(This is part of a series I posted on my other (formerly anonymous) blog, tobypass.wordpress.com)
Well it didn’t happen overnight.
I may have mentioned that I wasn’t always heavy. It’s true. And I certainly wasn’t always THIS heavy either! At 308, my current weight is at a lifetime high.
My weight has fluctuated over the course of my life much as I gather it has for most overweight people. I have been on many diets and I have always regained the weight (and then some). I recently watched an HBO documentary about how our body works against us to maintain a given weight — driving us with food cravings, extra efficient muscles, and a super slow metabolism — all to keep us from losing more weight and in fact pulling us back to where we were. One doctor on the documentary said that our body regulates weight in as precise of way as it does blood pressure or sodium or any other complicated system. My own internist has told me much of the same — that my body kind of ‘settles in’ to a give weight and will fight tooth and nail to stay right around there.
This concept REALLY helps me to have a bit more compassion for myself given the situation I’m in. I’m not a victim in all of this. I know I have made choices — many choices — some good some bad. But I know too that what I’m suffering through is also a form of a disease — and that I’m this weight not ONLY because I have poor self-control. This seems to be the narrative of our culture and certainly is the narrative I tell myself routinely.
Anyways, to the topic at hand. How I gained all this weight.
I remember having to do calisthenics outside on the playground as a first grader. The whole school did as a matter of fact. At the end of the workout each morning, everyone had to run a half mile or so around the very large playground area (at least it was large to me as a 6 year old!!).
I remember being rather slow. I wasn’t heavy per se at that time. Just not a fast runner. Never-the-less I remember being embarrassed of my body. I remember feeling ashamed of myself. I felt defective and bad. It didn’t help that the coolness level of our social system was determined by foot speed.
I finished last or near last essentially every day. I got tired easily. My feet hurt. My chest heaved. My legs hurt. I just couldn’t keep up.
While I don’t know for certain — I think this collection of experiences was the beginning of my issues with food and body size. I think these moments began to create in my mind a sense of destiny — that I would inevitably and always be ‘fat and slow’.
It’s weird though. I loved sports. Still do. I have always liked to play. I like to watch too. For many years in my life, I even participated in organized athletics. I was good at quite a few. (Still am). But my weight has always been a hindrance. From the very beginning — to this day.
So there’s that.
Several other factors came into play as the years went by.
First – Family Culture. As with many people in American culture, my people use food as an accessory to life. We eat when we’re happy, we eat when we watch the game, we eat when we’re sad, we eat when we’re mad and plotting against that jerk who hurt us. In fact, we use eating as a justification to get together in the first place! This in itself isn’t a bad thing either! Many cultures use food like this. It’s dreadfully common in American culture. And I learned it thoroughly in my family tribe.
My family never has eaten particularly well — (or poorly per se) — just ordinary home-cooked american fare by and large. But they do EAT. In fact, someone who doesn’t eat (and well) — sort of stands out like a black sheep in the culture and will more likely than not be goaded into getting more food on his/her plate. Some of the older women in my clan take particular delight in doting on the men, bringing them plates of food and deserts, ensuring their drink cups are full and their mashed potatoes are well gravies. Eating has always been encouraged. My people aren’t generally thin; they’re not profoundly overweight either. Plump. Happy. Well-fed.
Adding to this is our family culture of how food is used. More or less, I grew up learning that when something happens in life: be it good or bad, food is a very helpful way of working through it.
Win (or lose) that little league game? “Let’s go get Dairy Queen!!”
Rejected by a friend? “How about we commiserate over a milk shake?”
Get all A’s on that report card? “Let’s go out to eat and celebrate!”
Missing that loved one who passed away? “Well Chinese food it is then!”
Get accepted into that college? “How about a prime rib?!”
Seahawks playing in the big game? “How about a mountain of chicken wings!?!”
Ordinary Sunday night in June? “COOL! Let’s eat hamburgers and hotdogs and fries and macaroni salad and chips and…”
No matter what it was, our family always found a way to dig in hard. We laugh and gossip and eat and eat and eat. It soothes the soul. It masks the pain; it commemorates the joy. And in many ways, it is a beautiful thing.
