Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Therapy and Weight Loss

For quite some time, I've been following blogs and forums about weight loss, and occasionally the topic of therapy and the role of psychology come up. Most of the time, people who have lost or are losing weight say that counseling does not assist them in weight loss. Their general attitude is that their issues are biological in nature (e.g., sugar addiction, insulin resistance) or simply the result of poor self-control or discipline. The former can be treated with drugs and lifestyle changes. The latter has to be pushed through by "sheer force of will" until you have magically found the discipline (a notion I reject as I think "willpower" is a useless term which does nothing to assist people in making behavioral changes).

Setting aside the fact that bad habits are psychological issues, I've often wondered why people reject the idea that therapy will aid them in their efforts. I've reached various conclusions, but the primary one is that most weight loss therapy is likely too abstract in its reasoning. There need to be multiple stages to the process, and I think some counselors might be level jumping on the type of feedback they provide. For most people, the fact that their alcoholic father drowned his pain in booze and therefore role-modeled addictive behavior that the person undergoing treatment may be emulating but substituting food instead of alcohol is of limited value in dealing with the problem at hand.

If the information can't be directly applied to a change in lifestyle or at the moment when the impetus to behave destructively is motivated by that underlying psychology, it comes across as merely academic. If you stuff yourself with food to a point of physical discomfort because you create a new discomfort to blunt, mask, or distract yourself from painful emotional feelings, it means nothing as you sit in the therapist's office the day after a binge. The information has to be timely as well as accurate and relevant to be of value in the weight loss process.

In the sterile environment of the therapist's office, when the circumstances that may cause you to eat are far removed from that time and place, it is hard for the counselor to know what is driving you, and it's nearly as hard for you to know. What tends to happen is that it all boils down to "I eat because life is hard and food comforts me." This generic conclusion is of very limited value, particularly when no solution to the pain of your life is forthcoming via therapy.

In essence, knowing the cause doesn't really help with the solution for many people, particularly if the deeper knowledge doesn't come hand in hand with behavior modification therapy that teaches them new and concrete techniques for addressing stress in a fashion which does not involve food, but is adequate for alleviating your difficulties. Of course, for many food addicts, nothing soothes like food and they find all other options falling short in offering a palliative for their pain.

That being said, as someone who feels profoundly that analyzing the psychology of my problems and applying behavior modification techniques to myself have brought me to where I am today, I think that therapy can make the difference between being someone who loses weight and keeps it off and someone who starts to regain with the first forced lifestyle change or bad patch, or, perhaps worse, someone who is obsessed with food in a way which is conducive to physical health.

The process of weight loss is one thing, but living in a manner in which your relationship with food is psychologically as well as physiologically healthy is another. I believe that insights and understanding are something which should be made concurrent with changes in habits or routines, but they should not be expected to have an immediate effect or direct application. It is rather the case that they create a mass of self-knowledge that will reach a critical mass when your understanding of self comes together at later periods of time. This is something I figured out when I talked about my mental conditioning work. I didn't know how I one day stopped obsessing about food or using it destructively. It just seemed to happen, but it actually was the culmination of a great deal of therapeutic effort coming together after months and months of hard psychological work.

Many people believe that thin = cured. They think that as long as they lose weight, they have solved the problem and are effectively dealing with it. To me, this is a very narrow definition of "health" and focuses exclusively on appearances over a balanced existence in which your relationship with food is one in which your thoughts are not consumed by this issue. If you remain preoccupied with food, exercise, and weight throughout your day in a manner which consumes an inordinate amount of time or disrupts your ability to have relationships with others that do not revolve around body image, diet, or exercise, then you probably need some counseling to help you adjust your relationship with food regardless of what your weight is.

A lot of people have no idea what a mentally healthy relationship with food is, and they will fight and argue with you about what is and is not "healthy" based on the composition of their diet, their weight, and health status. Physical health as a result of lifestyle choices does not indicate mental health in regards to food. There are people who are at a healthy weight, eat nothing but healthy food, and still spend their days ruminating about eating. I'm not even talking about pining for a piece of cake or a slice of pizza, but rather people who think about their apple and yogurt snack for hours before they can eat it. They are honed in on food to the point of distraction in a manner which a person with a normal relationship with food does not think or feel.

The aforementioned types of people have all of the behavioral changes necessary in place for weight maintenance and physical health. However, they need counseling to adjust their thinking such that they spend less of their energy on diet and body image and can focus more productively, creatively, and, frankly, in a more fulfilling manner, on other aspects of their lives.

One of the many things I have learned through losing weight is that I was much more dysfunctional overall at the start of my changes in habits and choices than I was before them, and than I am now. The dysfunction was food obsession and there were times when I thought that I could simply not live the rest of my life like that. The preoccupation I had was oppressive, and I'm sure would have continued had I not labored to deal with the underlying psychological issues (particularly in regards to identity, but also all of the stuff I grew up with that caused me to become a food addict). Frankly, I'd rather remain fat than continue to live the sort of torment I experienced during the first 10 months of my weight loss process.

There are people out there who have successfully lost weight who do live in a constant state of preoccupation with food and their bodies, and they are okay with it because they are so deeply immersed in their neurotic obsession with food that they cannot see how dysfunctional they are. To the people around them, they seem to be almost manic and are clearly obsessed, but they cannot gauge themselves by anything other than their bodies. As long as they are thin, they think all is well, and they are some of the people who most frequently say that they feel counseling is not necessary if you want to lose weight. In a way, they are right. If you want to merely be thin, you don't need to have any sort of therapeutic process (be it self-reflection or with a professional), but if you want to live a life in which you are not mentally enslaved to food and preoccupied with your body, you probably need a little psychological work as well.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

where you came from, where you are

Just a few days after I posted about not being able to "see" continued weight loss, something in my head clicked over and I could see changes in my lower body. It wasn't a specific change, and I hadn't even lost more weight, but suddenly I recognized an alteration in overall shape which was reminiscent of how I looked after my large weight loss in college about 25 years ago. Since I was never thin, I never experienced a flat stomach (and don't expect that I ever will), but there was a difference in how my belly looked in terms of overall shape which I suddenly started to see emerge.

Body image is a curious thing because it is almost as if your brain is stuck on a certain look and tunes out the changes that are occurring for a certain period of time. This seems to make some sense for people who look at themselves in the mirror everyday and the changes come along gradually. In such cases, changes would be understandably imperceptible.

However, even someone like me, who has no full-size mirrors and does not inspect her body closely or often, cannot see the changes even when the appraisal is spaced out over weeks or even months. You'd think I'd see the changes more clearly because bigger changes might occur if one waits longer to look. The truth is that I have never known my body very well because I avoided getting to know it.

I think for a lot of overweight people, and especially those who become very, very fat like me, we disconnect as much as possible from our physical forms. It is more often than not the case that we "imagine" what we look like more than we might be aware. When you're avoiding having your picture taken, don't walk in front of reflective surfaces and wear clothes that stretch so that size changes are harder to detect, you don't really know how "big" you are. This means that you can't easily see how much smaller you are except by numbers on the scale (which I don't measure very often) or by rather large changes in form which take months, possibly up to a year, to come along.

There are other reasons why someone who is very big may find that they cannot see the changes well which make logical sense, such as the fact that the impact of 10 lbs. lost on a nearly 400 lb. body is not going to be as noticeable as that same amount lost on a 150 lb. body. However, I think many of us find our bodies so loathsome that we simply don't really "see" who we are when we begin to lose weight. If you don't have a really good idea of where you've started from, you have difficulty knowing how far you've come.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Without a trace

Awhile ago, I started following the blog of a young woman who set about losing weight. Her starting weight was very similar to mine (around 380 lbs.) and she talked about how she was making certain changes to her eating habits and planning a new way of living. I had a few brief exchanges with her as she had asked me some questions, and I offered some unsolicited advice. Of course, she had her own plan based on business principles and how she can modify those ideas to fit her weight loss goals and I stopped commenting rather quickly when it became clear that my advice was not of interest to her.

Clearly, this was an intelligent and successful young woman, and she was very gung-ho about getting her house in order when it came to her issues with her weight. She posted "before" pictures of herself, and talked about her daily routine changes. At one point, she tossed out the idea of whether or not posting weekly photos would be a good idea to track progress. This was an idea that most people were very positive about, but I cautioned that I felt that it might make the process of tracking more cumbersome if she posted them weekly (I advised no more often than monthly) as well as possibly discouraging because she may not see noticeable changes in photos from week to week.

Shortly after she talked about posting weekly photos, she talked about consultation with a bariatric surgeon, but not in a way which indicated that undergoing such surgery was imminent. In a very short span of time (June 23 - July 1), she stopped posting at all about weight loss and deleted her domain and blog. I was sad to see this, because usually people who stop posting have "given up" on their efforts. Mind you, if she has decided to simply accept her body as is and just abandon weight loss altogether, it's all good. I don't think anyone has to lose weight. They just have to be happy with who they are. However, the chances that she has embraced fat acceptance and vanished  are low. It is far more likely that she has simply decided to not try to accomplish a goal she continues to desire and has erased the "evidence" that she ever tried.

