Delivered Speech at Dad’s Celebration of Life (September 2017)

I could search the dictionary high and low for words to describe the crushing pain I have felt over the past two weeks. And what hurts the most is trying to picture my life without him in the years to come. What do you say when the man who held your heart took half of it with him when he left this earth? There is a gaping hole where my Daddy was in my life. Nobody. Nobody loved him like I did. We were so much more than just father and daughter. He was the first man to love me and I in return. He and I were a team. He had my back and I had his. You mess with Dad, you get the daughter. He picked me up when I fell down and made sure as hell that I was not afraid to try again. He was the dog-whisperer and taught me how to be kind to both those who walk on four legs and two legs. He taught me how to play darts, billiards, and every other sport you can lose money to. I was throwing a stuffed football and playing quarterback as soon as I could walk. He tried to teach me how to drive the Jeep – stick-shift. Sorry Dad. And teaching me how to play poker went as well as driving the stick shift, even a degree from Furman doesn’t guarantee poker smarts. But he didn’t hold it against me.DSC_0112.JPG

When he smiled, I smiled. When he danced, I danced. And when he laughed, I laughed even harder. That was life with Dad – smiling, dancing and laughing. He had this incredible gift of making you laugh and forget all your problems when you were hurting. He saw me achieve my dream of graduating from Furman. He walked me down the aisle just shy of a year ago to marry the love of my life. He watched me learn how to be a wife. He was there when I had no clue what I was doing, seeking any help and advice on how to adult. He saw it all. And it’s important for you to know that he sees us right now and he will be with me every step into my future.

I didn’t get his long eyelashes or big, beautiful brown eyes but he gave me his brute strength and spunk. He taught me how to throw a punch and at my first Dennis family reunion as a 5 year old I challenged a cousin to a wrestling match. My mother was mortified but I sure did make Daddy smile.fullsizeoutput_4b.jpeg

One night Mom wasn’t home and it was bedtime – which meant dad had to get me ready for bed. Instead of getting me a sippy cup full of water and making sure I brushed my teeth, he brought me a sippy cup full of sweet tea, thinking he’d done pretty good. He made me promise not to tell Mom. We went through a phase of sneaking up behind the shower curtain and dumping a giant glass of ice water on each other while taking off running before getting caught. Do you remember Koosh balls? Well, we had hundreds of them and would have World War 3 in the living room, launching them at each other taking turns using the couch as a shield.

Me, Mom and Dad were like a small gang. We had our own lingo, inside jokes, and probably freaked some people out with just how tuned in we were to each other. We did everything together, whether that was living out of a LandCruiser for a week at Cades Cove photographing the wild animals, riding the scrambler at the county fairs until one of us threw up, countless summer trips to the Outer Banks fishing trying to catch the big red drum and watching the Kite Surfers riding the wind in the Sound, or getting a tiny lake house where Dad spent the last two years of his life. And I would guarantee you that he would tell you that those were the best two years of his life. Every single day he did what he loved. Fishing, riding on the boat, kicking back with his friends and a cold beer. He loved his Clemson Tigers, his yellow Jeep, working on small projects and thinking of the next big thing while watching Fox News and saving the world one liberal at a time. Most of you were on Facebook with him and I don’t have to tell you just how passionate he was about being an American and how much he loved our country. He said countless times that if it came down to it, he would die for his freedom. He went out of his way to thank complete strangers for their service whether that be serving overseas or in their police or firefighter uniforms. Daddy never knew a stranger and I know that’s how he has made such an incredible impact on hundreds of people. Hundreds of people who Mom and I have never met but have reached out to us with love and support simply because they loved Dad. If that’s not a legacy to leave behind, I don’t know what is. I’m so proud that his blood flows through me and that I’m the only one who gets to call Mark Dennis their father. I always asked him if he’d wished God had given him a little boy instead of a girl. His response every time? Not a chance. He said I was his greatest accomplishment and I don’t know what on earth I did to ever deserve him. The 24 years I had with my Dad are a gift I will carry with me every day. All the loving memories of laughter and happiness will carry me through the days when a girl needs her Daddy… because I hate to break it to you, a girl never stops needing her father.L&C-Reception114.jpg

I want to say how incredibly thankful my mother and I are for every single person who has helped us get through to this point. Food, flowers, cards, daily calls, texts, hugs, tears, laughter and just knowing someone is lifting you up in prayer… that’s what gives you the strength to get out of bed every day. I have been so fortunate to nanny for two beautiful kids during the week who make me forget about the pain, if even for an hour or so. I have been so blessed with a husband who takes care of me like every father dreams of for his little girl and a mother who loved her husband more fiercely through thick and thin than anyone I’ve ever known – giving me the single best example of a wife I could ever ask for.

