What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
There is no addiction in my family.
But after a few glasses of wine you may be able to get my grandmother talking about Great Uncle Harlan, who showed up drunk and half-crazed from syphilis to rip the tablecloth out from under Thanksgiving dinner. Or you can ask my mother directly whether she can think of any compulsive behavior or mental illness in our family tree, then wait long enough after she says “no” to hear about my biological grandfather Art, who was both a wife-beater and a noted window-peeper.
The strongest descriptor you’re likely to hear is that a family member was “fond of the drink,” which in typical Southern politic probably means he was half-dead from cirrhosis. I like to think of us connected across centuries by our dark drive toward oblivion, those long-dead old dudes and I.
Whatever you call it, we are a family of appetites. We pile our plates high and push ourselves back from the table stuffed and groaning. So I guess it's no surprise that food was probably the first substance I abused.
Neglected at home and tormented at school, I self-soothed with huge serving bowls of buttery popcorn, Cool Whip straight from the tub and shredded cheese, which I would melt all over a plate in the microwave and then peel and eat. While I binged, I’d watch syndicated sitcoms and nurse my sexual obsessions with character actors and unattractive bit players, like Scott Baio’s horny friend Buddy on “Charles in Charge.”
I retreated into books, reading about attractive teenagers having the kind of relationships I didn't expect to qualify for. I coveted Jessica Wakefield's perfect size six figure or the way Zack and Slater competed for Kelly's affections. And I ate.
Nobody likes an overweight kid, especially a too-smart teacher's pet with inflexible Christian morals, so I quickly became a school punchline; the suggestion of being romantically involved with me was a popular playground insult, and I tried to make myself insensible to the names like "Lardass" hurled from car windows along with, perhaps, a half-filled Big Gulp cup aimed at my head.
If I close my eyes, I can still feel the girl at summer camp who poked at the midsection of my bathing suit, counting out loud 1-2-3 rolls of fat, or the teacher who announced "More like the BIG mermaid," when I tried our for the role of Ariel in a low-rent daycare production. I feel my painstakingly pried-open spirit snap shut like a Venus fly trap at the memories.
If you’ve never been overweight, I’m not sure you can understand just how painful it can be to be. Living as an obese person was a process of sealing myself off from the slights and injuries that would come suddenly hurtling my way.
I might be walking down the street enjoying the sun on my face when a homeless guy would approach me to let me know that I need to lose some weight. Or a guy would ask for my phone number, then start quizzing me on how much I weigh and telling me he likes “something to grab onto.” You have to squeeze your eyes shut tight against the reality of how the world sees you, when you’re fat.
I was not a healthy fat person. I ate to bursting 3 meals a day, at least 2 from fast food restaurants where I could drown my sorrows in chemically perfected combinations of meat and cheese. I ate what I wanted, what tasted good, and because I was hungry in my heart and soul, my wants when it came to eating far exceeded my physical appetite.
I hated living in NYC, where I moved for college, mostly because it was difficult for me to get around -- too much walking, too many stairs. I worried every time I got up from one of those college style chair-desk combos that I'd bring the whole thing with me because I was so tightly wedged in. I wasn't miserable because I was fat, neccessarily, but I was fat because I was miserable.
So while people say that losing weight won’t make you happy or fix your life, in my experience it can go a hell of a long way toward both those things. I spent the first summer after I lost 100 pounds in a sort of ecstatic reverie.
It's a tired old story, but I'm not tired of it yet and neither is our culture, which keeps redressing it and making it traipse around in circles on television, movies, books and magazines. Girl loses weight, life changes.
But the credits usually fade on the newly thin. The confetti rains down and she's all smiles smiles smiles and then what? What happens next is hard.
It's a little bit like the summer you first start to get boobs -- all of a sudden you're walking around in this new body that feels a little hard to control. Inside you're a little girl death-gripping the steering wheel like "Hey, how do you drive this thing anyway???"
I found myself jumping up in a panic, running to check that my old body hadn't grown back sice the last time I looked. Worse, thin becomes thinner. Where 14 once looked tiny to me, suddenly 10 did, then 2. Where once I'd felt exempt from the inherent body competition between women, I was now qualified to compare myself to the next girl and the girl she was comparing herself to. It got pretty dark there for awhile.
That was 8 or so years ago and I try now not to worry too much about this body, which after all only houses the important things.
But still I am suspicious of those who are nice to me now, doubting they would have glanced at me before. The same people who let doors slam in my face hold them open now and smile. I lost weight partly to be treated differently, but I am angry at how differently I am treated
In some ways I envy myself before the weight loss, because I really never used to worry about what I ate. I was already fat, so what was the point? These days I never put anything in my mouth without having some kind of feeling about it, whether it's guilt or resentment or disappointment.
They say once you become a pickle you can never become a cucumber again, and the same is true with a dysfunctional relationship with food.
In my head, I have a long and rigorous list of foods divided into “good” and “bad” columns. Some of the classifications are fairly straightforward – broccoli is good, of course, and Oreos are bad.
Others are subject to my own shady, sometimes counterintuitive logic, a mish-mash of discarded diets (high-carb was bad, but so is high-fat, leaving few options in between), folk wisdom and the magical thinking of a disordered eater.
When I get too wrapped up in these thoughts, I try to remember to be grateful that my body functions, that it's not being attacked by disease bent on destroying it, or giving out from underneath me.
I try to see this body always the way you see it the day after a long illness -- so relieved and joyful to be able to do the simple things you usually take for granted.
I try to stay present inside this vessel, to connect to and love my body for providing me a means to walk through this world. I try to heal wounds administered so long ago that the scars have outlasted the memories. I try to fill that hole inside me with prayer, friendship, love and spirituality instead of sugar and carbs.
I don't always succeed, but I try.