I will always remember that fall afternoon that Todd Tinker walked up to me on the football field at Brownsville Road Elementary School. I was 12 years old, standing on the side-lines, pom-poms in hand. Preoccupied with my own thoughts over the excellent job I had done during our team cheers, I heard a shrill voice call my name and looked up only to see Todd, laughing and yelling out to those around us, “Look at Karen’s legs!” “They’re as large as watermelons.” I blushed a deep red, tucked my head, and scurried past the bicycle racks into school. Shrinking into my desk in Mrs. Carter’s 6th period English class, I hid with shame and embarrassment. I never forgot Todd Tinker.
The 6th grade was a mark in time for me—it the point at which I told myself that I am “not okay” anymore, and must somehow find a way to get rid of the fat, because the fat was the cause of my embarrassment. Besides, I came from a family of “thin” beautiful women, including my mother who never weighed over 115 pounds in her life. Being pretty was a valuable asset in the Shapard family. I was told many times by Grandmother Shapard and my mother that I had a beautiful face, insinuating that I would be “stunning” if only I lost weight. I remember crying to my mother, distraught over my size – she would try to comfort me by telling me I just had a body type like my father- short, stocky legs and long torso. She dropped hints that I might shed those extra pounds when I started the “monthly,” but that never happened. In fact, by 14 years of age, my weight was on the rise up to 155 lbs. Vowing never again to be embarrassed in front of my peers, I gave up the notion of exercise or sports and focused on diets. Every attempt however, was short-lived and futile, always with a mind-set of a food “reward” after an extreme plunge into depravation. Let’s see, I tried the hotdog diet, the grapefruit diet, the vegetable diet, the tomato juice diet, the boiled egg and grapefruit diet, the liquid and the rice diet. I then took up smoking cigarettes- that habit served two purposes, it made me feel grown-up, and it suppressed my appetite a bit. But alas, even tobacco failed to make the grade in terms of getting me thin…
As a senior in high school, my height increased to 5’6” and my weight followed a similar upward trend to 185 lbs. I just couldn’t understand why! I had only added beer and alcohol to my weekend food regime since reaching the legal drinking age of 18. But in my usual blind desperation, appalled by the number on the scale, I sought extreme measures, and found a local internist who helped women with weight loss. He was a large imposing man, with a booming voice, who basically scared his patients into compliance. He put them on diet pills, an 800 calorie a day food plan, and yelled at them during their weigh-ins every two weeks if they didn’t lose. Although I admit this was an effective method of weight loss, its use of fear as a basic mechanism of treatment eventually wore out its welcome with me. I eventually tired of the program and went back to eating and drinking whatever I wanted for the next 2 years. At the age of 20, I graduated nursing school, with my weight back down by 30 pounds. In desperation, I had gone back to that doctor my senior year and stuck to his diet pill/ starvation diet regime. I was thin but miserable, angry, and felt as if I was deprived constantly.
As you might already guess, my weight continued on the upward rise as I aged. When I delivered my first child I weighed 219 pounds. When I delivered my second child, my weight was up to 246 lbs. Only twenty five years of age- I was terrified! I feared if I didn’t do something, I might continue to gain and gain and gain until I just couldn’t walk anymore, or until I just exploded! I was so embarrassed. I would hide at restaurants or movie theaters to avoid people I knew. I felt like the Stay-Puff marshmallow man from the Ghostbusters movie. I sought out Weight Watchers and got really committed. I walked daily and got down to 155 pounds again within a year. Staying at 155 pounds was the hard part. I starved constantly and craved carbohydrates. I walked every day but even that did little to stop the cravings. I eventually found Overeaters Anonymous, which helped a little. They published the “green sheet” food plan, which is basically what I know now to be a low-carb diet. That too was short-lived. I thought the sponsors were too pushy and I didn’t like the idea that I to “admit” I was “powerless” over anything. My one take-away from Overeaters Anonymous was the realization that I was managing my feelings with food. That food was much more than just fuel to me, it was a “friend” I turned to when I was lonely, hurt, angry, or seeking entertainment and fun.
At the age of 30, I was struggling with food AGAIN, and beating myself up mercilessly for my weak will and previous failures at weight loss. I had taken up jogging short distances to keep the fat at bay, but was binging at night because of marital stress and issues with my daughter. I eventually got into counseling and started dealing with my REAL problems, which included unresolved grief around the sudden death of my father when I was 15, as well as grief over my failed marriage and special needs child. Therapy helped me heal those wounds and move forward. I learned how to speak my feelings directly and resolve conflict instead of pushing everything down with food. I then made a conscious decision to change my life. I first got divorced and found my life as a single woman and parent. I then went back to school and eventually got my masters as a psychiatric nurse practitioner so I could give back to others what had been given to me. During my single years, I met and fell in love with my best friend and soul mate Neil. Things for me were turning around and I had made it all happen. But with all the happiness and inner peace I had created in my life, I was still living in a chubby body. So, I tried some other moderate things to address the issue again. I joined the Cordova Athletic club and started doing cardio three times a week. In addition to the exercise, I tried other food plans, including South Beach, Adkins, and Weight Watchers (probably for the 30th time). I eventually went to Food Addicts Anonymous in 2002 but didn’t like the rigidity of the program. Everyone wanted to tell me what I couldn’t eat and thought they had the answers to my problem. It was my definition of insanity- doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome.
