9. Saving Myself

9. Saving Myself

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Saving Myself

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
 ~Lao Tzu

The nurse pulled off all the wires from the EKG machine, piled them back onto the cart, and moved toward the door. “The doctor will take a look at the strip and let you know. You can get dressed again.” The nurse was gone with a click of the door. I quickly jumped off the table, and got dressed so I could feel less like a patient, and sat down on the chair to wait for the doctor. My chest began to tighten again and fear prickled my skin. It was hard to get in a breath because my lungs felt hard, like stone. I picked at my nails and tried to focus on pleasant thoughts but my mind kept playing the same distressing loop over and over again.

My symptoms had been persistent, but even worse, they were similar to my husband’s right before he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I couldn’t stop thinking the same thoughts of doom. How safe would our daughter feel if both her parents have a heart condition? I picked at my nails with more urgency. My husband now had a defibrillator in his chest, a clunky square that could be seen through his skin. He’d been afraid of it, and although I had said encouraging things about it prior to his surgery, I secretly didn’t blame him one bit. He constantly feared it would malfunction, and he was stuck with it for the rest of his life. I was only in my 40s and I didn’t want to have a weak heart or a box stuck into my chest.

The doctor returned, sat down on a stool and looked at my EKG strip. “This looks fine,” he said. “Your problem is high blood pressure.” I thought it over for a moment and then straightened up in my chair. I can fix high blood pressure, I thought. That’s something I can change. After worrying for several weeks about my tight chest and breathing troubles, this seemed like a second chance. I didn’t have a serious heart condition, there was no defibrillator in my immediate future, and I could ensure that it stayed that way. The doctor got out his prescription pad and began scribbling with his pen.

“I’m putting you on a medication to bring down your blood pressure,” he said. I felt a little let down as I watched him write. I was hoping to do this without medication but I wasn’t going to let it get me down.

“Do people ever get off these meds? I’ve heard that once you start on blood pressure meds you’re stuck with them for life.”

“Some people do get off them, and you’ll have to make some changes like cutting out salt, take up exercise like walking, and losing weight.” The doctor had a touch of skepticism in his voice. I figured he’d seen too many patients who wouldn’t change their ways so I decided not to be one of them. This doctor was in for a surprise.

The first thing I did when I got home was to take out my date-book and mark the day. This would be the first day of my journey. I set a goal to lose 106 pounds and my motivation was the best I ever had—to save me and my heart from an early grave. My previous goals—to look good at the beach, to look good for the holidays, or to be able to buy nice clothes, had never worked, but now each pound lost would mean one less for my heart to work against. Then there would be 10 less, 20 less, 50 less, until I made my goal. Every evening I would open the date book and draw a heart in that day’s square if I ate right and cut calories. That would mean a crash course in nutrition.

My next step was a trip to the grocery store. I intended to buy plenty of fresh vegetables and plan healthier meals. I realized how little I knew about nutrition, and as I wandered around the store I suddenly had the feeling of being lost in a sea of dietary ignorance. I was clueless about where to start or what to buy. After awhile I headed for the checkout with what I managed to find and then went home to get on my computer.

Over the following weeks and months I pored over nutrition information that I found on the Internet and in library books. I searched the websites of fast food restaurants so I would know ahead of time what the best, and worst, choices would be when we occasionally treated ourselves to a burger. As time went on I began to feel more and more informed, empowered, and even shocked by what I was learning.

Total denial had never worked before so I learned I could eat one Oreo cookie instead of eight, or half a bagel and save the other half for another day. I used less butter and more olive oil in cooking, bought whole wheat breads instead of white, and read labels before buying anything. I was learning more every day and the knowledge I was gaining made it easier to say “no” to temptations not-so-well-meaning people would put in my path. I now knew what bad things could be found in many innocent-looking food items and I was prepared to avoid them without remorse.

My last step was to work more exercise into my day so I went off to the high school track to do some walking. I started at a very modest 3/4 of a mile and over the weeks I worked up to two or three miles at least six days a week. Early on I felt a little frustrated, as if I was hauling a wagonload of bricks behind me, and I would wonder when the miles would pass more easily, but eventually those days faded away and I began to feel energetic, and victorious. Each quarter mile would pass faster and faster and when I neared the end of my walk I would keep adding extra laps. The possibility of success was becoming more real every day.

There was a time when just climbing stairs, or keeping up with other people as they walked, would leave me breathless. Things were changing and I saw that clearly one day when I had to go to my daughter’s school for a conference with a teacher. I followed him through the long halls and then up a flight of stairs, and at the top I realized that not only was I still talking normally, but I also wasn’t discreetly trying to cover up any gasping. There was no crazy pounding in my chest either and I became excited over the fact that I was getting healthy and fit.

The best thing I did for myself was to not buy a scale. I waited until visits to the doctor to get weighed so instead of watching my weight go down one agonizing pound at a time I could see my progress in great leaps. I saw losses of 10 to 15 pounds at a time and didn’t live by the scale on a daily basis. It was far better for my morale, and occasional slip-ups got absorbed into the passage of time.

So far I’ve lost 80 pounds with 26 to go, but the most satisfying part of all this is how excited some people get over my success. Now they seek my advice and follow my lead when it comes to good nutrition and fitness. Success tastes sweeter than any cookie I ever ate in my life.

~Jeanne-Marie Poulin

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