This two-piece essay is from a five-part series about the emotions, challenges, and events surrounding my body, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd. Read the first and second pieces in links.
The sports medicine doctor, who was referred to me by my primary care physician, is very careful not to leap to any conclusions about my mystery hip pain. She is cognizant of costly medical exams and procedures and decides on a conservative approach. “Let’s start with physical therapy,” she said. “Three to four weeks, and if the hip pain doesn’t improve, then we’ll try an MRI.” She tells me my hips are weak, and I silently argue that I ran a 35-mile race with these weak hips, but I don’t say anything because at this moment I can’t run more than three.
I hate physical therapy. It’s a place for bodies that are aging and broken. Mine is neither. My body needs a real workout, one that will shed fat and tone muscle. These simple kindergarten exercises are not cutting it. It’s a waste of time, and I can’t run until my doctor and physical therapist approve, so I bike and swim and do yoga, but my heart aches to run again. Other types of exercise don’t give me the same freeing feeling, nor are they doing anything to help me shed those seven pounds. My weight hasn’t budged in the first few months of the year, and I tug at my leggings during PT to hide a slight bubble of flesh over the waistline. I go to PT and do the exercises, believing that my hip will be OK to start training for the marathon soon enough.
After a few weeks, my pain has waned and I am allowed to start a slow return-to-running program. Other times, I ignore these instructions and run too much too fast, but, the want to make it the marathon finish line is so strong, that I move forward with caution. Three minutes of running, one walking. I do this routine up and down the city blocks, staying away from my old running path until I am record more than two miles. Participating in the Chicago Marathon is still not out of the question. I may not reach the time goal I set when I registered for the race, but I am running again and my hip feels OK. My pace in those three minutes picks up slightly as I envision moving past crowds two or three people deep through The Loop and Lakeview. I make plans to motivate myself through mile 18. I envision myself crossing the finish, knowing I beat whatever this is.
Suddenly, one day, the hip pain returns like it never left. There is no sign of improvement after weeks of PT, rest, and precaution. It’s back, which means it’s time for the MRI.
I own two copies of Geneen Roth’s “Women, Food and God”, but have not read the book until now. While I am commuting on the train to and from work, I try to hide the cover from other passengers. “That woman needs help,” they will likely say to themselves. It’s true, though, I do. I need help losing weight. I need help not turning to food in every crisis or celebration. I need help feeling like a normal person with a normal relationship to food.
Geneen suggests to eat with awareness, but it’s unclear how to do that. Who has the time for awareness? I eat while I am rushing to the train, at my desk, while scrolling through social media, sometimes over the sink because I am too lazy to get a plate.There is no room for awareness or the uneasy recognition that food is often the only way I can endure.
Food is my greatest utility against shame, guilt, and self-deprivation. It’s really my only tool, with alcohol now removed from the roster. At dinner, when I would have ordered wine, I always get the side of fries over salad. I suggest ice cream to my boyfriend after particularly emotional couples’ therapy sessions. I go back for seconds and thirds of chips and dip at a party because my anxiety is pulsing through my veins and I need to keep my hands busy. I will consume every last morsel that I ache for because I am sober and I have no other relief. I deserve it.
At eight years old, I was called fat for the first time. I remember that moment vividly the way other women remember their first kiss. I remember who I was with, what I was wearing, the shame I felt.
It happened at dance class, while we were gathered in one corner of the studio to change from our ballet slippers into our tap shoes. Another girl in the class sat down next to me and asked if I had a pillow under my leotard, indicating that my stomach was not shaped like the other girls. It was the first time I understood that my body was different, and not in a good way.
A couple weeks later, in catechism class, another girl asked why I was so fat.
For the next 24 years, my body and I will not get along. It is the barrier between the life I have and the one I want. It will never be what I want it to be, and for that, I harbor a lifelong sadness.
“You see where there is an unevenness of the labral tissue?” my doctor says, pointing to an MRI image of my right hip. In the picture, my body was stripped down to white shapes and unfamiliar shadows. I do not know what she was talking about, but I nod yes anyway. “That’s a tear. You have a labral tear and hip impingement.”
She gives me two options. I could see a specialist to get a cortisone shot and hope that it, along with some core work, will be enough to keep the hip pain at bay and train for the marathon. Or, I could meet with a surgeon. Surgery is the only way to repair the tear.
