In mid 2016 I started on Lithium Bicarbonate (again!) for my mental illness: Bipolar 1. If you have read my previous posts on body image and on mental illness, you will know by now that I was struggling against succumbing to meds due to the strong suspicion that taking them would cause a large weight gain.
Well, it has done just that. My body now is the stuff of my previous life’s nightmares. So, why is this post entitled Feelin’ Fine? Confused yet?
It started when I hit rock bottom in May 2016. I had extreme anxiety for days and a panic attack that rocked my world and I was sure I was about to die. I could barely let go of my husband Dean’s hand. All I could do to feel better was walk, and poor Dean, suffering with a broken toe, walked with me, holding my hand. (Ya, I know. I have the best husband in the world.) If you had seen me then you would not recognize me. I was barely able to look up. I was debilitated. The cortisol buildup in my low back was like a knife jabbing me. Every thought spun out a new list of worries that multiplied. I clutched Dean’s hand and he guided me gently along through the days. I did simple tasks like pealing potatoes and hanging laundry. That’s about all I could do without making copious, confusing lists and notes.
This was the point that I finally succumbed to medication.
Since then, I decided that it is far better to have a clear mind and psyche than it is to be small and trim.
This has not been an instantaneous transformation. It has taken hours and hours of concerted effort and two years of time going by to change my thinking. I am doing this by reading books, blogs, articles, scientific studies and by listening to podcasts on this very topic…non-diet, body-neutral, non-fat phobic, Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating by podcasters like Christy Harrison on Food Psych; Meret Boxler on Life Unrestricted; Chris Sandel on Real Health Radio; Summer Innanen on Fearless Rebelle Radio. These people have helped me immeasurably. As has my husband of twenty-six years. He is truly my best, most supportive friend.
It hasn’t been exactly easy to transform my thinking one hundred and eighty degrees. From a very disordered existence of constant striving to maintain a small, lean body where in almost every waking moment over the last 35 years, I was aware, concerned, worried about eating less and moving more (it was a full-time job to maintain the energy deficit that then felt normal). I mean, I was eating low-fat while trekking in the Himalayas while simultaneously battling a bowel parasite for jeezus sakes.
I have become more peaceful by NOT doing anything to try to stay small. I eat when hungry, whatever I want. I drink when thirsty. I move when it strikes my fancy to do so. No schedule. No goals. No competitive work-out sessions. No marathon-type activity in the off-ing to compulsively train for. No $60 ++ per week of yoga classes, plus thousands of dollars for months of yoga teacher training at an ashram in the Bahamas (which in retrospect I now realize that I had done not to achieve Zen but mostly to achieve small-ness. It was like going to a Fat Farm for me. Okay, a Zen Fat Farm, if you will).
I look back on my previous life and shake my head. But it is all part of my path.
And, who cares if I am not small in size. I am still ME.
That person is still here and that person is doing okay. She’s just in a bigger, softer body and she is doing much, much better on the inside, and, thankfully, not doing those annoying hand-stands every five minutes.
One last one for the memory bank. My son took this in Prospect, Nova Scotia, Canada. The next time I asked him to take a picture of me doing a hand-stand was on the Keji Seaside beach, he goes, ‘Mom, that ship has sailed, don’t you think?’
Right on Buddy. Gotta love kids.
I would love your comments…
(The sunflower pic is from Google Images, all the rest are mine, Martha Valiquette, except the amazing Dragonfly which is by my eldest sister.)
