Four years ago, newly vegan, I shed pounds and icky beliefs. A single mom who considered dinner to be my daughter's leftover chicken fingers, fries and Nutella, my dress size doubled as did my determination to re-ignite my writing career after eight years. Skin was aglow, heart afire. Still, I was deeply humbled by the following:
1. Nala, our Greyhound, has more muscles than I do.
2. My new juicer was worth more than my Subaru Outback.
3. Nala runs faster than my Outback.
4. When I climbed 12 stairs from the gym parking lot to the second floor:
Me: Audible heaving.
5. Raw, unsalted sunflower seeds piss me off.
6. So did that receptionist.
7. Daisy, my daughter/vegaphobe, adored roasted seaweed by the bagful.
8. Sadie, our Shepherd-Husky who once ate a club chair down to the wood, wouldn't touch the stuff.
9. Sipping green juice from a wine glass did not get me drunk.
My longtime love affair with inertia? Done.
Growing up, I survived on 1970s fare. Our extended family included the Stouffer's, the Entenmann's, and Chef Boyardee. Of course, there were times when I ate fruit. I don't recall when, but I'm sure I did. Oh, I drank a can of Mott's apple juice daily with my brown bag lunch. In high school, I could down a bagel with cream cheese and a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia, which I did, often, and stayed a size 6.
In college, my culinary choices caught up with me. When I met Domino's acquaintance, I gained the cliché freshman 15 (ok, 20). Madison, Wisconsin's sub-zero temps did nothing to spark my abs and me to visit the campus gym. I didn't even know there was a campus gym until my friend Carolyn visited and with carrot juice in hand asked, "Wanna take an aerobics class?" I politely declined, then sat in my dorm lounge watching my food science class on closed-circuit TV.
Over the 20 years since, my metabolism decided to U-turn, laughing each time I forget that eating Muenster by the hunk only boosts my dressing room angst. Though not a sweet freak, I have eaten much humble pie over the last 12 years. In 2003, my daughter Daisy lived in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for seven months due to complications from gastroschisis, a life-threatening, congenital anomaly that caused her intestines to malfunction.
In February, 2006, my family and I moved from New York, where I grew up, to Omaha, so my girl could receive a small bowel, liver and pancreas transplant. Seven months later, she got PTLD, Post-Transplant Lymphoproliterative Disorder, a lymphoma, and endured four months of chemotherapy. Though Daisy survived, thank God, my marriage did not.
Like a marathoner, I was hyper-disciplined about what I ate, as I was during pregnancy -- only protein, fruits, vegetables, brain-boosting nuts, gallons of water -- knowing that I needed to care for myself in order to care for her. That said, after particular crises, like regular 2:00 a.m. ER runs and managing potentially fatal IV line infections, I often regulated my anxiety with food. It was the classic if-I-can't-control-my-environment-I-can-control-my-intake rationale. Unconscious, of course, yet it became a balm for my cracked heart.
Thankfully, I had a two-decade head start learning how to train my body and mind. Pre-Daisy, luxuries like time, singledom, and NYC's top resources like acupuncture, homeopathy and therapy helped prep me for what lay ahead, as if God was saying, "Rest up, honey." Once disaster struck, it was easier, then, to stay more grounded at the starting line than I would have otherwise been.
One particular experience enlightened me, and snuck up on me. At the Catskill's New Age Health Spa, where junk food was forbidden, my sister and I snuck out to a nearby general store, stocked up on Tootsie Rolls and gorged in the car. Afterwards, the unsuspecting nutritionist, a lovely, delusional woman, said -- get this -- "You have choices." She handed me Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. "I walk down the street/There is a deep hole in the sidewalk/I fall in/I am lost/I am helpless/It isn't my fault/It takes me forever to find a way out." I learned a new language, like Daisy, who at 7 1/2 months spit out, "Mama."
I've gone vegan, vegetarian and periodically nix wheat, gluten, and sugar, all which give me vile headaches and make me look and feel like Mr. Creosote, the exploding fat man in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Why did I choose these strategies? Not strictly to lose weight (though I do covet the day that I fit into the parallel, Twiggy-esque wardrobe I've amassed), but to gain mental health. Eating greens over beiges, drinking warm lemon water in the morning and nibbling on protein every two hours, I've learned, gives me the strength and clarity to deal with what passes as crises these days, like arguing with Daisy over which one of us will marry Eddie Redmayne. Best of all, it amps up my perkiness.
But be warned: don't offer me raw, unsalted sunflower seeds.