Again, my doctor is careful not to input her opinion on what I should do, even though I desperately want it. I have had exactly one broken bone in my life—a left cheekbone that fractured when I fell out of a (slowly) moving vehicle. Even then, it healed on its own.
I discuss the matter thoroughly with my parents and boyfriend, and I opt to get the cortisone shot from the surgeon. It’s best to exhaust all paths, and hope one could still lead to the marathon finish line.
I take a break from sobriety during a 10-day jaunt to Europe that starts with my friend’s Italian wedding. This exception was built into vow of sobriety from the start, but I am not entirely sure if I will take it. Even after we land in Italy, I debate the pros and cons of staying off alcohol throughout the trip up until I am handed a glass of Prosecco at a pre-wedding social. I consume it with caution, then down two glasses of water before ordering another. I split two bottles of wine with others at dinner, and then drink a beer at a nautical-themed bar. My head is dizzy at the end of the evening, but I am not drunk. At the wedding, I reach a nice level of buzzed without tipping into inebriation. By the time we leave at 4 a.m., I am fine enough to drive (even though we walk home). This seems like a healthy way to drink, but I worry that people will think of less of me, that I won’t get the full effect of sobriety with a few days indulgence, and back in the U.S., I reclaim sober status.
At the end of the trip, I conclude that there is not much of a difference between drinking and not drinking, except the agony over not drinking.
My surgeon is the team physician for the Chicago Bulls, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Fire, which I suppose adequately qualifies him to examine my silly torn labral. Our appointment is quick as he asks me to lay on my left side and raise my right leg. I was afraid that he would be pushy about surgery, but he is not. He tells me that an operation is an option, but only if I think that my pain is inhibiting my quality of life. Now I question if my discomfort is really that bad, of I could live with it for a few more years.
I express my interest in getting the cortisone shot, and he orders his assistant to start preparing me for the the injection. Before he rushes out the door and on to his next patient, I ask him the only thing I want to know.
“Do you think that the cortisone shot will allow me to run the marathon?”
“When is the marathon?”
It hits me at this moment that the marathon is in four months, and I haven’t run more than 12 miles a week in the last six months.
“The cortisone shot is a quick fix,” he said, using his arms behind him to prop his body against the desk. “I do not think that the pain relief will last that long. If you were running the race in a few weeks, I’d say, ‘yeah, let’s get you to the finish.’ But if the race isn’t for a few months, you have a lot of training time in there and the cortisone isn’t meant to last that long.”
The doctor’s PA leads me to the x-ray room where they take pictures of my hip and stick a long need into my bone. Pain sears through my body, and I can barely walk for the rest of the day.
Three weeks later, when I see the surgeon again for a follow up, I schedule a hip arthroscopy surgery for four days before the marathon.
I will not be at the finish line this year.
Two of my friends from when I was a Peace Corps volunteer get married at a summer home in northern Michigan with unlimited dancing and booze. I, of course, don’t drink, although I am tempted when we first arrive to the ceremony and see everyone else grab dewy cans of beer from a canoe. I debate making a second exception for this wedding, but shame rights me back onto the alcohol-free path.
A few of my friends ask me about being sober and say things like, “Good for you, I could never do that,” and “That’s so incredible of you.” They are being polite, I know, but I feel foolish. I fear that they take my decision to stop drinking as smug. People often think that your own personal decisions are a judgement of theirs, like how meat eaters feel personally assaulted when you say that you are vegetarian (which I have am). Some of my friends have wondered if my decision to be sober reflects their own drinking habits. “I don’t think you drank too much,” they tell me. “You drank as much as I do.” I don’t like talking about my sobriety, mostly because I don’t know how to do so eloquently. I tell stories about my wilder drinking days—going to the bar five nights a week in college or drinking four quarts of beer in one sitting while a Peace Corps volunteer—to show my painted past with the bottle. I also feel it necessary to say how hard it is, and it is, but it is not a prolonged difficulty.
At the wedding, the urge to drink throbs for 20 minutes, and then it slows to a soft murmur that I ignore without difficulty. Throughout the evening, the other guests get progressively drunker while I stay the same. My Peace Corps friends are probably my greatest drinking buddies, and we have dozens upon dozens of drunken stories. They all know how smashed I can get and even named my drunken persona; Sherry, they call her. They miss Sherry, they tell me, as they twirl and stomp into the night, their eyes drooping and speech slurring. Many a time during Peace Corps, I was the drunkest, but tonight I am the sober one. I like my new-found role. It feels like I have stepped out of some restricting shell of my former self and into one less defined. Even though I do not have alcohol’s loosening powers, I feel more myself without a drink than with five.
