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Book Review: Monica Seles’s “Getting a Grip”

Posted May 20 2009 9:38am

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Eating disorders are not a taboo subject anymore in the media. We mostly hear speculation about starving celebs, celebs who seem to be in a constant battle to under-weigh one another, abuse drugs or laxatives or pills to stay skinny.

And sure, we hear about celebs like Oprah and Kirstie Alley who have fought public wars with their weight over and over again … but other than them, it’s not too common that we hear about a celebrity/professional athlete dealing with emotional eating issues or binge-eating disorder. That is, until now.

In the riveting new book Getting a Grip, tennis phenom Monica Seles reveals the secret battles she was waging off the court, following her stabbing during a match with Steffi Graf and the death of her father to cancer. As depression and anxiety plagued her, food became a drug that numbed her.

Getting a Grip is her story of how she came to know herself outside of tennis, overcame binge eating/emotional eating and took back her life.

And it’s a pure inspiration.

When US Weekly does it’s column, “Stars, they’re just like us,” I usually laugh because they’re so silly. Wow, a celeb dad walking his kid into an ice cream shoppe. How … novel?! Right. That’s certainly nothing to write home about.

But Monica Seles’ journey has “just like us” written all over it. It’s truly one that I think so many people — women in particular — will be able to relate to. I know I could.

I admit up front that prior to reading her book, my knowledge of Monica Seles and my interest in the professional tennis world was a big fat “Nothing,” but when I read an excerpt from her book in SELF recently I knew this was a book I wanted to read.

I was approached by her publisher and they sent me a copy and asked me to do a review so … here I am!

First, I’d give this book two big thumbs up.

It’s not a self-help book and it’s not a how-to guide … it’s really a woman’s honest, poignant journey from being a star athlete who fears “peaking” at 16, to almost being pushed into early retirement by the media when a new crop of fit, fresh-faced tennis players showed up in the late ’90s.

And in the middle of it? Oh yea, her stabbing, her dad’s death, and 40 unwanted pounds. Talk about a trifecta of depression-invoking life changes. It would drive anyone into a downward spiral.

But even in the wake of her spiral, we watch how Monica perseveres, and it makes us –the readers — believe we can, too.

When, after a severe injury she can’t exercise for six months, she lets go of dieting and learns to trust herself. She admits it wasn’t easy, and she makes no false promises to her readers; she needed to do it on her own. And she did.

After years of following crazy diets and even crazier practice sessions, having trainers babysit her in her hotel rooms and boyfriends monitor her intake … she hit her breaking point; she was done.

I think what makes Monica’s book so relatable is that she talks to you like you’re her friend, hearing her story first-hand. I feel like I know her now; like she could be my friend, and that in spite of being a knockout, she didn’t always feel that way about herself.

Though there were hundreds of awesome passages I could talk about (I strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy) I have chosen a couple particularly poignant passages from the book to discuss here today that I think will have relevance to my blog.

When we read her training regimen as her coaches tried to help her drop the 40 pounds she’d gained — a regimen of almost ten hours of exercise a day in conjunction with a strict (and horrifically boring) 1,200 calorie diet – it’s no wonder she couldn’t lose weight and turned to binging for comfort! She was literally starving herself and being forced to be ridiculously restrictive — and the worst part, the most baffling to me — is that this counsel came from her coaches and nutritionists.

As she explains her descent into binges, she admits she thought about food all the time. Sound familiar?! “Disordered eating had turned into disordered thinking,” she writes.

Like Oprah, she had a team of experts with her that most people would kill for … but even that army of supporters couldn’t help her lose the weight; weight that she knew was holding her back from realizing her dreams of getting back to her number one ranking.

But being babysat made her resentful. It made her buy food in secret, shovel food into her mouth in the car, stash cookies in her suitcase so her trainers wouldn’t find it. It made her want to rebel. (Sound familiar?!)

I could relate to one passage in particular, where she’s visiting her Italian boyfriend following a win in a huge match in Rome (one of my fave cities).

They’re both total foodies, and she was looking forward a victory dinner where she could have whatever she wanted, finally. But he orders himself a hearty meal and orders her a salad.

When she looks confused, says, “Si, bella, I am on strict instructions to not let you indulge your appetite tonight,” and she’s completely crushed. Her coach and nutritionist had given him the orders and he thought he was helping. But it just made things worse, and ruined an otherwise perfect evening.

