catharsis cravings had been for popcorn, and sure enough, corn was one of the things I tested highest for within the "yellow" or moderately reactive zone.

Back in May, when I blogged about my evaluation, I wrote about the "specter of deprivation" and how it made me feel to contemplate possibly giving up some of my favorite foods.  This was well before my major emotional catharsis, and it was not easy, at that point, to face that specter.  Still, I figured that maybe it would be okay, since I would be giving up only those things that were scientifically proven to cause me unpleasantness.

In fact, I've spent the last two weeks not dodging shadows but basking in the sunshine.

Fortunately, I had only four items in the "red" zone -- goat's milk, raspberries, lima beans and sorbic acid.  While I love raspberries and chevre, I often go months without eating them, so that was all fine.  Some of my very favorite foods were, however, in the "yellow" zone.  In addition to corn, I also react to wheat and cheddar cheese.  Not so good.  But surprisingly, when I sat down with the detailed outline of what to eat when, I found myself focusing on all the really good things I could have at any given point.  Amazing!  And I was lucky that some of my very favorite foods were also the lowest in antigen production.  Imagine the hardship of being told to eat mangoes and cherries, or salmon.

I am working with a dietitian who is certified in the LEAP protocol, who changed things around to make better sense of the choices nutritionally (in cases where two items were equally non-reactive, they had been assigned to phases in alphabetical order rather than according to any more sensible reason) and ensure that I got enough variety to make the first phase livable.  Here is the entire list of acceptable ingredients on which I have been living for the last two weeks:

Protein:  salmon, lentils, American cheese (preservative free), Mozarella
Starches:  potatoes, rice, quinoa
Fruits:  mangoes, cherries, bananas, pineapple
Vegetables:  celery, bell peppers, cauliflower
Nuts/oils:  almond, cashew
Flavor enhancers:  basil, honey

That's it.  18 ingredients, from which I have had to construct an entire bill of fare.

Back in the poetry-writing days of my youth, when everyone around me was wandering through the Iowa corn fields and emoting in free verse, I was writing sonnets, sestinas and villanelles.  I found that my creativity thrived on the constraints of these intricate forms.  I've found myself thinking often of those days during the past two weeks, and experiencing again the absolute exhilaration of coming up with something interesting and exciting in spite (or because) of the imposed limitations.  And I've learned a lot in the process.

If I hadn't been barred from eating bread, would I ever have discovered how much I really love rice crackers?  Had tomatoes not been taken off the table, would I ever have realized that sauteed red peppers function, taste-wise, in exactly the same way in a pasta dish?  Less spectacularly, with broccoli, green beans and asparagus out of the picture, would I ever have remembered how delicious simple steamed cauliflower can be?

Sadly, I have not yet experienced the marked improvement in symptoms the protocol is supposed to induce, but my booklet says that the more messed up your system has been, the longer it can take to clean itself out, so I remain hopeful.  And today I added yogurt, entering into phase 2 of this next great adventure.

A hui hou.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Next Stage

To all of you who were following my story, thank you for your support, and my apologies for disappearing from cyberspace for the past two months.  After the enormous catharsis that my previous 4-5 posts represented, I needed to take some time to let it all assimilate and figure out what the next stage of my journey needs to be.  This probably took longer than one might expect because during that entire time, I never spent more than 8 nights in the same bed!  But I'm home to stay for a couple of months now, and ready to begin whatever the next work turns out to be.

During those first weeks, I was continually amazed at the near-total absence of impulses to eat emotionally.  And when I did find myself having thoughts of food when I was tired or frustrated or anxious, it was very easy to talk myself out of them.  Sometimes all I had to do was look at the picture of my mother on my dresser and take a deep breath.  This transformation of my inner dialogue has felt almost magical, though in fact it's the result of five years of concentrated work. 

Unfortunately, changing the inner dialogue is not the only thing necessary to achieving better health.  I still have to deal with making my health a priority in all the ways that require attention, and that continues to be a challenge.  On the up side:  the thyroid supplements have really improved my energy levels and taken away a low-level depression that I hadn't even been aware of until it stopped, and at my recent physical, all the numbers that had been indicating imminent breakdown of my metabolism have retreated into the safety zone.  On the down side:  I've embarked on the elimination diet protocol recommended by the functional medical practitioner I saw, which involved stopping all the supplements I had been taking, and my gut is not happy.  I'm still trying to figure out what to do about that. 

