[Published on For Harriet August 4, 2015]
I’ve been overweight as long as I can remember. Well, that’s not true. I was home for the holidays and on Christmas, I went to a couple of my aunts’ houses and saw pictures of myself when I was younger. I was surprised to see that I wasn’t overweight back then because that’s what I remember. But the reality is, the kindergarten enrollment cut off date in Memphis is September 1st. My birthday is in November, so I was almost six when school started, making me one of the older kids. This compounded by the fact that my siblings and I were naturally really solid and tall children, made me feel like a giant among my peers. Hence, I never noticed when I actually started abusing food and gaining weight at an excessive rate.
There were periods of time when I lost weight. The summer before ninth grade, I got really slim due to a combination of hyper-thyroidism and my mother deciding to spend every day at the Hope & Healing Center where there was nothing to do but workout. I would walk on the treadmill, so I could watch the tv hanging above the machines. I had gotten very thin but I didn’t notice because to be honest, I didn’t look in mirrors back then. I lived in the fantasies that played out in my head. In my fantasies, I had a body like Meagan Good, hair like Tia Mowry or Reagan Gomez Preston from Parent ‘Hood, and clothes like my classmate Kayla. Kayla always had a new wardrobe and I would just stare at her in class, committing the clothes to memory so I could conjure the images in my head later.
Soon as school started back in the fall and I had access to the school snacks, I started gaining it back steadily. One day, I was standing in the lunch line, buying popcorn and chocolate chip cookies (that $1 combo, amen) when Kayla, who was standing in front of me, turned around to give me a good look. “You’re getting fat,” she said as she prodded me in the stomach. I didn’t say anything; just went back to my seat with my snacks. I hesitated a second before opening them. Was I gaining weight? Should I not eat these? Uhh no. You’ve always been fat. Kayla doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And I proceeded to inhale those snacks in less than five minutes.
Fast forward to my second year of college, I got really serious about going to the gym. I was also calorie counting. The cafeteria used to have these nutritional data cards in front of every entrée and that really opened my eyes to how many calories I was consuming a day. They eventually took the cards away because the administration felt that they encouraged unhealthy dieting, which I understand, but for me, it was a blessing. I didn’t know anything about nutrition and those cards taught me a lot. During that year, I lost about forty pounds. Bu then senior year, I started gaining them back and any that had not returned, came back with a vengeance the year after.
I was working at a middle school and on Fridays, our lunch provider would send chocolate cake slices for the students. Students who were in detention did not receive cake, so a bag of extras would always end up at the apartment I shared with seven other teachers and I always consumed no less than four of five slices from that bag, not counting what I had eaten at school.
When law school started the following fall, I was over 260 pounds and I had decided that I was going to take advantage of my “free” gym membership and the classes. I would work out before class or after I was finished studying and I loved it. Zumba and Step classes were so fun and I started running and learning how to swim, on the road to getting in really good shape. Over the course of the first two years, I lost sixty pounds and then I hit my plateau.
At this point, I started trying to be introspective about why I was having a hard time getting into a healthy weight range. I’m still about fifty pounds from no longer being overweight and it’s going to take more than exercising. I was so heavy before that, by simply being more active, the pounds fell away. But now, I am at a place where I have to change my diet to get through this last leg of the journey. My last year of school, I started reading Geneen Roth. She writes a lot about emotional eating and as I was reading her books, I saw myself in her anecdotes. I started trying to retrace my steps and determine how I had become so dependent on food.
I came to the conclusion that quite simply, food was my friend, my best friend. It was constant and present when nothing and no one else was and I clung to it like a security blanket. Reminds me of this one scene from Thin Line Between Love and Hate when Martin Lawrence is pushing Lynn Whitfield to let him in emotionally and he yells at her, asking if she trusts her horses more than him. She replied, “Yes! Because horses don’t disappoint you. People always disappoints you.” When I was around fourteen, I would watch that scene on repeat. Speak that truth! Food didn’t disappoint me like people did, so I ate.
That was my train of thought, but now I’m not so sure. I was being a bit too euphemistic. Food was not my friend. It was the drug that kept me numb to the fact that I had no friends or didn’t have the life that I wanted. It’s not like I enjoy the taste of food. No, I eat really fast and I don’t stop until I am stuffed. Food doesn’t nourish me; it satiates me to the point of being numb which keeps me from feeling the effects of awareness.
Chris Rock did an interview recently in which he was asked about Robin William’s suicide and he responded by saying that suicide is not uncommon for comedians. A comedian’s job is to be aware and notice things that other people don’t and if ignorance is bliss, then the opposite is some form of misery. He’s right. I’ve always been very observant and it’s been a blessing, but sometimes, it’s a burden. It’s painful to be aware of things that you feel you cannot change, especially when you don’t even have someone to share that burden with you.
Law school was difficult but it became almost intolerable when one of my few friends there transferred out our last year. This was the friend who saw everything that I saw and then some and for whom I would run across the campus just so that we could sit and share the insane experiences that had befallen us that day. Sometimes, you just need someone to look at you and say, “I see it too. You’re not crazy.” Without her there, I felt unanchored and I was struggling to cope. I became a ghost on that campus and I can remember quite a few Friday nights that found me in my room, gorging on pizza until I fell fast asleep.
It’s harder to do that here in Guatemala. Fast food is not so readily available and the threat of amoebas and other stomach ailments forces me to cook for myself more. So now if I want to binge eat, I have to be more intentional about it. This is a good thing. I’m usually not conscious of when I regress into this form of addiction. It’s funny because I always wondered how people could get hooked on drugs, alcohol, or sex, but food addiction is not really that different. It can be more socially acceptable because food is a necessary part of life, but, in my case, it serves the same purpose as the aforementioned vices. It helps me shut out the world and keep my mind off my problems.
Also, one of the main problems with self-medicating in this fashion is that the treatment is not narrowly tailored to the pain. If I want to numb myself to whatever pain I’m running from, I have to numb the whole body and my growth gets stunted across the board. I remember when I first started trying to eat better, I didn’t even know how to discern when I was hungry or satiated because I was so out of tune with my body that I couldn’t recognize its voice. What I love about life right now is that I am becoming more in sync with my body. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been so detached from it- I resided solely in my head- but now, I feel like the gap between me and my body is closing and I’m delighted. As I go through these current trials, I try to remind myself that they too shall pass and try to motivate myself to stay alert through them. And that means that I have to feel the pain, the anger, and the sadness, so that I can also feel all of the triumphs, the joy, and the love. My goal for this year was to be more open to love and I know that do that, I have to be more open to the pitfalls along the way.