After the wedding, I make a plan to go on a 30-day vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free diet. The idea is hemorrhaged from leftover thoughts of Geneen Roth’s book, and I figure I could eat with awareness if I am limiting most of the crap that I typically scarf down. My weight has changed little since the winter (I stopped wearing the FitBit once my hip pain reduced my workout capabilities and the static numbers made me feel worse about myself), so a drastic diet will have to be what gets the number on the scale to budge. I am not pleased by these circumstances, but not doing this diet doesn’t occur to me.
I am obsessed with restrictive challenges, like one year of sobriety or giving up nearly all foods for 30 days.That’s how I became a vegetarian nine years ago, on a dare with myself that I couldn’t eat meat for a year. I’ve imposed this limits since I was a kid, telling myself I could only watch four hours of TV a week or eat ice cream stand just once a month. I often instate them as a quick fix for something, most often losing weight.
This extreme diet seems like something that women with inspiring fitness Instagram accounts practice all-year long, which is actually a selling point for me. These are the type of women that I aspire to be: toned arms from daily yoga, calm minds from constant meditation, and 5 a.m. wake up calls that involve macha green tea. I’ve done all these things at one time or another, but they are not habits. Maybe an intense detox can lead me to that righteous spiritual path. I will give up whatever I need to be someone better than I am.
My mornings start with green smoothies, and sometimes yoga or running, as much as my hip can handle. For lunch, a salad with a homemade tahini and lemon dressing with no cheese or croutons. I snack on carrots and almonds between meals, but my big treat of the night is a frozen concoction of banana, almond butter, almond milk, and coco powder. After a couple of days, when all the sugar is out of my system and my palette has forgotten what it tastes like, this blended treat is heavenly. In sugar-free clarity, I claim it’s better than ice cream.
Like any detox, the first days are difficult and I am tired and run down, but my body adjusts. By the second week, I start to feel strong and light, like several pounds of have already disappeared. I vow not to look at the scale during these 30 days, so as to save the big loss a surprise. My stomach looks less lumpy in the mirror and my skin firmer. This diet might be just the key.
However, that high vanishes after just a week. My sleep and energy levels, after a spike, return to normal levels and I feel unchanged. I still haven’t ditched food as a coping mechanism, so after long days, I try to binge on non-junk junk food. I can eat blue corn tortilla chips and homemade guac, and nearly every night I stand at my counter, too bothered to get proper eating utensils, and gobble handfuls of chips with inches of guac until whatever worry I have is tucked away.
While on this crazy diet, I read Roxane Gay’s remarkable memoir, “Hunger.” I understand that our bodies are different and that I am offered more advantages because mine is of normal size and white, but I do relate to her disgust of her body and the idea that no one will understand. Even though I do not know what it feels like to be in her body, I do know what it feels like to be in mine. My body is a trap, an unfortunate draw, one that I can live with but not happily. I wish I didn’t have to go on this incredibly-restrictive diets, but I do. That’s the kind of body I was given.
“This is what most girls are taught — that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space,” Gay writes. “We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”
I want to be so small that I stand out and disappear at the same time.
Eating outside of my home is tricky. The world is not kind, nor short of judgement, when you are breaking from the Standard American Diet. We are bred to believe we should be thin, but also indulge on the fatty, salty, sugar foods of vices. “Enjoy life,” they say, while also judging the woman ordering curly fries instead of the salad. Over the course of the month, I have to decline invitations to ice cream, baked treats in the office, and pizza offerings. At brunch with friends, I ordered the most bland items on the menu: a spinach salad with berries and nuts, oatmeal with berries and nuts, or a fruit plate for $7.99.
Even though the benefits have waned in the final week, I still have high hopes that I have lost a good chunk of weight. But, I am nervous that it’s so many pounds that I will have to adopt this diet full time to stay slim. Again, there is not another option.
On the morning of Day 31, I weigh myself for the first time in a month. I take my time brushing my teeth and putting in my contacts. I have so much riding on this number that I want to take the process carefully. I step one foot on and then the other. Waiting for the number to calculate.
At first, I don’t believe it. Maybe something is wrong. But I blink hard. The number is the same.
Thirty days of no sugar, dairy, alcohol and gluten and I lost just three pounds. Three fucking pounds.