Tunnel Vision: Weight Loss & Broadening Your Vision

We’re all prone to tunnel vision at some time or another. We get locked into one way of thinking and forget that we locked the door ourselves. When it comes to weight loss, we often don’t realize we’re locked into tunnel vision because we’ve never seen outside the tunnel. Even when presented with outside-the-tunnel options, we may not recognize them as options they are: to us, they may seem crazy or completely out of our reach!

When it comes to weight loss, so many of us think in the ‘All or Nothing’ mindset: either we’re completely on board with our diet or we’ve blown the whole thing. This is where most of us get stuck in the tunnel. We look at our Diet as difficult, restrictive, bland and miserable. We see it as something temporary and our goal is to get done with it so we can go back to our Normal Life aka Eating Like Before.  Welcome to the Diet Tunnel!

The most successful weight loss plans aren’t diets: they’re lifestyle changes— as in permanent. But permanent doesn’t mean we’re locked into that Diet Tunnel. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever eat bread or pizza or cinnamon rolls again. It means we are selective about when we eat them. It means we think about what we eat before we eat it! Not thinking before eating is how many of us gained as much weight as we did.  We see it; we want it; we eat it! At the end of the day, most of us never thought about how much we ate during the day, unless we were super stuffed. If we did happen to think about it, we either moaned about how “out of control” we are or we gloss over it and leave out some of the foods that we tell ourselves ‘don’t count.’  These would be things like the odd bites of pastry or the handful of chips at lunch or the energy bar we picked up at the gas station to ‘tide us over’ until dinner.

Five tortilla chips really don’t amount to much but five chips + one Quest bar + half a danish begin to add up over the day and the week and finally take up residence on your muffin-top belly.  They count, but how much they count depends on you and whether you thought about them before you ate them! This is where most of us are in that Diet Tunnel: we see the chip basket on the table and our first thought is “NO CHIPS!” Having a few chips is okay as long as you think about them and then before you grab that Quest bar on the way home, you pause: “I already had a handful of chips and half a danish.  Maybe I should skip the bar.”  If you really want that bar, maybe you skip the butter on the Brussels sprouts at dinner or cut the sweet potato in half.  You are in charge of your eating and you don’t get points for making yourself miserable, starving yourself or eating only lettuce.  This is why the permanent lifestyle changes win out over the Diet Mentality: once we learn to eat healthy things we enjoy in a way that keeps us healthy and losing weight, we don’t have to moan and groan about the chips or the ice cream or the bagels.  The key is balance, not deprivation!

The other place where most people get tripped up is when it comes to eating at home.  In an effort to promote healthy eating, a lot of magazines, books and websites publish recipes: healthy food, usually low calorie or low carb, and full of flavor!  It’s a great idea…IF you enjoy cooking!! Some of us aren’t fond of long ingredient lists or complicated steps or hours of prep time. That doesn’t mean I’m stuck with boring bland food unless I get take out or go out to eat.  It means I have to look outside that Tunnel and see what options are available to me that I feel comfortable making at home.  This can mean putting something in the slow cooker when I leave for work; it can mean preparing a lot of food on the weekend and putting it in the fridge or freezer.  Usually for me it means I make three or four burgers, steaks or ribs on one night and heat up the rest during the week. (I usually undercook the ones I’m saving for later so when I heat them up again, they aren’t overcooked.)  This works for me because I don’t need to eat something complicated: I like simple food.  For me, ‘make it yourself coleslaw’ and a pan-fried pork steak are just fine for me! That doesn’t mean they’re bland either: I usually dress them up with some of my favorite spice blends.

If you really don’t feel like cooking, there are healthy options at most grocery stores.  My old standby is still bagged salad/ veggies and rotisserie chicken! They also have frozen burgers ready to reheat, frozen quiche and many other healthy options you just need to reheat.

Getting out of the Tunnel doesn’t just mean food or cooking: it also means activity.  When your main evening activities are sitting in front of the tv and eating;or getting online and eating; or reading and eating; or [insert sedentary activity here] and eating, you need to look for something else to fill your time.  Believe me, doing what you used to do and thinking about not-eating is just rubbing salt in the wound.  It’s a lot like an alcoholic hanging out with his drinking buddies and thinking about not-drinking. When my uncle stopped drinking, he started hanging out with my dad a lot.  There were phone calls every night except for his Meeting Night and lots of activities on the weekends and it was for the same reason: my dad has never been a drinker so when he’s with my dad, it’s never an issue or an option.  While we may not all be food addicts, we still have behavior that triggers us to eat out of habit.  How many of us automatically stand in the popcorn & soda line when we enter a theater?

When we’re used to getting a bag of chips and sitting down to watch our usual show or we hit the Starbucks to grab a Frappucino and scroll through our Instagram, those are triggers.  We can still watch our show and scroll but we are usually conscious that ‘something is missing.’  Triggering the craving is making it harder than it needs to be! It’s keeping us locked in the Tunnel as well as pushing us over the edge when it comes to ‘sticking to our Diet.’  That doesn’t mean you can’t ever watch tv or hit up a Starbucks, but it does mean that you have to think outside the Tunnel.  That can be something as simple as watching tv and keeping your hands occupied with something else, such as folding laundry, writing in your journal, playing tug of war with your dog, or (in my case) doing my nails. There was a transition period, since I obviously can’t do my nails every night, but once I got in the habit of doing something other than eating while in front of the tv, the trigger went away.  The same is true for just about any behavior or activity: if it triggers the impulse to eat, either replace the eating with something else or re-evaluate that activity’s importance in your life. If sitting at Starbucks is too much temptation, find someplace else with WiFi to scroll through your phone. (My gym has free WiFi!) Or maybe you make a new ‘phone’ habit, like doing it at home or you check your social media at home on the laptop?

It takes some practice to find out what’s outside the Tunnel and what options will work for you and what won’t. I hear a lot about “batch cooking” on healthy lifestyle podcasts but while making that much food doesn’t work for me, I do a version of it that does: instead of cooking one burger or serving of veggies every night, I do enough for two or three and just warm up the rest. When I hit Starbucks, instead of a macchiato or a latte, it’s brewed coffee or an americano with cream.  Sometimes I’m really out there and just get tea! The activities don’t have to be drastically different- they just have to be different enough to change your triggers and keep you on track with your weight loss goals.

Having a solid support system is critical when it comes to seeing outside the Tunnel.  As I mentioned before, if we’re not used to looking at things differently, we probably won’t see the options available. This is where having resources come in. I have a fitness community (My Fitness Pal) but you can still use any supportive community (Facebook, Instagram) or even website with ideas or recipes (Nom Nom Paleo; Primal Potential, etc).  The idea is to surround yourself with options and try them out! There is a way out of the Diet Tunnel but until you unlock that door yourself, you may never get out.

It Takes a Village to Lose Weight: Weight Loss & Community

We’ve all heard the expression “it takes a village to raise a child.” When it comes to weight loss, our idea of community is usually limited to a partner or an “accountabili-buddy.” What we don’t realize is that support is more than just a workout partner or a diet buddy: it really takes a village (or community).

