Giving it 80%

In 2012, I spent a week at Mepkin Abbey, in South Carolina. Mepkin Abby is a Trappist monastery, and they invite folks to come and stay with them as a form of retreat. A friend I really respected did it on the regular, and encouraged me to do it as well.

I really enjoyed my week there. It was lovely, and the campus is beautiful, and it’s right on the Cooper River, where you can sit on the bluff and watch the boats roll by. The campus is filled with Live Oaks that literally drip Spanish Moss, and the silence there is magical, punctuated by the chanting of the monks seven times a day.

You are also invited to eat with the monks, and they have a simple, vegetarian diet. Again, one of the struggles those of us with ADHD have is the inability to create structure, so a simple diet with simple rules appealed to me, and I think there is definitely an ethical argument that can be made for not eating animal flesh. So, when I came back to the “real world”, I decided I would be vegetarian.

I lasted strictly about six weeks, and gave up trying completely within three months. Because it was easy to fail at being vegetarian, and when you have the sort of life I do, where lots of people want to feed you, and a huge part of how you expressed your spirituality involved eating with others, it became super complicated, super-fast. In the end, it just wasn’t sustainable for me at all.

My last few days have been chaotic. I went from having a week in front of me with virtually no outside meetings planned to having my entire week scheduled almost instantly. Which is fine – in the work I do these days organizing Faith Leaders, it is like that sometimes – you are forced to react to something someone else does and then your whole schedule changes.

But what that does mean is that my whole routine is thrown off, and instead of cooking dinner for my family like I do most nights, this week I am eating a lot of sandwiches and take out, and because I am living on the phone when I’m not in front of a Zoom camera or at City Hall, I had to miss going for a swim today.

Most of my career has been filled with reactive crises like this, and in the past, I have often used that as a reason to not prioritize my health, and to not eat well. But these days, as I prioritize my health and try to avoid returning to the burnout that almost took me out, I am seeing things differently.

I want you to pay attention to what I did there – it literally is about seeing things differently – I am looking at things through a different lens, and it has made all the difference in how I view the world in general and my health in particular.

If you get ill and, as a result, don’t take a shower on a given day, you didn’t fail – you just didn’t do something you normally do. You don’t decide that because you failed at cleanliness you will henceforth renounce soap. You don’t decide you will now sleep in a mudhole. The next day, you take a shower again and you are back on track.

And tomorrow, I will be back at the gym. I didn’t fail at being healthy. I didn’t fail at anything. I just didn’t do what I normally do. But tomorrow, I will. Because this way of life is sustainable, and I don’t fail if I don’t do something just one day.

It’s easy to fail at “Being Vegetarian”. Hell, it’s easy to fail at “dieting”. But it’s almost impossible to fail at “focusing on my health”. Saying I am focusing on my health recognizes that it’s about what I do most of the time, not what I do one time, that will make a long term difference to my health and my life.

I tend towards extremism – again, my brain loves simplicity – but I am trying to remind myself these days that even though I can’t give it all I have, if I can give it my 80%, then that’s enough.

This Is What I Do Now

Content warning: Discussion of weight loss and food monitoring.

In March of 2021, I emerged from a winter of severe depression to face several facts:

  • I was three months away from being 49 years old.
  • I was in horrible physical condition, largely as a result of trying to survive a year of what my eye doctor calls the pandamnit.
  • My Dad had died just five months before from a virus virtually nobody in my state was taking seriously, and it seemed to be specifically targeting the obese and people with high blood pressure.
  • I was obese and had high blood pressure.
  • My wife was immunocompromised, and while I am limited in my ability to protect her from this virus, I wanted to do everything I could to make sure I did not die, leaving her behind to deal with life in this dystopian hellscape.

You know what didn’t figure into my decision-making at all? My appearance. These days, my body looks like a Crisco can on top of two tooth picks. I used to be slim and muscly. But I also used to be 19. I don’t expect to look the same way at 49 that I did at 19.