This is a pattern that I see time and again with people who write weight loss blogs, and one of the things that is of value to me as someone who wants to be involved in weight loss counseling in the future is why these people stop trying. The thing that I notice about such folks is that they often try to change everything in their lives all at once. They want to go from the equivalent of being a baby crawling on the floor to an adult marathon runner in days rather than to first learn to stand, walk with support, and totter about the room on uncertain legs until those legs are strong enough to carry them further. They are very motivated to get every change in as rapidly as possible, and ultimately, they don't have the mental or physical legs to stand on and find themselves stumbling and falling all too often and give up.

My single biggest piece of (unwanted) advice for people who want to make a lifestyle change, and this relates to everything, not just weight loss is to start with a small snowball and roll it carefully and deliberately to make it bigger. Don't try to rewrite your entire existence overnight. Don't make big goals that you are likely to fail at. Make the initial goals small with the idea of ramping up the difficulty through time. Don't decide you're going to "live right" every day and make a multitude of changes all at once, but rather simply make one small, but meaningful, change and make that change absolutely routine. Once it is natural and you're doing it with ease, increase the difficulty level and work at that level until it is routine and then push ahead again. Make it so you succeed every day, because the goal is within your grasp.

A lot of studies assert that small changes are not enough to lose weight, but that is because they are talking about small changes being made and things stop there. The small changes have to slowly grow to be bigger ones, and that will take one down a path to a long-term lifestyle change which has the ability to stick because you've made those changes part of your routine bit-by-bit. If you try to do too much too soon, you'll find that it's too much to manage and there will be so much stress on your body and your mind that you'll give up.

One thing that I am ever mindful of is that everything I have done is part of a long, slow slope. That slope for the past 15 months has been one of gradual reduction of calories and gradual increase of non-food-related activity (including thinking) and movement. Instead of trying to climb a steep mountain as fast as possible, I've been on a long and winding path with an angle that is usually moderately challenging (though sometimes with rough patches). Now, I'm pretty comfortable where I am, and am far from where I started, but I never could have scaled that distance at a sprint and succeeded.

There are two things I come away from this understanding with that are of value to me (and possibly to others). The first is that the changes stick much better when made slowly. The second is that the path up this slope was gradual, but I have to be ever mindful that slowly slipping back down is always possible. Just as I made small changes to get where I am today, making small changes in the other direction will lead back to where I was. I have to be vigilant about not allowing almost imperceptible changes toward eating more, moving less, and being inattentive to mental processes related to food to carry me back down. The slope isn't slippery, but it is still easier to travel down that hill than up.

In regards to the blogger I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I "warned" her in a soft fashion about going too fast. I cautioned her about making too many changes right at the start, especially at such a high weight when small changes and less Draconian measures would have brought results. I tried to tell her not to make the process more cumbersome than it had to be by creating a fussy tracking method, but like most people I offer my unsolicited advice to, she charged down another path. Maybe she's succeeding wildly and just stopped blogging. Maybe she is happy with who she is now. Chances are though that, like many people, she tried too hard to run before she could walk and gave up.

I hate to see people fail, which is why I bother to offer my opinion, but I'm beginning to think it probably would be best just to keep it to myself. People have to live their lives the way they choose, and they have to learn from their own mistakes. It's really not my place to direct them or tell them what to do. The part of me that lives in the mental and physical pain of being fat and doesn't want anyone else to suffer as I have (and still do, but to a lesser extent) finds it hard to keep quiet though. Perhaps my ego also directs me to believe that I have something of value to offer to others, but, perhaps, I only have something of value to me. Weight loss may just be one of those things which is too personalized for anyone to truly help you but yourself.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why other people care about your weight loss

Sometimes I feel quite fortunate to be losing weight in relative isolation. In fact, aside from my husband and those who read this blog, I never receive any unsolicited advice or input on what I'm doing. That's in no way some oblique way of saying I don't want commentary from those who are kind enough to read what I write, but rather that I often read from others how unwanted or unhelpful input often makes things that much harder for them and this got me thinking about how this hasn't been an issue for me.

For me, I live in a situation where people would not involve themselves in my business in this regard. I could talk about it with them if I chose to (though I don't), and they'd nod and smile and express that they were happy for me, but they would never comment on my progress or offer advice. It's just not what is done here. Luckily, I am insulated from even the busiest of bodies in this regard.

Lately, I've been pondering the forces that motivate people to involve themselves in the dietary habits and weight loss processes of others and think it is useful to keep such things in mind when receiving input from others. Here are the general (and broad) reasons I think people care about the weight loss of others:

1. genuine concern

This is the type of thing which is rare and comes from those who are close to you like your family members. They are emotionally invested in a deep and meaningful way in your life and health and want you to be well, fit and happy. However, such concern is not always unconditional.

2. empathy

Mainly this comes from those who also have struggled with weight and understand the difficulties that you are going through. They know your suffering because they have experienced similar feelings. Many people who read blogs and comment on them are motivated by empathy.

3. vested interest

These are people who have something to gain by your efforts. This is perhaps one of the more complex motivations because what a particular person has to gain is very personal, and can be highly abstract. This is the motivation I'll be discussing in greater detail later.

4. education

Some people simply want to know what others are doing and how effective or ineffective various approaches are considering the variables involved in a person's life.

No person who is interested in the weight loss of others fits discretely into any one category. Most people will belong to several, if not all of them. The main thing that tends to define whether their interest in your weight loss is a force for ill or good in terms of your life lies in their "vested interest". The truth is that most people are far less interested in you than in how your actions impact them. At all times, even when you seem to be the focus of their scrutiny, support, or attacks, it is not about you; it is about them.

When I talk about how your actions affect others, I don't mean merely the direct effects. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that people are just as troubled by that which challenges their thinking than that which directly changes their experiences or lives. This thought crystallized for me when I was pondering the oft-cited motivation for bitter responses to weight loss as being jealousy. I don't think people are jealous, but rather that they are threatened because your actions challenge their perspective about weight and lifestyle.

When I consider all of the facets of "vested interest", I come up with a lot of sub-categories of motivation for involving oneself in the outcome of another person's weight loss efforts:

1. schaudenfreude (shameful joy)

Some people like to watch others fail because it elevates them for their meager successes in life.

2. inspiration

People want you to succeed because it helps them feel that it is possible for them as well.

3. reflection

These are people who feel that your appearance reflects their value. More often than not, this is a spouse or partner who thinks other people will think they are a better catch because he or she has an attractive significant other. However, it can also be about someone who is thinner than you feeling that your change in appearance to one which is socially more acceptable will reflect on them by making them look less attractive by comparison. People want you to stay as you are so they're better by comparison.

4. validation

People who follow the same plan as you and want to see success so that they can feel they are on the right track and have a good chance of succeeding as well. Validation can also be about education or information gathering.

5. invalidation

People who are following different plans want to see you struggle or fail in order to make them feel their plan is a better choice. This is slightly different than schaudenfreude because this motivation is based in a somewhat different insecurity, though they are related. Invalidation, like validation, is sometimes about education or information gathering.

6. involvement/need for community

Some people, quite frankly, have too little going on in their real lives or lack a sufficient support network and add meaning by involving themselves in the lives of others. They want to help, and they believe that they are motivated by a desire to assist others, but the bottom line is that they need to talk about weight loss and fitness and are seeking an audience which is likely to appreciate their input. That is not to say that there is no genuine desire to be helpful, but rather that most people who get involved act first on their own need, and second to meet your needs.

I am by no means immune to acting on vested interests in this regard. I comment on other people's blogs for reasons "4", "5" and "6" on vested interest list as well as reasons "2", "3", and "4" on the general list.

I think that most negative responses to weight loss blogs are motivated by the need for validation/invalidation. That is, most people need to believe you will succeed or crash and burn in your efforts for various reasons. In regards to wanting to see your failure, often, that need is simply so that they can quiet their own cognitive dissonance about the status quo with their bodies. People believe they can't lose weight, and that you can't either. They think you're just fooling yourself and that you'll succeed for awhile and then regain, become dysfunctional, or live a very stressful and unbalanced life as a slave to your weight. The fact that, more often than not, they are correct, makes following the weight loss efforts of others a very good way of finding information to validate ones views and invalidate those of others.

"Jealousy" is not one of the reasons I think most people write scathing comments on weight loss blogs, though I think that there is an element of feeling like a failure while watching others succeed at something you desperately would like to succeed at, too. This element can often manifest in a what sounds like jealousy, but I think that it really is anger at ones own sense of "failure" turned outward. It really isn't about coveting your success. It's about their failure.

One thing I realize is that I'm very unfortunate to have to deal with a fairly oppressive climate which points out my weight and makes me feel like a freak at every turn. On the other hand, on a personal level, I don't have to deal with people involving themselves in my weight loss because none of them have a vested interest in the outcome either way. The only one who cares, and who I discuss it with in real life, is my husband and his interest is unconditionally about concern for my well-being and nothing more. He has no vested interests, aside from hoping I'll be healthier, stronger, and will spend more time with him.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A representative day

One thing I should have done a long time ago, but never got around to doing since the nature of this blog isn't really to talk about the precise details of what I do, is cover a "typical" day of what I do. Of course, part of the reason for that is that this has been in a slow state of change. However, since one of my kind commenters expressed concern for what I might be doing, I thought it might be a good idea to finally get around to providing a "representative day" of my eating at present to make the situation clearer. I really do appreciate the concern, but I think this will illustrate that I have room to safely cut calories more in the future.

