I’m participating for the first time in the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge. This week they are asking: What does health mean to you?
For me, it’s a question that gets more complex as I get older.
Until my mid-teens it was pretty single entendre: I was a high performance athlete – a competitive swimmer – so it meant being physically fit.
At 10 I started training five times a week and by the time I was 15 I was training 8 times a week + weights. I made provincials. I made youth nationals. I was up at 5:00 AM multiple mornings a week; and sometimes trained twice a day. I went to training camp in Florida (in 1992 – we swam through Hurricane Andrew in an outdoor pool because we’d paid for the pool time. Dammit). I remember once being sent for meditation/visualization work over one weekend so it wasn’t totally about body; but they also did skin fold tests on us; and told various of the 12-13 girls to lose weight. It was about physical excellence; and thus having the physical form to excel. No question.
Fortunately, while swimming eight times a week + land training and weights certainly helped, until puberty I was one of those skinny kids – so I never got the post-skin-fold talking to. And I didn’t have to think much about the food side of the equation. Being or getting “fat” was something other people – like my mother – had to deal with. Not me. Looking back now, I cringe at the various comments I made to my mother as she struggled with weight and went off and on various diets.
Unfortunately, as far as swimming went, I was pretty average. Combination of sports injury at 15 and a motivational talk from one of my coaches who (and I think he was honestly trying to be encouraging) told me that “I did very well for someone with no natural ability” and that I should make nationals if I just trained a few more times a week, made me re-evaluate how best to use my late teens.
So I quit swimming and, with all my new spare time, got a job, took up guitar, joined the band, coached the school swim team, got a boyfriend, improved my grades by a good 10%, completed Grade 9 piano exams through the Royal Conservatory, became editor of the school paper, became a peer tutor, became a peer mentor, got nominated for valedictorian … and also managed to gain about 25 pounds between 16-17 because apparently you can’t eat the same amount as you do when you’re training as a high performance athlete once you BASICALLY STOP ALL PHYSICAL ACTIVITY.
Shocking. I know.
Given I’d never had to deal with weight issues of any kind EVER, this came as a complete and total shock to me. I was kind of like one of those reality show women who suddenly give birth in a public washroom because they had no idea they were pregnant. Like there was NOTHING in the months leading up to that event that might have hinted that something wasn’t quite as it had always been.
So I did what any rational 17-year-old would do under these circumstances. I decided I needed to fix it immediately. Courtesy of my mother’s library of dieting books, I started the insane 1970s version of Atkins. Complete with ketone pee sticks, vitamin supplements (because Lord knows you need them on that diet) and sugar-free gum (because my breath stank for the entire duration) and I proceeded to lose about 30 pounds in a month and a half.
I knew it was awful and unhealthy. But, fixed. Right? I was 17. Figured I had a healthy liver. It could take it.
I also became a lifeguard and – courtesy of my “no natural ability swimming skills” – a beach guard in the summers, which was actually pretty crazy physical what with the cycling to and from work daily (26K), the paddleboards, the SeaDoos, the oddness of being encouraged to “go for a run” on your “break,” and the lugging of a motorboat in and out of storage each day.
As far as I was concerned, that sorted me out physical health-wise until I finished high school. I exercised enough and I wasn’t fat.
So that’s physical health.
Moving on to mental health, in case you skimmed past the insane Andrea Zuckermanesque list of extracurriculars, I was also a wee bit of a Type-A overachiever. My parents always expected me to do well, and I don’t like doing things poorly. So I worked hard. And if I chose to do something, I made sure I did it well.
But I realized even then that you can’t do everything well and you can’t please everyone (Note to my father: This is why I’m not an engineer today. I made it through high school chemistry and physics, and through sheer force of will and perseverance I did pretty well. But, to quote my swim coach, I think we both know I simply did pretty well for someone with no natural ability).
And trying to do it all is pretty exhausting. I even wrote a poem about it (Titled “Stress Management”) that got published in the youth section of our city paper. It was about how freeing simply going mad might be [Vacation in a padded cell; relief from the mundane; you’ll get away with anything; if they all think you’re insane].