That doesn’t mean we’re doomed to failure if we don’t have that community; it just means it’s going to be a lot harder than it has to be. A couple years before I quit The Job From Hell and really lost weight, the Associate I worked with told me about My Fitness Pal (MFP). He lost about 30-40 lbs using it and I didn’t. Even though I logged my meals, I didn’t have “friends” or even look at the Forums. Essentially, even though I was using an app with millions of users who could have been supportive, I was alone. After a few weeks, I gave up: I stopped logging, and I stopped trying.

When I went back to MFP, I browsed the Forums, I responded to others’ posts and I made friends. This community I’m now a part of isn’t just “you can do it!”: it’s a resource for new ideas, points of reference and explanations. This community is where I first learned about the ketogenic diet and ketosis, Intermittent Fasting, fat bombs, new recipes and- huge for me- the Primal Potential Podcast.

This is the place where I ask questions about how to try something new, if I’m not sure I’m doing it correctly, if I’m not sure about my results, or anything at all. If I need a recommendation about a product (like MCT oil), this is where I go. If I’m not getting the results I want with IF (Intermittent Fasting), they give their recommendations for what’s worked for them. Even if I’m not having an issue, they still provide new ideas or perspectives.

I also don’t want to minimize the importance of the “you can do it!” support. This is a safe place to vent frustrations, rants and feelings of all kinds. Naturally there’ve been times when I feel like I’m completely screwing up and losing control, so just posting on MFP for me is therapeutic. I don’t have to keep negative feelings inside where they can fester and I can share happy feelings as well. What I sometimes forget is that when we’re buried in the middle of a difficult situation, we lose perspective. There’ve been times when, after I’ve posted about it, I get a Reality Check from my friends letting me know that, yes, this is really a hard situation and I’m doing pretty good, all things considered! This was especially true the last four months of 2017. My sister was getting married out of state, I was originally just the wedding planner, ended up being the officiant, all of which meant getting everything arranged and myself certified- all in under ninety days! On top of that, my mom had major surgery which necessitated a three month stay in the hospital, which meant my dad (her ex-husband) and I had to take care of her two dogs (one a puppy) and her house. Then there was my own life: my pets, my house, working, commuting, weight loss, working out, friends and commitments. Yay, stress??

Posting my frustrations, stress freak- outs, rants and just “I feel incredibly overwhelmed!” helped me keep my focus where it needed to be and it also helped validate that: 1) I’m not crazy; 2) it’s okay to feel stressed; 3) I don’t have to be perfect; and 4) I’m going to get through this. The support I got from my friends on MFP was (and is) invaluable!

It also gives me the opportunity to support them. It may seem backwards, but being able to offer my support to them reinforces my focus on my own weight loss. There’s also something truly uplifting to be able to help someone else. These kinds of exchanges create an network that makes it harder for our goals to fall by the wayside. The community, diverse as it is, has a common focus on health and weight loss and it’s committed to reaching common goals.

I know it might seem touchy- feely but just knowing there’s a safe supportive place where you can vent about what the family did, how the job is screwing up our workouts, or how we’re having overwhelming chocolate cravings is an awesome stress reliever! It’s also the first place to go when we’ve got questions and the combination of support and information is unbeatable. The benefit of a ‘village’ is diverse generations of knowledge, experience and support to draw on. Why not use it?

Weight Loss & The Sympathy Junkie: Just Say NO!

I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about “sympathy junkies” in some of my posts. I have a lot of experience with people who have this disorder.  While I know one of the terms for it is Munchhausen Syndrome and others call it narcissism, I usually boil it down the “Look at Me!” mentality.  Whatever it is going on with them, these people want to be the center of attention.  They are firm believers in the motto “there’s no such thing as bad publicity!” Hah! I can think of a few celebrities and corporations that would disagree: it’s not always a good thing to have people focused on you.

There’s nothing wrong with positive attention.  If you’ve done something good, we all like the pat on the head and the “attaboy/ attagirl!”  But most of us are also familiar with the schoolyard bully who’d hit kids just to get the teacher’s attention because he wasn’t getting any at home. For this kid, any attention was positive attention because it was better than NO attention.

For some of us, this idea of attention has become connected to our weight loss and health improvement goals.  Most times, it’s a good thing: we lose weight, we become more fit, we eat healthier and we get a lot of positive attention from our family and friends.  They’re proud of our success and the positive attention encourages us to keep making positive changes and to continue to do well.  That’s how it’s supposed to work and most of the time, that’s what happens with us.

For some of us, mainly the sympathy junkies, they’re like the schoolyard bullies: they want any kind of attention, and if they can’t get it by doing something good, they’ll get it for being helpless or having some kind of problem.  We all know people who have problem after problem and their lives are one trainwreck after another. “Poor Mimi! Nothing good ever happens to her!”  The irony is that Mimi and others like her are only happy when they’re miserable, while the rest of us just silently groan and ask “what’s wrong with Mimi today?” There is no real sympathy left because she’s cried wolf every day since you met her.

I gave serious thought before writing about this topic and I had put it on the back burner for several weeks, because, really, does it relate to weight loss?  The very day I had reviewed it and decided I was going to table it indefinitely, something happened that reminded me that yes, this is a topic that can affect our weight loss.

For starters, we definitely do not want to be Mimi the Munchhausen Moaner whom no one wants to be around! There’s a reason no one likes her: she’s always complaining, always helpless and always wants all of your time and attention.  (For the record: it can be Mike the Munchhausen Moaner, too!)

For most of us, when we hit a snag with our workouts or a plateau in our weight loss, we bring up our problem because we are looking for a solution. We’re obviously not doing something right or we’ve injured ourselves or we need to make a change, so we’re asking for help.  Sympathy is nice, but it’s not going to help me recover from my injury or make progress with my weight loss. Solutions only, please!

The sympathy junkies don’t want solutions- they just want your sympathy and attention! When you start coming up with alternate workouts or changes to their eating plans, they usually start coming up with reasons why that doesn’t work for them. They can’t change their workout because of this ailment or other injury; they can’t change how their eating habits because of blah blah blah.  That’s a huge clue you are dealing with a sympathy junkie: they’ve got an infinite number of excuses or failing that, they’re great at failing! They tried and failed and now they’re just doomed. (Cue the melodramatic music!) It’s also a huge clue if you find excuses tripping glibly off your tongue: you are not looking for an actual solution to your problem!

Most of us don’t have this problem: we want a solution so we can move forward.  Mimi (or Mike) is our real problem: we have one or more of them in our lives! To be blunt, they are giant sinkholes. They waste our time and our energy and frankly, they wear on our nerves.  It would be different if they wanted to improve or a solution to their problem but they don’t.  They just want you either to do something for them or pay attention to them.

Believe it or not, they do affect our weight loss because they are sapping time that could be put to working out or meal planning or another activity.  They sap our energy so that by the time we are done dealing with their “Drama du jour,” we’re too mentally or physically exhausted to take care of ourselves, and they add to our stress since we are usually expected to drop everything to deal with that Drama du jour again in the middle of our day or week. So much for our workout/ walk/ grocery trip! Goodbye healthy lunch since now we’ve got to scarf it (or something else) on the way to deal with Mimi or Mike! Not to mention keeping us up nights either with resentment or just fretting over what they’re going to drop on us next!

