Not A Diet: Getting fit with fibromyalgia

As readers of this blog may know, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in May last year. On the advice of the doctor, I made an attempt to get healthier. And so, Not A Diet was born.

*trigger warning*
I’ll be talking about eating disorders, OCD, and my abusive childhood. Proceed with caution.

A bit of background: When I was a teenager, I had a really rubbish relationship with food, to put it lightly. It was either something to control, or something to hide in. I starved myself, obsessively counting calories; I spent hours doing ridiculous exercises in my bedroom; I binged, tried to purge, then punished myself with the starvation-exercise-binge routine again. Why did I do this? In an abusive household, food was one of the few things I could control. My father always called me fat, ugly, disgusting. He made me believe that I wasn’t worthy of friendship, of love. I believed that I was huge, grotesque. I was obsessed with numbers (thanks, OCD) – counting calories, weighing myself, staring at “thinspiration”, feeling sick when I looked in the mirror. Nothing else mattered – I had to be slim, else I would be alone forever.

This is me back then, the week my dad died, while I was on holiday with friends. I was 17.

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Yup, I’m eating frosted flakes out of the box. Don’t you judge me. (I spent a lot of my teenage years high.)

I look back now, and I think, I wish I was that size again! I spent so much time thinking I was huge, when I wasn’t! But I was miserable. I was slimmer, yes, but I was rarely happy. I had to learn that the way I felt about myself shouldn’t be so directly connected to my weight. I had to escape the cycle.

So, moving on a few years. This was taken during my final year at university. My weight has increased since I was a teenager – a combination of hormones and fibromyalgia is not a good one (side note: I believe I’ve had fibromyalgia for 7 years, since my dad died, but I was only diagnosed last year). Thanks to increased pain, my activity level decreased significantly, while my metabolism slowed down, and I kept hold of all the calories I was eating. I was bigger. But my weight didn’t bother me half as much as it used to, because I didn’t have someone constantly putting me down, making me feel bad about myself.

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Since I headed off to university, about 6 years ago(!), my weight has stayed around the same, with small fluctuations. When I was diagnosed last May, I was 101kg. I was terrified of slipping back into the cycle, of obsessing over food and weight, of hating myself for eating a doughnut. So I made a decision to weigh myself every time I went to the doctors, which was every month or so, to try to keep track, to see if my changes were making a difference. My weight barely changed. At one point, it went up to 106kg, then down to 104kg, but it mostly stayed around 101kg. Realising this wasn’t a very scientific way of keeping track of my weight, I bought a set of bathroom scales.

Let me be clear: OCD is a very real disorder, one that is often reduced down to sorting your clothes by colour or washing your hands a bit more than normal. In reality, OCD is insidious. It defies logic. With regard to calorie counting and keeping track of my weight, it turns these numbers into the most important thing in my life. Coupled with my dad constantly telling me that I was hideous, the link between weighing myself and feeling like shit was (is) strong. I refused to let a set of scales dictate my level of happiness, but I had to try to do something. I’m not blind – I know what size I am. I know that being overweight doesn’t help (though it doesn’t cause!) conditions such as fibromyalgia. My health is important. But so is my mental health.

I made a deal with my partner – if I started getting obsessive, he was to take the scales away and hide them. This deal still stands, though we’ve had them for a couple of months now, and, so far, things are going well. The fluctuations still don’t make a lot of sense – why am I 102kg today, but 100kg yesterday?! – but I do not, I will not, let it rule my life.

Treating fibromyalgia requires a multi-pronged attack. First, I had to get the pain under control. In June, I started taking Amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant that also helps block pain signals. Over the next few months, I slowly increased my dose, aiming to get to a point where the pain was more manageable. Getting the pain and exhaustion under control had to be my number one priority. As it was, I could barely function. I dragged myself through work each day, I had to choose between cooking a meal or washing my hair in the evening, and I spent every weekend, the entire weekend, sleeping, sitting, trying to recuperate from the working week, for the working week ahead. It was a horrible, exhausted, pain-filled experience.

This went on for quite a while. Getting used to the increased dose of Amitriptyline came with its own issues – it often left me with a “hangover”, zombie-like in the morning. One of the worst parts of the fibro was the stiffness in my lower back in the mornings. It took me ages to get out of bed, and I could barely lower myself on to the toilet. I felt like I was 60 years old. I decided to ask for some physiotherapy. Long story short, with the NHS in the state its in, I had to go private. Towards the end of 2016, I attended several sessions, and was starting to feel a difference. Then, a colleague told me about a Pilates class she was attending. It was specifically designed for people with back and joint issues. I scoffed, secretly terrified. She wanted me to walk into an exercise class? Not bloody likely! I’ll get laughed out of the place! But the more I thought about it, the more appealing it sounded.