*Excerpt from Already Gone (Eagles) Songwriters: Jack Tempchin / Robert Arnold Strandlund
Update: Fall 2020
I have now dropped several kilos of weight and it happened by accident. I learned a valuable lesson. Alcohol and lithium do not mix. I was holding a lot of water and extra weight due to consuming a daily drink of wine or beer and sometimes a bit of a liqueur in the evenings. I decided to give up alcohol because I was waking up for hours a night and feeling quite toxic – not quite right – in my skin. It was odd. I am quite in tune with how I am feeling and it wasn’t right. I just said, enough of this. I’m gonna cut some substances out. So, out went alcohol. I then peed out about 10 pounds of water seemingly overnight. I also slept much better for the first time in years. It was an epiphany. I think I am particularly sensitive to substances. I have also moved my devices to charge outside of my bedroom, have blinds on windows, don’t read or watch exciting / heart-quickening movies or books before bed. Walk more. Finally, I eat more protein and fewer carbs which seems to make my belly settle down. I also drink much more water stopping two hours before bedtime. All these measures have helped and I feel much calmer and not so bloated.
For most of my life, I have been completely messed up with regard to body-image and worth regarding its size. It is a sad story when considering just the amount of time, thought, energy and tears that I have expended with regard to this. I will reference an earlier post that I have written on this topic: BoPo Revisited.
Since January 2017, I have been working and trying and hoping to get this monkey off my back and to just really be okay with my still strong, newly soft body, more lustrous hair, clear skin and more peaceful attitude. I strive to go about my day without judgement and with forgiveness toward my past and to just be chill with regard to food and exercise rules of the past.
I’m getting there folks.
Some days I barely think about my past. Where as before, I would be worried about every food choice; doing way too much exercise and giving myself way too many imaginary pats on the back for that plus food restriction.
Just now, as I was walking to my office and I had this funny (scary) memory of a freak-out that came from nowhere. The preparation of a meal used to be a major production (ie: in my mind). My thoughts around ‘did I deserve’ this meal would run rampant. Had I done enough exercise to allow for a big meal or should I just eat a salad while my family ate the well-rounded meal, that I made. This was a daily, useless ordeal with many pitfalls. I’m exhausted just remembering it.
So, this one day, I’m cooking up steaks — a real treat. There were two large ones and a small-ish one. I fried them in our cast-iron pan with garlic and herbs. They smelled heavenly. Meanwhile, Dean mashed the potatoes and Leo set the table to include steak-knives, salad and red wine.
I placed each juicy steak on a plate to rest, thinking, of course, I would have the small one…
when I turned around I was both confused and horrified to see that Dean had taken the small one. Then, a completely inappropriate reaction erupted from myself.
‘Dean, the small one is for ME!!! Why on earth would YOU take the SMALL one??!’ I shrieked at him.
He looked at me. Looked at his plate. Looked at me.
‘I thought I would leave a large one for you, M, since you’re the one cooking them.’
My face was red. My mind was confused. Didn’t he GET that I didn’t DESERVE to eat a large one?
Leo weighs in.
‘Mom. Chill. We usually have too much anyway. Dad will not starve.’
But, you see, I wasn’t worried about Dean starving. I was worried about ME eating more than I should. More than I deserved. Fuck. Messed up.
Thankfully, this little freak-out episode was close to the time of my epiphany away from disordered eating and over-exercising. Praise Jesus.
I bet I was the only ten-year-old kid who knew that the address of The Toronto Star was 1 Yonge Street, Toronto. I knew this piece of completely useless information because at the tender age of five years old, I had a paper route – The Toronto Star. I exaggerate slightly. The route was actually my older brother’s but, I had been given the responsibility of delivering a single paper to one out-of-the-way customer: Mrs. Wilson– about ten doors north of our house. I got paid a hefty 5 cents per week for this. It was much to my embarrassment though, when the phone would ring while all nine of us were ensconced at the supper table and Mom would look at me and say, Martha, did you deliver your paper? Invariably I had forgotten. I would have been too busy at play to think of it. I had to then drop my fork and run off with Mrs. Wilson’s paper. As the years went by I was given more and more of the route to deliver and customers to collect from and one day I found that the whole route was mine – handed down from Matt to Mark to Job and finally, to me.
