Group Hugs.

Last night was another successful meeting of our WLS support group.  I cannot emphasize enough how important these meetings are to me: the interaction of people in all stages of WLS and the guidance of the bariatric program manager make it educational as well as entertaining.  If you are considering bariatric surgery, you NEED these meetings.  If you are scheduled for surgery and are completing your pre-op obligations, you NEED these meetings.  If you are post-op, in any phase, you NEED these meetings.  Why?  Because we talk about things that you need to know.  We ask the questions you might be too afraid or too embarrassed to ask.  We care about each other: we throw our support behind our members when they are struggling, and we celebrate their successes.  It’s like group therapy.  When was the last time you received a round of applause? 

Weight loss is difficult for a lot of us.  We struggle with the physical part, and we struggle with the mental part.  Having surgery isn’t an easy fix, and it doesn’t abolish the need for eating right and exercise; you still have to make those changes to stay in recovery from obesity.  People who believe, as I used to, that surgery is ‘cheating’ or the easy way out, have not gone through it.  I had surgery, and I’m still in the stage where the weight comes off pretty quickly.  But it does slow down, and my appetite is returning, and I still have to consciously stay on track.  Let me say right here that without the support of my family, my friends, and the WLS group, I would be having a lot more trouble with that.

What keeps our group so successful and engaging is our leader and facilitator, Connie.  Connie comes to each meeting with a topic or two that she wants to bring up for discussion; she gives us recipes and tips, articles of interest, and suggestions for books or blogs to read. But what I appreciate most from Connie is her honesty.  As a bypass post-op, she gives us examples from her own experience.  As a bariatrics nurse and program manager, she gives us her professional opinion and observations.  And as a wife and mother, she gives us the human, personal side of being in recovery from obesity.  Often her husband is there as well, giving his perspective.  The meetings are interesting and interactive; everyone participates, not because they have to, but because the environment is comfortable and supportive. 

One of the ladies made a very revealing point last night.  R has just begun her 6 months of pre-surgery appointments, which for some of us are a battery of nutritionist visits, psychological and sleep evaluations, and tests, such as EKG, barium swallows, and endoscopies.  She said she’d been obese since she was a child; she has no idea how she will look or feel after she loses weight.  Over the years, she said she developed a ‘victim’ mindset, where she could blame obesity for so much of the unhappiness in her life.  She could feel sorry for herself and make excuses.  She said it became a way of life.  Then she admitted that she was scared, because once she has surgery, she won’t have that crutch anymore.  She wonders what she will do once she has reason to be happy. 

That really made me think.  We’ve all been scared of change.

If you have spent your life shaming yourself and allowing others to shame you for your obesity, if you have cultivated feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t jump in the pool with the rest of your friends, if you have nurtured that self-loathing that we are famous for – then it IS scary to change.  Change of any type is daunting anyway.  You must realize that the whole persona that you have developed over a lifetime of obesity is a construct; it is not the real you, even though you might believe it to be.  It is a shell that has hardened over the person you are. 

Everything from the clothes you choose to wear to your facial expression, your body language, and speech, is a response to your negative self-perception. 

·       Your drab, monotonous wardrobe enables you to fade into the background and not attract attention to yourself. 

·       Your facial expression is often sour and forbidding, making others less likely to engage you; you rarely look anyone in the eye. 

·       Your body language says many things: I hate how I look; I am ashamed of myself; I am not worthy of your attention or love; my body is in pain and so is my spirit.

·        Your speech may be quiet and hesitant, as if you would rather shrink into the floor than talk; or you may be loud and defiant, as if daring anyone to challenge you.  That chip on your shoulder? It’s more like a 2 x 4, my friend.

Is this the real you?  I think not.  I think the real you was lost in there somewhere as the protective shell got thicker and harder as the years went by.  The real you, the vital you, the you with dreams and ambitions, struggles silently against the literal and figurative weight of obesity.

