Weight, that is. Let’s talk about it.
I remember when I went from a size 30 Speedo to a size 32.
It was the summer I turned 20. I was taking a break from serious ballet. I wanted to stay in shape by riding my bike and swimming. Like most ballet dancers, I had deeply rooted hang ups about my body size. I am 5’7″. At age 20, I weighed in somewhere between 112 – 115 lbs.
I was bathing suit shopping in a Sports Authority in Oceanside, CA. I tried to try on several different patterns of my trusty size 30. None of them fit. They were all the same size, why would they? I cried real tears in the Sports Authority dressing room for an embarrassing amount of time.
I pulled myself together, went back to the rack of suits and brought several size 32’s into my dressing room. They all fit. I chose a blue and green geometric pattern and went on my way. That event is etched in my memory as a key moment when I realized that I was growing up.
For almost two decades, I believed that weight is maintained by calories in = calories burned. I kept my weight fairly steady ranging between 115-120, and kept a consistent rotation of size 32 Speedo swimsuits.
And then, as we all know by now, on that fateful evening in June, 2014, I fell down.
For the first several months of my injury, I stayed pretty fit. Being on crutches in New York City is one hell of a fitness plan. My arms never looked so good. My left leg was toned and trim.
My orthopedist uncrutched me about a month before I went to the neurologist for the first time. My right leg killed to walk on it, so I didn’t leave my apartment as often. Still, I watched what I ate and didn’t really gain weight. In perfect honesty, though, I wasn’t worried about a pouchy belly or saddle bags. I was mostly concerned about the fact that a full three months after my accident, my right ankle continued to be swollen, discolored, and horrifically painful.
The orthopedist referred me to a neurologist. The neurologist confirmed the orthopedist’s suspicions of RSD/CRPS. He prescribed meloxicam and gabapentin. While I titrated up to the doctor’s recommended dose, I was very sick to my stomach. And then I became the zombie that you’ve come to know and love. And then, I gained weight. Fast.
Within one month, I gained five pounds. I was suddenly craving Cool Ranch Doritos and Chips Ahoy cookies. I had very little impulse control. Right. I wasn’t working out and I was eating junk. It made perfect sense. Weight gain explained. I started swimming at my gym daily. I could still fit into the size 32. Everything was under control. Or so I thought.
By the spring of 2015, it became clear that I could not handle the harsh side effects of gabapentin, so my neurologist switched my prescription to lyrica. I was careful about what I ate. I counted calories. I rode my bike on its trainer every day.
By the summer of 2015, I had gained almost twenty pounds. I weighed 138. One hundred thirty-eight. Pounds. Needless to say, I needed a differently sized bathing suit, a size 34.
I swam. I rode my bike. I ate healthfully. How could I keep gaining weight?
This was absolutely unacceptable. None of my clothes fit. I didn’t recognize myself. I had to do something. I thought about the drugs I was taking. I thought about what these medications were doing on a physiological level. Neural inhibitors inhibit neurons. Duh.
(It really did take me almost a year to figure this out. I told you, I’m a zombie because, you know, like, neural inhibitors.)
Apparently these meds don’t discriminate. They slow down all nerves, not just the pesky CRPS misfiring nerves. They slow everything down. Way down. Including my metabolism and motivation.
All those years of disciplined athletic training apparently were preparing me to reach this point in my life. I needed to use everything I knew about speeding up a metabolism: a moderate caloric intake, aerobic activity, and increased muscle density.
Weight bearing exercise was (is) still out of the question. Impact was (is) impossible. Low aerobic activity would have to suffice. I gradually increased the amount of time that I swam (never mind- for now- those months when I gave up swimming…). I rode my bike every day until the point when my leg gave out. I worked with weights (seated) for my arms. I worked the major muscle groups in my left leg: one legged squats, leg extensions with weights. My right leg proved to be a bit of a challenge. I did slower extensions without weights and kept up my theraband exercises. I am now the queen of one-legged five minute planks.
It took almost a year, working every day (every. single. day), but my weight stabilized around 125. It was not my pre-fall weight, but my belly was no longer an awning for my pants. I was back in my trusty size 32 Speedo swimsuit. I was content with my progress.
Last July, I visited my pain management doctor for the first time. The spasms in my leg were still out of control. She prescribed baclofen in addition to the diazapam prescribed by my neurologist.
Baclofen is a muscle relaxant meant for long term spasmodic conditions. Baclofen works. Baclofen puts me into a coma for several hours. I knew my future would include another struggle with my weight.
And it did. But not in the way I thought.
Since I anticipated gaining weight, I was very mindful about my diet and workout routine. My doctor had me titrate up to the full dose very slowly, over several weeks. By the time I was up to the full dose, I had lost four pounds. I was happy. Very happy. I thought my metabolism had somehow finally mysteriously kicked in. One hundred twenty pounds came and went. Sweet. I was at my pre-fall weight. I finally felt good about the way I looked (apart from my grossly atrophied non-functional right leg).
Last November, my old size 32 Speedo began to drag in the water. I thought it was just old and stretched out. I found a new size 32 on sale online. It arrived, I tried it on. It was too big. It was a different fabric; that had to be the reason. I returned it and ordered another in the same fabric as my old suit. I tried it on. It seemed ok. Five hundred yards into the the first swim, I took on water. The suit was dragging. How could this be?
I weighed myself when got home that day. 112.4 pounds. I knew I needed a size 30 Speedo. I found the ugliest, least expensive size 30 on all of the internet. It arrived and it fit. I cried real tears in my childhood bedroom.
When I went for my nerve block and my check up last month, I weighed in at 108.1 pounds. I stood, staring in disbelief at the scale in my neurologist’s office. I told him that I had been losing weight rapidly since the summer. He told me not to back off of baclofen. He told me not to stop swimming or riding my bike. He told me to increase my calories, to eat more dairy (yogurt, cheese, whole milk…), breads, and sugars. Pretty much, if it leads to heart disease and diabetes, it’s on my new diet. This is the stuff of some people’s dreams, but it just makes me feel like by body is completely out of my control.
I have stopped losing, but I have yet to gain any weight.
So what’s the point of all those words, telling you my real height, my real weights, my real sizes, my real medications, and the real struggles I’ve had with my weight over the past two years?
My point is that until CRPS, I was a bit of a jerk when it came to assumptions about weight gain and loss. I didn’t understand why or how some people have difficulty. I didn’t understand how truly difficult that difficulty can be.
The theories that calories in > expenditure = weight gain and calories in < expenditure = weight loss are overly simplistic. Normal functioning, balanced systems work this way. However, if the biochemistry is altered, thrown out of whack, the equation is far more complex and less predictable.
Again, the overarching lesson I’m learning through this CRPS ordeal is that the best anyone can do is try, especially when a disease steals all control. The best I can do is try to stay healthy: to eat right, exercise, and care for this body that continues to rebel against me.