The Pat Conroy section at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon
September 2012 was the inaugural PAT CONROY MONTH!! That month I read Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline, and Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. How in the hell did I read four whole books in a month? I can barely do two these days. And I can talk all I want about how the books I’ve read this year are much longer and more linguistically/thematically “dense” than the ones I read in September 2012, but it’s just not true. It isn’t really the books that are different. It’s me. And I can’t really talk about how I’m different now without relating some ancient history. So bear with me, I promise it’ll get back to books and Pat Conroy eventually.
My pediatrician told my mom and me when I was about eleven that I was going to struggle with my weight for my entire life. And that was a true statement. I wonder if he knew how true it was going to be. I was never a skinny kid, not ever. I wouldn’t say I was fat (though I thought I was and several especially kind elementary school classmates told me I was), but I was not a teeny tiny girl. Short, yes. Petite, no. I managed to keep weight off pretty well through high school, thanks to two years of crew and my mother’s management of my food intake. But once I was on my own, things got a bit hairy. I was up and down throughout college, always staying in the same couple of sizes of pants. But after my now-husband and I started dating in 1999 I went ahead and gained weight steadily for two years until in February 2002 I did Weight Watchers and lost thirty-eight pounds. And then I started vet school. I didn’t quite hit my goal weight then, but I was so close it felt like I had “finished.” The problem with my Weight Watchers era was that I made the stupid assumption that some day I would be “done,” and could go back to eating “normally,” and the weight would stay off. How naïve, right? What I’ve learned this time is something that my pediatrician was trying to tell me when I was a kid: what I consider “normal” eating is not actually normal. It’s excessive. Even now, after almost a year of closely monitoring my daily caloric intake, and knowing how to listen to my body when it begins to feel like I’ve eaten enough, I could eat more. I would eat until my stomach literally couldn’t hold anymore. At my heaviest, I would eat until I was so full I would have trouble breathing. It was an awful feeling.
The first year and a half of vet school I did pretty well. I gained a little bit of weight back, but I was going to the gym a few times a week and trying to ride my bike to school every once in a while. I ate Weight Watchers frozen meals for lunch. I ate so many frozen meals my first two years of vet school that I cannot eat them now. By the end of my second year of vet school I would bring one to school for lunch, look at it, and just throw it in the garbage. But at the holidays in 2003 I was walking down the stairs at my apartment complex. In the dark. In the rain. In slippers. Reading a Christmas letter from my friend in Minnesota. And I fell. Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m not the most graceful person, but this was different. The next morning my ankle was swollen and bruised and painful. I went to the health center and they said that I didn’t need x-rays and wrapped me in an Ace bandage. The doctor (I use the term loosely) said to recheck if it wasn’t looking any better after a while, and he may have given me a handout with exercises for me to do. As a terrible patient, I didn’t really do much that I was supposed to do. I thought I’d just feel better in a few days. I didn’t. My right ankle gave me trouble for years. These days it’s okay but sometimes it still aches a little. Trying to exercise with a sprained ankle was a level of discomfort I didn’t have any desire to engage in, so I stopped going to the gym. Coincidentally winter quarter of one’s second year of veterinary school is a pretty stressful time, and probably the worst time to pick to stop exercising. 2004 to 2005 was this spiral of depression and comfort eating for me. I remember one Saturday in the fall of 2004 I was supposed to be studying for a test in Food Animal Medicine. I sat on my couch with the book open all day long. I couldn’t look at it. I watched TV and ate. And then I dropped the class the next day. After a few months (and some time in therapy), I started to crawl out of my hole and emotionally I felt better. As far as the eating and being lazy, that continued. I was well aware of what I was doing. I knew there would have to be a reckoning sometime. I just kept putting it off. Senior year came around and I surely had no time to exercise then. Too busy. Studying for boards, being on clinics, all that. Besides, everyone says they lose weight on clinics. I did not. But once vet school was over I would get serious. I even got a gift card to Gap as a graduation present from my good friend Leah that I swore I wouldn’t use until I lost all the weight I’d gained in vet school. I still have it. That’s some self-control right there.