I know some of you know what this pain feels like and how this type of grief can make or break you. And I’m here to tell you that Mark Dennis’s daughter will not be broken. I will live my life like Daddy lived his. Loving every minute of it. And if there’s anything you take from this today, it’s this: Life is too short to be anything but happy.

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Relationship with Running

I’ve never been a good runner. I’ve got short legs that are great for sprinting and every time I have tried to do any kind of long distance running, I have epically failed. I set myself up for failure by expecting my body to perform like I have been training for a long time when in reality, I have just started. The first lesson of building a relationship with running – be patient.

I never wanted to start small. I wanted to “go big or go home” which usually resulted in injury. Nothing serious, but just enough pain to quit my new hobby, feel bad about quitting, start all over and the cycle goes on and on…

I’ve been running a 5k at least 3 times a week for almost two months now. I’m following a training guide where each week you up the amount of time you run and cut back on walking breaks. I failed so many times trying to run on my own that I finally searched for a plan to follow on Pinterest. Low and behold, I’ve experienced nothing but progress with every single run since following this plan.

I didn’t start running 3.1 miles with this program, but started small in my neighborhood and once I built up some stamina and confidence, drove to the nearest 5k course I know and gave it a try. I haven’t looked back since.

Running is therapeutic. I lost my Dad unexpectedly 6 months ago and running has helped me process through the anger and frustration of loosing a loved one way too soon. There’s times when I will feel a lump in my throat rising with the endorphins that are released during exercise. There’s times when the “runner’s high” will kick in briefly and I’ll feel unstoppable. There’s times when the same run that I do all the time is incredibly difficult for no reason at all and I become discouraged. The key is to let yourself feel all the emotions when you run. Don’t fight it, your mind is an open room during your run where you can just be with yourself. When you learn how to be alone in your exercising, it becomes an escape from your problems. A safe place to breathe.

Breathing. If you let your breathing get out of control, most likely you will not be able to remain steady in your running pace. This was the hardest thing I struggled with when I first started. Either I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath or my legs hurt from the new exercise. Those two discomforts combined make it incredibly hard to push through a run, especially as a beginner. Focusing on my breathing and concentrating on taking full breaths is a secret to running I have discovered. It takes practice and keeping calm. I wear a Fitbit when I run and have been able to keep track of my progress with each 5k run. My average bpm for my runs has steadily gone down – showing my progress in conditioning.

Running on an empty stomach does not work for me. I am also one of those rare individuals who can exercise immediately after eating a meal (My husband cannot understand this phenomenon). I have discovered that I perform best after I’ve had a snack – such as a granola bar. I also have more energy for my run if I’ve had my daily cup of coffee – that one’s a no-brainer.

There are runners who excel in heat. Lord knows I am not one of those people. In the warmer months (which is basically all year if you live in the South) I will try to run in the evening once the sun has started to go down. I am not a morning person and working out in the mornings has never been a great way to start my day. But if that’s you, more power to you! In order to be successful with whatever exercise goal you have for yourself, you have to make time. No matter how busy your schedule is. Exercise has to become a priority in your life.

Good shoes. Another issue I was able to resolve when I experienced trouble running was the purchase of good running shoes. I assumed that if a shoe was a “tennis shoe” that shoe would be fine for running. WRONG. I invested in a pair of Aesics gel running shoes and after breaking them in, they completely eliminated the pain in my shins and ankles.

As a female, it’s also important to run alert. Know what’s going on around you. Especially when you are in places of solitude. You are an easier target running with your headphones in and are unable to hear someone behind you – especially cars. I use a running belt I found from REI that holds all the essentials to a safe and fun run. I also listen to music using my phone’s speakers. Running with a pocket knife is also a smart idea.

Last of all, just have fun. I never viewed running as any type of enjoyment. I dreaded running the mile in PE. I hated running laps for sports. But the reality is that your relationship with running – whatever that may be, is in your head. Give your body time to adjust and running will not only become easier but also an essential part of your day.

The Ugly Truth of Trying to Be Beautiful

IMG_0989I was 13 when it all started. My friend and I were at a horse race with my family. It was summertime and I was wearing a tan halter top with stripes and loose fitting jean shorts. I was around a size 16 and had just started becoming aware of my body and how boys looked at me. My friend was easily a size 0 and was wearing a skin tight black tube top and short shorts. We were walking to the bathrooms when we passed a group of college boys drinking beer just outside the race track when a guy in a drunken voice said, “I’d take the one in black.”

