Squishy In The Middle
by Nicole Freire
When I was 8 years old I was strapped into a Milwaukee scoliosis brace. It looked positively medieval. You can Google Image it if you want. I wore that brace until I was 12, when I had spinal fusion surgery. That led to 6 months of a body cast, a cast that looked exactly like a wine barrel. You know what you can wear over a wine barrel shaped cast? Overalls.
At 8 years old I knew that this contraption was hideous and painful. Lots of blisters, lots of skin contact sores. So I left my body. Not quite an ‘out of body' experience, I didn't see myself from above. No, I merely decided that since my body was trapped in ugliness, I would live in my head. Exclusively.
I lived in my head for years, many years after the physical cage was removed. To be perfectly honest, I still live in my head most of the time. I'm like a giant balloon head, floating above a tiny and annoying and mysterious body.
There were a few times when my head would snap back into my body, just for a few minutes or hours. In high school I joined the track team. Well, I didn't join the track team as much as I followed a friend of mine to track practice and didn't leave for three years. It turned out that I was good at hurdles. Really good.
You'd think my head/body connection would be stronger through that experience. But mostly I watched from a distance. "Well, isn't that interesting? Huh. Who knew? All that jumping."
(As a young adult I really lived in my head, owing to all those Grateful Dead concerts. Kidding! Just a little bit. There were some great summers. Lots of Indian print cotton dresses and ankle bracelets with little bells on them. Lots of good friends, lots of dancing, lots of riding in various VW bugs, square backs, and the best of all, the VW bus.)
When I was pregnant with my first daughter I felt a little more body aware, probably because she kicked and squirmed incessantly. When she stopped moving I would worry, so I'd go and drink some apple juice and then went and lay down in bed. Instant kickage. Sugar works every time.
During her birth I really had to be in my head because until the epidural kicked in I was in a lot of pain. And during the delivery I had to imagine what ‘pushing' was all about, the epidural having finally kicked in and numbing me from the waist down.
Breastfeeding couldn't be done in my head of course. So I would have snatches of time where me, my breasts, and my baby were all in sync.
Getting pregnant with daughter number two was difficult. I was angry with my body for two and half years. Three miscarriages. Three obvious body failures. I finally did get pregnant, with lots of help from my doctor, baby aspirin, and these fun progesterone suppositories - which had to be custom made at a compound pharmacy and then kept in the fridge. Boy, did I love making my husband pick those up.
But I was suspicious and stayed in my head. I would believe this whole baby thing when I saw it. And that delivery? Well, talk about being in your head! There was no time for drugs of any sort, no time for a doctor to show up, that baby was coming and coming fast and the pain? Unbelievable. There was no rational thought going on in my head because the monkey part of my brain took over for the super fast, super exciting, super painful delivery. I remember, well, I don't remember very much actually. Apparently I was loud. Lots of grunting and screaming. Not very lady like.
And so there was another time period of breast feeding and co-sleeping and for some of that time I was in my body.
It didn't last forever; I was still viewing myself as a balloon head. Sure, the whole pregnancy, delivery, baby stuff was physical but I could still maintain the whole living in my head thing fairly well. Once again I looked at it all from a distance. "Huh. Babies. Big belly, big breasts. Trippy."
There just wasn't a lot to convince me that my head and my body were connected, although you would think a screaming infant would have given me some pretty concrete evidence.
I have continued to live in my head (I quite like it there). My body seems to be annoyingly unreliable and sickly. I find it not very friendly.
Last year I lost 20 pounds. Whoo! But it wasn't anything I did. The first 15 or so came off as a result of not eating anything other than Jell-O and Gatorade for almost two months as I recovered very very very slowly from a tonsillectomy. And then as I was feeling better my daughters started tennis lessons. I joined in. I started taking ballet classes, something I had always wanted to do. So I was playing tennis once a week, taking ballet class twice a week, and doing some weight training twice a week.
Wow. That was a whole lot of exercise. For the first time in my life I had a waist. (My family is known for our big shoulders and lack of waists. We're like tree trunks, simply up and down.) But since I was used to living in my head I didn't really make the connection between the not eating and lots of exercise. All I noticed was that some of my pants were getting much too big.
So I gave them away, an entire closetful. And then I bought some smaller pants.
A friend of mine will often send me emails when I've said something funny or extremely obvious. They read like this: "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" You have my full permission to start laughing at this point.
When my husband lost his job, nearly a year ago now, I did a few things. I stopped playing tennis (tennis lessons went bye bye). I stopped going to ballet class. I stopped weight training. Heck, I couldn't pry myself out of my office chair except to pee.