Lack of sleep and chronic stress trigger our bodies to hang on to our energy stores, aka body fat.  We’re fighting the tide when we don’t get enough rest or are always stressed out. (Haven’t we all got enough of our own problems?) Not to mention the sabotage to our healthy meal planning, eating habits and workouts.  We might have something healthy at home ready to prepare but then we get stuck at Mike’s house because of another disaster he needs our help with so by the time we get home, it’s either eat nothing at all or what’s quick? (Too often, ‘quick’ ends up being the healthiest option at the drive-thru.) It interferes with meal planning or meal prep for the same reasons: we set aside time to do it and then Hurricane Mimi hits and all that goes out the window! So when we go to bed that night, we may not have accomplished all we needed to, so now we’re fretting about “what do I do for meals the rest of the week?” and “what’s next with Mimi?”

Obviously, if Mimi / Mike is not a relative, removing her/ him from your circle of friends is easier, but if they’re relatives, then it’s more problematic. Telling them you’re too busy may not be a viable option, but ultimately you need to understand that while he and she are not doing you any favors, you are not doing them any favors either by jumping every time they call.

One of the issues Dr. Nowzaradan (My 600 lb Life) has to deal with on a regular basis is his patients’ enablers.  These are the people who make it easy for his patients to eat 10,000+ calories daily because they either buy it for them, bring it to them or both! Obviously, if it’s hard for you to walk or drive, you’re not going to be wandering around the grocery store filling your cart with brownies, chips or candy and if it’s hard for you to fit behind a steering wheel, you’re not going to be hitting Dunkin Donuts, Sonic or KFC multiple times a day.  His patients get to 500 lbs or more because there are people who do this for them, and they are obviously not doing these super morbidly obese patients any favors.  This is what an enabler does: make it easy for the bad behavior to continue.

Every time you come when Mimi or Mike has their daily disaster, you make it easy for them to continue this attention-seeking behavior. When their toilet gets stopped up or their cell phone dies or they have a flat tire, they can do what everyone else does and call a plumber, the auto club or take the phone to the wireless store. When they have a problem and call you, give them a solution and go on with your day.  When they keep calling with excuses or why they need your help, you do not have to answer! They’ll either take your advice or eventually stop calling you. FYI: be prepared for a tantrum and a lot of passive-aggressive retaliation about how you’re too busy to help them out.  The answer is “Yes, I am too busy! Sorry about that!” I know this sounds harsh, especially if Mike/ Mimi is a relative, but the more they lean on you, the more dependent they become.  Unless they are an actual invalid, this is not good for them because when the time comes for them to act on their own (and it always does), they won’t know what to do because you (or someone else) has always taken care of them!

The Mimi in my life sparks a lot of anger and resentment which not only keeps me up nights, but I’ve recently learned that I do not make the healthiest meal choices when I am angry at her. When dealing with her daily disaster, I am more prone to grab something that I know is not good for me because I am not paying attention to what I am doing: my focus is what she just dumped on me and how angry I am. While blaming Mimi for my bad choice is one excuse I can make, the truth is that it’s my fault for not dealing with Mimi. Allowing the Mimis and Mikes in our lives to run roughshod over our plans and goals is simply an excuse we make for our own failures and in the end we become mini versions of them by blaming them for our behavior: “I’d have reached by goal by now but Mike/ Mimi kept getting in my way.” Sound familiar? Sounds a bit scary to me!

 

 

The Most Important Rule: Rule 28 & Weight Loss

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post incorporating “rules” from NCIS, one of my favorite shows.  After posting “Sometimes You’re Wrong”: Rule 51 & Weight Loss, I realized I’d not mentioned probably THE most important rule: Rule #28 “If you need help, ask!”

While we really don’t need to think of this as a “rule,” the concept alone is incredibly important in our lives, whether it’s weight loss or not.  Not asking for help is what gets so many of us in trouble and usually it’s our own fault.  I don’t want to assign blame (as attorneys say) mainly because we don’t ask for help because we don’t realize it’s an option.  Obviously, if you’re moving a sofa, you ask for help because there is no way one person is going to be able to carry a sofa and unless you’re pushing it to another spot in the same room, you’re going to need help. But when it comes to things like weight loss, it’s not like your friends and family can do it for you! “I’m totally on my own here! Right?”

Not necessarily! While you can’t ask your family to not-eat those marshmallow peeps for you, you can ask them not to eat them around you.  I know my Rule #52 post was about not expecting your family to eat the same things you eat and not making “rules” about what they can bring home, so it might sound like I’m back-tracking a bit here, but it’s okay to ask for help even if that help is “please don’t eat the Oreos I love in front of me.”  It’s one thing to make rules but it’s another to ask for someone to be considerate, which means you have to be considerate too! If your family is having movie night and everyone’s eating popcorn, you may have to sit on your hands to keep from eating it yourself because making a rule that “no one eats popcorn in front of dad!” is unfair to the rest of the family.  Ordering everyone not to eat snacks after dinner is inconsiderate to everyone in your home; asking them not to do it in front of you is a little different, and sometimes it means that you have to bite the bullet and resist your cravings, as in movie night.

Of course, asking for help means you need to admit that you need help controlling your impulses with foods like those. For some people, that’s a hard thing to do.  Just asking for help for anything is hard for some people including me! It means admitting that you can’t do everything on your own.  Really, I don’t know why that should seem so hard, but as I just admitted, I have a problem doing it! “No I don’t need any help washing my pickup!” “No I can wrangle both these crazy dogs on my own!” “No I don’t mind going out to Chinese- I’ll be okay!” And I am okay with the Chinese, until I start munching on the fried won tons! So maybe asking them not to order those would have been a good idea…

For some of us (like me), being independent is pretty important.  I remember I severely sprained my back one summer moving a bookcase.  It never occurred to me to ask for help- I was just sliding it three feet down the wall! Over the years, I’ve come to realize that not asking for help is literally asking to do things the hard way. No one can be expected to know everything or do everything on their own and to expect someone to do it all on their own is frankly unreasonable. I know that and I really like helping others, but when it comes to asking for help myself, welllll I’m not so good at it. I have to remind myself that asking for help is not the same as saying “I’m incapable!”

For a lot of people, asking for help where information is involved is equal to saying “I’m not smart enough to find out on my own!” We’ve all met people like this: they’re the ones who ‘know everything’ about a topic even though it’s fairly obvious that they didn’t until you brought it up. Admitting ignorance is not the same as admitting stupidity! When I was a teacher, I’d regularly meet students who were afraid of asking a ‘stupid question.’ I would always tell them the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask, because if you thought of it, so did someone else!