I wasn’t wearing black.

A cocktail of emotions hit me like a tidal wave. Feelings of embarrassment and shame that I was bigger than my friend. Feelings of jealousy that the college guy wanted her and not me. Feelings of hopelessness that I would never get attention from any good-looking guy looking the way I did. And feelings of disgust with myself that I had let myself look different than “the one in black.”

I made my mind up that day that if I was going to have any kind of boyfriend, I was going to have to change how I looked drastically. I went to a Christian School where everyone knew everyone since kindergarten. We had watched each other go through puberty and no one considered each other dating material. So, if you wanted a boyfriend, you had to go outside the classroom searching for one. And I really wanted a boyfriend. I thought that having a guy look at me the way men look at women in the movies, perfume commercials, pop songs, etc… would make me feel beautiful. Whenever I went outside the classroom, the thinner girls I went to school with and were friends with always stole the show. I wanted to be wanted. But no boy wanted me.

I was 15 when a 100 year old oak tree fell on my house during a terrible summer storm, kicking me and my parents out of our house for 3 months while construction workers fixed the damage. My mom and I would go and visit the house to check on how things were going. There was an 18 year old boy who was working with the roofers who I would occasionally catch staring at me whenever I was around. I didn’t know at the time that he was 18, just that he looked my age and was paying me attention. He would start coming into the house and talking to me. He would say things like, “Is this your room?” and ask me about my drawings hung on the wall or my DIsney stuffed animals. One day in particular, he walked past me in the hallway and stopped, turned around and handed me a small piece of paper folded up and winked at me as he walked away. I opened the piece of paper to find a phone number and a name on it. This had never happened before and I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran to the car and showed my mom the paper, squealing. She had noticed how obvious his flirting had been and “saw it coming.” I, however, was completely oblivious that he would do such a thing.

We drove back to the hotel and later that night I texted him and he texted back immediately. He asked how old I was and I said 15. I then asked him how old he was and he said 18 and right then and there I knew that this was never going to happen. There was no way in hell that my parents would let me go out on my first date with a boy 3 years older than me. At first, I was angry and disappointed and then I thought about it from my parent’s perspective and sympathized with them. I didn’t even know this kid and I had zero experience with boys. So, I texted him and said how flattered I was that he had given me his number but that I wasn’t interested. He demanded to know why and I said that there was just too big of an age gap. He started asking questions about if my parents had anything to do with my decision and I said yes. He then tried to convince me that we could go out behind their backs, that I could sneak out at night… that we could make it work.

I blocked his number and was genuinely frightened that I would see him again whenever I went to the house with my mom. I was afraid he would be angry and physically hurt me. He was offended that I turned him down and I could see him doing something stupid to get back at me. Luckily, however, the roof was fixed and his help was no longer needed by the construction crew. I never saw him again. Even though this guy frightened me, I still got a thrill that he wanted me. I loved the way that it made me feel. For the first time, I felt sexy. It was intoxicating and I wanted to feel it all over again.

There was a pool in the hotel and every night I would go and swim laps for an hour. I also began to change what I ate and went about weight loss in a healthy way. Slowly the pounds started shredding off. By the end of the summer I had lost close to 30 pounds and was so excited to fit into a new dress I was going to wear to a friend’s birthday party. The theme was masquerade ball and you had to wear a mask. I went the extra mile and wore a wig as well. I was so anxious to see if anyone I knew from school would recognize me. By the end of the party, no one had guessed who I was until I took my mask off which was followed by a “Wow! I didn’t know that was you!” by several boys who had never taken a second glance at me in all the years I had known them. I felt so great about myself. Slowly but surely I was losing weight and losing the Lindsay I thought no one wanted.

I continued with the weight loss throughout the school year. I remember walking into the gymnasium for yearbook pictures and having older boys in grades higher than me turning their heads. I raised a few eyebrows and I felt like the most powerful woman in the room for all the wrong reasons. It was my sophomore year and the seed of an eating disorder had been planted. I was just learning how to water it.

The summer before my junior year I went to a summer camp at a university an hour away. It was the first time I was on my own and no longer under the watchful eyes of my parents. I could truly starve myself and no one would try to stop me. I kept a bag a starbursts in my room and would allow myself 4 starbursts for dinner and eat nothing at the dining hall while the other students began to notice that a plate was not sitting in front of me… just a big glass of diet coke. When my mom picked me up from camp, we stopped at an Applebee’s for lunch and I inhaled an entire burger and onion rings and my mom knew immediately that I had not been eating that week.

