This picture used to make me shudder, and if I’m honest, it still does, a little bit.
For a long time, I buried this photo in an attempt to try and forget what the image represented – a woman who was pretty miserable because she was certain she was a failure. At the time this picture was taken, I had stopped working on my Ph.D. (an endeavor that had occupied nearly fifteen years of my life), was working as a low-wage receptionist at a veterinary clinic, and was in a relationship that was well on its way to failing.
I was depressed, demoralized, and disconnected from both family and friends, and I couldn’t see how I was ever going to turn things around and find joy in life again.
I thought there was something terribly wrong with me, and that if I just “tried harder” I could make it all work. After all, “other people” didn’t seem to be having the problems I was having. “Other people” coped with challenges and overcame obstacles so much better than I did. If I was unhappy, then it must be my fault because “other people” were making it work.
The problem was that I didn’t have any concrete evidence of who these “other people” were or exactly what they were doing. All I could see was what was on the outside, and since I couldn’t see inside “other people’s” situations (and I didn’t dare ask questions since that would have exposed my weaknesses), I couldn’t figure out how “they” were doing it so much better than I was.
That winter, J. suggested that perhaps we should travel to New York in celebration of my 40th birthday. I was enthusiastic about the trip, but a part of me didn’t want to go because I felt so ashamed of who I was – of who I’d become.
I knew I’d gained a lot of weight over the years, and I didn’t want to embarrass J. (who is one of the most fashionable women I know) by showing up in New York City looking like a frumpy (and decidedly un-cosmopolitan) tourist. J. calmly reassured me that she didn’t care what I looked like, the trip was about her and I spending time together in a place that offered us the chance to explore and discover new things.
I don’t know if she knew it then, but she threw me the lifeline that pulled me back from the edge of the abyss.
The four days we spent in New York City rekindled my spirit, and reignited my desire to live a life of purpose; to learn; to grow; to change! I came back from the trip inspired by all that we’d done and seen, and I immediately began to make changes. Not all of the changes were well received, nor were they done the “right” way, but the point was that I could now see that there was more to life than what I’d been living – and I wanted something more.
This did not bode well for my relationship, and a year and a half later, I called it quits and moved out. It was scary to be on my own after ten years of living with my ex-partner, and a part of me wondered if I’d be able to actually make it on my own.
The support of family and friends pulled me through the roughest patches, and I soon found myself loving life in a way that I hadn’t for a very long time.
I’d begun losing weight during the breakup, but I soon found myself plateauing and unable to get past the first 35 pounds. Frustrated by my lack of progress, I retreated into some bad habits that I’d developed as a means of trying to control situations that felt completely out of my control (going long periods of time without eating anything), and was frustrated as I backslid.
It was at that point that D., ever the pragmatic realist, served up a whopping dose of honesty and sparked a change in my direction. As I complained about my inability to make myself eat on a regular basis and spun out theory after theory about why I simply couldn’t do this, he matter-of-factly said, “I don’t get it. It’s simple. Put food in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. Problem solved.”
At first I was pissed at his unemotional response to what felt like a deeply emotional issue. How could he possibly understand the difficulty of eating on a regular basis? I stubbornly refused to believe that the solution was that simple, so D. let it go and left me to my theorizing.
It wasn’t until the personal trainer I hired (to help me organize workouts and re-evaluate my diet) went through my food diaries and commented that I was undoing all of the work I’d done by denying my body the proper nutrition it needed to run efficiently, that I began to understand that there was merit in what D. had said months before. However, I stubbornly resisted the trainer’s advice until he finally said, “Look, either you get on board with the program or you quit. But I’ll tell you this, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you can expect the exact same results you’ve been getting – nothing.”
I got the message – and changed my approach.
Once I did, I found that implementing his suggestions was a matter of doing what D. had suggested months before: Put food in mouth. Chew. Swallow. Problem solved.
And I lost another 85 pounds over the next year.
What this experience taught me was invaluable as I worked to change other aspects of my life, and realized that in order to change I was going to have to employ the knowledge of those who had experience in the areas I wanted to improve.
Over the past five years I’ve worked with medical professionals, a life coach, and countless individuals who have skills that I’d like to develop. I’ve listened to them, employed their advice, and adjusted it when the fit wasn’t quite right.
I’ve started asking questions, talking about things openly and honestly, and stopped thinking that “other people” somehow have it all figured out.
It was when I started listening to that inner voice that lets me know when something is working (and when it isn’t) that I realized my life is simply that – my life.
And while I can look at the choices others are making and the results they’re getting, there’s no way for me to know all of the factors that have gone into their decisions. The outcome of their choices is uniquely their own, and measuring myself against “other people” doesn’t do me – or them – any favors.
Five years after my first trip to New York City, I am a decidedly happier and healthier version of myself. I feel more confident, more secure in my decisions, and more self-assured about the direction my life is taking. I don’t know where the next five years will lead, but if the last five are any indication, I’m going to wind up someplace absolutely amazing.
And I’m looking forward to the adventure!