In 2009, I heard of a woman in town who ran a unique group for people with food and weight issues- Jane Abraham at the HART Center in midtown Memphis. She had a reputation for working “outside” the box and being different. Well, I was desperate and very tired of continually failing. I needed someone who could help me find out why I kept sabotaging myself. I was hesitant, intimidated, but willing. I joined and stayed in the group for two years, doing emotional processing, and week-end intensive workshops as required. I finally got that food was my “addiction” and “drug” and that I was an “addict.” During those two years, I let go of 40 lbs (196 to 155 lbs) and established a regular exercise routine with Yoga, road bicycling and some individualized personal training. I also learned how to self-regulate and how to let go of my black and white thinking when it came to food and exercise. By May 2011, with the support of group members, I felt strong enough to handle things on my own and left the group. I continued my bicycling, started running with a friend, and even decided to train for a ½ marathon.
As my St. Jude’s half-marathon approached in the fall of 2011, I noticed my clothing was fitting tighter. Hmm, that’s strange, I hadn’t really done anything different, I thought . I was eating complex carbohydrates and having wine 2-3 times a week. But, I told myself, “I’m exercising 10 hours a week and burning all this off…” “I can handle it.” I was even encouraged by my exercise buddies to “carb up” while riding and running and so I wouldn’t “bonk”or tire out during my cardio work. Some people even suggested that maybe I wasn’t eating enough. Confused, I sought the help of Leslie Schilling, a dietician in Memphis. She advised me to stick to a 2400 calorie a day diet, and to eat balanced whole foods, including whole grains and protein at every meal. I followed her recommendations but nothing really changed. However, I was aware that when I stayed away from flour based grain products, my body felt better.
So after finishing the St. Jude ½ Marathon and still in a quandary about how to stay fit, I remembered I had purchased a Group-On for ABC for Women last year but never used it. I got on the internet and read about it again. I was impressed with the amount of support that the program was offering to it’s members…They might even call me on my cell phone if I did not show up for class? I liked that. Also, there were real people with real “before and after pictures” and stories of their successes that I could read and hear about. And they offered nutritional support? I liked that too-I could get nutritional, social, and physical needs met. It sounded good to me. So, I enrolled the first week of December and began coming three times a week.
When I heard about the 6 week challenge, I was excited. The winner would receive an I-pad and two months free, which would be nice, but not my primary goal. I needed something that would jump-start me back into a habit of clean eating and make me accountable to a group. So I signed up and began the program. I must admit it was hard when I came for that first assessment at the Primacy Parkway location and saw the large group of people there. I really didn’t want anyone to watch me run or exercise. Oh, and to have my picture taken in a bathing suit? It was uncomfortable, but I did it.
Through-out the six week challenge, the support from the group was palpable and I absorbed it like a sponge. I stayed connected to people in class and on Facebook and that really helped me. I loved checking in every day and reading people’s posts and comments. I really felt like we were all connected and on the journey together. It felt good. As far as changes, I shifted to a paleo/primal way of eating over the six weeks and have stuck to it. My energy is better and my cravings are gone. I knew I wasn’t crazy when I told other people that my body didn’t like grains. As far as my looks, my clothes are looser. In addition to diet and body changes, I made a change in my exercising. I made a decision to stop training for long-distance running. I had one of those ah-ha moments during a run where I was sore, aching, lonely, and just not enjoying the experience anymore. I then began noticing that I was dreading every practice run. When I examined my motives, I realized Dexter’s phrase “exercising to outrun your bad eating,” applied to me. So I just decided to give just up the suffering and quit the training. At this recent New Orleans ½ marathon my husband and I signed up for, I took my time and jogged/walked it, and had fun. I’m focused now on participating in physical activities that bring me fun and laughter… boot camp, yoga, swimming, bicycling, dancing!
So what is different about this experience from all the other ones I’ve had over the last 38 years you ask? This girl has her head on straight. I don’t see mistakes or set-backs as failures now. I see them as opportunities to learn what works for me. I now have the courage to stop and find out what’s happening inside instead of cutting and running. And I can ask for help now rather than feeling I have to do everything on my own. Working out with the other campers I have learned that there is no shame in being “slow” or awkward, or different than anyone else in the room. I can just go along at my own pace and enjoy it. That makes me feel good. As far as my weight goes, I know I have people in my life now to help keep me on track. I trust that.
So as I think about Todd Tinker’s remarks about my “watermelon” thighs today, I am reminded that those legs held me up through many trials, many happy moments, and many challenges –they keep me walking today and give me the ability to jog, ride my bicycle, and generally be mobile. And most of all, those legs helped carry me to groups and therapy offices where I learned the most important lesson of all… that my weight problem started in my mind. My body has just been an innocent bystander along for the ride. So now that I have those two connected, I am committed to staying the course and helping my body get stronger and fit. This journey is a process, one that I will continue for the rest of my life. And I am so grateful to have such positive people around to share the journey with. So, thanks Todd wherever you are