12/14/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

This past Monday, I returned to the gym for the first time in just over a month. The last part of October was spent with crazy hours as the final parts of the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books were put together, and I didn’t realize, though I wasn’t feeling well, that I was about to go into a horrible case of bronchitis that would throw my asthma out of control for the first time in over 7 years.

When you can’t breathe, exercising just isn’t possible.

But Monday night, I was back in exercise clothes, including a breast cancer warrior shirt and leggings covered with images of clocks, and I walked into Planet Fitness. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then felt grateful I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Looking at me, you would never guess that exercise ranks high on my list, and that I relish the absolute joy of movement and challenge. You also wouldn’t guess that I spent years as a weight loss counselor and once considered going on the amateur body-building circuit.

You just can’t go by how a person looks on any given day. The body holds a lot of history.

I worked for three different weight loss companies, none of which were the weight loss company I actually lost weight with, and all of whom eventually went out of business. In 1987, after a weight loss of 82 pounds, I was a size 8. By the time I left the weight loss industry, I was a size 0, which was sometimes too big for me, and I had a roaring eating disorder that claimed pretty much every moment of my life. I do not remember being in shape with any fondness, and eventually, I wasn’t in shape anymore, not because of being overweight, but because of being underweight.

For each of the three companies I worked for, there were monthly meetings of all the counselors. In the front of the room was a medical scale, with the numbers turned toward the meeting attendees. All of them. You weighed in in front of everyone, your weight was announced, and its relation to your goal weight was announced too. If you were five pounds or more over your goal weight, you had one month to lose it, or you lost your job. One woman, who’d just had a baby, had to lose 40 pounds in a month. She made it, but ended up in the hospital the next week. On weigh-in day, all of us would wait in line for the restroom. Some of us used it to lose whatever was left in our stomachs after not eating for the last 24 to 48 hours to ensure that we passed the weight test.

By the time I left, I was consistently 30 – 40 pounds below my goal weight. But I stood in line with the rest, terrified I was going to lose my job.

Exercise-wise, I spent 2 – 3 hours in the gym every day. Advanced stepaerobics was my thing, and it was a daily occurrence. My bench always had four to six risers holding it up, which of course led to the knee issues I have today. I also fell in love with weightlifting. There was something about seeing the visual proof of my strength. Even as my body lost fat and then moved on to losing muscle mass, I lifted.

At home, I had my own step bench and my own weights, for days when something happened that I couldn’t get to the gym. I weighed myself countless times a day, any time I ate, any time I used the bathroom, to make sure I hadn’t put any pounds on. My then-husband actually hid the scale from me. I’d go to the store and just buy a new one.

I wasn’t writing. I didn’t have time. I was encouraging people to lose weight, I was at the gym, I was recording everything that went into my body and came out of it. I was exhausted.

I thought I looked great. I didn’t. I thought I was healthy. I wasn’t.

But I had company. My mother lived in terror of being overweight. The day I woke up to what I was doing to myself was the day she told me that at my height, 5’2”, I was still fat at 100 pounds. I needed to weigh, she said, 85. She didn’t know that on the scale that day, I weighed in at 82.

I quit working at the weight loss company. And I got help. As I put healthy weight back on, I continued at the gym. But then I got divorced, and as a divorced woman with 3 kids, I could no longer afford the gym.

Between stress and fear, within a year, all of the original weight came back on.

A lot of time has gone by. Over the years, I’ve attempted to go back to the gym from time to time. But as soon as I found myself enjoying myself, I became afraid that the old obsessions were coming back and I would end up in trouble again. So I’d walk away. It wasn’t hard to do – since creating AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop almost 19 years ago, my schedule has been nuts. Most gyms weren’t open during the times that I could get there.

In January of 2020, right before the pandemic hit, a new gym, Planet Fitness, opened in Waukesha that was 24 hours, 7 days a week. They said they were a “no judgement zone”, that everyone was welcome. I tried it out and felt at home. I could work out late at night, often not showing up there until eleven o’clock or midnight. There were a few of us nightowls there, and I felt able to do what I was doing without eyes on me. I started on the treadmill, and eventually, walked over to my old friends, the weight machines.

And they showed me that I was still strong. Not just still strong, but stronger than ever. I was able to be aware. I knew my limitations. My self-talk was different than it was back then, full of encouragement rather than insults and recriminations.

And there’s just something about the movement. Feeling muscles pull and lift, feeling the joints cooperate, following a rhythm.

Then, of course, the pandemic hit and the gym shut down. I bought my own treadmill and free weights, and they were okay, though not the same. When the gym finally reopened, it wasn’t 24/7, and I couldn’t go. I went to a second gym and took swimming lessons, and then joined a third gym that had a pool and I enjoyed that for a while…and then that gym shut down.

I returned to the original gym, the one that promised me no judgement, and the one where I rediscovered my strength. They’d returned to 24/7, and I walked back in and felt welcomed.

And now, back again, after being sick for a month. My first day back, I only did the treadmill. But last night, I returned to the weight machines. I saw my strength. I admired it. And I went home, not feeling like I should have done more, but like I’d done just enough. Just enough.

I am just fine, as I am.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The day I received my “Lifetime Key” after achieving my goal weight and then maintaining it for 6 weeks. I still wore my too-big clothes – I didn’t believe I was actually at goal weight. (I’m on the right.)
Dressed up, made up, working as a weight loss counselor.
At Planet Fitness, this past Monday.

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