The good news is that even after two weeks of being confined to only a dozen or so foods, I'm still eating mindfully and not feeling particularly deprived.  This says a lot, to me, of the power of clearing out the emotional debris and unwanted baggage from the closet of my psyche.  I was also very pleased that the physician's assistant who is my primary care provider and has been working with me since before I started this journey, was really pleased that I had done that work and recognized its ultimate value, even if I haven't lost actual weight.  She said she sees people who are following various weight management programs, including the one they run at my HMO, cycle and recycle through her office, and through dozens of pounds, because they are losing only weight, and not dealing with the underlying causes.  That was incredibly validating, since her attitude is far from common in the medical profession.

So, here I am, waiting to see what this next stage holds.  As my 59th birthday approaches, I find myself starting to believe that when I land on the brink of 60 next year, I may be in my best shape ever, in all senses of that word.

A hui hou.

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Letter to My Mother

When I started this blog, I knew that one of the things I needed in order to heal was to bring my struggle with food and weight out into the light, to talk out loud (as it were) about the things about which I felt shame and guilt, the issues with which I struggled.  It is partly in that spirit that I am about to share the letter I wrote to my mother as part of my recent therapeutic activities.

But I also want to share it because getting back my mother's memory and a sense of her existence in the world is so important to my healing.  And putting her picture and my letter to her out into that world feels like an essential step.  She existed, people -- she lived and loved and made mistakes, and she died too soon.  And I miss her.  But now I have her back, and an empty place inside me feels filled again.

Dear Mommy,

I remember you.  Despite being so young when you died, and despite the hideous betrayal of the adults around me then, the conspiracy to blot you out of my life, I remember you.

I remember how you sang to me, about the Milky Way, and how you and Audrey and I would ride in the car with Auntie Rella, Stuart and Eileen and sing as we rode through the evening.  I remember your playing the ppiano, and how I figured out how to play "Danse Macabre" and Morton Gould's "Pavane" because your playing them so intrigued me, and how I used to love looking at the music in the piano bench.  Music has always been part of my life, a gift from you.

I remember how you loved to read.  Some of my most precious possessions are the few Frank G. Slaughter novels you shared with me.  I remember the "Screen Stories" magazines you read -- I read them, too.  And a love of reading and movies has been another gift from you.  do you remember taking me to see "the Birds"?  When we came home and you opened the screen door, a moth flew out at us and we yelped, and then laughed and laughed because we were so scared.

I remember your cooking and how you taught me how to do it.  i remember how good your fried chicken was, and have never had anything like it since.  Shortly after you died, I had a dream that I was standing at the stove making chicken as you did, and feeling overwhelmed because I really didn't know how.  But I still make -- and love -- beef stew the way you showed me.  And I remember loving the spaghetti you used to make with ketchup in the sauce -- so 1950s.  I love to cook -- another gift from you.

There are a few other, physical gifts I have, and have cherished, as well.  Your topaz pendant was something I wore for many years and treasured as a link to you -- I gave it to my stepdaughter on her wedding day.  Another pendant of yours with a lovely purple stone I gave to Audrey last year when we were finally reunited.  I still have my baby book, and over the years have sometimes reread what you wrote to me there about the day I was born, and I have carried your love for me deep in my heart, even when I was unaware of it.  I believe that's partly why I was able to become the good, loving woman that I am.

I remember how you used to embroider, and how you taught me running stitches and French knots, and made sure I knew that the reverse side should always be as neat as the front.  I've enjoyed embroidery through the years, feeling close to you when I did it.  I embroidered a unicorn on a deep blue fabric for Lou, my one and only boyfriend, and I embroidered a pattern of ohia lehua as part of a patchwork khupe [wedding canopy] for my dear friend Richie.  Even now, there is a nearly finished piece of a humuhumunukunukuapua'a sitting in my embroidery box.  Another gift you shared with me.

