My life began to revolve around my daughter, Leila, the day she was born. As a single, working mom, I lived in a Leila-centric world, filling my days with her needs, her interests, her life. I don’t regret one moment I’ve devoted to my daughter, of course, and for a long time I thought I was fine. Not ecstatic, but fine. Not overtly happy, but fine. Very, very busy, but fine.
Yet as I neared a certain milestone birthday, I realized that I had been neglecting my own needs and interests for too long. With an extra 55 pounds on my 5-foot 4-inch frame, I was clearly neglecting my health, too.
In focusing completely on being Leila’s mom, it’s as though I had hung other parts of myself away in a closet — parts that I had once been or had aspired to be: the poet, the adventurer, the dancer, the athlete, the fashion enthusiast, the girlfriend. These women had disappeared and were left dangling, dormant, while I was busy being “fine.”
So one week before my birthday, I gave myself the present of a long-overdue appointment with my doctor. My blood panel showed what years of self-neglect had wrought. In addition to the weight gain, my cholesterol had climbed and diabetes threatened so imminently that my doctor uttered the “M” word — medication.
Surely there were other reasons for my condition, I protested. A thyroid problem? Lyme disease? Lab errors? My doctor gently confirmed that my problems stemmed from my lifestyle. She also said that she didn’t think a woman my age (my age!) could improve her health quickly enough without medication.
I bargained with my doctor like a desperate haggler. “I can change,” I promised. “Give me a little time. I know what to do. I can do this without medication.”
My doctor gave me three months to turn my health around on my own. It was an assignment with a due date.
I hung my blood report on the refrigerator next to Leila’s school honor-roll notice and exemplary progress report. The comments on her papers included: “Always completes her assignments,” “Enthusiastic contributor,” and “Consistent worker.”
I imagined my report with comments, too. Cholesterol 101: “Doesn’t apply herself.” Intro to Triglycerides: “Should seek extra help.” Glucose for Beginners: “Needs to repeat the class.”
With a sense of dread, I focused on the course work ahead of me.
Unit One: Food. People often say, “You’re not dieting; you’re making a lifestyle change!” All that meant to me was that I’d be on a diet for the rest of my life. So I told myself, “Three days. You can hold out for three days.”
I started by giving up sugar and bread in all forms, and ate more fish and leafy green vegetables. Once I made it past three days, I felt victorious and started again.
I’ve now done more than a year’s worth of three-day stints.
Unit Two: Exercise. My doctor suggested I start small, aiming for 20 minutes, three days a week. I began with short neighborhood walks. Then I tried hot yoga, which, just so you know, is not starting small.
I took my doctor’s advice to try something I used to enjoy. I had begun ice-skating lessons years before with my daughter. Now her coach invited me to join her off-ice trainings. Although I was inconsistent, Leila’s coach (now my coach) encouraged me. When I missed one, two, or even three sessions, she would say, “Don’t worry. Come back anyway. Let’s just try.”
Eventually I got on the ice. “Let’s just try” became my mantra. At first I puttered for an hour or so once a week. Now I skate three hours weekly and do one off-ice training session. I have plans to take a test and skate a program. Dare I say it? I may even compete.
Unit Three: Faith. I have to credit God. It would be dishonest not to. One Sunday morning, I was watching TV and heard a message from a minister that seemed intended for me. He said that I was meant to be better than I have been in the past. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. I started to pray again. The cross I used to keep on my dresser I now wear around my neck.
At three months, my doctor was thrilled that I had lost 15 pounds and lowered my cholesterol by 50 points. I took my new blood report home and wrote on it, “Has shown tremendous improvement,” “Enthusiastic participant,” and “Student of the month.”
About three months after that, my old underwear no longer fit! So I went shopping, and as I leisurely wandered through a lingerie store, a clerk asked my size.
“Medium,” I said. And just in case she hadn’t heard, I repeated, “I’m a medium.”
We collected the usual suspects: briefs, boy shorts, high briefs. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off a racy little number with bows and lace.
Could I? I decided I could. I ended up buying two pair.
I left that store feeling happily incredulous. I thought I’d said goodbye to that sexy girl a long time ago. But here I was with fancy new underwear. I took them home, and before I could change my mind I cut off the tags.
Although I started out feeling like I had no idea what to do, it turns out that I did. I just started small and stopped trying to be perfect. Ironically, lowering my expectations (“Let’s just try!”) helped me accomplish a lot.
As of today, I have lost 40 pounds. But this past year has been about more than just losing weight and improving my health scores. Along the way I discovered something even better: I like me — all of me.
One by one, the forgotten women in my closet have started to come out: the poet; the ice skater; the yogini; the girly girl who likes tight pants, cowboy boots, and lip gloss; and even a romantic who is open to dating.
I’m not sure how many more women are still in there, but the door is now wide open.
Meet: Joyce I. Mannel, age 51, a high school teacher in Port Chester, N.Y., and mom to Leila, age 15.
Big Achievements: Losing 40 pounds, setting a good example for her daughter, and reclaiming her sense of self-worth. “I value myself again, and it shows in how I carry myself and even dress,” she says. “Before, I wore only baggy, boxy, hide-me clothes. Now I wear clothes that actually draw compliments.”
Big Inspiration: “A midlife crisis does not get enough good press,” Mannel says. Her 50th birthday woke her up to the fact that she wanted to be happy and healthy.
What Worked: Starting small with incremental goals and learning not to judge herself. “Let’s just try” became her mantra as she eased her way back into ice-skating after many years away.
What Didn’t Work: Trying to be perfect or expecting a 180-degree turnaround — such as going from almost no exercise to daily hardcore workouts (which failed quickly), or from overeating every day to a strict diet akin to fasting. “My body refused to go hungry, and when I tried to force it, well, it became body versus mind at that point. My body would always win.”
Words of Wisdom: “Have faith. Think of small, short-term goals as well as those big, over-the-rainbow ones. And forgive yourself as often as you need to.”