It has been about 1.5 years since I managed to successfully drop about 17kgs and completely alter my relationship to food and my overall health and lifestyle. I started this journey because I felt I had to. I was deeply disgusted with my entire life at the time. I was sad, unmotivated, depressed, afraid, insecure and overweight. Post graduation, I filled my days with meaningless work and most of my nights with alcohol and/fast food. I was essentially numbing myself to life and at intervals having panic attacks about potentially getting cancer due to my unhealthy lifestyle. I did not recognise myself when I stood in front the mirror. I hated how heavy I felt when I moved and how quickly breathless I became when I attempted most physical activities. I did not like myself and I felt truly hopeless for the first time in my life. This post details the key stages marking my descent into this state and what finally prompted me to change it.
THE GENESIS (0 -15 YEARS)
My initial relationship with food was primarily influenced by my mother. She was a sweet tooth who always had fudges in her bag. My earliest and fondest memories of mum involve one sort of sweet treat or another. I remember devising different ways I could entertain her so that she would reward me with that yummy bar of sugar. I remember another time when I was about 8 years old, I had just come home from a birthday party with a goody bag filled with chocolate. Mum saw my sweet haul and asked for one. When I refused, mum chased me up and down the house laughing and teasing me. When she finally caught me, she tickled me relentlessly then grabbed one of my chocolates. I grumbled and perhaps shed a tear over her theft, but got over it pretty quick as I gave in to her tickles, kisses and hugs. These experiences led me to create an association between sugar and love. Mother and I bonded, socialised, laughed, and sometimes cried over sweets.
I was introduced to the idea that sweets might be bad by my father. One afternoon, as my family and I were driving out of town, mum decided to give us all eclairs. My brother and I excitedly gobbled ours down seconds after she had distributed them. She gave one to my dad, and he tossed it out of the window. I remember both mum and I being absolutely horrified. He said he tossed it because it was not healthy. Mum was irritated and asked him why he didn’t just refuse the sweet rather than throwing it out. I was perplexed as well. How could anyone toss away a sweet? It was soo yummy. How could it not be good, when it tasted so good. I was too young to process the concept that something that tastes good is not necessarily something that is good. So I quickly concluded that my father was mad and proceeded to ask mum for another sweet.
Growing up, there was unfortunately always a clear association between healthy food and it being gross. I have so many memories of being forced to eat certain bland and often unpalatable foods, because they were ‘healthy’. One particularly uncomfortable memory is when my siblings and I would be forced to eat plain boiled pumpkin. We would not be allowed to leave the dinner table until that slice of over-boiled and season-less pumpkin slice was gone. I still have a gag reflex every time I think of that time. We were also made to drink plain beetroot juice nearly every day for a while. It was horrible. Any chance I would get, I would pour out the juice, or trick my friends into exchanging it with something tastier. Unfortunately, this sort of dieting created the notion in my head that all healthy foods were disgusting and that there was no way to help this. This hypothesis was further fortified by my wider community. I would watch my parents and other relatives going on juice cleanses and diet overhauls that seemed to make them miserable, only to backtrack less than a month in. It looked like bizarre and ultimately unsustainable life strategy. I vowed I would eat what made me happy and never apologise for it.
When mum got diagnosed with breast cancer, she changed her lifestyle immediately. I did not know she had cancer, I just knew that all of a sudden, her food choices became absolutely restrictive, healthy (boiled and bland) and she no longer had fudges in her bag. Her stubbornness to satiate her sweet tooth suddenly vanished. Seemingly overnight, she started to drink 8 glasses of water daily, drink neem tea, drink wheatgrass juice, boil/steam all her food, cut out all forms of sugar and processed foods, chew her food 30 times prior to swallowing, shower with cold water and have daily reflexology massages. It was weird. But I was young and unaware, so I just went with the flow and would make fun of her as she slowly chewed her food and washed it down with a disgusting glass of spinach juice. A few months later, she was rushed to hospital and my father finally told us that mum had breast cancer. Suddenly the drastic changes made sense. She was trying to heal her body through fixing her nutrition and lifestyle. Unfortunately, it did not work. What this showed me is that though people have the capability of altering their lifestyles, the catalyst for doing so is often either incredible pain or the possibility of death.
Watching my mother desperately fight for her life and ultimately fail, fractured my mind into two factions: The Advocate (The voices that cheered me on and had me believe that I had the ability to change my life and to pursue happiness), and The Saboteur (The voices that emphasised the futility of trying. They told me that it did not matter what I did, I was going to die, just like she died). It was through this two splintered and conflicting lenses that I started to perceive and interpret my world. Unfortunately, I also live in a society that gets very nervous about discussing mental anguish and trauma. So I had to process my grief, confusion and the subsequent mental warfare by myself. The Advocate and the Saboteur fought feverishly in my mind for years. They nullified each other over and over again and left me numb. This numbness put me in a state of autopilot. When you are on autopilot, what keeps you running are the base codes that are embedded in your mode of operation. Sadly, I had pretty terrible base codes. I associated sugar with love and bonding, I hated “healthy food”, I watched my mother die despite her overhauling her lifestyle, and I never processed my grief. These tenets formed the building blocks of how I created my automated food habits as I went into adolescence.
