Same Girl, Different Skin Part 2: There Is No Secret

Part 1

Last time on TL;DR Theater, I talked about all the junk that led up to August 2011 and beginning the long process of losing the equivalent of the luggage I checked on my trip to Australia from my frame. Well, I didn’t lose it. It’s not like I misplaced it and I’m looking behind the couch cushions for a vaguely Cat-shaped 90 pound dustbunny. It was far more often mysterious to me where I’d gotten all that to begin with than where it all went to once I was done with it or it was done with me. It did not, more’s the pity, get up and totter adorably off to the mothership like the Adipose on Doctor Who–an episode that always felt far more uncomfortable to me on account of the bafflingly unspoken fact that most everyone I knew would glad chug alien larvae if it meant being skinny than the using of humans as EZ-Bake Ovens. Losing weight was not an accident; it was deliberate and painstaking and difficult As a certain Wyvern would say: that’s not losing it, that’s leaving it.

These days I’m in that phase where a lot of people haven’t seen me in awhile or have only seen photos and thus aren’t used to my looking the way I do now. It is not yet the new normal. So I end up talking about it quite a bit. And the question I always get asked, in one form or another (but mostly this one) is: What’s your secret?

I always look apologetic. I know, being a veteran of Diets What Read Like Magic Spells, what they want to hear. That the pounds just fell off when I started doing X, where X is something solid and pointable-to, whether something reasonable and repeatable or something radical and so crazy it just might work: cutting out carbs or gluten or sugar or Fill in the Blank Celebrity Endorsed Meal Plan or running marathons or pilates or eating nothing but lilies plucked under the light of a crescent moon–but I could have as many as I wanted and I never felt deprived!

The thing is: there is no secret.

There’s not even One True Technique that I could point to and say: THAT. That is why this time it worked when I failed so miserably all the other times. Slap a barcode on it and start shipping nationwide. It was a lot of different things, some dietary, some behavioral, some psychological. Some came from me and some came from others. And it’s all very specific to me and might not work at all for anyone else–so before I start counting off the circus funbag of actionable items, allow me to repeat that I am not giving advice, I am not telling you what to do or claiming that any of what I did is the way, the truth, and the life. There is plenty of judgmental I Was Once Fat Like You evangelism online and I am allergic to the pulpit. If I’m trying to squeeze into my empathy hat, I might say it’s natural, I guess, to some extent, for people who have spent much of their lives as physical beings thinking they’re worthless and lazy, to come out on the other side of significant weight loss with the attitude that if they (a worthless, lazy person) can do it, anyone can, it’s not like it’s hard, because worthless, lazy people can’t accomplish hard things. Thus, anyone who doesn’t lose weight must just not care. Those people must not want to try. Those people must be so much more worthless and lazy, so much as to be utterly beneath contempt.

Yeah. The Empathy Hat doesn’t really fit that well after a decade and change of hearing this sort of thing online and off, only without the Empathy Hat or even a skinny, decorative Self-Awareness Scarf. Seriously, if people could stop bleating online about how simple it is and how all you need to do is care and put forth a little effort and chanting Calories In, Calories Out God Fat People Are Dumb I’m Totes Glad I’m Not One while toasting each other in comment sections like Victorian industrialists chortling in their clubs over how simply gauche one finds the poor, Cecil, why, I’m quite sure I read a highly scientifical study that discovered fat people’s brains are 80% cake, Ye Olde Lolle!

So I don’t have a secret to share. I have what worked for me. I am a beautiful and unique snowflake of bad habits and psychological ick and several chins. It took 18 months. I didn’t start out with all of these tools in my belt. I started out pretty blind, with only what extremely dubious lessons I’d learned from the diets of varying logic and patterns set down in my early twenties.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that the first bit of the tale is a screeching false start.

In August 2011, I decided that now, right now, I would really lose it this time I swear to every god with a tummy that fell over his or her loincloth. So I did what I usually do, which is to decide that since low-carb worked for me at age 21, it is the only thing that ever will. I started off trying the Harcombe Diet, which is an Australian thing that would have you do that standard low-carb foxtrot but also eat your weight in yogurt because intestinal flora. Honestly, if a diet didn’t have a name or proper noun in front of it I didn’t know what to do with it. I should have distrusted anything with fonts and color schemes that look like a middle-schoolers diary, in retrospect. I picked a goal weight, more or less out of thin air: 160 pounds. A little above what I weighed the last time I could bear to look at photos of myself. It honestly felt like a mythical number, it had little meaning other than the ritual of the thing. You declare a goal weight because that’s what you do. It was mostly just a thing to fail to achieve, in my head.

