Stranger in a Strange Body

As I walked by myself this week, I thought about my body.

One of the reasons that walking has been so helpful is that it grounds me in my body. Reminds me that no matter how caught up I get in the workings of my mind, I have a physical presence as well.

A presence that can, at times, feel fleeting.

And at other times looms way too large.

It was about a year ago now that a photographer friend of ours, Julia, gave us the gift of a family photo shoot.

She had originally offered to come to the hospital to do newborn pictures for us, but, as we all know, that didn’t work out.

Still, having her come spend time with us outside and socially distanced was a bright spot of normalcy in such an isolated time.

But I was nervous.

I had noticed in photos that I’d taken with Bailey since getting home from the hospital that my eyes were practically squinted shut. No matter what I did, I looked groggy in every shot.

I cursed myself for not sleeping enough, even though I was getting at least 9-10 hours per night in those days. Still, I thought, I must be doing something wrong- otherwise why would I look so tired? I worried that my body might never fully recover from the weeks of little to no sleep during my mania.

“Do you think I’ll ever look normal in pictures again?” I asked Matt.

It was a genuine question.

“I’m pretty sure it’s your medications. Just tell Julia about it,” Matt suggested. “Say you’re on some meds that makes you look sleepy, and to let you know if she notices it.”

I would do no such thing.

I knew that she had some idea of what had happened to me, but I hadn’t yet acknowledged it with anyone in person who wasn’t family. It was too raw, too embarrassing.

Not only that, I had no idea what she as a photographer could do to make me look more awake if I, myself, couldn’t fix it with my best efforts. She didn’t have a magic camera.

So when she sent us the final shots, I had prepared myself for the droopy eyes.

But when Matt opened the attachment, my first thought caught me by surprise.

“Oh my God,” I said to myself.

“I’m huge.”

I knew, of course, that I’d gotten heavier. I had gained at least 45 pounds during my pregnancy, probably more.

It had only been a little under two months since I’d had Bailey, and Matt’s method of handling his stress was baking a cake per week.

Plus, this was just another fun side effect of my medications. I had been warned that they could cause me to gain weight. Or, in my case, to fail to lose the pregnancy weight I had put on.

My scale reminded me that I hovered around 25-30 pounds heavier than I weighed pre-pregnancy. (And about 40 pounds above my ideal weight).

Still, the images took me by surprise.

I had gotten used to seeing my swollen belly in all of my adorable pregnancy photos, but its deflation only highlighted how much my arms, my chin, my face had filled out. It was striking.

I had never been overly thin, but I had managed to stay just below what would be considered overweight. I had appreciated my curvy figure, and grown accustomed to wearing clothes that accentuated it.

For the photo shoot, I had chosen a long, loose-fitting, floral, spaghetti strap dress that I had bought shortly after I’d found out I was pregnant. It was one of the few pieces of non-maternity clothes that fit me.

And yet I found myself wishing I had chosen something that covered my arms, that left me less exposed.

I fixated on how I could have changed my appearance for the photo shoot, but the fact of the matter was I looked different because I was different.

Matt looked normal. Bailey was her precious self. But there I was, a stranger in my own family photos.

I struggled all summer to find clothes that fit me. My maternity pants were big enough, but the elastic waist bunched up and slid down awkwardly without a bump to hold them in place.

I’m not sure why I even bothered trying on the pants from before I’d gotten pregnant, but in a time of so many surreal experiences, I guess I was hoping for a miracle.

They could barely make it up past my knees.

I ordered new clothes online, since COVID meant I wasn’t able to go to the store and try them on. I guessed that I would be the biggest size available at Target, and was both relieved and aghast to find that I was correct.

The pants fit me, yes, but they weren’t flattering. They stretched out and sagged around my hips, which I tried to fix by putting on the extra large men’s belt that I had bought during pregnancy. But it made an awkward bump under the large but clingy shirts I had bought, which accentuated the rolls of fat on my stomach.

I didn’t know how to dress this new body any more than I knew how to calm my new mind.

And my closet was as bloated as my body.

I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to my old clothes, the specters of the woman I used to be. The cute little jumpsuit I wore in Vegas. My overall shorts that I’d worn to Baltimore Pride. Even the practical, maternity dress pants that I’d worn to work just about every day during pregnancy. I couldn’t get rid of any of them because I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t know which clothes the new person I was becoming might end up needing.