When I went to work for a probate attorney, one of programs I needed to use was Excel, of which I knew nothing other than it’s the green icon on my computer screen.  I went out and bought Excel for Dummies. (I usually recommend Nutrition for Dummies when people want to eat healthier.) I’d had some experience with those books and a hallmark of their set up is that they assume you know nothing about the subject of the book.  That was pretty much my starting point!  What surprises me the most when I recommend them is how often people are offended by the title or embarrassed on my behalf when I tell them I read it. There is no shame in admitting you don’t know everything about a topic! Don’t forget that wisdom begins with a question!  Years later I am now fairly competent in Excel, though by no means an expert, but I’ve made worksheet that we use for calculating our settlement costs. It adds up our fees and costs, subtracts them from the settlement, shows the net settlement and reconciles the amounts. It does what I need it to do and it’s something I put together myself in about half an hour. When people ask me ‘what class did you take?’ I tell them it was a Dummies book and they look shocked or offended.  I’m not: I didn’t know how to do it and now I do! Why should I be embarrassed?

Asking for help is hard. I still remind myself.  That’s how I came to be writing this blog and this post in particular. I started this blog was to pass on information I’ve learned over the last couple of years because if I had known most of this stuff when I was in my 20’s or 30’s, I would not have gained nearly 440 lbs! There was no almost no information available beyond naysayers who were too busy promoting the low-fat, high-carb diet aka the Diet That Nearly Killed Me! As for this post in particular, I have a lot of boxes and furniture in my house that need to be moved around and I finally that if I’m going to get it done without hurting myself and in a reasonable time frame, I’m going to need some help doing that.  I bit the bullet and asked my dad if he could bring his dolly and truck to help me out.  While I was ‘rationalizing’ why it was okay to ask for help, I came across Gibbs’ rules and while reading through them again, I saw #28 “If you need help, ask!” Duhhhh.   Asking for help or information is not admitting weakness or stupidity: it’s common sense! It’s how we learn to do anything and it’s how we get things done. It’s true when it comes to moving furniture, learning a program, losing weight and even building stronger bonds with your family.  Even if your family never decides to ‘eat healthy’ as a group, asking them to help you lose weight can strengthen bonds and create a sense of unity.  Many times people are surprised to learn that family members are often eager to help. Losing weight is hard enough without having to go through it alone. Why do it the hard way?

 

Weighty Issues: Judgment, Obesity and Life & Death

One of the constant refrains on My 600 lb Life is Dr. Nowzaradan’s warning to patients that they don’t realize how close to death they truly are.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few other programs dealing with super morbidly obese patients who didn’t have the chance to make it to surgery or the surgery came too late. I know probably better than most how difficult it is to struggle with obesity all your life and the dangers that come with it.  For those who’ve never had weight problems, it probably seems like the obese are just lazy or gluttonous and while they don’t believe we are deserving of sympathy or help, they do believe we are deserving of their disgust and derision.

I can understand how some people never think of a box of donuts or a bag of chips as dangerous. Personally, I’ve never thought of a case of beer as being something dangerous to me, but to other people in my family, it might as well be a rattlesnake: if you don’t watch out, it can bite you! For those who’ve never struggled with their weight, they don’t understand how someone can eat a whole loaf of garlic bread at one meal any more than I can understand how someone can drink a whole case of beer in a couple of hours (or less). But just like people can drink themselves to death, people can eat themselves to death.  Obesity, like alcoholism, can kill you in more than a few ways.

The most obvious way obesity kills you is that your weight is just too much stress on your body.  Your heart and lungs are simply crushed by your weight: your body is too big for your heart to keep the blood flowing to all your organs and extremities, and as for your lungs, not only are they struggling to keep up with the oxygen demands for your body, but they are having to fight the weight of your chest each time you take a breath.  And that’s the situation if you have no other health problems related to your weight! There’s a host of health problems that come with obesity, including type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, kidney (renal) failure, sleep apnea, high blood pressure (hypertension) and fatty liver disease just to name a few.  Those are the ones that can kill you, but there are a lot more than just make your life utterly miserable, such as lymphedema, skin ulcerations, cellulitis, asthma and gout. FYI: some of these can kill you too if you don’t keep them under control.

Obviously not-being-obese is a big step towards staying healthy. Of course there are plenty of skinny people who have serious health problems but when you weigh double (or triple) what you are supposed to weigh, you have a lot less wiggle room when it comes to your health.  Getting an infection that might be mild to someone with normal weight can be fatal when you weigh 500 lbs.

For most of us, we scoff at the idea that we will ever be anywhere close to 500 lbs.  Even while we may admit that we ‘might be overweight,’ we never think that we’ll be as big as ‘those people.’  I was reminded today of the frog analogy.  Most of us are familiar with it: you drop a frog in boiling water and it jumps right out, but if you put the frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will get cooked alive. (As a frog lover, I totally hate that analogy!) Whether it’s true or not, this is what happens to most of us when it comes to our weight. We start out a few pounds overweight and don’t think much of it; then we end up getting kind of plump and start thinking we should fix this; and then we’re suddenly shopping in the plus size department and start to get really concerned (maybe we even start dieting), and before we know it we are really-without-a-doubt FAT and now we start freaking out.  We don’t give much thought to the fact that food is everywhere. It’s cheap and easy to get and we often eat without even thinking about it.  How many of us have finished off a bag of chips or most if not all of a box of cookies without realizing it? It’s not that we’re gluttons– the cookies were just there and available and we weren’t paying attention!

This is what overeating is like for most people: too much pizza out with friends; scarfing a whole bag/ box of something while binge-watching a favorite show; or too many holiday treats.  But for some of us, overeating has way more in common with alcoholism: it’s become an addiction.  There are more than a few ‘experts’ that protest the idea of a ‘food addiction,’ but for the patient, it’s irrelevant.  They need to find a way to control their eating so they can lose the weight before it kills them! Does this sound over-dramatic? Believe me, it’s not.

People overeat for a variety of reasons.  For some of them, it’s a comfort mechanism: eating something they enjoy makes them feel safe and happy for a little while.  For others, it’s a way of controlling their body or their situation: it takes away feelings of helplessness. I am sure there are other reasons and for many super morbidly obese people, they may not know why they overeat.  The point is that when your weight is approaching a quarter ton, your first goal is to get control of the weight and worry about the whys and wherefores later. It’s basic damage control. Why you are overeating isn’t going to matter much if you’re dead.  Unfortunately, this is where most of us hit the brick wall: we know we need help but we don’t know how to get it.

I had a cousin who died from obesity.  He was in his early forties and weighed over 600 lbs.  Like all those patients on My 600 lb Life, he fought obesity all his life.  I remember him being about 18 years old and having high blood pressure. He was probably about 200 lbs then and his mom was screaming at him for eating potato chips and yelling at her husband for not hiding them from their son. He tried everything to lose weight, including joining the Army.  He was probably his thinnest ever once he got out of boot camp, but the weight came back and his health problems worsened: kidneys, diabetes, heart and liver issues. Although bariatric surgery at his weight was still highly risky, his doctor laid it out for him: either he takes the risks with surgery or he gives up and dies from his weight.  He risked the surgery and died on the table, leaving behind a wife and a son.