It’s important to note here that the other major change in my habits was that, after several conventions in a row wherein the traditional sojourn out for ice cream at a fancy shop made me double over in pain, a dim thought appeared in my thick skull that I might be lactose intolerant. Growing up Christian Scientist means that it takes longer, sometimes, for such connections to get made, because you grow up in an environment where no one admits to illness. I still remember explaining patiently to someone that it’s not that I’m allergic to lemongrass, it’s just that whenever I taste it or smell it I feel sick and my lips tingle and my throat gets tight. I just don’t like it, is all. Why are you laughing at me?

So anyway, I cut out dairy. Which was in itself a long process, figuring out just how intolerant and what I can and can’t have. Many people can still have yogurt, which is why a diet that was like 50% yogurt seemed like it would work. It actually turns out that the amount of dairy I can have is basically none, I’m not only intolerant but allergic, so Lactaid doesn’t help. I can slip in some hard/aged cheeses once in awhile, but that’s about it.

As those who have tried dieting may know, any change in your diet will have some effect, however minor. Ten pounds came off fairly easily and quickly. But when you’re as heavy as I was (250 pounds), ten pounds ain’t nothing but breakfast, you’d never notice it. I knew that the first ten are always easy, so I couldn’t really even consider myself making progress until I’d lost more than that.

But I didn’t. I just couldn’t seem to lose any more than that. I was utterly miserable shoveling yogurt into my face (I don’t even like yogurt that much and I understand now that my whole body was waging a Return of the Living Dairy Product war on my guts and there could be no winners. And eating basically just meat and greens and veggies was doing its usual number on my mood, which is to say I basically slouched around the house like Buffy in her caveman episode. Meat bad. Cat pretty?

So I decided to change tacks and just start tracking calories with one of those new fangled iphone apps. I can’t remember which one I was using at first. I figured 1200 calories was a thing I had heard dieting people say (SCIENCE) so that was a good calorie limit. I punched in the numbers and gratefully started eating bread again.

And nothing happened. I still couldn’t lose any more than that first ten pounds. By this time it was getting into October and I was frustrated to tears. I was trying so hard. Somewhere in my head I thought I should be losing weight the way I had when I was taking those “herbal” supplements I got off a telephone pole advertisement: a pound or two every couple of days. But nothing, nothing and I had been so careful.

At this point I tweeted for advice and I’ll tell you right now, Tobias Buckell is the person who turned it around for me. (If you don’t read his books, you should.) He IM’d me and explained that his own medical issues meant he had to lose weight but couldn’t take the strain at exercise, so he’d become awesome at hacking diet. We talked for quite awhile and he explained that at my weight, 1200 calories was an insanely low number to be working with and probably wouldn’t be effective. My body would hold on to every last pound on account of the terrible famine of 2011. He told me to download an app called LoseIt! and let it calculate what I needed for me, and then just eat that. If I wanted a jelly donut in the morning, fine, just keep the whole day under that number. Don’t deprive myself, just record everything.

LoseIt! suggested a daily calorie intake of a little over 1600 calories.

Now that may seem like simple stuff, but to me a diet had always had to be something radical, hardcore, painful. If I wasn’t suffering, then I wasn’t serious about the process. I always put whatever self-worth I had left into how much I could deny myself, because that, in my head, was the measure of the likelihood of success. It was like some kind of fucked up idea of sympathetic magic. If I could punish myself enough, I’d get what I wanted.

Toby checked up on me every week for awhile. It was one of the kindest things anyone’s done for me, and I’ll be forever grateful. Armed with his advice (and I’m really shorthanding it here, he taught me a ton) I gave myself the following parameters:

Track everything: LoseIt! (though I would not now recommend this as an app–it didn’t evolve with the tech and I use MyNetDiary now, which is fantastic, and lets you track water and sleep and nutrients and a lot of other stuff as well) allows you to log all your food and exercise and will automatically add anything you burn to your daily allowance. I had to be honest, and I had to put everything into the system. And the fact of having a smartphone where it was so easy to input the information was a huge help–it’s not like I am ever without my phone, for I am a child of technology.

