MEMOIR: ME VERSUS FAT
They say that when you lose weight, the actual material that you lose is expelled from your body in your breath, that you breathe it out. I found this out just recently. For years as I’ve slogged away at my weight-loss efforts, I tended to think that the material I was losing was exiting my body via urine and faecal matter. And when I had a particularly big dump, I was a proud father, you might say.
As of this writing, in late July of 2017 (flash-forward: as of November, as I’m editing this book, the weight I’ve lost is now 61 kg), I’ve lost almost fifty kilograms. I could not lift a fifty-kilogram weight. A while ago we visited an Asian grocery store, and I saw they had these twenty-five-kilogram bags of rice, and they were huge, like mattresses. The thought that I’d lost just about two of them was shocking. The thought of trying to move two of them was impossible. When I was in hospital last year I was looked after by a great many nurses, many of them young Irish women. On hearing that I’d lost fifty kilograms they’d be all, “That’s me! You’ve lost me!” As if I’d been staggering about for years with an entire person riding on my back. That was a disturbing thought. An entire, full-grown person on your back, everywhere you go, upstairs, downstairs, every step you take. No wonder I was always tired. No wonder my knees were always screaming in pain.
All my life I’ve been fat. I was a fat baby, a fat toddler. I’ve seen photos, including some that my parents still have on display in their living room. There I am smiling gamely, but already what my mum has always called “a little pudding”.
It was because I was fat that I attracted the attention of bullies in primary school. You take up more space than you’re allowed to. Than you’re entitled to. Than is fair. All my life I’ve been “fatso”, “fat pig”, “fat arse”, and many other appellations as lacking in wit as they are numerous. I’ve had the oinking, snorting noises in the locker area as people go past me. I’ve been in the hateful phys ed classes where it’s just assumed that I’ll be the anchor for the tug-of-war event, and that I’ll of course be up for shot put and discus, and of course I’ll be a great scrum man for rugby.
I have always hated my fat. I think it’s always hated me right back. I’ve always felt that it has meant me harm, the way the depression has meant me harm. I would not be surprised to learn that the two are in fact directly connected, that the one is a manifestation of the other. It would explain some things I’ve seen.
It’s drawn attention to me, and never good attention. It’s always made clothes shopping an excruciating experience. Reaching the point where regular menswear shops could no longer help me was dreadful, and a bracing experience in shame, and then my first and all subsequent visits to Kingsize Menswear was even worse. Yes, they had a huge range of all kinds of things in my size. They had everything. It was extraordinary. It was colossal. This was indeed my kind of store. They would have you believe your dignity would be restored here, for a price. And in some ways it was. But the simple fact of your having to be there at all. That your life had come to this. That you needed to wear clothes that might be better suited to a giant. You had become freakish and monstrous, though at least you were a stylish monster.
One of the great pleasures of major weight-loss is being able to go back to regular stores to buy clothes, and finding plenty of options either side of my size. Of being able to buy the funny and clever t-shirts I’d always wanted but could never previously fit into.
All of this aside: I hate being fat. I hate it with a fury. I would remove it from my body with a spoon if I could. I would get the bariatric surgery if I could. At one point, before embarking on the long-way-round diet-exercise campaign, I actually looked into the surgical option. Even with top level health insurance coverage, it would still be $4000 for the cheapest option. But one of the things that killed the whole thing was a specific note, that the surgery was not available to patients with a history of depression. Absolutely not, no exceptions, not even if you have a letter from your doctor. Just no.
I hate taking up so much room. I hate getting winded from doing simple jobs. This happens less than it used to, I’m pleased to say, and the stairs at IKEA are much easier than they were. Though I remember when I went to see the top orthopaedic surgeon in the state, an actual professor, and I hadn’t started losing the weight yet, so it was me and my 165.5 closest friends, and they were screaming about everything I tried to do. Could he help with knee reconstruction? He said no. He said my colossal weight would crush any device he might install, and I would be worse off. He suggested I come back when my weight got down to 140 kg. I never did go back to him, though I blasted past 140 on my way down to my current 117 kg (November 2017: 104 kg).
