Sometimes this job hurts.
I’ve written plenty — editors would say “too many” — dish-my-own-dirt columns, laying out all kinds of intimate details, but this piece is painful. And I’m not sure why I feel compelled to share it out loud, but staying accountable to readers has worked out pretty well for 17 years now.
Here’s the deal. You’ll recall I had that acute episode of stress last May, from a crisis generated by a teen at our house, missing most of his or her frontal lobe. Of course I wrote about the fallout.
Author’s note: If you leave a snarky message on my phone, I’m still not going to identify the kid or the issue, so knock it off. You know who you are, and you need a time out.
That column wasn’t really about the incident. It was about two very in-love adults learning to navigate churning white water in a brand new raft headed for a waterfall. It took some doing — still does — and every day we’re grateful and happy to be a life preserver for each other.
But this column is not about mushy stuff, unless we’re talking about my belly.
Let’s dial this back to, say, August. You know (and you ladies really know) how you have that nightmare you gained 5 pounds overnight? For me, it wasn’t a dream and it wasn’t 5 pounds.
One day I was me, and the next morning I was me plus 10 pounds. A week later (I promise this is true) there was another 10 pounds tacked on, like some ghastly two-for-one sale.
By October my weight had shot up 30 pounds. But that wasn’t the worst — that title went to the weirdness wrapped around my waist where my stomach had once lived.
Suddenly there was a glop of marshmallow cream under my skin. Jell-O under my shirt. A bizarre pillow of wiggly jelly rivaling St. Nick’s. I could only watch in horror, it happened so quickly.
I grew desperate for it to stop, examining every moment of my days. Exercise? At least half a check. Nutrition? Eating what I always ate. Horrible disease? Health reporters live on the edge of hypochondria, but even I couldn’t see any real signs of impending illness.
“Stress.” That’s what my lady-parts doctor said when I laid my woes at her feet. “That cortisol stuff is real.”
In my that-can-never-happen-to-me ignorance, I once believed that stress and the “hormonal imbalance” chatter was code for laziness and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s health.
Hoo-boy. I don’t think that anymore. Even if I did eat Chex Mix on Super Bowl Sunday.
Seems cortisol — always present in your body — gets super powers when you’re in “fight or flight” mode. From its base in the adrenal gland, nature’s hydrocortisone has extra work to do in those situations, including giving you energy to survive whatever the crisis is. It helps your brain remember what you’re supposed to be doing, boosts your immune system and lowers your sensitivity to pain.
All good, yes? Unless you can’t move out of that high-stress zone, day after day. Then the once-heroic hormone hangs out in your body and just gets mean.
It screws with bone density and blood sugar levels, lowers muscle tone, raises blood pressure, weakens the immune system and the body’s power to fight inflammation.
And then — and then — cortisol turns vicious. It increases your abdominal fat, and that’s linked to super-duper health issues like heart attack, stroke, metabolic syndrome and higher levels of the icky kind of cholesterol.
Basically, the opposite of Christmas for your belly.
I’m here to tell you, it also leads to your clothes fitting one day and not the next. It causes shrinking away from hugs and thinking your gut might need its own Zip code.
Oh yes, unemployed cortisol also causes your body to shoot any and all sugar right into the squishy mess of a tummy, because your body, all whacked on stress, thinks you need extra fat to survive.
And lordy, you eat. People in the know assure me this is based on science. It’s not just in the movies where the girl dumped at the altar self-soothes with a gallon of ice cream.
I spent a few months living with this new version of me while having quite the pity party, at which I had only the occasional guest. Such as my husband, who wasn’t certain what to do with the stranger in the house. One day I’d be eating carbs and the next begging him to never, ever bring food home again. Any food at all.
In the last few weeks, however, the real me has started waking up in my bed. It’s time, I thought, to reclaim my health. Time to get past being a victim and on to being victorious.
I did what I always do, once I could look myself in the eye again: I started surveying my ammo. I imagined coming face-to-face with my YMCA trainer who helped me build core strength. Leslie is not one to mince words and I don’t like thinking about the ones she might have for me. So I pulled out my exercise sheets, channeled Leslie and set to work each morning and evening.
Then I called Maria, who helped me in my diabetes education series a few years ago. Maria was sympathetic, but laid things out plainly. I would have to kick extra carbs to the curb again, limit portion sizes, stuff in the greens and limit my torrid affair with bacon.
One more thing: People often find solace from stress with repetitive motion. Such as hand to mouth, hand to mouth, she said. “But they don’t do it with celery sticks. It’s why smoking is so attractive.”
At least I’ve dodged that bullet.
The biggest job is finding ways to get rid of the extra cortisol living in my body and acting nasty. This means getting serious about stress relief. As in, taking care of myself. I told you this job hurts.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.