Healing Journey: Food & Fitness

This week was the first time since 2019 that I had been inside a gym or a group fitness space. Believe it or not, in my past life (from 2017-2019) I was actually a fitness instructor. I stopped teaching fitness classes when I got pregnant and quickly descended into my most frightening and prolonged manic episode. While on hiatus from teaching, I did attend a few dance classes in the later stages of my pregnancy. After my emergency c-section when I gave birth in January 2020, I looked forward to recovery so I could get back in the studio. Just as I emerged out of the fog of postpartum, the COVID-19 pandemic ensued. Instead of getting back into my movement practice, I was forced into an extended postpartum period at home, overeating and watching Tiger King with the rest of America to dull my anxieties about the future. I gained twice as much weight during the first year of the pandemic than I did in 9 months of pregnancy. Feeling powerless to change the number of the scale, I started embracing my postpartum body just the way it was.

This self-acceptance was daunting at first. B.C. (before childbirth), I was petite — mostly muscle and bones from intensive yoga, teaching fitness, and going to dance parties multiple times a week. I was so admired and frequently complemented for my figure and my energy output that I couldn’t see that I was on the brink of breaking down. It was a time in my life where I was on the hypomanic to fully manic continuum because I burned way more fuel than I consumed. I frequently forgot to eat, and when I did eat, I was conservative about my portions because I didn’t have a lot of money for groceries. I pushed myself to the max, running on fumes, not nourishing my body, and refusing to take a break.

So a year into the pandemic, I found myself on the opposite side of the spectrum. The stimulus payments put food on the table and my husband made sure that I ate well. Since we were all home, he made delicious home cooked meals and indulged my appetite for dessert after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Today he still spoils me with food, but back then he made sure I was shown extra love and care while I was breastfeeding and battling a lot of demons, including recovery from mania and psychosis during pregnancy and two eye surgeries for retinal detachment — one during pregnancy and one after. I let go of the tiny clothes that belonged to my B.C. body and started buying bigger ones, making peace with my new size and shape.

After adjusting my diet and going outside more once the weather got warmer and the lockdowns were lifted, I noticed that the number on the scale kept climbing. Instinctually, I knew this was separate issue that could not be addressed by diet and exercise. After talking to my psychiatrist I realized the we had upped Seroquel to a high enough dose that it started to affect my metabolism. During the pandemic, my Seroquel tolerance increased, making it a less effective sleep aid. After a week of insomnia and failing to adapt to new meds, I finally went back on Seroquel and found it to be effective at the lower dose I was used to. The temporary switch seemed to have restored my body’s relationship with the drug to “factor settings” so to speak. Since taking the lower dose, my weight slowly began to decline. (For a previous post on bipolar medication & weight, see my previous post: Bipolar, Weight & the BMLie).

Once I had taken care of the medication which was causing troubling metabolism issues, I wanted to regain a mastery over my food consumption. Historically, I’ve used certain foods to self-soothe and help me regulate my emotions. For instance, after my weekly therapy session in Midtown a few years back, I would treat myself with an overpriced Belgian waffle from a Wafels & Dinges food cart in front of Macy’s. Every week I would get the same chocolate fudge and strawberry toppings on a warm fluffy waffle sprinkled with powdered sugar. The familiar smell and taste gave me comfort, taking the edge off of any emotional pain I unearthed during therapy. I found that same comfort in food therapy during the pandemic.

Now conscious of how much stamina I have lost, how much muscle has atrophied, and how much more difficulty I have with movement, I realized that my habits needed to change. First, I happened upon an intermittent fasting app called Fastic, which helped me listen to my body and understand my cravings. After three month trial period, I reconfigured my relationship to food, hunger, and bodily cues. This has been more important than losing weight, although the ability to do so with ease and less punitive body shaming has been a plus.

This all brings me to where I am today. I joined a gym after two years of relative inactivity. While I have a long way to go to get back to the level of fitness I had before, I look forward to setting new goals and attaining a level of health I couldn’t grasp before. As I get back in the swing of things, I am bringing greater self-knowledge and lessons from my past mistakes. I know that the highs of exercise are dangerous when they are not taken in moderation, since they put me at risk for manic episodes and the compulsion to keep pushing myself without breaks. I hope that I will get back to a place where I can teach Zumba and Kickboxing classes like I used to. However, I’ll have to tread that road carefully with lots of patience, resisting the urge to go from thing to thing, gig to gig, piling on more and more.

As ambitious as I am, I have to remember that showing up to a “Strength and Stilettos” class at my local Crunch facility under the threat of the Omicron variant is already a huge victory. I may never be as fit as I was in 2019, but I’m certainly on my way and going in a healthier direction.

Image Description: Fruits and nuts in a heart-shaped wooden bowl accompanied by a water bottle, measuring tape, and pink dumbbells.

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