Did you know that when your brain is under stress it craves fats and sugars? That's because your brain wants to feel better! It starts to insist on them. And since I only had limited body experience and loads of living in my head experience I listened very closely to the brain and it's insistence on fats and sugars. It seemed quite necessary.
You know where this is going, right?
It may seems obvious to you, but it has been nearly a year of me eating and eating and not doing anything physical until a few weeks ago, when I found myself doing something that had become pretty natural.
Eating alone in my car. Yep, there I was, sitting in my car in a parking lot with a bakery box or bag on my lap. Donuts. Cake. Cupcakes. I'm very consistent. I really like baked goods. Cookies only rarely show up in these car eating sessions (ooh, except for these chocolate shortbread cookies from Jeannine's Bakery, those are some good cookies). Candy? Eh, sometimes.
As I write this column I weigh as much as I did the week before I gave birth to my daughter in 1997. I have gained back those 20 pounds, plus some. I have no pants to wear. I'm a skirt girl these days. I did find a pair of jeans that fit, thank you goddess of thrift store shopping.
I am 40 years old and it is just now dawning on me that perhaps there is a connection between my head and my body. That what I put into my mouth will show up on my body.
I am squishy now. No more waist. No more cool looking abs. Very squishy. You can poke my belly just like the little man on the can of instant biscuits. What was his name again? I know he giggles when his belly is poked. I won't giggle if you poke my belly. But it will be squishy. There are lots of round parts where there used to be sharp ones. And it's uncomfortable, especially where pants are concerned.
This is nothing new, I know. Oprah Winfrey has made a fortune off her weight struggles. There are a million stories like mine. And I know lots of people, my friends, my family, they'll say, "Oh don't be silly! You're not heavy! You look great!"
But I swear, hand to God, I did not know it could happen. Living in my head all these years gave me no preparation as to how to deal with my body. I had no template, no experience, no training, no nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Null.
And the eating in parking lots -alone? Well, obviously some part of my brain thought it would be a good idea to eat four donuts by myself in the car so no one could see me.
So, I suppose there is a healthy measure of shame there. I do feel bad about falling off the wagon. Actually, it was more of a big leap off the wagon and run for the hills and eat baked goods. I do feel bad about missing my tennis lessons. I feel bad about not going to ballet in over a year. I feel bad about my squishiness.
To be 40 years old and just now figuring out that eating fatty foods will make me……fatty? Embarrassing. It's one of those self-discovery adventures that everyone else has done and doesn't want to talk about anymore.
So I'm afraid to tell you about my squishy belly because, boring? Hello? Haven't we all figured out that yoga and going to the farmer's market on Saturday will make us all skinny and happy?
Well, I hadn't and I haven't. And I'm still making my way there. My brain is very busy these days trying to convince me that zucchini bread isn't bad for me because there are trace amounts of zucchini in it.
I had no idea that living in my head all these years makes it seem normal to want a donut ALL THE TIME.
This is hard work, this parsing of the food in my hand to the extra skin on my hips. It is boring and boring and incredibly difficult. My ‘only living in my head' life is now very conflicted about the body it's attached to. And the pressure to stop worrying about the squishiness and just go very quickly back to living in my head is very very tempting. Almost as tempting as those chocolate shortbread cookies.
But really, this eating alone in the car stuff has to stop. Not just because I'd like to wear some of the smaller pants I bought all those months ago, but because this struggle seems more important this time. (Although wearing the smaller pants again would be nice!)
I have daughters who look at my body constantly, comparing themselves to me. I don't want them to live in their heads all the time. I don't want them to someday sit alone in a parking lot and eat cupcakes by themselves. I want them to know the difference between eating a donut as a Sunday morning treat (hello Anna's Bakery!) and eating four of them without pausing for a sip of coffee.
And I certainly don't want to spend the next 40 years of my life wrestling with this problem. I don't want to always try to assuage my stress with butter and sugar.
I'm tired of being squishy. And I'm really tired of arguing with my brain about it.
For now I just plan on slowing down the eating of the baked goods. I will not eat alone in my car. I'm not going to join a weight-loss center. I'm not going to do Weight Watchers because there is math involved and I was an English Literature major for that very reason. No math, no counting calories.
I'm going to try taking a ballet class again. Granted, a ballet studio is filled with mirrors, but maybe I can go back to living in my head for just an hour or two during class.
I am going to try to pry myself out of my office chair a few times a day and just walk for a little bit. Not power walking. Just moseying along. A lazy walk. A little sojourn for some vitamin D.
You're welcome to join me if you'd like. Just dust off the powdered sugar from your lap and we'll walk a little.
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Nicole Freire is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.