It also ended up being a harmful thing for me in certain ways…
So as an adult, to this day, whenever something good happens — whenever something bad happens — whenever I complete something difficult or finish a project — whenever I get done with a week or a hard day — whenever I do something I’m proud of — whenever I do almost anything, the way to commemorate it that immediately comes to mind is food. Ice cream, a cake, cinnamon rolls, a dinner out, sweets, something special.
I’ve done it all my life. And I’m overweight now — in part because of it.
Second – Training –
It’s weird. I grew up in a religious culture that prides itself on healthy eating. I was part of the Adventist Christian tribe (still am actually — not in a fanatic/loony way though). It’s a pretty conservative bunch all in all although there are some more progressive/open pockets with which I identify.
Anyways, one key part of Adventist theology is healthy living and a healthy diet. Many many adventists are vegetarian or even vegan because of this principle. If you’ve ever heard of “Blue Zones” — 4 key regions in the world where people live abnormally long — and often well into their 100’s — well, Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda California are one of those blue zones. That’s my people. I grew up in their culture…in which the vast majority of people I knew ate EXTREMELY healthy. I mean — SUPER SUPER ahead of their time healthy. I have a grocery store in my town that would put whole foods to shame…and has for 40 years. It’s unbelievable. Local. Fresh. healthy.
Never the less — my HOME culture was not quite as strict on the whole religious culture of healthy eating. In a way however, I actually think that experience was better than some of the rigidity many of my friends had. I can imagine myself developing a whole other relationship to food that involved binging and hiding, sneaking and experimenting due to a lifetime of denial. Instead, my home culture was more moderate — albeit somewhat chaotic.
I lived in a divorced single-parent home for much of my childhood. My mom worked full time and had her own business. She had three kids in private school to worry about and a house with 10 acres to manage. Although she worked incredibly hard and is quite competent, something had to give. It was just about all she could do to put food in the fridge, period — let alone teach each of us kids in careful detail how to eat the healthiest possible meals. Much of what I learned about eating as a kid and teenager came from commercially produced and marketed products. I warmed stuff up from the freezer section from costco, learned to make french toast with syrup, I grew to like bagged caesar salad kids for a season, and downing carby soft pretzels with cream cheese. I don’t resent the way I ate as a kid — or the reality of the situation I was in. It’s just the truth.
I grew up learning how to graze. I grew up learning how to eat what was available at the time and what I could grab out of the fridge or freezer. I grew up not really knowing how to control portions or even knowing what appropriate portions were. Hell, half the time I ate my meals in front of the computer screen or with a game controller in my hand. I don’t know what it looks like — really — to live in healthy balance. I don’t totally know what it feels like to be satisfied. To feel comfortably full. To not snack. To eat healthy.
Of course, when I was at school, I ate an ok vegetarian meal but even those were hit and miss in terms of their healthiness.
This ‘education’ piece is yet another aspect of my life that has played into my obesity. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t make me a victim. I’ve made choices and still do. To this day — I’m still learning. But it’s hard for me to not admit that my background has played a role.
Third and finally — Coping
This is the big one for a great many of us in America (and I kind of already alluded to it in my first point here).
We use food to cope with our emotions – with daily life – with stress and sadness and anger and fear. Food feels good. (Perhaps moreso for some of us than for others). Food is a way of escape.
I have learned this many times over throughout my life.
I learned it when I couldn’t make friends with other kids at school and I came home and had an ice cream sundae.
I learned it when my brother’s dog died and there was nothing we could do about it but go out to eat at our favorite mexican restaurant.
I learned it when my grandparents died and I consoled myself with sweets.
I learned it when I screwed up on a test and washed the stress down with a milkshake.
I learned it when I lost my brother as a teenager and people brought us casseroles and pies and cookies and lasagnas.
