Building up and slimming down; weight and image post-abuse.

One of the exercises we did together on the domestic abuse recovery course was to create an image of a victim of domestic abuse, sketched out on the flip chart by the facilitator. Our cartoon woman wasn’t necessarily covered in bruises, after all not everyone is a victim of physical violence, it was more about capturing the effects of living with long term emotional and psychological abuse. She was, we decided, either underweight from chronic stress and not being able to eat, or overweight from comfort eating. Bags and dark circles under her eyes from stress-related insomnia. Her hair was a mess, her clothes frumpy as she couldn’t justify spending any money on herself – even if she had any money to spend. She might be missing a tooth after not taking care or herself, or maybe she was grinding her teeth at night. Her shoulders were constantly up around her ears, stiff with stress and anxiety, causing tension that gave her migraines. Her expression was a rigid mask of fear, always worrying about what was going to happen next, scanning the horizon for the next attack, or frowning as her mind replayed what had already happened. She might well have developed an ongoing health complaint; as well as migraines and insomnia there could be IBS, panic attacks, hypertension, eczema as well as even more serious issues. She wasn’t looking good, in other words.

At home the decluttering continues, and it seems to be time to tackle the photos. As well as boxes of unsorted prints, CDs, memory sticks and folder after folder of digital shots, there are now several albums of unwanted memories. What do you do with your wedding album now that you’re divorced? Burn it? Keep it for the kids? Going through the pictures I’m struck by how unbelievably pale I look – some kind of iron supplement intervention was surely required – and how thin I am, my dress being taken in to a UK size 10 for the big day. Happy too, so very happy. In those days I had no problem posing for photographs, could look in the mirror and smile at myself. Now I shy away from cameras and tend to avoid mirrors, my reflection usually making my heart sink. Who is that woman? I don’t recognise myself – the extra weight, the thinning, frizzy hair, dull eyes and resigned expression. She feels so heavy, this stranger in the mirror, not just her bloated belly and aching legs but her spirit too. Can she possibly be the same person as the beaming young woman in her wedding dress? It doesn’t seem likely. She’s the woman from the flip chart, self esteem eroded and replaced by self-neglect, health suffering, defeated.

Body positivity seems to be a new trend, with fashion models ranging from what can only be described as normal (rather than seriously underweight) to curvaceous to overweight now being called body activists. I’m all for a healthier depiction of female bodies rather than only young, skinny, flawless forms being shown in the media, but frankly? Fat is fat. Right now, I’m overweight. Fat. Not a body activist. I’ve gone up from a size 12-14 to a 16-18, perhaps even larger at times. Most of my clothes no longer fit. And while I could embrace body positivity and learn to love myself the way I am, that’s not going to help my arteries, or my pre-diabetic state. Being overweight isn’t healthy. Being underweight isn’t healthy either. And while we shouldn’t be shaming each other over our weight, let’s not pretend that being obese is good for you, no matter how lovely your Instagram posts look. I hate feeling this way, heavy and bloated and tired, no energy or enthusiasm, no shine in my eyes. While I will never be that skinny girl in the photos again, it’s time to change, both inside and out. I need to lose around 4 stone – 4! – to get down to a healthy weight. I want to wake up in the morning feeling energised rather than exhausted. Above all, I’d like to be able to look into the mirror and smile at myself again. The mission; building myself up inside, while slimming down the outside.

Progress is slow and it’s hard not to rely on sugar as an emotional crutch, particularly when Lily is is giving me a hard time – and generally Lily is always giving me a hard time. A couple of times previously I’ve tried to start losing the weight, only for life to crash and burn around me; out came the chocolate again. This time I’ve lost maybe two pounds, but the scales seem to already be stuck, not moving any further down. But I have to go gently, have to trust that this will work, that I’m capable of succeeding. After years of hauling myself through a marriage devoid of affection, after living with a husband who never reached for me, after enduring the emotional and psychological torment of the past few years, I’m not willing to put myself through more. No more abuse, no beating myself up, no blame, no shame. I reached for food rather than the bottle during a time of unbearable stress, even while knowing there would ultimately be a price to pay. But now it’s time. It has to be. My journey back to wellbeing has to come from self-kindness rather than a form of self-hatred. To make healthier choices out of love for myself, wanting to heal my body, rather than punishing myself or feeling deprived. And to do it while loving myself – or learning to love myself – rather than hiding from my own reflection.

Not waving, drowning.

7.30am. The water feels deliciously cool as I walk down the steps into the pool. The kids have been dropped off at the bus stop, and I’ve realised that rather than turning around and going back home, I could keep on driving and get to the leisure centre for an early morning swim. I’ve registered with a local scheme that gives a free swim pass to children with a disability, and to their parent/carer- it’s time to make use of it. I’m not much of a swimmer, but it’s not so much the swimming itself, it’s the noise and splashing and kids jumping in over my head, and the wet floor that brings me out in an overwhelmed, hyper-stimulated anxiety attack. At this time in the morning though it’s quiet, just me and the pensioners. I desperately want to get back into shape, feel fitter and healthier but since my battle with plantar fasciitis last year I’m nervous about putting my feet under strain. This seems to be the right answer; quiet, calm, gentle. My old-lady breaststroke style of swimming is entirely fitting here, fast enough to still count as exercise, yet giving me the space to iron out my thoughts and ease into the day. I begin to get excited; I’ve found something that works for me, 20 minutes of respite, of precious and healthy self-care to start my day with. Can I keep this up during the holidays when I don’t have the school run? I ask myself, feeling that the answer is still a yes. I know I need this.

