Hi all! Thank you for all of the support with the two lastest posts! It’s so nice to know that we really are NOT alone in our speedbumps throughout our lives.
Today, I am actually doing a birthday party for ten 9 years olds! We’re having a Powercakes Fitness party! It will be fun but I’m obvi a bit busy so my girl Jen is going to share her story.
She is so inspirational & if you take the time to read her story – PREPARE TO BE INSPIRED!
Kasey has asked me to write a little something for Powercakes about what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half. I suppose a bit of background information might paint the bigger picture. I’ve never been a healthy person. I don’t mean healthy in the sick department, I mean in the not-taking-care-of-yourself department. I’ve never really eaten healthy. I’ve never been a small person, blessed with size since birth; I’m average height, but the rest has just found its way to me throughout life. I started smoking when I was young. When I was sixteen, I was a card carrying pack-a-day smoker. And lastly, I never exercised. Ok, no, I take that back. I was the typical person who would join a gym and go for a short time and then find an excuse to skip a day…and then skip another…and another. If you’ve ever been the person who has had to start exercising, you know how easy this is. We’ve all been there.
I smoked for twenty years. I bet a huge percent of the smokers on this planet will tell you if they could go back in time and not start, they would totally rewrite history. I can say that, but only to a point. I loved smoking. I loved the act of smoking, I loved how it felt, I loved shaking the pack as I pulled it from my pocket to see if I had a few or a bunch, I loved holding them, I loved smoking. I loved every single cigarette I ever smoked. Except the first few. Especially the first. I still remember it to this day: I was standing at the bus stop at the tender age of fourteen. I had a Marlboro red that I stole from my brother’s dresser, broken at the filter. I told my friend who was a senior that I was going to start smoking because I was mad at my folks and knew it would make them angry (I was such a rebel). She told me that smoking that non-filter would make me sick; here, take this menthol instead.
Smokey hot death filled my lungs. I choked. I gasped. I almost vomited. I was coughing and coughing, tears pouring down my face. My lungs were screaming at me to stop and I thought I would never experience pain like that again. My friend laughed at me and asked if I was ok. Of course I was ok. I was determined. I’m kind of bullheaded. I wish I wasn’t such a stubborn jack wagon and had listened to my body. It was right, I was wrong but that didn’t matter. I learned to love it. I still remember the way the first one tasted, and every time I attempted to quit and would go a few days then take a puff, I would taste that first cigarette again, smoking another one just to get it back…eventually losing that flavor. For most of us, smoking isn’t just a habit. It’s a full-on addiction. This is why it’s so hard to stop. It’s an addiction that you schedule your entire life around: your finances and your social time and your work schedule and everything else. You stand outside in the rain, you freeze your fingertips off in the dead of winter when it’s close to zero degrees, you cringe at the thought of a long plane ride, you come up with ways of rationing those last two in the pack as you panic in the thought that you can’t make it to the store any time soon, and the list goes on. And everyone around you does it. Or so it seems when you’re trying to quit.
I had been trying to quit for years. Most of the time it was half hearted but sometimes I really gave the old college try. When I graduated with my Associate’s degree, I said I was going to quit. I work in the dental field and didn’t want to be one of “those” people. I used a medication that made me crazy in the head but also made me not smoke for about three months. But it didn’t work. I started having one here and there and before you know it, I had turned into a smoker again…I had never really quit; I just played myself off as a closet smoker for a year or so.
I can also say that, in regards to this entire story, exactly halfway through my last year of my first degree, I had a series of devastating personal events happen in rapid succession which completely rocked my world and left me winded, deflated, lost. Tuesday-bang, Thursday- bang. A few weeks later-bang, a few days after that- bang. It was emotional destruction. In the midst of this series of events, I felt the world fall out from under my feet and I felt completely alone for a very long period of time. It was an incredibly dark time in my life that took years to overcome. Why is this important to the story? Because over the next year, I went through a series of anti-depressant medications, tried to quit smoking, and fell deep into a bad head space, all of which caused me to gain an incredible amount of weight which I held onto until recently; it was not healthy. I also succeeded in completely losing any shred of confidence I still had in myself.
So when I was 34, I decided it was time to quit. I found that I was winded far more often than was comfortable for me. I had gone back to school for my bachelor’s degree in biology and found that walking across the multiple hills of my campus would leave me out of breath and I always felt gross: like my lungs were dirty and my skin had a film on it and I was always coughing up gross stuff. I told myself in the spring semester that I was going to quit in the summer. This time it was going to be the last time. The thought that one day I might have an oxygen tank strapped to my back was one of the most frightening things I could possibly imagine.