For me, there have been times where my husband — who would hear me talk incessantly about my weight and my unhappiness with my body, even though he loved me no matter what and wished more than anything that I could see wha he sees; love myself like he does — would try to help me by suggesting I not buy triggers like candy, or eat more of my nutritious dinner (knowing I’d want dessert instead) and I’d feel resentful towards him for “monitoring” me and spiral into terrible-two mentality (”It’s my body and I can eat what I want!”)

The thing is, I know he means well — it has to be hard for our partners when we’re looking at rock bottom — but as Monica experiences in Rome with her boyfriend, food police only make us resentful, further proof that even the best of intentions can be ill-received.

Another part of the book that really resonated is when she meets a sumo wrestler in China. When she asks him about his diet, out of curiosity, she has the horrifying realization that she’s been eating like a sumo wrestler, who does everything in his power to gain weight and keep it on … by consuming 15,000 calories a day.

Here are his guidelines for gaining weight and staying fat. (Note: these are NOT recommended!!)
1) Skip breakfast. This slows down your metabolism and keeps it down for the rest of the day, making it harder to burn off the calories you ingest at lunch and dinner.
2) Eat two big meals a day. Starving all morning and then gorging yourself in the afternoon is a surefire way to get fat. It ruins your energy and wreaks havoc on your metabolism.
3) Nap right after eating.
4) Exercise on an empty stomach.
5) Eat in social settings. Sumo wrestlers live in “training stables” and eat all of their meals gathered around a communal table.

As Monica notes, “I learned more from him in twenty minutes than I had from years of reading books and listening to trainers. I’d been living my life like a quasi-sumo wrestler! And the most important thing I learned was that what you put into your mouth is more critical to weight loss than how much exercise you do. These guys were working out more than six hours a day but they were all still enormous. If you are consuming thousands of calories, no amount of exercise can burn it off: you will be big. It takes one hour of intense exercise to burn off five hundred calories, but it only takes one bagel with cream cheese to add five hundred calories. Calories are easier to put on than they are to take off, which is why one of my half-hour binges would wipe out an entire day’s worth of hard work. After my stabbing, it had taken less than a week to destroy all the progress I’d made with Bob Kersee because I hadn’t mastered the energy balance equation. Working out hard didn’t give me a free pass to eat everything in sight, but that’s exactly what I did. I worked out in extremes and I ate in extremes. Nothing was in balance and my body showed it.

Boy did that hit home. No need to explain further, let’s just say I highlighted that last line on page 222 and dog-eared the page, too. Amen.

And so for the first time on a tour, Monica slows it down. She sticks around China after a tournament (instead of rushing to another one or heading home, like she was accustomed to).

She writes, “… I’d given up so much for tennis and had never mastered the art of striking a balance. I had been convinced that, to be number one, I had to eat, sleep, and breathe the game. But while I was walking along the Great Wall, I realized that there was so much out there for me to see. Maybe I’d been too hard on myself over the years. Maybe I’d been too strict about my schedule. Maybe limiting myself to hotels and the tournament sites had been counterproductive. What if I’d been able to see the world and play tennis? Would that have taken the pressure off of me? What if working out so hard and restricting what I allowed myself to do hadn’t been the key after all?”

Who among us can’t relate to this?!

Later, she is on holiday with some girlfriends and they’re about to go scuba diving in the Bahamas. The pack she’s wearing weighs ten pounds, and it’s heavy — much heavier than she anticipated it being.

“I was flabbergasted. I’d lugged ten- and twenty-pound dumbbells all over the gym for years, but I’d never taped one to my stomach before. It was so burdensome. I was waddling around on the boat deck like an arthritic duck. Then a light went on in my head: this was how much I’d been carrying around for eight years, multiplied by three — and sometimes four. No wonder my feet hurt and my lateral movement had suffered so much! I knew I needed to lose weight, but this was a whole new perspective. I didn’t need to lose it so I’d look good in a bikini; I needed to lose it to give my body a break.”

Again, who can’t relate to that a-ha moment?

“When I got back to the hotel room, I made a decision. I was sick of lugging weight belts of fat around. I was going to drop them for good, but this time I’d do it differently. Nobody was going to take care of me ad my problems. No one on the outside could fix what was going on inside of me. I was the only one who could and would do it.