I swim on the Monday and Wednesday. Friday morning, I’m tired but push myself to pack my swim bag anyway – I want to make this a habit and I know I’ll feel better for it. My membership card scans on the way in and I head to the changing room, only to hear the shrieks of over-excited kids already in the pool. I peek in and see lots of children throwing a ball around in the pool. Evidently, it’s not the early morning session I was hoping for. Back to the desk; Sorry, I’ve only just started coming in the mornings, is it on at a different time? The receptionist explains that the swim session doesn’t start until 8am on Fridays. A 20 minute wait; I decide to head back to the car to retrieve a book to read, given that the cafe doesn’t open until 9 and there’s absolutely nothing to do but stare into space in the meantime.

7.55. I’ve been reading in the car, but now put the book away and head back in for a swim. This time however, my card doesn’t scan. “Can I take a look at your card?” the receptionist asks, scanning it at her desk. “Oh, there’s nothing on your account, you need to pay.” I explain that I’m a member of the free swimming scheme. “No, that’s only if you’ve got the young person with you.”

I leave.

There are tears in my eyes as I stop off at the 24 hour supermarket to pick up something for dinner. I’m struggling not to cry as I drive home. I check the website for the swim scheme. It’s badly worded, talks of free swimming for disabled children and their Carers, but says nothing about it being only when you’re accompanying your child. I even phone up to check.

“Is it possible for the organisation to ask for Carers to be able to swim for free, just to give us some respite?” I ask.

“No, the leisure centres are doing us a favour as it is,” she answers. As if the leisure centres weren’t raking it in already, and also receiving public funding.

“But the over 60s swim for free?” I’ve heard the chatter in the changing rooms – these are pensioners who are not struggling financially. I don’t understand why they can swim for free but Carers can’t.

There’s the bottom line; I can only swim for free if I’m taking Lily. Except of course, I can’t take Lily to the early morning sessions, even if it didn’t clash with the school run; she’s far too loud, too chaotic. There would be complaints. Similarly, it’s hell for me to swim during Lily-friendly sessions; I just can’t bear it when it’s so loud and crowded, that adds to my stress rather than relieving it. I desperately need respite, and I desperately need exercise – but I will have to pay for both. If I managed to get a concessionary swim price, it would be £2 per swim. £6 per week. Over £300 a year. Non-concession, it’s £3, £9 and over £450. Our much-longed-for holiday, in other words. So while I could bumble along paying £2 per swim, I would no longer be enjoying the sessions because I’d be thinking too much about what they cost. It would cease to be me-time and become something I was paying to do in order to get fit. No longer a treat. I should be able to move money around, do it anyway – yet mentally and emotionally something has shifted in a way that’s hard to explain. Perhaps it’s because the free swimming felt like a gift, an acknowledgement that caring for an autistic child is so difficult and here was somebody who wanted to help me in some way. Having to pay turns that into Tough. Get on with it. Perhaps I’ve just reached the end of my rope, can’t take any more knock backs. Perhaps it’s anger at how once again, the people at the bottom of the ladder miss out; if you’re struggling financially then exercise becomes a luxury. Realistically, even “free” activities require money; eg a decent pair of trainers if you’re taking up running, otherwise you’ll wreck your feet.

I’m left feeling like I can’t have nice things. That the Universe has some kind of personal grudge against me, that this has been a pattern for over 10 years now; any time that I find something that makes my life easier or happier, it’s taken off me again. Just a taste, just enough to get excited, then – poof! Gone. That I want to be happy, grateful and generous in this life – but events keep conspiring against me to a point where by rights anger and bitterness should surely be the default emotions. It’s so much work to try and reverse this negative spiral – yet it’s like pushing a washing machine up the helter skelter; crazy, difficult and the minute you try to rest for a minute, it’s going to slide back down and crush you.

A few days pass. I talk to Mum, who does her best to talk sense into me. “That’s only what you’d spend on coffee and cake in a cafe, and it would be doing you good,” she reminds me.

“Yeah, it’s just I’ve taken out gym memberships before and just wasted them, haven’t gone in.” Being surrounded by no-neck muscle-grunters and perky gym bunnies is not my idea of fun.

In the meantime, my blood results come back from the GP; surprisingly my thyroid is working just fine and for once I’m not anaemic – my constant tiredness is a medical mystery. However, I’m now officially in the pre-diabetic stage. If I don’t get my weight, blood sugar etc under control then I’ll likely develop Type 2 Diabetes within the next 5 years. I’ve been wanting to improve my general state of health – the blood results are the final kick in the pants that I need. It’s back to the 5:2 plan, to cutting my emotional dependency on sugar and comfort food and to getting back into shape. Perhaps the lesson that I need to learn is not that the Universe doesn’t want me to have good things, but that it’s time to start looking after myself properly, which means being willing to invest in my health . I call the Leisure Centre.

Hi. I want to take out membership.