Ever since I was a kid, people have seen my fat before they saw me. They’ve seen me clumsy, pasty, gormless, awkward, embarrassed and pre-emptively apologetic, getting in first before you have time quite to register your unease. I see this often when we travel on planes. Nobody wants to sit next to the fat man. You could shower all day long in scalding water. You could remove an entire layer of skin. You could undergo actual nuclear irradiation to remove all trace of anything that might cause an odour—and people would still feel as if they’re stuck next to an open and leaking bag of rubbish. The fat man is not welcome. He does not fit. Nobody wants him near them in a confined space. He is Doesn’t Fit Anywhere Man, and knows it.
Meanwhile, my current helter-skelter weight-loss efforts are paying off so well I’m having to confront the question of how to ease out of weight-loss mode once I reach my target weight of 100 kilograms. At the moment I am pursuing a low-food/high-fasting regime that is not for the faint of heart, but which is working with my flatlining metabolism. I’m a hurtling downhill skiier racing at insane speeds down the slick and icy slopes of the Peak of Madness. Sometimes I’m just on the narrow edge of one ski, and sometimes I’m in full downhill tuck screaming down a slope, and sometimes I think I’m going to crash.
I’ve been doing this for a month, and it’s still working, to my amazement. I’m eating one meal a day, and some treat chocolate. The rest is fasting. Up to 22 straight hours of fasting. For real. In that time I have to keep busy. At noon each day is weigh-in. Sometimes it’s good news, and sometimes not. I brood about weigh-in. Three-quarters of my daily total thought is entirely kilojoule math. Everything I eat I first inspect to see the kilojoule cost, the weight in grams.
If I eat any more than this, I gain weight. It’s the thing I fear most. During the period when I was going up the Peak of Madness, when it all seemed out of control, I was petrified and did not know what to do. In the end what helped was adopting the 5:2 intermittent fasting program, only I just did the fasting. There were no feeding days. I tried having feeding days and my weight would just spike up again. So it had to be all-fasting, all-the-time.
Recently Michelle cooked some sausages. I love sausages. I had two, and they were outstanding–but I felt terrible about them all day long, worried about their effect, their mass, on the scales the next day. It was bad. I obsessed about it much more than you would believe. (They were more or less fine, a great relief.)
And this is the thing. I have had to put aside the world of eating and food. I have to be extremely careful. Food is dangerous. Because I am close now to a goal I set almost five years ago. And even closer to getting back onto the main road of that quest. Last year in hospital I reached 114.3. Now I’m 117.1. I’ll be there soon, and then I push on to 100, and when I get there I’m going skydiving.
Because I have always, always hated being fat. Hated always having to ask for seatbelt extenders on planes. Hated never having clothes that quite fit. Hated never being athletic, or seen to even be potentially athletic (notable exception: in high school I did once win a walking race, and it was seen as the strangest, most unlikely, but also most “typical” thing ever, “that Bedford would win a walking race”). I’ve always hated the weird difficulties I’ve had with food, and how that’s contributed to my being fat. I always hated with a fiery passion the way my medications have made me stack on weight. That has always seemed among the cruellest side-effects of all, when you have people who are already at a low ebb in the way they see themselves, and then you give them a drug that might save their life, but might also destroy their self-esteem.
All I’ve ever wanted, from my earliest days, was to be thin, to be normal. When in high school phys ed class, we all had to head into the change room, strip off, change into sports gear, and later have showers. I always found the change room experiences traumatising. Getting naked in front of other boys is bad enough, but with bullies in the mix is worse. Add in acute self-anxiety, self-horror. I was fat. There was no way to hide it. It made you big and pale, a white whale wrapped in a bath towel, covered in goose-flesh, and boys laughing and pointing at you. I still, to this day, hate change rooms. When I go to my local aquatic centre to slog out some laps, I avoid the change room altogether, and change room altogether, and get into my togs in one of the toilet cubicles. It’s awkward and cramped, but nobody can see me.
And that has always been the point. The shame of it. The shame I have always felt about the fat. The awful, searing shame. I could not bear people to see it, to be seen. It is unbearable. You feel as if you have failed to control yourself, your greedy, disgusting, undisciplined urges. That you are filthy, sweaty, that you stink. That your rolls of horrible fat ooze everywhere. Your mind supplies the imagery and the thoughts. The people you interact with casually, impersonally, provide the rest. The looks, the glances. The movements, the stepping out of your way, around you. You burn with shame. The shame makes you eat.