On May 31, 2011, I spent my first day as an ex-smoker. It had to happen. I had been putting it off for lots of reasons and even in the last few weeks prior to it I had avoided it. Every time I had decided to quit was the same routine: I can do this…I don’t need them… I am stronger than this…this sucks…I’m miserable…I gained ten pounds…just one won’t hurt. I knew what was coming. But in the back of my head were the words of wisdom that I heard a while back: Once you accept that the task in front of you is going to difficult, it suddenly becomes that much easier.
It should also be noted here, that I have a habit of looking back in time on all sorts of decisions I’ve made in life and saying to myself, “Nice job, knucklehead. You’ve picked the absolute worst time to do this or worst combination of things to put on your plate at once or whatever.” I’ve done it for years but never on purpose; they always told me that hindsight is 20/20. In just days prior to and also for weeks after putting down the cigarettes, I ended two very long term, very dear, like-sisters-to-me friendships of twelve and sixteen years for a plethora of reasons. Neither of these decisions was easy for me; both brought me a great deal of stress and intense sadness, as they still somewhat do to this day. During this period in time, I was also finishing my last year of my Bachelor’s degree in biology; which also brought me tremendous stress and sadness. Looking in on this situation, one would say that I was doomed. I could have easily written myself off as a lost cause; I’d never quit smoking. But in all honesty, I didn’t think of my poor timing. I just wanted to quit smoking.
So I armed myself with those words of wisdom and five weeks of nicotine gum (which took the edge off for a while and made me a bit less psychotic). I was terribly afraid of gaining weight; I could not afford to gain weight. My friend, MC, is a co-instructor of a Bootcamp fitness class at the university I attended and had been telling me for months to start coming to her class but I always said I couldn’t do that stuff; it looked so hard and I just wasn’t in shape enough to do it (I had previously started using the elliptical machine but it didn’t do much for me since I was such an unhealthy eater and could easily walk outside and smoke a square afterward). But finally, I decided I would join while I quit smoking so I wouldn’t gain weight. For me, the object was not to necessarily lose weight (which would have been a tremendous bonus) but to keep from gaining while I quit smoking, so I joined Bootcamp at the same time. Nothing could have prepared me for what was in front of me.
Let me just say this: Bootcamp is by no means easy. In fact, it is one of the hardest group fitness classes at the gym. I hear people tell me all the time how crazy we are at Bootcamp and how they don’t know how we do all that stuff. It becomes more comfortable as you finally figure out what to do and as you become stronger. It becomes “less difficult” but it is by no means easy. Neither is quitting smoking. But the two together, watch out! For the first four or five months (at least), every day felt a little bit like walking through the nine circles of Hell.
Just to give you an idea of how out of shape I was, the track inside at our gym takes nine laps to run a mile…I couldn’t run a full lap of that track. Not one. Every single day that I went to Bootcamp, my lungs had a feeling that I can only equate to inhaling kerosene, lighting a match, and breathing in the flame. Liquid hot magma brewed inside my chest. Yeah, it was that bad. It hurt. It burned. It was absolutely terrible. I was drastically out of shape and here I was in the summer with a bunch of people that had been doing this for a very long time. They were used to it. They knew how to handle the pain, they knew how to move their bodies, and they could breathe. I could hardly run, I got shin splints, I couldn’t keep up with anyone, I could maybe do a quarter of what everyone else was doing and that is a liberal estimation. It was completely embarrassing every day and I felt so worthless half the time because I just couldn’t do it. I did my best to keep going back. I was pretty good at going two or three times a week, but that varied. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to keep going back with my circumstances. Every muscle hurt, I felt like a loser, and I was breathing fire with every step.
But I can honestly say it saved me. It is the one thing that kept me from sticking a cigarette in my mouth that first summer. Well, that plus the willpower of a horse. Every time I would crave a cigarette, I would remind myself that, “You are going back there tomorrow. And if you stick that thing in your mouth, it’s going to hurt that much worse when you go in.” These thoughts ran through my head every day, all day. The sheer fear of my lungs hurting like that was one of the best deterrents in the world.