The fastest way to show the food I eat is to take a screen shot of a FitDay calculation for one day. It'll show up here as a reduced size version, but if you click on the small picture below, the full size will load and the details can be seen. Here was today's food distribution:

While this tells you what I ate, it doesn't quite offer a rough schedule of the day so I'll offer that here:

  • 8:00 am: coffee, homemade whole grain peanut butter muffin ("baked item" on FitDay)*
  • 9:30 am: 25 minute walk
  • 10:00 am: 1/2 navel orange
  • 10:15 am: stomach holding exercises (35 reps), 2 kg. weight lifting (45 reps)
  • 1:15 pm: homemade veggie burger**, mayo, raw tomato and carrot, chocolate plus a Calcium supplement
  • 4:00 pm: pretzels ("salted snack" on FitDay) and cheese
  • 5:00 pm: 50 minute walk
  • 6:00 pm: fruit frappe with raspberries, banana, skim milk, ice
  • 6:30 pm: leg lifts (30 for each leg)
  • 8:00 pm: chicken breast, cabbage salad with Asian dressing, broccoli plus a multi-vitamin

*primary components are whole wheat flour, egg, peanut butter, applesauce, and skim milk
**primary components are kidney beans, egg, onion, walnuts, and oat flour

Note that the pretzels, chocolate and muffin's nutrients (only calories) are not in the FitDay listing so the nutrition numbers are incomplete. I'm too lazy to enter all of the data manually for every baked good or chocolate piece I consume. Mainly, I use FitDay for calorie tracking, but this is still pretty representative. There are more carbs, and a bit more protein than shown here.

I mentioned in the previous post that if my loss rate drops too slowly, I plan on dropping the calories a bit. It would be very, very easy for me to chop down the size of the afternoon snacks. In particular, I'd have half a serving of pretzels and half an ounce of cheese and that'd reduce calories by a little over 100 right there. I could also reduce chocolate consumption to 50 calories (or less). None of this would have much of an impact on nutrition for the day. These are areas which are more about pleasure than nutrition which can be let go of. Of course, I will continue to scale activity and hope that is sufficient because I'm pretty satisfied with what I eat now in terms of portion and content.

I'm sure this is imperfect, but I don't think it's lacking greatly. I'm sure a nutritionist would tell me to ditch the pretzels and chocolate and eat something with more nutrients, but this is what I can live with and, so far, it works well for me. Note that there is an
intentional pattern to how I eat carbohydrates. I start the day with a lot and end with a little. Part of the reason I've decided to start weighing myself once a month is that I want to be aware of whether or not it does stop working. I expect though, that it will continue to work just fine, although I expect a dramatic slow-down in loss rate after I reach 200 lbs.

In terms of the exercise, this is a bit more than "usual" because it's the weekend and a second walk isn't always possible on weekdays. I always walk for at least 20 minutes, usually walk for 40 and do the other exercises at least 6 days a week. I can get in this much walking at least twice a week, and try to do it more.

I'm sure this will change as time goes by, but only in small ways. I hope this was helpful in understanding what I do more clearly.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I can't see myself

Quite some time ago, before he was a well-known humorist, Dave Barry wrote a book called Stay Fit and Healthy Until You're Dead. In the book, he had a little bit on whether or not women should lose weight. There may have been a chart of a table of some sort which evaluated whether women should lose weight. It said something like:
Big: you should probably lose weight
Medium: you could stand to lose some weight
Small: you should consider losing weight
The joke was that, no matter what size you are, if you are a woman, you should probably lose weight. Since Mr. Barry was, in part, lampooning the fitness industry, this type of humor was all too apropos.

This situation came to mind for me as I've found lately that I cannot "see" myself at all anymore. Initially, it was easy to see bodily changes, but it is getting harder and harder to tell the difference. To me, I've gone from, "so huge I can't look at myself" to "so huge I can't stand to look at myself" to "so huge that it hurts to look at myself." My body image isn't changing at all in any positive way in my estimation. Today, I was thinking that I'm looking like Humpty Dumpty, with an egg shape sitting on legs. I can't even see where I'm losing any weight anymore.

To this end, I find myself looking to the scale for affirmation (though not acting on the impulse most of the time) that progress is being made. I'm not looking at it to validate me, but rather to verify that things are going as they should. While I firmly subscribe to the idea that actions are the true measure of success as they naturally breed success, I'd be trying to fool myself (and everyone else) if I tried to say that the results weren't what I really want. After all, without visible weight loss and changes in appearance, I will never escape the prejudice and abuse that I receive for being fat, and that is a strong motivator for me. It is second only to health improvement in my reasons for losing weight.

The truth is that I knew the day when I'd have to start actually weighing myself regularly would come. Somewhere in a past post, I mentioned that I expected that when I got under 250 lbs., I may have to resort to the scale to ensure my continued progress because I figured a slowdown would occur at a certain point. That is, I knew that my basal metabolic rate (BMR) would start to drop such that I would have to continually tweak my behaviors to make sure my weight loss pace continued as I want it to. Mainly, I need to know when the slowdown occurs so I can add activity in or reduce calories a little more.

To give some idea of what I mean in a more concrete manner, at my starting weight of around 380 lbs., my BMR was about 2400 calories. My BMR at 300 lbs. was around 2050 calories per day. At my current weight of 240 lbs., it is now about 1790. When I reach 200, it will further drop to about 1600 calories. While I don't expect to keep at my current loss rate of between 2 and 2.5 lbs. per week, my plan was to lose an average of a pound a week after I reach 200 provided that I have a year ahead of me before making a big change in my life (which requires me to find a new job) to accomplish it. If I don't reach 200 with a year in front of me to lose the last 50 lbs., I'll have to make further changes to speed things up a bit.

All of those silly calculations aside, I'm finding that my inability to tell that I'm actually losing weight anymore is factoring into this as well. I try to derive as much gratification as possible from the success that comes from carrying out the day in a manner which is conducive to my goals, but that can't be all of it. Even I have to have some external indicators that progress that is physical and not psychological is going on. Much as I try hard not to focus on it excessively, I do need at least a little bit of it.

My situation is not helped by the fact that I have bought exactly two new pieces of clothing (two bras) since the start of all of this so I can't really see a different body easily. I'm throwing out the oldest, biggest things which are too absurd-looking to wear now, and altering the (formerly) tightest ones to be smaller as well as borrowing T-shirts from my husband's wardrobe to tide me over. I still refuse to spend money on clothes that are of an interim size.

I've decided that at this stage, I will rather reluctantly start regular weighing once a month. I've decided to start as of October 1 with this and see how it goes. If the number starts to have any sort of emotional impact on me though, that idea is going right out the window. I will not get on the scale roller coaster ride and allow it to manipulate my emotions. That being said, I do need some sort of measurement (and frankly, I'm too lazy to dig out a tape measure and do it the other way) to "prove" that progress is being made since the non-scale victories have become rather difficult to see now that I've realized that I have a form of body image blindness.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hungry Young Me

When I was about 14 years old, I became infatuated with the guy who sat in the seat behind me. He always sat behind me because teachers arranged us alphabetically and our names were locked together in an unbreakable fashion due to the inflexible nature of the roman alphabet. On those rare occasions when a teacher didn't force us to follow this convention, he sat with other people. This gave me more than a small clue about the fact that perhaps he wasn't fond of talking to "the fat girl" at the start of every class.

Since I'm 45 years old, I grew up in a time when "the fat kid" really was only one in the class. In our small rural grade which totaled around 85 people, I was "the fat girl" and there was also "the fat guy". Everyone else was thin or not more than vaguely chubby due to the vagaries of puberty.

My lingering crush on this fellow lasted well over a decade. It waxed and waned. He was my friend during parts of it, and out of touch during other parts. It was quite literally a spell over me that I could not shake or break until I fell in love with my husband and I hated being controlled by my feelings for this person. There were days when I would have done anything to not feel for this guy the way I did. I did not want the burden it placed on me. Falling for my future husband finally shattered this sense that my affection was painfully tethered to a person who would never feel for me the way I felt for him. In my mind, this was the case because I was always "the fat girl" to him. Since he grew up watching me go from chubby to ballooning up to "big" and then close to what I thought was "huge", he'd never see me as sexually attractive.

Even when I lost weight in college, I was still too fat for "normal" guys and getting down to about 180 lbs. didn't change the object of my long-standing love's feelings for me. When I finally got the courage to admit to him that I was in love with him, something that I'm sure he had known for a long time, he told me he just didn't see me that way, and gave me a pity kiss on the mouth. I was around 21 when that happened, and it was the first time anyone had ever kissed me.

Fast forward to the future, where I have the benefits of 20/20 hindsight and over 20 years of blissful union with my husband who I adore and adores me back. I'm immensely grateful that my unrequited love never returned my affections because I can't imagine how that may have affected my potential future relationship with the man who is my perfect match. Either it would have "worked" enough to dissuade me from pursuing my future husband, or it would have failed and possibly left me too jaded or wary to give a relationship with my future husband a chance.