I didn’t want to be “skinny”. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to not die. I wanted to not have the joint pain and diabetes and heart disease men in my family get in their fifties. But mostly, I wanted to not die and leave Renee behind to try to survive in all this.

I’m not telling you what you ought to do. I’m just telling you what I did, and the thinking that got me here. You do you, boo.

Like many folks, I have lost weight before. But they were all “diets”, designed to help me lose weight, with no real plan for what happens after that. But that wasn’t my goal this time: I wanted to live.  I needed to change my life.

Actually, that seemed overwhelming. So I decided to do a thing I do when I’m starting a new project: I ask myself what I want the end to look like, and then work backwards. In say, a year, I wanted to be physically active, have lots of energy, and have healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels. And then I wanted to maintain that for the rest of my life.

I like to eat. Food is important to me, and table fellowship is important to me, so food restrictions that make it difficult to eat with other people and receive hospitality from them are nonstarters for me. Unsure what that would look like, I eventually learned of the connection between my ADHD and food that made me constantly overeat – that my object permanence issues caused me to eat mindlessly, and I had no idea how much I was actually eating.

So I started tracking my food. No goal, just using an app to track my food. I needed more data than I had. It turns out I was routinely eating about 3500 calories a day.  Was that good? Bad? Let’s do some research!

Now – I am the first to say that the medical establishment targets and discounts fat people unfairly. I was just looking for data. And according to the medical establishment, people who were my height had better health outcomes on average when they took in about 2,000 calories of energy a day. And people my age tend to have better health outcomes on average when they are moderately active for 30 minutes each day.

So, now I had a benchmark. Could I live on 2,000 calories a day? It took several weeks to get it dialed in, to see what the things were that triggered mindless eating for me, the things that told my body to snack, the things I did routinely (like eating peanut butter out of the jar every night before bed) that set me up for eating more than I realized. I also was reminded that I thrive on routine, so, as an example, once I realized that most of my breakfasts were usually one of three things, or that I tended to eat one of four things for lunch if I was working from home, that became a habit.

For example, ¾ cup of oatmeal, ¾ cup of blueberries, 10 grams of butter =  breakfast for 272 calories.  It became a habit, and thus, a thing I didn’t have to think about. I was teaching myself to be aware of food in a way I hadn’t before, but I was also teaching myself what a “serving” size looked like.

Growing up, it was a sin to waste food, so you ate what was on your plate. A serving was however much was on your plate. How much cereal should I eat? Well, how much is in the bowl?

Turns out, a serving of Honey Nut Cheerios is more than you think it is, and a serving of milk is too much for that amount of cereal. Just learning to eat actual portions of food was huge in my progress. (1 cup of Honey Nut Cheerios and half a cup of 2% milk is 200 calories, by the way.)

For the first time in my life, I was actively, consciously, eating, instead of passively.

Meanwhile, I started waking every day. A bit more than 2 miles each day, a little more than 30 minutes. After a month or so, it was another habit. Later – much later – I would add swimming and weight lifting into the mix.

I never had a “goal weight”, because the goal was to be healthy, not to lose weight. The nearly 100 pounds I had gained as an adult was because I was taking in a lot more fuel than my body required. If I balanced my energy outputs and fuel intakes, that would sort itself out.

And there is no finish line. This is just what I do now. There are days I eat more than the 2,000 calories someone my size should eat regularly, but other days I eat less, and because I don’t have a goal, I can’t relapse. Some days I get busy and don’t exercise, and it doesn’t matter – because this is just what I do now. It doesn’t matter what I do any one day – it matters what I do repeatedly. I didn’t need a diet – I needed some new habits.

I don’t restrict anything. On my birthday, I ate cake. At Christmas, I ate fudge pie. Tonight, I ate tater tots and chili dogs. (940 calories). There is no such thing as bad food – just food that has more energy or less energy, and I don’t need to store extra energy, so I eat what my body needs, which is about 2,000 calories each day.

