Recognizing a Health Hero

This is the piece that I would have written if I hadn’t missed the dang deadline for the Be Well Philly “Health Hero” essay contest. I felt that I should still send these words out into the world because we should be talking about the amazing people in our lives.

Tema Esberg saved my life. I know that probably comes off as a ridiculously hyperbolic statement, but it’s true. Each year of my life, for as long as I can remember, the scale has marched steadily onward and upward towards one freakin’ huge mountain of a number: 313. At 5’3″, that is an insane amount of weight to be carrying around on such minimal scaffolding. In January of 2015, I turned 30 and felt that the universe was giving me an ultimatum to either grab the controls on this runaway train of emotional binge eating and weight gain or witness the epic, fiery crash into diabetes, high cholesterol, and disability that was to be my inevitable end. I really couldn’t continue throwing excuses down on the tracks as I had just graduated from my master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania, I had pretty much processed the grief of losing a parent at age 24, and I did have some money that I could put towards a gym membership or other fitness-related spending.

I met Tema when I signed up for one of those snazzy package deals for Balance Chestnut Hill via GILT. I plunked down a hundred or so dollars for five sessions with their B.I.O (Balancing from the Inside Out) team and figured that I could commit to 5 sessions before jumping in wholeheartedly or bailing and never looking back. As a fat person, I am largely (oh yes, pun intended) skeptical of most things that suggest that I just might reach the goals that I want to achieve. Afterall, next to Nursing, weight loss is my other full-time job – one that doesn’t pay, one with a terrible boss, and one where I never excel. I also tend to be skeptical of those in the fitness/wellness profession because I am often being told that I need to conform to what they envision as “success” – cut out sugar; what the hell, cut out 5 food groups!; exercise until you feel like you want to die; spend $100’s of dollars a week on classes and training sessions; lose 20lbs in 2 months; send daily emails that include every single morsel of food eaten; weigh myself weekly; and on and on. I end up undertaking things to please the professional, to obtain approval and acceptance, which just ends up feeling like a whole lotta work that I’m not doing for myself. Fat people are often “yes” people. The more I say “yes” to someone else, the more I disappear within myself. I end up with no voice, unable to be accountable to even myself. Eventually, I rebel like a 13-year-old who has just discovered punk music and I rage against that machine that wants me to cram my round peg into the square hole and then I quit.

Tema, though? She’s my soul mate. I’ve been working out with her at least once per week since February. If I could serenade her (which NO ONE wants me to do), I would sing “Wind Beneath My Wings”. It would be like a scene out of Beaches and everyone would cry. (If I ever get married – this could be a real possibility if I overdo it on champagne during the toasts.) She really does lift me up. She responds to my crazy text messages of self-doubt and self-loathing with pure positivity and encouragement and love. She affirms the negative feelings I’m having with empathy but then makes it clear that she is not attending my pity party and I better find something to like about myself (Bad run? Ain’t no thing as a bad run, girl! Only the one you didn’t do!). She is joyful. No sir, she does not hide her light under a bushel. She shines brightly which makes you want to shine just as bright. She constantly reminds me of my progress during our workouts and compliments my moves even if I look like a whale trying to walk across a tightrope. She varies our workouts so that I never seem to realize they are getting harder (a sneaky move since I tend to run far far away when workouts are intense). When I wanted to start running, she got out her pom poms and cheered every milestone. She even put together a women’s running group on Sunday morning’s to keep me motivated and help me find a safe space within the running community. She NEVER asks me what I’ve been eating or what I weigh. EVER. That may actually be the lynchpin that makes all the difference. She knows that I am making progress because I can do things now that I could do six months ago or because I tell her about the clothes I can fit into now. Tema has helped me to dig up the woman inside of me who is active and healthy and happy.

Do I want to be under 200lbs? More than you know! But I am surprisingly content with the journey. I’ve lost weight, I’ve become stronger, I’ve tried a whole host of new things and inserted myself into new social situations, I’ve rediscovered some great wardrobe staples. Tema saved my life because she helped me uncover a new identity. One where I am a person who exercises, who kayaks, who runs, who ziplines. She helps me keep the self-doubt and self-loathing at bay. That’s what was killing me. The anxiety. The depression. The continually feeling “not good enough”.  Forging a new identity isn’t as complicated as one might think. I imagine it’s the same way people discover their identity as a vegetarian – it’s just something you believe in, something you do every day, something you are passionate about.