The Saturday Star was so heavy that, in order for me to be able to deliver all the papers from one load, I had to lug the bag to the top of our front, concrete stoop. I would sit on the third step and back into the head-sling of the loaded paper bag and then, leaning way over until my nose was almost touching the ground, I would stagger forward and allow the full weight of the bag to sit on my back. Not a parent-figure in site to worry about me injuring my neck. I often wondered how badly off I would be if I were to just fall the wrong way? Or, if I were to stumble, out-of-control onto the street, would the car that hit me be damaged by the sack of papers on my back or would I just simply be crushed beneath them?
Most of my paper route, thankfully, was in an eight-story apartment building, just down the hill from us that we imaginatively called, ‘The Apartments’. When I was still quite little, I wasn’t able to reach the buttons for the seventh and eighth floors on the elevator’s button panel. Alas, I had the ultimate solution. I would lumber into the elevator and somehow drop my paper bag off my head, without wrenching my wee neck, and stand on the full paper bag in order to reach the button for the top floor. I would then deliver the papers on the descending floors, using the heavy bag to hold the elevator door open as I progressed. When the bag was no longer heavy enough to hold the elevator door open, I would carry the bag, deliver the papers and then take the flight of stairs down to the next floor. The whole process was quite an art.
My career as an earner started then. I was a papergirl until I was 15. I started to baby-sit at the age of 12. I worked as a bus-girl at The Crock & Block Restaurant at the age of 15 while living with my sister Eva. I then had various serving jobs: Lafayette, O’Toole’s, Silky’s, and July’s Restaurant for five summers until joining the army at 19. Dad did not believe in giving us an allowance. We had to earn everything we ever got.
It was at Fancy’s in Barrie that I experienced working for the most dysfunctional couple of crazy people I have ever encountered. I hated working there because of it and dreaded each shift. Tom, the chief cook and owner would SCREAM at his wife, Darlene all the live long day: BUTTER RIGHT TO THE EDGE OF THE BREAD FOR FUCK SAKES! RIGHT TO THE FUCKIN’ EDGE!!! AND GET IT OUT HOT!!! YOU BLOODY STUPID BITCH. Oh Lord did I detest that place. The tension should have been on the menu because it was the most abundant item they produced. I just now googled the place. It is still open. Unbelievable. The food was good fairly good though, unfortunately.
Why work there? I was in grade 12 and needed a job. My sister Amy had helped me get the job through a friend of a friend and I was ever so grateful. Amy always had so many connections made through her work as a hairstylist. By this time, Mom was living in a tiny apartment with her alcoholic boyfriend and working as a server for minimum wage at cafeteria-style restaurant in Woolworth downtown. I would go visit her and she would look so tired. So worn out. Oh god. It would break my heart. This was her reality after raising seven children and keeping a wonderful home for us for 26 years. She did not come out of the divorce nor the annulment well. I could not ask her for a penny. She worked so hard and made so little.
At that time, my younger brother and I had a bedroom each in the basement of our bungalow and Dad was upstairs. I had been getting a couple of shifts per week at O’Toole’s Roadhouse Restaurant, but, it went bankrupt and it wasn’t long before I was without money. One particular day, having spent my savings, I had to ask Dad for money for necessities: menstrual pads.
He turned my down. He would not give me five bucks for pads. I was seething. I hated him.
I was forced to use cotton t-shirts cut into rags. Nice. God I hated him. It was incredible how much I hated him. I feel that hatred even now, decades later. And not giving me money, when he had plenty of money, for necessities, was just one of his many faults. The others were worse. Like when he would come barging into my room, even though my door was closed, and catch me half-dressed or naked but with the old sorry, sorry. I didn’t know you were dressing. Or he would forcibly hold me down and lick my face with his very wet, gross, warm tongue – his bad breath washing over me as I would struggle — I just want to give my daughter a little kiss. Or, he would comment on my developing body you’re getting rather hippy, Martha, you better watch it, you don’t want to get fat. Or, he would routinely reach out and touch my bum as I would be walking past him and then exclaim yippee in a falsetto voice. Then there were the many times his robe would mysteriously open and there would be hairy, wrinkled member for all to see. Oh god. I would be mortified when he would inevitably do this with teen-aged Kelly and Sally visiting. Show us his penis, by accident, of course, and then giggle about it as he would sneak away back to his fart-stinking room.
