MEMOIR: EPILOGUE: FEELS LIKE A BEGINNING
I finished my weight-loss project recently. 7 December last year, just three days before my projected “Landing Day”. Getting there, the final few months, with my “low-food program”, was almost impossibly hard. By the end—I’m crying, believe it or not, as I write this—I was forcing myself to subsist on just 2500 kilojoules of food per day, because I was so desperate to reach my target weight.
It was harder than I ever imagined it would be. It was just as hard on Michelle, who had to live with me, who felt it every day when I weighed myself and the scales said I was 100.3 kilograms, or 100.2 kilograms, or 100.4 kilograms. She heard the sharp intake of breath, felt the tension in the air. She felt the way I just wanted to scream and never stop screaming. Like the day when the scales said 100.1 kilograms.
I always weighed myself at the same time every day. I had to have reliable data. It had to be consistent. I needed it for my graph. I spent a lot of time looking at that graph. And in the final six months, during the low-food days, as I starved myself, as I consumed myself, I stared and stared at the uncanny straight line leading down towards my target.
Before I started the low-food program, when I was just a regular weight-loss guy, before my medication was changed, before Nortriptyline entered my world, my graph was all over the place—up, down, up again, but mostly down. Trending down. It was fine. My weight was floating down like a drifting leaf fallen from a tree. People said I looked great, and asked me what was my secret.
But once I turned to low-food, the weight came off fast and easy. Four kilos a month, no problem.
No problem except I was always, always hungry. One small meal a day, at lunch. The rest of the time, nothing. Nothing but numbers. Kilojoules. Kilograms. Adding up, over and over and over. Projections, thinking about your weight today, your weight yesterday, and based on your recent figures, when you might hit your next milestone weight. So many numbers.
In the early months I had boundless energy. I wrote all the rest of this book. I wrote most of another book. I took up language lessons. There was nothing I couldn’t do. It was an extraordinary time in my life, unequalled before and certainly not since.
Those early glory days on the low-food program faded. Things started to get harder; there was friction in my thinking. I couldn’t write so easily, or so much, or so often. Soon, I couldn’t write much at all, except here and there—but only in the way, when you have heavy side-effects from medication, and your mouth goes dry, you can only talk if you rehearse what you want to say first, and then take time to work up a lot of spit in your mouth. Then you can say your piece in one go, and it’s fine, and you hope nobody has follow-up comments. Writing in the latter months of last year was like that for me.
Because I was, literally, starving.
When I was close to my target weight, I told my psychologist how dreadful I was feeling. I was exhausted. I was more than ready for the whole ordeal to be finished. Michelle, even more so. I had, a long time ago, entertained ideas of celebrations to mark the occasion of reaching the target weight. But by the time I was in the vicinity, it was clear I was a physical and emotional wreck. In no way was I up for any kind of celebration.
My psychologist referred me to a specialist clinic, the Swan Centre, which deals with people who have problems with food and eating.
They took one look at the state of me, and told me I had a form of anorexia nervosa.
They also told me I was suffering from a condition called “Starvation Syndrome”. The notable feature of which is where the brain, deprived of nutrients, shuts down all non-essential services and functions. You become a potato. You lose interest in almost everything. You lose the ability to read and write anything substantial. Say goodbye to novels, short stories, magazine articles. You tune out of most conversation. Your head fills with something very like static. On my first day at the Swan Centre they gave me an information sheet about Starvation Syndrome. It felt like an arrow aimed right at me. It was as if they had been secretly inside my head for months, looking at everything, taking notes, snapping photos, and had worked up a detailed case study, only this was based on a study of healthy young men in World War II called the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Study. It was spooky.
It was shaming.
This is why I cry. Five years ago I set out to lose a stack of weight, and I had a crazy, naive goal. I never seriously expected to reach the goal at the time, but what the hey? I’d always been fat, though, and had always hated being fat, had always hated taking up so much space. I always wanted to be small, to be thin. To be a regular size.
I never expected to get anywhere near the target, but as I got closer, the more I wanted to go the rest of the way. It mattered more the closer I got, because I started, bit by bit, to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could do something impossible.
Until it mattered more than life itself.
Did it matter more than Michelle? She might well have wondered that. But no. If she had ever said to me that enough was enough, and this far was plenty, I would have stopped. For nobody else, but I would have stopped for Michelle. Because I love her, and now look, I’m, oh geez.
FX: NEEDLE ON TONE ARM SCRATCHES ACROSS RECORD SURFACE
I was wrong here, it turns out, to my horror and shame. After I wrote and uploaded the original version of this essay, Michelle read it. She told me that I was wrong. She said that if she had tried to stop me, if she had asked, I would not have been able to stop. I wanted “the number” too much. I wanted it more than anything Moreover, if I had managed to stop before getting the number, she said, she saw that it would likely be a source of resentment and bitterness between us. That I would always resent her forcing me to stop before reaching my goal. She said she “didn’t want to stand in front of that train”.
