Sylvia Nasser shares how, after a decade of abusing diet pills and using exercise as punishment, she turned herself into a powerhouse of positivity.
Sylvia Nasser
Credit: Instagram/@thefitfem

Most of my childhood memories are centered around my weight. I was a round, chubby little girl and my size made me different than everyone else around me. While my classmates were having fun doing cartwheels and swinging on jungle gyms, I remember being unable to participate because I wasn’t light enough to hold my own body weight. I started to feel uncomfortable in my own skin and that feeling stayed with me for many years.

By the time I was a senior year in high school, I was used to my friends and family drawing attention to the way I looked. But for the first time, during my senior year, I decided I was going to do something about it.

The biggest thing everyone was looking forward to was prom, and I wanted to look good for it. So I started spending hours and hours in the gym doing cardio until I dropped. Unfortunately, I didn’t see results as fast as I wanted to, so I resorted to taking over the counter diet pills. (BTW, You Don't Have to Do Cardio to Lose Weight But There's a Catch)

Prom rolled around and in my mind at the time, I looked the best I ever had—but little did I know, I had started a vicious cycle of shaming and abusing my body just to look a certain way.

My Long and Painful Relationship with Weight-Loss Fads

This cycle of working out excessively and popping diet pills went on for over a decade. I’d reach my goal weight, stop taking pills, gain back the weight, freak out and go back on the pills again. When one pill stopped working, I’d try another, then switch to something else. At my worse, I was taking two laxative tea bags a day, plus Isagenix pills, and another diet pill on top of it. It was a constant cycle that dominated my life. I was addicted to it. But it took me years to truly understand the damage I was doing to my body. (Related: How This Blogger Came to Realize That Body Positivity Isn't Always About the Way You Look)

On top of abusing weight loss pills and yo-yo dieting, I developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise as well. In my early 20’s I was pursuing a career in corporate America and began teaching some fitness classes on the side. Given my obsession with cardio, I first started teaching step aerobics, followed by rhythmic aerobics. Then, I got into cardio kickboxing for a while and then moved on to strength training based dance classes. I loved working out but it was for all the wrong reasons. To me, exercise wasn’t a way to feel good or strengthen my body. It was a way to burn calories. I’d put my heart rate monitor on and wouldn’t stop until I’d burned 1000 calories a day. If I didn’t hit that marker after I was done teaching, I just did more cardio until I did. (See How This Woman Eats 3,000 Calories a Day and Is In the Best Shape of Her Life)

Things really took a turn for the worse when I decided to quit my corporate job and pursue a full-time career in fitness when I was about 28-years-old. I had this dream of becoming a celebrity trainer, but in my mind, I didn’t look like one. At this point, none of the weight loss methods I was using worked. I had stopped losing weight, and in fact, put on a few pounds. At a loss, I began abusing pills and working out to the max which eventually pushed my body over the edge.

Emotionally, I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I’d go from being sad to angry to normal to totally depressed again all within the span of a day. I had this impending feeling of unworthiness because I felt like a failure for not being able to lose weight. I was also utterly exhausted all the time—which is something I attributed to my feelings of depression. But I’d later learn my lack of energy was because of something else entirely.

Being Diagnosed With Lupus

In 2012, I developed a small rash on my arm. I’m prone to rashes so it wasn’t something I was concerned about at first. But a couple of weeks later, I developed an ulcer on my gums. Now, there were two weird things going on with my body but still, I treated both of these symptoms separately.  The rash, I ignored, but to address my gums, I went in for a routine dentist appointment and was told I had a Coxsackievirus, an infection that can lead to mild flu-like symptoms, but usually goes away on its own.

Turns out, the infection didn’t go away and the ulcer started to bleed every time I brushed my teeth. My rash also worsened. Small red circles started to appear all over my body and out of the blue, my hair started falling out. My energy levels also tanked to an inexplicable level, to the point where even after eight hours of sleep, I would almost fall asleep at the wheel. Part of me chalked it up to the stress of quitting my job and trying to start a new career from scratch. But I felt like there might be something else going on as well. (Related: Are You Actually Tired—or Just Lazy?)