No dairy: And not yogurt either. Or cheese of any kind. I was aware that I could have hard cheese but given that I was still having reactions to all kinds of things it seemed better to just cut it out entirely. And funny thing, not having dairy cuts you out, automatically, of a whole lot of things: cheeseburgers, pizza, any dessert menu (seriously you can make a dessert without dairy I SWEAR), creamy sauces and soups.

No eating out: I decided that I’d stop eating out unless it was a business meal. All the effort and energy I put into wanting food and eating it, I’d put into preparing it. I grew vegetables in my garden and baked and cooked elaborate, high-committment meals. At home I can control what goes in, I can be sure it’s actual Plants and Animals That Used to Be Alive and not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Food industrial product. I would remember that part of the magic of food is in making it. I’d take delight in local everything and homemade awesomeness. If I was craving something bad for me, I had to make it myself, from scratch. If I didn’t know how to cook it, I’d learn. I know very, very well that this is a little easier for me as I live on an island with two restaurants, neither of which are so amazing they represent much of a temptation, and going to one of the restaurants in town required a boat ride that provided plenty of time to consider whether I actually wanted that sandwich at Duckfat or not. (The name of that wonderful place should tell you exactly how doctor-approved it is.) It’s also easier because I work at home, I can take the time (and expense) to cook everything from scratch. It’s not a luxury everyone has. But there’s no point in having a luxury if you’re not even really using it. So I’d use the hell out of it. Which leads to–

Think hard about everything I eat: I decided that I would try to be as mindful as possible about what I was eating, a revelation that came from reading the Fat Nutritionist. Whatever I was eating, I’d ask myself whether that specific thing was what I wanted to be eating in that specific moment, or whether I was eating because I was sad or bored or it was the time of day when humans traditionally eat or because it was a social gathering so there’s food out and no one who grew up poor can ever turn down free food. I could have anything I wanted if I was absolutely positive that it was what I deeply, genuinely wanted in that moment. And if I stayed within my daily calorie count–which basically meant portion control. Eat whatever, but only some. I would apply all that love of food that was a profound part of my nature, all that conviction that treating food as fuel alone is just as disordered an attitude as overeating and a miserable way to go through life and I’d actually commit to that idea: I wouldn’t eat anything I didn’t really, really want to eat.

I would weigh myself every day: And here’s one that I’m wary about sharing. This is an absolutely terrible idea for a whole lot of people. You’re meant to weigh yourself once a week, every few days at max. And for people with disordered relationships to their weight, weighing yourself every day can be a quick road to breakdown town. I chose to do this knowing that it might even be a terrible idea for me. But I’d ignored the scale for so many years and it had left me totally unaware of my own body. I did it knowing it’s pretty bad for your brain. My reasoning was a little strange, but bear with me.

NOW IS THE TIME WHEN WE DISCOVER THINGS ABOUT CAT. I’m an obsessive counter. My particular brand of OCD manifests itself numerically, and it is a Conan of a beast. What is good in life? Knowing how many steps are in every staircase and counting my own breaths! Oddly enough, knitting has been an enormous balm for me. Knitting is counting and knots, after all, and holding my position in a pattern, rows, stitches, repeats, takes up the place in my head that used to instantly tally up the number of tiles on any given floor. But my obsession with numbers, while eased somewhat, never goes away. So I figured, Self, I figured, why not put your crazy to work for you? If you’re going to obsess about numbers anyway, let’s just give in to that and let it take over for awhile. Go ahead, weight yourself constantly and look at your calorie counting app a million times a day. It’ll either get less interesting or you’ll learn something from it, but trying to scrupulously avoid obsessing about numbers will only make your vampire brain double down. Go ahead, treat yourself. Count everything.

And that was what I started out with. Those rules and a friend who cared enough to check up on me on the regular.

And it worked. Not like a miracle. Not easily. Not even quickly. Through the entirety of the process I never managed to lose much more than more than five pounds a month. That ended up being terribly frustrating as my I’m Losing Weight! expectations were set during the era of buying speed at Wal-Mart so long as it was called Metabolife. I always felt like I should be doing more, faster, better. I’d see people post their Success Stories online and it would seem to have happened so fast for them. I couldn’t even escape the dread twin demons of Compare and Contrast when I was demonstrably making progress. Some Lady on the Internet lost 100 pounds in a year. If I can’t, I must be a failure like I always was. Lather, rinse, repeat, the brain is a wonderful place, isn’t it?

