Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A rambling, melodramatic, largely unedited, possibly adolescent (yet sincere) rant you should read if you are a friend

There are people in my life - people I care about, and people who care about me - who find me disgusting. This knowledge brings me strength.

I had a quiet, powerful moment the other morning. I drove into my work's parking lot, parked, cut the engine, and thought, I don't like the way I look. And I don't feel good. I should lose weight.

Just like that. I don't think I usually think like that; in Stephen-Kingy italicized sentences. I don't know that my thoughts usually form actual words. But this time they did.

I don't like the way I look. And I don't feel good. I should lose weight.

I weigh close to 360 pounds. I'm 38 years old. I have been fat for as long as I can remember; which is to say that for as long as I remember, I remember myself fat. Pictures reveal otherwise. It is kind of a dark miracle, and really if I manage to remove my emotions from the situation, it is almost life-affirming. I spent a long time thinking I was fat; and not just fat, but huge. I thought it so long, I made it true. Imagine if I had thought something else.

This is what I thought the other morning:

I don't like the way I look. And I don't feel good. I should lose weight.

And what was powerful about it was that for the first time in my life, I attached no judgment to those three simple truths. I did not think less of myself because of the way I look, because of the way I felt, or because I should lose weight. I simply acknowledged the truth of all three things.

The reason it was a first for me is simple. Therapy and drugs. I was recently prescribed an antidepressant, and one of the results is that a whole chorus of voices I never even knew were there have been bound, gagged, bagged, and tossed into the river. Not real voices, but just thoughts. Doubts, hang-ups, self-defeating debris. Whoever Trent Reznor was screaming about in "Mr. Self-Destruct" has been locked away. For the first time, I have just the barest inkling of what it would be like to be Bruce Banner in one of his precious calm moments, when he prays it doesn't happen again and he can just stay himself for a while.

I cannot and will not at any point in this (rant/confessional/essay/whatever) presume to be Ambassador of Fatdom. I can only say what is true for me. But it is tough to imagine that there aren't a lot of people out there who will be able to relate.

I am sure you have seen many films or tv shows, or even read books, about some poor fat kid who weathers a hurricane of insults and used that anger to turn himself around. He lost his weight and got the girl and wasn't everybody so impressed by him? And so yeah all those guys who beat him up and made fun of him were mean, but in the end, they kind of helped didn't they? He turned a lemon into lemonade! If you believe the wisdom of your favorite sitcoms offer valid life lessons, then I'm sorry someone is clearly forcing you to read something with way more syllables than you're used to.

One thing that is true for me, and which I imagine is true for most people struggling with their weight, is that negative reinforcement does not work. Never. No zit-pocked jock in my Christian/military high school ever helped me by calling me any number of embarrassing names I could list to you without blinking. No teacher or coach ever did anything with their snide remarks but keep the shit shoveling into my mouth that much faster.

Imagine, for example, exercise when you're 360 pounds. What must you look like? What must the people around you think of you?

I experienced this every day. I walk on a track on the ground floor of my office building every week day during lunch. The imagined thoughts of other walkers and onlookers usually crowd my head. Are they laughing at me? Do they think I'm gross? Are they thinking "Pfft, it's about time"? Are they thinking "Oh God, why can't those people just do it at home"? When I pass a group of walkers are they laughing about how I look from  behind? Do they think I only passed them because I'm trying too hard? Do they think I'm only walking this fast to impress them? Do those women think I'm trying to impress them?

I once suffered chest pains from acid reflux. But at the time I didn't know it was reflux, so I was given a stress test. While I jogged on a treadmill, I saw the doctor motion angrily at the nurse to leave the room. The nurse had been giggling while watching me jogging. Unfortunately, there's no hell. But hopefully, somewhere between then and now, someone punched her.

The day I experienced my powerful moment in the parking lot, my lunch walk brought no worries or concerns about the people around me. Just my music, my footfalls, and my breathing. The phantom thoughts of everyone else finally became just phantoms. I felt like I'd been sitting in front of a giant wind turbine that was finally switched off. I felt like Noriega must have when they finally hit pause on the Def Leppard. I wiped my face once with my sleeve and brought away water that wasn't just sweat.

I worked at a local NPR affiliate for over seven years. I was laid off last August. One of my least favorite parts of the job were the shows about nutrition; the call-in shows in particular. There are many self-righteous nutritional shows on NPR, and when we hosted call-in shows it was an invitation for every asshole in 7 states with a co-op membership and an energy efficient car to call in and drone about how healthy they were and, more importantly, how unhealthy everyone else was. The president of the station, who hosted most of these shows, was (and probably still is) notoriously self-righteous and insulting on the subject. He regularly called fat people "fatties." It was related to me that he was very impressed with me during a period when I successfully lost 80 pounds.

