For 28 years, I led a charmed life, blissfully unaware and untouched by most of life’s sadness. I had loving parents who encouraged me and my creativity; and my own happy childhood influenced my dream to be a stay-at-home mom. Marrying my husband made that dream possible, and when we found out we were pregnant, I was overjoyed. We were on our way to having our own close-knit family, with parents, siblings, and cousins living nearby. You couldn’t plan it more perfectly.
All that changed in the summer of 2008, when my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Like many young girls, my dad was the first man I loved, and he was all-encompassing. The prospect of his death was utterly devastating. Because I was pregnant when he was diagnosed, my emotions were wholly conflicted. On the one hand, I was so happy about the new life growing inside me; and on the other hand, I was torn apart watching my dad physically deteriorate as his disease progressed.
When he died, barely one year after his diagnosis, part of me broke. But as much as I was grieving, I couldn’t shut down entirely, because my son had been born during this time, and I had a new, tiny person depending on me. I filled the days with my new baby, and I tried to lean on family and friends for support, but the internal battle between joy and despair was intense.
I muddled through that first year as a new mom, trying to figure out schedules, routines, and late-night feedings, all while aching with the loss of my dad. Although I was thrilled to be a mom, it was probably the saddest time of my life. Food became my comfort.
The weight crept up on me. I never lost the baby weight from the pregnancy, instead adding to it, as I smothered my feelings of grief with food. A few months after my dad’s death, I was the heaviest I had ever been. Looking back, I know I was in denial about my weight and that it was a reflection of repressed grief, but at the time, I considered that, maybe, this is just how I was supposed to be.
Life moved on, and I got pregnant with our second son. In 2011, and a few months after he was born, my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly after sudden complications from diabetes. Her death was a complete shock to us, because she had been managing her diabetes for years and seemed to be doing so well. So now, not only was I dealing with another loss of someone dear to me, but I was also frightened to my core as I realized what my future could be. My mother-in-law developed diabetes when she was pregnant with my husband, and her unhealthy lifestyle was the contributing factor. I had to take a good, hard look at myself: I was 5’5” and 260 pounds. If I wanted to be around for my children and for my grandchildren, I was going to have to make a change.
Somewhere along the way, I had lost myself and my joy, and I was cloaking this loss with food and extra weight. Finding hope and getting back on the path to joy was not easy. I had to be still enough, present enough, to realize I had been running from grief over my dad and my mother-in-law and grief over who I had let myself become. I wanted to honor them, particularly my dad, with how I conducted myself and how I interacted with the world around me; but my grief as I expressed it – or as I repressed it – was not honoring those losses.
I had to be honest with where I was, before I could step into who I was meant to be. I had to admit that I had become a bystander in my own life. Though I was far from thrilled with my starting point, I had to accept it. And it may sound odd, but I had to reintroduce myself to myself. It had become easier for me to focus on the needs of others than on my own, so I had to ask myself what I really wanted in life and what I was willing to do to make it happen.
Then, I had to ask myself what was stopping me. This was surprisingly uncomfortable. Had I remained overweight out of convenience? Was being overweight a crutch I used because it was familiar and easier than making a change? But, then I thought: What if I succeed?! What if I can change my lifestyle and the way I feel inside? What have I been missing out on? And why have I waited this long?
I decided that I was worth it, my husband was worth it, my kids were worth it. Yes, I had sustained some terrible losses, but I had endured. I looked back and realized that I was stronger than I thought I was; but I also looked forward to what I wanted and what I could be if I would only choose to act on it.
Taking that first step toward a healthier lifestyle was incredibly difficult. I cried a lot over the first month as I learned how to reframe my relationship with food. But I discovered that little steps taken every day add up to big changes. Over the next year, I made deliberate choices to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and I reached my goal weight.
But more than that, I found my joy again. I actively sought ways to bring light and merriment into my own life and into the lives of others. I had watched as two people I loved died young, and I knew there was no time to waste. I actively chose to radiate joy and optimism.
An unexpected side effect of choosing joy and changing how I treated myself was the reflection I saw of myself in my sons. They were learning how to treat themselves by watching me, so having them witness the deliberate choices I made to love myself and others became even more important. The effect this has had on my ability to be a more active and present parent, spouse, and friend has been dramatic and sustaining, even through some intensely dark times.
In November 2012, my husband had an aortic aneurism and was hospitalized for a week as he underwent and recovered from open heart surgery. The old me would have struggled under the weight of this challenge; but I was a new me. Certainly, my focus wasn’t on food and portion control at this time, rather it was on caring for my husband and my family. But importantly, I also made sure to care for myself by relinquishing my grip on the things I couldn’t control and accepting the help and generosity of my community.
I didn’t need food to cope anymore. I had my friends, I had my family, and I chose to actively search for the bright moments in the midst of darkness. I chose Hope.
I have learned a lot about myself over the last few years and a lot about practicing Joy. Life is short, and we don’t get a redo. If there is a song I like on the radio, I’m going to dance to it. If there is a color that makes me happy, I’m going to find a way to wear it. Every day is a choice, and every day I choose to pursue Hope. I am a glorious creation, and I choose Joy.
This is Living Hope.
Dot McCollum is an imaginative mama who has three children if you count her husband. Dot has mastered the art of hoola hooping, coffee drinking, car karaoke and regularly pursues the gratifying quest for boundless joy. You can share in her shenanigans on her Instagram: delightfullydotty and on her blog: www.artbydot.com.