Everyone has a story. Everyone has a behind-the-scenes tale about something they have had to overcome, something that has contributed to who that person is. Some stories are more dramatic than others, but we all have that thing -- maybe more than one thing, maybe many things --t hat has helped to shape us, for better or for worse. Some of us spend our lives living with these tales of woe, playing them over and over in our heads, like a recording that drives us -- again, for better or for worse.
These stories sometimes become our context, and they can even cause us to make unhealthy choices or to treat ourselves in the most unloving of ways. So often, I see this happening with my patients, who frequently use food as the mechanism by which to deal with their backstory. Whether it is intense overeating or undereating, the story seems to deeply involved. Sometimes, the story triggers other destructive behaviors.
I recently had a patient who had been yo-yo dieting for many years, fluctuating between 30 and 60 pounds overweight. She came to me desperate, with shortness of breath. She was sure that these symptoms developed because she was at her highest weight ever. I screened her and then I broke the news: She was diabetic and she had plaque in her arteries. She told me that she didn't know what to do, so I asked her about her story. It was right there on the surface: a lifetime of teasing by her sister, reprimands by her mother, and a history of being bullied at school. I explained to her the necessity of rewriting this story. "This is not who you are," I told her. "You deserve to feel good. You deserve to be healthy."
I explained to her that it was time to take charge of her own life. Those sweets she craved were worth giving up, a gift to herself from herself. She needed to change her thoughts and her perceptions. She could no longer afford to make dietary mistakes. Her life depended on it.
This patient had never really considered that she could rewrite her story, rather than living the story others had tried to write for her. Her approach this time was different. She envisioned wearing her size eight dress from decades past. She pictured herself going up the subway stairs without having to stop. She imagined herself strong and fit and confident. She considered what it would feel like to look in the mirror to see herself, rather than an inflated overweight shadow of herself. This was what it took: She persevered and overcame her eating disorder. Her weight began to normalize, and she became the person she always was, that had been buried beneath the weight of a story that wasn't even true.
Doctors often tell patients, "You need to lose weight," or "You need to eat better," or "You need to start exercising." This is easy to say, of course, but what it doesn't acknowledge is the heavy weight so many people carry that keeps them from making these smart decisions. It's often not about a lack of willpower or laziness or failure to be motivated. What I see more is something heavier: that story that tells someone she is not worthy of health or fitness, that she will never be good enough. There is a self-hatred I see that makes "You need to lose weight" sound like an impossible request.
But it is not an impossible request. Every one of us has the ability to overcome the obstacles that we've faced. Sometimes, the will to overcome the very things that have kept us down is what ultimately propels us forward. However, this requires some work. First and foremost, it requires a willingness to say, "Maybe that story isn't true." It requires the desire and the energy to reframe the story you've memorized so well and then step back from it and see it for what it is: not you. Just a story of you. If you don't like that story, it's your right and privilege to make a new one. It is your life, after all. Not your sister's. Not your mother's. Not you're your past. It is you, right here, right now, worthy of love and care and empathy and most of all, deep inner health.
Try that story on for size. Whether your story has kept you from reaching your optimum weight, making healthier food choices, or pushing you up a flights of stairs, you can change it. Cut the cords and set yourself free from what has been dragging you down. Don't listen to the ghosts of your past who tell you what you can and can't do. Break out of that holding pattern that has kept you from thriving. Don't shoot yourself in the foot before you even give yourself a chance to be the person you really want to be.
I know you can change your story because I've seen many people change theirs -- people with terrible, heart-wrenching, painful stories who have decided that those stories no longer define them. Getting to the other means changing the script. You are the author, the illustrator, and the publisher of your life. Maybe it isn't nearly as difficult as you thought. Maybe it's just a rewrite.
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