I still have my pink-covered planner from 2010 with "Norwich" penciled-in on Tuesday, April 6. Norwich was a pharmaceutical manufacturer two hours west of Albany, NY where I worked for a health insurance company. As a health promotion specialist, I was tasked with helping my accounts—"employer groups" as they were called in the biz—to create healthier workplaces. Norwich wanted our weight-management program, so I drove out to present it to their employees once a week for six weeks.
On one of those trips, I wore a scoop-neck, short-sleeve black dress. The fabric was sleek, not clingy, and as I moved around in it, I felt it skim over my body, with unfamiliar room to spare. At my highest weight as an adult, I carried fifty extra pounds, which I had lost and found many times. Then, my two sons grew up and moved out, and self-care rose to the top of my priority list. I lost weight again. This time, I kept it off.
I told participants in my classes I had probably shed 500 pounds in my life. My history gave me credibility. And sharing my insights, not just about losing weight, but about loving yourself through the journey, gave meaning to my former struggles.
Then, in 2016, I had to abandon my treasured career due to ongoing and worsening gut problems. I wondered if it was my years of bad eating that caused it. Well, bad eating wasn't the full story. I ate all the "right" things, according to the science of the times—low-fat, low calorie, high fiber foods. In between and in addition to and sometimes instead of "right," I ate "wrong"—binging on sugar, carbs, and fat, in large quantities, uncontrollably. Although I had managed to put this self-destructive behavior behind me years before my gut rebelled, how could my long history not have taken a toll?
I was a health promotion specialist in poor health, a wellness expert who was sick, and I felt like a fraud. The day I left my colorectal surgeon's office realizing I'd have to go on full-time disability, I put my sunglasses on in the elevator to hide my tears, and trudged through the dark, dreary lobby. Life as I had known it, my esteemed career, my future dreams—had all disappeared down the toilet. When the automatic glass doors opened, I stepped through. The day was warm, the sun brilliant, not a cloud to be seen in the royal blue sky. In that instant, I knew what I needed to do even before I heard the universe tell me: Karen, it's time to finish your book.
Twenty years earlier, I had started writing a memoir about my young son's rumble with a brain tumor. Well, that wasn't the full story, as I came to realize. My compulsive people-pleasing was the story, how it stymied my attempts to solve my son's mysterious deterioration, how my crippling agreeableness delayed his diagnosis. I had written about 300 pages before I quit. It was too painful. I couldn't face my truth.
But the time for reckoning had come that sunny day in 2016. For the next three years, my gut and my soul conspired to undo me as I picked away at my denial and tapped away at my truth. I survived, not cured, but wiser and stronger.
Now, as I share my story, hoping to help others overcome the destructiveness of their people-pleasing, my history again gives me credibility. Sharing my insights, not just about learning to stand up for myself, but about loving myself through the journey, gives meaning to my former struggles, just as it had done before.
We can seldom escape the difficulties of life, but we can almost always grow in the process, even if it takes decades to realize the lessons. Who knows what 2030 has in store for me? Who knows what wisdom I’ll have gained? Whatever truths the universe imparts, I look forward to sharing what I've learned.
Karen DeBonis began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. Agreeable Mom: A Harrowing Story of People-pleasing is currently available for representation. A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.
Karen urges you to learn more about Unity House. This human service agency in my community is open during the COVID-19 crisis to continue providing services to those who are living in poverty, adults living with mental illness or HIV/AIDS, victims of domestic violence, and children with developmental delays. Donations from online stores can be sent directly to their food pantry, which is more in need than ever! Visit www.unityhouseny.org.