At the very least, I wouldn't be the open, fresh, and, yes, even naive, person who entered a relationship with a man she met and developed a distance relationship with. Frankly, I believe that a lot of people who have bad relationships are worse for it when they enter future ones. They are scarred by the things that went wrong and may be unreasonably wary of seeing the same things happen in the next relationship. My husband had the benefit of not competing with the memory of anyone from my past, either in terms of positives or negatives. He deserved this "fresh" and undamaged "relationship me" (the only part of me that probably wasn't damaged), and I'm grateful to have been spurned by the person who I focused my affection on throughout my youth.

I have been in touch off an on with my old friend throughout the years, and am currently in contact with him through FaceBook. He married a woman he met at a job he held a long time ago (about two or three years after I married). My husband and I met briefly with him and her about two decades ago and she seemed nice enough. My friend confessed that they were marrying at that time because his girlfriend had gotten pregnant, but quickly added that they were going to marry anyway. The pregnancy just hastened the time-line.

In the past several months, my friend had gone rather quiet on FaceBook, and what I suspected might be the cause turned out to be true. His marriage was ending. He and his wife have two children and the oldest recently finished high school and the younger one is a young teen. He told me that he had been unhappy for quite some time and felt that he couldn't "be himself" in their home. I concluded that perhaps the oldest child entering adulthood and the youngest definitively being out of childhood may have given him the courage to walk away from a situation he was dissatisfied with.

For many years, when I have been occasionally in touch with my friend, I have had a deep sense that his marriage would not last. This was not some petty notion that he would have been happier with me and that I wanted to see his marriage end to validate that. As I said, I'm grateful that we never ended up together. The reason I thought his marriage might fail was based in some information he confided in me a very long time ago when he was engaged to a woman from our small hometown. He cheated on her with not one, but two other women and eventually ended the engagement. I should mention that my friend is a lovely person. He is very kind, intelligent, artistic, talented, and very charming. He is not "good-looking", but has a very appealing personality. Many people are drawn to him because he has a particular energy. His actions with his long-ago fiancee should not indicate anything about who he is at his core.

Let me say that I don't believe my friend is some sort of Lothario or a "cheating dog" that can't be taught new tricks. The case in my opinion has been that he is deeply insecure on some level (a feeling I can truly identify with) and that it would be hard for any one woman to meet his needs adequately, and such a woman would have to be both immensely self-aware and other-directed. Also, he is moody and passionate, and that is a hard combination to live with on a daily basis. Frankly, though I am both incredibly self-aware and other-directed, I've realized in retrospect what a horrible combination his personality and mine would have been and that it would have been me who he would have been divorcing had we ended up together.

All of that being said, and here I finally reach the point of this post. There is a small nagging voice in me that wants to hear him say something to the effect of, "I wish I had married you instead". I am incredibly disappointed in myself for this tiny, little voice that whispers from a small corner of the immense cavern of my insecurity. It's my ancient need for validation of my value aside from my physical presence tapping at my psyche and asking to finally be fulfilled. The fat girl I was always wanted to be loved and accepted by this person because she was intelligent, witty, funny, kind, and loving. That girl was never accepted by any boy or young man because her body was a deal breaker.

Even though I am an adult now and am utterly validated as a desirable character by my husband's bountiful unconditional love and frequent professions of admiration for all of the qualities no one else appreciated, that tiny voice still whispers at me. Some part of me still needs validation from this friend of mine who I held affection for for so very long and I am ashamed of this need.

That shame is not because of the need itself because I think that anyone who has been so battle-scarred in life because of her weight may need a lot of pointless validation to help heal some of those old wounds. I'm ashamed of it because I want someone to profess some sort of wish to have had me in his life (but not to want me in it at present) when I have absolutely zero desire for him now and haven't had any since falling in love with my husband. This desire is incredibly selfish and self-serving. It is merely a need for a quick, pat stamp of approval that I never got when I was younger. I don't care about what the stamp means or brings, but I want to have it nonetheless, as if it completes a collection with a missing space that I just want filled for no good reason.

Recognizing that I have this need is not new to me nor unique. I'm sure that many people want the people they pined for to want them later even though they no longer want the object of their former affection. For me though, it's a little different as I'm not looking for spite or revenge at being rejected. I have some deep need for this friend to have "liked" me, but have been afraid to have acted on his feelings because it was too embarrassing to have a fat girlfriend. Frankly, I don't believe for a second that any such feelings ever existed. I don't believe he ever was attracted to me in any way other than as a friend just like his male friends.

It's this rather sad and pathetic need to feel that my character transcended my physicality and to have that verified with an assertion from him. At its core, it's me wanting someone to say, "prove to me that I was a good person who was worthy of loving, even when my body didn't allow me to be loved." That's the hungry part of me that has been pulled to the surface from this experience, and I'm going to have to work to reconcile the unfulfilled feelings of that very young me with the more mature me who is truly blessed to have it all when it comes to love and validation from a person she worships and adores in the here and now.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

America, the free to do anything but be fat

I often hear or read comments about the weight of American people. Many non-American bloggers and commenters who have visited the U.S. or met Americans in their home countries talk about how disgusted they are to see all of the wobble bottoms hugging each other in greeting at airports. They mention how massive and unhealthy everyone looks. They express disgust that these people don't "do something about" their weight or look after their health.

One fellow in particular, a professional writer, wrote about how he lived abroad, and during a year-long stay, he effortlessly lost 10 lbs. He said that this loss was due to working long hours of overtime and not having any time to eat. In the same piece, he wrote that he felt irritated with American folks who were overweight (like himself) that he saw walking around this foreign country. He reiterated the oft-stated notion that his disdain for them stemmed from the fact that they didn't "try" to lose weight. Never mind that he wrote by the end of the post that he regained the weight he lost after going back to the U.S. and not having to work 12-hour days.

I'm sure one thing that all fat people find very frustrating is the pat judgment of strangers who decide with a glance that they aren't "trying" or "doing something about" their situation. Many people are "trying" and many are having various levels of success. You can't tell with a glance that someone has been losing weight or living a healthier lifestyle if they are in the process of getting fitter. Here I am, a bit under 245 lbs., down from 380 lbs., and the judgmental jerk who wrote the post in the aforementioned post would dismiss me as another American fatty who couldn't be bothered to improve her lot.

All of this is actually beside the point. The truth of the matter is that fat people don't have to do anything about their bodies. It's nobody's business how they live their lives. They are not obliged in any way to "do something about" their weight or even their health. Just because society is currently in the throes of a zeitgeist which puts a big stamp which has huge red "A-P-P-R-O-V-A-L" letters on it when it comes to fat prejudice doesn't mean everyone has the right to decide how we should live our lives. I choose to lose weight because it's what I need to do for myself. I shouldn't be pressured to do it because others have decided I'm "bad."

The interesting aspect to me about this is that America is supposed to be built on the ideas of personal freedom and individuality, yet these seem to be tossed aside when the topic comes to weight. Rather than respect a person's right to live, look, and eat the way they choose, immense pressure comes to bear on them from all sides. The government wants you to lose weight. Your family and friends want you to. Random strangers definitely want you to.

The thing that makes me angriest about all of the arguments about the "obesity epidemic" is that a plethora of arguments are made to make my problem (being fat) your problem. This ranges from ridiculous (correlation, not causation) studies which suggest becoming fat is contagious to bitter arguments about health costs which are utterly inaccurate. The truth is that fatties save money for society on the whole as they die earlier and therefore do not require as much in the way of long-term care expenses or pension payments. The extent to which people will go to rationalize and validate fat prejudice is impressive, and it's also just a big cover-up for their inability to simply see themselves for what they are, shallow, small-minded, judgmental bigots who judge people based solely on appearance.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another Woman's Life

Jane grew up the as the fifth child of six. Two of them were boys and the other four were girls. The youngest child, a sister, was her mother's favorite. Jane's father was quite a bit older than her mother, and his second wife. There was a half-brother from her father's previous marriage, but he was so much older than her that he was more of an "uncle" figure. She got along better with him than her other siblings, but he had his own home and family and they saw little of one another.

With such a large family, she grew up feeling lost and unloved and felt rejected by her mother in particular. Her mother was status-conscious, demanding, and very hard to please. She insisted that Jane scrub floors until they shined, and she grew up to loath housework as a result. She looked outside of her family to fill the emptiness and set her sights on a boyfriend from a young age. Her mother disapproved of Jane's boyfriend, a young man who Jane first encountered at a roller skating rink around the age of 12. Even at such a tender age, he was smoking and drinking beer.

Wanting nothing more than to escape her family situation, Jane asked to marry her boyfriend, Ed, a few years before the legal age (which was 21 at that time). She had just finished high school with a "C" average and a year book picture she didn't consent to that had a nickname she hated under it, "Skunk." She hadn't been popular in school nor academically gifted. The way she could move on with her life was to get married to a person who loved her and get away from a mother who she never pleased and who made her do things she hated around the house.

Ed had quit school in the 9th grade and grew up without a father or a mother for the most part. His mother left him with his grandmother while she ran around living her life as she pleased, including frequenting bars. His parents had separated and his father was uninvolved in his life. His grandmother beat him and favored his sole sibling, a sister. His "pedigree" didn't come up to snuff for Jane's mother and she would not agree to allow them to marry. The consent she required for an early marriage was granted by her father. Her mother never approved of her marriage to this man, and constantly judged Jane's lifestyle from the start of their union. She never visited Jane and Ed's home, but did expect her daughter to come to her for regular visits.

