Saturday, 2 January 2021

A year in review, part five: Health and wellbeing

When the country, due to the novel coronavirus, started to go a bit crazy people began buying all the toilet paper they could find on supermarket shelves. It didn’t inconvenience me – I had a ton in reserve (see photo below) as I always keep plenty in stock in case, for some reason, I can’t make it outside – and in March alone I gave away four packets.

On the second Wednesday in April, I went on foot to the supermarket because I wanted to do some exercise, and saw that, to keep people entering separate from people leaving, Woolworths had put up guides inside and outside the store for shoppers (see photo below). In late May the New South Wales government called people’s children back to secondary schools. At the same time restaurants and cafes and pubs were allowed to reopen.

February contained a relapse, health-wise, with panic attacks returning at night when I went to bed. I saw my psychiatrist about this and we upped the dosage of the antidepressant I was taking, and this resolved the problem. In the summer I took a chance and went into the city on a couple of occasions to meet with a friend, once to see a show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and once to meet the same friend for a drink – although I was still not taking alcohol of any kind, and stuck to soft drinks – at a pub on Elizabeth Street. Both trips saw me going out on foot and coming home in a cab.

On 7 May I turned on the gas heater, the first time for the year: it was 15 degrees Celsius and cloudy out. I had gone to see the psychiatrist the afternoon of the day before, coming home after dark with some shopping; by now the witch’s hats and guide rails had been taken away from the pavement outside the supermarket. Near the same point in time I started eating porridge for breakfast instead of sausages, bacon, and eggs. I started to buy apples and blueberries and have them with instant oats. A friend of mine from undergraduate days congratulated me on my new regimen.

In the second week of June, I got the results of a series of blood tests they had done at my GP’s surgery, and they were all normal, an indication of how my carb-restricted diet had been handled by my ageing body. 

In October I began to use my “shopping list” posts to chronicle dieting, which had started after I’d made a Facebook post regretting the fact that there were no apps for walking. A friend of mine from my days working at Sydney Uni responded negatively – why would the government or an insurance company make an app for something that was the individual’s responsibility? – so I made an appointment to see my GP, who told me that it wouldn’t matter how far you walked each day if you were eating too many carbohydrates. Later, I told him about the FatSecret iPhone app I discovered and talked to him about losing weight on several occasions in the last three months of the year. 

With the initiative prompted by Dr Nanda’s words and the iPhone app I started to lose weight rapidly (see images above and below). I’d started out at over 120kg and by the beginning of December I was down to just over 107kg, with progress each day as I aimed for a healthier body mass. By the end of December I was down to around 103kg.

My GP’s advice wasn’t limited to the fact that reducing carbs would lead to weight loss. He also informed me about low-carb bread and snacks that you can buy in some supermarkets. 

Weight loss had ancillary benefits, too. In November, I’d had Dr Nanda cut my hypertension medication. He agreed to this, asking me to come in to get my blood pressure measured in two weeks’ time and, in mid-December, after I did, he told me I could snap the new pill into halves, one to be taken each morning just as I had before swallowed a whole pill of the old medication. Come back in three weeks’ time, he said, and we’ll check your blood pressure again (three weeks’ time needed to be certain of how a new medication regime affects your body) to see if it could be eliminated entirely.

Weight change was also felt in quality of life. I could walk uphill without feeling as quickly out of breath, I could more easily cut my toenails, and my clothes fit more loosely. It was an index of wellbeing. The transformation was evident also in the way that, now, people on the street would make eye contact with me. Where before I’d been all but invisible – just a fat guy in shabby clothes – I was an individual again. 

Even when the result of the morning weigh-in was unwelcome – so, for example, over two days around 9 December my weight went up almost a kilo – I kept my resolve and continued to diet, avoiding carbs in favour of other foods. I might, as I did on the 10th, eat a Chinese steamed bun (which I would normally avoid) because it was on offer while I was away from home. This was the day I moved all my belongings into the Botany house and it was the only food that was available, in fact, was the least-worst thing on offer – I didn’t buy it, a friend did – but the next day I was down to 106.9kg, having walked over 10,000 steps.

That was a day when, in retrospect, it seems I didn’t stop moving for an instant apart from a few moments of calm while boxes were brought inside by the removalist’s crews. Two of them had a verbal spat while working, but I kept silent, hoping the aggro’d go away. I felt anxious when Joe, the owner/builder, expressed surprise – in retrospect, once I’d gotten back home and had thought about the day – at the amount of stuff I own. This was because he’d agreed to allow me to move my stuff in on condition that everything was tidy but it looked like this was going to be impossible to achieve immediately as, once the removalists had left, there were dozens of boxes on the floors of each room, stacked up against the walls, cluttering passageways, and impeding access like rocks in a road. 