M, who proudly said she’d never missed a meeting, shared that when she was heavy, she hid herself in brown, black and gray.  Now, she’s celebrating her post-surgery body and spirit with bright colors and fun accessories because they make her happy.  She said, “Don’t wait!  Do it now!  Wear the colors that you love!”  She’s right.  Don’t wait until you decide you’re ‘thin enough’ to wear red, or horizontal stripes, or bold prints.  Start making yourself happy now.

My mother used to admonish me to stand up straight and look people in the eye, and I always did.  As I got heavier, however, my posture suffered, and because I was so miserable, I just slumped.  I kept my eyes on the ground as I walked, not only because my balance wasn’t so good, but also because I was unhappy and didn’t want to see the reactions of others as they passed.  Recently, I have found myself walking with a more confident stride and a smile on my face for the people I meet.  There’s a lightness to my step that hasn’t been there in a long time.  It feels good.

It’s time to dig deep and reacquaint yourself with the person you really are inside.  It’s time to remember the things that made you happy and to encourage them.  It’s time to put a smile on your face, especially when you look in the mirror.  It’s time to stop judging yourself by others’ criteria and let the real you shine.  This is a journey.  As we shed the pounds, we can shed the old assumptions and attitudes, too. 

We can either complain because the sun is in our eyes or bask in its warmth.  Which will you choose?

 

photo credit: roland

The Grief Journal

journal60

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.
~ William Shakespeare

 

I found my grief journal the other day.

You would not think much of it if you saw it: a nondescript brown book with a small illustration on the cover. It is not very big, but it holds a whole lot of me.

When I bought the book in happier times, its intended use was journaling, which is exactly like blogging, only different. 😉  I never got around to using it that way, and it sat, unopened, for a long time.

In a rare moment of lucidity during my worst times, I decided that I should find the book and use it. I eyed it warily for a long while, not sure if I was really ready to put pen to paper. It seemed like more of a commitment than I could handle. My head was so messed up that I was not sure what to do from one day to the next.

It was difficult at first to write what I felt. I never had had trouble doing that before, but this time was different. I tried to reserve for myself a few moments before I went to sleep to jot down the day’s events and feelings. I thought that would be sufficient. I did not expect entries to ramble for several pages, and I did not anticipate struggling to express myself, but both were common.

Sometimes I would skip weeks at a time because what I was feeling was the same — every hour, every day, every week. Why write it down?

‘Today I was miserable. Again. Cried. Again. I hate my life. Still.’

Other times, I filled the pages with my dreams and nightmares. I wrote about family dynamics and how they changed; I wrote about how I felt like an observer in my own life; I wrote about how helpless and hopeless I felt.

I also wrote about Mr. Stuck and about how his love and support kept me afloat when I was sure I was drowning. I wrote about how grateful I was to him for standing by me in the worst of times. I wrote that if I could get through this – if we could get through this – nothing could tear us apart. I know not everyone has someone like him in their lives, and that is a shame, because he was the one who kept me from stepping off into that abyss. I would not be where I am today without him.

Reading that journal brings many hard memories back. It is difficult to read both in content and because my handwriting is very sloppy in spots. I can only read so much before I need to do something else.

I have wanted to burn that book many times over the years, but I am glad I never did. It gives insight to my journey. It also fills in some of the blanks of my memory. I never finished filling the pages; I kept the journal for several months and then abandoned it. In a way, I wish I had continued. I think I stopped because I was in counseling and I had a safe place to open up.

I will post some excerpts in the future to help illustrate my thought processes back then. A grief journal is a good thing for many people; it sure was for me. There is therapy in being able to form your thoughts and feelings into some kind of narrative.  Like they say, the first step in fixing a problem is identifying it.  At first, it was hard to find my way.  I could not put words to what was in my head and my heart.  Being able to do that was progress for me; it meant that I could name it and own it.