Jane entered marriage with the expectation of a white picket fence existence. Ed would work and earn money and she would be a housewife and have children. She had two children, and some time in their early primary school education, her husband suffered a series of accidents on the job which left him intermittently paralyzed on his left side. Ed was told that he had a blood clot in his brain which would eventually float to the wrong place, block the wrong blood vessel and he would die. He was given 6 months to live and turned to alcohol to hide from the terror he felt at his impending young death.

This situation crushed Jane's dream of a traditional family life. Her husband's disability payments were just enough to live on. They had a house with a mortgage and two children and she had a yearning to live up to the lifestyle of her now adult younger sister. The youngest sister, Judy, still lived with her mother and had an impressive rotation of new lifestyle upgrades like new furniture, electronics, and cars on a regular basis. For a family on a disability payment income, this was an impossible standard to reach.

Jane tried hard to keep up with her sister by buying things "on time". She'd have a new furniture set just as her sister did, but would have to spend a year making payments. Eventually, she had to turn to a sequence of dead-end, low-paying jobs to help support the family. She worked one job after another, often getting fired or laid off at the first opportunity in order to collect unemployment because she hated being told what to do and often complained behind the boss's back to people who later told the boss. This inability to do what she was told was courtesy of the way her mother pushed her so hard to do more housework than she was comfortable doing in her younger days. She simply did not like to be bossed around by anyone.

While Jane worked, Ed did nothing around the house to help look after their children, and spent most of his days watching T.V., smoking, and going to bars. Some nights, she'd bundle her kids up and load them into the car and visit every bar in the adjacent neighborhoods to track him down and drag him home. There were many arguments and threats about divorce, but neither of them were capable of living on their own so they remained unhappily together.

Debt started to pile up as Jane tried to have a lifestyle that was beyond her means. She felt she deserved nice things, and would often buy things on payment plans or take out loans to consolidate all existing debt so that she could minimize overall payments and start a bunch of new ones. She bought things for people to impress them and gave them gifts to show them that she liked them or cared about them. Her children, despite being poor, were never without a lavish Christmas with huge piles of gifts under the tree.

Often, it would take months to pay the debt for all of those presents, but she used material possessions to not only show love, but to justify her need to buy things. She wanted to shop anyway, and saying it was "for the kids" made her feel like she was being altruistic when she overspent massively. The gaps in her increasingly difficult and dissatisfying life were something she tried to fill with stuff.

One of the things which Jane didn't understand about herself, but was certainly the case, was that she was a very sensitive person. Loud noises startled her. She complained loudly about bad smells that came her way. Her feelings were easily hurt. She turned to food in addition to shopping to drown the pain, and gained a lot of weight. She often weighed between 200-250 lbs., sometimes a bit more or less depending on whether she was making an effort to diet.

She also felt starved for attention and friendship. As a result of being physically abused as a child, Ed was closed off and rarely expressed affection or feelings. He didn't tend to empathize with her when she was in pain, either physical or mental. Part of that was his closed off nature, and part was the constant fear he lived with of his own death. The doctors were wrong when they predicted his young and early death, but he still suffered crippling headaches that could only be muted by extremely potent prescription pain killers and occasionally went suddenly blind in his left eye or became paralyzed on the left side of his body. There were recurrent and terrifying reminders of the results of his accident and the possibility that he could die at any moment. He tended only to say anything loving when drunk, and even then rarely.

What was more, Ed completely abdicated all responsibility as an adult. He wouldn't go into banks, pay bills, grocery shop, file tax forms, or look after his children. This was because he felt insecure and lacked confidence in most "public" interactions. He didn't want to look foolish, so he was unwilling to go into any situation in which he wasn't fully comfortable. The burden to do everything fell to Jane, with her sensitive disposition and easy sense of feeling overwhelmed. There were times when she would say she couldn't take it anymore and would cry or put her head in her hands. Ed would ignore her or sometimes berate her for this. Her children would feel scared and insecure. Sometimes she'd talk about losing the house or not being able to pay the electric bill. She juggled the financial balls so that she could keep shopping because it was all she had to mute her misery and fill the emptiness left by her shattered dreams of white picket fences and housewife bliss. Sometimes, the balls would all fall at once.

Many people didn't like Jane very much once they got to know her because she talked too much, often lied to represent herself as more knowledgeable or to keep conversations going, and she often gossiped. Eventually, the friends who she told things to compared stories and they knew she was talking badly about them behind their backs. Most of her female friends were the wives of Ed's drinking buddies and even poorer than her. She enjoyed putting them down, because it helped her elevate herself. Much as her mother used her as the black sheep to elevate herself, Jane used her friend's lives to make her feel like she was "better" than others. This was behavior her mother role modeled all too well, and her daughter naturally picked up on this way of boosting her esteem at the expense of others.

Eventually, she had only one friend left, and alienated her when she snapped and reached out and slapped a noisy child who was at her friend's house. She apologized and admitted for the first time in her life that she was pulled to the brink and reacted badly, but the friend wouldn't accept her apology and hung up on her. The truth was that she was constantly lashing out at people because she was in pain or distress due to being overstimulated and overwhelmed by all of the responsibility that she bore alone, but she usually did so verbally and only toward immediate family, and she never, ever apologized to them. She couldn't bring herself to admit she was responsible for her behavior, because her low self-regard required that she be "right" all of the time. This caused her children to withdraw from her, so she had a distant husband, and kids who put a wall between themselves and her to protect themselves. This made her even more profoundly lonely.

As the years went by, Jane developed a wide variety of problems and had some accidents. She had her first major health scare when she was around 22 or 23 years old. She developed a gangrenous infection in her uterus after her second child and nearly died. She was also told that she couldn't have more children after the damage done to her by that infection. In later years, while performing a particularly degrading job for horrible wages, delivering pizzas, she crashed into a stone wall with the only brand new car she and her husband had ever built. She came back concussed, bruised, and with cracked bones. She also lost all of her beautiful teeth around age 26 to periodontal disease. It wasn't that she didn't take care of them, but rather a bad role of the genetic dice. In her early 30's, she was told she had the genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. This was another bad roll as it affects women far less often than men. She was going to slowly go blind.

At one point, she was having intense headaches that wouldn't go away for a prolonged period of time and was taking pain killers. She became so confused that she accidentally overdosed and "died", but was revived. When asked why she kept taking pills, she said that she "just wanted the pain to go away." She was nearly committed to a mental health ward for being suicidal, but she begged her daughter not to allow her to be put in there and she intervened with a doctor who warned that she would try to kill herself again. She didn't. She never meant to in the first place. It was just another bad roll of the dice.

As the years went by, she tried to find ways to fulfill herself. She opened a video arcade that failed. She went back to college in her mid-50's to get a degree, but couldn't find work related to her field with her failing sight. She opened a candy store which was reasonably successful, but had to be closed when her blindness allowed too much shoplifting to go unnoticed. As the years went by, she developed crippling arthritis and a disorder where she couldn't get enough oxygen to nourish her blood for a brief trip across a room. Now, she has to carry around an oxygen tank and undergo repeated tests to find the cause of her malady. Her only pleasures are going to a senior center and attending its outings, food, listening to books on tape, and shopping with assistance. Since she suffers so much pain on a daily basis, she is demanding, temperamental, and unsympathetic to those around her when they experience difficulties. She feels no one suffers or has suffered as she has.

Jane's life didn't turn out in any way as she expected. Her mother was judgmental and showed overt disapproval of all of her choices. Her mother's love was entirely conditional and she never felt truly loved when she was growing up. She married a man who she adored and expected to fulfill her need to be loved and accepted, and he was an alcoholic who couldn't express love due to his abusive upbringing and absent parents. She wanted to live the life of a housewife and mother, but was forced to take a series of dead-end, low-paying, low-status jobs to augment her husband's disability payments and support her family. She wanted to live a comfortable lifestyle and have nice things, but she was too poor and fiscally irresponsible to ever have the type of life she wanted. She wanted to have friends, but her self-esteem was too low to be herself and she alienated them with lies and gossip. Instead of living a relatively healthy life, she suffered one health set-back after another, and inherited a terrifying genetic disease. Most painful of all, she wanted to be loved and to have meaningful companionship, but everyone put distance between themselves and her.

Of course, I am one of the people who put distance between her and myself, and you may have guessed that Jane is my mother. I tell this story because I often speak of the behaviors my mother has carried out that have damaged me and created a lot of my weight and food issues, as well as my neuroses and psychological problems. However, I want it to be clear, that I love my mother and I understand that she never, ever meant any harm to me or anyone else. I know she loved me, and never acted out of anything other than her own pain and strife. She was dealt an incredibly bad hand in life, and is a very fragile person. Like many emotionally frail people, the best of her, including her warmth, her loving nature, her strength, and her giving of herself both materially and emotionally, has been crushed under the oppressive weight of life's responsibilities and problems.

