On the surface I had an idyllic childhood. I grew up on a farm in the rural Eastern Cape; I ate wholesome farm grown food and got a lot of exercise and fresh air. So why the heck did I end up an obese 30 year old that was gulping down 200 g of chocolate in one sitting (every day, I might add!) and couldn’t even walk around a shopping centre without discomfort?
Food was a reward
I wasn’t particularly overweight as a child or later on as a teenager, but I was on the bigger side of average. My weight yo-yo’d for a long time as an adult starting in high school. I wasn’t good at ball or endurance sports, which were the focus of the school I was at and I hated almost all forms of exercise.
Things are never as they seem. When I was 6 years old, I was sent to boarding school. It wasn’t that bad I suppose, I wasn’t beaten or molested or anything like that so I didn’t have any physical symptoms of pain. There were lots of other kids there too and they seem to have turned out to be healthy contributing members of society today. But maybe I was just a sensitive kid, who knows…
We were subjected to constant emotional abuse from the hostel matron. For example; in order to make sure we behaved, one of the things she did was threaten to lock us in the cupboard under the stairs for the whole weekend with only bread and water. We were petrified of that cupboard and the older children would tell us what was in there. Ghosts, witches, spiders, bugs and it was pitch dark.
The worst thing about this story is that the actual cupboard wasn’t the scary part, but the fact that we wouldn’t be able to go home for the weekend. That killed me. I was 6 years old, so I believed her and I believed the other kids when they told me what was in that cupboard. One of the nice things about being at the hostel was my tuck box! It was my happy zone in that horrible, horrible place. I could forget for a moment what it would be like to stay there for the weekend and not see my mom. I suppose after that I had relied on food, especially sweet treats, as an emotional crutch ever since.
Added to my boarding school trauma my father unfortunately had terrible demons of his own, which deeply affected my siblings, me and our mother. He suffers from bi-polar and this disease affected his family. We were expected to be perfect. My three sister’s reacted to this by rebelling, while my mother and I on the other hand dealt with the emotional manipulation by trying to be perfect.
When I was older I began trying to help my mom micro-manage all situations in order to avoid an explosion from him. His favourite weapon of choice was the silent treatment. A result of this was that I sought his approval for everything and I would do anything to get it. The most dangerous thing for me was that I then developed the mindset that all people expected perfection from me. Obviously the goal of perfection is completely unrealistic and I drove myself mad with anxiety trying to achieve the impossible.
I had finished University and had been working for about 4 years, when my dad left my mom. My whole world collapsed. Sub-consciously I thought that my efforts to be perfect were all in vain anyway, I mean look how hard she had tried and he never loved her anyway. I struggled to cope at work through my parent’s divorce and had panic attacks and extreme anxiety, which then turned into depression.
I received treatment, but it took a long time and a lot of money to work through and I got myself to a point where I at least didn’t want to die anymore. I was probably about 20 kg overweight at this stage, but being fat protected me from the outside world. I wasn’t nearly ready to tackle my weight then.
My attitude towards exercise and food caught up with me badly. In September 2011 my daughter was born and when I got onto the scale at home the first day after coming out of hospital I weighed 106 kg. I used the pregnancy as an excuse and justified my weight by saying that I had just had a baby. I was tired, lethargic, moody and depressed.
As a result of my emotional issues I never felt like I was good enough for anyone and I was so scared of rejection, that I developed a ‘defensive’ personality that would scare people away. This, coping mechanism was ironically a self-fulfilling prophecy and only served to make me more miserable because I couldn’t make any friends.
I was judgmental and jealous and really lonely. In hind-sight now, I believe my weight problems, and especially comfort eating, were physical manifestations of my emotional turmoil. Deep down I was very unhappy and this just fed the perpetual cycle of depression and comfort eating.
The turning point was when we had family over to our house for supper in December 2011. They took photos and put the pictures on Facebook. I was disgusted at what I looked like. I was extremely embarrassed that everyone could see me like that.
At first I was angry that they had put the pictures there where everyone could see them and in my mind I tried to blame them for making me look bad. My husband pointed out really nicely, that it wasn’t their fault how I looked. I realised then that I needed to do something drastic about my weight.
I knew that my sister was on the Weigh Less programme and that she was looking really good. So I decided to check it out. I found the details and went to the next meeting that I could. I remember feeling embarrassed and scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I didn’t even take an official before photo because in my mind I was convinced that I would fail.
This was after all, the umpteenth time that I was embarking on a weight loss programme. I started at 99.2 kg and was still wearing my size 42 maternity clothes 3 months after my baby was born! In reality I was probably a size 44 because a normal 42 didn’t fit me.
