Let’s start by back-tracking a bit to remember what path brought me to my lowest point in terms of physical and mental health in recent memory. Unfortunately, things like this don’t have official “Start” and “End” dates like the popular media would like you to believe. “I got depressed and fat when my Dad died, and got happy and skinny when I read that one book,” is the simple story we all want to be able to tell, but brains and bodies are not that simple. I think my downslide started last summer when I was trying to train for my 100-miler but the heat and my weight gain (OH! If I only my “gain” had stopped at the point it was last summer! Little did I know!) discouraged me and it lead to me failing at the eventual event in September which basically was the beginning of the end of my running.
Then it was general discontent over my life and my body and the world around me that just pushed me further and further away from happiness and health and deeper into depression and self-medication with food and alcohol. Then I lost my job and my mom had her wreck and I had to start driving to Knoxville for 3+ days of every week and the exhaustion on top of all of the other shit was just, I think, my lowest point both physically and mentally. I remember one trip eating TWO milkshakes and TWO orders of french fries over a 3.5 hour drive.
Anyone who tells you about how exercise is the best drug for anxiety and depression has never been so worried or sad that they can’t bring themselves to exercise. And that’s where I was. I could only bring myself to drink milkshakes and eat french fries. Don’t tell me to get out and exercise. That’s not going to do shit when I am struggling just to get out of bed every day. Also? You KNOW you should stop eating french fries and start running again and the fact that you CAN NOT BRING YOURSELF TO DO THESE THINGS compounds the depression and anxiety and drives you deeper into the darkness. DO NOT ACT LIKE DIET AND EXERCISE HEALS ALL MENTAL ILLNESS.
Now is when I wish I could say: THIS MEDICATION BROUGHT ME OUT OF THE FOG! Or: THIS THERAPIST BROUGHT ME INTO THE LIGHT. Or: THIS TED TALK WOKE ME UP. Or really any ONE thing that would give YOU hope if YOU are in the darkness. But honestly? I don’t know what it was. I just one day started feeling better. I think it was a combination of things, namely walking friends who let me dump my anxieties on them over the miles. Walking therapy is TWO-FOLD, one: Talking and two: You feel healthy and active afterwards. I also think being away from my kids a few days a week helped because they fight a lot and when they’re trapped home during the summer together the fighting can drive the healthiest person insane. I also think summer helped because with summer comes swimming and y’all know I became a pool person last summer. Either way, the darkness started lifting and I started being able to breathe again.
Once I got there, out of the darkness and fog, I finally was able to start thinking about exercise seriously outside of just walking and I decided to consider an 8-mile trail race on my birthday. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the weeks of walking had actually helped build up a nice cardio base because interval running was not too difficult to jump into. After a few days of hitting mileage goals to test my fitness, I signed up for the race and started officially training.
Now, once you’re in THIS spot? The one where you aren’t too depressed or sad to exercise? THEN exercise really does help improve your mood. BUT YOU CAN NOT JUST START EXERCISING WHEN YOU ARE TOO SAD OR TOO WORRIED TO PUT ON A SPORTS BRA. I just want to make that clear. I hate all of this, “We don’t need anti-depressants, we need exercise,” crap because YOU DO NOT GET TO JUDGE ME AND MY MENTAL HEALTH STUPID TED TALK LADY. But once the depression and anxiety lifted a bit, then exercise was key to pushing me more into the light.
Training for 8-miles has been wonderful because the necessary milage is loose enough, and my speed goal is just “stay ahead of the cutoff,” so I can walk with friends, or run on my own, or wake up and think, “I’m going to run trails today!” and do it because my schedule is easy to meet and so it very much feels like I’m still running for fun. If you’ve ever training for a marathon or more (or even a half-marathon, depending on your plan) you know that it does not feel like you’re running for fun. Training for 8 miles? Most of my weekday runs are 2-4 miles and if I do more and walk instead, I’m cool with it. Or if I do less, I can squeeze in another mile before bed just running around the block. None of it’s too intimidating so it feels less like a burden which is what all of my ultra-training had been feeling like in the wake of my 100K in 2016.
Simultaneously, in the early days of getting back to running when my mental health cloud was breaking up a bit, I started really thinking about how I think about food. And the problem is: I think about it way too much. And so I decided to just try to do something radical, and to stop thinking about it.
Now, just like getting up to run is not easy if you’re depression. You can’t just stop thinking about food if you have food compulsions and the soundtrack of food is always playing in your head. I actually had to start by thinking A LOT about NOT thinking about food. And I mean thinking about it in an unhealthy way. Here’s a primer for Zoot’s head.
Healthy Thinking About Food
“I’m hungry, what should I eat?”
“I’m about to do something strenuous, should I eat first?”
“I’m full. I think I’ll stop eating now.”
“I want to eat. Am I hungry?”
The Way Zoot Thinks About Food
“I had an under calorie breakfast and lunch so I can have beer with dinner. Oops. Just went over my calories so instead I’ll just call the day a loss and eat cake and french fries and maybe make some biscuits.”
“I’m skipping that snack because I didn’t run this morning.”
Constantly doing math about calories eaten and calories remaining.