I recognize that, like me, my mother was cursed with high sensitivity. And, like me, she had no choice in the matter. It is just the way her nervous system is built. Unlike me though, she wasn't given certain gifts in life. She didn't have my intellect growing up. She didn't have a mother who told her she should work hard to be independent, educated, and try to make her own way in life because you don't want to be dependent on a man. She didn't have my self-awareness, and most importantly, she didn't have a life partner who is as close to psychological perfection in terms of character strength and self-esteem as a human can possibly be. My parents are both damaged people who did more damage to each other with their respective weaknesses. They are not, however, bad people. Both of them do not willfully hurt people, and I think even my emotionally distant father loves his daughters and wife, but cannot act on those feelings due to his inhibitions.

My mother did a lot of things which ended up hurting me, but she was acting on chains of behavior that were carried from her mother to herself, and responding as best she could to the incredible hardship of her life. I offer her the same compassion and understanding that I offer others when I speak about eating disorders. Like them and me, she was controlled in the present by all of the things she couldn't control in the past. Unlike me, she was never given the support or reprieve from life's problems in order to get out from under those negative influences and stressors. I can't be angry with her for what she did to me because it was never what she wanted to do to me. She wanted to be a good person and to be a loving wife and mother, and a lot of the time, she was.

Though I still suffer because of her influence to this day, I want to at least take one post to give her credit for the things she did which make me stronger. She did love me then and still does. She sacrificed her time and energy to care for her family financially and was the only adult in a family where there should have been two of them. She emphasized my sister's and my capabilities and encouraged us to better ourselves. She was proud of my sister's and my achievements and praised our grades and academic excellence. She did anything she could to give us the things we wanted despite our poverty. She would march into record stores and ask if she could have their promotional posters or materials for my favorite rock band because I was too shy to do so and so delighted to have those types of special items that no one else, regardless of the money they had, could have. She made sure I had a car at an early age, and taught me how to drive. She played card games with me and taught me to play well. My mother, before she reached her current broken state due to her health problems, blindness and relative social isolation, could be a charismatic force and often showed incredible kindness. She loves people and wants to be around them. She needs it, and has suffered for the lack of this sort of contact.

I forgave my mother for all of the damage she did to me a very long time ago. I still talk about it here because it is part of my therapeutic process. Sometimes, I even remark on it with irony or sarcasm, but there's no anger there. Mostly, I feel sorry that her life has been so incredibly hard and I have infinite compassion and empathy for what she has gone through. I just wanted her to be human and represent her in the proper context to people who follow my blog. She deserves that much, and more.

Note: I don't put a picture of my parents on this post because I have no regard for their privacy. The truth is that no one who would recognize them at that age is still alive, or at the very least, not trolling the Internet. There are only a few people who would recognize the picture of them in their late teens at all. One is my sister and the other are my mother's surviving siblings who are all computer illiterate. The truth is that using the picture puts my identity at risk as much as hers since I would be known as her daughter by anyone who recognized the picture.

I put the picture there because I want to show that my mother was once this young, fresh, happy person who had just married the man of her dreams and clearly had high hopes for her future. Her smile shows who she was and who she had the potential to be had life not completely dealt her one of the worst possible hands. There was no way the woman in that picture knew what was to come, and it makes me (literally) cry to think of all the dreams and quite reasonable needs she deserved to have fulfilled that were dashed by fate.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I no longer scream (for ice cream)

One of my friends on FaceBook wrote a status update today which essentially said, 'ice cream fixes everything'. Most people probably smiled at that and recognized the power of a small pleasure to lift ones spirit after a bad day. I felt a little melancholy.

Though I have largely conditioned myself not to turn to food for comfort, I still remember how comforting it can be and sometimes grow somewhat nostalgic for the days when food worked its miracles on my emotional state. There were days when I'd be so depressed and dispirited and my husband would go out and buy me a pint of ice cream and I'd eat the whole thing and feel better. It wasn't simply the taste and the fatty goodness of it all, it was also the indulgence. It was doing something that was all about giving me exactly what I wanted when I "needed" it. It was a pleasure that was intensely personal, deeply gratifying, and cost very little in my estimation at the time. After all, I was already fat, so what was getting a little fatter in the service of medicating my mood?

I imagine that this feeling contributes in large part to the relapses that people who quit smoking, drinking or doing drugs have. They may work long and hard to get over their addictions and stay free of their vices for years only to suddenly get hooked again. People wonder why this happens and shake their heads thinking that it's puzzling how someone can "choose" to return to behavior which was so destructive after experiencing what they imagine to be years free of their addictions.

I think I can empathize with those who invite the monkey back onto their backs. Just because the grip food has on me has been weakened such that I can break free almost all of the time doesn't mean I don't remember how pleasing it was at times to be safely in its grasp. I don't long for food, but I do desire what it once gave me.

I realize that this was all an illusion as the food, just like drugs, didn't solve anything. I also knew then and know now that eating to medicate my pain was physically destructive. The thing that wasn't an illusion was that food improved my emotional state. A lot of people lie to themselves in the service of sticking to their food plans or diets and say, "food was the cause of my problem, not the solution." These are the same people who think being thin will transform their lives. Many of my problems were caused by food, but just as many were simply the sort of difficulties every single person in a developed nation deals with all of the time. I had more or different problems related to weight, but there was plenty of pain in my life even without incorporating the weight-related suffering.

I'm not going to go back to medicating my emotional difficulties with food, but I'm also not going to pretend that it didn't work a sort of "magic" on me that nothing else will ever accomplish. The only thing that even comes close to having the same mental transformative properties as food is my husband, and try as he might, he cannot and should not be a palliative for my emotional suffering. He does his best, but he can't be there every moment, nor do I expect him to. I have to just learn to live with the pain and depression when it washes over me. I have to grit my teeth and bear it, because I'm guessing that's what most people who aren't medicating themselves with food, drink, drugs or sex are doing.

Eating well and in moderation makes my body feel better, but it doesn't do anything for my emotional turmoil. Exercising improves my stamina and strength and it even helps me relieve stress and anxiety at times, but it doesn't do what food used to do when it comes to lifting me from depression or allowing me to get away from myself mentally when I'm in distress. There was an almost sublime pleasure in immersing myself in food when I was in pain, and I will likely never forget that. I don't think I should, nor do I think I should try to convince myself that it wasn't a good feeling. It was.

No amount of prattling about 'nothing tasting as good as thin feels' is going to convince me otherwise. Trust me when I say that, for me, nothing tasted as good as food when I was depressed. I miss what food used to do for me, but not enough to overlook what it did to my body. I may want to feel what I used to feel when a pint of ice cream made me happy, but not enough to go back.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Another Word for "Blame"

Several weeks ago, I was returning from an errand which I dutifully walked to instead of riding a bicycle so that I could get some extra exercise in. About a minute before I got home, I caught the tip of my sandal on some rough and uneven pavement and fell hard. My palms were scraped badly and bloody. My knees were scratched up and sporting large black and blue marks. I cut my forehead and chin and my nose was bleeding inside and bruised outside. My glasses were broken.

If someone said that this fall was my fault, how would that sound? I chose to walk instead of ride a bike. I chose to walk over that particular area of the sidewalk. I chose the shoes I wore. I chose to live in the city I live in. I chose to wear shorts so my knees were exposed and I wasn't wearing gloves or a face mask to protect myself. I chose to wear glasses instead of contact lenses which would not have been broken. Is it fair to say that it is my fault that I fell and got hurt so much because of my choices?

I offer this story not only because it is true, but as an imperfect analogy for something which troubles me, and that is the use of the word "responsibility" when it comes to weight loss. I call this imperfect because it is a backwards situation compared to the real thing that I want to discuss. However, what I want my dear readers to focus on is the fact that there was an unforeseen or unpredictable outcome to a sequence of choices that were made. No one would say I was responsible for my fall due to those choices. It came upon me, and those choices did affect the outcome, but does that make it my "fault"?

I read a lot of people talk about "taking responsibility" for their weight, and on the surface, that is certainly a mature and agreeable sounding thing. However, I would say that this is looking at the moment one has tripped rather than all of the things that lead up to the problem. Though it can be said that we "choose" to eat whatever we eat, this is a very simplistic manner in which to view people's relationships with food. There are a great many choices that we didn't have which lead up to the moments we chose to overeat. I cannot speak for others, but (among other things) I didn't choose:
  • To grow up with a mother who overfed me on high fat and white carbohydrates.
  • To grow up with a completely distorted understanding of portion sizes and nutrition and therefore to view it as the norm.
  • To be tormented by my peers out of the joys of sports and exercise.
  • To grow up poor and exposed to very little in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • To be given food instead of love because neither of my parents were comfortable with their positive emotions.
  • To be tortured by my peers such that comfort came from something destructive.
  • To be in this body that was built by my parents' choices and income rather than a healthy one with better biological responses.
  • I didn't choose to grow up around emotionally volatile people, one of whom was an alcoholic and role-modeled addictive behavior.
  • I didn't choose to be biologically prone to addictive behavior or obesity (everyone in my family is very overweight).
  • I didn't choose to be verbally abused if my behavior was not perfect and therefore susceptible to certain limited options for coping with what was happening to me before I was an adult.

Just as I did not know that I was going to fall when I took that step, I did not know that there were a multitude of issues leading up to my food habits. I couldn't choose them both because I was not in control of my life during my formative years and because I didn't know that an eating disorder would be the outcome of the things that happened in my life.