When you died and everyone told me to be strong and get on with my life, I didn't know how to do that and still keep you present.  And when Daddy married M---- and she set out to excise you from our lives completely, I went along because I so desperately wanted her to love me and be my mother.  I didn't know any better, and none of the grown-ups apparently knew how to help me mourn you and honor your memory in a healthy way.  But you were, and are, my mother, my first and deepest love, and my most fundamental core couldn't abandon and betray you, even as the rest of me seemed to.  In some strange way -- subversive, Carol called it -- I kept you with me by taking on your pain and your way of handling it.  I ate and grew heavy, and my body grew more and more to resemble yours.  I stuffed down my sorrow and frustrations even as you did, and in that way kept you close even when I was not permitted to say, or even think, your name.

I understand now that that was the only way open to me, given the craziness, the fear and inadequacy of the people closest to me.  I understand now that I did what I needed to do to survive, as children do, even without understanding what that was.  And I did survive, and even thrived in a lot of ways.  You would be proud of me, proud of my accomplishments, proud of my kindness and compassion, proud of my integrity.

through all these years, I thought that I had forgotten you and that the only part of you I carried was the weight.  But now I know that's not true.  I carry your musical talent and your love of reading.  I carry your skill at cooking and embroidering, your joy in singing and laughing.  I carry your smile, so obvious in the picture I printed out of you and placed around my house last night.  And I carry your love for me, your joy at giving birth to me, your firstborn daughter.

Please, Mommy -- let me go now.  Let me let you go.  I carry you inside me, in every aspect of who I am.  I can't carry you physically any more.

I love you and I am grateful for all your gifts to me.  I hope I do honor to them and to you in the way that I live my life.  Now I've put your picture up, to have a constant physical reminder of you everywhere I live.

Help me, Mommy.  Help me let you go so I can keep you in your rightful place.  Your life was cut short -- help me get healthy, so that I can be around for my grandchildren, your great grandchildren.

I carry your heart -- I carry it in my heart.

Your loving daughter,


Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Life as a Hitchcock Hero

These last few weeks have taken me on quite the wild ride; to change metaphors, I've been feeling a bit like Gregory Peck in Spellbound, an amazing Hitchcock psychological thriller where the revelations about the truth of the hero's experience come faster and more furiously as the movie progresses. 

As those of you who followed "The Story of Princess S" will have learned, I had a difficult childhood.  My mother died when I was 13, my father remarried almost immediately, and my stepmother basically to wipe my mother's memory off the face of the planet.  I was never allowed to mourn her.  Later on, I was disowned, twice, and except for my paternal grandparents, also disowned by my father, their son, had no contact at all with my family of origin for most of my adult life.  In my early 30's, my first round of therapy (precipitated by my inability to lose weight) allowed me to start mourning my mother and recovering my ability to express my feelings rather than stuffing them down.  My second round of therapy, in my 40's, enabled me to break through the thick wall of denial about how much losing my whole family had hurt me.  Two years ago, my work at Green Mountain enabled me to know and express my anger at my father for his abominable betrayal of me.

And yet, I still wasn't able to lose weight.

When I reconnected with my sister last year, she told me about a book that had helped her deal with some of the same issues, Toxic Parents by Susan Forward (thanks, Princess A!).  I read it at the time, and was interested to discover that while all of it felt relevant, the part of the book that resonated most strongly was the section on incest.  While I didn't have that particular nightmare to deal with, I think that in some ways the utter betrayal of the parent-child bond of being discarded finally and forever is in some ways closest to the betrayal that sexual abuse represents.  In any event, Dr. Forward's primary therapeutic technique for those who have experienced incest is a series of letters, to the offending parent, the non-offending parent and one's little self, followed by telling one's story as a fairy tale (hence my previous three posts).  I knew when I read that that I had to write a letter to young Sherry, and I knew that it had to be about reassuring myself that none of what happened was my fault, but I couldn't do it.  I knew the words but couldn't access the feelings.

Fast forward to four weeks ago, and the beginning of the cinematic period of my recovery.

It began the morning I got the results of a glucose tolerance test suggesting that I am seriously pre-diabetic.  Though this wasn't exactly news, I started to freak out, which is not something I generally do.  The next day, I told my wonderful, healing therapist about this, and when she said some reassuring things, I said, "I know all that.  My adult self knows it, but I feel like there's a little girl inside me lying on the floor kicking and screaming, terrified."  She responded by asking me what I would say to that little girl, and I was, for once in my life, totally dumbstruck.  This was odd, because, as she reminded me, if it were any other child in the universe, I would have been right there hugging and comforting her.  I knew then that I had to write that letter.