AUTOPILOT (15 – 18 YEARS)
One major issue with many schools in Kenya is how little attention they pay to the overall development of the children in their care. When I was 15 years old, my father insisted that I had to go to boarding school. Over my entire high school experience I went to 3 different boarding schools in 3 different counties. What was evident was how little mind was taken about the nutritional content of the food provided. The first school I went to was Moi Forces Girls in Lanet. The food was horrendous. It consisted of 70% white ugali and bread, 20% boiled greens and 10% weevil riddled beans or disgusting fatty meats. Occasionally, we would get a piece of fruit which was literally my version of nirvana at the time. To survive that place, I started to draw for people in order to be paid in white bread and oranges. For the entire duration of my time there, all I ate was white bread and oranges. I was there for only one semester (3.5 months). Despite this, this cemented some my most detrimental nutritional habits. I switched schools and went to Green Garden Schools. Though the food was slightly better in this institution, I still favoured the simpler carbs and fruit. This time I added white rice to the list of favoured foods. I was there for 2.5 years. My final year of high school was done in Elite Senior School. I had braces, so I paid extra to have a special diet that was supposed to be gentler on my teeth. This meal plan consisted only of carbs. It was white rice with potato stew for all meals. I would trade a good chunk of my food for oranges and continued with the same terrible high carb, nutritionally imbalanced diet that I was introduced to when I was 15. My diet for those four years kept me chubby. But at that time I attributed my weight to my genetics. A notion that removed all accountability of my health from me.
When it comes to physical activities, all three institutions had different principles they prescribed to. But even with these principles, there was no real education for why moving your body was important. Moi Forces was a brutal and honestly ridiculous environment when it came to this notion. It was a military based school, and we were forced to run everywhere we went. Everywhere. Even to the washroom. One of the most hilarious and annoying memories I have was being forced to run for about 2 hours along a trail outside the school. Since I avidly loathed running, I was at the tail end of the marathon and out of nowhere, my math teacher riding a bike and holding a large stick raced up to us and was hitting us to ran faster. As I weaved though the trees and ducked the lashes of the stick, I could not believe what I was experiencing. I was genuinely being herded like a fucking sheep. My hatred for exercise and cardio was utterly solidified in that school. Green Garden was a better institution. They stressed that everyone had to pick a sport. I tried out for basketball. 5 minutes into trials, I was lightheaded and heaving, and I tasted blood in my mouth from the cardio. A clear no. I chose swimming because it had the least cardio. We would swim for a minimum of 40 mins a day 5 days a week. It was actually really great. I got stronger, I enjoyed the competitiveness and I was excited about the sport. This was swiftly halted in Elite School where form 4 students were banned from all sports and had to dedicate all their time to studying for the final exam. My take home from this time was that cardio equaled to punishment, and that exercise was not really a priority.
Throughout my high school days, I also created a serious binging habit. Every time I would go home for a short holiday, I would binge on all the foods that I could not have during the semester. My binges typically consisted on lots of chocolate, pizza, chips, crisps and sweets. I would stuff myself to the brim during the short breaks, then head to school where I would exist on a high carb, nutritionally devoid diet. After I finished high school, I continued this unhealthy way of eating, and added alcohol to my diet. The key lessons I learnt for these 4 years was that simple carbs were delicious, exercise is an unnecessary hustle and the occasional binge is okay.
STARVE- BINGE PROTOCAL (20 -26 YRS)
University is where all my terrible habits truly flourished. I went to the UK to do my bachelors degree. Here, my health was a total non-factor. I had skewed financial priorities. I spent most of my money on fast fashion and nights out. For my diet, I adopted a lifestyle of 9 months of starvation during my semesters followed by 3 months of binging during the summers. My typical meals consisted of lots of white bread, baked beans, cheap sausages, frozen fries and far too much cheap chocolate. When I would come home for the summer, I always looked gaunt and emaciated and it was evident that my health was suffering. But that would radically change because over those 3 to 4 months I would stuff myself so that by the time I left home to go back to uni, I had definitely ”stored some food for winter”. My exercise during that period only consisted of walking through malls or walking to school and the occasional all night partying. But that was it. In between these “cardio” sessions, I was essentially a sloth, and could hibernate in my bed for days. For those 4 years, my weight fluctuated ridiculously between being a weak looking 47kgs during my semesters to gaining about 8-10kgs during my 3 month breaks to about 57kgs. This period really highlights for me how dangerous it is to be on autopilot. I cannot remember a single point in that period where I thought to myself perhaps what I was doing to my body was harmful. I completely accepted these detrimental behaviours as a solid part of who I was. After my undergrad, I spiralled into new lows and finally had to confront my unhealthy lifestyle.
