Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Not About How Badly You "Want" It (part 3)

part 1 is here
part 2 is here

Last night, I was talking to my husband about how I was feeling regarding my sister's circumstances, which are inextricably linked to her weight. Because of a slip of the tongue, he said that she couldn't change because she didn't "want" it badly enough. As is so often the case, we sometimes over-simplify what we mean to say with words that distort what we really mean. Even though it wasn't what he meant, it did get me thinking about how we often talk about how people have to "want" something badly enough to start taking action toward change.

A lot of people talk about "wanting" it enough to change when it comes to weight loss. I'm here to say that every fat person in the world "wants" to change. Most very desperately would like to lose weight, but "wanting" something is not the same as being able to acquire it. This is a critical mistake that people make when they either fail or decide not to even make the attempt or when they see others doing so. The reason that this is so important to distinguish from "want" is that not knowing the real cause leaves people feeling as though their motivation is what is missing rather than what is really the issue.

I discussed my sister's situation in the other parts of this sequence and I know that she would like to lose weight and speculated that she probably has secretly tried on occasion and failed. I know that I tried and failed on a small level so many times that I ultimately decided that it was inevitable that I would always weigh well over 300 lbs. Here is how it works:

You are at the bottom of a deep dark well and would like to get out. You search around for places where you can grasp the wall and start climbing out. Occasionally, you see a depression or a jutting rock and you grab at it and try to haul yourself out. Sometimes, it isn't deep enough and you can't get enough of a hold to pull your body up. At others, the rock crumbles in your hand. Sometimes, you can get a good grip and start lifting yourself out and make a little progress then you slip and fall back down again. After each effort, you find yourself back at the bottom in a sense of deep frustration and anguish. Sometimes when you fall back down, the ground gives way and you're in even deeper.

After some time has passed, you've got years of attempts under your belt. You're now an expert at recognizing what will not work. You've tried to use that stone over there or that depression here dozens of times in conjunction with other strategies and every time you have been unable to get out of the well. You are expert at what isn't going to work because you've tried and failed so many times. After awhile, you simply see no point in trying. You still want out of the well very, very badly, but can see no way to escape. Attempts to try just increase your sense of hopelessness. It's easier to simply stop thinking about escape and make the best of where you are. This includes no longer trying to get out because the failure only reminds you of how trapped and helpless you are.

This is the story of a fat person. What you "want" has  nothing to do with it. Fat people want to be thinner. They simply cannot find a way out and many eventually stop looking. This analogy fails to impress thin people or successful losers of weight because they were never stuck in that well or the one they were in was one they personally could climb out of. Each "well" is mental and unique. The sides are steeper, smoother, etc. based on the life experiences and personality of each person. Judging others by their inability to escape simply because you could get out is an act of rampant narcissism and a need to elevate oneself above others. It's just not that simple. It's very complicated.

For me, I spent nearly two decades not only sliding down to the bottom of that well, but watching the ground open up under me and swallow me a little deeper each year. From 1989 to 2009, I not only could not find a way to lose weight, but steadily gained despite wanting to lose. In 2009, the thing that changed was my strategy. Being expert at what had never worked (rigidity, exercising a lot, "dieting"), I decided that this time it had to be very, very different if I wanted to escape. This time, I had to try tactics that were atypical because "typical" tactics didn't work for me.

This time, I ate chocolate. This time, I put no food out of bounds. This time, I focused on portions over food types. This time, I didn't castigate myself for eating certain foods or for eating "too much". This time, I wouldn't worry about how fast I lost as long as I was moving in a behavioral and cognitive direction which I felt was "right" for my future. This time, I was going to work hard on my psychological issues with food rather than view it all as simplistic "choices" divorced from my psyche. This time, I wasn't going to assign value judgments to how and what I ate and I was going to focus on eating "normal" rather than "healthy" or "perfect". This time, I wasn't going to hate myself thin.  This time, I was going to tunnel sideways using a spoon rather than try and just climb straight up. And, this time, it worked... for me.

The problem is that what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for others. That being said, I think that we can see that the "tried and true" methods do not work for many people in the long run. It is unsustainable to live the path of righteous eating and rigid control for most folks. I can't say that I'm thin (yet, and may never be), but I can say that I've done this for two years and two months now and it isn't an obsession and I don't feel trapped. I absolutely do not feel like what I'm doing is a burden anymore and can happily say I'm good to live this way forever. It's amazing how not denying yourself anything makes it easier. Of course, reframing food mentally in the fashion I have done is far from "easy". I had to learn to be satisfied with one cookie, a few bites of chocolate, or a small handful of pretzels, but the mind can be tuned to be satisfied with less once the psychological issues that compel us to "need" more are dealt with.

In my sister's case, the well she's in is deeper, darker and more intimidating than the one I was in. I like to believe that, if I were there with her, I could help her the same way I have helped myself. Deep down though, I think that's ego speaking. I think the only thing I could do for her is share my cooking and role model my eating patterns to her and she could then attempt to emulate them or not. I think the psychology of her relationship with food is too deep and hidden for anyone to access, including her, and I don't know that that aspect is something she has the capacity to address emotionally. And I understand that completely. It's painful, scary, and harder than most people can possibly imagine. And, what is more, except for the part of me that wants her to have a higher quality of life, less fear, and better health, I don't care. I love my sister no matter what and know that she's an intelligent, kind, caring, and worthwhile person. I just wish that she could have the type of life she deserves and weren't so much a prisoner of the body she's in that she will be denied the type of life a truly good person deserves.