Unfortunately, I still didn't know what to say.  I knew even more clearly than a year before that none of what had happened was really my fault and that I had only done what I needed to do in order to survive, but I was feeling so much to blame, I was totally paralyzed.  Then I realized that I had to start by writing a letter to my sister.  When I had visited her just before this episode began, she had told me about her recent struggles to deal with her own anger and pain, and I think that hearing all of that, most of which I had not known about as it was happening,   Somehow, I felt I needed to apologize to her for not protecting her, not knowing what she was going through -- essentially, for not being her parent.  I know this was irrational, but I needed to say it, so I wrote the letter.

And that precipitated a week of getting in touch with my anger at our stepmother, to whom I wrote my second letter.  I also screamed out loud and pounded the wall of the shower with my fist, neither of was something I had ever done before.  In some ways, that was the most terrifying experience of all; I had no idea that I was so scared of getting angry.

At that point, I started to write the fairy tale, which I think was a very wise choice, as it enabled me to understand, viscerally, the extent of what had been done to me and how I had had so few options available to survive.  Another therapy session precipitated the climactic revelation; my wise healer asked me to consider what the food was doing for me beyond allowing me to stuff down feelings.  And in that instant I knew that it was keeping my mother alive within me, and that I needed to let her go in order to be healthy.  That was truly a Hitchcock moment.

Of course, in the movies, they never show you what the hapless hero has to do to recover from the moment of revelation.  Fortunately, in addition to my healer I also have my wife, who is a very wise woman who knows me very well.  She suggested two things:  that I write about my memories of my mother, and that I put up her picture.  The picture I posted on Facebook, which turned out to be a wonderful gift to myself (and will be the subject of an upcoming post).  The letter proved to be the catalyst for a profound catharsis; in writing it, I was again 13 years old and just learning that my mother had died.  It enabled me to mourn her from the depths of my soul and, I think, finally to begin to heal from that loss.

I would like to share that letter here as my next post.

A hui hou.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Story of Princess S -- Part III

Fortunately for Princess S, she had fallen in love (as princesses do) with the Queen of a neighboring realm.  Queen C was loving and wise, and helped Princess S through the sad, dark days that followed her banishment.  They would often visit the dowager queen and the old King in the kingdom of the south, and they tried to comfort each other for the calamity that had befallen them.

Then one afternoon, the knight who had married Princess A sent a message to Princess S from her ancestral kingdom to inform her that the King had died.  Though Princess S was sore afraid of confronting Lady M and Princess A, she knew that she had to mourn for the King in the way that was proper, as she had never been allowed to mourn for her mother, the Queen.  With Queen C at her side she traveled to her ancestral home to attend her father's funeral.  Lady M was courteous, even in her grief, but Princess A ran to her sister and embraced her.  Princess S returned the embrace and yearned for her sister, but knew that as long as Princess A remained in the kingdom of their birth, Lady M would punish her for communicating with Princess S.  So she and Queen C traveled back to their home to observe the mourning customs of their faith.

Twenty years passed as life went on.  Prince H died, an angry, bitter man, and the old King and Queen grew ever more bitter, mourning the loss of both their children and all their other grandchildren, even though Princess S and Queen C visited them often. Eventually they died as well.  Queen C's children grew up, married and had children of their own, wonderful grandchildren for her and Princess S, who loved them with an unbounding love.  Princess S accomplished many good works and was beloved by Queen C, their children and grandchildren, and the people in her adopted land.  Her life was good and worthy and she was grateful every day for all the gifts that life had given her.

And yet, all was not well in the kingdom of her heart.  Food continued to be her comfort, solace for griefs she did not even recognize.  As her body grew older, she could no longer fend off the ill effects of carrying so much extra weight, and she sought desperately for a remedy.  Hearing of a magical kingdom to the north whose inhabitants possessed much wisdom, she traveled there to see what she could learn.  She met many healers who taught her their secrets, and she took them to be her own, following the path they recommended even when it was difficult to navigate and took her through frightening, dark places.

Slowly, Princess S began to heal.  Slowly, she began to realize the enormity of the evil that had befallen her at Lady M's hands.  Slowly, she began to understand that she had taken care of herself the only way she knew how. 

