Embracing My Imperfections: Heather’s Story

I came across this picture of me on the left from December of 2011, shortly before I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. As I scrolled through my pictures, I realized I had very few moments of me captured during this time period. As I stared at the picture on the computer screen, all of the feelings of being embarrassed, ashamed and depressed came flooding back to me. I remember feeling so uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t want to see it, or much less have something to remember this version of myself by. I HATED taking pictures. I was going to be a licensed dietitian soon, and I had become sick, fat, and felt like crap all the time. How was anyone going to take my advice seriously on how to be fit and healthy when I couldn’t even do it for myself? I was completely ashamed of myself.

The picture on the right is more recent, from March of 2016. I am writing this because I want to disclose that even as a registered dietitian, I too have endured my own personal struggles with weight, poor body-image, and poor health. More importantly, I want to discuss what I had to do to fight my way to true self-acceptance and learn how to love myself for the first time in my life. I want to share my personal story and journey to self-acceptance, and how that led to me ultimately creating Beautiful U Journey. I want to explain how the transformation you see pictured above was not a transformation of the body, but of the mind.

During the timeframe leading up to the picture on the left, to say I was an absolute mess would be an understatement. I had endured more trials and tribulations than I ever thought one person could bare. At this time, I was working full-time during the day, and bartending nights and weekends to pay my bills. I was in my second semester of a master’s program, I was in a destructive relationship that I was holding onto for security, I was a single parent to my two young daughters, and I was extremely ill but had no idea, yet.

I had endured a lot of hard times leading up to this as well, with the loss of my dad, my marriage and relationship of 17 years ending in divorce, and facing the rejection of not being accepted into a supervised practice internship to finish the last steps of becoming a registered dietitian that I had worked so hard for. My future seemed bleak, and I was devastated that I had wasted so much time and more importantly energy on things that didn’t seem to be panning out the way I thought they would. I had completely lost myself in this process, and it was a frightening feeling, but unfortunately that didn’t stop me from continuing to indulge in my destructive behaviors.

My whole life, I was always told how pretty I was. I was diagnosed with a learning disability at a young age, and I had accepted that as my reality. People would say to me, “It’s okay, at least you’re pretty”. I didn’t see the point in trying to get good grades or have any sort of success in life, I was told I wasn’t smart, and I believed it. I have always been an attractive person on the outside, but that didn’t mean that I felt good about myself on the inside. I allowed everyone else’s opinion of me and a misdiagnosis to shape the path my life took of complete self-destruction. My poor opinion and image of myself led me down a path of substance abuse in my teenage years, because that was the only place I felt accepted. This eventually spiraled into severe depression.

Then at the age of 18 I was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease, but wasn’t able to get health insurance because it was a preexisting condition. I had to be proactive when it came to my health, because it was either that or dialysis. This is when my passion for research and nutrition began and I started implementing small changes to my diet and started incorporating regular exercise. I indulged in books and researched my condition non-stop to learn how to live a healthier life. As I started feeling better, my confidence boosted that maybe I was smarter than I thought.

When my second daughter went to kindergarten and as I was about to turn thirty, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I chose dietetics of all things, and as I read through the ciriculum and it said “chemistry 1, chemistry 2, organic chemistry, biochemistry”, all I could hear was that inner critic saying “there’s no way you can do this, you’re stupid remember?”. I had a flashback to my junior year in high school, when my chemistry teacher said to me in front of the entire class “who let you into this class? You’re too dumb to be in here”. As devastating as that was, I knew how badly I wanted this, and more than anything else I wanted to set a good example for my two daughters, so I went for it. And to say that I put my entire heart and soul into it would be an absolute understatement.

I started by taking classes at a community college, and I worked myself into the ground. You know that saying, “find what you love and let it kill you”? Well I just about did that. I felt that I had something to prove, to myself and to all of the people who ever called me stupid.

To make a long story short, I ended up maintaining a 4.0 GPA throughout my entire undergrad, and I graduated summa cum laude, an achievement that I never thought I could accomplish. I also was given some of the highest scholarships offered by my colleges, and had most of my undergrad paid for. I had planned out every aspect my education down to each individual class, knowing exactly what I needed to do in order to get into the specific internship program that I wanted. I had done everything perfectly, and maintained my perfect grades, but as it turns out, this perfectionist nature ended up working against me in more ways than one.

