Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


with 4 comments

Someone once said that quitting smoking was harder than quitting heroin. Clearly he (and it had to be a he) had never been on a diet.

Cigarettes are something one can give up completely and banish forever from your life, your house and your mind. Try that with food.

But surely the methods used to quit smoking are viable in any war against addiction.

I have no idea how many thousands of dollars the Calgary Herald spent on courses called “leadership and mastery” or “visioning.” All managers went through the process as did most of the staff over a couple of years. Everyone seemed to think it was a frivolous way to spend money. Everyone was wrong.

I doubt I could have quit smoking without the tools such courses gave me. That wasn’t the point, of course, of such management training. But it worked for me, spectacularly. How? One of the exercises was to envision yourself in the future — your ideal dream or wish. My vision was of me walking confidently across a stage in a strapless, black velvet evening gown. This, of course, had nothing to do with work. Why an evening gown? Why black velvet? When I thought about it, the secret wasn’t what I was wearing or what I was doing, but what the vision represented: a confident woman, proud of her body, striding across a public forum.

When I was thinking of quitting, I realized that the vision I had of myself did not include a single Player’s Filter cigarette. Why did this matter? Because if you knew me then, you’d know that a lit cigarette was my constant companion. For me to think of myself without a cigarette made me realize maybe it was time to quit.

So I employed another technique taught to me through all this learning and mastery stuff — I gave myself permission to fail. I literally had a conversation with my bathroom mirror one night, saying if it got too difficult, if I couldn’t hack it, then I could get in my car (in my nightgown if needs be) and drive to the nearest store and buy cigarettes. Strangely enough, that took all the pressure off.

So on April 20, 1991, on my oldest niece’s 13 birthday (she’s always considered it her birthday present) I quit cold turkey. The date had little to do with it being a “special” day. Nothing to do with the anniversary of the day Billie Holliday recorded “Strange Fruit” or the birthday of Edmonton bush pilot and First World War hero “Wop” May (real name Wilfrid) and some German from the next world war, Adolph Hitler. Nothing to do with the day Jacques Cartier set out in 1534 to discover Labrador and Canada. None of that. The day was chosen because I had finally smoked the last cigarette from my considerable hoard of Player’s Filter. When one smoked as much as I did, one kept cigarettes everywhere — at home, at the office, in the car, cartons in the freezer — I was like a junkie stashing away her fix.

But at 3 p.m. that afternoon, I quit smoking. It wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t realize I was going through withdrawal until about 10 days had passed and I thought the cold sweats and the incipient nausea was a sign of the flu. When I finally went to my doctor she just laughed and said had I told her before, she could have given me something to take, but as I had already been through the worst, I just needed to tough it out.

Did I want a cigarette? Silly question. Of course I did. Of course I still do even today, although I can’t imagine ever having one. To a lesser extent now, I still have the occasional dream in which I am smoking and I wake up in a cold sweat, not quite sure if the dream was real or not.

How did visioning and mastery help? Simple. Knowing my will to resist temptation wasn’t the best, I didn’t try to deny myself anything. Every time the urge hit — it only seemed to hit every second of every hour of every day — I told myself that of course I wanted a cigarette. But I was a non-smoker. I WAS a non-smoker. I just kept repeating the mantra: I am a non-smoker. Do I want a cigarette now, after 18 years? Of course. But I AM a non smoker. Now, if only I could apply that kind of thinking to my diet, it still wouldn’t be easy but it would at least be a plan.

And that’s where the Weight Watchers slogan of “don’t give up what you want most for what you want now” helps. It doesn’t help all the time, of course, or I wouldn’t be on this very public mission to change.

But one strategy over all other helps the most — I’ve stopped beating myself up if I binge on cookies or anything else. I’ve stopped telling myself I’m a failure if I decide to have dessert, or to have another drink. And best of all — this journey on which I have invited all of you readers to share is nonetheless an intensely personal one. I am the judge of whether it is successful; I am the arbiter of what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

That is an immensely freeing experience and attitude and I urge any of you who are bombarded with other people’s opinions about how you look and what you eat to reject them, first, and to plot your own path to reach “what you want most,” second.