One day, as she traveled through the kingdom of Facebook, she recognized a friend from the days of her childhood.  "Have you news of Princess A?" she asked.  "Do you think she might want to hear from me?"  "Yes, she would," her friend replied.  "She asked me that same question about you."  So Princess S sent a message to Princess A, whose heart was gladdened, and they were reunited.  Princess A had experienced great hardships during the lost years, but had found healers who helped her with their wisdom, and she had come to see Lady M for what she was.  And so the sisters were united, and there was much joy in both their lands.

And yet, Princess S's heart was still heavy, as was her body.  She kept following the path shown to her by the healers from the North until at last she came to a deep, dark forest.  Though she longed for the light, Princess S knew that it was in the deep, dark forest that the secret to healing lay, so she sat beneath the trees and waited to see what would come to her.  She sat for a long time, and storms of rage and grief blew through her, and those storms were so strong and terrible that she did not think she would ever see the light again.

When she had been sitting for what felt like eons, Princess S at last came to realize that she had been holding her mother, the Queen, inside her for all those years, and that the food she had used to fill the emptiness inside her was also a way to feel close the the mother she had lost.  As she had that realization, a shaft of light, warm and bright, penetrated the gloom of the forest and caressed her face through her tears.  She got up and returned to her castle, where she told Queen C what had been revealed.  Queen C, ever loving and wise, said "You kept your mother close in the only way you were allowed," and then she said, "We must put a picture of the Queen in our home for you to see whenever you wish, so that you may let go of what you have held inside so painfully for all these years."

And they lived happily ever after, surrounded by their loving friends and family.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Story of Princess S -- Part II

Despite those scattered weeks of deprivation and dread, Princess S thrived at college.  She questioned and learned and took delight in all the world around her.  Eventually she fell in love, as princesses do, not with a prince or knight, as was the norm in her day, but with another princess.  And she felt the need to keep quiet about her love until she understood what this would mean for her kingdom. 

When college was over, she planned a long journey across the sea to England.  No one knew that she was leaving behind her lady love, and she was very sad.  But off she went, and was very excited to be in the home of the literature she loved.  She made new friends and had adventures.  But one day, she received a scroll from the King, telling her that he had found out about her lady love, and soon came a message from Lady M, telling her that she was unworthy to return to the kingdom.  Even Princess A sent a scroll accusing Princess S of causing hurt and havoc in the kingdom.  She was banished from her homeland.

Princess S was sick at heart.  The only members of the royal family who communicated with her were the dowager Queen and the old King, her father's parents.  For this she was grateful.  Though she knew that she was a good and worthy princess, her heart was heavy, and she alternated between eating to fill the new empty place inside her and depriving herself, so that she might someday be allowed to return home.

The years passed, and when her sojourn in England was over, Princess S traveled over the vast ocean to Boston, where she made her new home.  She made friends and found work, and tried to free herself from the terrible bondage that eating to fill the empty spaces had become.  When she continued to be unsuccessful, her wise counselor suggested that she see a healer to find whether it was heartsickness that stood in her way.

The healer helped Princess S explore the empty sad place inside her that had grown there when she was not allowed to grieve for her mother, the Queen.  Princess S cried and grieved, moaned and mourned, until the healer agreed that she was ready to try again to go forth in health. 

Then Princess S received another scroll from the King, informing her that he and Lady M were selling the ancestral castle and asking what to do with her belongings that were stored there.  Princess S replied, and then there were other scrolls exchanged between her and her estranged family.  Soon, she was invited to visit the new castle, and something resembling normalcy returned to their relations.  She was even asked to attend Princess A's wedding, though when she did, Lady M made sure that she was not permitted to take full part in the festivities, much to the dismay of the old King and Queen.  But Princess S was grateful to be part of the family once again.  Her exile appeared to be over.

Then trouble came again to the kingdom.  The King renounced his father and mother and renounced his brother, Prince H, who had joined him in business.  Harsh words were spoken and a judgment against the King was issued in the court of the land.  But the King, instigated by Lady M, evaded paying the judgment and banished his parents and his brother to exile in the south.

Princess S was sick at heart.  The old king and queen had always loved her and cared for her, even through her long exile.  When Lady M would try to tell her of their perfidy, Princess S refused to listen.  And that was the act that led to her second and final banishment from the kingdom of her birth.

To be continued....