In my small high school, I was the second heaviest person in the school (that’s including the football players).  The heaviest person in high school was my friend Jennifer.  We were in the same grade and we took a lot of the same classes. She made a lot of her own clothes because it was hard finding anything that fit (this was the early 80’s). After graduating, Jennifer lost a lot of weight. In fact, I didn’t recognize her when I first saw her because she was ‘normal weight’ and looked so different. I confess I was completely jealous because I still weighed the same, around 200-250.  After college, she gained the weight back like so many of us do and this time she decided to try bariatric surgery.  She didn’t die in surgery like my cousin, but there was a complication with the anesthesia and she spent the last year of her life in a persistent vegetative state before dying of pneumonia.  She would have been 37.

My aunt was someone else who was always unhappy with her weight.  Unlike my cousin or my friend, my aunt (my dad’s sister in law) never approached 500 lbs or even 250.  My aunt’s weight hovered around the 200 lb mark but for her, it might as well have been 500 lbs. She hated being overweight and tried diet after diet. I tried a lot of them with her, mainly because I outweighed her by about 100 lbs.  She wanted to lose weight and lose it fast so she also opted for the gastric bypass. She was in and out of the hospital in no time at all and the weight seemed to melt off her.  She was over the moon! Until she started having issues with keeping food down.  Her weight went from slender to emaciated and she didn’t have the strength to walk or even stand up.  One of the complications with bariatric surgery that gets swept under the rug is anorexia. If eating a little bit of food leads to quick weight loss, eating even less food or no food leads to faster weight loss! For those patients who use food and their weight to control others or their surroundings, this is especially dangerous. For my aunt, I think it was just that she had always wanted to be thin so badly all her life and by the time her weight loss became a problem, the physical problems involved with anorexia had taken over. They were simply too much for her to overcome and sadly a few weeks after attending Jennifer’s funeral, I went to my aunt’s.  She was fifty-one.

The point of this post isn’t “bariatric surgery will kill you.” For a most bariatric patients, the surgery is literally life-saving. The point is I remember my cousin as being compassionate and funny and a warm-hearted young man.  I remember Jennifer as being a gifted artist, great with children and so giving of herself.  My aunt was also artistic, quick-witted, with a wicked sense of humor and a wonderful grandmother.  These are the people I knew and they are missed, but for the stranger on the street they were just fat.  They were neither gluttonous or lazy.  They were in fact some of the most industrious people I knew. Obesity is a serious medical problem but it gets overlooked because of snap judgments: “She wouldn’t weigh so much if she kept her hand out of the cookies!”; “He’d be thinner if he got off his butt and worked more!”

What is tragically ironic to me is that Jennifer, my aunt and my cousin all died while trying to help themselves while so many of the obese are stymied by their situation.  They know they need help, but other than ‘a diet’ they don’t know what to do or how to help themselves.  Unfortunately, many of their family members don’t know how to help them or believe their weight is the result of their own gluttony, laziness or greed (I remember my mom’s sister screaming at her son). Because it’s seen as “something they did to themselves,” it’s not seen for the real danger that it is. The obese are lumped in with drug addicts and alcoholics: “it’s their own fault!”  These are diseases of lifestyle, which nowadays include conditions like diabetes, but no one gets judged for having type 2 diabetes. Blame is a sad excuse for lack of compassion and a sadder excuse for letting someone die.

 

 

 

 

Put Down the Phone: Weight Loss & Our Devices

Some of you know I commute five days a week for my job. It’s about four hours round trip and while most people get really frustrated in traffic, I’ve mostly come to enjoy the time to myself. Of course there are some things that still really really irritate me and nothing irritates me more than seeing a driver with a cellphone in their hand.

I live in California and driving or texting while holding your phone is against the law. Using a Bluetooth device is allowed but if you’re caught holding your phone, it’s going to cost you. If you’re lucky, it’s just going to be a few hundred dollars, and if you’re not lucky, you or someone else could be hurt or die.

Unfortunately it’s still one of those laws that most people ignore. I’ve seen cops and CHP (California Highway Patrol) driving with phones in their hands. I was waiting at a traffic light one day watching the woman in the car next to me chatting away on her phone. Then she hung up, put it down, then picked up another one to make another call! I really wanted to roll down my window and holler at her to hang it up.

A few months ago I got a magnet for the back of my truck that says “Put Down The Phone.” I believe it really should say “damn phone!” Recently I’ve been seeing commercials for car insurance with the character Mayhem (actor Dean Winters) pretending to be a cellphone stuck under the console buzzing away.  Obviously the driver of the car smashes into the rear of a stopped vehicle and frankly, the commercials make me laugh. I know car accidents aren’t funny.  For the record, I work as a paralegal at a personal injury law firm and 98% of our clients are car accident victims and some of their accidents are the result of some fool on a cellphone. When I use my phone while I’m driving, I use my Bluetooth and when it’s not working (which is often), then my options are not making the call or pulling into a parking lot. Usually, it’s not a difficult decision: the call can wait.

I realize that this is not what most people would do. Since cellphones and other devices have become pervasive in our world, we are trained to reach for the cell when it goes off. Being out of cell range or – gasp!- turning your phone off is practically unheard of.  We are so connected to our devices and phones in particular that they are taking their toll on us in ways we are just beginning to discover.

I saw a health advisory discussing more and more patients coming to their doctors with “text neck” from holding their head at an uncomfortable angle because of texting. The solution? I completely expected the host to say: “put down the phone!” My jaw dropped when she said the solution is to hold your phone higher so it’s on a closer level with your eyes so you don’t have to bend your head. OMG! How about not texting/ scrolling/ emailing six hours a day?

I’m not going to lie: I love my phone, my iPod and my tablet, not to mention my desktop. I spend several hours a week on this blog and my pet blog (myfourleggedfamilyandme.wordpress.com) which means I’m obviously attached to my device or computer. Even though I wouldn’t dream of leaving home without my devices and the chargers for them, I also know that I don’t use my devices as much as other people do. There are a lot of people who are on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and other sites for several hours a day. I also don’t check my email every day- gasp! Also unheard of in today’s technocentric world! There’s a time and a place to use these things and sometimes that time is “not right now.”

As I said, I am not anti-device: I just think we need to have a little more discretion about when and where we use them, and I don’t just mean “while you are driving a car.” There are the obvious health risks that come with chronic device usage, like overexposure to blue light (impairs sleep), eye strain, headaches, the text neck mentioned above, carpal tunnel and tendonitis in the hands, fingers and wrists from chronic typing, texting and scrolling, but there’s the other less obvious health associated problems that come from being overly attached to our devices.  These are things like chronic sitting.  This is one that usually smacks me literally in the butt: I usually type my blog posts at my desktop which means if I’m not interrupted, I could end up sitting there at my desk for an hour or more, and this is just for one blog post! This means when I do get up, I’m usually a little stiffer than usual. Chronic sitting at a desk isn’t good for your legs, hips, back, shoulders, neck or eyes.  (For more on the dangers of chronic sitting, check out Deskbound by Kelly Starrett.) There is also how we are becoming more and more disconnected from the people we care about. Remember, humans are social creatures and we need a certain amount of contact with others to stay emotionally healthy! We’re familiar with the now cliche family sitting around the living room or kitchen table all glued to their devices, communicating through texts even though they are in the same room. This is cliche because it happens in real life now, and now that everyone is getting an Echo, Dot or other Alexa-enabled device, it’s become easier: “Alexa, call the garage”; “Alexa, call the kitchen.”

