Unlearning Shame and Learning Self-Love

So remember that time I was all excited to launch a new blog and really start writing again? Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans. 🤷‍♀️ The past few months have been a blur. Work stress and anxiety, coupled with my gym/food prep routine and a handful of social commitments, left me mentally exhausted, with no bandwidth for creativity or writing for pleasure. However, the work project that consumed my life for the past 6+ months, is (mostly) over now. And in just a few weeks, I begin a new job that will (hopefully) be much more fulfilling, in an office where work/life balance appears to be valued. Hopefully, that means I’ll be able to write here a bit more consistently.

To catch you up on my health journey, I’m happy to report that I haven’t fallen off the wagon! In fact, things are going really well. I’ve had a few setbacks at the gym (threw my back out once, have been dealing with a recurring pinched nerve, and most recently acquired a pair of particularly pissed off knees), but my brother is helping me through it and I’m still making progress. My brother and I continue to check in every week, I’m still counting macros and I’ve recently discovered I really enjoy weight-training-type workouts (a fact that surprised the hell out of me).

All of the hard work is paying off. First, the most important thing: all my numbers at the doctor’s office are back where they should be. The doctor says my blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and all the other stuff they checked are solidly back in the healthy range. I’m sleeping well, my anxiety is (mostly) under control, and I’m generally just happier and more energetic. Honestly, I feel GREAT. I’ve lost 27 pounds to date, and hope to hit the 30-pound milestone in the next week or two. I don’t really feel self-conscious at the gym anymore, and most of the time, I actually enjoy working out. 😲 Most of the clothes I’ve been wearing are too big (yay!), and I’m finally starting to fit comfortably into many of the smaller, “someday-this-will-fit-me-again” items that have been taking up room in my closet, taunting me for years.

When I started this journey, my brother recommended I take a “before” photo of myself, so I could visually track my progress in the months ahead. I resisted at first – no way was I going to document the fat, ugly, disgusting beast I had to look at in the mirror every day. But ultimately, I decided that if I couldn’t face myself, I couldn’t fix myself. So in February, I begrudgingly set up my selfie-stick-tripod in the living room, scowling as I made an effort not to suck in my stomach for the photo. I stashed the photo in a folder on my phone where I couldn’t see it, and promptly forgot it was there.

Fast-forward four months, and I was feeling great. One morning in mid-June, I stepped on the scale. 20 pounds! I’d lost 20 pounds! Hitting that milestone felt incredible. I was so happy. In the weeks leading up to this, my friends and colleagues had been telling me how great I looked – that they could really see the difference. I decided it was time to see it for myself. Once again, I set up the tripod and took a secret selfie in the living room. I honestly didn’t expect anything earth-shattering. I mean, we see ourselves in the mirror every day, and I still had a long way to go to reach my ultimate goal. So you can imagine my surprise when this is what I saw:

I’m not sure what surprised me more: the dramatic difference in body composition or my reaction to seeing these photos side-by-side.

You would expect my initial reaction to be positive: feelings of pride, accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness. And I did feel all of those. But more than anything, I felt shame. Overwhelming, paralyzing shame.

There was the shame that I expected: I was ashamed of the “Before” photo. Ashamed I’d let it get that bad. Ashamed because I knew better than to let myself go like that. But there was also shame I didn’t see coming: I was ashamed of being proud of myself. Ashamed of thinking, “damn, I look good in that second photo.” Ashamed that I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “Look what I did!” Ashamed of the fact that I felt so fucking ashamed of feeling so great.

So here’s the part where I start quoting Brené Brown. One thing I have absolutely no shame about is reading self-help/self-improvement books. I’ve been reading a lot of her stuff lately, and given that she specializes in shame (and vulnerability), it really resonates with me right now.

Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it – it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

As ashamed as I felt about my before-and-after photo, I was also really proud of myself. So I decided rather than blasting the photo out on social media (my usual M.O.), I would just send it to a few people who felt “safe”: my brother, my mom, and a few of my closest friends. But even that made me uncomfortable. It felt like bragging. Like I was digging for compliments or yelling , “Look at me! Look at me!” It felt selfish. So I couched it in language downplaying my achievement. All the texts started the same: “Wanna see something cool? I’m not ready to share this publicly yet, but check this out.” Ugh.

Their responses were what I expected, and frankly, needed: encouraging, supportive, celebratory. I needed other people to tell me it was okay to be proud of myself. And yet here we are, a month-and-a-half later and I’m just now summoning the courage to share this piece of myself with the world.

