“How can I be 54 and still fat?” During the weeks before my 54th birthday in January I asked myself that question every day. I pondered and framed it in my mind with a flashing light border adding “What the heck’s the matter with me?”
After all, I’m a master certified life coach, former good client of many of the best and worst therapists in America, and patron of at least 4 personal trainers in the past 30 years. In 1995, I completed Vanderbilt’s eating disorder treatment program for bulimia due to excessive exercise followed by binging or starving. I earned success tokens from Overeaters Anonymous and have several previously broken bones due to 1980’s aerobics classes on concrete floors. I felt the pain, but my spandex high overrode it. I had initial success with Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Optifast, the chicken noodle soup and pineapple diet, calorie counting, food allergy, blood type and body shape diets. I’ve been hypnotized to imagine roaches in Snickers Bars and didn’t eat them for 5 years. I even had my aura balanced in 1987 and paid an extra $75 to have my husband’s balanced long distance in case he was the real problem. I have done every form of all-or-nothing I could attempt yet there I was, turning 54 and still fat.
The day before my birthday I cried so much that I cancelled my birthday dinner and crawled in my bathtub for hours wishing I could return to my mother’s womb and start this whole life over. I continued to hammer myself with this “oh so kind” question for the first week of my now terrified new 55th year until I finally heard an answer.
“Ask kinder questions and tell your truth.”
What?! The truth treads through treacherous terrain! That’s not a safe place. When hiding becomes your speciality perceived safety is everything. Plus, the rule book for being politely southern was sugar coated and lovingly spoon fed to me in mantra size morsels every night as a child. “Children should be seen not heard.” “Respect your elders.” “Chew with your mouth closed.” Then there were the more powerful mantras from our family’s addendum to the rules, “Here, eat this and you will feel better” Followed by, “If you eat that you will be fat and ugly and no one will ever love you.” Then there’s the more ominous warning. “If you look too good men will hurt you.” And the one that came with a wink or a gentle pinch, “That’s our little family secret and no one else’s business.”
Could I answer the questions for the sake of my own truth? The one I trapped inside until it grew and spread like a stunted pumpkin patch. Never big enough for the state fair. Never sweet enough for that “sweet as pie” my mother longed for me to be.
Truth. I gained and lost weight over and over again, because I ate my emotions and the words that longed to express them. There are several physical and genetic reasons including an inherently addictive personality that add to the challenge, but the part I consistently avoided was feeling what I felt and expressing that to others and myself. I didn’t have a lot of room to move within all the rules I had been taught.
When the church elder I respected so much startled me and said “I’m so glad you lost all that weight. Truth is that every time you spoke when we served on that committee together, I tuned you out. I thought, what could you have to contribute since you clearly had no discipline in your life?” This was after church one Sunday. I had worked hard to return to a healthy state having gained weight when my mother died. He went on and on about how great I looked so I said thank you and smiled. That same day we went out to lunch and a friend’s mother pulled me aside and said, “I’m so glad you lost that weight. It was such an embarrassment to everyone.” Each of these well meaning Christians invited me to return to a familiar place inside of me where I coat me with shame and send me back into hiding.
Then there was the time I walked into my little kid’s basketball game and a friend wanted me to know that her husband had given me the biggest compliment. It went something like this. “Art is a lucky guy. I’d like to tap that, too.” Compliment? All I wanted to do was run. Just like my grandmother said, “If you look too good men will hurt you.” I needed to quickly not look good to be safe.
Or the time someone I had known for much of my life snuck up behind me and groped me so quickly that I lost my breath for a second, but it remerged with a threat that I would kill him if he touched me again. Yes, I used my voice, but the fear I felt took me over. I was at the one year mark after having been in the Vanderbilt treatment program. I had never felt more comfortable in my skin before he molested me, but if I wasn’t safe around him where would I be safe. I made an excuse and went to the grocery. I came home and began to eat a whole german chocolate cake that I had purchased under the farce that it was for everyone.
Within days or months of each of these situations, I learned that each of these people had their own issues, some more profound than others. In each case though, in some large way, I had already blamed me. I ache at the thought of not having stood up for myself and instead internalized their very abusive words.
Is it Christian to judge? To choose who is worth listening to based on the size of the person. To determine that a family is embarrassed because a daughter gained weight in a state of grief after her mother and 7 more family members and friends died within 18 months?
Am I so important that things that happen to me are all about me? Am I to blame? Is shame going to forward my life or bury me one foot deeper in my hiding place?
When words land on us that sting and shock or knock the scar off old wounds and validate our insecurities can we learn to not absorb them? To shake them off and step away? See them in piles from a distance and be able to name them for what they are? In my situations, one of these people was an alcoholic and had already had a 12 pack. I blamed me for looking too good and not heeding my Nana’s warning. He was drunk. In another one, the man is a narcissist with no concept of self censoring. My thank you gave him fuel to move on to the next person that would not benefit from his words. In another one the quite older mother was panicking about and hyper focused on how a woman should look to keep a man after she’d been married many times.
I chose to let their issues become my business and I believed them instead of sloughing their abusive words off of me, staying in my own business, and standing in my truth. No one knows anyone else’s full truth.
“How can I be 54 and still fat?” The wording of that question offers me the best clues. I begin to shake the words from the question off me and step away to get a better view. The first thing I see is a heap of self judgment that can only bring even more negative thoughts into my mind. “It’s too late.” “There’s no hope.” “What’s the point?” “My body can’t lose weight again.” That path offers an endless array of dark mantras to keep me stuck.
It’s April now. I didn’t immediately step onto a better path in January. I did quit pounding me with the question and released it into mean question hell. My son is a leukemia patient at St. Jude and throughout February until mid-March we both got stuck in a cycle of illness. He was in and out of the hospital several times with very scary moments. It felt like a crazed wave finally finished tossing us around and dumped us on the shore in early spring. He recovered quickly. I just sat there awhile too stunned to move. In that stillness, I caught wind of another question. I am pondering it now from every angle even though it feels exciting and vulnerable.
“When, where, and how do I thrive?”
(To be continued)