Sunday, May 2, 2010

I Still Struggle at Times...And That's OK

About a year ago, I noticed how one particular woman only came to the Tuesday night Weight Watchers meetings when she was really struggling. I think she attended another meeting, perhaps at work, regularly, but she found it helpful to attend an additional one on her tough weeks.

She always sat alone in the back row, held herself very stiffly, and generally exuded a sense of despair or even self-hatred. Our group leader would make her talk. What came out was an almost inarticulate stream of how hard it was. Why was food such an issue for her? Why couldn't she just eat whatever she wanted and stay a healthy weight like everyone else could? Why was this still such a struggle? The group leader would ask more questions, and she'd share the stupid food and exercise decisions she was making lately. He'd also ask her to share how much she had lost. She was more than 30 pounds down.

One time, she tried to cut herself off as she didn't think this was helpful to others. The group leader stopped her, said it was very helpful and asked everyone to agree with him. Now, I didn't find it particularly helpful, but I wasn't so self-absorbed that I would say that. I was struggling to begin my weight loss journey. I did not find it comforting to know that a woman could lose 30 pounds and still struggle so much. I also thought she looked fine. What was she so upset about? Perhaps she was a size 12 or 10, but she should just love the way she looked. I considered myself a big girl, and she was not. What did she know about struggle?

Since then, this woman has appeared periodically and done the same thing. About one year after I initially wished she would stop complaining as it wasn't helping my motivation to keep on keeping on, she was more than 50 pounds down and I was more than 30 pounds down. We both looked like different women, but we still could find ourselves struggling on this journey.

You may have noticed that I'm about now where she was a year ago. Since February 23 of this year, I have bounced between 31 and 33 pounds down. This is not a bad place to be, but I have found myself struggling more and more with what I see as a lack of progress. This struggle has included moments of despair that may have bordered on self-hatred and some stupid decisions about food and exercise. At my last meeting, I realized I was becoming like that woman who I thought was a whining drama queen the previous year. Once I got over the shock, I realized how smart the group leader had been to make her talk. I tried to analyze what she had said a year before and what I could learn from it.

I think the biggest lesson I got from thinking about her was that she got through it. She continued working at her journey and managed to pass the fifty pounds down mark. Based on how she acted in the meetings she attended on Tuesday night, it was not always easy. It could be a huge struggle, but it was one she worked through and continued her forward progress to her goal weight.

I've known for a long time that there is not an end to this journey. I also knew that I can't return to my previous eating habits, but I'm not sure I realized how much of a struggle at times this journey would still be emotionally and mentally. I started this year with a goal to be more optimistic about this and was successful at that for awhile. I guess I thought that meant I would struggle less with my thoughts and feelings. It's become very apparent in the last month or so that this is not the case. Yes, the issues may be different, but the struggle is not.

So, one of the lessons I need to accept is that I will continue to struggle at times, and that's ok. What saved me the previous times I really struggled in the past 16 months of this journey was that I promised myself I'd give it my all for a year no matter what. This promise was made in January 2009 and renewed in January 2010, and it's still the best thing I've ever done to help me be successful at this journey.

Now, I still need additional help on some days. I've made some really stupid decisions concerning food and exercise this past week and have been searching for signs that would help me boost my motivation to do what I know I need to do. Forcing myself to think about how much I could learn from the drama queen's struggles and triumphs helped. Friday morning, Sally posted in a comment the suggestion to look at Romans 7:15. I did, and it was such a powerful reminder that this struggle to do the good things I say I want to do is practically a part of the human condition. It was getting easier to think these struggles are ok.

Friday night, I watched Bill Moyers' last episode of his show on PBS as he really is retiring this time. His last guest was some storyteller named Barry Lopez. Bill and Barry had quite the philosophical conversation about the meaning of life. Barry shared a story of how a dying woman gave her daughter a copy of Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning as the mother thought her daughter was finally old enough to know that the best reaction to tragedy is not self-destruction. This took my breath away.

I have reached the point that I look at my past obesity and struggles with food as a kind of self-destruction, and it's one I very much want to stop. I want to be as kind, caring and compassionate towards myself as I can be to others. This reminder was the final piece of motivation I needed to kick myself in the butt, stop making stupid food and exercise decisions and keep on keeping on.

I don't expect my Tuesday night weigh in to go very well, but my emotional and mental journey is ultimately more important than my physical one. I'm back in a good place no matter what the scale says Tuesday night. Yes, I will struggle at various points for the rest of my life, but that is ok. I know I can keep on keeping on. Furthermore, I know how to make sure I incorporate stuff into my life that helps me keep on keeping on. My journey continues, and overall, it'll be triumphant.

What helps you when you are struggling? What can you do to make sure your own journey is triumphant?

Michelle Butler has made becoming a healthy writer a priority. She lives, works and writes in the Washington, DC, area. You can follow her on twitter at


Sally Kilpatrick on May 3, 2010 at 6:57 AM said...

Michelle, this was a powerful post--and I'm not just saying that because I got a shout out. (Thanks, BTW) You've come to the conclusion that I've come to: we all just have to keep going. I hadn't mentioned it earlier aside from Paul, but I think that writing, weight, faith--in fact, everything we do--is intertwined by virtue of the fact that we are human. We mess up. And then we start again. That's a bitter pill for a perfectionist like me to swallow.

I'll have to let you know later what it takes for my journey to be successful because I'm up about 10 pound this year, and I'm going to have to rededicate myself to fitness and healthy eating even while I'm down a treadmill. The only thing I know to do is to start over again and to be thankful it's only 10 pounds up. But not so thankful that I eat enough to put on another 10.

Anne MacFarlane on May 3, 2010 at 9:07 AM said...