I see plenty of blogs out there that read like a grief journal does, and I am glad that those bloggers can use this medium to help themselves heal.  A blog is so much more public than a little book tucked into a nightstand; but it brings with it a community of people who commiserate with you and help you along.  Everyone has his own story of loss, of pain, of struggle.

With a grief journal, you do not know about everyone else out there who has walked through the fire; with a blog, you can reach them.

Tossing and Turning: Dreaming is Hard Work.

Like a Bad Dream

The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to their dream.
~Joan Didion

 

I don’t know about anyone else, but I dream a lot.  All the time.

Many years ago, when I was a teen, my friend Jon suggested I keep a pad of paper next to the bed so I could write my dreams down immediately after I woke.  Eventually I got so practiced at it that I could barely wake, not even open my eyes, and jot down words and phrases that would evoke the dream later.  For years, I faithfully wrote down my dreams.  Most were odd, at least in comparison to Mr. Stuck’s, which are usually about hunting or fishing or something normal.  Nightmares were infrequent and most often the result of a television show or movie I had watched.

As expected, when my life went sideways, so did my dreams.  I was miserable and shattered during the day, and I began having nightmares nearly every night.  I dreamed that certain family members would die in spectacularly gruesome fashions.  I dreamed that I saw my grandfather tumble down some cellar stairs to his death.  I dreamed that I had blood on my hands as I rubbed my face, but when I looked in the mirror there was no blood.  My therapist, who used the Jungian style of analysis and dream interpretation, would discuss my dreams and nightmares with me quite frequently and ascribe them to the ‘mind work’ my brain was doing while I slept.  My dreams were manifestations of my subconscious struggles.

Right or wrong, I must admit that many of my dreams certainly seemed to be exactly that.

Those few that weren’t nightmares were often strange dreams of futility.  One dream was that my siblings and I were trying to raise my mother’s chair to get her in and out easier.  The others were using plastic plant pots, magazines and old cardboard boxes, but I used a stool and it worked.  In another dream, my mother and sister were walking arm in arm, just a few feet from me.  They didn’t see me at all, and they didn’t hear me when I yelled out to them.  I would say that most of the ‘good’ dreams had a theme of vehicles or a journey of some kind.  I was on the move — by ferry, by motorcycle, by bus, by plane.

Apparently, I was going somewhere, but in my dreams, I never knew where.  They always seemed to have an element of peril; I was lost, or falling overboard, or being chased, or stumbling into a scary situation.  I came to think of these dreams as my path through the fire.  I wrote down those I remembered and tried to make sense of them.

I have to keep moving, I thought.

The nightmares continued for weeks, then months, with similar frequency.  I would stay awake as long as possible so that I didn’t have to go to sleep and have another nightmare.  I would keep Mr. Stuck awake by talking, crying, and shouting in my sleep.  When it got to be too much, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills.  When I took them, I slept so hard that I didn’t dream, or if I did, I didn’t recall them, thankfully.  The pills left me groggy, so I reserved them for weekends only.

Rest was non-existent.  Sleep was merely a way to pass the hours of the night. Either I tossed and turned restlessly and woke in terror without the pills, or I was passed out cold for 8 hours and woke dazed with them.  But no rest.  I would wake up drenched in sour sweat.  The stress level was so high that I was always on edge.  It felt as if I was on the rim of an abyss with a mad compulsion to step off.

I wondered if this is what it felt like to go crazy.  I had known people from work who seemed to be a little ‘off,’ and some would talk to themselves or hear voices.  Was this what was happening to me?  I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t rest.  I was exhausted all the time, and not sleeping was not helping.  I felt leaden; everything was heavy.  My brain felt heavy, too.

I missed a lot of work during those days.  I felt as if I existed in a place between living and dead, asleep and awake.  It took a couple years for my nightmares to subside; they never really went away, but they came less and less frequently and they were more subdued.  I think it was important for me to go through that period; I do believe that those dreams came from whatever my psyche was working through at the time.

Looking back at the dreams I jotted down, I can see the journey I was on.

photo credit Keoni Cabral