But I did break through the ten pound barrier that had plagued me. I started going to hot yoga regularly (though I’ll fess up, I did not stick with that nearly as much as I should have. The exercise portion of my diet and exercise plan often, often fell by the wayside and I am no kind of poster child for that side of the business). I wasn’t perfect. I had days where I broke down and ate way too much. But those days were almost exclusively at conventions or on the road, where it’s so much harder to control things. At home, it wasn’t a misery to stick with what I’d planned out. Much. It was somewhere around eight months that I realized I would very likely be able to get to 160 if I just didn’t stop what I was doing. It would happen, I just had to wait.

For the first several weeks, because I had been restricting my calories so much, it was almost freeing to have to fill 1600 a day. I was still hungry sometimes. I was never as good about drinking as much water as I needed to as I could have been. But it was possible. The first few months were a huge adjustment, both terms of my stomach growing accustomed to a new definition of full and in terms of my psychology, which still wanted to panic and boredom eat and take short breaks to hate myself.

And I had to realize a hard truth. I’d always kind of said to myself that I didn’t really eat more than other people, I just had a slow metabolism or something, or I’d gained weight way back when and hadn’t lost it but it wasn’t that I was eating a ton now. Having never done a diet where I had to record everything that fastidiously, I had never had the numbers in front of me. I’d never just counted up the calories.

And the truth is, I was eating a lot. (This was true for me. Not for everyone.) There wasn’t any way to ignore that if I was eating pretty close to my hunger/comfort limits at 1600 a day, I had not exactly been the frugal gourmet before. I learned a lot about just how many calories are in Things, which I had really never given much thought to. My diets had always been about eating a Particular Thing, not about the energy contained in That Thing. But it was plain as the app in front of my face–if bacon and egg and an english muffin was just under 400 calories, then the breakfast sandwich at the cafe plus a pastry was probably almost 800 calories I had started a whole lot of days with in the past. SOBERING SHIT, I TELL YOU WHAT.

And for awhile, that basically made me feel like a manatee whose flippers were self-delusion and whose blubber was the blubber of bad choices. I didn’t have anything to protect my psyche from guilt, not the idea that it had all been rogue birth control or that my body just didn’t do things right. My brain just went full bastard on me, convinced that now was an awesome time to embrace that I was clearly a pig and a glutton and what do you know, my outsides did match my inside.

And so when I backslid and cheated on my diet? I cheated with other diets.

I’d decide that it was time to go on juice fasts or other ill-concieved Proceed Directly to Hell Do Not Pass Go anguish rallies. And I’d fail because I was hungry like the womby girl in Slither and sometimes crushed applecelerycarrotmush is not going to cut it.

But slowly, I evened out. I clung to the idea of how much I loved food. Of only eating something I really wanted to put in my mouth right then. Of being mindful about food. Of taking pleasure in it, but listening to my body, which knows a lot more about what it needs than my brain, which mostly knows about how to tear itself into tiny pieces.

It sounds facile when you put it like that. Because no process is anything but I did something and I kept doing it for a long time. And I feel a little strange about the fact that counting calories ended up working for me in a way nothing else did–except that I think the psychological stuff that went along with plinking things into an app was as big a factor. I feel guilty because I don’t have a secret.

And one day a couple of weeks before I left for Australia, I got on the scale and it said 160. No trumpets blared, no confetti rained down. It was just looking back at me in glowing blue numerals.

Now, I’m still not what our beloved culture would consider skinny. And I’m not really done. I picked 160 out of thin air, an abstract goal that I had no expectation of achieving, and thus had no real attachment to Cat’s Body. I’m pretty happy with how I look right now. I’d like to regain some muscle mass and lose a little bit more, now that I can look at myself and evaluate what I actually want to look like. What my body wants to weigh. What is maintainable. But that 70% of my brain capacity is no longer taken up with hating my physical self. It’s nice, to have that back. I may not keep it off. That’s the mountain on the other side of weight loss. Maintenance is just as hard. I never get to have an uncomplicated relationship with food.

I have a lot more complicated thoughts and reactions and scrunched up faces on the other side of 90 pounds, but this is quite long enough, so I’ll save that, and pictures, for part 3…

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