There were a lot of reasons for my lay-off. It was part of a larger series of cuts. At least one person in every department was laid off. But there isn't a silver tongue in the universe that will ever convince me that the fact that I eventually gained some of my weight back didn't have something to do with the fact that I was the only one chosen for the cut in my department.

Today, a friend (and he is a friend, and I certainly hope he remains so after this) posted  a link to a story about an increase in obesity across the country. Accompanying the link, he posted the following:

"I try not to get up on a soapbox on Facebook, but stories like this really get me agitated. At the rate we're going, in twenty years' time over half the population of America will be obese. Note the end of the first sentence of this article: "not merely overweight, but obese." In a healthy population, obesity should effect less than 10% of the total population. What the hell is going on?? Can you imagine the outrage if someone predicted that over half of Americans would be living below the poverty level by 2030? Or, better still if 50% of us were going to be homeless in 20 years. What if 50% of us would have cancer? Why are we all so complacent about a PREVENTABLE condition? This is to the point where we can't blame genetics anymore and America needs to get it's act together. We are killing ourselves."

Many comments followed, and at first most of them agreed with my friend. Of course, there's a lot to agree with. Obesity leads to bad stuff. It should be prevented.

But what followed - what my friend couldn't see, and as far as I can tell what my friend still doesn't see - was a series of smug, self-righteous rants designed to make the writers feel superior. They talked about how healthy they were. They talked about how healthy other people aren't. They talked about how big a problem it is, and asked why we couldn't just be more responsible. A few people talked about how the problem was that we're all too politically correct and fat people are coddled. The first time someone mentioned a factor that wasn't attached to personal responsibility - the fact that healthy food is much more expensive than unhealthy food, and that some people struggle just to feed themselves and their families any food and can't exactly afford to worry about whether or not its healthy,organic, locally grown super food that beats the shit out of any high fructose corn syrup it sees - it was brushed aside. No, no. That's not the problem. No one in the world knows the terrible, but rewarding burden of Personal Responsibility except for the respondents of this Facebook thread; this shining beacon of We-Do-Shit-We're-A'supposed-To-Do.

And then I said something.

I won't reproduce my words or the response. My friend responded. I don't think he agreed with my assessment of things, but at the same time he seemed genuinely concerned about my impression. There was one guy for whom just about every word that ends with "bag" would prove an accurate description. But that's okay. He'll be dead one day.

What was important isn't my response, but that I responded at all.

You might think that part of the result of my negative chorus of internal bullshit getting chemically rounded up and thrown into the clink is that this kind of stuff wouldn't bother me. I would just say "Oh, well ____ is clearly passionate about this, and that's his business. I'll just stay over here and keep shoving bowling balls of melted cheese into my face."

Quite the opposite. The chorus is still gone, but my friend's post still bothered me. What's different is that I wasn't afraid to tell him so.

See, for me, the only thing more scary than what people think about my fatness is what people will think of what I think about them thinking about my fatness. My social life is littered with this stuff. Co-workers, buddies, and dear friends - I mean lifelong friends even - have no problem spouting insulting, righteous garbage about how irresponsible and lazy fat people are. I never say anything.

The other day a co-worker was talking about how her daughter was being picked on at school and how she'd tried to placate her by saying those girls would be picked on once they got out of grade school. Her friend responded, "And tell her they get FAT! FAT! They get FAT!" She said it like she just spotted one and was pointing for the Gestapo to round 'em up.

I used to frequent a message board kept up by a group of friends. A strange, unique thread was kept for people to post things anonymously as confessions. Responses were discouraged. Someone posted that they felt guilty because they found themselves judging fat people all the time. They wondered how they did things like have sex. And while they felt guilty, at the same time they felt justified.

A dear friend and I were watching TV. A young, pretty girl on a talk show was complaining about her mother, how fat she was, how she was embarrassed to bring her friends around. Her daughter rattled on, pensive and mean, while her mother sat uncomfortably on a chair too small for her and cried into her hand. "What a little bitch," I said. "Well. She's right," my friend said.

And I never say anything. I never say anything because to reveal it bothers me reveals it bothers me. So not only am I fat, but I'm sensitive too. And in a time when being Politically Incorrect is, as far as I can tell, the new Political Correctness, the last thing you want to do is let anyone know they actually bothered you with words.

(I think the phrase I hear the most from people is "It isn't easy to offend me," and it's never true. NEVER.)

And that's why I responded to my friend, and to his friends, to let them know this is not okay.

