Part three of Size Matters identifies that part of my obesity issue was the pattern of constant change. Countries, schools, friends, homes and relationships. Externally the stress was not visible but internally I needed comfort in the form of food. As I began to work with others who also struggled with their weight, it became clear, that they too often had change as an important element of their younger lives.
Chapter Three – A Life of Change.
I was the youngest daughter of a naval officer. The travel log for the first twelve years of my life was: England, Ceylon, England, Malta, England, South Africa, England. We actually made seven moves, with seven new schools and seven new sets of friends. During this formative twelve-year period, my father was away for a number of years with the Royal Navy, and his presence, or lack of it, is evident in a little story that happened when I was five.
We moved to Ceylon when I was eighteen months old, but I do remember when we returned to England, at the age of three, to my mother’s old home in a small village. We moved again, within a short period, to the naval city of Portsmouth. Then my father was sent to Cyprus, and I really did not get a chance know him very well. When I was five he came home on leave and I screamed the house down when I found this strange man in bed with my mummy! He had lost a lot of hair by then and had put on some weight, no longer bearing much resemblance to the skinny blond man in the picture my mother kept by her bedside.
In the frequent absences of my father, my sisters, who were ten and eleven years older than me, took me under their wing and played a large part in my upbringing. On reflection, while travel to foreign places was exciting, there was an element of insecurity which may have steered me towards seeking comfort in food, as I looked for something constant and unchanging to cling to.
When I was very young, I obviously realised that there were certain behaviours you could adopt, when placed in an unfamiliar environment, which helped make you less noticeable. One of my neatest tricks was to adopt the local accent of every place we were stationed. Within weeks of moving to Cape Town, in South Africa, I was attending an Afrikaans school. At school I adopted a very strong Afrikaans accent and you would never have detected that I had not been brought up locally. Then, as soon as we moved back to Preston in Northern England, I changed my accent again so that I could have easily passed as a native-born Lancastrian.
With all the moves and school changes, my education had suffered. Each school or country had a different curriculum, and coming back to England at thirteen it was hard to try and catch up in the subjects I was due to take for ‘O level’. I was seriously behind in Mathematics, French, History and English. In fact, I hated writing prose – mainly because I was unfamiliar with many of the rules of grammar. So, to avoid the need for commas and colons, I wrote all my essays and homework in poetic verse, an unusual feat that my teachers actually let me get away with. I am sure that they would be hugely surprised to find out that I have been writing prose for a living for some time now.
Weight was already beginning to be a problem even at that time in my life. And in our last year in Cape Town I managed to put on 42 lbs (3 st, 19 kg) in weight. This is a big change for a child and, in the next chapter, I will cover what I believe to be the significant root causes for this gain.
Physical education following my weight gain was something I really hated at school, especially the communal showers we were forced to take afterwards. This was mainly because it was my first experience of being teased about my size.
Teenage girls can be pretty nasty when they put their minds to it, and if you have ever been at the receiving end of this kind of ‘teasing’ you will know how it makes you feel. So, in self-defence, I became the only girl in the school to have periods for three weeks out of four, and PE classes became much less of a problem. For those occasions where I still had to attend I ‘developed’ athlete’s foot so that I wouldn’t have to go into the showers. Basically, I was learning to use my imagination to manipulate my way out of situations that I could not handle.
By the time we returned to England, I was thirteen years old and when we got to Lancashire I was attending my fifth school to date. I worked hard, trying to catch up with the rest of my classmates in all the major subjects. But, the Navy being what it is, my father was transferred again. This time we moved back to the south of England, back to our house in Portsmouth, where I attended my sixth and final school and stayed there to take my ‘O level’ exams.
I actually slimmed down over the next four years. A normal active teenager, I started smoking at the age of fifteen and avoided school dinners to pay for my cigarettes. Luckily, the threat of teenage acne persuaded me to abandon sweets. Socially it was a busy time, with youth clubs and discos. Boys came into the equation rather than chocolate and, at sixteen, I was far too busy enjoying myself to spend time eating. This period of starving myself was to have a bearing on my weight gain in later years and I will explore this discovery in the next chapter.
