Quitters: What I Learned Letting Go of the Thing that Defined Me

Melissa Joulwan is kind of a big deal. She's the brains and beauty behind Clothes Make the Girl, a blog that actually has little to do with fashion and a lot to do with cooking delicious, healthy food. Her Paleo cookbooks, Well Fed & Well Fed 2, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In 2008, Melissa stumbled into the world of CrossFit and fell head over toes-to-bar. When a medical condition forced her to quit a few years later, she was absolutely heartbroken. So where did a Paleo guru find solace after quitting the thing she thought defined her? In the most unlikely place. I'll let her explain.


* * *


Let’s get down to business: What did you quit & why?

I quit CrossFit. Kicking and screaming. Because I had to. I was sad about it then, and honestly, I’m still sad about it sometimes. But it had to happen and much good has come from it.


Why did you start CrossFit in the first place?

I found a love of physical activity later in life. I was an overweight, bookish kid, and I never played sports. After college, I started paying attention to nutrition and exercise. I did workout tapes (Yes! VHS tapes... it was a long time ago.) in my living room. I did the California AIDS Ride twice, completed a half-ironman triathlon, and taught aerobic kick boxing (it was the ‘90s; it was a thing). When I moved to Austin, Texas, in 2003, I was one of the founding members of the Texas Rollergirls, the first flat-track Roller Derby league in the U.S.

All of which is a long way to say: I like to do physical things that are demanding and somewhat scary to me.

When I retired from skating in 2008, I needed a workout routine and a friend suggested a bootcamp run by a local CrossFit gym. I’d never heard of CrossFit, but “bootcamp” sounded like something that I’d like. The first day — in the dark of 6:00 a.m., in a park — we started with 3 sets of 10 pushups, 20 squats, 20 situps, and 20 jumping jacks. When we finished that, our coach said, “OK! Warmup’s done. On to the workout.”

I thought she was kidding.  She was not.

I was dead last in every workout, drill, and sprint for months. EVERYONE was faster and stronger, but I can out-stubborn anyone. After about 6 months, I was finishing most workouts first, using the heaviest dumbbells, dropping body fat... it was surprising, empowering, motivating, and shockingly fun.

Eventually, I “graduated” to indoor CrossFit classes, which meant traditional CrossFit workouts, learning to do pullups, and getting acquainted with barbells. I was approaching my fortieth birthday, and I was fitter than I’d ever been in my life, and I had self confidence like nobody’s business.

Melissa is almost as passionate about eating Paleo as she is about the Patriots.

Melissa is almost as passionate about eating Paleo as she is about the Patriots.


What did your life feel like before you quit CrossFit?

I felt awesome, until I started to feel... not awesome. Although I continued with my good eating habits and my workout routine hadn’t changed, I started to feel fatigued. I felt fine during workouts, at first, but then I’d come home and fall asleep so hard — like I’d been smacked in the head with a cast-iron skillet. Eventually, I was lethargic during workouts, too.

I’ll skip the tedious details about the multiple doctor visits, and get to the juicy part: I had a nodule on my thyroid that was too big to biopsy, so my thyroid had to be removed to make sure I didn’t have thyroid cancer.

After my thyroid was taken out, my energy levels and mood continued to decrease, while my weight increased. That would have been worst-case scenario, except I didn’t have cancer. That was the one bright spot I could cling to while I dealt with the fallout of having no thyroid.


What pushed you to quit? Was it a specific moment, a constant internal nagging or something else?

The realization was a slow one. I really didn’t want to give it up, but having my thyroid removed had started (or exacerbated) the fall of a bunch of health dominoes. There’s a relationship between thyroid and adrenals and, ultimately, CrossFit was too stressful on my body. The prescription for recovery from adrenal fatigue and wonky thyroid stuff is activity not exercise, which meant lots of walking (so much walking!), yoga, meditation, and — eventually — some not-too-stressful strength training.


The hardest part about quitting?

There were two hard parts, and they both super-sucked.

The first was telling my coaches at CrossFit. It felt like a major failure, and as a former fat kid, my internal voice was saying very mean (and untrue) things, like, “Your thyroid is just an excuse. You’re lazy — you’ve always been lazy — and now you can just be fat and lazy and useless like you deserve.”

The second hard part was the three years of not being able to workout the way I wanted to. When people say the thyroidectomy must have been hard, I tell them the surgery was easy compared to every day since. I really enjoyed challenging my body and my perceptions of what it could do. I never got very good at any sporty things, but I loved the striving, and I never gave up. Quitting CrossFit felt like giving up. I hated that so much. And it made me angry. I’m not too proud to admit I spent a great deal of time saying, out loud and inside my head, “It’s not fair.”

And it’s not fair, but here in grown-up land, we all know that life isn’t fair. And life is fair in my favor a lot of the time. I merely lost the thyroid lottery.


Quitting can be emotionally taxing. Who or what helped you cope?

The thing that helped me cope came from the most unlikely source.

As part of my “heal yourself” plan, I was instructed by just about every kind of expert to engage in yoga. In a huff, I looked at the schedule for the yoga studio near my house and thought, “Fine! Here’s a class called kundalini at 6:30 a.m. I can do it before work. Fine! Done. Stupid yoga.”