I started my first job after vet school and it was at an emergency clinic working overnights. Only three days a week! Surely I would have a ton of time to exercise working there. How naïve was I? Only a person who had never worked in private practice before would think that working twelve overnights a month with no more than a forty-eight hour break between shifts would have a “ton of free time.” I am writing this and shaking my head at my younger self. It seemed like all I did for the seven months I worked there was work and sleep and all I wore was scrubs. That being said, I did manage to exercise a bit while I was there and lose some weight, not much, but it was a start. And then I lost my job there and started working where I work now. I also coincidentally discovered a love of sushi around this time. And wine. And this whole time I knew that the time was coming when I’d have to stop eating again and get things back in order. Best to enjoy myself while I was getting ready to buckle down. But buckling down was so hard and I was so busy and so tired. And food was so good. I avoided scales and looking at myself in full-length mirrors. In June of 2007 I finally looked at the scale at the doctor: 203 pounds. Well, that sucks, I thought. But now is the time to get things together. But my job that I thought would be so much easier because it was days not overnights took more time than I thought. Poor baby veterinarian Jill. And so I continued to sit. And eat. And shop. And read. In 2008 my fiancé (now-husband) and I finally decided to set a date for our wedding: October 10, 2009. So I rejoined Weight Watchers and rejoined the gym I’d belonged to in vet school. I don’t know that I ever actually weighed in. I remember tracking food for a few days. But planning a wedding is stressful. And it was hard to drive the fifteen minutes to get to the gym. And then I had an abscess in my leg and I had to stop working out for a while. And by the time it was healed I had lost my motivation. So I kept eating and reading and sitting. And then we got married and I weighed about 215 pounds. And my dress was beautiful but I looked sort of like a whale in my wedding pictures. Not my photographer’s fault, of course. I love my wedding pictures; I just hate how I look in them. After the wedding things continued as they had. I didn’t really think about stopping what I called “the food party” for a while. I mentioned something about losing weight on Facebook. My little sentence about myself (back when they still had those) was something like, “Well now that the wedding’s over I guess I should start losing some weight.” Super-enthusiastic, right? I even joined a gym, a different one this time. Closer to home. A three minute drive. I never went. I paid $19 a month for a year and never set foot in that place except on the day I joined and the day I quit.
Sometime in 2009 or 2010 I started having occasional “hot flashes” at work that I attributed to the air conditioning being set too high. And I was waking up a lot in the middle of the night sweating. But in September 2010 I learned that those were probably blood pressure spikes. My doctor actually took my blood pressure herself and it was 180/110. She freaked out a little. So I had a health issue because of obesity. Or maybe it was because of my antidepressants? Or maybe it was because I have a family history of hypertension? Who was I kidding? I weighed 220 pounds then. I thought now is the time. But my blood pressure regulated on medication and I put thoughts of dieting and exercising out of my mind again. An interesting side effect of the medication was that I had a terrible dry bronchitis-like cough for the entire two years I was on it. My doctor offered to switch me off them onto something different but I thought that would be side stepping the problem—I felt like I deserved that cough in a way. If I was going to be fat and lazy and hypertensive, I deserved to cough so badly I almost vomited on a daily basis. I tried to chalk it up to seasonal allergies (I do live in the central valley of California after all), but I don’t cough now. Not at all. And so two more years went by that way. I may have lost a little weight in 2011 when my husband forced me to go walking with him for a few months. But then it was summer and it was hot and I was so tired. So that stopped. Whenever I flew in 2011 and 2012 my ankles got so swollen they actually hurt for days afterwards, especially when I went to Kansas last summer. But maybe that was the heat and humidity? Probably had nothing to do with my weight. Right? So I took my blood pressure medication and went about my business.
A sea change began when for Lent in 2012 I gave up sweets. And it wasn’t that hard. And I sort of felt better. That year we went to Yosemite for a conference and I turned 35 while we were there. We went on a lot of hikes and I was so tired and sore. But it felt good. We saw the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove. They were beautiful. We went on a hike that was probably not that strenuous but was pretty hard for me at the time. I remember saying to Jacob that I thought it was almost time to change. I wanted to hike and see beautiful things and not be so sore or out of breath. These thoughts rolled around in my head for a few months. My friends from vet school planned a trip to Yosemite for Labor Day 2013. I said to myself, I will be in shape for that trip. I will go to the Mariposa Grove and not get winded. I don’t know that I said anything to anyone about that at the time. Ironically, because of the Rim Fire this summer that trip got cancelled. But I could have done that Mariposa Grove hike. And somehow all of a sudden it was October, 2012. And my good friend and coworker Katee posted on Facebook about joining MyFitnessPal and losing her baby weight. And I said I’d do it with her. And I knew it was time. And Jacob joined too. And the rest is history.