The chronic sitting and the disconnectedness are bad enough but chronic device usage is more insidious because it directly interferes with our daily activity. When I am glued to my desk top typing away, I am not getting up and moving around, which is why I am stiff.  When mom or dad needs to call little Janie or Mikey to the dinner table, they just send a text or have Alexa call the living room or bedroom rather than walk down the hall or up the stairs.  That lack-of-activity adds up!  We have the same effect when we order paper towels or other household necessities online and have them delivered to our house rather than going to the store and walking around to get them ourselves.  All of these daily little activities have gone away in favor of doing it on a device. Are you out of cat food? Get it delivered! Out of detergent? Get it delivered! And while you’re at it, order dinner to be delivered too!

I’m a huge fan of Amazon’s Subscribe & Save where I get some supplies delivered monthly and I also get an Autoship from Thrive Market each month as well.  I’m not going to lie about how convenient it is, especially since most of what I order is a hassle for me to buy locally (or plain unavailable). I will point out that I make at least one or two trips to local stores each week, and when I do buy online, I pick it up in the store if I can, partly because I’m impatient and I want what I ordered today dammit! and partly because if I’m going to order it online, I might as well get what exercise I can picking it up! Remember, activity is necessary for our health, let alone weight loss! Sitting on the sofa, the recliner, or even at the desk not only isn’t burning calories or building muscle, it’s an invitation to eat while you’re there! How many of us have devoured a bag or box of junk food just because it was there in front of you? And I’ll bet you don’t remember eating it all and definitely didn’t enjoy most of it!

This is the most insidious way that our devices inhibit our weight loss and contribute to our weight gain. Not only are we stuck on the sofa mindlessly munching popcorn while we watch YouTube on our phones, we ‘don’t have time’ to work out anymore. We’re too busy on Instagram or Facebook to go for a walk, a run or go to the gym.  Why would we take a walk and spend some time face to face with our friends when we can stay at home, eat brownies and do Facetime? Why would we even go outside to get some healthy sunlight when we can be shopping online for a Joovv light?  Then we could get healthy sunlight in the middle of the night when we’re liking things on Facebook! Let’s not even talk about staying up late into the night instead of sleeping because we’re on our devices! (Formerly guilty of this one also! I stopped when my forearms began to hurt from holding my tablet! Bad, bad, bad!) Your body interprets lack of sleep as stress and as Megan Ramos (The Obesity Code Podcast) stated recently, even if you’re eating right and working out, you won’t be losing weight if your body is under stress!

I love my devices and technology but I am also aware that all technology isn’t good for me or everyone else for that matter.  As I said above, I’m a paralegal at a law firm, and I am also the receptionist which means all the phone calls come through me.  When I came to work here, all of our attorneys had phones with intercoms, so when someone called for them, I could put the caller on hold and buzz the attorney to announce the caller. At my old job, we didn’t have intercoms, but our office was one large room with offices attached, so our intercom was “DAVID! THE COURT’S ON LINE TWO!” unless we happened to have clients in the office, in which case I got up. When I came to work here, hollering wasn’t an option, so I did what came naturally: I got up, walked down the hall and told the attorney face to face who was on the line for them rather than buzzing them (that seems rude to me).  When one of our attorneys semi-retired, he moved out of his office to a cubicle and he elected not to have his “intercom” moved to his new phone.  Now when someone calls for him, buzzing his line isn’t an option: I have to get up to announce his call.  It’s a little amusing for me because both he and his wife (a frequent caller) apologize when I get up to tell him he’s got a call.  Even though I tell them both it’s not a problem, I know they are used to the old receptionist who just buzzed everyone.  Incidentally, the receptionist I replaced at this job was not only overweight with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, she eventually had a stroke and had to retire on disability.  Believe me, getting up and walking down the hall to tell Rick he’s got a call is not a problem for me!

 

 

 

The Weight of Self-Worth

A friend of mine on MFP (My Fitness Pal) recently posted about “Plus Size Day.” Apparently it’s a day to celebrate being “plus-sized.”  In his post, he mentioned a parade full of larger people and how the news snippets were full of larger women making nasty comments about skinny people.  He concluded his post about how this day is to promote being the best You you can be, whatever your size, and he voiced his own concerns that maybe the best You doesn’t carry an extra 100 lbs.

While I realize he was just putting his opinion out there, this is the attitude I have lived with all my life. I’ve been overweight all my life and I’ve heard all the comments, from sad & pitying, to nasty & snide, to the passive aggressive- all of them.  Most of them now I just ignore: ignorant people will continue to be ignorant no matter what I tell them, but occasionally, they still make me mad. I understand why some of those larger women are angry: like me, they’ve spent their entire lives being told there is something wrong with them; they are somehow broken/ substandard/ a failure; or they are just flat out ugly. They don’t meet some arbitrary social standard of what is ‘pretty’ or ‘acceptable.’

People might think that thin has always been pretty but there was a time when plump and curvy was the standard for pretty.  Having curves, wide hips and an ample bosom meant you were prime for bearing children and survival.  Thin meant poverty, possible miscarriage and malnutrition.  When the most important thing a woman could bring to a marriage was her ability to produce offspring, choosing thin meant betting long odds, whereas plump was almost a sure thing. (For men, plump meant being a successful  provider.)

Obviously those days are long past, but the idea of beauty being relative hasn’t changed.  Every February, the media is full of biologists’ reports about the ‘biological recipe for attraction,’ and how some physical attributes or gestures cue us on a biological or subconscious level that someone is a potential mate or is attracted to us.  Whatever science and biology may dictate, attractiveness is still defined by the individual.  We still bring our own personal values to the table, and these include our values about ourselves.

In one respect those old platitudes are correct: if we don’t value and respect ourselves, no one else will either.  When we look at ourselves and see someone who is disgusting, unworthy, ugly, stupid or hopeless, it shows.  We communicate those ideas and attitudes to others, and worse yet, they are reflected back to us by them and over time, those beliefs become firmly entrenched in our psyche.  We are unworthy and unlovable and we have nothing of value to offer anyone else.  Whether those ideas start in ourselves and come back to us or come from outside and become part of us is irrelevant.  If we believe it, it becomes our truth. 

This is what I and almost every overweight person has been told for as long as they have been overweight.  Most of you reading this have been on the receiving end of a lot of free advice about how to lose weight; unsolicited attempts at ‘motivating’ you to lose weight; plenty of incentives to be thinner; and more than a few nasty comments about being a glutton, including the not-so-subtle implications that gluttony is a mortal sin and my being fat is sending me to Hell (thank you, Catholic school!) As a kid, I got them all the free and supposedly helpful advice about how to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with me; what I didn’t get was the idea that I’m fine just the way I am. When I was a kid, I probably carried an extra 20 lbs through middle school but the more people tried to ‘fix’ me, the more weight I gained, so by the time I hit high school, I was probably close to 200 lbs if not there already, and I kept slowly gaining weight. By the time I hit college, I was definitely over 250 and heading towards 300.

