This week-long series isn’t about how I lost nearly 30 pounds in three months, rather this is about a lifetime battle with my body and how I’m finally traveled to a place where I’m settled in my skin and love it, from the inside out. This week, I’ll be sharing highly personal aspects of my life as well as practical tips I’ve learned–all in an effort to inspire you and remind myself that every day requires self-work and self-love. I was going to introduce this series when I hit my goal weight, but that felt pointless, because this is a journey that has no end until the end, and that’s actually really comforting. Shocking for a Type-A control freak like me. In today’s post I talk about my lifelong relationship with food, my fluctuating weight, and the decision I made this year that would change my life.
For as long as I could remember I’ve been waging a war against my body. In Brooklyn, the boys at the pool used to shout out, boriqua sexy, and talked about my thick hips and full chest. I was friends with a beautiful girl, Teresa, and the boys told me that I would be pretty, really pretty, if I had Teresa’s head on my body. I was 11. I spent the entire summer between middle school and junior high school swimming from one end of a 16-foot pool to another, subsisting on potatoes and the random 50 cent hot dog. Wondering what it would be to look like my skinny friend. When I walked into I.S. 88 in Park Slope, I was sinewy, lean, flat-chested. That first day of school I wore an acid-washed skirt set (it was 1986, people) and on the shirt read two words: next exit. I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, even now, but I do.
I loved junior high school! Unlike grade school, where my mother served as a specter, here at I.S. 88, a school that issued bus passes to transit kids like me, the mere distance of the school from our house rendered her invisible. My friends were black, Puerto Rican (girl, you ain’t Spanish?), Italian, Irish and Dominican. Girls with afros and gerry curls, girls with slim hips and girls who ballooned out–the mess of color and shape comforted me. Finally, I felt like I fit. I spent that year smoking loosies, downing Gatorade and fried onion chips, and my weight crept up because I didn’t care. I had friends! I had a boyfriend who had the kind of eyes you wanted to tumble into! A teacher took me aside and said, You’re a remarkable writer, and I shrugged my shoulders because how could I know then that writing would be the one thing that would always, invariably, save? When you’re 12 all that matters is that you carry your own set of keys. You cut French class and pump your feet high on the swings with your friends.
That was also the year I moved to Long Island and everything changed. In the three schools I attended (one from which I had to transfer because I was bullied), everyone was whitewashed, paled down to bone. They listened to pop and rock-and-roll, not the hip hop and soul I’d grown up listening to. They had fine hair and slipped their bony hips into tiny jeans and pleated cheerleading skirts. These were girls called Lea and Renee, and they were on the kick team. They didn’t eat their lunch, they picked at it. I, on the other hand, devoured three Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, a buttered bagel, and a large orange juice.
And that was just breakfast.
I spent the better part of high school vacillating between binging and purging. I couldn’t go near Cinnabon because I’d devour the whole box and throw it up twenty minutes later. I stopped one day because I almost choked and I feared death more than being fat. Because apparently, those were my choices. But I would go on and off purging for most of my adult life. But back in high school, I just couldn’t find where I fit, so I kept mostly to myself, read books between classes, ate alone and excelled. I hated Long Island with its 99 cent bagel shops, binge drinking, and homogeneity. The more I hated Long Island, the more I hated my curly hair and thick hips, the more I ate and studied. I won awards, scholarships, but during my senior year I got caught stealing. Two teachers rescinded their college letters of recommendation, and I was forced to go to therapy or face expulsion.
A decade later, I sat in another therapist’s office telling her about all of this, and she nodded and said that it was heartbreaking to witness my trajectory. My need for control, my need to snuff out pain, drown it anyway I could, and how those needs would inevitably lead me to addiction. Alcoholism and an addiction to cocaine were all laid out ahead of me and I didn’t even know it back when I was 17, when I’d been an academic star, a writer of those too-dark stories (Why does everyone have to die in your stories, Felicia? Because everyone does), who baffled the student faculty. How could she do that? Steal?
At 27, in a therapist’s office, I said, You mean, I could have prevented all of this? I could have avoided a bottle of wine and a gram to get through my day without screaming? Good to know.
Back then, I was a little angry. Most of my life I’d been angry.