If anyone is meant to be deemed a “Health Hero”, it’s Tema. She is the little spark inside of me that whispers “even when you are going through hell, keep going”.

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In Which I Become the Person I Want to Be

I started running in March.

I had been working with a personal trainer – Tema of Potentia Personal Training – for a few months and felt the itch to tackle what I felt to be the mother of all fitness challenges.

My brother has always been fond of telling me “you’d lose weight if you just started running”. This from the mouth of someone who has been phenomenally athletic since childhood, excelling in multiple sports, maintaining the physique of a Greek god despite appearing to be a bottomless garbage pit for all sorts of foods from those dreaded inner grocery store aisles.

Sometimes, during my walks (the earliest form of cardiovascular fitness that I attempted), I would feel myself going faster and faster to the point where I felt that my feet wanted to take flight beneath me. I would punch up the MPH on the treadmill and tentatively jog for 30 seconds or so until I couldn’t stand feeling so self-conscious about everything jiggling up and down between my neck and my knees. The feeling persisted, though. I wanted to move more and cover greater distances. I wanted to propel myself down local trails under my own power. I wanted in to that secret club that runners seem to so enjoy being a part of. I wanted to put my mind to something of a physical nature and actually accomplish what I set out to do. For once. Just one bloody time.

And I wanted my brother to stuff it.

Naturally, I turned to the Apple app store. Because there is an app for EVERYTHING (and if there isn’t, it probably wasn’t important anyway). Even overweight 30 year old nurses who fancy themselves runners. Trust me – it’s called “5K Runner”. I started the program with a healthy dose of self-doubt, anxiety, and trepidation. How many times had I attempted to lose weight and magically morph myself from sloppy slug into the svelte, physically active butterfly I imagined myself to be? I’ve lost count.

The beauty of the 5K Runner app (or the Couch 2 5K or whatever other “learn-to-run” method you might use”) is that it actually works. If you are persistent and consistent – my trainer’s mantra – your body adapts to the new levels of physical activity as your cardiovascular endurance increases. My weight did drop. A healthy 25lbs came off in the weeks it has taken me to complete 62 runs. Honestly, I thought it would be more. This is probably because I still sometimes maintain the fantasy that I will go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning in a new body. Since March, I’ve really had to come to learn to appreciate the work my body is doing – the increased lung capacity I’ve developed, the ability to go from lifting 2lb weights to 10lb weights, the feel of jogging up the stairs in my house without feeling like I need my rescue inhaler, the new jawline that has emerged out of the fat.

At some point, exercise in general and running specifically became about more than weight loss. Physical activity is something I look forward to, I enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment, I love the floating-on-cloud-9 feeling that the endorphin rush brings. I’ve made so many new friends with the new-found confidence I have developed. My calendar is filled with fitness events of all things! It turns out that the running community isn’t the exclusive club that I imagined it to be. If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter your size, shape, or speed. As long as you get out there and get it done. It’s the non-running community we should all be afraid of – that is where the detractors lie. Those are the people who will question your motivation and your will.

Those are the things that I have to continuously remind myself of when I step on the scale and realize that I am not yet below 250lbs. I have to pat myself on the back for dropping below 300lbs and keep plowing through the nagging, biting, excoriating self-criticism that says “you are failing”.

Recently, I started subscribing to Runner’s World magazine. This is where I “met” Mirna Valerio. She is my new hero. Others might see her as the exception, but I see bits of her inside of me. Her story snapped me out of my most recent funk with the whip-like crack of a bungy cord, yanking me away from barbs of my own self-loathing. Read it. You’ll be inspired, too. It will given you the sweet sustenance you need to power through your own roadblocks.

So now my nose is back to the grindstone.

One foot in front of the other.

Persistence and consistency.

(And I am feeling pretty darn smug knowing that my brother is a little more tight-lipped about his comments now that I am officially – a “runner”)