Then one day, I started to feel a little bit less horrible about myself. We were doing a workout on one of the hills on campus and we were bear crawling up the hill. I suppose it’s an innocuous hill if you’re driving up it or, perhaps, walking. But if you’re bear crawling, it’s pretty disgusting. I was struggling. My quads were on fire, my lungs were on fire, sweat was pouring off my face, I was in pain…and then there was a person beside me. Our other co-instructor, Tod, got down on the ground right beside me. He looked at me and he said, “I’m going to finish with you. Give me to the light pole and I’ll let you off the hook. It’s ten more feet. I know you can do this. Don’t give up on me, now. You’re almost there.”
I made it. And when I got up, Tod told me to keep it up. I heard a ton of “nice job, Jen” from the crew. It all changed for me. I realized that no one was laughing. Everyone was encouraging me. Every person there wanted to see me succeed; they knew how hard it was and how hard I was trying. From here on out for the first six months, maybe even the first year, it went like this. I would have my good days and I would have my days where the workout was so just so hard and I would be struggling so much and all of a sudden, there would be someone: Tod, Frank, MC…doing it with me, telling me to keep pushing, dig deep, you’ve got this. I dug deep, I got it. I started to get stronger. And eventually, I saw the changes begin.
Now this sounds like a perfect little story so far, doesn’t it? Girl goes to gym, quits smoking, starts to feel good. I was not exactly tiptoeing through the tulips (and nobody was playing the ukulele near me). In the first year of my journey on the Healthy Train, I experienced every single up and down you can imagine. I was at some of my lowest points in life. What I was dealing with was more than most people can imagine. I was finishing a degree in biology, not an easy subject. I took a summer class in 2011 which resulted in the wind being taken out of my sails and my stamina for school on a serious decline and my intense perfectionism kicking into overdrive. I started to question if I was good enough for my goal (dental school). My fall semester entailed three senior level bio classes, a bio elective, and Spanish 2. My fifteen credit semester was actually twenty-four hours of classroom time with labs. I worked anywhere from twenty to twenty-four hours a week at the library, which allowed me a chance to get some work done but not all the time. I was up to my eyeballs in schoolwork. I was sleeping about four or five hours a night, catching twenty minute snoozes before work if I could. I was struggling to get through Bootcamp every morning and still feel like a dignified person. I was carrying sadness from these failed friendships as well as not having these former confidantes to call and talk to about everything. And worst of all, I was trying to deal with it all without smoking a cigarette.
The stress was really almost too much for me to handle. I am disastrously hard on myself. I don’t know if it’s genetics or Catholicism or what, but I am very good at finding my flaws and accepting them as true indicators of my worthlessness. It is the bane of my existence and most of my closest friends and family are baffled by its magnitude because it kind of doesn’t jive with my personality. I am fully aware of it, just don’t really know how to change three and a half decades of negative thinking. In this situation, it was pretty bad. Nothing I did in school was ever going to be good enough to get me where I wanted to go. I was not intelligent. I had a hard time focusing. I didn’t know how I managed to be amongst these people who actually understood and got decent grades. And I had to listen to kids who were fifteen years younger than me complaining about their low A while I had gotten a C (second place=first loser). No amount of effort was enough for me to achieve a decent grade. I was not worthy. I had a feeling I would eventually meet my biggest and most frightening fear: being a failure. I think I cried every single day during that last year of school and the summer; thus, exacerbating the stress as I do not do well with crying in front of people. The stress was so unbearable that I honestly thought I might have a nervous breakdown. I was swimming in mental chaos. I felt as if I had a constant, overwhelming white noise surrounding me at all times. And all the time, I had the thought of smoking a cigarette in the back of my head for stress relief. It was unbearable at times. When I finally made it past a certain point in my quit, maybe it was four or five months, the mantra in my head was “if you slip up and smoke one now, everything you’ve worked for over the past X months will be for absolutely nothing. You cannot fall back on this now. You cannot do that. Stress will still be there and failing at this will make it even worse.” I have never felt so many emotions at once. I have never felt stress to the point of feeling sick. I had never been pulled in so many directions at the same time. To quote our friend, Bilbo Baggins, it was like “butter being scraped over too much bread.”
But it was Bootcamp that saved me. It was Bootcamp that gave me that one hour every day that I could (most of the time) escape. I could leave it at the door, work as hard as I could and put every ounce of stress into pushing myself, feel like I accomplished something at the end, feel all those crazy chemicals surging my brain and making me feel good. For one hour every morning, there were no exams, there were no lab reports, there were no mumbling professors, there were no gigantic physiological processes that I had to understand or foreign languages to understand, there were no failed friendships, there were no cigarette cravings. It was an hour of freedom, an hour for me. And it was fun, it was enjoyable. We laughed, we carried on, we encouraged each other. It was also, once again, what kept me from sticking a square in my mouth and lighting up. There were times, however, that I couldn’t leave it at the door. There were times when Bootcamp stressed me out because I would have a seriously struggling day and I would walk away feeling like a worthless, useless, mess of a person who couldn’t do anything the other people were doing. There were times I would be close to tears during class and go into the locker room to silently break down in the shower, sobbing without sound.