When I received my acceptance letter and a pile of financial aid from Fordham University, I cried. I came down on my knees and cried because the Bronx felt like another country. I’d be free from the hallway whispers (by the end of the year everyone had found out that what I’d stolen and why, and naturally everyone had a field day in reveling in my humiliation), the teachers who regarded me as if I were delicate china, and my mother, who, stormed out of a family therapy session when my therapist asked, Are you angry, Felicia? Yes. Who you are angry with? (Pause) Answer the woman, my mother snapped. I’m angry. (I turned toward my mother) I’m so angry with you. My mother got up and walked out. My dad apologized. I laughed through tears. That’s my mother, I said.
I was a size 10.
Four years on a campus near Arthur Avenue. Trips to Europe and Mexico. Everyone hailed from the Northeast and was monied, pre-educated. I was a psychology major who switched to finance and marketing because that’s where the money was. I rolled with the smart kids, the kids who wanted to work in investment banks and the big six accounting firms. I spent most of my time in class, at work, or on the verge of blacking out. I drank and drank some more. But back then everyone drank too much; alcoholism was the church of our worship, and I laid down my hands on the altar and prayed like one of the devoted. When I drank, I’d order oily pasta at 2:30 in the morning and I passed the bulk of my college years eating a lot or eating nothing at all.
After graduation, and before I enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, I spent the early part of my twenties deep in the business of whittling down to bone. I subsisted on Starbucks and Lean Cuisine. I ran 6-7 miles a day on a treadmill or on the sand-covered track on the farm in which my father worked. I was a loose in a size zero, practically a negative integer. I fell in love and nearly married a man who told me I wasn’t thin enough, so I drank until I could no longer hear the sound of his voice. Because how much smaller could you get than a size zero? Oh, there are ways.
In 2008, I celebrated a year of alcohol sobriety (by then I’d been off of coke for 6 years), published my first book, and no longer looked like a film negative. I’d stopped eating processed food, introduced vegetables into my diet, and nurtured a strong yoga practice. After spending nearly a decade in and out of therapy, I finally felt strong in my own skin. It was then I decided to take a year off to write the screenplay adaptation of my memoir (thankfully, funding for the film fell through) and figure out what is that I wanted to do as a career. I spent most of adult life in large companies working in marketing, but I was bored, passing the days instead of being present in them, and I wanted to take some time to come back to myself. That year might have been one of the healthiest I’ve ever been.
Below is a snap of my me + my pop at my book party in 2008.
Then I met a man who would be my boss for nearly four years. I remember the interview, and him asking me an odd question. He’d heard that I loved food, was a bit of baker and cook, and asked, If I were to come over to dinner, have a meal with you, what would you make? I laughed, startled, expecting the usual resume excavation, but I don’t think he’d ever read my resume, rather he was just trying to figure out whether or not I was the kind of person he wanted to share a meal with. Or perhaps he wanted to see how I’d manage curve balls. Over the course of an hour and several follow-up emails and phone calls, I was charmed by his vision, his affection for writers, and the kind of company he wanted to build, and I took a job that would markedly change the course of my life.
I’m not going to say much about those years beyond what I’ve written here, but let’s just say, for sake of argument, that the man I met wasn’t the man I’d come to know. Behind closed doors, I spent the bulk of those years fighting with this man while my other boss played referee, had us in our mutual corners to cool off. I want to say that the man I worked for didn’t hold my values, and as a result, I allowed myself to become a lesser version of myself. I became paranoid, insecure, plagued with self-doubt and fear, and I was visibly stressed and sometimes cruel toward my direct reports. I say that I allowed myself because while I worked for someone whom I didn’t respect (although, in retrospect, I learned a great deal about business from him), I chose to remain and I have to take responsibility for not leaving. In those nearly four years I cried the most I’ve ever cried. I nearly relapsed. I was broken and put on a considerable amount of weight. The stress, and the pressure I put on myself, drove me to make poor choices with regard to my body and health, and I never put myself first.
That’s a mistake I’ll never make again.
When I resigned from this job, I cried in the shower for a week and spent a month in Europe, shaking. That was the year when I suffered a great loss, relapsed after six and a half years of sobriety, recovered, and spent the remainder of the year ripping off bandaids and sitting in a place of self-reflection.
