My Mental Health Plan

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I started running in college. I ran because I wanted to be skinny. And let’s face it … I’m a short Mexican American girl from the Rio Grande Valley, with the tendency to eat an abundance of homemade Mexican food and sustain a baseline truncal obesity. There is nothing skinny about me. But, still, I ran. Unbelievably, I still managed to gain the notorious “freshman 15” during my first semester at UT Austin, crying over Christmas break because my clothes no longer fit. Thankfully, with the help of my mother, I was able to lose the weight by starting on what would become my very first diet in a very long list of fad diets I would try throughout my adult life. I chose Weight Watchers. It was 1994. I was 17 years old.

I continued to run through pharmacy school and then through medical school. I think I chose running because it was the most inexpensive form of exercise I could do. By the time I got to medical school, I was running about 5 miles a day. It kept me the skinniest that I would ever be, which I’m sure is not equivalent to society’s definition of skinny, but that was enough for me. Then came surgery residency in New York. Probably the most difficult of my endeavors. Time became the most valuable of commodities. Working 90-100 hours a week, any time I could steal was for sleeping. I was anxious most of the time (though admittedly, my anxiety had started in medical school, post 9/11). I was constantly stressed with the responsibility of caring for people while trying to figure out how to manage all the feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt you develop while a resident; my anxiety and stress both complicated by a situational depression I experienced after being stuck with a needle that had entered the body of a woman that I was trying to save and who, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, was in full-blown AIDS. I became more and more depressed as I waited the months it takes to determine if I had contracted HIV (it was negative). I suppose I should be thankful that I didn’t eat much as I had little money and was sitting on roughly $200K worth of school loans; there was not much weight gain, but more importantly, there was also not much exercise.
That all changed one night in my third year of residency: I broke down. I’d had enough of the shear chaos of life as a surgical resident and I completely lost it. I called my parents in Texas and sobbed and then begged my father to drive to New York and take me home. I was done with this self-imposed challenge of trying to become a doctor. My dad, in his infinite wisdom asked me a question that changed my life forever. He asked, “Have you been running?” And it suddenly became so clear. I didn’t run JUST to be skinny. I ran to help myself “get through this thing called life,” in the words of the late cultural icon, Prince. It struck me like a ton of bricks. Yes, running had helped me stay my version of skinny in my 20’s, but more importantly, it had helped me through the anxiety and stress of life. It occurred to me that though I had been taught for many years that exercise releases endorphins and that it is an excellent form of therapy for depression and anxiety, I hadn’t actually applied that to my own life. From that day forward, I ran every chance I got, even if only a mile or two, and even if it made me sacrifice an extra half hour of sleep.
I did finish my training and I also finally moved back to Texas, as my mother became quite ill, having had a fatty liver that progressed to cirrhosis, requiring a liver and kidney transplant. I was 38 years old when I had my son. I weighed in at 210 pounds right before his birth. I had gestational diabetes, which places me at a 70% chance of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes by the time my son is 7 (he just turned 4).
I am a single mom with a full-time job. I am a doctor, though I am not practicing surgery. I have had to make some career compromises in order to raise my son, which I clearly do not regret, as my son is my greatest joy and accomplishment. I still run almost every day, though most days it’s a walk/jog combination (I blame my aging body). Still, this is enough to maintain my sanity and keep away any negative energy that surrounds me or comes from within me. I have been able to get my 4-year old son excited about exercise and he has joined me in a few 5K’s.
Don’t get me wrong–there are periods of my life when my cardio routine falters because I get overwhelmingly busy. It usually takes a few weeks, but I eventually start to feel the negligence, both physically and mentally, and so I know I need to restart my routine. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly my mind reaps the benefits of exercise once I resume. I am still trying to lose the weight I gained while pregnant, which has proved difficult. I have come to realize that to lose weight in my 40’s requires more discipline in the kitchen as opposed to discipline at the gym. I’m still trying different diets (I’m currently on Jenny Craig). I try to make better food choices and practice portion control. I do this mostly to prevent diabetes and fatty liver, but also because I ask my patients to do the same each day and I simply cannot sit in an exam room day in and day out and ask my patients to do something that I am not willing to do. They say weight loss is 80% what you eat. At 42 years of age, I completely agree with that statement.
Diet has become my physical health solution. Exercise is now my mental health solution.

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