Now, because somebody will ask: Yes, I have lost weight – just under 50 pounds so far. It’s been very slow but I don’t care, because the weight is not the goal: My being healthy is. Theoretically, I will lose another 30 pounds or so before my body settles out on a balance between my energy use and 2,000 calories of daily fuel, but it doesn’t matter to me when it happens, or even if it does.

And how’s that coming? Well, I swim about 30 minutes most days, and my resting heart rate has dropped almost ten beats a minute since March. I can walk a brisk pace for miles and carry on a conversation with you the whole time. And this afternoon, my blood pressure was a quite sound 118/64, far better than the hypertensive 155/99 I was at just before the pandemic started. I don’t get extreme headaches after eating any more, and I don’t wake up in the middle of the night craving water or sugar anymore.

I feel good. I have the healthiest relationship with food I have ever had in my life. I feel like I can do this the rest of my life, because I’m not on a diet: This is just what I do now.

I’m rooting for you.

It’s probably the nicest pool I have ever seen in my life.

It’s the half-sized pool, 25 meters long, but so wide it’s almost square. Three walls of the room are floor to ceiling windows, and there are skylights overhead, piercing the knotty pine ceiling, flooding the room with natural light. When you speak, the sounds bounce around a bit, sounding unnatural and flat.

There is another pool in the room – a square heated pool they call the therapeutic pool, but they assure me that if no one is using it for a group, I’m welcome to use it, too. When I walked through this morning, it was in use by two women who appear to be around 80, talking in low tones while using foam dumbbells to exercise.

My focus this year, the year after my Dad’s death, has been on my health. My dad was only 21 years older than I am, and while his death from a virus says nothing about my own life expectancy, it does make one begin to count. I’ve been eating better, and logging my food. I exercise nearly every day. I prioritize getting enough sleep.

And this week, I joined a gym with a pool, because my joints are trash after years of abusing them.

This morning, I put on my trunks (which fit me perfectly 50 pounds ago, but are now relying more than they should on the drawstring to defend my modesty) and slid into a warm pool, and commenced to do laps – quiet, slow, trudging laps – the equivalent of walking as opposed to the running the speedo-clad twenty-something guy in the next lane is doing.

I can only really backstroke with any degree of proficiency, so I am watching the ceiling, following along under a wooden beam that spans the length of the room, keeping all the moving parts going the way I was taught all those years ago on Parris Island: Hands up along the sides to the armpits, then out, then down, hands cupped. My shoulder grates a bit, unused to this particular motion.

And in the aisle next to me is a Black woman somewhere in her late 70’s, with the foam dumbbells, raising them and lowering them in the water, all the while moving down the length of the shallow end of the lane sideways, back and forth. A woman I assume to be her granddaughter cheered her on, saying, “Good job, Granny!  I’m so proud of you!”

I knew I was not moving quickly, but I have to admit I did notice when Granny passed me. Several times.

And I did think, briefly, that it is a crying shame that my swimming ability is so slow that an 80-year-old woman can walk sideways faster than I can swim. But as I swam, back and forth, slowly, like an impressionistic portrait of the athlete I used to be, I couldn’t help but think how awesome it is that she is doing the work, and how great it is that her granddaughter is spending time with her, and how much I wish I could spend that sort of time with the people who loved me into being.

And then I spent some time in what my Buddhist friends call an act of Loving-kindness, where I just took Granny and her family and focused on them and wished them every good thing.

I’ve never been good at competition. I almost died as a kid, and often in the years after it was an accomplishment that I showed up. I learned long ago that whatever motivation I have to have to get through my day is going to have to come from my own motives, and not what you think of me.

And can we be honest with each other a minute and admit to ourselves and to each other just how hard the last two years have been? There has been so much put on us that we had to just survive, so any thought of winning or not seems so secondary right now. If we just show up, that feels like winning to me right now.

Wherever you are in this whole thing, I’m rooting for you. I want us all to win.

So good job, Granny. I’m proud of you, too. And while you might get there before me, I’m glad you’re ahead of me, to show me the way.