As you can see, change was a constant part of my childhood. Moving to different countries introduced me to interesting and different cultures, but my education suffered as a result of changing schools so frequently. However, at heart we are all survivors, and when confronted with strange places, people and behaviour, we will adapt in any way we can. In my case, I changed my accent and dived into the chocolate!
Don’t think that I am trying to blame my childhood for my weight – even children have choices. But, apart from giving up sweets as a teenager, I did not exhibit much willpower where food was concerned. I couldn’t say no to anything that tasted the slightest bit sweet. To keep this in perspective, we have to remember that when we are children, and even when we are adults, we don’t always link our eating to our weight gain. We may understand intellectually but we do not understand emotionally. We do not truly accept that just one little bar of chocolate can do much damage. There is no immediate, obvious, weight gain and we don’t become emotionally committed to the belief that changing what we eat can really change our weight. Change needs strong emotional commitment. This lack of emotional commitment to losing weight was one of the missing elements all through my life until I decided to lose all the extra weight at forty-two years of age.
A quick review of the years since my late teens revealed a definite pattern. I was married far too young, at twenty. My husband and I were mismatched and the marriage ended in divorce five years later. During those years we managed to move seven times. Despite the problems within my marriage the joint decision we made to end our relationship was not taken lightly. Following a miscarriage early in our marriage we had no children, and, with or without children, it was a difficult time. Remember too that in the mid-seventies divorce was not as widely accepted as it is today. Again, the pattern was one of constant change with the added element of extreme emotional stress. This reinforced my need to establish familiar, comfortable territory, and food would never let me down.
Over the next three years I moved twice. Money was not plentiful and, stupidly, I spent more on smoking than on putting food into my mouth. Since meeting my second husband we have moved thirteen times in thirty-five years. In fact, because we have had temporary homes when we have worked in separate cities, we have actually had something like sixteen or seventeen addresses since 1980. Luckily, my marriage also brought me emotional stability that enabled me to at least change environments within a loving relationship. Not quite as scary as it might have been.
In my search for answers, I soon came to the realisation that change has been a major factor in my life from early childhood. I adapted to that change externally by acting the fool, changing my accent and trying to please people so that they accepted me. Overeating was my way of coping with the changes. When I was unhappy, I would buy a bar of chocolate. As a teenager, smoking became the sugar substitute and I lost weight. Under some circumstances, being heavy also probably gave me a sense of security and confidence. Nobody was going to bully me.
As an adult, I have also been faced with a great deal of change. However, when I look objectively at each of those changes, I can see that half of them were probably unnecessary. Change for change’s sake. But why? Now, I think that not only was it ingrained in me to expect change, but also each instance of change offered me the opportunity to become a different person. I could start afresh, in a place where nobody knew me, and then leave again before they saw behind the wall that I had built around me.
Talking to friends who have known me for some time has revealed that nearly all of them felt that it took a long time to get to know me, and that they never really knew where they stood with me. They felt I was aloof and secretive. What they did not realise and I have only just come to understand is that I spent most of my life feeling afraid. To the outside world I was a capable, adaptable girl and woman who made things look easy, whereas in fact I was just a very accomplished actress.
Happily, things are different now. I am slimmer, confident and open with people. I have helped many other people to discover how to lose weight. I find that opening up to them about my own experiences is vitally important, not only to show that I understand the way they feel about themselves, but also so that they realise that being reticent is a natural way of protecting ourselves.
Luckily, I have always had the support of my husband and my family. When I began the process of losing weight twenty years ago, David suggested that we both enrol together on some self-motivation courses. He felt that it would help support the process of losing weight by adding some extra ‘equipment’ to my tool-kit for making such a major change.