As I set out in Chapter 1, what I want most is to lose the last few pounds which, over the course of the past two years, I have lost and gained back those pesky dozen pounds a number of times. More importantly, I want to be more fit as I head into my “senior” years. I want to run to the grave, not hobble.

I do not want, as Dylan Thomas put it so well, to “go gentle.”

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Food is not just food, it’s not “the enemy,” it is part of a bigger picture, part of who we are as women and how we were raised. The dinner table is not the battleground, but part of our identity.

Calgary artist and teacher Verna Reid completed a doctoral thesis in 2003 at the age of 75 and turned that thesis into her 2008 book, Women Between, a study of four female Canadian artists, at age 80. If anyone knows about the changing patterns of women’s lives, she does. She’s lived those patterns.

So when Reid writes about women and their bodies and empowerment, I’m a believer. She says: “While enjoying many aspects of their femininity, most women in our society have often felt ill at ease with their bodies and bodily desires. Women’s connection to their physical selves has historically been a site of conflict, bound as they are by biological rhythms, trained often to deny their sexual nature while at the same time being valued for the degree of their feminine attractiveness.”

Like her, I, too, was liberated and jubilant (her words) at the first sight of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, now on permanent exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Verna (her son, John, is a friend) first saw the installation in 1982 at its opening in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, as did I. She writes: “I still remember the excitement of walking into this dramatically lit room; there stood a monumental, triangular table set with thirty-six plates, thirteen on each side. The shapes on the plates were three-dimensional, flowerlike forms suggesting female genitalia, a choice I found both startling and liberating.” I couldn’t agree more.

The dinner table is not just a piece of furniture. It is part and parcel of ourselves, our femaleness and our past. Reid writes: “When I was a little girl, I asked my grandmother what heaven was like. She replied that, for her, it was a big dinner table with all her family and friends, including those ‘loved and lost a while,’ seated round. It is an image grounded in traditional female experience.”

Dealing with the meals on that table should be a pleasure in our lives, not a fear. But dealing with that food at this time of year, when so much of our celebrations, from Thanksgiving through Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanza and New Year’s, are centred around particular foods and our enjoyment of them, is often a challenge.

I’m up to it. Are you?

NEXT: Chopped liver, Christmas cake and the season’s eating


Written by Catherine Ford

December 3, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Dr. C

    I really am enjoying reading about your journey: for, as the blind American educator Helen Keller noted: “life is a daring adventure or nothing at all!”

    This said, my sweet person, you keep on with this dialectic of right or wrong, (or, as in my world, plaintiff vs. defendant, innocent or guilty etc.) There is no right or wrong here at all – that is why the joy is in the journey – your journey.

    Remember the great Sufi poet and mystic Rumi: “The middle path is the road to wisdom.” Your journey is to find that middle path for yourself because (quoting Rumi again) “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

    Hence, continue on with what you are doing, for, as Isaac Newton reminds us all: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”

    I like both your journey and the trail you are blazing.


    Hugh Landerkin

    December 4, 2009 at 10:09 pm

  2. PS: Sorry to replicate my favourite Helen Keller quote noted earlier on!

    Hugh Landerkin

    December 4, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  3. My local newspaper used to have editorials that as a mom and full time nurse allowed my brain to be stimulated and not atrophy. However, as more and more of our world becomes electronic my daily newspaper has diminished to little but printed adds with small tidbits of news and little to no editorial discusion. I so enjoy your journey and your writing. It makes me laugh and encourages my own journey of losing weight for health. The world’s image of skinny women has never motivated me to become a healthier weight but my aching knees and my need to keep up with young children has. Thank you for sharing. Your words and thoughts help me beyond measure.

    Ann Walker

    December 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

  4. I can’t wait to see you next. you already are fantastic, but you will be ultrafantastic!

    Marcella (big)

    December 7, 2009 at 2:48 pm

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