To Live, First We Must Die
How I Overcame What Was Weighing Me Down
We all carry a burden from the moment we come into this world. As we’re passed from one pair of arms to another, cradled by our caregivers, they look at us, expecting the world of their new little miracle. Even as toddlers, we can feel something heavy forming on our backs, digging its claws into our shoulders. It clings to us — a closely following shadow, a weight on our back, a devil in our ear, whatever you want to call it. Even as carefree children, there’s that voice.
Growing up I heard my parents and sister talk about diets, cleanses, detoxes, supplements, anything that promised a weight loss and ideally produced the perfect body. Back then, I never worried about losing fat or maintaining my own figure. I was a size 4 with curves, thanks to dance and regulated food intake. Being the skinny one in a family of dieters was fun; the heavy thing clutching my shoulders hadn’t yet grown large enough to keep me from doing a plié.
Then came college. It brought its uninvited friend along: the dreaded freshman 15. I didn’t expect he’d have a twin. (It was more like the freshman 30 for me.) I attended the University of Michigan and the Ross School of Business. My lifestyle completely shifted when I moved into the dorms, ate cafeteria food (how did they get 1000 calories in broccoli?!) and studied or hung out more than I tap danced. And like so many of us, to cope with the stress, I turned to food as comfort…but my metabolism no longer had my back.
I began gaining weight. Looking in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself and was distraught by this issue I never had to worry about before. What was this body? Dance teaches you to be aware of your body, where it is in space and how it moves — this body no longer moved like me. That strange sensation drove me to emulate the same behavior I had grown up with, so I turned to dieting. I tried everything out there and the scale went up and down, up and down, each time attempting a new “plan”…the same way I saw it go for my family. On my 21st birthday, I asked my parents for a Weight Watchers membership as my gift. It worked — but only in the short term. I was trapped in the cycle of losing, regaining, losing, then regaining.
Life wasn’t the only thing that was changing — between the stress of my new routine and newfound insecurities, the weight on my back had plenty to feed on. It was delighted by how uncomfortable I was in my own skin. Though I still felt confident, I knew my body didn’t accurately represent how I saw myself. I knew that when I went on dates and job interviews they were seeing a Jenn that wasn’t truly me.
Entering the working world after college only contributed to my problems. It presented situations of trying to navigate another city, new routines, and free food in the office kitchen. I don’t even like pizza, but when it’s hot and it’s free, it’s hard to say no! Work also exacerbated my stress issues. When I worked as a photo shoot producer and then in hedge funds, it was not uncommon for me to cater to volatile personalities, be called late at night only to be screamed at and scorned, and be blamed for failures in which I had no part. This too wore me down and warped my perception of myself. If you’re treated as if you’re expendable and a punching bag, you can start to do the same to yourself at times.
Work was exhausting, even when things went well. Lengthy commutes and being “on call” made it feel as if I was working 24 hours and could never truly relax. As I lived those days, I came to think that the burden on my shoulders was the weight of an old version of me: the one who couldn’t wait to graduate college so I could climb the corporate ladder. As I began to climb, the view wasn’t what I thought.
Living a life that felt like one never-ending day, I realized I had placed myself into a box. Daydreaming about the life I could live made me realize my potential. Those restless nights and the stressful days were because I wasn’t fulfilled and my interests had changed. I was no longer trying to prove myself by taking abuse just to have a chance at recognition and fulfill the idea of the dream our caregivers proffered when we were little. I craved independence, freedom, and to achieve what I defined as success. Instead of feeding the ever growing weight on my back with the nonstop stress of being screamed at as papers were thrown on my desk, I made the choice to be happy.
One of the hardest challenges of my life so far has been learning how to make the shifts necessary for my own happiness and health. I knew it would be difficult with the heaviness on my back acting as a constant reminder of expectations, my past, my fears. Choosing to be happy is cute and all, but it’s much easier said than done! Still, I was determined. I wanted to be my own boss, to decide my own fate, to help others. Not be stuck answering phone calls at all hours of the day to support someone else’s dreams.
Around this time I discovered TLS and thought, “Oh another weight loss program to add to my list.” But I noticed something about the people following it — they managed to keep the weight off. Then I heard a woman share her story of how she lost a person. Not a death in the family or a traumatic breakup, but how she lost the equivalent of a human, 150 pounds, and never gained it back. I couldn’t comprehend how this beautiful woman ever looked anything other than fit; I couldn’t see where 10 pounds could’ve been on her body. I realized maybe it was not just another program. They knew something I clearly didn’t. It was time to get over myself and listen to what they were teaching. It changed my life.
It was the nutrition education they should teach in schools; instead we’re stuck praising the almighty food pyramid (even if it’s updated). This knowledge allowed me to say, “I kicked my food issues.” From here I set out on a mission to help others who were going through the same weight loss and wellness struggles. I became a health coach. Day by day, and client by client, I was becoming the woman I knew I was supposed to be. My identity was no longer tied to the food I was eating, the constant counting of calories or points, or the number on the scale. I prided myself not on what I saw in the mirror, but instead on my energy and passion for helping others. I prided my heart. My inner peace. Once I abandoned the stress and affliction of food and routine, serenity took its place. The old me, the one stuck in hedge funds and corporate America, stuck day in and day out with the same routine, the one stuck with an everlasting battle with my own self-esteem and struggles…was beginning to diminish. My burden from birth disappeared. That is when my old self died.
Death usually comes with a negative connotation, a dark cloud. But this wasn’t a funeral! It was a celebration of the life I once had, and excitement for the life to come. It was, in fact, a rebirth. My smile grew, my inner joy emanating as I slowly, steadily, released the weight on my shoulders. It was shrinking once it was starved of negativity, no longer gorging on my insecurity, it could no longer hold me down. The confidence I gained when I broke free of yo-yo dieting and the corporate world helped me realize who I truly am. I am passionate, energetic and giving. I am committed to helping others through nutrition and wellness. Someone who is “a force of nature in wellness,” as I was recently called. Someone who is emphatic, experienced, informed, and driven.
The death of my identity crisis. The death of the shadow cast over me. The death of the crippling weight on my shoulders. The death of the devil whispering in my ear. The death of the unhappy woman in hedge funds. When we turn to a different point of view, we see how the death of a phase in life is really giving way to a birth. Change and loss are inevitable in life; why not celebrate them? It’s time we welcome change into our lives, no matter how hard it may be to accept. Discovering our true identities is a journey, which may change again and again throughout our lifetimes. We may fail over and over while we transition from death into rebirth, but change is fundamental to growth as a person. It is fundamental to life.
I learned: This figurative death was the prerequisite for the birth of my happiest and healthiest self.