You don’t learn until much later, if at all, that it’s genetic. That it’s a disorder. You are not a disgusting glutton. You have an illness. There are things that, now, can be done to help you deal with it. They are, on the whole, hard things. You have to want it like you’ve wanted nothing else.
I just wanted to be unremarkable: normal height, normal weight, nothing to see here. My current project—the “low-food diet”—is my best-ever chance at that. I just wish it was not so miserable. The discipline required is unimaginable. My psychiatrist says if I can keep this going for six months (!) it will become easier because my body will reset what it’s “normal” weight is. He says that right now it’s thinking that my initial starting weight, 165.5 kg, is my normal weight and wants to push me back there. But if just hang in there with my impossible regimen, he thinks I can hack my body into thinking this much lower figure is “normal”.
I hope he is right. I want this so much. I want to be a normal-size boy for the first time in my life. I don’t want there to be X’s in my clothes labels. I want to look good to my wife. I want her to look at her husband and think, “phwoar!”
POSTSCRIPT: Six Months Later
When I wrote this essay above, six months ago, I’d been skiing down the upper slopes of the “Peak of Madness” for just over a month. I started the descent in May of this year, at 127.1 kg. Today, as I write this, it’s November, and I’ve left the Peak far behind and have kept hurtling downwards. Today the scales read 104.6 kg. Tomorrow I’m expecting to reach or pass 104.5, which will mean I’ll have lost at least 61 kilograms since starting this weight-loss project five years ago.
I should reach my target weight, 100 kg, within the next several weeks, possibly before Christmas.
And I have rarely in my life been more terrified by any other looming prospect. I am currently extremely focussed on weight-loss. I am treating it like a job, or a study program. I take notes on everything I eat. I record kilojoule and carb details. I have a file recording the key stats of all the things I typically eat and drink, because before I set that up that information whirled around in my head and drove me nuts. I think about numbers all the time.
My psychologist has referred me to a specialist psychologist whose task is to help me achieve a “soft landing”. Because I have no plan for the day after I reach the target weight. I have a profound fear of regaining the weight, of it all coming back like a tide. But I need to eat. I need to start eating normal food, but not so much that I regain weight. Yet the medication I take is all about weight-gain. That’s why I eat so little every day, to the point where I’m almost starving myself. I’m telling myself it might be possible to simply increase my daily allowance, but I don’t know. This specialist psychologist should know.
It is very hard to fully convey to anyone the intensity of the madness whirling around in my head these days. I am well aware that it’s not healthy. I want this whole thing to be over. My mum and dad want it to be over. My mum talks to me the way you’d talk to your child if you were worried he was involved with drugs, or maybe a vampire.
Michelle is great, though. She doesn’t get too involved in all my more obsessive stuff, and she just nods and smiles when I tell her the latest result on the scales (unless it’s really impressive), but she’s looking forward to this phase (the weight-loss) being over. She’s been living with all this crap for five years. We are both exhausted. We want the whole thing to be over. We want to move on.
I recently wondered what “the big day”, the day I hit the target weight, might be like for us. By now, at this point, we are so wiped out, so tired, that I could imagine the two of us just collapsing on the bed and having a little cry of exhausted relief.
We might later go out for lunch.
So why bother? What’s the point? Why not just quit if it’s so much bother? Because I’m getting my wish. The things I wanted to achieve, I am achieving. In my head I’ll always be a fat man, but in my body, I am going to be thin. Sleek, even. At least for a while. Long enough to try it out, take it for a spin. Show it off to Michelle. With a bit of luck, and good management, I might get to keep the thinness long-term, but the odds are not good.
I think my body will always, despite my doctor’s thinking, want to be humongous. I will always be fighting its Nortriptyline-fuelled longing for mass and size. I don’t know if I will always have this degree of fanatical willpower. It’s been months on end now, forcing myself each day to confine myself to around 3500 kilojoules. I’m always, always hungry. I go to bed hungry every night, and wake up starving every morning. My one meal each day is always over too soon. My psychiatrist says I’m doing fantastically well. He has me on a drug called Topamax, which is a psychiatric drug with the unusual side-effect in some patients of weight-loss, to the extent that it is prescribed off-label in US weight-loss clinics. I don’t know if it’s working for me that way.
All I know is that this program I invented when I was at the Peak of Madness in May has worked fantastically well. Too well. I am now in imminent danger of achieving a goal I never expected to reach. I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what to do.
I’ve never been thin.
How do I do this?