Obesity is an epidemic. I don't dispute it. But I am so tired of feeling like as second class citizen compared to the rest of you. I am trying. I try, I fail, I try again. One of these days I will get it, and I hope you will all be happy for me. But it is not your business. And when I finally do get the weight I want, it will not be for you.

One of the dumbest things anyone ever tells me is, "Well at least you're trying." This is usually when they've said something rude about another fat person, and suddenly realize that for some strange reason, it might offend me. They offer that stupid little sentence as consolation. They never consider the notion that it's none of their business whether I'm trying or not. It's no more your business what I'm doing about my weight than what you're doing to improve things about your life.

I understand it. Unfortunately, my sins are the type that you don't need curiosity to figure out. You see my sins as soon as you see my shadow. It's impossible for you to not judge. My sins grow out of every inch of me.

I wonder what yours are.

Because of my therapy and my medical Hulk-restraints, I can finally face and acknowledge a difficult truth.

There are people in my life - people I care about, and people who care about me - who find me disgusting.

And as a result of the drugs and the therapy, I guess I think that's okay. My girlfriend told me once, "what other people think of you is none of your business." It's simple, but utterly true, isn't it? It is an idea I have tried to absorb into my life. It is difficult to feel, though I am beginning to feel it now.

And here, finally, comes the point to this long, rambling rant (if there even is any point). Part of keeping what you think about me your business falls on your shoulders, right? And guess what?

I'm not going to be quiet anymore.

I am not who I was yesterday. And I've got no more passes to hand out. I love you. You are integral to my life. But tolerating your disgust for people of my body type isn't a burden I'll shoulder anymore. Your self-righteousness is no longer acceptable and I am going to goddamn TELL. YOU. SO. My Fat Ass is my problem, not yours.

Make no mistake. My heart is filled with more forgiveness and understanding than ever, and I will never cut anyone out of my life for this. I promise nothing except I can no longer give you silence.

I love you.

P.S. This is not directed at the friend who wrote the Facebook post that inspired this wandering rant. We're good, and I'm actually kind of grateful this happened. I honestly don't think his initial post bothered me as much as the horseshit in the comments that followed.


Ben Chappell said...

Hmmmm... needs more boobies. And avocado.

Avocado Boobs with a dusting of mango said...

Certainly there are a lot of haters out there (who are mostly insecure with themselves, so they create this imaginary competition they can "win"). But at the same time, I think we're at the start of a cultural shift.. similar to gay acceptance. Hear me out. There was a time when belittling gays or using gay slurs was acceptable because it was thought to be a "lifestyle choice". And then we (mostly) wised up and realized, huh, maybe it's not a "choice" after all, and maybe I shouldn't degrade them for who they are. I think we're at the brink of realizing that about obesity, too. Nobody wakes up and "chooses" to be fat. There are a lot of complex factors that determine a persons weight, and we shouldn't pretend to know an individuals full story, or assume that their weight is a reflection of their morality. And at the end of the day, a persons health is their own business. Like you said, some health issues are more obvious than others. So what.

There was a time in my life when I was close friends with a major fat-a-phobe. And I never spoke up. I even laughed at their jokes (something I'm ashamed of) because, honestly, I was afraid of being judged too. But now that I don't have this fool in my life, I'm a much happier and peaceful person. And I regret allowing that type of energy to be in my life for so long. And these days, when I do hear the occasional snide remark about someones appearance (be it at the gym or at the store), I tend to judge the person making the remark 100% more than who the comment was directed at. Like "wow, that person seems really insecure. Why else would they feel the need to bring up someone else's physical flaws? I hope they find peace".

Wow, look at me, feeling all enlightened and shit.

mock5turtle said...

I am a member of the forum that you refer to in this post, the one with the anonymous thread. I, too, was horrified by the comment that you mentioned. Anonymous it may be, but I thought it was a hurtful thing to broadcast to an audience comprised of a variety of sizes.

This post got me thinking about something someone said to me recently. A friend of mine commented that they'd seen a picture of my husband on FB, and that he'd lost a lot of weight recently. I replied that it was due to a lot of hard work, I was really proud of him, and that it benefited me because there is less junk food at our place. The friend, who can be blunt to the point of rude, added, "and at least you're not married to a fat guy anymore!" I responded that I fell in love with him when he was overweight, so that to me, it wasn't an issue.

I was proud of myself for sticking up for him, but this post made me realize something unsettling. It didn't bother me nearly as much as it should have. That in itself is messed up. I have seen some signs of the cultural shift that the last commenter mentioned, but there are plenty of detractors also. In the end, all we can do is have control over how we feel and react...