Friday, December 9, 2011

How Soon We Forget

This morning I was walking to the local subway station with my husband and mentioning to him that two and a half years ago, such a thing was impossible for me to do without excruciating back pain and frequent stops to rest. This walk is approximately 8 minutes long at a reasonable pace, but I couldn't have managed it in 2009. Even in 2010, there were doubts about my long-term ability to walk without the threat of pain and I still had backaches in the morning when I woke up.

Though I spent about 20 years in great distress with my back which limited or eliminated my ability to walk, I now take for granted that I have back-pain-free mobility. The strange thing is that I've been in this condition for a short time, but have already blocked out the longer reality of my life. While I don't believe that it's useful to dwell on the difficulties of my past, I believe it is important not to forget what it is like to be so fat that basic locomotion is fraught with pain and difficulty. This isn't important to stop me from regaining the weight I lost as the psychological issues will prevent that from happening. It is, however, essential if I'm to retain empathy for those who still live in shoes very much like those I once dwelt in.

Recently my husband had his own experience with "forgetting" or at least failing to apply empathy to someone overweight when he has had ample experience to draw upon. Despite years of living without going to restaurants, being unable to shop with me, and having to do things in a particular way to accommodate my size, he failed to consider the problems of an overweight colleague at his volunteer work and may have inadvertently contributed to some stress for her. 

A somewhat large group of these volunteers were pondering how to get from point A to point B and a suggestion was made that they split a couple of cabs. There were 8 of them, so they could split two quite cheaply between them by piling 3 in the back and one up front with the driver in each of two cabs. My husband did the math and said taking a taxi sounded like a good idea rather than hiking the distance in the cold weather. The overweight colleague, who he reckons may be in the 300-lb. weight range, said that a walk sounded good. In the end, they all walked, but my husband was metaphorically kicking himself for not "getting it" as he believed he "should have known better".

This situation illustrated the inner turmoil and strife of the fat person very well. It also showed how hard it is for people who have never been that large to conceptualize the world in the same manner as a very overweight person. While this woman would have probably been fine in the cab as long as she could sit in the front with the driver, the situation is still rife with uncertainty and potential embarrassment. I'm sure she was nervously pondering the potential outcomes as the situation played itself out.

If one boisterous person playfully calls "shotgun", she is put in a position of competing for the front seat without drawing overt attention to her actual  need for that space or cramming into the back seat with two other people. Having to do either of these is humiliating because either would reveal her status as the person too big to fit and therefore either requiring the special accommodation or making others potentially uncomfortable with her size. There's also the possibility that, even if she sat up front, the seat position would have been too far up and then she would have to cram in or adjust the seat such that she obviously took away leg room for her compatriots behind her. And finally, even if the others recognized her need for the front seat, knowing they were acknowledging her weight (or guessing that that was the case) is still embarrassing. 

I felt for this woman when my husband told me this story because I've lived in that headspace nearly all of my adult life. I also felt for my husband who kicked himself a bit for not being more sensitive to her needs despite his years of experience with me. If I have already allowed the limits of my primarily limited life due to my weight to slip away, how could he be expected to keep them front and center?