This whole experience so far – getting healthy, I mean – has by and large been a very positive one. It’s also been very enlightening. Lately, I’ve been coming to terms with the realization that shame isn’t just something I deal with on occasion – it’s a constant state of being for me…a part of my identity. Admitting that is hard. Changing it is going to be even harder. But I owe it to myself to try.

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” 

Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

I grew up in a society that told me one of the worst things a person could be is selfish. That humility was to be valued above all else. I was also taught to be thoughtful. Compassionate. Considerate of others.

Merriam-Webster defines selfishness as ” a concern for one’s own welfare or advantage at the expense of or in disregard of others .”

Note that last part: “…at the expense of or in disregard of others.” So what you’re saying is that a concern for one’s own welfare…while still being mindful and considerate of others…is the exact opposite of being selfish?!? 🤯

Loving and accepting ourselves are the ultimate acts of courage. In a society that says, ‘Put yourself last,’ self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

I thought losing the weight and getting in shape was going to be the hardest part of this health journey of mine. Turns out, learning to love and truly accept myself may be my biggest challenge yet. I’ve spent so much of my life living in shame for one reason or another – I’m not sure I know who I am without it. But I want to find out.

So I’ve been quietly taking the first steps towards unlearning shame. I’m actively looking for a new therapist, a process that has proven far more difficult than it should be (topic for a future post). I’m reading more self-improvement books as part of a larger effort to be more self-aware. I’m taking every kind word I receive as a reminder to be kinder to myself. I’m giving myself permission to be proud of myself. To stop worrying about what other people think. To be imperfect. To post full-body photos of myself. To look in the mirror, say “Damn, I look good today,” and really truly mean it.

And little by little, it’s working. These days, I walk around with a bit more spring in my step. I carry myself just a little bit taller (there’s only so much I can do at 5’2″). I say “thank you” to compliments instead of dismissing them as undeserved. I walk around the gym like I own the place. I don’t tell self-deprecating jokes (unless they’re actually funny). And most importantly, I feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time that I can remember.

On Saturday, my girlfriend and I met up for pedicures. We got to talking about my health journey – the workouts, counting macros, and the fact that I’ve actively stepped away from dating for the past 10+ months to really take care of myself. “Amy, I’m so happy for you,” she said. “What you’re doing is so awesome and I’m so happy you’re taking the time to focus on yourself. You totally deserve it.” Old Amy would have blushed and dismissed her kind words with something about how I wouldn’t have to do this if I’d taken care of myself in the first place. But I didn’t. In fact, that thought didn’t occur to me at all. I just smiled and said, “thank you. I’m really happy I’m doing it too.” Because she was right. I do deserve this. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Getting ‘Bro’tivated

So where did I leave things last time? Oh yah – I almost had a stroke and decided to embark on a journey to finally focus on getting healthy once and for all. You k now, just your average, everyday dramatic declaration of a life-changing decision. NBD.

Back in January, after my initial health scare, I was talking to my brother on the phone. He and his wife had just moved to Germany. After he finished telling me all about the closet-sized apartment they were sharing and all the amazing beer on tap, I told him about my close call with a potential blood clot and how I was going to “get my shit together eventually.” He listened carefully, asked me a few questions and offered to help me with a workout and meal plan if/when I was ready.

Some things you should know about my little brother before he yells at me for talking about him on the internet (#SorryNotSorry Bro, but big sisters get to brag about their little brothers).

  • Growing up, I was the nerdy, rule-following, straight-A student and he was the cool athlete with a penchant for rule-breaking. While we’ve always been close, we’ve also both resented each other for our respective differences at times. Thankfully, we’ve both grown up and just laugh about it now.
  • In addition to being athletic, my brother’s always had great focus when it comes to his health. If he resolves to eat healthy, lose weight, bulk up, or whatever else he sets his mind to, he just makes the changes he needs to make and does it. Almost always with great success. I maybe still resent him a little for this one. Okay, okay – I don’t resent him…I envy him.
  • Just before the international move, my brother got certified as a CrossFit coach. My one experience with a CrossFit-type gym was not a positive one, so while I was proud of my brother for pursuing a career he’ll probably love, I didn’t think his approach would work for me.

So I thanked him for his offer, but admitted I wasn’t ready yet. I was so anxious about my follow-up visit with the doctor, I couldn’t fathom the idea of making any major lifestyle changes yet. Remember – at this point, I didn’t know if everything was ok and it was still very likely that I was going to need (at minimum) blood pressure meds, an MRI and a stern talking-to from my doc.