With all that I have read, learned and experienced in life regarding body image (see The Body Positive 🙃) and now as a parent, here is one truism: never comment on a child’s body except to say how lucky we are to have one that does so much for us. Our body is truly a marvel which should be loved, respected, adorned, nourished, cleaned, clothed and loved some more.
So, my relationship with Dad was love / hate for sure. At times I would love him for his silliness and his zest for life and enthusiasm about certain topics: sport, recreation, small business, celebration. Dad loved to laugh. He would often have us all in stitches at the supper table, recounting his Skollard Hall days in a falsetto voice. He liked that falsetto voice. I do truly think he was doing his best to father us the best way he could, considering the factors at play in his upbringing and his generation and with the added factor of the Catholic guilt monitoring all that he did. Another factor in the break down of his marriage was mental illness.
Mom had been a classic Bipolar 1 (Definition: A person with bipolar 1 will experience a full manic episode usually leading to psychosis). When she was pregnant or nursing, which was a lot of the time until she was 42 and weened Luke, she did not have symptoms of mental illness. But, then it hit and it hit hard. She was hospitalized with full on psychosis several times in the seventies. I remember waking up around age six and walking around looking for mom. No one would tell me that she had been taken to the hospital: 5C – the psyche ward. (Who would know then that in thirty years time, I would have my first big struggle with mental illness: Locked Up in D.C. 🔐) She was there for weeks. We would go visit her and it was like she was a different person. She was in a fog. It was heart wrenching. I missed her so badly. I just wanted my mommy back. I would cry myself to sleep missing her so much. She would sometimes be smoking when we visited. I couldn’t believe my eyes. (Back then you could smoke in parts of the hospital.)
In the summer, at the lake, Mom would become more and more manic. Her manic energy was put to good use with cleaning and maintaining the ten cabins of The Camp ⛺️that we moved to every summer. Lock, stock and barrel, all nine of us would move two hours North to the camp and live on the lake all summer – running the tourist resort – as it used to be known. It was truly beautiful there: 21 forested acres, half-mile of lake frontage, only 2 miles from a village for supplies, ten antique, rustic cabins on private lots with tall trees, most cabins on the water with their own dock and a sandy beach.
For many years we even had a diving tower and trampoline over the water. Dad’s idea. Dad being a teacher, had envisioned the need for a business and an escape from the city. (We would have killed each other staying in the city all summer. No doubt about it.) It was pure genius and is one of those things I loved about my Dad. He had these great ideas at times. We enjoyed idyllic summers – running around barefoot, swimming, boating, water-skiing, canoeing and socializing with all the campers. Yes, we had work and chores, but, we were paid for them as a business expense and it was just a couple of hours a day. Our summers at the camp were the envy of my friends. In fact, many of my friends would come to the camp, either to stay with us in the office or as paying guests and stay in a cabin or tent.
I remember waking up early to find mom’s twin bed empty. She would already be out there working. Dad was much more sedentary. He would do all of the business-end of things: letters, bills, payments, promotions. All this to say, that mom’s mental illness was raging on, unchecked for several years. From reading I have done, because I too am bipolar 1 (Crazy Train 🚂 (part 1)…All ABOARD, Crazy Train 🚂 (part 2) ) the more episodes there are the more easily an episode will occur. The brain makes these pathways that become easier and easier to follow and so sanity slips further and further away. So, to be fair, it could not have been easy dealing with this major impediment. When Mom finally went on lithium, and stayed on lithium, things were so much better. She was stable. Stable is good.
I wasn’t the first in my family to work at July’s Restaurant up at the Lake. My older sister Eva had worked there a decade prior to me. Eva would sometime recount one of her most embarrassing moments while working there. This man would come into the restaurant almost daily. He would take a seat beside the coffee maker in the kitchen in the mid-afternoon when it wasn’t too busy. He would just sit and chat up the kitchen staff and the servers as they would come and go from the kitchen. So, Eva walks into the kitchen this one day and slaps Buddy on the back and asks him how the heck he is doing today. That would have been all fine except that when she slapped him on the back his toupee went flying off his head and landed a few feet away on the kitchen floor.
