"Everything in moderation" has been my mantra for some time now. But lately, I've been thinking that I need a new plan. Several months ago, I was approached by the American Heart Association's Stroke Prevention team asking if I would consider becoming an ambassador and deliver their kick-off keynote message atop Vulcan Hill in January. Filled with gratitude I accepted the invitation and began to prepare.
In my keynote address I shared details of my husband, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's 2007 stoke. I told how we laid down one autumn evening with our whole future planned only to have a stroke creep into the somber quietude sending those plans up in smoke. I shared the harsh reality that stroke really is a silent home wrecker that can leave you with an all- consuming agony for years to come. Armed with a knowledge that comes only through experience, I challenged everyone in the room, including myself, to make whatever changes necessary to improve their odds, as well as those of their loved ones, against cardiovascular disease, the #1 killer of African-Americans in our country today.
Our faith tells us that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. Gluttony is a sin of commission. Neglect is a sin of omission. At times, I have been guilty of both. Let me explain. Our culture, especially the African-American culture, is obsessed with food. Every kind of celebration imaginable calls out the best cooks in the family to produce our favorite dishes laden with fat, sugar and salt. And because the food is so delicious, we find ourselves eating long after our internal gauge has registered "full". Then comes the heartburn, the antacids and the misery that marks the end of yet another family celebration.
In my family, I am one of those chosen cooks. My culinary interest was sparked as a young child who often forfeited play time to stand behind my grandmother's wood-burning cook stove observing and analyzing her craft as the latest pan of buttermilk biscuits or fragrant teacakes emerged from the oven. Every meal was prepared with love and precision; right down to which pot would boil first. There was always plenty of great-tasting food to reward the efforts of a family who worked hard by day and played hard by design amid an ongoing sea of challenges that engulfed us. My grandmother, and later my mother who is also an exceptional cook, taught me well.
But this is only half of the story. Over time the script has gotten worse. Many of us have embarked upon a sedentary lifestyle, which I recently learned is in some ways more disconcerting than our bad diet. For most of my life I have been fairly active. As a teen, I was both a tomboy and an athlete. In high school, I made the President's physical fitness team and in college upset many members of the men's' basketball team because I was able to bench press my weight, which exceeded many of their efforts. Since those days I have maintained enough muscle control, strength and stamina to call on my body to do whatever I need. So over the years I did not concern myself with an exercise regimen thinking that because I lived an active lifestyle, I was okay. What I hadn't counted on was a life laden with stress including divorce, single-parenting and career demands. And I gave little thought to what my response to those stressors might entail. Gradually I began to slow my active pace and often found myself responding to life's challenges with another great meal. Thus began my unhealthy liaison with food. It wasn't until an obese family member confided in me, "food is my best friend" that something snapped inside of me. It was clear to me that she was out of control. The fear of someday losing that same control led me to avow, "Everything in moderation."
Like most brides-to -be, I dropped 2 dress sizes in preparation for my new life with Fred Shuttlesworth. I even had my wedding dress altered just hours before the ceremony to the amazement of my attendants. Not only was I a happy, blushing bride; but I also felt great physically. After the ceremony and a honeymoon in Savannah, Georgia, we settled in to married life blissfully rooted in the concept of "happily ever after." But time was not on our side. Seven weeks after our nuptials, my husband was diagnosed with both prostate and urethral cancers. A month later he experienced the first of many fainting episodes that ultimately led to the placement of a pacemaker. Three short weeks after the pacemaker and nine fleeting months after our nuptials, Fred Shuttlesworth suffered what early reports called a "mild" stroke. Turns out there was nothing mild about it! It slowly depleted his life source over the next four years and one month, constituting his final foe and over time, producing more challenges than Bull Connor could ever dream up.
By the time my husband entered into an extended care facility, my priorities had changed; and so had my body. The pre-wedding weight loss was gradually returning as my food choices became erratic. My body and mind became so exhausted that I fell into an EAT, SLEEP, GO mode that threatened my own health and well-being. Along the way, I learned that care givers, especially long-term, must guard their own health while advocating for and helping their loved ones. I had to start on the road to change somewhere. So I began by placing attention on my rest and sleep patterns. While my diet became increasingly less nutritious and large portions of my days were spent sitting at my husband's bedside, the pounds settled themselves around my waist in a way I had never known before. But there's something about watching the love of your life slip away that takes a sizable chunk out of your very existence. Matters that once seemed simple now loomed complex in the wake of illness. By the time of his transition, I had regained all of the pre-wedding pounds lost.
Seven months later, I am on the road to recovery! I have again dropped two dress sizes and took great pride in having some clothes altered just last week. I began a fitness program two months ago, walk 2-3 times a week and monitor what and how much I put in my mouth. I AM NOT ON A DIET. Never have been and never will be. I'm embarking upon a lifestyle change. It's my new plan! I won't be kicking my old plan (moderation) to the curb anytime soon though. It's still relevant to my overall goals. I still have a journey in front of me; things I want to accomplish with this ample body of mine. But whatever its size, I'm working for optimal health in hopes that I never have to face the debilitating destruction caused by a stroke or heart attack.
As an ambassador, I have responsibilities; not only to represent the cause at hand, but to help others. So I will close with official information (found below) provided by the American Heart Association. And I will remind you that YOU ARE THE POWER that you've been awaiting. You don't need me or anyone else to tell you that your body feels better after you exercise. We all remember that from our childhoods. So come on! Be a child again. Don't ask permission, just do it! Make a conscious effort to exclude, include, and minimize some things in your daily diet. Then pass your new attitude on to someone else. Join me in making a commitment to live strong and live long! You and your loved ones will be happy that you did.