Whenever I felt self-conscious about weight gain, I would always excuse my insecurities by saying, "Who cares? It is what it is. I'm happy."
It was true. I wasn't unhappy about my forty extra pounds, but I always had to end the statement right after the word "happy," because adding anything else would be a lie. What was I going to say? "I'm happy to have to unzip my jeans every time I sit down"? Or: "I'm happy that I'm four sizes bigger than I used to be"? Or: "I'm happy that I can't sleep at night because my knees ache from carrying around so many extra pounds"? The whole truth was that I no longer felt comfortable in my skin.
I turned forty years old in 1999 and I think I celebrated that milestone by starting to gain one pound for every year of my life! Somehow, an unnoticed five pounds each year after age forty made its way to my middle and stayed, even though it was getting pretty crowded! The pounds that couldn't squeeze onto my stomach just moved around to my back. It was crafty of them. Out of sight, out of mind.
Even when I had to admit to being a size ten—really a size twelve, which isn't good for a size-four frame—I still kept up the internal dialogue that it was only some "water weight" from the salt on the popcorn, or from flying the red-eye from LA to New York. As most third-graders know, a gallon of water weighs eight pounds, yet I managed to convince my brain that I was carrying five extra gallons of water. You know, I was just like a camel. The fact is a camel's hump is made of fat, and so was mine! However, many women are like camels in that we can take extreme heat in any situation and still keep going. We have to.
The women I know are superb at crisis management. Like most of the women I know, I feel like I do aerobics all day long because I hit the floor running the moment the alarm goes off in the morning.
One of my girlfriends sent me an early-morning e-mail with the subject line "This has to be fiction!" The link was to a blog by a woman describing the start of her day with phrases like: "contemplated the stillness," "loved these moments of peace and quiet as I gazed at my daily list," and "felt the serenity of the morning dew."
Now, there's a bunch of doo if I ever heard it.
I saw my friend an hour later in the same place where we catch up for thirty seconds every weekday, the drop-off lane in front of the grade school. She was trying to apply some mascara in the rearview mirror as her kids unloaded their backpacks and sports equipment from the car.
"Hey!" I called out to her as I wrestled the knot out of the back of Abby's hair, using my finger nails as a comb. "Thanks for the laugh! I have to run this morning and 'contemplate the stillness' of taking my teenager for his driving permit, and then pick up three prescriptions and hurry into the studio to set the sound levels on the song I recorded at midnight last night."
"Oh. A slow morning, then?" she said. "If you have time to chat, I'll be 'gazing' at six loads of laundry, and enjoying having to pry the 'piece' of gum my four-year-old stuck in the DVD player!"
"Have fun!" I waved, folding a last-minute permission slip into a paper airplane and sailing it serenely out the passenger door to my eight-year-old.
As I drove away, I called out to her: "By the way, you have the hose to a gas pump hanging from the side of your car. Love ya!"
The reality for most women I know is that we take care of our kids, spouses, parents, brothers, co-workers, neighbors, community, and brothers. (Did I say that already? Well, mine can be exhausting.) We take care of everybody else, but rarely take the time to care for our own bodies.
Unintentionally, we proclaim our manic lives like a greeting between friends.
"Hey, how are you? Would love to chat, but I'm so stressed."
There's a silent agreement that the most stressed mama wins!! But really, she loses out on a lot more in the long run. Especially when, like me, there is a history of cardiovascular disease in the family.
When my mother had her first massive stroke, I wanted to be with her as much as I could. I would take care of my business obligations during the day, take care of the kids in the evening, and then take care of my mother through the night. I was getting eight hours of sleep...per week!
To energize myself I would get large milkshakes from the hospital cafeteria almost nightly. Ice cream is a wonderful medicine—just ask Dr. Baskin or Dr. Robbins or Dr. Daz, as in Häagen. This probably wouldn't have had a huge effect on my weight except that because I didn't have time to eat all day, I would grab a cheeseburger and fries or taquitos with guacamole or even an ice cream cone with guacamole on the way to the hospital. There's nothing like combining your five servings of fruit with your three servings of dairy in four servings of ice cream! I was starting to look like the food pyramid with legs.
One early, early morning about a month into my mother's hospital stay, as I was leaning over to kiss her good-bye for the day, she whispered to me, "Marie, don't do what I did. Take care of yourself."
As positive as my mom's attitude always was, she could tell that her chances of recovery had now narrowed, mostly because she never made herself a priority. She was too busy to ever put herself first. Besides helping to take care of my father and both sets of my grandparents, there were the nine of us children that she wanted to be certain were cared for well. She also did hours and hours of charity work and maintained five-page newsletters to family, friends, and fans. I guarantee that when it came to responding to other people, the words "deal with it yourself" never crossed my mom's lips.