Junior year came and I was around a size 8. I had become obsessed about the amount of calories I was putting in my body and how many calories I was burning. My parents were extremely concerned that I was still losing weight even though I “looked great!” I began eating the same food every single day. I was scared to stray away from my narrow diet, terrified that all the weight would come rushing back overnight. My stomach burned all the time from hunger. I would drink diet sodas all day long because the bubbles made my stomach feel like something was in it. During tests I was always self conscious that my stomach would growl and disrupt the silence. I began compulsively working out. No matter what time of night it was, if I was sick, or had literally eaten nothing all day – I pushed through. I knew my mom was observing me and suspected an eating disorder was taking over. She would try to talk to me about it and I would shut her down every time saying I had it under control. Some nights after hours of homework, way past my bedtime, I would roll up a towel and cram it underneath my door to block out any light so my mom wouldn’t know I would be doing my ritual of hundreds of sit ups, jack knives, crunches, push ups… anything I could do in the secrecy of my room. No matter what, I had to get my workout in or I would have a panic attack.

What does a panic attack look like? It’s a little different for everyone but the one giant thing they all have in common is feeling insurmountable distress. It’s as if you are in a black hole and there is no hope of getting out. I avoided this feeling at all costs – even if it meant staying up into the early hours of the morning to workout even though I had to get up just hours later for school. I can’t begin to tell you how this affected my health.

I didn’t have a period until I was 18 years old. My hair began to fall out, my nails broke constantly. The skin around my knuckles were so dry they would crack and bust with no inkling of healing any time soon. (My mother thought I was making myself throw up because busted knuckles are a sign of gagging yourself, however I was too afraid to try binging.) Whenever I stood up fast or simply got up out of bed in the morning, I would black out. Finally my senior year I got very sick and was diagnosed with mono. Which made no sense to me at the time because I definitely wasn’t kissing anybody. I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. Mundane things such as brushing your hair was a grueling task. I was out of school for almost two months and had to have special permission from the school to keep up with my classes the best I could from my bed. It was a true miracle that I graduated on time and with a 4.0.

I had lost even more weight from being bedridden with mono and had lost a total of 60 pounds. I had squeezed myself into a size 4 pants at Banana Republic one day at the mall. I was 140 pounds and my ribs were showing. You could see all the tendons in my neck. My collarbone was the most predominant feature on the front of my body because I had no breasts. I couldn’t sleep on my side in the bed because it hurt my hip bones too much. I couldn’t sit on any hard surface because my tailbone would dig into it. I had a thigh gap and was extremely proud of it. I could run without my legs touching but the problem was that there was no energy to run because I was starving myself.

I was eating 500 calories a day and exercising the same exercises for two hours every other day. I couldn’t go to restaurants unless they had a menu online listing how many calories were in each dish. I was suspicious of my mother adding calories to my food whenever she made home cooked meals. I couldn’t go out to eat with my friends because I would sit there with my diet coke, not eating anything and someone would always point out that I wasn’t eating. Think about how many holidays and family gatherings revolve around food. Every single one of those happy traditions was ruined. I had to not only maintain my body but keep losing weight even if it meant sacrificing everything that brought me joy in my life. My motivation? Getting not only a boyfriend, but a hot boyfriend. In my mind I wasn’t worthy of one and with every sit-up or calorie not consumed, I was getting closer.

The wedge I had driven in between my parents and I was devastating. I was their only child and we had an incredibly close relationship all my life. Giving in to my eating disorder was a constant battle because my parents fought me on it daily. They never gave up on me and that is why I’m alive today.

With a 4.0 and graduating with honors, 10 out of the 11 colleges I applied to wanted me. Columbia University in NYC was one of the most impressive ones but my parents made it clear that either I would attend a college locally while seeking professional help or I would be going to a rehab facility for eating disorders for 6 to 8 months. I couldn’t fathom falling behind. I wanted an impressive career and to be more successful than my peers. I needed to beat my competition on all levels – not just who had the hottest body. So I agreed to get professional help and went to a liberal arts university 20 minutes away from home. This is one of the many areas of my life that was drastically limited due to the complete control the eating disorder had over my life. Not only did my eating disorder stunt my physical growth but my growth as an independent person. I had to be monitored. I could not be trusted to take care of myself even though I was legally an adult. I began to hate my eating disorder and hated even more the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help myself.