Puzzles like this are certain, in my case, to create unease; seemingly irresolvable problems have this effect on me: they make me anxious but, early on the morning of the 11th, my face still sensitive because burnt by the previous day’s sun, I assured myself that all would be ok. I’d get through. I’d soon be making things on account of the absence of which activity, for decades, I’d suffered.


On the day I moved out of Glebe, despite the rain I got the car washed then checked into a hotel in Mascot to be close to the new house. This process went smoothly apart from my locking myself out of the Glebe apartment for an hour (I picked up the wrong key on the way downstairs to the garage to put my computer in the car). Later, I picked up a bowl and spoon and knife from the new kitchen and bought food from the Mascot IGA (see “shopping list” for December) so I could have breakfast in my hotel room. 

It had a big TV with a backlight setup that meant that the colours on the screen are projected onto the wall behind the device for a distance of 20cm or so. The view was over the airport, facing southwest. The cargo railway line goes past the building’s front, where my window – which wasn’t able to be opened, meaning the aircon was set to automatic, and you can’t turn it off – was set in the wall. But I had good luck too, and found salad packed with cooked chicken in the cafĂ© upstairs (the hotel lobby being on the top floor) so that I could continue my diet while homeless. I connected up my computer in the room – it came with a desk and chair – and placed my current book next to the bed so I could read if I wanted, as I did on the 22nd. 

I was still organising art on the 20th and on these days I was putting books away on shelves. I got the TV plugged in at my home, so that I could stay abreast of Covid developments in my new living room. On the 21st and 22nd I did more unpacking, including clothes, books, electrical devices, Manchester, and shoes. I decided to check out of the hotel on this day and drove south to Wollongong on a trip with a pause at McDonald’s and a panic attack at Stanwell Park, the sky still bright against the dark trees and the trucks slowing down to a crawl on the escarpment into the narrow strip of land on which, next to the ocean, the city sits. 

As soon as I arrived at my friends’ house I connected up my computer and linked to the internet, then had a shower and went to bed. The day had hard edges and the night was welcome. Not least because during the day I'd initiated the transfer for part of the house purchase balance owing. Joe’d brought over a priest to bless the house, and afterward I sat in the living room imagining people of antiquity and the allure of the Church in an age when life was so much harder than it is now (when the worst thing that might happen to me is a slightly elevated heart rate while driving my car over pristine and smooth roads at dusk). I felt the priest’s charisma, was attracted by his conviction and by the familiar way he dealt with me, as though he could read my mind – I’d felt slightly foolish asking him a favour, as though to do so without belief might in some way draw divine opprobrium.

I surmised at the end of the process that he probably deals with many lay people in the course of his duties, so meeting another unbeliever must not offer him any special political challenge.

Perhaps he would have preferred someone more outspoken. This thought makes me wonder if he would’ve appreciated from me some conciliatory remarks about the nature of God or the problem of living a good life. What Joe said later that day made me realise how difficult it is to imagine the thoughts of someone beside you – alive at the same time as you – let alone trying to understand how someone thought who lived in the far distant past. What a Roman of the first century AD felt at any particular moment during a typical day is as impossible to imagine – if not more so – as it is to know what Joe is doing or thinking right now, as I write in this memorial on my newly plugged-in PC.

I remembered how, on the hillside, I’d had a fright, at the point when an illuminated traffic sign could be seen from the driver’s seat announcing the need for permits due to Covid, since it’d taken me a moment to understand that they were talking about entry to Melbourne, and not to Wollongong, but the shock of the message quickly passed and, going under the speed limit, I cruised the rest of the way down the hill, overtaking two trucks on the final descent to Mt Ousley Road where you turn off to the left before carefully entering the city at the roundabout with the constant traffic pouring through the intersection.

Watching people express on Twitter a range of negative emotions with respect to the past 12 months (see below) I thought about 2020’s real blessings, which had sprung up like wildflowers.

Comments like that being an index of our confidence that we knew, now, the secret of life. Instead of pursuing happiness, happiness had crept up behind us and tapped us each on the shoulder saying, “I was here all the time.”

It also struck me – now pensive a few days after my dramatic night-time drive to the south – that those of us who’d been fortunate enough to be protected by good governance (you get the government you deserve) were lucky because in the year just ended we got to know what’s important in life. The simple things, like a meal with friends or going shopping in the city with your family, rose up like Mt Keira (see photo below) against the tide of high-toned alternatives that habit had made into a common refuge.

The grey clouds another kind of blessing as wet weather’d finally given a measure of respite to many struggling farmers (though not all) after four years of crippling drought.

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