Following her second stroke at age seventy-seven, she slowly declined over twelve months to the point of being almost immobilized. It was incredibly tough to see my mother's youthful spirit trapped in a worn-out body. Her youthful sense of humor, however, never declined.
After my dad moved my mother home to make her remaining time more enjoyable, day nurses would come to help with medications, breathing equipment, and IVs. In attempting to move her from the bed to a chair one day, the day-care person and my mother both lost their balance and toppled over on the carpeted floor. My father and a close family friend heard the soft thud and hurried into her bedroom. Seeing my mother lying on the floor, unhurt, but with her head halfway under the bed, they asked, "What are you doing?"
The day nurse was about in tears over the incident. My mother, always the caretaker, said, "We're just looking for quarters."
The nurses would duke it out between them to be the one who got to come to my parents' condo to take care of my mother. One of them explained, "We take care of people who aren't nearly as bad off as your mom, but who are so negative. Your mother is so appreciative over any little thing we do for her. She always says thank you, she always makes us laugh, and she always asks about our families."
That's how my sweet mother was, even in the final weeks of her life, never putting herself first.
A hospice nurse once told me that once a patient passes on, there is a strong sense that the spirit of the person stays near their body, though not in it, for at least a little while.
The morning my mother passed away, on Mother's Day of 2004, I could feel her spirit there in the room. As the medical people began to roll away the monitors and remove the respirator, it was as though my mother stood next to me, thanking her body for being so good to her, carrying her through seventy-nine years of living. It had a profound effect on me. I so often ignore that a woman's body is not only a miracle because it can give birth, but because it is so resilient. The body never gives up on us...it will do anything to keep the heart beating, but we so often neglect it.
My mother's words, "Take care of yourself," resided in my memory, but I still didn't take the time to take them to heart. That is, until my heart was affected, both physically and emotionally.
One November afternoon, I was rehearsing my 2006 Magic of Christmas tour with the band. We were going through the opening number, "We Need a Little Christmas." The choreography involved moving at an energetic pace across the stage, lighting up Christmas trees as I went with the wave of my arm. I guess that was the magic part!! David Copperfield, I'm not.
By the time I got through the song and to the other side of the stage it was obvious to me that I was "hauling out" a lot more than the holly. I was hauling around a kindergartner. After all, forty pounds is the weight of the average five-year-old. I came off the side of the stage huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf but without enough breath to blow anything down.
My oldest son, Stephen, handed me a bottle of water.
I tried to make light of my breathlessness, though it was frightening me.
"I need more than a little Christmas. I need a little oxygen!!"
He wasn't laughing. He had something to tell me. He had been elected by the rest of my children to give me a message.
"Mom," he said, "we think you're beautiful no matter what you weigh, but we want you to start taking care of yourself."
I tried to calm his worries. "Sweetheart, I'll be fine."
He continued. "You don't understand. We need you. We want you to be around for us and for our kids, too. Please, Mom. What would we do without you?"
The band started to cue up to rehearse the "Christmas Waltz," but I couldn't go onstage to sing because tears choked my throat. I understood exactly what my son was telling me, even though I wanted to deck him down a size or two!
I understood because I still wanted my mom around. I wanted her to be there for my kids. I wanted to talk to her about my disintegrating marriage, my concerns for my teenagers, and how to help my little kids cope. I wanted to share with her the new stupid joke of the day, my new line of crafts and fabric, have our scriptural discussions that I loved so much, and every other thing big and small that only a mother and daughter can do together. And I always wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a happy grandma. But in the area of self-care I was still ignoring her strong plea that I must take a path different from hers.
My mother believed, as I do, that if you can't change your circumstances, you always have the option of changing your attitude. In this case, I could still change my circumstances, but I knew I had to change my attitude first.
If I didn't feel an urgency to do something for myself, I needed to do it for my children. Abby was only in preschool. At age forty-seven, I was still missing my mom; why was I risking leaving my own daughter when she was only four? I had to make the time to put my health first.
Still, in the beginning, I had no idea how I would find the time to make it happen. I couldn't carve out an extra hour in my day; it just wasn't there. I didn't have time to buy a juicer and peel vegetables. When I asked people about dieting, they would make suggestions like counting points, going to a weight-loss group, or taking herbal appetite suppressants or even medication. I didn't want side effects, or to have someone watch me step on scales. Like most women I know, it wasn't about laziness—it was about busy-ness. We eat for energy. Dieting has always made me feel too tired.
