The idiom “falling off the wagon” refers to resuming any previously stopped behavior (typically an addictive behaviour, like smoking, drinking, etc). A lot of my friends and family also used it to refer to “cheating” on a diet, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw it in that context several months ago. A health professional said (paraphrased for brevity and privacy):
“I had a conversation with a client about the concept of being on or off the wagon with eating. I think this comes from diet culture, but it’s a hard mindset to get out of, even when you’re no longer dieting.”
I hate the wagon. It seems to me that wagons are generally driven by others (the media, the diet industry, your well meaning friends/relatives) and it can be a hell of a bumpy ride, which makes it hard to stay on. They may leave you behind or, worse, threaten to leave you behind and bully you into trying harder and harder until you’re too exhausted to cope. When it’s just me on the path, I may stumble off it or even purposely wander off it, but I am in control and I’m (mostly) able to stay on course without undue stress or anxiety.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because last year I suddenly found myself on the wagon and eventually fell off. One might even say that I had a major crash and burn. As a result, I found myself too angry and frustrated (both with myself and others) to do anything but hide in the bramble and refuse to move forward.
In the beginning of my efforts to get back in shape, I was fully in charge, but I started to let others help me (in other words, I started to periodically catch a lift on someone’s wagon). Most of these helpers were genuinely interested in helping me and letting me choose my own path, and a couple were (because of credentials or arrogance) convinced that they knew what was best for me. For a long time, I was able to look at things objectively and hop on and off wagons as I deemed fit. But, for various reasons, I started to lose sight of my own path and finally hit a point where I was letting other people be in control.
Two major things happened: I made the mistake of letting my weight become a defining factor in my progress and success, and I injured myself (multiple times).
I know it seems to make sense to use weight as a measure of health and success in a fitness-based life change, but the problem is that people don’t operate on logic alone. Weight related issues (real or imagined) can be very emotionally charged and mentally exhausting. I know that weight (whether measured by scales, girth or percent body fat) is a very stressful thing for me. Like many people, as a child, I learned that my worth was based on arbitrary numbers, such as weight. As a result, it’s simply not something that I can successfully use as a tool or a measure of my success. In the end, I will get stressed out and using weight as a measure will backfire, leaving me in the same place I was in the first place.
And, I’m not the only person who has problems with weight loss being the primary push. According to science, only about 5% of people who try to lose weight will succeed (i.e, lose the weight and keep it off). That’s a very small number and those people are considered “outliers” (people who are not the norm, in other words, exceptions). And, yet, we hold on to those stories as proof that it’s possible to lose weight and stay thin.
I let my weight become a defining measure of my success because I let other people dictate that path I took. At first, it was nothing but good news and I was losing weight consistently, but things started to slow down and plateau. This made me push myself too hard, try too much to meet other people’s expectations, and eat more because I was stressed. Not a great recipe for success!
It all came to a halt when I injured myself because I was trying to do too much. Not wanting to disappoint other people, I didn’t give myself enough time to heal, and I injured myself even more. This pretty much put an end to my attempts at running, which had been my primary calorie burner and the thing that my personal trainer (PT) kept pushing me to do.
In retrospect, my PT should have known better than to push me to run. I was over 250 lbs and I had, periodically, mentioned minor aches and pains in my feet and lower joints that should have been a clue to her that my old joint issues (which I had told her about) weren’t able to deal with running. But, I should have known better, too.
In the end, six or so months of great success came crashing down. All the times people and media have tried to tell me that I’m not good enough or that I’m just a lazy glutton punched me in the face with a giant “I told you so” and I felt like a failure. I gained almost all my weight back and lost a lot of my fitness gains because I was too embarrassed to show my face at the gym I had been frequenting. In my mind, I was defeated.
And, this is why I hate the wagon. It just sets us all up for failure.
I’m now back on my own path and doing things on my own terms. My focus is on being healthy and fit, even if I continue to be overweight (though, as part of my efforts to be healthy, I am monitoring my calorie consumption). It may take a lot longer to get to where I want to be, but I’d prefer slow and steady progress. I found some fitness resources I can use at home, I will be monitoring my success via my fitness levels, I will be paying attention to what I eat, and it will all be on my own terms.