From an early age I believe I ingrained a pattern in myself that food is a good coverup for uncomfortable and negative feelings…in fact, I think I learned that food could even help me not have to really think about or face those things directly. Instead of digging into the source of my loss — accepting it — wrestling against it — raging with it — sobbing for it — I could sidestep it completely. Not really explore it. Almost act as if it weren’t there. I could eat and eat and eat… And it’s like it would just fade.
Many things in our lives can do this.
Success. Exercise. Good Looks. Thinness. Money. Career. Degrees. Oh and of course the usual suspects: Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Porn. Gambling.
In the Christian tradition, we sometimes talk about this dynamic as putting idols up in our lives — “what are the things you go to to make yourself feel ok?” we ask. “Instead of God, what do you look for? What do you reach out for? What do you need? What makes you ok?”
For me – it’s always been food. And often — it’s been ice cream.
Today — a strong craving for food is actually a trigger for me that I’m feeling something strong. It’s often the first thing I recognize. The food dynamic is so hard wired into my way of doing things that I don’t often feel the feeling first — I feel the craving and then walk backwards reasoning, “oh, I must be stressed or afraid or angry or sad…I wonder what’s going on?”
All these things played into my life over time — and each probably played off of (and complicated) one another as well. I’m sure there were other factors adding to the mix too (such as the great American industrial food complex and marketing machine, dieting patterns, lack of primary medical care etc.). I mean, would I have ended up so addicted to food had I been born 50 years earlier? Seems unlikely. But it certainly could’ve been possible.
In any case, those pieces bounced off one another for years in my life and produced weight gain, negative patterns, binging, unconsciousness, and the quintessential yo-yo dieting. And I do consider dieting to have played a realistic roll in all of this. I decided to take on my first diet in 2001 at the age of 20. I feel sad writing this and reflecting on it. I was about 260 lbs and (as I do now) felt very negative about my weight and appearance. [What I would do today to be 50lbs lighter!!] Anyways, I did the atkins diet for about 8 months and I was very serious about it. I cut out candy and sweets. I didn’t eat bread. I was a true believer. I lost a lot of weight. 40lbs or so. Everyone commented on how I looked. I had/got to buy new clothes because my old stuff was too baggy. I felt proud.
But that was during a year of service in college. (Think peace corps). In the summer following when I was back working at summer camp, the stress of work and 18hr days pushed me back into old patterns. My body betrayed me. By the time I was back in school in the fall, I had already regained some of the weight I had lost the previous year. By the following winter, I was back over 260 again.
Over the years, I’ve been on weight watchers (twice, both times losing more than 30lbs), carb restrictive diets (losing 20+), dieting pills (losing 30-40), etc., etc., etc. — ALWAYS to regain the weight. This is discouraging to recall. This is discouraging to remember. This is discouraging to hold as I look forward.
And I guess it is to be expected. This is the norm. This is what it looks like to inhabit an overweight body. Ours pulls us back to the weight with incredible force.
I’m heavy for many many reasons. I’ve gained all this weight over many many years. It’s been slow. It’s been a lot of food. It’s been a lot of small choices. It’s been a great collaboration of forces — some outside my control. Some within.
I want to close this post with a quick word on responsibility. I don’t write any of this in an effort to ‘pass the buck’ as it were. Earlier in this post I kind of alluded to the fact that we live in a culture that hasn’t really come to understand weight gain as anything more than a sign of poor self control. Without a doubt, I’ve had my moments. I’ve over eaten. I’ve eaten by myself. I’ve gone to drive thrus by myself. I’ve binged. AND I’ve also been influenced and impacted by a variety of forces outside my control or choice. It’s a system.
I have responsibility. It’s my life.
But I think saying ‘the reason I’m overweight is because I’m a slob’ is nonsense in the same way as ‘it’s because I’m a victim’. The truth lies somewhere in between. And I believe deeply that in order for me to recover, I will need to have compassion for myself. To give myself grace, as we call it in the Christian world. Unconditional love – unmerited favor. The benefit of the doubt.
We can start from there.