Up until this past year, I knew my problems and I knew some of the reasons, but I didn't know how to fix them. I knew I ate too much. I knew I was fat. I didn't know how to stop myself because the truth was until I understood a great many things, I couldn't make a choice. Responsibility requires control. It requires the ability to make a choice. I had none. I couldn't stop overeating anymore than I could make it rain of my own volition up until I gained some insight. It was like I had two ends of a rope that I had to tie together to start solving my problem, but they didn't quite meet and I had no idea how to bring them together.

People who talk about being "responsible" for what you eat act as though the moment that you place the food in your mouth is a choice in isolation. It is not. That moment is shaped by all of the things that came before which you couldn't control. People who use the word "responsibility" in this way are not interested in anything other than judgment and blame. They bully themselves into better eating habits and want to bully you, too. Their motive isn't to be nasty or unkind. They don't have insight into themselves and think this is what will "work" for them, and they can "motivate" others by pushing them similarly. In the end, this "works" for some people, but more than a handful of them come out the other side rather angry, bitter, and rigid because, while they have managed to pen up their hungry horses, they're still attacking the stall trying to get out and run free.

The bottom line is that we can change, and we can "take responsibility" for what we eat, but we can't if we ignore all of the things that we didn't choose which lead up to our food habits. If we only attempt to deal with the moment of the fall rather than the events that lead up to it, we're doomed to fall again and again. Pushing people or trying to make them feel bad because they can't stop eating certain foods does not help them. It's not about shoving responsibility on them so that they can be "blamed" for being fat, it's about understanding. Only after we understand can we gain the power to have a choice rather than have it made for us by every circumstance that lead up to it.

It's my belief that everyone who has an issue with overeating which they struggle to conquer is to some degree like a puppet on strings. Some of them are tethered to their problems with just a few fragile sewing threads which they can tug at and break free. Some of us, however, are attached with a multitude of steel cables that we struggle with very hard to break free of. Some people can't break free no matter how hard they try. The past is our puppet master, and no amount of talk about "responsibility" is going to change that. Changing that requires insight and a difficult (and perhaps long) therapeutic process.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

(Another) Progress Report Quasi-Pep Talk

I haven't been doing these very often because my thoughts don't tend to turn to physical progress as often as they once did. I tend to be more focused on mental progress since that feels more meaningful to me. It's not that the physical progress isn't important. It's actually very important, but one leads to the other and the mental changes have had a more profound effect on my overall quality of life at this point.

I have mentioned before that my weight loss feels like a Russian doll effect. I am getting smaller, but my shape is generally the same. This is sometimes discouraging because my lower body is so disproportionate relative to my upper body and I wish my belly and behind would shrink more visibly.

Part of what has persuaded me to make this post is that I think my stomach finally is changing. The reason that I'm so keen on my stomach changing is that it is such a focal point for unwanted attention from strangers and even business acquaintances. Sometimes I'm sitting across from a person I deal with in my work, and their eyes drift down and gawk at my belly. Sometimes their eyes dart down to it repeatedly. It makes me very self-conscious that people break eye contact during conversations to look at my stomach, and they are in a "client" position so I can't really call them on it.

Here is the progress I have noticed:

  • The old chair with arms which has been my measuring stick for so long continues to offer feedback. When I started, I squeezed into it with difficulty, couldn't use the armrests, etc. Now, I can sit in it comfortably and can fit one of my arms between my body and the chair's arms.
  • The shape of my hips and lower body has changed because my stomach is finally starting so show some "lift". It still hangs down plenty, but it's definitely getting visibly smaller.
  • I can see more of my upper thighs than I have seen in years, both on the sides and at the top. I may actually be developing a bit of a lap.
  • My breasts are getting smaller. Since I'm a "D" cup now and would like to be back to a "C" (my smallest bra size as an adult), that makes me happy.
  • Veins are starting to show on the sides of my wrists and my forearms are pretty much "normal" looking and not fat at all. My upper arms are another story, but I don't think I'll ever be rid of batwings, and I'm not really too preoccupied with that.
  • My collar bones are visible and my shoulders are taking on definition.
  • My upper calves are noticeably smaller. My upper calves have always been huge, even when I wasn't all that overweight. At my highest weight, they were like volley balls attached to the base of my knee. They're still big, but not nearly as big as before.
  • My double-chin continues to shrink at a slow rate, though it is still a little wrinkly which I'm not a fan of.
  • I can feel that there is less fat in my cheeks because the space where the creases leading to my nose is bigger. It's easier to clean pores at the sides of my nose now.
  • I notice that it is easier to sit with my legs together and that when I sit in our tiny (very tiny) toilet, I don't need to use the entire space to spread my legs apart when going to the bathroom.
  • Post bathing powdering of parts of my body that rub together requires less powder. There's less "acreage" to cover.
  • When I shower, I notice that my belly button isn't as "deep" when I clean it. Also, when I sit with my hands resting on my stomach, I notice that my belly button is higher.
  • It's easier to touch type because my stomach isn't getting in the way as much.
  • I use an armless chair, and I used to take up the entire space and possibly hang over the sides a bit. Now, there is a little room on the sides.
  • I negotiate narrow spaces in shops more easily and feel less inhibited about trying to squeeze into them. There was a shop I had been wanting to go into for some time, but the layout was very narrow (keep in mind, I'm in an urban area where the shops are smaller and shopkeepers try to maximize stock space by making narrow aisles). I avoided going in because I didn't want to be knocking things over or totally blocking the aisle such that others couldn't pass by. I finally went into that shop, and everything was okay.
I'm still not incredibly confident about my ability to go out and just do anything. I still don't think I can fit into theater seats, restaurant chairs, or negotiate any space at my current body size. I also wouldn't go on an airplane right now. If I were less pear-shaped, this might not be an issue, but my lower body is just too big.

Last time I weighed myself (not too terribly recently, but not too long ago either), I weighed 249 lbs. It's interesting to consider all of the possible perspectives on this. I started around 380 lbs. by my rough calculations. That means I've lost 35% of my body's weight at its highest point and am roughly 2/3 the size I once was.

I'm also currently only about 19 lbs. heavier than my husband's highest recorded weight. That's probably the smallest difference between his and my weight ever as I have always out-weighed him, though it's important to note that I'm still 50 lbs. heavier than his current weight as he has been losing weight over the past several months as well. It would be nice to one day not be heavier than my husband, though the truth is that our body frames and sizes are roughly similar. His feet and hands are almost the same size as mine, though he is 5 inches taller than me. His frame is on the smaller side, and mine is on the bigger side.

I once talked about the percentages in a post and how each pound lost becomes more meaningful than the last because the ratios keep getting "better". That is, losing 1/380th of my weight is smaller than 1/249th of my weight. Each pound is more meaningful than the last. However, I'm still more interested in mental progress because I feel that on a daily basis, it really has been more profound. Each pound still is not something that I can see as an external change on a daily basis, but I can feel the lack of obsession with food and the lack of struggle on the inside every single day.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Look Inside My Pantry

Would you like to take a look in my food stores? Let's start with the freezer, shall we? If you dig through the huge mess that is my freezer, you would find:
  • 2 lbs. of premium candy (butterscotch squares, molasses chips, buttercreams)
  • 6-8 Reese's miniature peanut butter cups
  • some banana slices
  • flour tortillas
  • 5 or 6 muffins (low-fat, sugar-free, whole wheat)
  • homemade whole wheat and high protein bread
  • frozen white rice
  • steaks
  • pork sausage (very fatty)
  • bacon
  • blueberries
  • peanut butter cookie dough
  • a couple of orange-glazed donuts
  • a bag of mint and chocolate chips
  • a French roll
  • prepared taco meat
  • a couple of chicken thighs

Would you like to look in my refrigerator?
  • full-fat cheese
  • ice tea
  • full-fat and low-fat milk
  • whole cream
  • butter and margarine
  • a small carrot
  • one and a half avocadoes
  • a small tomato
  • about a cup of tomato soup (homemade)
  • 8 eggs
  • about 8 candy bars of various types
  • German marzipan candies
  • a quarter package of M & M's
  • salsa
  • coffee beans
  • apricot jam
  • about 3 rings of fresh pineapple
  • a bunch of condiments including mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and soy sauce and about 2 dozen jars of spices
  • 2 tiny clementines
  • a sliced apple and ham sandwich for my husband's lunch
  • diet sodas and filtered water
  • Spanish olives, baby dill pickles
  • full fat Caesar salad dressing

Now, finally, would you like to check my cupboards?
  • 10 boxes of Fig Newtons
  • 8 boxes of strawberry newton-style cookies
  • sundry cookies of various types
  • loads of tea
  • 10 boxes of Triscuits
  • a box of citrus cookies
  • sugar-free hot cocoa
  • white glutinous rice
  • whole wheat flour, granular Splenda, sugar, brown sugar, salt, cocoa, wheat gluten, and other sundry items for baking
  • a huge quantity of mini-pretzels and a small box of flavored ones
  • a bag of cheese-flavored corn snack
  • 3-4 boxes of York mint wafer bars
  • Splenda packets
  • 4 bottles of Rum, 2 bottles of Kahlua, a bottle of whiskey, beer
  • a ton of diet soda including ginger ale, Coke Zero, and grape Fanta
  • the remains of a giant bag of Ruffles chips
  • a huge box of Cheerios and a dusty box of off-brand raisin bran
  • oatmeal
  • canned pumpkin, refried beans, one can of kidney beans
  • spaghetti sauce
  • a jar of dulce de leche sauce
  • jars of jam, olives, pickles, more coffee beans, a bottle of full fat Caesar salad dressing
  • rice crackers
  • 3 jars of cashews
  • a huge jar of regular Skippy peanut butter
  • a giant bag of butter and garlic croutons
  • two bags of licorice discs
Why am I sharing this information with you? I want you to think about what reading a list of the food someone has around makes you think about that person's eating habits and lifestyle. What kind of conclusions would you reach based on this list of food? Does it reveal anything about my eating habits? Of course, it does, but not what most people might think at first.