Still, it was Bootcamp that saved me. I kept going back. And in the first seven months, I went from two or three times a week to adding the Core Blast class on Tuesdays. And then I decided I would finally try to run with the group a few times on Thursday’s Cardio Challenge. I could hardly run, but once again, this is a group of encouraging people; they would wait for me or double back. So many times I would see Tod or Frank running back in my direction to give me a boost.
In January, I decided to take this to the next level and focus on weight loss. I started eating healthier and committing to five days a week, skipping only if there was something for school or my body just couldn’t take it. Things started to snowball after this: I lost weight making it easier to do thing, which made me stronger, which allowed me to do more, which helped me lose more weight…and so it goes. I started packing more vegetables and fruit for lunch and dinner (I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner on campus). I tried to cut back a bit on the less healthy stuff but this was still difficult; taking on another endeavor was tough with my new semester of seventeen credits but I tried.
In March, I finally ran my first full mile. I was ecstatic! I had been working so hard on that goal. In the locker room, I exclaimed my news and MC along with my dear friend, Rita, were so excited they somehow talked me into running a 5K in two weeks. How did these people have all this confidence in my ability to run another two miles?! I was coerced, bamboozeled! But I trained a few days with Rita and a few days with another friend, Sarah. And during that race, Rita ran every step of the way with me for a time of 43:48. It was rough but I still had fun, and I learned a lot: it’s ok to walk if you need to, no one cares how slow you are, you just need to finish, and most importantly…even if you wonder mid-race why you signed up for this, those thoughts are all but a memory when you get close to the finish line.
I graduated in May. It was one of biggest sighs of relief I have ever breathed. The stress and the sadness and the negativity that weighed me down every day was at the point that I thought I might end up in a straight jacket. It is truly sad that I was at a point so low that I was angry and depressed and embarrassed of graduating with a 3.4…in biology, and even with a minor in chemistry…sigh. This is actually quite a feat for many people, let alone people who just survived the year I did (in reality, this is not a high enough GPA for dental school but what are you going to do?). I was in a very dark, dark place. A good friend of mine told me that he hated seeing me go through it and he wished he could have helped me but there was nothing he could do. It really was no one’s journey but my own. I made decisions at the end of the semester to walk away from the dental school plan. I could not handle any more stress in my life. The past year was quite enough for me, thank you very much. I truly, honestly love what I do already, dental hygiene, so why not just start enjoying my life?
I spent the rest of the summer chilling myself out, and it took the entire summer. I worked. I rested. I started eating better than I was. I started sleeping an appropriate amount of hours every night. I made a full on commitment to Bootcamp and started working out on some Saturday mornings. I found that this combination of good sleep, working out regularly, and eating well gave me incredible energy that I had never really enjoyed before. And this gave me the luxury of staying even more active than I was. I kayaked and hiked and swam and camped and did a little bit of scuba diving and went for amazing walks all summer, every day I found myself on a wonderful adventure, often with my friend, Rita, a huge cheerleader to my health.
I started to change my focus from quitting smoking to weight loss to just plain and simple overall health. By mid-summer, I changed my eating habits again, but this wasn’t really very hard, as I had been in the process of changing them already. I did this not only to lose weight, but because I work out so hard that I really needed to focus on putting the right fuel in my body to make it perform correctly (it works). I cut out processed foods and a lot of refined sugar. If it comes in a bag or a box, I most likely don’t eat it (there are exceptions, but they are healthy). I rarely eat bread and pasta (I still eat carbs, just not bread or pasta). I made simple changes like removing ranch dressing from my diet and using balsamic vinegar instead. I drink a diet soda maybe once a week. I drink several liters of water a day. And my food basically consists of black coffee, fruits, veggies, meat, nuts, Greek yogurt, and skim milk. I have a cheat night once a week when I have kind of whatever I want for one evening. Be advised, please, I am by no means perfect (just a whole lot better than before)! Sometimes I struggle with clean eating too; I like beer. But evolution is a constant process…
These days, everything is different than it was twenty months ago. I work out six days a week. It takes something pretty major for me to miss Bootcamp (or Core or Cardio Challenge)…it is just a regular part of my life and the best part of my day. Saturday mornings are becoming a favorite with an amazing group of people. I eat well. I sleep well. I have lost a whopping ninety pounds since I quit smoking and six clothing sizes. But I’ve only just begun (cue The Carpenters). I ran in seven 5K races last year. I plan to run twelve races in 2013, an exciting challenge that I started with my first five-mile race with Kasey and Sarah. I decided to add two extra workouts a week…I am going to lift weights to get leaner and make me stronger for Bootcamp; I started this week.