Michelle, what an amazing and thought provoking post. I've reached my goal but I still struggle. Because it isn't really about the food, is it? It's how our emotional issues drive us to eat as a way to deal with them. For me, I think getting rid of the excess weight has given me a chance to look at what else is going on.

Now I have to deal with some of those emotions that I've shoved down with food all these years. That's scary stuff and makes me want to run to the fridge for a bowl of ice cream. I need to learn to deal with them in healthier ways or I'll continue on this roller coaster ride of losing and gaining weight.

Michelle Butler on May 3, 2010 at 9:10 AM said...

I guess it's still too easy for me to forget that, Sally. I keep thinking there is some magical place where the journey becomes a destination and everything will be so easy. This is obviously where all the perfect authors who write flawless first drafts are hanging out - though I've yet to meet any author who admits to knowing where this place is. Ha! What a failure in thinking on my part. :)

Way back in undergrad, a priest told us we are all on our individual faith journeys - it made such a profound impact I find myself reflecting on that conversation a few times a year. It was so much more adult than anything I'd been told in CCD.

Best wishes on your journey! I really admire you for being on top of it and aware of what is going on. I know that a lot of my weight gains happened when I was so absorbed in one particular area in my life that I just seemed to wake up at some point and realize - hey, my clothes don't fit. How did that happen? It couldn't have anything to do with the amazing amount of mindless stress eating I've been doing, could it?

Michelle Butler on May 3, 2010 at 9:14 AM said...

Anne, if you learn tricks for dealing with emotions in a healthy manner, please share them. I've come to the sometimes painful realization that learning how to do this is at the core of my journey.

I completely hear you about having to deal with emotions that you shoved down with food for years. I've had moments in the past couple of months where I've just been overwhelmed by feelings - the kind that I numbed myself out to for years, and it's been a struggle - even just figuring out what the heck I'm so upset about.

I do try to see the positive side of being more aware of my emotions and can do that at times. In some ways, they are forcing me to confront stuff and end up in a better place after some work.

Best wishes, Anne!!

Laura K. Curtis on May 3, 2010 at 10:00 AM said...

I was just complaining to a friend the other day that once upon a time it was easier to lose weight, that if I just paid pretty good attention, I could manage. Now, I have to count every single point of every single thing I put in my mouth.

Last week was bad. I am not looking forward to weigh-in in a couple hours. But I can't skip. I need the accountability. I know by now that this is going to be a tough road and a long one, especially since I take meds for my epilepsy that make weight loss even harder. But it's obscurely helpful to know that there are others out there who are going through the same thing.

Michelle Butler on May 3, 2010 at 10:06 AM said...


Best wishes with your weigh-in. One of the things I've done at WW when I've really thought I was going to take a hit and wasn't prepared emotionally to deal with it was tell the receptionist that if I gained, she should just put the sticker in my book and not say anything. I would look at it before the next meeting when I was in a better place. I've done that twice, and it was really helpful.

I can't say that losing weight was ever easy for me in the past, but it does have its highs and lows. Best wishes on your journey!

Elise Hayes on May 3, 2010 at 10:16 AM said...


For me, this is the heart of your post: "the best reaction to tragedy is not self-destruction."

This is why I love romance as a genre: the characters learn, at some point in the book, to respond to tragedy in a way that's positive--in a way that takes them forward, instead of back. I think that takes amazing strength.

It's a strength I want to have in my own life. I've tried a variety of strategies in the face of tragedy: dark (really, really dark) humor, exercise, giving myself the space and time to wallow and cry (instead of just shutting away the pain or running away from it), and reaching out to friends (spending time with friends on a regular basis, so that there are bright spots in my life, too). Those have all helped.

Michelle Butler on May 3, 2010 at 10:26 AM said...

I did put it last, Elise. I realize this is also at the heart of my journey. I'm not always able to attack it head on though - perhaps I come on it sideways more.

I think that is part of the appeal of romance and all genre fiction for me as well. In some ways, I'm just realizing how much the journey to recover from tragedy has influenced my reading choices and other interests - in fiction and in nonfiction.

In some ways, I think I'm behind you in the learning curve of strategies for dealing with tragedy, but I'm getting much, much better.

Michelle Butler on May 3, 2010 at 10:30 AM said...

In his conversation with Bill Moyers, Barry Lopez said the best reaction to tragedy was love - relationship-type stuff. I thought it was something that romance authors got in their bones.

Elise Hayes on May 3, 2010 at 11:04 AM said...

Oh, I don't think you're at all behind me in developing strategies for dealing with tragedy, Michelle!

My strategies haven't included eating, but that doesn't mean I haven't had my own unhealthy mechanisms for dealing (or, as I prefer, *not* dealing) with problems that arise. I'm hugely analytical about everything (always have been--it's hard-wired into me), so my default is always to ignore the emotions, to rationalize them away (or, more realistically, into hiding).

And that's affected my writing, because it makes it really hard to tap into my reader's emotions when I'm so bad at tapping into my own. But I've been working on it...

Michelle Butler on May 3, 2010 at 11:15 AM said...

Thanks, Elise. :) That may just be my intepretation at times then.

It's hard to deal with the emotions. And, I do think there are social or familial messages that it's better to be rational/logical than emotional, stoic, etc. It's also plain painful to deal with some of them. It gets so ugly and messy. I realize how loaded those adjectives are. It can be very liberating to deal with them too. All those repressed emotions can find so many ways to trip you up in my experience.

The eating was never a conscious tactic, but it did bring some level of comfort at least temporarily. It is at its heart though self-destructive - as Mr. Lopez said. That's a big part of why I am willing to dig so deep to conquer it.

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