What if I told you that the reason there are so few fruits and vegetables on hand is because they always get eaten up and new ones have to constantly be purchased. What if I told you that there are so many candies and cookies around because it is taking a very, very long time to slowly eat them in a controlled manner?

What if I told you that this is the kitchen and food supply of a person who is still fat but has so far lost 130 lbs. and has absolutely no desire to binge on the ample amounts of goodies? What if I told you that the amount of junk on hand isn't a reflection of my lifestyle to any extent except that it shows how much self-control I've developed? It is this control which keeps my kitchen full of crap food, not a lack of it.

There is a test for delayed gratification that was done on children by a researcher named Walter Mischel. This test is commonly referred to as "The Marshmallow Experiment". The way it worked was that the researcher would put a few treats in front of a child and say that if he wanted to, he could eat them now, but if he waited, he could have the whole bag. Some children would gobble down the marshmallows. Fewer would wait. This experiment followed these children throughout their lives and indicated that those who did not eat the marshmallows but rather waited for the bigger reward had greater success in later life. In other words, the ability to delay gratification reflected or indicated the ability to make better decisions in all areas of one's life, not just in terms of food.

The experiment showed that those who learn to not act impulsively for short-term gains in one area of their lives are served by that capability. While the experiment may have indicated this is inherent, I personally believe it is something which can be learned through behavioral conditioning. It's something which I taught myself, even at the ripe old age of 45. It's the reason I'm blithely writing about my house being full of candy and saying it doesn't matter instead of complaining that I'm surrounded by temptation and believe it's my husband's job to save me from myself by removing all of the treats.

I want to encourage anyone who feels they cannot master their desires in regards to food to reevaluate their conclusions. I'm not saying that it is of value because one merely should learn to resist highly caloric food so it can be stored around their house, but rather because it will help you in all areas of your life if you do this. It will aid in all of your decision-making processes and promote control in all aspects of your life in which immediate gratification tends to be the short-sighted goal. Rather than avoid temptation, learn to resist it. Your entire life will reflect this capacity, not just your eating.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Even in 1969

I just watched the most interesting Canadian documentary produced in 1969. It's called "A Matter of Fat", and can be viewed (for free) on-line by anyone who is interested. The movie is about a the efforts to lose weight by a man who weighed around 350 lbs. as well as about the state of understanding of weight loss at that time. It also covers the attitudes and perceptions of fat people by those who have never suffered from a weight problem.

When I discovered this movie, I expected it to be full of quaint, almost comical observations and theories about how to lose weight and what caused people to become fat. The shocking thing was that everything in this movie is very close to what is talked about and believed today. If you set aside the fashions, the cheesy music and tone of the narration, and the overt nature of the diet pill scam industry, it's all pretty much as valid today as it was then.

For me, the interesting thing is that there was research into several things which I have come to believe. One point was about how people who are overweight don't know when and how much to eat and that they cannot interpret bodily cues. I have written several times that I believe my ability to know how much to eat is completely broken, so I think I'll have to monitor what and how much I eat forever. The research portrayed in this old movie validates that notion from both a biological and psychological viewpoint.

The other thing which the movie postulates which many people believe is true, but it often rejected by normal weight people is that some people will gain weight on very few calories relative to average people of their height and weight. The man who is featured in the movie is told that he may have to eat as few as 1200 calories per day for the rest of his life to maintain a normal body weight. Of course, he undergoes medical starvation as a means to lose a lot of weight, so it is possible that his metabolism by the end of the process has been damaged and could rebound. That being said, it is clear that the idea that you can eat a lot less than average people of your height and still gain weight was known over 40 years ago, yet it is rejected in this day and age.

The main difference between this movie and the way information about weight is talked about today is that the tone actually seems more compassionate. While some judgmental and self-serving commentary is on offer, the overall theme is one of understanding that fat people suffer challenges that thin people do not. They do not struggle with the same problems that we do, and therefore it is completely wrong to talk about how thin people hold their hunger in check, exercise willpower, or work hard to remain trim while the overweight give in to temptation and are weak.

Though sometimes my writing about these topics makes it seem as though our lot is hopeless, I choose not to view it that way. I think by understanding that our challenge is greater and knowing the source of those difficulties, we can find the power and the planning to overcome them. As long as we stop thinking we're like everyone else but somehow fail, we easily fall into a pattern of thinking we're inferior. We're not. We're just different and require a harsher lifestyle if we want to be at lower weights.

Monday, August 2, 2010


This morning I was doing some preparation for work later in the day and tomorrow and I was thinking about the tension associated with the task that needed to be done. I always feel the burden of the pressure to accomplish the work before the appointed time and complete the work well in advance. When the preparation is done, I feel satisfied and I'm relieved when the tension dissipates.

I was thinking about my tendency to grow more tense than my husband when there is preparation or work to be completed and how I can't really relax and settle into my routine work or enjoy myself as long as the need to be prepared is hanging over my head. Many people procrastinate and are unfettered by the need to prepare or accomplish certain tasks lurking in the background. For me, it almost spoils my ability to enjoy the moments that come before and it certainly interferes with relaxation.

This tendency to act when there is this sense of tension that something needs to be done has served me quite well throughout much of my life. It encouraged good study habits in school. It means my housework rarely remains undone. It ensures that I am ready early and am never late barring some unforeseen and uncontrollable situation. It helps me regularly prepare healthy food and make sure it is always on hand. This tension helps me overcome inertia and consistently accomplish tasks that many would put off.

This sense of tension is something which used to be much stronger for me in the past. I've actively made an effort to mellow out about such things, but not with complete success. I have wanted to blunt it to some extent because this sense of immediacy does not always serve me well. When there is a problem, I want it resolved. I want to act now to make the tension go away, and sometimes there is nothing I can do to change the circumstances. I just need to be patient. This tension also causes me to push myself sometimes when I really should relax. I can be exhausted, but still force myself to do what is necessary because of this coiled spring in me that will not release its energy and take the pressure off until I perform the tasks.

This great sense of urgency about everything and the feeling that all things had to be handled immediately may be a core character trait of mine. It could be something wired into my code that was inevitable, but I'm not certain of that. The fact that I have settled down a lot after years with an exceptionally calm and mellow husband would seem to show that it is something I was role-modeled rather than something which is in my genes. At the very least, it is a tendency that can be sharpened or blunted by environmental circumstances.

I grew up with a mother who wanted what she wanted yesterday, if not sooner. She was very demanding and quick to emotional outbursts and verbal abuse any time the smallest thing didn't go her way. I'm sure that she meant no harm and was lacking the self-awareness to even realize what she was doing, but I'm also certain that she fueled this tension in me. I may have inherited a desire for immediacy and resolution from her in a quantity that was equivalent to a small sapling, but she ensured that it grew into a Sequoia-size tree in my character. Her punishing responses when things were not done ensured that I would feel stress about not getting those things accomplished as quickly as possible.

I was thinking about this today and it occurred to me that this need to act on this tension may have been something which fed into my issues with food. Instead of having patience when I was hungry, it was just another form of internal tension to be acted upon so that I could move on. The discomfort of hunger can be quite acute and stressful. I was so accustomed to acting to purge tension immediately that I can see a character parallel between my need to get work done and get that physical discomfort I feel from a pending task out of my body and the need to eat when hungry to get the uncomfortable feeling out of me.

In the case of food, it was just another need, another pull, another source of stress and tension that I wanted to just be gone. Every time I felt a little hungry, I ate. I did this just as every time I had a little job to do, I did it. In years past, I often felt I was not "ready" to deal with dieting or losing weight, and I think this aspect is a huge part of that though I didn't realize it at the time. Not eating when I was hungry would mean living with that tension everyday, multiple times a day and not acting on it. I couldn't do it when my life was too stressful otherwise. I simply did not have the emotional strength to endure it. I couldn't do it, but only now do I understand why.

In gaining this understanding, I think I have insight to work with the core issue. It isn't the food. It's this need to act on the tension. Learning to endure internal tension and not act on it will have the effect of making me eat less overall as I won't eat when marginally hungry. Doing hunger conditioning has "repaired" this to some extent, but understanding the root will help ensure that it doesn't get re-broken.

This sort of intolerance of tension or stress is something which I think I didn't really recognize for what it was until today when I was relieved to get my work out of the way and be able to do other things. In the past, I saw this behavior mainly as a positive thing because of the way it propelled me to get things done. Now, I think it may have had a negative side where it has propelled me to also overeat. It's by no means the entire puzzle of my disordered relationship with food, but it is another missing piece that I have found.