Disclosure: I am NOT writing this blog to bash the Coast Guard. I have many, many stories of the good the Coast Guard does. I have many personal stories of the good that I did. I am proud to have served my country. I am proud of my accomplishments. I do not regret leaving my small town in Illinois to see the world. At some point in this blog I will tell more of those stories. I write this blog tonight, to capture ONE flaw in the system. I write this blog to tell MY story and only MY story. I write this blog to empower anyone else going through a similar struggle and to encourage HEALTH above all else.
Today is my last official day in the Coast Guard. It is the last day that I am OS1. It is the last day that will be on my last leave and earnings statement. It is the end date on my DD 214 and on every job application I will ever fill out.
When I was a junior in high school and working at the local grocery store, I came home one night and tiredly sat on the couch for a few minutes to talk to my parents before dragging myself to bed. They were watching A Perfect Storm. I have no idea why, but when I saw the rescue helicopter flying above the fishing vessel, I knew at that moment that I wanted to join the Coast Guard. Never mind the fact that I lived in the smallest town ever in the middle of a corn field in Illinois. It didn’t matter that the only time I had ever seen the ocean was the summer before when I visited a friend in Mississippi. I didn’t even know the Coast Guard was a branch of the military. But I knew, I wanted to join. I looked at my mom and point blank said “That’s what I want to do with my life”
I was so tired, I expected her to look back at me and tell me to go to bed. There was no way I could watch 5 min of a movie and decide to give up college and go fly helicopters. But instead my mom looked at me and simply said “ok”
Deciding that my mom was paying too much attention to the movie to actually hear what I said (or that maybe she was having a moment of temporary insanity), I said, with a bit more enthusiasm, “No, seriously, that is what I want to do with my life. Not the fishing vessel (I hate fishing), but the helicopter. That’s what I’m going to do!”
And again, my mom, completely unphased by this, said “Ok. Tomorrow go talk to your guidance counselor”
Upon talking to the guidance counselor, I learned that the Coast Guard was a part of the military. And if I wanted to join the Coast Guard, I would have to go through boot camp. Surprisingly, though, I still wanted to do it.
I didn’t actually join the Coast Guard until I was 21. The reasons behind that are another blog post for another night. Let’s just say that there was a lot of red tape and personal growth that had to be figured out in order for me to be ready to start the next chapter of my life. However, in the interest of being 100% honest, I did struggle with my weight. I did go to a weight loss camp, learned how to eat healthy, and began running 4-6 miles everyday. By the time I joined I could do a 5K in 29 minutes. I weighed 138.
Boot camp was much much harder than I could ever imagine in some aspects and much much easier in others. Things I thought would be hard for me, were actually very easy. After all, I had plenty of time to prepare for it. But if I said I didn’t cry at least once a week, I’d be a huge liar. At the end of boot camp I weighed exactly the same, 138.
My first station was in Texas. I loved every. single. minute. I arrived right after Hurricane Katrina took out Mississippi and New Orleans and Hurricane Rita took out SE Texas. I was working hard 4 days on and I was playing hard 4 days off. It was my first time away from home and on my own. I had a purpose in life and I was carefree. I had a great group of friends, around my same age, in the same spot as I was. I love them more than words in this blog could ever say. And have kept in touch with 4 of the 5 of them for the past 12 years. I could create an entire blog just about Texas, too, but I must move on.
The first time I failed a weigh in was in A-School. I decided to become an Operations Specialist after figuring out that I wasn’t fit enough, nor did I ever want to be, to be in aviation, and my ability to get sea sick coupled with my clumsy-ness, would not make me a good Boatswains mate. Operations Specialist, on land, talked on the radio / answered Mayday calls. I love talking and I am not the type of person to panic in stressful situations. I was very excited about my decision, although leaving Texas was just as hard as my initial move from Illinois.
I worked out in A-School. I loved to run. I will admit to not eating healthy foods all of the time, but I drank a lot of water and rarely drank anything else. I was only a couple pounds over, but never-the-less, if I did not lose them before graduation, I would not be allowed to graduate. I remember going to medical and being told that if I struggled with my weight up until that point, that I always would. A DOCTOR LITERALLY TOLD ME THAT I WAS NEVER GOING TO BE SKINNY.
I was pissed!! Being 22 and still lower ranking in the Coast Guard, I did not say anything. I nodded my head and went about my day. I talk a lot. I vent when I’m upset. But honestly, I think writing this post is the first time I’ve actually told anyone about that particular conversation.
I was determined to prove him wrong. I did lose the weight I needed to lose before graduation–you can easily lose weight at 22 years old when you stop drinking water, stop eating, and workout for an hour a day. And after that I went to Seattle, because as luck would have it, I got a cutter (large boat).
