Venturing Into Unknown Territory

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Tonight I ate a tomato without salt.

There’s a lot of meaning in those seven words. For as long as I can remember, tomatoes have needed salt. One of my few fond early memories is of being at my grandmother’s house and taking a stool, a bucket of water, a rag, and a salt shaker down into her garden for lunch. I’d head about halfway down the row with the tomatoes and take a seat, looking for a good, ripe tomato. When I found one, I’d dip it into the water and wash the dirt off with the rag, then take a small bite to break the tomato’s skin. After that first bite, I’d alternate between salting and eating, just like an apple, til the whole thing was gone. It was meditative, the process of selecting a tomato, washing it, and eating it. Salt was an integral part of that process. I salted in moderation, but every bite that went into my mouth carried with it a sprinkling of salt to enhance the flavor.

As I grew older, I added steak and eggs to the “salt required” group of foods. I rarely oversalted anything, but in my early adulthood, a lot of foods were salted before I ever tasted them. I ate a lot of salty snacks, like potato chips, and I wasn’t a moderate eater of them. My waistline grew slowly over the years, and my need to salt food was aggravated by my pack-a-day habit that dulled my sense of smell and taste.

I quit smoking on September 4, 2000. I was driving to Austin from the Oklahoma City area when I got into an intense coughing fit behind the wheel, and I realized that I was going to either pass out or throw up, and regardless of which way I went I was going to wreck the car. I pulled over and switched with my wife (we were dating at the time and still lived three hours apart) so she could drive us to the next exit. We pulled into a restaurant and I got a glass of water while I continued to try and physically pull myself together. When we were ready to drive again, on the way out I tossed my half-finished pack of Marlboro Lights into the trash can.

I haven’t touched tobacco since.

In the aftermath of that momentous decision, I started packing on weight – some 40 pounds within a few months. The oral fixation I developed while smoking still had its grip on me, and my waistline suffered.

As my depression and anxiety grew worse over time, I began to comfort eat, and I was in need of comfort quite often. Gradually, over several years, I finally came to a point that I tipped the scales at three hundred pounds.

By that time, I had developed type 2 diabetes and stage 2 hypertension, and have been to the ER on multiple occasions to manage crises in both conditions. Fortunately, I’ve found a medication regimen that keeps my diabetes under control.

I cannot, however, say that about my hypertension.

Even with three medications, my systolic blood pressure is regularly over 160 and my diastolic is at least 100, and more often over 110.

It’s at this point that I acknowledge that this post has been all over the place as I spit out part of my life’s story in a stream of consciousness. But all the parts do fit together, and here’s how.

September 4, 2000 was not the first time I had tried to quit smoking. I had attempted, and failed, at least a dozen times before. But when I finally quit, it was like flipping a switch. I was done. And having made that decision, I’ve had the willpower to keep me tobacco-free all this time, without even one slip-up.

Likewise, I’ve tried several times to reduce my sodium intake and start eating healthier, only to fail every time. But figuratively speaking, I’m about to run the car off the road with regard to my high blood pressure, and it’s time to make a knee jerk decision and stick with it, just like I did with the cigarettes.

This time, it’s going to be harder, because while I can easily live without tobacco, I kind of have to eat. But I don’t have to continue to eat crappy processed foods that are going to spike my sodium intake, and I don’t have to salt everything in sight.

Tonight, I ate a tomato without salt. It was the first time in my life I ever recall doing such a thing. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that tomatoes have to have salt that my stomach was actually a little queasy for a time after eating. It felt unnatural, but I did it, even when my wife offered the salt to me with the suggestion that I could lightly salt the tomato. I stuck to my guns, and finished the tomato. And I survived.

And I’m going to survive steak and eggs and everything else without salt, too. Because that same willpower to keep me alive when I quit smoking is now focused once more on keeping me alive. And while my depression tells me often how much better it would be if I were to just end it all, I very, very much do NOT want to die.

So from here on out, nothing gets added salt. I’ll have to learn what foods actually taste like without it, and it’ll be a new experience. I’m sure steak and eggs are going to be just as weird without salt as the tomato was.

But dammit, I’m on a mission now. And I have the willpower to see it through this time, because I’ve made the decision.

And with that decision, I’ve given myself the power to live.

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