I wanted, desperately, to get back to my old weight. To fit into my old clothes. I felt certain that if I could just get my body back, my mind would come with it.

I tried working out. I was so proud of the consistency of my routine. I did Zumba videos, used our elliptical machine, even tried my least favorite activity: running.

Still, the scale remained unchanged.

I put a moratorium on cakes.

I tried to eat more vegetables.

During a period of slight hypomania, I even contacted a personal trainer, determined to use my frenzied energy to work hard to get my old body back.

Eventually, we had to make an unrelated shift in my medications. By going off the one, I began to lose some weight.

Of course, instead of relishing this, I became concerned that this “unexplained” weight loss was the sign of a deadly disease.

My mind likes to sabotage me.

Still, overall, my spirits were lifting. A combination of the new medications and the relief of spending some time with friends and family outside while the weather was still warm was having a healing effect.

Bailey went to daycare, and despite lingering fears about her health and safety, it was a relief to have a routine, a reason to get out of the house in the morning. And as much as I loved her, having the space to focus on my work helped me regain a sense of normalcy.

Ten pounds slipped quietly away that fall, and I felt a part of myself return.

The winter was harder.

Being forced back indoors felt doubly isolating after getting a tantalizing taste of being around others.

After a COVID scare in her classroom, Matt and I decided to pull Bailey out of daycare between December-March, while still working full-time.

A major work project pushed me outside of my comfort zone and sent my anxiety skyrocketing.

The side effects of one of my medications were getting worse, and I called and emailed my psychiatrist about them frequently, wondering if the tremors, in particular, were at a normal level or getting to the point where I needed medical intervention.

Ever the warrior, my psychiatrist kept marching on, making the slight adjustments to my meds that were needed to get me back to full stability. To minimize side effects and maximize wellness, at a pace that was slow enough to not throw my body and mind completely out of whack.

Slowly, gradually, my mind came back, and my body followed suit: almost like it had been waiting in the wings until they could both be on stage together.

By the time I had my May appointment with my psychiatrist, I was just about back to my pre-pregnancy weight (even if that’s still 10-20 pounds above where I’d ideally like to be).

“I’m feeling back to myself,” I told her, the newfound calm and clarity of my mind mirroring my physical recovery.

“This is the best I’ve seen you,” she said, and I knew that, coming from her, that meant something.

We were both pleased with our progress. Bragging to each other.

“I told you,” she said, “That it would take about a year. I was pretty up front with you about that.”

“You were,” I said, “You were right.”

If there’s one thing to be said about my psychiatrist, it’s that she doesn’t sugar coat things. It had been scary to hear that timeline presented to me one year ago. I was sure that there was something I could do to accelerate the process, to get to the finish line faster. But in the end, she was right. It just took time.

Later that week, I was finally vaccinated and able to go shopping in person. Even though dressing rooms were closed and I still had to awkwardly try on pants over my shorts in a corner of the lingerie section of the store, I was able to find things that fit me. That flattered me.

This weekend, for the first time since I was manic and went through a day of obsessive cleaning, I organized my closet.

I still couldn’t fit into my old pants, but I threw them in the donation pile with a sense of acceptance that I couldn’t find last year.

Pregnancy had changed my body, and my mind. And that was ok.

I said goodbye to dresses I wore for all kinds of memories.

The tiny, chic, black and white dress I wore to my brother’s wedding.

The hand-me-down black and white maternity dress that I wore to my grandfather’s funeral.

While my mind has seemingly unlimited room for memories, a closet only has so much space. And you can’t keep it clean if it’s cluttered with things you can’t use. You need to clear out the old things, no matter how much you love them, to make space for the new.

I held them close, then let them go.

I decided to decorate my newly cleared dresser with a picture from our family photo shoot.

I look bigger, yes. My eyes are droopy. But it no longer pains me to look at those photos.

Instead, I find it empowering. I’m reminded of how much love there was in our family, even in our darkest times. Of the beauty of the time we spent together, hunkered down on our property, letting the woods and the stream and the serenity of nature heal us, body and mind.

I’m grateful to the woman in those photos, stranger though she may be, for carrying my mind so carefully. For bringing it back to where it needed to be.

After all, I realize, you need to become a stranger if you’re going to become a better version of yourself.

Thanks for reading,


24 miles