The boat was in dry dock in Bellingham when I first reported. I went to the gym all the time with another girl in my shop. When we were inport, I would wake up early, go to the gym, workout and then start my work day. It was a great system because the parking lot on base was small and getting to work early ensured that I got a parking space on base and not out on the street. Underway, when I was not throwing up and the seas were not too rough, I would also work out in the small gym beneath the Boatswain Hall. I loved the stair stepper. It was the most stable piece of equipment. On the treadmill you would have incline, weather you wanted it or not, pending the sea conditions. The exercise bikes were too light and would come off the ground. But the stair stepper–that was a beast!! It was heavy enough to stay on the ground and the seas did not effect the climbing at all.
The food, however, was not healthy. I would bring snacks with me on patrols, but I did not have my own personal refrigerator to store things in. In the beginning of patrols there would be plenty of produce and a nice salad bar at every meal. But towards the end of a patrol, you could forget about it. And, as an Operations Specialist (OS), we stood watch. And mid-rats were always left overs or fried food and never included salad or fruit.
It was not long until I struggled with my weight on the boat. I was also diagnosed with PMDD and acid reflux. Despite participating in The Big Climb (a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, where the participants climb 69 floors or 1311 steps to reach the observation deck of the Columbia Center in Downtown Seattle) and making it all the way to the observation deck (some participants don’t. People donate money based on how many floors you make it up. For example, a friend pledges $5 for every floor you make it. So if you climb 10 floors, you raised $50) I was still struggling with my weight. I almost got kicked out of the Coast Guard.
Weigh ins are in April and October every year. There is a pre-determined weight you must be under based on your height. The other option is to be “taped” The procedures for taping changed a lot over the 12 years I was in. It was your wrist, natural waist, and buttocks at one point. The past few years it has been (for females, I should clarify) your natural waist + the largest part of your buttocks – your neck = sum. Match that sum up with your height on a chart and you magically have your BMI. I CHALLENGE YOU TO FIND ANOTHER ORGANIZATION OR GYM/PERSONAL TRAINER THAT USES THIS METHOD TO CALCULATE BMI. If you do not meet weight standards, you are put on probation. During probation, you are required to workout, meet with a nutrionist, see a doctor to ensure there is nothing medically wrong with you and that you can workout, and weigh in, including taping, once a month until you are within limits. If you do not become compliant within the amount of time they give you (1 week per 1 pound over or 1 month per 1 percent BMI, whichever is greater), you are discharged from service.
After Seattle, I went down to Mobile, AL where I was an Operations Unit Controller (Search and Rescue Coordinator) for the majority of my 5 years there. Towards the end of my tour on the Cutter I was put on birth control for my PMDD. While I was in Mobile, the weight standards changed and I could weigh more than I was allowed in Seattle. I ran at least 10 miles every week and participated in a 5K almost every month. I never failed a weigh in. I lived offbase and could prepare my own food. I still did not have the best habits, but I was eating much better than I was forced to while being underway. I walked the line with weigh ins. Sometimes weighing exactly what I was supposed to with no room for error. And sometimes I had to starve myself for a week before weigh ins. But I never failed one.
I began to workout with a personal trainer. I wanted to put my fear of weigh ins behind me for good. I didn’t want to walk the line or starve myself anymore. I worked just as hard, if not harder, than most of her clients. My body was re-shaping and I got more compliments than I ever have in my entire life. I lost a total of 12 inches. HOWEVER,
1 inch was around each bicep, 1 inch was around each thigh, etc. I also gained 12 pounds. So when weigh ins came around, I weighed to much to be under pound-wise and since they measured your waist and butt, I didn’t lose enough inches to be under the allowed BMI. I cancelled my workouts with my trainer, starved myself, took laxatives, ran, and barely made weight by the skin of my teeth.
I turned 30 six months before transferring to Petaluma, Ca, where I would be an OS A-School Instructor. I was not upset, but was actually excited, about turning 30. However, my body decided it was time to come unglued. ALL of my symptoms from my PMDD came back with vengeance!! The birth control was not controlling anything. I stopped taking it. I tried acupuncture for awhile and that was helping quite a bit, but it became too expensive to keep up. I stopped taking my birth control. I stopped having periods. I gained 20 pounds.
Keep in mind, NONE of my other habits changed. I was still running 10 miles or so per week and still participating in at least 1 5K per month. I still could have been eating slightly healthier, but I was not eating any differently than I did in Mobile.
I failed multiple weigh ins. And every time I went to medical, after being put on probation, I told them something was wrong with me. And of course, they already knew that I quit taking my birth control because it was no longer working. But every time they said I just needed to work out more.
I met with Unit Health Promotion Coordinators. I hired a new personal trainer. I started doing yoga. I tried eating less calories. I tried eating more calories.