What had I done to myself? How had I treated others? Myself? I spent time forgiving myself and asking forgiveness of others. That was the year I rebuilt friendships (Oh, you’re no longer tethered to your work email? Oh, you can actually make my wedding?) brick by brick. That was the year I got on a plane for myself, to further my own dream, rather than to forsake myself for someone else’s. That was the year I got healthy (or so I thought) and worked out five days a week.
But something else happened. None of my clothes fit. I was literally ripping through dresses. My chest had gotten to a size that gave me discomfort. Often I felt sick, experienced sharp pains in my stomach which felt like my appendix were about to burst. I couldn’t sleep and when I did it was the sleep of disturbed children. I was constipated. I kept pausing in the middle of sentences, lost, What was I just saying?. I kept forgetting things–keys, thoughts, what I’d planned for the day or whom I was meeting for dinner. I was working out but always felt sluggish. Bloat and exhaustion were a constant state. I avoided mirrors. I shied away from having my picture taken.
My body had become a house I wanted to burn to the ground.
In June, I posted a note on Facebook about wanting to see a nutritionist because I felt powerless, weak. A friend casually mentioned Dana James, someone with whom she’d experienced a degree of success. After Dana’s assistant and I traded a few emails, and I completed a 14-page written questionnaire and three-day food diary, I spent nearly two hours in Dana’s office in a state of shock. That session was a brutal awakening.
I was 172.3 pounds, the heaviest I’d been in my entire life. I came off the scale and sat, catatonic, in a chair. I blacked out during our session and all I could see was the weight, so much of it, and the fact that my food diary revealed I’d a severe addiction to gluten. As Dana proceeded to talk me through our goals and a new way of eating, I stopped her, an hour later, mid-sentence, and said, Maybe that scale is broken? I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS. I DON’T EAT PROCESSED FOOD. I EAT KALE! Dana paused and said that the number was just a number. It was information. It was knowledge, and I’ll acquire more knowledge to move that number, and more importantly, my life, in another direction. But I had to commit to changing my life. I know that sounds so textbook self-help, but if I wanted to feel good, healthy, strong, I had to completely re-think my approach to food and reconcile my relationship with it. Because I’d been living this private life where, on one hand, food was at the core of my identity but it was also my nemesis. I needed to find a place in the middle.
For three months, I made a significant financial, emotional and physical investment. I committed to seeing Dana weekly; I kept a detailed, honest food journal. I weighed in every week and learned how to build a balanced plate. I learned how to eat more, but better. I eliminated gluten, dairy, yeast, sweet potatoes, bananas, grapes, blueberries, lemons, turkey, and a list of other foods from my diet. I followed a customized, realistic meal plan. I bought books, watched documentaries and went to seminars to educate myself on gut health, nutrition and food. I saw my primary care physician more times this year than in the previous 10. I got extremely sick; I endured the side effects (including nearly fainting in my apartment) from taking steroids to control a severe reaction I had to gluten and dairy when I decided to go off plan; I got better again.
Yeah, yeah, the weight came off and continues to, but nothing compares to how I feel: sharp, clear-headed, awake, strong, and present. I no longer need coffee to get through my days, my skin has that “glow” and even my doctor is shocked at how much I’ve managed to reduce my insulin levels in three months (I was on the road to diabetes, but have since reversed the course!).
I feel incredible.
But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a tremendous amount of information I learned along the way. From spending money on incompetent allergists to not fearing the scale to analyzing my waste on a daily basis (quit it with the eww–this is your body and it gives you important information) to reframing my original thinking that my diet was limited because I couldn’t have dairy or gluten to realizing that the elimination of two things actually created creativity and abundance–this week I plan to share everything I’ve learned throughout my journey. And I’ve only just started! Naturally, this is all meant to inspire not to directly emulate. See your doctor, talk to holistic practitioners, educate yourself about how food is cultivated and manufactured and learn how your gut works.
I don’t have all the answers, but I have enough information, faith and self-love to feel like I have something worthy to share with you. I’ll also share all the resources (books, films, cookbooks, etc) that have kept me sane.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Nothing with regard to my health is off the table (I mean, I just mentioned poop). If I don’t know the answer, I’ll ask my nutritionist before I leave for Asia this week. If I still don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you that as well :)
Next Up: What I ate that got me into this mess.