I needed an answer to show up at my door. And amazingly, it did. After looking over weight-loss options on the Internet and doing some research on several of the top weight loss programs, I decided to go with NutriSystem, mostly because it was easy and healthy. And I loved that I didn't have to think about measuring portion sizes. I like food too much to constantly analyze it. I knew I wasn't going to stick to any diet if I had to process the process. With NutriSystem, I could just grab and go. For me, it's like buying shoes. I love shoes, but if you made me pick out the parts—the insole, the upper, the heel, the leather—I'd just try to find something else that I liked to do.
NutriSystem set the portion sizes, packaged the food, and checked the nutritional value, so all I had to do was order what I liked, pick up my delivery from my front porch, and stock my shelves. It's real food, like lasagna, and bean and rice soup, macaroni and cheese, so I didn't have to try to decipher ingredients or try to trick my taste buds with substitutions. Please! I'm not a woman who wants to pretend that rolled oats are cheese. With NutriSystem the oatmeal is the oatmeal and the lasagna is actual lasagna! And I could be real about what I could handle. The only real effort I ever had to make was ordering a drive-thru garden salad. That was tough! There was no going cold turkey on anything, including sweets. Caramel popcorn and the chocolate crunch bars got me through without one minute of crabby withdrawal from milkshakes, and the NutriSystem ice cream sandwiches are not only my favorite treat, but my kids' as well. The most significant thing I learned from the NutriSystem program was the necessity of eating three meals a day. My body responded very quickly to this healthy consistency. Over the years of irregular eating patterns I had thrown my metabolism into famine mode. No wonder my body would hold onto any calorie I consumed.
In an unexpected way, I felt better and better every day, in addition to losing an average of a pound or two each week. My energy balanced out because I wasn't swinging wildly between starving myself and then consuming whatever was on hand, from a half-eaten candy bar to the leftovers of my kids' peanut butter toast and blueberry pancakes. I could step into the pantry in the morning and put one or two NutriSystem meals or snacks right into my bag and head out.
My mom loved good, memorable quotes and used to write them into her newsletters. One was from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen." I think that one has stayed around since the 1800s because everyone who tries the advice finds it to be true after a little while. In this century, it's referred to as quantum physics. I'd just call it being positive.
Three weeks into my NutriSystem program, I had lost about six pounds. It was a miraculous mood booster, especially because my knees hurt less with each melting pound. Once I started to feel a little lighter on my feet I wanted to start toning up, too.
To start off, I'd take brisk walks with the kids, which had a double benefit. Of course it was aerobic, and without the distraction of video games and cell phones and TV, it was also a great way to really get to hear about what was going on in their lives. One of my favorite activities is reading, but I had to find a way to make it active. So instead of sitting on the couch, I bought an iPod and began to download audio books to listen to as I walked while the kids were in school.
Then one afternoon, the call came in from my manager, Karl. ABC wanted to have me on season five of Dancing with the Stars. It gave me pause—really big "deer in the headlights" pause. Only a few months before, I was losing my breath with a wave of my arm onstage. Was I really going to have the courage to ballroom dance on live national television?
My children were my biggest cheerleaders.
Stephen said to me, "It'll be like having a personal trainer work with you every day and you'll get paid for it! Why would you say no to that?"
I ran the idea by three girlfriend coworkers the next day during a doll design meeting.
One of them said to me, "Well, you used to dance on the original Donny and Marie show, right?"
"Not like this!" I answered. "Besides, we didn't really dance, we more or less just grooved to the beat and pointed."
"They'll probably have celebrities on there that are ten or twenty years younger than you," another added. "I'd hate to compete with that. What if there's a model?!"
We all gasped! Of course they would bring in a model. It's tele-vision.
"And the costumes!" I responded. "Between the low cuts and the high cuts, I'll look like a cut of pork roast."
We all shuddered at the possibilities.
The most practical friend in the group sorted out the options: "Look at it this way. You have no time. You're getting divorced. You've got eight kids and you're already crazy busy. You're in your midforties and, even though you're dropping a few pounds, the costumes can be revealing and you're still overweight. I think the answer is perfectly clear. Right?"
A hush fell over all of us sitting at the table.
"You're right," I said. After a long minute of consoling looks from around the table, I stood up. "I'm going to do it."
They all looked stunned. But it only took a moment for them to understand, as only the truest of girlfriends do, that sometimes you've got to prove to yourself that you can still take on a challenge, even against all of the odds.
Almost in unison, all three of them said, "Go for it."
I did. And the universe conspired to make it happen!