As you know, at my appointment several weeks later, I got the all-clear (for now) from the doctor, followed by an epiphany of sorts. My ‘light bulb moment’ wasn’t about the fact that I needed to eat better and work out (duh and duh-er), but more about the fact that I never want to feel that scared again, so those aforementioned lifestyle changes need to happen NOW.

I promised my brother I’d let him know how things went with the doctor, so I filled him in on the good news, as well as my determination to make “somedays” a thing of the past. Again, he offered to help. And this time I was ready to accept. We agreed to Skype the following weekend, so he could reveal his grand plan for me.

While I was (and still am) so grateful for my brother’s help, I was also scared. Scared he’d expect me to have the same focus that he has. Scared his meal plan for me would be painfully restrictive. Scared that I’d feel like a fat kid flailing helplessly at the gym. Scared that it wouldn’t work because I’ve never had my brother’s drive when it comes to this stuff. Scared because I always, always, ALWAYS fall off the wagon.

Here’s the thing I foolishly forgot in my flurry of anxiety-driven “what-ifs”: my brother knows me better than almost anyone. He knows I hate the gym. He knows I lose focus. He knows I make excuses. And he knows that given a choice, I will always choose a beer and a brick of cheese over a vegetable. So he didn’t give me a choice.

My brother agreed to help me, but only if I committed to doing things his way. If I was doubting the process or found myself making excuses, I was to contact him so we could talk it out. He made it clear this wasn’t going to be easy and it wasn’t going to be a quick fix. But it was going to be worth it. So here’s the basic approach he gave me (to be fully elaborated upon in later posts):

  • Food: I am now counting Macros. As in Macro-nutrients. Every day, I must eat a set number of grams of Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat. Every weekend, my brother gives me my Macros for the week ahead. So I’m measuring/weighing out most of my food and prepping almost everything at home. No added sugar, little/no salt, little/no booze, and carbs should come from fruits/veggies/fiber-and-protein-rich grains (ie. quinoa, wild rice). Eating out is doable occasionally, especially if I can check out a menu ahead of time to plan accordingly.
  • Exercise: After determining exactly how much time I was (realistically) willing to spend at the gym, we reached an agreement. Each weekend, during our Skype session – my brother gives me my workouts for the week ahead. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights, I go to the gym after work and do exactly what he tells me to do (usually a combination of weights and high-intensity, full-body cardio stuff). On Saturdays, I swim laps and plan to swap it out with some hiking now that the weather is warming up.

I’ve been following my brother’s plan religiously for two months now. It is hard, but now that the habits are forming, they’re getting easier to stick to. It is time-consuming, but it’s not taking time away from other parts of my life. I do try to make excuses, but I also talk myself right back out of them. And here’s the thing: it’s working.

Just eight weeks into my new routine (last Sunday), I had lost 20 pounds! While the number on the scale does matter (a big piece of this journey is weight loss and there’s no shame in that), the most important thing is how I’m feeling. And I’m feeling fantastic! My energy levels are up, my body feels stronger, my anxiety is under control, my mood is generally happier, and if deep-sleeping was a sport, I’d be a gold medalist.

I’m not sure why, but things feel different this time. Maybe because the health scare gave me a new perspective. Maybe because my brother has a vested interest in seeing his sister get healthy. Maybe because he gave me a plan that doesn’t force me to cut out the things I love. Maybe because I know I have long-term support from him (he already has a plan for the next year). Or maybe because I just want to keep feeling this good.

Regardless of the Why, it’s the When that I’m most proud of. I promised myself that I’d stop saying “Someday”…and I did.

Why Now? The Story of How I Got Here.

Hey there! I’m Amy. 33-year-old New England transplant loving life in Sacramento, California. Since this is my first post on this blog, most people reading it will probably be friends and family, so I’ll save the introduction for the “About Me” page, should you need it.

So those who know me or follow me on social media know 2018 started on a pretty high note for me. I had just landed a new job/promotion, my apartment complex didn’t raise my rent, and I was finally dating a guy who seemed like a real winner. Fast forward to 2019, and oh how things can change in a year. Mr. Right? Not so much. That amazing new job opportunity? Not so amazing after all. My rent? It got jacked.

So not surprisingly, I spent the first few weeks of the New Year pretty stressed out, working an extra, unpaid 10-15 hours a week just to get everything done at the office, while agonizing over my personal finances and eating inordinate amounts of cheese and chocolate to make myself “feel better”. Then came the health scare.