Desperate to feel better, I made an appointment with my dermatologist to tackle the rash first. They took a sample of my skin and ran some tests that came back inconclusive. But they also ran blood tests and found that my white blood cell count was very low. The next step was to send me to a hematologist, a blood disorder expert. They ran more tests and found that my white blood cell levels were alarmingly low—to the point that they ordered a bone marrow test to rule out leukemia.

I consider this test my rock bottom moment. It was an extremely unpleasant experience. One, because it’s quite painful and they had to go in twice, and two, because they had to hold me down to make sure I didn't move when they inserted the giant needle into my lower back. I had obviously opted for the test, but I felt like I was being imprisoned or detained against my will. I knew I never wanted to be in a situation where I felt like that again. (Related: Doctors Ignored My Symptoms for Three Years Before I Was Diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma)

A few days later, my bone marrow test came back normal and my doctor said she had no idea what was causing my symptoms. In the meantime, my health worsened. My joints started to hurt, my hands became stiff and my quality of life decreased significantly. I was at a loss for what to do when I came across a woman who had Crohn’s Disease. She and I shared a lot of similar symptoms and she suggested I go see a kidney specialist, which I did.

After a few more tests, I was sent me to a rheumatologist who ordered another series of blood tests, different from any other ones I had before. Those results finally determined that I met all the criteria for System Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). After six months of not knowing what was plaguing my body, I finally had a diagnosis.

How My Diagnosis Became a Blessing

My doctors weren’t aware of how I was abusing my body with diet pills, laxatives, and excessive exercise. And while no medical professional has officially said that my addiction made me sick, I knew I had done this to my body. If I was going to survive this, I knew I had to change the way I was living my life. (Related: This Woman Realized You Have to Put Mental Health Before Weight Loss)

With a lot of help from my family, I completely stopped taking any medication to help me lose weight. I cut back on my workouts and used that extra time to become more introspective. I started meditating and focused on finding ways to love and nurture my body, instead of punishing it.

My attitude towards food changed as well. Rather than worrying about calories, I became focused on eating healthy to avoid Lupus flare-ups. Today, I eat three meals a day with snacks in between and my diet is made up mostly of natural, nutrient-dense foods. I definitely let myself indulge from time to time but there’s no longer this anxiety around food. I eat to nurture my body and to feel healthy. Calories, carbs, fat, just don't matter anymore. (Related: This Woman Threw Away Her Diet Pills and Lost 35 Pounds)

The biggest thing for me though has been redefining what fitness means to me. Today, I’m a full-time trainer at Equinox, teaching 18 classes a week. But I no longer use my time as a teacher to squeeze in more workouts. My classes are a way for me to empower women to feel strong, fulfilled and to love their bodies as they are. Being a fitness instructor and building connections with so many incredible women gave me the strength I needed to start sharing my story and using it to serve as a cautionary tale to everyone else on their own journey to self-love.

I even created a body positive hashtag of my own #irockthesportsbra, the encourages women to work out in their sports bras, empowering them to shed their insecurities, be their own badass, and love their bodies for their strength. There was a time where I wouldn’t dream of working out in a sports bra, but now, being able to see all of my muscles, how they contract, the way they become stronger every day, makes me proud of how far I’ve come. I can say with confidence that I’m stronger now in my 30’s than I ever was in my 20’s. (Related: Why This Woman "Forgot Her Bikini" On a Date to the Beach)

That isn’t to say that I don’t have tough days. I still catch myself in moments when I look in the mirror and pick out my flaws and feel unworthy. But after everything my body has gone through, I remind myself that good health is so much more important than any number on the scale. My goal today is finding joy in all of my experiences and working hard for the things I want to achieve. That means saying no to things that don’t light me up and yes to things that fire me up and make me happy. It might have taken me a couple of tries, but I’ve realized that’s what life should be all about.