She was right. This was the sort of revelation that burns deep and hard because it’s true, and you hate how true it is. You would do just about about anything to stop it being true, but it’s like trying to stop the Pythagorean Theorem being true. It just is. The truth is a train. I was riding my train all the way to 100 kilograms, and I was sick and alone and starving.
At the Swan Centre I’m working with a psychologist and a very cool dietitian. They have me on a “re-feeding” program. I’m slowly being weaned onto eating again (as of this week I’m back up to 4000 kilojoules, and four small meals a day). The fact that I’m here writing again is evidence that this works. My brain is waking up. I’m finding I can do things again.
When I went to see the Swan Centre people I was at 2500 kilojoules once a day. I could barely think. I had been on 2500 for the final two weeks of the program. Before that I had been on 3000, but I had been frustrated. The weight was not shifting. I was desperate. I could not stand it. I felt like something had to give way. It had been such a long time. I was sick of being hungry all the time. All the time! So, out of my mind I twisted the knife of the diet and went down to 2500 kilojoules. It was a tiny amount of food. I logged everything, counting everything. But 2500 is extreme. It’s like a bad movie where the hero and the villain wind up trying to strangle each other, and they’re really going for it. It’s like that. You know it’s bad, that there’s a limit to it. You can’t do it indefinitely. It’s like holding your breath underwater. Sooner or later I was going to have to start eating again.
All I wanted, I told myself, all I wanted was to hit the 100 kilograms. That’s it. And in that final two weeks, every day, it hovered just above the zero. Every single day. 100.2, 100.4. When, at last, “Landing Day” arrived, the scales read, 99.8. By that point I was so weak, so angry, so burned out, so tired—
I was pleased, standing there in my undies and my loose bags and folds of skin. I told Michelle. She was pleased. We went out for lunch. Yay.
2500 kilojoules a day is like the floor at the bottom of a deep ocean trench, an extreme environment. There’s nothing there other than the rubbish that sinks down from the surface. Nothing lives down that far in the darkness. Eating so little food each day, and then spending 23 hours hungry with your thoughts, trying to keep busy, is like that dark sea floor. Cold, lonely, dark, too much time to think. No concentration for anything you might want to do.
One of the things I insisted on each day was chocolate, the good stuff. Lindt 85% Dark Chocolate, two squares, 483 kilojoules. And there, right away, you can see one-fifth of my daily food budget gone just like that. But that chocolate was, in a way, my reason to live. I dreamed about that chocolate. Our fridge was and is full of chocolate.
And that’s the other thing about extreme weight-loss and mental illness and madness and reality distortion and starvation: you stop eating food. You eat kilojoules, units of energy. You might as well eat Lego.
Did I mention madness? Because I’ve got madness. This whole book is about my life with mental illness, and it’s about my weight. I have said it has often been my impression that my depression and my weight, my fat, were each manifestations of one another. That you could carve out a nice chunk of wet, semi-solid depression and hold it in your hand, and squeeze it until the blood comes oozing out; and that you could find yourself kept awake at night by persistent, moody thoughts of fatness. I don’t know if this is the case for other people like me, but it feels that way for me.
And I’ve still got the madness. I wound up losing 67 kilograms of fat, but I didn’t get a new brain, so I’m thin but still crazy. That said, I got down to 97.8 kilograms, slightly surpassing my goal weight of 100 kilograms. I would cheer, but no. I’m pleased to be here at target weight, for as long as I can be here, but I worry, wondering for how long I can hold back the tide. Because that’s the thing. The odds, I gather, are not ever in my favour. I read conflicting reports. Some say it’s possible to hoodwink the body into believing your new weight is your normal weight. Others insist that your original weight will reassert itself and your body will do its best to get back to it. Then some clever bastard comes along and mutters about set-points and flavonoids and who the hell knows? Will I still be under 100 kg this time next year? Next month? I don’t know. It bothers me.
I told my Swan Centre psychologist that I might be thin now but I still feel like a fat man. Like I cast a fat shadow. I can’t escape who I have always been. You can cut the fat off the bacon, but it’s still bacon.
This chapter is at the end, but it’s not the end. I’m suspicious of endings. Of tidy endings, everything resolved. Perhaps that’s it. Nothing with me is resolved. Some might see what’s happened to me—arrived at target weight, medication sorted, new book, huzzah!—as a wonderful, happy ending, full of major achievements. But it’s not. This is just a pause while we catch our breath, grab a bite to eat, some coffee. It’s only the end of Act One. Maybe even just Chapter One. It doesn’t feel like an ending. Maybe it feels like a cliffhanger.
Maybe it feels like a beginning.