The major thing was getting over the ‘deprivation’ mind set. I saw food as a reward, which was an indication of my emotional dependence on it. Luckily there really was a lot of food in my daily allowance, especially because I was breast feeding my baby at the time, so I needed to eat more for that. This was visible enough proof for me that I wasn’t depriving myself. I also allowed myself one cup of Nomu sugar free hot chocolate per day, which boosted me psychologically, because I felt like I was getting my ‘deserved’ treat.
At first I didn’t think of the end goal, I just took each day at a time. As I followed the eating plan, the weight came off and each time I got an award sticker (5kg, 10 kg etc) was a reward in itself. These ‘mini’ goals really motivated me along the way. Checking in with the group once a week was a huge motivation for me as I was answerable to other people and not just myself. The healthy eating plan taught me to look at food completely differently.
Ironically I think of food much less now than I used to even though I plan my meals much better than I used to. I don’t deprive myself of ‘treats’. If I go to a function, I don’t deny myself a piece of cake or a sweet, I just control the portion size and try to substitute it in my daily allowance. I now make much healthier choices when eating out as well.
Because I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself I don’t have the cravings. I don’t rely on food anymore as an emotional crutch. The stage that I was able to break that connection was when I was able to eat what I want to, based on what my body physically needs. As a result I don’t have this constant internal struggle with will power because I don’t have to say no to myself anymore because I don’t actually want the bad food in the first place.
Exercise on the menu
In October 2012 I was on a plateau and struggling to lose the last few kilograms before reaching my goal weight (I have subsequently lost 10 kg since then). I had done a bit of exercise up to that point, but nothing very serious. I decided to start running. This was a huge step for me because I still thought that people who run were crazy, I mean why would anybody want to run if nothing is chasing them?
My memories of running went back to junior school, so the emotional association was still there. I think, sub-consciously I realised that if I could get over my food associations, then I could also get over my exercise associations. I don’t think I would have been able to do it had I started a really intense diet and exercise programme all in one go. The secret for me was tackling one aspect at a time.
I joined a beginners running group in my community and went with them on Monday and Wednesday evenings and then I would do a short run on a Saturday. I really struggled at first. I was plagued with flu (I got flu then bronchitis six times in six months). Over December the running group stopped because of the festive season, but I carried on by myself. On one of the first few runs by myself I really pushed and managed to do my first 5 km without walking. The feeling I got from achieving this is indescribable.
That was the turning point for me! I was no longer running just to lose weight; I was running because it made me feel good! That was when I realised that I am a runner! I ran 5 km every second day and walked 5 km every other day for the whole two weeks that I was on holiday. By the end of the two weeks I was looking for excuses to go running when in the past I had every excuse for staying put and watching tv instead! I knew I had to take it slow though or risk possible injury or burn out, so I forced myself to watch tv the rest of the time ;-).
In January I joined Virgin Active and then things really took off for me! I do pilates three to four times a week, yoga and spinning once a week. On a Saturday I do a 5 km park run (trail) followed by pilates and on a Wednesday and Sunday I do a 10 km road run. Friday’s are my rest day. The first organised event that I participated in was the Iron Girl 9.2 km fun run in January. I did the Surfer’s Challenge in February, 17 km along beach, rocks and through water. I never ever thought I would be able to do something like that. During the event I questioned my sanity many times. But the feeling on crossing the finish line made the pain worth it!
A shift in character
My road to health and fitness has not only been one of physical transformation, but also an emotional, psychological and social transformation. I was very insecure in the past and there were quite frankly parts of my personality that I really didn’t like. I’ve done a complete turnaround. I’ve made some great friends as a direct result of my increased confidence. I’m not scared to reach out and make an effort anymore. One of these friends is my dedicated running partner. We do all our events together and train together as well. I have also reconnected with old friends, who I lost contact with many years ago because I isolated myself. I’m not lonely at all anymore and am very excited about this new chapter in my life.
In January this year I came across a Facebook group called SleekGeek. The stories, sharing and community in this group are phenomenal and so inspiring and motivating. I love seeing people’s success stories because it makes me so happy to see other people happy. I also love seeing people’s journeys and it’s awesome feeling like I’m part of their road to happiness just by providing a supportive ‘like’ or comment.
SleekGeek really is about sharing the love. It is amazing that there are no trolls there, which is very rare online. The SleekGeek motto is ‘Eat Clean, Train Dirty’, which I have tried very hard to follow and my results seem to indicate success so far! 🙂 [Join the Facebook group]
My running goals this year are to improve my speed as well as distance, to compete in a half marathon as well as some trail events. I love pilates and yoga and I want a long lean body, which is why I’m focusing on these disciplines. In terms of health goals; when I reached my WL goal weight I still had a body fat percentage of 29%. I managed to get this down to 25 % through exercise and I want to further reduce this to 22 %, so I am still a work in progress.
Watch this space!
While my story is very personal, I’ve shared it in the hope that it can inspire other people to achieve their dreams and goals as well.
- Robyn Thomson is the director of an environmental company in East London, Eastern Cape
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