And the bigger I got, the more I heard about how flawed and unacceptable I was. My mom (the chief proponent of this attitude) pretty much gave up on me at that point.  Whatever was wrong with me, she wasn’t going to waste her time trying to fix me.  But I still got lots of criticism from the rest of society, because by then, I wasn’t just ‘plump and curvy’; I was certifiably FAT! I was the definition of ugly; of lazy; of gluttony. I had no redeeming values at all, because I was defined by my weight.  Whatever my mind or spirit might have to offer is completely negated by my fat body.

This idea that who I am is defined by how much weight I carry and what I look like eventually completely p*ssed me off.  Someone else was determining my value based entirely on what he or she saw, rather than who I actually was.  I was repeatedly being told by my professors and administrators and -yes, the same society that was condemning me- that it is flat out wrong to judge someone by their ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or physical capabilities, but it’s totally okay to call me a loser because of my weight! How stupid is that? Everyone is to be judged on the content of their character, except for that fat chick over there- she’s worthless because she weighs 300 lbs.

This is why I stopped listening to other people’s opinions of me and my weight.  It’s why when my mom decided to try and ‘fix’ me again (after my sister stopped talking to her), I pretty much ignored her attempts.  I would come home and find diet books left on my doorstep followed by a voicemail asking if I got the book she left: I just stacked them in a corner, and over the years, the stack got taller and taller, and dustier and dustier.  While I realize that part of her motivation was my slowly declining health, her attempts at ‘fixing’ me were accompanied by more of the same dangling incentives: I’d have all the guys I wanted; she’d buy me a brand new wardrobe; I’d be ‘gorgeous.’  Because obviously, I wasn’t attractive to anyone at my weight! (FYI: I didn’t tell her about my boyfriends because they sure didn’t share her attitude!)

I can’t lie and say I didn’t want to lose weight despite ignoring my mom’s and everyone else’s criticisms.  My desire to lose weight came not from thinking of myself as worthless, but instead came from my growing inability to do the things I wanted to do.  It’s hard to walk around and be active when you’re carrying 400 lbs.  The pain in my knees had more to do with my desire to be thinner than anything my mom had to tell me. I didn’t want to walk with a cane or end up diabetic or have to sleep with an oxygen mask because my independence was far more important to me than the opinions of strangers. While I wasn’t happy being 400 lbs, I did my best not to allow it to dictate my life any more than I allowed other’s opinions of me to do so either.  I lived my life the way I wanted to live my life.  I became the best Me I could be, whatever my size.  For the most part, I am still that same person: I do what I want, say what I want and think what I want. The only difference is that now I weigh 185 lbs less. I am the best Me I can be, despite carrying that “extra 100 lbs” my friend mentioned in his post.  Although I am still losing weight, it’s not so that I can hit my “ideal weight” or some arbitrary “goal weight” set by some doctor or BMI chart; it’s because I value my independence.  I like being able to do all the things I want to do, and I like trying new things.  Being thinner and healthier has added more valuable activities and abilities to my life, but at the same time, I also know that I am still obese. That “extra 100 lbs” is still there and strangers still judge me by my weight.  And you know what? I still don’t care. Who I am is not what I weigh, nor am I defined by what other people think of me.

Fear of Missing Out, But What Should We Really Be Afraid Of?

I’ve never understood Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) when it comes to food. I think it’s because there are just some foods I really don’t like, so when they’re offered or available, I just automatically say No thanks.  Other than these particular foods, I’ve always been more than happy to sample, often and as much as possible!

Over the summer, I heard a lot about FOMO, maybe because it was wedding season or because of all the barbecues and parties.  I know at my sister’s wedding, I certainly sampled quite a few things that aren’t normally on my menu! (Some were pretty good, too!) But again, it wasn’t FOMO that put those items on my plate.  It would have been just as easy to leave them off, and there were quite a few items that didn’t make it on my plate too!

I’ve always been an adventurous eater.  It was one of the good things I learned from my mom: just because it looks weird or different doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it out!  It’s one of the things I share with my best friend.  We’ll go to a restaurant for the first time and we’ll pick something we’ve never had before because hey- that looks different! Of course, not all of these experiments are winners, but we remain undeterred!

From what I’ve heard and seen, when it comes to FOMO, people are afraid they are missing Something Amazing.  Usually, they go out to a special event or restaurant and there is a food or drink that looks like it’s amazing or others who’ve tasted it have already said “It’s AMAZING!” and they are dying to try it!  I can sympathize:  I am not normally a beer drinker (or alcohol of any kind).  This is partly because alcoholism runs in my family and it’s partly because alcohol usually doesn’t taste good to me.  I concluded that if I’m going to drink beer (or alcohol), then it really is going to be amazing because otherwise it’s not worth the awful taste. Recently, my friends and I went out to a local microbrewery that has a reputation for making some awesome beers, and one of the items on the menu is a “Beer Sampler” where you choose five brews and you get a five ounce glass of each.  Two of my friends usually get that when we go, but honestly, that’s a lot of beer that I probably won’t finish!  I opted to choose two glasses of two different beers that I wanted to try.  One really was amazing, and the other was good and different, but not something I would order again. I normally don’t finish it, but it actually tasted better the warmer it got. FYI: I am a total beer snob- American beer tastes really really awful to me!

It wasn’t that I was ‘afraid’ of missing out on some great beer.  I’d been to this microbrewery before and not touched a drop of beer or any alcohol and I didn’t think I’d missed anything special or amazing.  This time, however, I felt like trying something new and so I did.  I had a good time, had one great beer and one a little better than average, and I don’t regret my choices (at least with the beer!)

There are a lot of times at my friends’ places, they’ll mix some great drinks or have some really amazing food (my friend is an awesome chef!) but I don’t feel that saying no thanks means I’m going to miss out on Something Amazing.  My friend knows I eat differently than she does and sometimes I will have a small taste to be polite (or if she wants to know if it’s missing something), but really, if I say no and pass on Something Amazing, what have I really missed out on?

That’s what it comes down to for me.  Bottom line: it’s food.  Even if it’s a food I probably won’t have an opportunity to try again (i.e. something at a resort or vacation spot I might not get back to), what have I really lost out on?  Tasting an amazing cheesecake/ pastry/ alcohol/ etc?  It’s FOOD! Tasting it is not going to change my life and it probably won’t add anything to it either, just like not tasting it isn’t going to take anything away from my life. It might be enjoyable; it might not be enjoyable, but either way missing out or not isn’t something that I should be afraid of.