You could have heard a mosquito outside the window. After a split second hesitation and with a very red face, Eva quickly grabbed the toupee off the floor. Put it back on Buddy’s head. Smoothed it out. Told him: ‘You have very nice hair.’ Then, turned on her heel into the dining room.
1981 was the year my Mom morphed into a love-sick teenager right before my cringing eyes. My parents were in the midst of a break up but the first step was for them to have a trial separation while still both living in our bungalow. Mom had the basement and Dad had the upstairs. They shared the kitchen. I remember Mom writing her name on her row of eggs on the inside of the fridge door.
Before long, Mom started dating an alcoholic she met at the Legion. Good choice. I loathed the way she behaved in those months. She started wearing really tight clothing and tons of makeup. She was going out to the Legion many times a week. It infuriated and sickened me. My fifteen-year-old self was ashamed of the person I had basically worshiped prior to that. I think Mom was rebelling and bingeing on that aspect of life because she had been depraved of proper affection and love by Dad for years. It was just sad.
I used to make phone calls to my eldest sister, Eva, who was married, and tell her my woes. I would tell her how Mom and Dad were always fighting and bickering. Soon, she invited me to live with her and her family, three-hours away in London. Later that year I would come back to visit and by then, Mom had gotten a place: a 1.5-bedroom apartment above the Knights of Columbus Hall up by St Mary’s School.
My little brother Luke was living with her and while there, slipped into a shadow of his former self. He continuously watched television and became very quiet and sullen. It would break my heart to see what my little brother had become in this dysfunctional arrangement. I blamed myself for decades afterward, that I had abandoned him there. Finally a wise therapist told me to let that go. I was just a child myself at the time. It was not my fault. The other adults should have been there to help us through it, she explained softly while I wept, in her chair.
Anyway, living with my eldest sister and her family, I realized that every family has their problems and pressures. Sometimes I would wake up at night and hear them arguing with each other about money. Taking in a teen isn’t without cost.
I knew that I needed to chip in. I picked up many babysitting gigs and even braided the hair of a few ladies on the street. For a couple years, french braids were at the height of fashion and, I could braid. Layla, my red-headed friend who had moved away had taught me. I would charge $10 – $20 for a braid and that was a lot at that time. The ladies would gladly pay me because their long hair would be up and out of their way for days in a good braid and, they could go out on the town with hubby and be in style.
Always the entrepreneur, when I had a free night, especially on a weekend, I would call some parents and let them know I was free. Nine times out of ten they would call back and hire me to babysit for the night. I didn’t buy groceries or anything with my money, but, at least I didn’t need to ask for any spending money. I also paid for my driving school with that money. I was very eager to learn how to drive and I firmly believed in learning correctly. Interestingly, I later became a Transportation Officer in the Army and then a Driving School owner.
Eva took me down to enroll in the Catholic High School for grade ten. I would take the bus every day. The bus stop was only a minute away. The problem was, going to Catholic High was going to be a huge change. I had been going to St. Joe’s in Barrie with its 163 students. 2000 students went to Catholic Central High in London. It was huge. I was completely lost there. I had been a total jock at St. Joe’s. On every team. Excelling at almost all my subjects. Known by all.
At CCH it was a different story. I didn’t make the basketball team. I just could not believe it. I went to the coach and begged my way onto the team. She told me I would likely ride the bench all season. I said, ‘I don’t care. Please let me play. I will not survive here without basketball.’
Basketball practice was every morning at 7:30. I had to take the city bus for 45 minutes to downtown then run five blocks to CCH, then run for an hour of practice. Normally that would be no problem, because I had been super fit.
