I was raised on “meat and potatoes” (with a few pizza or pasta nights thrown in on Fridays). My mom didn’t buy a whole lot of processed foods, and I was always the kid at the school lunch table that tried to trade my “fresh fruit” for a hostess cake. Soda pop, candy and other sugary treats rarely made it into my mother’s kitchen other than during school vacation or on holidays. As a child I never had any problem maintaining a healthy body weight. I had some uncomfortable digestive issues at times, but didn’t really think anything of it. I was a kid. Things changed when I went off to music school when I was 18. I gained the “freshman 15″… and then some… (and because I was training to be a professional singer, I hardly touched alcohol of any kind). My body hated me, and I hated it back. That’s where my 30 lb. 10 year battle with my bod started.
The summer after my freshman year I nearly starved myself and exercised like a maniac to attempt to fit back into my old clothes and feel good about myself again. Starvation works, as long as you don’t mind terrible side-effects. But my friends told me I looked awesome, and I met “a boy” (a really cute blond guy going to art school wearing paint splattered bleached out jeans and who is now my very dashing and preppy hubby). Happy in love and working hard at school over the next three years, the dreaded 30 crept (and I mean CREPT) back, almost unnoticed. I thought I was doing everything right. Exercising 5-6 days a week, eating my whole grains, watching my fat intake, eating yogurt in the morning… you know the drill.
Tom Lewek got down on one knee three years later during my senior year, and right after I said “YES!” (ok, screamed it) I started thinking about my plan of action to be a barbie doll on my wedding day. Shallow, right? I know… Those who know me personally will laugh, too, because even in my tallest boots I’m still the shortest one in the room. I digress… I decided I was going to lose weight “the healthy way” this time, instead of being the starving maniac I had been in my “youth”!! Tracking and portioning out my calories in 5 small meals a day, eating low-fat sugar-free chocolate pudding cups when I wanted a dessert so much I could cry, and mainly living on pre-packaged diet meals (that you microwave for 3 minutes, stir around the frosty food, and microwave for another 2 minutes until its debatably edible), dry whole-grain toast, and low-fat string cheese. SO SAD! (Like the wordplay? It stands for “Standard American Diet”)
Bonus from Chapter 2: I discovered yoga during this phase and for that, I am truly grateful for everyday of my life. Also, I looked great in my wedding photos and despite the fact that at the time I didn’t think I was thin enough to rock my white bikini on my Bermuda Honeymoon, the pictures my groom took of me prove otherwise, which I didn’t realize until I looked at them 5 years later (after I had gained the 30+ lbs BACK!). Mind games.
Yeah, you know where this is going. Happily married and focused on finishing my graduate degree… oops. After graduation, we moved to CT to be close to my family and close to NYC for auditions… auditioned A LOT, and got rejected, A LOT. Taught a lot of voice lessons. Taught a lot of piano lessons. Took a lot of odd job singing gigs to make ends meet and afford Connecticut (which is only mildly cheaper than living in NYC… eye roll.) Such is a young artist’s life. This time, though, I actually noticed the weight gain happening, but made excuses like “I’m concentrating on getting my career going right now” and “I’m focusing on my new marriage” and “I’m taking a break from being healthy because I’m tired from it”… WHAT?!?!
I started to forget what it was like to feel at home in my body. I tried to remember a time when I was actually happy with my body. I was never obese, but I wasn’t happy being overweight, lumpy, bloated and uncomfortable. There’s the key- uncomfortable! The problem was that even when I was going through my “thin” phases, I didn’t feel good. OK, I didn’t cringe as much when I looked in the mirror and I had more confidence, but I felt sick basically all the time. My digestive issues kept getting worse and I felt exhausted and weak, even (or especially) when I was on a “healthy” diet. I was angry and scared. Angry that it was turning out to be SO DIFFICULT to stay trim and healthy looking in my emerging adulthood, and scared that I wouldn’t have the energy to keep it up throughout my life and eventually my weight and health would get out of control. You don’t have to read between the lines to understand that I was dissatisfied with myself at this time, and I put my health on the back burner, at a loss of how to proceed.
In the Spring of 2011, I won my first major audition and landed an incredible 10-month gig singing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in Germany. In August, Tom (who was thankfully able to arrange working remotely with his employer) and I flew to Berlin with our little dog, Noir, an 8 year old Papillon, and settled into our 6th floor walk-up across the street from the opera house. My dream was finally coming true (if I could endure the 6 flights of stairs every time I wanted to go to or from our apartment). Shortly after our arrival, the first miracle happened. I had a private rehearsal with someone on the coaching staff at the opera house and I made a joke about people not being able to see me on stage because I was so “little” (I’m only 5 feet tall, after all…) and this person had the cruelty to look me up and down and the awful brilliance to say “You’re not THAT little…” WOAH. That hurt… Then the second miracle… After the first crippling couple weeks of stair climbing to my apartment, I noticed a slight tightening in my “rearview”… (LIGHTBULB!)
On a Carpe Diem rampage I seized the moment and started on a frenzy of healthy cooking and abundant exercise. To be honest, at the time I really felt I had finally found my balance. I was cooking low-calorie, super “healthy” whole food meals, lots of lean protein and veggies and whole grain pastas and breads. I was experimenting and mastering new cooking techniques, and started nurturing a real love of being in the kitchen and working with real food. I went though hundreds of recipes, sometimes a couple new ones almost everyday, and only repeated ones when they were really successful and yummy, and didn’t want to experiment when we had people over. I found my groove. I was running 25-35 miles a week and doing 60-90 minutes of power yoga almost everyday and on my rest days I did 30 minutes of power yoga and took long walks with my hubby and the pup. (I might mention here that it also takes a considerable amount of energy to sing operas as well, lest we forget the real reason I was in Berlin!) I lost the 30+ (and then some) and the costume department had to take in my various garments TWICE over the next 9 months. I added vitamin supplements and probiotics to my daily routine, and aside from occasional flare-ups, my digestive system was behaving better than it ever had.