But medical kept insisting there was nothing wrong with me. And after one failed weigh in, one doctor even told me “Even if you have a thyroid problem, you will only lose about 5 pounds anyway, so it is not worth looking into”
Yes, you read that right. A doctor told me that we would ignore a potential medical problem because it would not help me lose weight. (I was too shocked at the time to say or do anything, but later did speak up. He was reprimanded, but is, of course, still practicing)
Thankfully, at this point in my career money was good enough that I was able to pay out of pocket for my own endocrinologist and my own blood work. I did/do have hypothyroidism.
Coast Guard medical accepted this. They knew the medication I was on. They knew I was seeing him. They were fine with everything UNTIL I asked for a weight abeyance (waiver). Then shit hit the fan. My blood work came back with a very low TSH and all of a sudden the doctor I was seeing was a quack and was killing me. They sent me to an Air Force endocrinologist.
I had to stop taking all my medication for over a month in order to get “clean blood work” done. No one cared that I was depressed during this time. No one offered me counseling or any other means of help. I simply had to deal with it as a consequence of seeing a doctor out of the Tricare network.
Imagine the surprise when the clean bloodwork not only showed that I still had hypothyroidism, but also had poly cystic ovarian syndrome, as well. Two medical conditions that on their own create weight gain, much less having both. And what is good for your thyroid is bad for PCOS and vice versa. So figuring out the right foods, supplements, and workout is a nightmare. And again, I was working with personal trainers and a nutrionist.
The Coast Guard granted me a weight abeyance for 6 months. I was given an extension for another 6 months after that, after my symptoms got a lot better, but I was still over-weight.
Once the year was up, though, that was it. I had to get back within standards. There is a way to continue getting extensions every 6 months, but medical did not believe me that I was actively trying to lose weight, so the email that was sent did not advocate for me. I was denied more extensions. My command tried to fight for me, but it was a battle that could not be won.
The Air Force endocrinologist also thought I was depressed. The Coast Guard psychologist diagnosed me with having a borderline anxiety disorder. I started seeing a therapist. I have anxiety and PTSD.
After 6 months in therapy and many battles lost with admin and medical, I finally decided it was time to give up a career in the Coast Guard. My abeyance ended, I was put on probation, I did not make progress, and I was Honorable Discharged for not meeting weight requirements.
Weigh ins in the Coast Guard are NOT about health. There were several conversations at medical about what medications I should be on and it always came down to ONE factor “did the side effects include weight gain?” I adamantly refused to go back on birth control. I was lectured for this on more than one occasion because I only gained weight when coming off of it. Clearly, my health was the focus and highest priority for the Coast Guard.
Again, I am not writing this blog to bash the Coast Guard. I have many, many stories of the good the Coast Guard does. I have many personal stories of the good that I did. I am proud to have served my country. I am proud of my accomplishments. I do not regret leaving my small town in Illinois to see the world. At some point in this blog I will tell more of those stories.
The weight system is flawed. And I was trapped in a game that I could not win. Damage was done to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally that will take years to repair. Since deciding to get out of the Coast Guard, some of that healing has already taken place. And there is proof of this. My chiropractor has seen more movement in me over the past 6-8 months than she saw in the 2 years prior.
After going on terminal leave, I dyed my hair, got fake nails, got the cartiledge on my right ear pierced, and got a huge phoenix tattoo on my left leg. The phoenix is holding a broken sand dollar in it’s mouth. I got it on my left leg because when marching, you always step out with your left foot first. It is time for me to figure out who I am and who I want to be. It is time to focus solely on my health and not on my weight. It is time for me to be reborn.
I wanted to do a photo shoot to embrace my new look. My hairstylist is also my photographer. She is amazing!!!! I highly recommend Kearsten Leder Petra to anyone who lives anywhere near Penngrove, Ca. She works at R Squared Salon and does photography out of her home (or on location) in Petaluma, Ca. She is on Instagram #kearstenlederphotography.
While she was dying my hair purple, I was talking to her about the upcoming photo shoot. The shoot went from a fun shoot to embrace my new look to a shoot that would capture my journey, set me free, and also, hopefully, empower and encourage anyone going through any struggle similar to mine.
She is not done editing my photos yet. So I have only attached one photo to this blog for now. There is another one coming soon.
Your weight does NOT determine who you are. Being over-weight does not make you lazy or no good. There is never a good excuse to starve yourself, to run in garbage bags, to throw up, to take laxatives, etc. Please take my word for it, the damage you do takes a long time to undo. And the longer you do these destructive things, the slower your metabolism becomes and the harder it is to accomplish your goal of being skinny. A career in any field is not worth your overall health. The only numbers that should ever count, should be the results of a blood test. And even then, question what they mean and get a second opinion if you do not think you are being heard. You have value. And you are beautiful. You may be broken, but I promise, you are beautiful.