However, at that time, I had become anorexic. I was living on about 800 calories or less per day: a tiny breakfast of half a pita with 1 precise tablespoon of peanut butter and exactly 8 oz of skim milk that I mixed from powder into a plastic cup each morning (blech!!!); an apple for lunch and the smallest dinner I could get away with. Eva was watching and I would try not to upset her. I didn’t want her to know my secret.
I was growing and I was expending a lot of calories for basketball. I was extremely emaciated and lacked any muscle tone and had very little strength. I really don’t know how I physically carried my frame around for the day. The human body is an amazing machine.
The anorexia started innocently enough. Eva had started going to Weight Watchers to lose the baby weight from her second pregnancy. Her first born was now two. She asked me if I would like to eat the same way as her. We could do it together. But, I did not need to lose any weight. My body was an average size and quite muscular. But, I was open to trying this new thing with my sister whom I looked up to so much.
I loved doing things with Eva. We had a lot of fun together and did a whole lot of laughing together. But, as I started restricting and losing weight and then going back to Barrie for a visit, my friends made quite a big deal about how great I looked. I thought I should lose even more. I have very strong willpower when I draw on it, so restricting even more was possible.
It wasn’t at all fun, but, by this time it had become a bit of a weird addiction and a secret project which somehow gave me comfort — ridiculous, I know. I was riddled with fear. Worried that if I ate as much as I wanted, I would get very fat very fast. I was ashamed of myself for being so self-centered.
One day, I was out with Eva running errands. I was walking up to this window of this storefront. I was watching the reflection of this skeletal figure walking up to the window and I was looking to see who it was. I did not recognize myself. I was that skeletal form but, when looking at my reflection, I saw a fatter body. Dysmorphia is what they call this phenomena.
When laying down in my bed at night, my bones were pressing through my skin and it would hurt. It was quite hard to get comfortable. There was a pull chain above my bed to turn out the light. I had to will myself to raise my arm to reach the chain to turn out the light.
I continued this way for the year – holding out even though Eva would scream at me to Martha please eat!!!!. By the end of it, I was about 80 pounds and was getting sick a lot, always freezing cold, no period, short of breath, thinning hair, bad breath, coated tongue and of course, always starving and suppressing it. Anorexia is hell. It truly is. Do not go there. Please don’t.
From my research now, I have learned that Anorexia Nervosa is a mental illness. I would have several more battles with mental illness in the future, but not for nearly two decades.
I had strep throat over and over that year. My immune system was shot. Going to see Eva’s doctor, a European with blunt speech, asked me if I was losing this much weight on purpose. I remember liking how he worded that question. I opened up to him and told him the truth. Right away he organized a counselor to come and see me at home a couple of times per week. The counselor was wonderful. I really liked her. She explained to me that I needed to put more fuel into my body. I had been complaining about not having any energy (do ya think?). I liked how gently she explained these simple matters to me. She helped me to stop the behaviour.
However, I was terrified of opening the flood gates of eating. I thought I would never be able to stop once I started. I was starving but I was afraid to eat. So, then the bulimia started. I would open the flood gates. I would eat thousands of calories in cookies, chips, cake, baked goods and then I would take a large dose of laxatives. Chocolate X-lax was my purging tool because I was unable to make myself vomit.
By the middle of the night, my guts would be gurgling. But, it would do the trick. Everything would be voided explosively into the toilet. Sometimes it was quite embarrassing, depending on where I was when the void wanted to begin and, it was never funny like the time in Virginia with my friend Nancy when I was large with pregnancy and drank way too much prune-juice.
The Bulimia went on for about another year or so and by then I was living back in Barrie and attending grade eleven. For years, I would go through times of wanting to lose weight again and so would start to restrict, but, it always led to bingeing and purging again.
Joining the Army put a stop to it for a while because I simply had no time or energy to devote to body size. But, the demon returned in the form of exercise bulimia, orthorexia (obsession with finding the most nutritious foods), food rules, restriction and preoccupation. It stopped in 2017 (Read Feelin’ Fine), three and a half decades later. Now, I am able to happily refer you to the following: 8 Ways to be Free of Diet Culture 🎈