Let me preface this part of the story by saying two things to family and friends:

  1. I am fine. Seriously. It was a scare, so there was a point when I wasn’t sure if everything would be okay, but it is.
  2. Do not feel bad that you didn’t know what was going on. That was intentional. I’m usually a very open person, but I was simultaneously terrified and ashamed of myself, so I only talked to a few people about it. I wasn’t ready to share. And I didn’t want to worry anyone until I knew what was going on.

Anyway. It was Sunday night, January 13th. I was in the shower, relaxing (yes, I’m a night showerer – deal with it). Seemingly out of nowhere, I got a sudden, intense headache unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It felt like the back of my skull would explode at any moment – what I imagine it would feel like to get smashed in the head with a cast-iron skillet. I crumbled to the floor of my shower, held my head and rocked back and forth, willing it to stop. The intense pain subsided a minute or two later, but I still had a mind-blowing (pun probably not appropriate, but intended) headache. I got out of the shower and went straight for the super-strength Excedrin. I don’t usually get headaches. When I do, they’re in the front of my head, usually due to caffeine withdrawal or dehydration. I stopped to do a quick check: no vision problems, no balance issues, no sensitivity to light, I wasn’t lightheaded and I could speak clearly. Maybe this was a migraine? I’d never had one, and everyone says they’re awful. I took the Excedrin, polished off a glass of water, and went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up and the headache wasn’t gone. And it wasn’t any better. It also wasn’t any worse, so I took some more Excedrin and went to work. I was just going to power through the day. But once I was at work, I couldn’t stop thinking about how strange this was, the way the headache came on so intensely and suddenly. I called my doctor’s office and spoke to the nurse. I explained everything to her. She agreed that it was very unusual and set up an appointment for me to see my doctor the next day. She told me I was doing everything right – that I should keep taking the medicine and drinking lots of water. If my symptoms got worse again, I was to go to the Emergency Room immediately. Fortunately, they didn’t.

On Tuesday, the headache was better, but not gone – less pain and mostly just a constant pressure in the back of my skull. I signed in at the doctor’s office and was quickly escorted in so they could take my vitals. I sat down so she could do the whole blood pressure/temperature/pulse thing they do all at the same time. “Huh,” said the nurse. “Your blood pressure is really high. Is it usually that bad?”

“It’s usually a little high,” I admitted with a nervous laugh. “I am pretty out of shape. I should really do something about that.” (I have a lot to say about the shame/stigma that is ingrained in so many of us surrounding body image and health issues, but I’ll save that for another post.)

We waited a few minutes so she could take my blood pressure again. This is pretty standard and it usually goes down a little the second time – in theory, because the patient’s anxiety about being at the doctor’s office has dissipated. That’s exactly what’s always happened to me. But not this time – the numbers were even higher on the second try. A third reading wasn’t any worse, but it was still really high.

When my doctor came in, I told her everything that had happened. She asked me a series of questions. Was I nauseous? No. Was I congested? A little – I’d just kicked a second sinus infection in as many months. How long had I been taking this exact birth control? Since I was in high school. Was this the worst headache of my life? Absolutely.

“Well, Amy,” she began. “You officially qualify for a whole bunch of tests. We need to do a MRI with contrast, so I can see what’s going on with your cardiovascular system. And we need to do a full blood panel to make sure your other levels are OK.”

“OK,” I said, a bit taken aback by the very serious tone she was taking. “One small thing though – how soon can we do all of this? I’m going home to see my best friend and my family in New England and my flight leaves first thing Thursday morning. That’s the day after tomorrow.”

“Amy. You are not to get on a plane until I tell you that you can get on a plane. Is that clear?”

“Umm. Yes,” I said, stunned. “I understand – if you tell me not to fly, I won’t.”

“Good,” she said, her tone softening just a little. Then, looking me dead in the eyes, “Amy, I’m really worried about you. Really worried. I’ve seen women in their 30s throw a clot before – women with high blood pressure taking your birth control.”

“I hear you,” I said. A blood clot… As in a stroke? Holy shit. “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.”

Turns out, the type of headache I’d experienced is often a warning sign of a stroke or cardiovascular event (aka. heart attack). And it’s often the only warning sign you get.

She decided to order a CT Scan – since she was placing a rush on it, they could do it tomorrow (Wednesday). The results would be ready within a couple of hours. If it came back normal, I could go on my trip, with the understanding that we’d have to address the blood pressure issues when I got back and I’d likely still need an MRI, blood work and blood pressure meds. She also wrote me a prescription for a new birth control pill with no estrogen, that I was to begin taking immediately.