We both also believe that a shared experience is generally much more fun, more memorable, and longer lasting than one where we are alone. For me, it also meant that I would have some company on the long, hard, cold road that I would have to travel in order to lose 154 lbs (11 st, 70 kg). Apart from the fun we had together doing these courses, we also discovered new aspects to our relationship and hidden strengths that have certainly helped me overcome major obstacles along the way.
We moved to Ireland in 1998 and bought a house north of Dublin in County Meath. We were very close to Bettystown beach which provided a wonderful opportunity for long walks with our newly acquired family member. Sam, a ‘Lassie’ collie, whom I first met when he was only three weeks old.
During my first marriage, through circumstances that were beyond my control, I had to give up two collies. One female was eighteen months old and had been my support through some very hard times. The second was a male whom I had to leave behind when he was only eighteen months old, because of my divorce. My heart was broken both times. David and I had waited eighteen years until I could be sure that I could devote the time and effort needed to give a home to another dog. Sam was my companion, my fitness trainer and my great friend for ten years. There is no shadow of a doubt in my mind that, if he had not introduced me to the joys of sunrise in the dunes, I would not have lost all my weight so easily.
Change never stops, however, and just when I thought we were settled in Ireland, David was offered a wonderful opportunity to move to Madrid. For the first time in my life I turned down change. I was not actively seeking it and I did not embrace it. We had just bought our house, found Sam and I had just bought a new health and dietary centre in our local town. Apart from the financial losses incurred by both of us moving to Spain, it would also have meant that I again would interrupt something that I was involved in passionately to start all over again in another country.
However, there was no way that I wanted to stand in David’s way. He is a brilliant businessman and this job was the pinnacle of a successful career. Our relationship was strong enough to make a compromise.
For three years David and I exchanged visits between Ireland and Spain every few weeks. We also managed to spend holidays together, I loved him and missed him dreadfully, I hated coming home from our house in Spain and when he returned from a visit to us in Ireland. But this time I was strong enough – with sufficiently security to know that our relationship would not suffer because we were not together all the time.
In fact, by leading two lives we found stimulation and challenges that have strengthened our feelings for each other.
Following my nutritional studies I ran the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre in Ireland for four years. During that period and then in the UK, I worked with over a thousand clients with obesity and other dietary related problems including fertility. This close involvement with men and women who needed help to adjust their lifestyles, and to regain their health, benefited me as well, as it taught me that I was not alone in my struggle and put me in the position of role model. There was certainly no opportunity for me to backslide and it reinforced my determination to maintain my weight loss.
This travelling back and forth to Spain actually satisfied my inherent need for change in my life. Eventually we could not stay apart any longer and in 2002 I decided to move permanently to Spain. I worked between Madrid and Marbella, writing for magazine columns and providing weight and health programming for English speaking radio every week. I published my first fiction ‘Just and Odd Job Girl’ and since then six more books.
For five years, I commuted back and forth to the UK for varying periods to stay with my mother in her 90s. During the times I was in Portsmouth I presented radio shows for a local station, worked with clients and continued to write articles and my books. Following her death at home, at age 95, I returned full time to our home in Madrid and as well as my daily blog posts I have published two more books with another two due at the end of 2015.
You have a choice about the past, use it or lose it. The experiences from our childhood and young adulthood have the ability to haunt many for the rest of their lives. Certainly I was privileged to have had a loving home and family with frequent moves the only disruption. I chose to use that experience in my work, both as a therapist and as a writer. I appreciate that not everyone has such happy memories but, even then, sometimes you have to realise that you cannot change the past, only the present and the future.
Now that I accept that, I also accept and adapt to change much better. One thing that I do differently today is to think about the change that is happening, and instead of leaping blindly into the next adventure, I give some thought to where it will place me, and the effect it will have on both my health and my relationships. Of course today – moving countries does not mean changing friends. With email, Skype and social media no-one gets left behind!
The previous chapters of Size Matters are here.
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