I remember it resulting in my boyfriend at the time calling to ask if everything was alright with “us”. And my having to explain that some things really weren’t about him (I know: 18-year-old girl SACRILEGE).
But, really, I think that was likely step one to affirming mental health for me (or at least to acknowledging I’d need to give it some space at some stage in the future).
I hit university and joined the Varsity Swim Team because I a) missed swimming and wanted to be a part of something and b) didn’t want to get fat. It was 5-6 times a week. So not the insane 8+ of yesteryear. I refused to do weights and land-training (because I was only willing to dedicate SO many hours to swimming). I still did pretty well. I had fun. I worked hard. I was top 16 in the province. I was even MVP my first year. AND I had enough time to work part-time and to study enough to keep my scholarship. AND I could go drinking and dancing until all hours a few times a week, eat what I wanted and not get fat.
Work hard. Play hard. That’s mostly what health meant to me through university.
I had a small nervous breakdown in my third year – I still remember it very clearly – completely losing it during a guarding shift because I really should have been home studying for a mid-term that had been specially re-scheduled (read: made earlier) for me, so I could then make it to provincials in time. But aside from that one memorable slip, I kept everything afloat.
My “compensate for lifestyle by being a varsity athlete” plan worked and kept things in check until graduation. When I started my career after university, I sort of took up running to try to keep active and held it together weight-wise until 25. Then, reality struck and I dieted again. This time in a more healthy way, combining (somewhat excessive amounts of) exercise (because I KNEW how to train), portion control, watching carbs and cutting out alcohol. In about 3 months, that lost me about 25 pounds.
After that, I took up running in my late 20s to keep in shape. I did a few 10K races and trained and ran a half marathon before my wedding (at 30).
So I had life, health and exercise all pretty much in balance: a work hard play hard LITE approach that was working with career and spouse.
Then we had babies and the world changed again.
During Mat Leave #1 I got a membership to a gym, lost the baby weight, and got into a lovely routine that totally fell apart as soon as I went back to work and we entered the daycare circuit of drop off; go to work; rush to daycare; pick up; quality time; bed for baby; short adult downtime; and, collapse. Suffice to say the weight crept back. Also suffice to say, mental health-wise, life was chaotic and there was many a day where I’d think “maybe it’s time to get pregnant again.”
During Mat Leave #2 I again got a gym membership and was horrified when the scale didn’t immediately comply with my efforts. I’ve written in a bit more detail here about what I did, but, briefly, once I finally came to the terms with the fact that exercise was no longer going to compensate for lifestyle, I joined Weight Watchers and lost 30 pounds over about five months. I also learned how to cook properly which helped.
So I returned to work in May in great physical health. And I’m working hard to keep it up. I’m a little worried due to recent setbacks (short story: I’ve gained 5 pounds in the past month), but I’m hopeful I can get back on track.
As far as mental health goes now with two kids and working full-time? Honestly? No idea yet.
Here’s what my vision of health for me at the moment is:
- Balance between work and home life (ie: challenged by my job, but not consumed by it; able to be home between 5:00-6:00 to have time with my children daily; ideally not be on call on weekends).
- Time to cook so we all eat properly.
- Time to exercise so I can stay in shape. I’m thinking 2 -3 times a week.
- Personal down time (ie: some time, just a few times a week, when I can watch TV, blog, read a book, have a bath, go for a walk, meet a friend etc…I don’t think I’m asking for the moon here.)
- Some sort of personal growth (I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m currently taking an economics course as part of my learning plan for work. I know that’s insane with my current schedule. But I’d love the time to do the work because, when I actually sit down and do it, I really enjoy the challenge).
- Time with my spouse a few times a week.
- Regular sleep (I’d like to “dream a little dream” for me; I figure this may have to double as “down time”; and I even think I’m almost okay with that :).
I don’t honestly think all of that is achievable at the moment all at once – but that’s the goal.
I’m starting a new job in two weeks that I hope will be conducive to work-life balance (not yet willing to accept that that is an unachievable fiction). Namely, I hope it will work with daycare pick-up; allow me time to exercise and meal plan so as to be able to plan what we eat; and allow time to relax both with the kids, with my husband and by myself. We’ll see.
I dream a little dream for me.