And this is a very basic primer. Everyone has their different compulsions, sometimes it’s carbs and processed sugars, sometimes it’s protein and fat grams, with me and my ethical eating requirements plus my sensitive tummy requirements, most of my obsessions were around calorie counting. I couldn’t ever do weird diet plans because there was either not room to be plant-based, or it required I eat the type of plant diet that makes me sick. So I always settled in with calorie counting and so that’s where my unhealthy compulsive thinking always tracks back.
So, to stop thinking about food, I thought about WHY I was thinking about food every time I did. And it always went back to some weird compulsion with math and calorie counting and “good days” and “bad days” and that always seemed to feed into my cycle of binge eating. Something connected my obsession with calorie counting, with my tendency with turning to overeating whenever I was feeling any extreme emotion. I couldn’t figure out WHY the two were connected, I just could tell they WERE.
After some time analyzing those reflexes and instincts in my head in how I thought about food, I started trying to reboot every time it happened. If I found myself trying to add up the calories I’d had in a day, I would immediately open up my instagram and post something silly to my instagram story. Or I’d snapchat Nikki with one of the funny filters. Nothing about food, just something DIFFERENT to do with my brain that broke that cycle. And what I tried to do instead, was just think about food when it was time to eat. Am I hungry? What should I have? And I would just try to be reasonable in terms of quantity and think about what my body liked and what it needed. Nothing super profound, just, “Hey, it’s morning and I’m hungry. What’s a good breakfast?” And sometimes it would be oatmeal or sometimes it would be a breakfast burrito but I tried to just make that meal about THAT MEAL. I’ve counted calories long enough to kinda know what is “overdoing it” in the meal department and I just stayed reasonable but I didn’t count the calories. And if I had an active day I was aware of having snacks between meals. And once I ate? I stopped thinking about that food. I didn’t consider the calorie count before the next meal, I considered them separately.
I’ve been doing this for about 4-5 weeks now and I’m starting to notice a natural change in programming. Because I’m not obsessing about calories, I’m allowing myself to think more about the bigger picture and what my body needs. We went out to eat the other night at a place that has a GREAT portobello burger and fries and I was going to get it even though calorie-obsessed Kim would have spent time trying to either A) decide whether she had earned it or B) eating it, calling it a “bad day,” and therefore insisting on ice cream on the way home to just finish indulging since the day was a loss.
Instead I thought about the trail run I was going to do the next day and would that meal sit okay on my stomach? NO. IT WOULD NOT. So Donnie and I shared a plate of hummus and a giant pretzel and I had two beers and called it a meal. I didn’t restrict myself (I had two beers!) and I didn’t decide whether or not I had “earned” the meal and I didn’t punish myself for going over calories by going even FURTHER over calories and eating the rest of Wesley’s fries. I didn’t want his fries because my brain was thinking about the status of my digestive system on a morning run and NOT about compulsive calorie counting and “good days” v/s “bad days.”
It was basically like I suddenly had a very normal relationship with food for one night. IT WAS VERY OFF-PUTTING.
Now, here’s the thing I want to pretend is not a big deal but is a big deal because it’s helping me feel like this change is having real effects. I’m losing weight. I know I said I wouldn’t step on a scale but I am because I want to know what level I plateau at so I can allow myself to buy clothes again. I didn’t have many clothes for my max weight and I only have a small selection for the in-between weights and so when I plateau, as long as I’m still feeling like I’m enjoying a healthy relationship with food, I’m going to allow myself to buy some clothes. And if this is the weight I plateau at? That’s GREAT. I’ve lost enough to make this body easier to run in, so if this is what “healthy relationship with food and exercise” looks like? Then this is the body I’ll clothe. And I won’t obsess over it still being 30lbs heavier than when I was in 100K running shape. This body is happy and healthy and I’m breaking the “Good Day v/s Bad Day” eating cycle and I’m calling family and friends instead of binging when I’m sad or depressed and I’m recognizing how much exhaustion pushes me to eat and so I’m trying to sleep more when those instincts kick in and all of these things mean I’m HEALTHY and I’m HAPPY.
I still struggle with body image so I’m also doing a hard reboot there. If I think ANYTHING negative about my body then I force myself to stop, take a deep breath, and name 3 things amazing about myself that have nothing to do with my body. And y’all? That has probably been helping the most of anything. It’s like giving myself a pep talk anytime my brain goes negative at my muffin top or the fact that I can’t wear things I used to wear. Nope, when those negative body thoughts happen I force myself to pat myself on the back for my morning run, or my homemade granola bars, or my good wife-ing or good parenting. And I feel like that reprogramming is helping too because those negative body thoughts are getting more and more spread out and I’m actually taking it one step further now and forcing myself to say OUT LOUD good things my appearance. Like yesterday when I said, “These shorts show off my legs!” out loud to no one. But hearing those words ring in the air around my body lightened my heart and soothed yet another scar formed by years of hateful self-talk.
It’s all a slow process and it takes a lot of awareness and I spend a lot of time talking to myself to reprogram bad habits but I can see it helping and I am hoping that this is the beginning of a new phase of self-love and food as fuel and just general well-being.