I am the most content I have ever been in my life. I feel absolutely amazing. I am strong. I am healthy. My lungs feel fantastic. I suffer from exercise asthma which is a tiny price to pay and I suffer from Plantar Fasciitis but I refuse to allow it to be an obstacle. I have embraced my seat on the Healthy Train. I see what exercise does for me in mind, body, spirit. I have taken a week off to rest twice since September and I am usually pretty miserable by the middle of it: fatigued, grumpy, blah. I am starting to gain back the confidence I lost several years ago (in some aspects I still struggle tremendously, but it is certainly a start). I chose an unbelievably horrible time to take on an unbelievable amount of change…and I am forever grateful. All I wanted to do was quit smoking. What I got was a complete and total lifestyle overhaul. I had not planned on it going that way; it just fell into place. I am also incredibly blessed to have such an amazing support system in not only my family but my friends. These people have gone from strangers who encouraged this struggling newcomer to people that I love and admire. I don’t think I would have made it through a ton of days without Mason listening to me cry and buying me a coffee to settle me down. I am so lucky to have people like Cheryl, who will call me to make sure I’m going to Saturday morning Plyo class so we can catch up with each other. I have Rita and her family, who encourages my running and asks me to show her how to do Poor Richards in her office in the library and just loves to hang out. I have MC who reminded me for months that it was ok to feel stress because I was learning how to cope without my crutch. And I have Tod, who has become not only a dear friend, but also somewhat of a mentor to me: tremendous encouragement, gladly answering my incessant fitness questions, helping me with nutrition, giving me tips on this new weight lifting endeavor, and sometimes just plain trying to remind me to have a little confidence in myself. These people and a slew of others that I email and text and bother the hell out of with all these little achievements (Brit…Sarah…Irish…you know you love it), as well as the rest of my extended exercise family are incredibly important to me. I am truly blessed.
I still miss smoking sometimes. I sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming that I actually did quit. I think about it every single day. I crave cigarettes about two or three times a week, and every few weeks I have a really intense one. But I will never go back. Not one puff. These days when I have a major crave, I first wipe the drool off my chin, I then take a deep breath, and I then remind myself, “You are not a smoker. You are healthy. This feeling will be over soon.”
Change does not happen overnight. It comes in small doses and it requires consistency. It does not always happen quickly. If you want it, you have to work for it. And you have to work hard. You have to keep your eyes on the prize. I think it is important to work your way into new things a step at a time, as I did and look at my success. I had/have big goals for weight loss, as I still have a long way to go, but through this whole process, I have given myself very small, achievable goals. Ten pounds at a time and a pat on the back when I got there. Make it to the end of the day without smoking or even just the end of the hour. Make it to the next light pole before you start walking. Walk to the next light pole and then start running again. Small steps begin big journeys.
I don’t think about the big picture very often, only when I run, which is when I think to myself, “Not so long ago, you couldn’t do this.” This is just my life and it is what I had to do. I am getting better at accepting compliments and not downplaying them (remember how hard I am on myself? It’s a curse!). I actually had trepidation about writing this because even though I like being the center of attention, I don’t really like being the center of attention and I didn’t want people to think I was being boastful. But Kasey tells me how important it is for people to hear what others have gone through. So with that in mind, I will tell you that if I can do it, so can you. I beat the odds. Giving up would have been so easy but going back would have been so hard.
If you have made it this far, I applaud you. As you can see, I am a woman of words. I will leave you with this:
My new mantra is one that came from one of my closest and dearest friends, Rich. I emailed him about my PR on a 5K in December. I had wanted so badly to finish under 40:00. I was doing well until the last hill…and then had to turn around to go back. I didn’t think I’d make it. And when I got close to the end, Rita was screaming for me to run, run, run, your time is going to be amazing…36:51. I blew my goal out of the water.
And my friend asked me, “Do you think it might be time to stop underestimating yourself?”