My parents came to visit and were amazed at how transformed I was. I made them awesome meals and showed off my new techniques. I made a chicken and apples dish which they devoured and asked for over and over again, but I insisted on making other things for them, like whole grain pasta and veggie lasagna, and beautifully spiced lentils with fresh whole grain flat bread from the local turkish market around the corner. These things made my mother horrifically ill for days, which she finally was honest with me about. It didn’t make sense to me at all. I was stunned. I was SO sure the things that I fed her would nourish her, not make her sick. Turns out my mother is highly sensitive to gluten and abrasive things like legumes, and her reactions to these things have gotten worse and worse with age… go figure. (Alarm #1!) I continued on my low-cal track, but stuck to making chicken and veggies when they came over for dinner. (With a little pout on my face.)
Alarm #2 was a big one. Fast forward a few months and I had just begun to embark on my newly exploding career all over the world. 10 months of singing in Berlin got a lot of people’s attention and I was winning auditions left and right. Tom got gutsy and started his own freelance graphic design business so he could travel with me full-time. (Want to see how awesome he is? Visit tomlewek.com) I was so excited about the flurry of opportunities and successes, and I felt ready to take on the world, confident with my voice and my new rockin’ bod. In the summer of 2012, on the tail end of the summer olympics, we headed to London. I was singing the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute at the English National Opera – my UK debut!
I was in great voice and having the time of my life, until one day something didn’t feel right. I felt vocally blocked and fatigued. A few days later it was worse and I went to an ENT to get scoped. The doctor numbed the inside of my nose with a spray and then inserted a wire tube with a camera at the end of it and inspected my vocal chords. Not the most enjoyable process. (Note: This is a relatively common procedure for professional singers, but it was a first for me, as I have always been blessed with a pretty good track record with my vocal health). He found that I had major evidence of acid reflux and immediately put me on a prescription to “clear it up” so I could continue singing without discomfort. He then examined my neck and throat with his fingertips and became concerned about a lump on the right side of my neck near my thyroid gland. He then sent me for a needle biopsy (and if you thought the scope process sounded unpleasant, then I have bad news for you…) A few days later I got the call that gave me tremendous relief – benign cyst on my right thyroid gland. Not great, but not terrible either. I was advised to have it checked again in a few months when I got back to the states.
When I got home, my mom made me set up an appointment with her doctor- a holistic health ND. (Thanks for the nudge, Mom!) To learn more about Dr. Deirdre O’Connor, visit the Natura Medica website. As fate would have it, about a week before my appointment, I developed a painful swelling on the side of my neck near where the cyst was. It was red and hot to the touch and I could hardly turn my head without extreme pain. I sang 3 auditions like this (really not fun). I called Dr. O’Connor and told her I had an appointment with her the following week but I was starting to panic and didn’t know if I should go to a walk-in clinic or just wait to see her. She told me to calm down, stop eating sugar and eat nourishing foods and rest. The swelling went down a little bit over the next few days, but was still present when I went to see her. She drew some blood to test and the following week she gave me the scary news. I was on the border of developing Hashimotos Thyroiditis, and autoimmune disease. At that point she recommended I experiment with a gluten-free diet. That’s where Chapter 7 begins, where the body-battle ends and harmony and balance begin to emerge.
Shortly after my scary thyroid flare-up and diagnosis extravaganza, I went on vacation to visit my brother and his adorable family in Hawaii for Christmas 2012. FYI, I’m pretty proud of my big brother. He’s a Lieutenant Commander and rescue helicopter pilot for the United States Coast Guard, and I pretty much trust everything he tells me. It just so happened that he and his family had started something called “The Primal Blueprint Diet” several months earlier and were finding great success with it. He gave me a copy of Mark Sisson’s book and I read it, wide-eyed, cover to cover. I adopted the new lifestyle with ease and comfort, and haven’t looked back for a moment. (You can find more details about Primal/Paleo on my “Eating” page!) Update on the swollen thyroid and cyst deal: The swelling went away entirely within a couple weeks of cutting out refined sugar, gluten/grains, legumes, and most dairy. After 3 months of being on Primal/Paleo, I went back to Dr. O’Connor, and before she looked at my personal chart, she played a little game of “I don’t remember if the cyst was on the left or the right side, so I’m going to examine you and see if I can identify it, instead of looking at your chart first.” …She couldn’t feel ANY evidence that there had ever been an cyst on my thyroid, and my next round of blood testing came back with an A+ report card. Oh- and I feel pretty great too.
I’m a work in progress, always, and it’s a huge challenge at times to lead the healthy lifestyle I strive for when I’m constantly on the move, living out of a suitcase, working at weird hours that change all the time, and never knowing what time zone I’m in. I started this blog while living for 5 weeks on the edge of the earth in Tasmania, Australia… Chapter 7 is an ongoing journey, one which I’ve decided to keep track of through this blog – as a support system for myself and for others. I hope all those who read it will find encouragement in their ambitions to lead a healthy life filled with happiness and passion – and of course, great food and a lot of hearty laughter!