Buried in the sweetness of a return to some sort of pre-pandemic life is the dread of something less palatable: an uncomfortable date with my scale. I know it’s going to tell me I’ve gained 10 pounds. And with that knowledge, there’s a fleeting thought that maybe I’m not ready to put on a public face, at least not yet — not while I’m looking like this.
Before you judge me, know that I’m really not a shallow person. Honest. I’m at a place in my life where I rarely worry about what other people think of me, because I know how rarely they do. I even teach mindfulness and self-compassion to other health care workers, showing them how to handle their negative self-talk with grace and gentleness. So why let a modest weight gain during a planetary crisis get under my skin?
I’m hardly alone in my up-a-size boat. A research letter recently published in JAMA suggests that Americans who sheltered in place gained an average of 20 pounds during the pandemic. And perhaps I’m primed to be even more sensitive, because like 9% of the population worldwide, I once struggled with an eating disorder. It’s a part of my life I consider to be over, the work done to leave it in the past. But even when old habits die, their shadows often linger.
Is a bit of regression really so shocking, in light of everything we’ve been through in the past 18 months? We’ve home-schooled kids, cared for elderly parents, learned to live with fear and uncertainty and, in far too many cases, lost people we love. It’s common for my colleagues and I to dutifully say to one another, “Well, at least we still have our health.”
Or do we? In the spring, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Even though my mindfulness practice gives me meaningful relief, I often wonder what role chronic stress (or asymptomatic COVID-19) could have played in that condition — and what role it may have in aggravating my ongoing symptoms and even weight gain.
The deeper truth is that the unrelenting, toxic pressure of living through the pandemic has affected our health in myriad ways.
Those who experienced financial instability, personal illness or loss, complex grief and moral injury will likely show a wide array of physical and mental health effects in the years to come. Some groups have borne some of the worst stress and trauma, especially communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by COVID. Many of us may find we need to tend to old injuries that have suddenly flared up.
But too often, we fail to tend to those injuries at all. We restrict, we repress, we fixate, we berate, aiming a stream of vitriol squarely at ourselves for not being thinner or stronger or tougher or better able to take the blows as they come. I did that for years.
These summer mornings, my extra 10 pounds and I get up early and walk my dog along the shoreline of the lake where I bring my family every year for a few weeks of reprieve. I sit on a bench while my pup’s fleshy petal of a tongue licks my forearm.
During this COVID marathon, I feel like I’m finally coming up for air, a pebble settling in water, no longer clenched like a fist. I’m remembering that there is a place beyond this tension, that before the pandemic I found peace in my life, and I will find it in the aftermath, too.
I had a friend in university who loved to feed me. I think of her every time I smell the first hint of garlic spitting in a slick of hot oil: the Indigo Girls on in the background, my friend saying shyly, “I’d never go to all this trouble just for myself.” I always wondered, what did she eat when I wasn’t around — concrete paste and water? Why did she need me there just to do something nice for herself?
For everyone who has been more tightly coiled during the pandemic, whatever demon you are carrying, may you find a way to do something nice for yourself this summer, something that reminds you that, yes, you are worth a little bit of trouble.
And you know what else? Nobody cares if you gained 10 pounds, or more; almost nobody will even notice if you emerge looking generally like a swamp creature. Of course we should all eventually try to get back to a healthier weight, but I’m not going to preach — only offer a gentle reminder.
If you think you’ll finally approve of yourself when you lose weight or write that bestselling book or run a marathon, you have it backward. Start by cutting yourself a little slack. Everything else may just fall into place.
Jillian Horton (Twitter: @jillianhortonMD) is a Canadian physician and writer. She is the author of “We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing.”