It’s been a cold, rainy spring, here in central Ontario. Until now. The sun has appeared, and temperatures are finally approaching seasonal. The grass is growing, the trees are budding, and the birds and squirrels are going nuts. The tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths promise that summer is really on its way.
And yet – despite these encouraging signs, a home with central heating, and a gas fireplace which I can turn on at will – I am freezing to death.
Three years ago, I experienced the same thing. I was home for the summer, and I was on a diet. It was a lovely diet. Restrictive, but lovely. I drank smoothies every morning, made with homemade yogurt, hemp seeds, fresh or frozen fruit, and lots of leafy greens. I don’t remember what I ate for the rest of the day (I’ve been on a lot of diets), but I remember those smoothies. They were delicious, and I felt like I was feeding my body with pure goodness. I was very proud of myself. My calorie intake was low, and I was hungry all the time, but I’d been expecting that. I could deal with it. I was determined to make it work, this time. I was finally going to be healthy.
It was a beautiful May. The temperature rose into the 20’s, and I took my studying (this was for my 1st board exam) outside. I sat on the patio furniture with my books, and baked, not caring a wit about UV radiation and skin cancer. I’d been shut up inside for 8 months, and I needed sunshine. I needed vitamin D. I was smart enough to avoid burning – I might have pushed it a little, but if there was a tiny bit of pinkness to my skin occasionally, it faded away by morning. It felt like the perfect solution to my predicament – that of being required to spend 2 months of my summer studying biochemistry, microbiology, and similarly uninspiring subjects. At least I got to breathe fresh air and listen to the birds while I did it.
After only a few days of this, though, I realized something. Although the temperatures continued to rise, and I could feel the sun’s rays heating up my skin – it would be hot to the touch, sometimes – on the inside, I was cold.
Going inside didn’t help. So I began bundling up. I would wear jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and a sweater, wrap myself up in a blanket, and don sunglasses so I wouldn’t be blinded by the dazzling light bouncing off the page of my book. The sun would warm up all these layers, and I could feel the heat soaking through, while I was insulated against any whisper of wind that might snatch that heat away from my skin.
But I was still cold. A deep, aching sort of cold. A cold that started on the inside, in muscle and bone. Nothing I did seemed able to reach it. For a while, I thought I must be getting sick. But days went by, I didn’t develop any symptoms of illness, and I still couldn’t get warm. I was permanently cold.
Just Who we’re Dealing With
Now, I should make a few things clear. I am not just a Canadian. I may be living a mere hour north of Toronto now, but I grew up in Manitoba. For those of you unfamiliar with the term Winterpeg, this province has earned a reputation for long winters and freezing temperatures. I remember listening to the radio every winter morning, hoping for school closures – and not just after blizzards. Sometimes they would cancel school not because of snow or road conditions, but because of the cold itself. We had daily updates on how long it would take for exposed skin to develop frostbite. Even when it wasn’t quite bad enough to justify keeping students home, my mother bundled us up like snowmen, so layered that we could hardly walk or see – ski masks were inadequate, so I went to school with my head wrapped up in a thick scarf, with only a small slit exposing my eyes.
I know what cold is. I like it. I went to teacher’s college in Thunder Bay, for the sole purpose of getting away from southern Ontario. I’ve done winter camping and slept in a quinzhee. I spent my 1st year teaching in Peace Country in northern Alberta, my 2nd near Fort Frances in northern Ontario. I taught for 2 more years in Nunavut, on Baffin Island. Without batting an eye.
Just so we’re clear. I am not inexperienced when it comes to the cold. I know what it feels like, and how to deal with it.
On a sunny day in May, with the sun high in the sky and the temperature about 25 degrees Celsius, I resorted to warming myself up in my Dad’s outdoor hot tub. It was the only thing I found that offered some kind of temporary relief. The only form of heat that went deep enough to drive out the chill. And even that didn’t last. At some point, I had to get out of the water. For a while, the afterglow would keep me comfortable. But slowly, the cold would return, erasing the memory of my stolen warmth.
I already knew something about physiology, by then. So eventually, I figured out what was going on. My body had noticed the drastic reduction in my caloric intake, and it had taken counteractive measures – perhaps, due to my history of extreme restriction and fasting, it may have reacted more strongly than strictly necessary. It had reduced my metabolism in order to conserve energy for as long as possible. In support of this effort, my internal thermostat had lowered it’s threshold. Any fuel I burned was used as efficiently as possible, producing enough heat to keep me alive, but little more than that. Thus, the internal cold. My inner fire had been all but extinguished. Wrapping myself up couldn’t hold in body heat that wasn’t there to begin with.
It didn’t take long, after that, for me to experiment. I ate more. And suddenly, the cold was gone. It was amazing how quickly it worked. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. It felt so good to be warm again. Yes, cinnamon buns tasted good. But for that brief period of time, I was actually more concerned with their almost magical thermal effect. The sugar and flour dopamine rush was secondary – but it kicked in pretty fast.
That was all it took for my entire summer to go down the drain. I believe I hit my highest ever weight that year, at close to 240 pounds. Which was miserable. But up until that point, I was pretty content. I ate what I wanted, and pushed the consequences out of my mind. They were for the future me to worry about. I wasn’t going to let myself freeze again.
It’s Happening Again
I am not hungry. I am deeply satisfied with my food, and I don’t want more. But I am the same kind of cold as I was 3 years ago. The weather isn’t quite good enough for me to study outside, yet, so I’m indoors. Wearing layers. Wrapped in a blanket. Yesterday, I couldn’t find one thick enough to make me feel comfortable, so I dug to the back of the closet and found this enormous, fur-like blanket with dolphins on it, that I haven’t used in years because it’s too hot and heavy to be useful. Well, I’ve found a use for it now. I double it up and bury myself inside it, like a cocoon. And even that falls short, at times.
I don’t know if this is just me. I know dietary restriction reduces metabolism and body temperature, but I’ve never heard anyone else complain about being intolerably cold, the way I feel. Maybe it’s a combination of the diet and the sedentary nature of studying. I do feel somewhat better when I get up and walk around. Maybe my thyroid is acting up again, contributing to the problem. Or maybe, as I said before, my body is overreacting, because of what I’ve put it through before. It’s not just responding to the actual caloric restriction, it’s response is proportional to what it’s experienced in the past – because it doesn’t know if I’m going to eat at all tomorrow. Or for the next month. Who knows – maybe it’s even smart enough to know that if letting me freeze got it what it wanted before, it may work again.
I have a complicated relationship with my body. Maybe, eventually, it will learn to trust me again. To know that it will be fed, consistently. Maybe I can convince it to spare some fuel and keep me warm. Maybe not.
Either way, I’m not giving in. Being cold is miserable. But being overweight is worse. I’ve figured out how to get thin. I’ll figure out how to get warm – without giving up the thin. Until then, I will keep wrapping myself in blankets.