And then later that year (which rings so true for recovery):
“There was one thing that kept depression at bay. My little black dress was hanging in my closet, but unlike all the other small sizes that had been hanging untouched in the back of my closet for years, it didn’t taunt me or make me feel discouraged. Every time I caught a glimpse of it while reaching for a flowy dress, I felt a little spark of inspiration. I was beginning to realize I had a say in whether I was happy or not, whether I was feeling strong or hopeless. I had the power to control what I put into my mouth and over the thoughts I chose to obsess upon. I didn’t have a coach or a nutritionist or a boyfriend giving me the answers. But somehow that little black dress was becoming a symbol of reclaiming the real me — my true core.”

Monica notes, “I’d lived my life in such extremes — seven-hour workouts followed by five-thousand-calorie binges – that I wanted a change. I wanted less. Just the word ‘less’ sounded soothing when it rolls off the tongue. I started carrying the concept with me everywhere, viewing the word ‘less’ connected to the word ‘lesson.’ Every time I made a choice that emphasized the ‘Less is more’ theory, I gave myself a little symbolic pat on the back. I was learning how to live my life more fully by choosing less.”

“At the grocery store, I filled my cart with less. I passed over fat-free items for whole-grain options… The ‘less’ theory affected my workouts too. Even on days when my foot felt good, I didn’t go to the gym or hit the beach for a run. Instead, I walked–not at a furious pace or with the intention of getting somewhere, but just to walk. It felt good to move my body without feeling like I was inflicting punishment on it. Henry David Thoreau once said that the moment his legs began to move, his thoughts began to flow. That is exactly what happened to me during my year of walks.”

“In the past I used exercise to outrun my demons, to exhaust myself beyond the point of rational thinking. Walking was a gentle salve that gave me the time and space to sort through the layers and layers of thoughts and worries that had built up over the years. Step by step-literally-I was getting stronger and closer to knowing who I was and what I wanted.”

Through her diet-free, regimen-free year of going it alone, Monica discovers a few certain truths/themes we all know but could benefit from hearing again.

Eat Whole Foods
“I realized that the further I ate away from food in its most natural state, the further away I was from building my core.”

You Are What You Eat
“After I had the time and space to grieve for my father and contemplate my life without tennis, I started to see that some of my weight issues were due to focusing on what I was eating, instead of looking inward to see what was eating me.”

Combating Emotional Eating
“I knew I used food to cope with emotions, but just knowing it wasn’t enough to completely stop it. That’s why I created the twenty-second rule: before letting myself rip into a bag of junk food, I forced myself to sit down and count to twenty.”

Treat Yourself With Love and Respect
“My dad had drilled into me that I had only one life to live, so I’d better live it the best I could. Every time I sat down to a meal, I could make a decision. Was I going to treat myself with love and respect, or was I going to sabatoge my own happiness and health for a short-term rush? When I approached my meals from a place of empowerment, the decision was an easy one: I chose nourishment over destruction every time.”

I think this line sums up Monica’s journey best: “Once I let go of the things I couldn’t control [the stabbing, her father's cancer, her father's death, a new crop of teenage tennis whizzes], an enormous amount of space opened up in my mind and the things I could control suddenly became clear. How I chose to move my body, what I chose to put into my mouth, how I chose to view myself, and what I chose to do with the rest of my life were the things I did have control over.”

All too often we play the victim because it’s easier than facing the truth: that we’re in more control than we think.

If Monica’s book teaches us anything, it’s that we and we alone are in control of our future. All the trainers and nutritionists and coaches and bosses and boyfriends and friends and family can’t do it for us; they can offer support, but in the end, it’s up to us to make it happen.

We can’t change the hurdles we’ve leaped over in the past, or the unfair curveballs life has thrown at us. And there are bound to be fires we’ll need to run from in the future, demons we’ll need to face — but we can choose every day to live our best life, like Monica’s beloved dad always told her.

Getting a Grip really is about just that: taking matters into our own hands and realizing we have the power to incite change.

I don’t know Monica Seles personally but I can tell you this: there are a ton of golden nuggets in this book, and I hope someday to be at the same place mentally that she’s at … where food isn’t an enemy and exercise isn’t an elixer but rather a part of a healthy, balanced life.

Reading her powerful journey, I know it’s possible. I just need to get a grip and make it happen.

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