I pinged off an email to the instructor, just to get some information, and she responded almost immediately, booking me in for a taster session in late January. Shit. I was definitely scared, but I forced myself to go. What harm could it do? I thought. What’s the worst thing that could happen? People might stare at me, judge me? So what? So what indeed. Armed with my own mat (there is a cleanliness element to my OCD), hair up in a ponytail, clad in a baggy shirt and leggings, I turned up, determined. And I loved it. I’ve been going for six weeks now, and I look forward to every session. It’s gentle, the instructor is mindful of any injuries or health conditions you have, and alters the movements if they’re not quite suited to any individual. It’s perfect. I can already feel a difference – I feel stronger, with less pain, less fatigue. This multi-pronged attack is, currently, kicking fibromyalgia’s arse!

Last week, we went on a mini break to Edinburgh. We spent three and a half days wandering around, exploring. I still had to take it easy, rest, and wear appropriate shoes, but I could do it. I did it!

This is me, standing outside a cafe – the birthplace of Harry Potter, no less! – last week.

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Sorry, random maid walking past!

My weight is still 101kg. But I feel better. I’m nowhere near well – fibromyalgia never goes away, after all – but I’m making progress. And it feels amazing.

I spent an hour in the gym on Saturday (with Inspiring Woman, personal trainer, and bleddy slave driver Colette Cooper!), and have been hobbling about for two days now, having strained the muscles in my thighs. It hurts, but I also feel proud. Colette challenged me, my body, ignoring my protests. “I can’t!” I’d say, but I did. We did push it a tad too far, as the DOMS will attest, but it was useful for Colette to assess what I was capable of. Now, we can work together to create an exercise plan that will allow me to get stronger.

I’ve been monitoring my calorie content for about a month now. At first, I just wanted to see how much I was eating on a daily basis. I went carefully, mindful of taking it too seriously. Any hint of obsession, and I would stop. Studies show that people with fibromyalgia have a lowered metabolism, making it harder to lose weight, but I wasn’t exactly gorging myself. I rarely went over 1800 calories per day! So I made a decision to cut that down to 1600, trying to lower my sugar intake and eat less carbs, more protein. Colette will now be helping me to understand what I’m eating, and suggest other changes I can make. I’ve posted several yummy recipes in the past, including spicy pork chops, Indian style wedges, a gluten-free lemon drizzle cake, and homemade coleslaw. I hope to keep posting more healthy meals, and I’ll also be including calorie content where possible, something I didn’t want to do previously.

When I was at university, there were some lean times, where I couldn’t afford to eat very well. I would have sworn up and down that the changes I made back then made zero difference, just like when I started the Not A Diet. But, back then, I was in constant, sometimes debilitating pain. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress, because fibromyalgia had taken over my life. I felt, quite honestly, like shit, all the time. So any tiny changes I made – swapping a chocolate bar for an apple, cutting out fizzy drinks and alcohol – made very little difference to the way I felt. I needed to get a diagnosis, and treatment, and then approach having a healthier lifestyle.

But why am I being so candid, posting relatively unflattering pictures of myself, sharing my weight? Why am I opening myself up to fat-shaming? Well, it’s simple, really. I hated that last picture, grumbled at my partner for taking it. I don’t see what he sees. I could only see a fat, ugly, horrible person, one who doesn’t deserve anything. But that’s my dad talking. My partner sees a woman who deserves to be happy, to be loved, to enjoy a pizza if she wants one. It’s so hard to look at ourselves that way. It’s easy to put ourselves down, constantly worrying about our “love handles”, or feeling guilty for having a second glass of wine. It’s so easy for women to hate ourselves. I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way. It’s not about how I look – it’s about how I feel. I know how twee that sounds, but it really is true, for me. My goal isn’t to lose weight, not really. My goal is to be able to go to work all week and pop out on a Sunday morning for a quick stroll. My goal is to be able to walk for longer than two minutes before desperately needing to rest. My goal is to not have to spend the entire weekend in bed. My goal is to get better, to feel better. And if I lose weight in the process, that’s just a bonus!

So I’ll continue with this Not A Diet, trying to be healthier, tracking my calories, weighing and measuring myself once a week, being accountable to not just myself, but to Colette too. If I want a slice of cake, I’ll have a slice of cake (and I will enjoy it!), but I will not feel guilty about it. I’m lucky to have someone like Colette, who understands the real world. We can do our best 80, 90% of the time, and still reap the rewards. And still enjoy a slice of cake, or a glass of wine. Happiness is the key, as is health. I can be healthier, and I can be happier. This girl can; can you?

 

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