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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