In March of 2012, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which came as a complete and utter shock to me. I had considered myself to be an extremely healthy person, I mean, I was studying to become a registered dietitian! I knew that because I have a chronic kidney disease that acts very similar to an autoimmune disease, my body can’t fight the same way a “healthy” person’s body can. I had struggled with shingles, scarlet fever, and various other viral infections over the last decade but never did I consider that it would lead to cancer. I knew then that I was going to have to make changes, but struggled with getting to the bottom of what those changes were, and then I came to my “aha moment”.

I was pushing myself SO hard to try and be perfect in every aspect of my life: the perfect mother, the perfect student, you name it, that I wasn’t taking any time to actually take care of myself. My lack of sleep, compromised health, and overwhelming amounts of stress kicked my fight or flight response into high gear, and my body was working against me.

I needed to do something different and was desperate to make the changes, just give me the “plan” I thought and I can do this, I will reverse this and make myself better. Well it wasn’t that easy, there is no plan or quick fix to heal a sick metabolism. It was going to take time, and most importantly it was going to require me to make some major behavior changes that I was not comfortable with. For years I had many of my professors telling me I was pushing myself too hard and that I needed to lighten up on myself and my expectations of what was achievable with in a 24-hour period. “No way”, I thought, not me, I’m strong and I can do anything I set my mind to. It turns out that this mindset and my expectations for myself were the culprit of my health issues and ultimately the rejection I never saw coming.

I ended up not getting into the supervised practice internship that I had worked so hard for. I matched up in every aspect on paper, but ended up bombing the interview, and I had all of my eggs in one basket, there was no plan B. I was completely devastated, and my inner critic showed up with those negative comments and I was ready to give up. I had no idea how to handle rejection in a positive way, and this is when I had to get really uncomfortable in order to make changes.

I had to let go of control, which was one of the hardest changes for me to make. I had always thought that I had to live up to some perfect standard, push myself, and set my expectations so high that I sacrificed any sort of balanced life for the feeling of success. The bottom line is that maintaining a perfect grade point average wasn’t the answer. While it felt good to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid, I took an “all or nothing” approach to the situation and it ended up working against me instead of in my favor. My perfectionism was only masking the reality, and I still wasn’t dealing with myself, but just staying busy.

I had to learn to make myself a priority, and to just let things go that I once thought were so important. I had to change the way I was eating, exercising, incorporate restorative practice, and most importantly, I had to learn how to love myself and actually deal with myself for the first time in my life. I had to become selfish in a sense, and start putting myself and my own needs first.

Not getting into that internship program was actually the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to get out of my comfort zone and face rejection, and to take a step back and realize that I didn’t have to be perfect in order to be worthy. An opportunity opened up for me to get my master’s degree, and I took that opportunity, but with a different approach than I had my undergrad. I had to learn how to be a “half-asser” in a sense, and not take everything so seriously. I realized that me trying to be so perfect was just because I didn’t have the confidence in myself to actually produce quality work without scrutinizing over every detail. What amazed me was that I still maintained a 3.7 GPA in my master’s program while putting in half the work, proving to myself for real this time, that I was actually smart. The work came to me effortlessly and my confidence boosted through the roof.

The whole idea behind the Beautiful U Journey is to empower women to believe in their own abilities and see their true potential and self-worth. I want to teach them how to shed the armor we put on to mask our insecurities like perfectionism and overeating. We use these as shields to avoid dealing with ourselves, and ultimately it ends up impacting our overall well-being in a negative way. Poor self-image has a negative impact on our quality of life, and how we view ourselves is the determining factor in our every day decisions. I want to teach women how to silence their inner critics and all of the negative external messages we deal with on a daily basis, and learn to validate themselves. I learned this lesson the hard way, and once I experienced true self-acceptance for the first time, I was then able to make the necessary changes to improve my life and overall health and well-being. The key is actually believing that we are worth it, and I promise you that you are too.

We let fear hold us back from doing the things we really want to do, but what are we really afraid of? I made the decision last year to finally pursue a dream of mine. I sold everything that I owned, packed up my car, and drove out to California without a job, place to live, or a plan of how it was all going to work out. Selling everything was extremely liberating and letting go of those material attachments was so freeing I cannot even begin to explain it. I could have let fear and my inner critic tell me that there was no way I could do that, but because of what I’ve been through, I know my capabilities and that I can handle anything that life throws at me. I am now the happiest I have ever been in my life, and only want to spread that happiness to others. This is why Beautiful U Journey means so much to me, it is my opportunity to take what I’ve learned and empower other women to realize their own strength and potential in life. In my practice, I encounter women from the ages of 12 to 90 years old who struggle with poor body-image. Don’t let yourself be trapped in that mentality your whole life. Throwing caution to the wind and heading straight into uncertainty is uncomfortable, but you never know what’s going to happen, so just go for it.

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