I went on the first day and could not fathom what I had gotten myself into. We did the whole class with our eyes closed. We chanted in what seemed like a nonsense language. We covered ourselves with Mexican blankets and listened to the instructor play the gong.

It was completely weird, and I hated it. And I went back two days later. And three times the next week, and three times the next week... and, well... it was just what I needed.

Kundalini is a meditative form of yoga. There are poses, sort of, but it’s really about connecting with your breath, and for me, finding peace. It was soothing and challenging. On the surface, it was the antithesis of CrossFit, because physically, it’s very calm. But mentally, it’s CrossFit-like in its need for concentration and discipline.

I cried many times during kundalini in the first few months, and then one day, I heard myself laughing at the end of class. Actually heard it before I felt it, I think, and I was, like, “That was me... laughing.” Things opened up for me after that. I stopped resenting the yoga and the walking. My body was healing, and I was able to start adding in some weight lifting and start entertaining the idea of “exercise” again. But I also knew I had to continue to find room for yoga and meditation; there could be no more going for broke, all the time, every time.

Farmers Market + Melissa = Love

Farmers Market + Melissa = Love


Was quitting scary for you? Why or why not?

So, so, so scary. I was scared I’d gain weight and lose all my strength. (Both of which happened to some degree, and both of which I survived just fine, and both of which are reversing right now.) I was scared that other people would think I was giving up, rather than making a rational decision about my health. Mostly, I felt like I was letting myself down, and that was scary. After building so much self confidence with CrossFit, it was terrifying to give up that part of my identity.


How did you feel immediately after you quit?

Lousy. It was a pretty dark time for me. I distinctly remember walking around my neighborhood and almost stomping my feet, I was so angry to be going for a walk instead of going go the gym. Now I realize that was a pretty good sign that things needed to change, but I was so stuck in it, I couldn’t see.

Quitting CrossFit was also the thing that made me realize that this “thyroid thing” was not going to go away. It was real. I was different. I couldn’t do things the way I used to, and no amount of pushing myself or trying harder was going to change that. Quitting CrossFit was my first real step, I think, in beginning to deal with all of the emotional fallout of my thyroid surgery. Sure, I was taking my thyroid hormones every day, and I had a scar on my throat, but other that everything was fine. Giving up CrossFit was the start of figuring out what my new normal would be.


How do you feel now? Any regrets?

I regret being such a pouty baby about having to do yoga ;-)

Now I know it was the right thing to do, and I should have done it sooner. I had my thyroid surgery and as soon as the incision was healed, I went right back to my super intense workouts 5 to 6 days a week. I really shouldn’t have been doing that. The gentler approach to taking care of myself should have started immediately, instead of 3 years after the surgery.

I’m very happy to report that I finally have a wonderful doctor that’s cracked the code on my perfect thyroid hormone dose. I feel really good, and I’ve had three blood tests in a row with ideal numbers. That is a huge win for a thyroid-less girl like me!

I go to a gym called KDR Fitness that does custom programming for me, and we use a heart rate monitor, so I’m starting to lose the body fat I gained and my strength is returning. I can bust out 10 solid pushups in a row again; I haven’t done that in, like, 4 years.


The most amazing thing that’s happened since you quit?

I meditate twice a day most days, and it’s one of the nicest things I do for myself. Twenty minutes, two times a day, to set aside whatever is on my mind and just leave it for later. I actually say to myself when I start, “Whatever you’re thinking about will be there when you’re done. Just let it be for now.” That’s a lesson I learned in the aftermath of Thryoid-opalyse and quitting my beloved CrossFit.


How has quitting changed your life?

I’m much softer and gentler with myself now, but I’m still mouthy and tough. Quitting CrossFit helped me remember that our identity isn’t tied up in the external stuff we do — it’s how we think: about ourselves, about the world, about the people we love. And it’s about how we treat them and ourselves. Quitting CrossFit gave me the time and space to find my compassion for myself and others, and it’s made my whole life better.


Advice to someone who’s thinking of quitting?

Trust your gut. We live in society that glamorizes and rewards stick-to-it-iveness — and there are certainly circumstances in which bearing down and being stubborn are the right choice. But not all the time and not for everything. Quitting something that’s not working for you is often difficult and often the best thing you can do.

My go-to paleo cookbooks. Bonus: they're Whole30 approved!

My go-to paleo cookbooks. Bonus: they're Whole30 approved!


* * *

For more info on Melissa Joulwan, check out Clothes Make the Girl. You can track her down on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Want to fill your life with delicious, homemade (& comforting!) food that doesn't make you feel like a disgusting human being? get a copy of her cookbooks & thank me later. Check out other Quitters here.

PS Are you new to Hey Eleanor?

Hi! I'm Molly & this blog is all about doing things outside of your comfort zone. Here's a few of my greatest hits (check out the time I got thrown around by a traditional Chinese healer). I mostly eat paleo & chronicled my first Whole30 here (the before & after pics are rather alarming... in a good way). I got married in June to the best dude ever. We live in Minneapolis, Minnesota with our dog Patsy Cline and kitty Bogart. 

PPS If you want to share your quitting story, email me at heyeleanorproject@gmail.com. Things I'd love to hear about: quitting a significant romantic relationship, giving up being an elite athlete, dropping out of med school/law school/doctorate program, puttin down the cigs for good and whatever else you're quitting!