Maybe that’s a little extreme, but when some people mention FOMO, they really are nervous and afraid.  I can understand it if others are pressuring you to try something.  I’ve tasted a lot of stuff just to be polite but that was because of FOOO (Fear of Offending Others), definitely not FOMO. There are some things that I am afraid of missing out on, and none of those things are food.  I’m afraid of missing out on a trip with friend or family; I’m afraid of not being able to do activities I want to do, like working out, walking or playing with my pets; I’m afraid of being too big to buy the clothes that I like or to fit in my car or drive for a long period of time because my legs or back hurts.  I am afraid of missing out on experiences, activities and time with people I care about; for me, missing out on food doesn’t even rate!

In 2012, I went on a trip to Disneyland with my friends, and that experience really hit home for me, because that was something that really meant a lot to me and because of my weight, it was not a good experience.  I essentially ‘missed out’ on doing a lot of things I wanted to do with them because I was too big to fit on the ride, fit in the seats or walk as far as they could.  That is something I really regret missing out on, so compared to that, food just doesn’t rate! Compared to running around Anaheim with my friends having a once in a lifetime experience, eating even Something Amazing doesn’t even come close! Missing out on an Amazing Cookie or an Amazing Meatloaf Sandwich or an Amazing Wine isn’t something to be afraid of; missing out on spending quality time doing Something You Love with People You Love is what we really need to fear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connected: Being Part of a Pack- er- Tribe?

I recently heard a podcast about ‘Longevity village’ in China.  This is an isolated village (or at least it used to be!) where the residents routinely live 100 years or pretty close to it.  Once researchers found out about it, they naturally had to figure out why these people were living so long and were so healthy. From what I heard, most of it was the obvious: hard physical work that keeps them mobile most of the day; getting up and going to bed with the sun; clean fresh food and water; natural optimism when it comes to stress; and strong social connections.  The strong social connections is what catches a lot of people by surprise.  What does it matter if you have a positive social network?  Being a devoted pet parent, it’s easier for me to understand than for someone who doesn’t spend 90% of their time around four legged individuals.

Some of you know I am a hard core TLC addict, and I’ve been seeing ads for a new show called The Putmans, which has yet to premiere.  It’s about an extended family all living in one home, which is about 25 people.  I grew up in an atypical family and although we didn’t all live in the same household, we regularly interacted.  If any of you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, my family was really similar.  There’s the scene where Tula gets busted because her cousin sees her with her boyfriend who tells her aunt who gets in her face about him.  That was pretty much how I grew up: lots of relatives who all live in the same town so we run into each other all over.  We also had a tradition of getting together on Sunday afternoon/ evenings.  We would eat dinner and spend time talking, playing games or passing around parts of the newspaper.  Usually the television would be off and any devices would be put away.  This was time we spent being together and holidays were simply to ‘all day version’ of Sunday afternoons.  These weekly get-togethers ended when my grandparents passed away (we met at their house) and they are one of the things that I miss most.  Although I still connect with my family, it’s mainly over the phone or through social media.  While the host of the podcast feels this is still a viable connection, for me, it lacks the real connection of being in the same room with them.

SinceI grew up having my family around me, it was normal to stop at a bakery or business where a relative worked.  Seeing them in stores or around town was and still is normal.  Even as a child I was very aware that this was not how it was with most of my classmates and colleagues (my grandparents lived into their 90’s, so this tradition lasted well into my 40’s).  I also came to realize that for friends and colleagues who grew up in other countries that this was very normal for them.  For them, running into a relative while shopping or having coffee with friends was just part of every day life and most of my foreign-born friends soon came to realize that most American families have a different idea of ‘family.’

I’m not criticizing anyone’s idea of ‘family,’ but having grown up with one version and now living a more ‘standardized’ version, I know which version I prefer.  I miss the connections and interactions with family, and while many of them are happy connecting through social media, I’m pretty lame when it comes to apps like Facebook or Instagram. The important aspect is the Connection.  Humans are social creatures and we don’t do well in isolation. This is what makes positive social interaction important to our health.

There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment, not only in prisons but also as children.  Remember all those times we misbehaved and got sent to our room?  It’s solitary confinement: if you can’t work well or play well others, then you’re going to be alone.  Across the world, cultures have traditionally used a form of isolation or ostracism to punish those who disrupt the society at large, and it tends to be successful.  Loneliness is a huge problem, even in our cyber-connected society, and it leads to a host of health problems.  As the author of The Longevity Plan pointed out, people who have strong and positive social connections live about seven years longer than those without them.

Having grown up with pets all my life, I have seen the interaction among them.  Dogs are as social as humans are and while we travel in ‘tribes’ and dogs travel in ‘packs,’ it’s all the same thing: this is my social unit.  We eat together, we sleep together, we play together and we work together.  This is how we survive. (Cats are less social, but they also strengthen their societal bonds in the same ways.) If any of you are familiar with Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations of chimps, our closest primate cousins also travel in tribes and follow the same kinds of bonding behaviors: grooming; sleeping; eating; playing; working.  We are more successful, productive and safer in our groups. A chimp, dog, cat or human is far safer in their group than on their own.

I have a very clear memory of when I began living alone, or at least being the only human in my house. It was the day my sister moved away to college: I said good bye and watched her drive away and as I walked back into the house, I realized that I was alone.  More specifically, I realized that changing the lightbulb in the garage had new implications for me: if I fell off the ladder, it could be days before anyone realized something had happened to me. This is one of the reasons ’emergency pendants’ are such big business now: more of us live alone and face the same dangers.

Falling off the ladder aside, positive social connections promote a positive outlook.  When we’re happy, we have others to share our joy and when we’re upset or angry, we have others to commiserate and share our burden. We have others to help with a project, come up with plans or even help with the physical labor. Remember the expression ‘many hands make light work’? Being alone makes everything harder, even the every day tasks most of us don’t really think about.  Living alone, if I don’t do the dishes, they sit in the sink until I do them.  The same with throwing out the trash, making a meal, doing the laundry, and the shopping and the rest of the housework.  If I don’t do it, there is no one else in my house who will.  That means all of the work falls to me, which means I have less time to pursue things I enjoy or to socialize.

Even taking care of my pets falls to the sole human in the pack (2 cats, 1 dog, 1 human).  I notice a lot of the same bonding behavior among us even though we are different species: they will all groom each other, play with each other, sleep next to each other and eat together.  As the lone biped, I am not exempt: they include me as much as they can with playing, licking and sitting on me.  When we go to sleep at night, all four of us end up in the same room and usually on the same bed. I realize that most people think it’s pretty weird to consider animals as part of a family unit, but I really grew up treating them as people (they are a Who not an It.) I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter so much what we interact with so much as the fact that we do interact.  If we feel we are connected and feel the benefits of those connections, then it doesn’t matter if the connection is with a phone, a tablet or a dog or a cat.  We benefit from knowing that we are not alone.  Recently, in fact, I was at home without my dog since I had returned from a trip on a Sunday and could not pick him up until the following day.  When I went to bed that night, I was very aware that there was no dog in my house and I didn’t feel as safe as I do when he is there (he’s all of 12 lbs!) The cats were also aware that one of our pack was missing and were looking for him in the house, which felt oddly empty without his bouncing around. I know my furry little family unit looks a lot different than most and while they may not be human, they are most definitely my tribe.