After I finished my degree, I came back home excited to start a new chapter in my life. Unfortunately, I carried on the starve-binge cycle that I had utilised for years. I ate what I wanted for a while and began to panic after a few months when I realised that I could no longer just leave the country and starve myself in order to lose the extra weight. To remedy this, and in full compliance with my starve-binge protocol, I tried every fad diet that was sent via whatsapp. It was quick, fast and had a myriad testimonials from all the whatsapp mums and aunties. I was easily attracted to whatever suggestion that hinted that I could transform my life in 30 days or less, totally ignoring the fact that I had gotten to this stage because of years, no, a lifetime of poor nutritional education and propensity to automate my life. So I drank the boiled cabbage juice and detox juices, survived for weeks on less than 1000 calories per day, drank the skinny teas and in the process, completely obliterated my metabolism. In the short term, after doing one of these “diet plans”, I lost quite a lot of weight, but the moment I even so much as smelled regular food, I put on more weight than I had lost. I was not aware that my metabolism had almost ground to halt. I would also overeat after my diets subconsciously, as my body tried to store as much food as it could in case I decided to starve myself again. I was actively starving myself, but rebranding it as dieting. For 2 years, I was caught in a loop of extreme hunger and extreme binging. What was more disparaging, is that this form of dieting was something that was hawked by the wider society. Finding myself significantly worse off than I started made me start to question my ideas, mistrust the rhetoric around me.
In between diets and at the peak of my terrible lifestyle, my weekends would be filled with copious amounts of fast food, lots of alcohol fuelled nights out and lots of sugary treats. Though my weekdays were relatively low key, I would consume a minimum of 3000 calories a day from Friday to Sunday every week. I also never ever exerted myself physically. I remember having a conversation with a friend confused about how “I don’t eat much” yet I am gaining so much weight. At some point I even started to believe that my weight gain had nothing to do with me, but was just my genetics. I started to follow women who had embraced their larger bodies and started using terms like voluptuous, lusty and thick to describe myself. All this was done in an attempt to shield me from my reality. And the reality was, I was in denial, I was not healthy, it was my fault and I did not have the tools nor resources to help myself. Aside from the evident physical toll that this lifestyle was having on my body, I was also suffering emotionally, financially, spiritually and mentally. Yet I was so unaware of this! I started to break down after this.
THE UNRAVELLING (26 YRS)
People rarely make drastic changes. Change is usually sparked by great pain, sheer desperation, or the fear of death. Mine was death. Over the years, The Saboteur seduced me into the darkness and tried to drown me. The Advocate fought for me barely keeping me afloat. I started to become aware of the precariousness of my existence. The main trigger was standing in front of the mirror and seeing my mother look back at me. I look like her. And the more weight I gained, the more I looked like her just before she got the news that she had cancer. The more I looked like her, the more I started to feel like I was courting the same disease that took her away from me. The unprocessed grief crashed in and threatened to kill me. Ever minute of my day was haunted with thoughts of self hatred interwoven with memories of my mother laughing then dying seconds apart from each other. The Advocate and the Saboteur in me continued to thrash violently in my mind and hold me captive and unable to do anything but watch myself disintegrate in their war. I became intimately aware that I had lost control over my life. I was not in the driving seat; I had not been for years. The car was on autopilot, and I was headed straight for the same cliff that killed my mother. I felt helpless to change the fate I was manifesting. Anxiety set in as I began to grapple with my own culpability. I could no longer touch my breasts when I showered. Every time I found myself eating fast food or chocolates, I imagined by body cells metastasising. I could feel phantom aches flickering through my breasts as I tried to sleep. Whenever I walked up flights of stairs and heard my laboured breath and felt the lethargy petrifying my muscles, I knew my body was deteriorating. I could not sleep. Alcohol no longer quieted the angst. All the suppressed thoughts twisted themselves into demons in my mind. Every time I ate terrible food the guilt and fear would crush me. The Advocate got louder and angrier and begged me to wake up. I reached a crossroads. I either had to change now when I still could muster some stamina to do so, or commit to that desolate path I was trudging along. I chose change. The decision to change was made not because it was easy to do so, but because it was too painful for me to keep living the way I was. It was easier to change than to suffocate in the darkness that had become my life. It was easier to change than it was to die.
Over the next few posts I will be detailing the steps it took for me to finally commit to this journey.