I set up some rules for myself when I started this weight loss journey. It wouldn’t be about weight. It would be about being healthy. I do have a goal weight in mind, but I’m not obsessed with reaching an end point. I know that this is never going to end. There will never again be a time in my life when it will be okay to eat sushi three times a week and drink wine every night and have yummy dessert three times a day. There are still daily trips to Starbucks, but I don’t have full fat mochas with whipped cream. I have iced coffee now. My goals have been more about getting off blood pressure medication (which I did in January), and fitting into old zippy boots (almost there), exercising almost every day, and not eating fast food (not since February), than about how fast I’m going to get skinny. I ask myself before I eat something junky if it’s worth the calories. And if it isn’t to me, then I don’t eat it. Most of the time, at least. Hey, I’m only human. I have inspired some of the girls I work with to be more like me. I remember one of them saying something about how I’m always so good about bringing food to work. I looked at her and just laughed. Because I used to go out to eat every day. I was so bad for so long that it amuses the hell out of me that people I haven’t known for long think of me as a healthy person. But I guess now I am.
So that’s my story of what’s been going on in my life since last year’s PAT CONROY MONTH!! As of this morning I have lost almost fifty-two pounds and four pants sizes. I feel better than I have in years. I’m not tired all the time. I can run! I sort of hate running, but it’s amazing to me that I can do it. My ankles do still swell when it’s hot out, but not so badly it hurts to walk.
I promised I would get back to Pat Conroy before the end of this post. I always feel like reading Pat Conroy is like visiting old friends: who I was when I discovered him, who I have been at all the points I’ve read his books, Pat Conroy himself, and all the versions of himself that he puts into his fiction. Pat Conroy was the first writer I was aware of who drew from his own life to create his stories. I never realized peopled did that before I read him. Now I look for truth in every book of fiction I read and when I learn something about a writer’s life and see something similar in one of his or her books, I get excited. Finding kernels of truth in fiction brings me closer to the author and to the story. Reading Pat Conroy has helped me to see that everyone brings their own history to everything they do. It shapes my life as a veterinarian and a reader and a blogger. And it shapes his fictional universe. So if it does that for me and Pat, surely everyone else lives their lives that way too. And, of course, I can never think of Pat Conroy or my reading life without thinking of Bethany. She opened my life up to a world beyond the young adult section of the bookstore. I am sure I would have gotten there eventually on my own, but I didn’t quite know where to start. She gave me a starting place. “C,” for Conroy. And though our tastes in books are not always the same, and though she makes fun of me for my intermittent attempts at bringing order to the chaos of reading (in college I tried to read my books in alphabetical order. I never made it past the A’s), she will always be one of my reading role models, and a person I can go to to talk about any book. She pushes me to truly think about what I’m reading, to give words to my emotional responses. I am a better reader because of her.
My plan for PAT CONROY MONTH!! is to read My Losing Season, his memoir of his last season on The Citadel basketball team. I actually finished it this morning and thought it was great. I’ll get to my review eventually. I also want to reread The Great Santini, which seems like an especially good idea now that I’ve finished My Losing Season, since Pat talked about his dad so much in that one, and how he was both the same and different from Bull Meecham in The Great Santini. I do find myself being a titch annoyed with Pat because his newest book, The Death of Santini, doesn’t come out until the end of October. Doesn’t he know that September is his month on Postcards from Purgatory? What I really want to say to Pat Conroy is this: thank you for pouring so much of yourself into your novels and your memoirs. Thank you for being a constant in my reading life for the past twenty plus years. I’ve grown up with you. I may make fun of your hyperbole, but only because it hits me in all my soft, sentimental places, and I don’t always like to admit that those places exist. I don’t think I’ve gotten through a single one of your books without either crying (I sobbed when I read The Lords of Discipline the first time) or feeling tears welling up in my eyes. When I write about the past, I can hear your voice inside me. You are one of our inspirations for writing this blog. Postcards from Purgatory would not be the same without your influence on us.