As I left her office, my mind was racing. I called my best friend on my way back to the office – as she always does, she talked me down from my impending panic attack. I picked up my new BC after work and went home. Where I promptly worried the night away.

There is a history of strokes and heart attacks in my family. And my doctor’s warning was ringing in my ears…telling me I was at high risk for developing a blood clot. I was so scared. Terrified that I’d have a stroke in my sleep and my cats would eat my eyeballs before anyone knew anything was wrong (I live alone). I went down a self-destructive rabbit hole of shame and guilt and self-loathing for not taking better care of myself. I barely slept at all.

I had my CT scan the next day – it was a surprisingly quick process, though the day felt like it went on FOREVER as I waited for the call from my doctor. It didn’t come until late afternoon.

“So good news,” she began. “After I scared you to death – sorry about that by the way – your CT scan came back perfectly normal! No signs of any bleeding or hemorrhaging in your brain.”

I’m pretty sure my neighbors could hear me collapse in a heavy sigh of relief. Thank god. I got the all-clear to go on my vacation, and we set up a follow-up appointment for the following week to talk about my blood pressure and any tests that I would still need.

The next week, my flight back to California got canceled (yay winter weather) and my follow-up appointment got pushed back to February. A couple weeks after that, I got a third sinus infection and emailed my doc, who prescribed some antibiotics to kick it for good.

As the appointment got closer, I started to get anxious again. I continued to kick myself for being so stupid. For doing this to myself. As part of my usual, self-destructive cycle, I ate ALL THE THINGS that I love, no matter how terrible for me, thinking this would be my Last Hoorah before my doctor would forbid me from eating everything wonderful and delicious ever again. I joined the gym, but I didn’t go – I was too busy drowning in a pool of self-loathing at the biggest pity party I’d ever thrown for myself.

I walked into her office expecting the worst – scary BP levels and the sternest talking-to I’d ever received from a doctor. It definitely started out on a rough note. I stepped on the scale and cringed, thinking to myself, “Fuck. I’ve never seen that number before.” I sat down, discouraged, and rolled up my sleeve for the blood pressure cuff. For what seemed like an eternity, I waited for the machine to stop trying to amputate my arm and just generate the damn numbers.

“Huh,” said the nurse. AGAIN. I braced myself for the result. “Your blood pressure is totally normal!”

“What?!?” I said, jumping out of the chair to read the screen. “How?!?” It didn’t make any sense – if anything, I’d been eating worse than ever lately and wasn’t active at all. She took a second reading, just to be sure, and again, it came back normal.

My doctor was equally surprised to see the numbers. “I thought for sure we’d be putting you on blood pressure meds today,” she said. After answering some more questions about my head (which had been totally fine since my last visit), I asked her how my blood pressure could come back down, when I hadn’t done anything differently. She thinks my old birth control actually caused my high BP. That, in combination with the stubborn sinus infection that was still lingering in my body (unbeknownst to me at the time), created the perfect storm, so to speak.

So I didn’t need meds or a MRI. Phew! But I do still need to get blood work (just to be safe and check all my other levels), make some dietary changes (bye-bye salt and booze), and take periodic BP readings at home. My next follow-up is in May.

I can’t even begin to tell you how relieved I was. I slept SO HARD that night. And then spent several days doing some serious soul-searching.

To say this whole thing was a wake-up call would be cliché, but it’s also true. I am 33 years old and I just had a stroke scare. For real. If I hadn’t listened to my body and hadn’t called my doctor, there is a good chance that I wouldn’t be here right now. That is not okay.

So I made a promise to myself. I’m going to stop saying, “someday.” Someday, I’ll get my shit together. Someday, I’ll get back in shape. Someday, I’ll start eating healthy again. And it’s not just my health – my career goals, finances, travel plans, hobbies and much, much more have been getting the “someday” treatment for years. This has to stop. I can’t keep waiting for “someday” to arrive. I have to start making the changes I want to see in my life.

IT NEEDS TO BE NOW.

I have since made plans – and started implementing them – to address some of these issues immediately, most importantly, my health. More on that in future posts, but now you know where I’m coming from, and – if you’re a friend – why I’ve been living more or less like a recluse for the past couple of months. This blog is my first big step towards being open about what I’m going through, and I plan to keep sharing. For a few reasons: writing is therapeutic for me, sharing helps me hold myself accountable, and maybe some of my experiences will help others dealing with similar issues.

Bear with me as I get this site up and running – it won’t all be doom and gloom and terrifying, life-changing health scares…I promise! 🙂