Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Battle of the Bulge: On Being Fat & Loving Myself Anyway

The first two Hebrew phrases I learned when I first arrived in Israel came from an unexpected diagnosis. The doctor, a kind, fellow American immigrant wrote that I was עודף משקל חמור (severely overweight), and had a הפרעת אכילה (eating disorder). He gently recommended that I start seeing a nutritionist, gave me his best wishes for a smooth acclimation here, and sent me on my way. At 210lbs, it was no secret that I was overweight, but I had no idea what was written on the papers. A friend later translated the papers for me, albeit nervously. I laughed about how ridiculous such a diagnosis was. Every single doctor I had seen since I was five years old told me that I was in the “99th percentile for weight”, yet at the age of 24 I suddenly had an ‘eating disorder’?  It seemed like it was a big jump to make that conclusion after one consultation.

Throughout the years of living here, similar terms often repeated themselves: odef mishkal (overweight), hafra’at achila (eating disorder), hashmanat yeter (obese), mile’ah (full-figured, “zaftig” as my grandmother used to say), and the ever-popular “shmena” (fat) or shmanmonet (fatso, usually associated with little chubby kids).  The latter were words that I knew all too well, but had not heard since elementary school when the mean kids viciously taunted me. But Israelis, God bless them, aren’t exactly known for their diplomatic graces so they say what's on their mind. They talk “dugree” – straight and to the point; they don’t beat around the bush. Depending on the circumstances, talking dugree can either be refreshingly honest or sting like hell. Either way, they’re being honest, even if the reality is painful.  Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I was indeed, shmeina (fat), and everyone knew it.

Clearly, being shmeina is not news to me. I have been wearing plus-size clothing since the 3rd grade and have fluctuated between 205-225lbs between the ages of 11-27. At one point, I reached 270lbs, and that’s when things took a turn for the worse. (I was on the cusp of developing diabetes and my feet began to hurt after standing for more than 15 minutes. I couldn't climb more than two stairs without running out of breath.) But when I was a young teen, I was determined not to let my weight hold me back. One time, in junior high, I even sewed two cheerleading skirts together so I could try out for the squad back. I didn’t get accepted, but I amazed them that I could do all the jumps and splits like those skinny blonde girls!

For most of my life, being overweight has been my familiar space, my reality, my comfort, and my identity. It is also the aspect that I hate most about my life, the part of me that has kept me down, withdrawn, socially isolated at times, still single at 35, and highly insecure about that entire combination. Yet it’s an aspect that I continue to perpetuate and embrace even though I know it keeps me down and hurts me. 

Realization: I’ve been in an abusive relationship with my fat self. 

Throughout the years, I ran around trying to find health practitioners who could help me while I simultaneously made myself broke.  The extra weight brought me to close to a dozen practitioners[i] – a small army of both physical and mental health professionals – in the attempt to help alleviate the maladies caused by unhealthy lifestyle, unhealthy emotional eating, and the result, morbid obesity.  While some of these ailments (such as pain in the knee joints and skin irritations) are physical and can be helped with conventional medication, the emotional and spiritual scars run so much deeper. Berating myself for overeating, for making myself this way, feeling self-pity and insecure, blaming every issue in my life on being fat. Everything would be picture perfect if only I were thin, right?  How could I expect someone else to heal my inner pain? 

Well, now it all comes full circle. Inner pain. Inner discomfort. Sensing that something inside that just doesn’t settle well in me, whether it be anger, depression, boredom, insecurity, sadness, resentment, nervousness, uncertainty or stress.  So I eat. It’s a distraction, a comfort, something to silence what’s really going on. I eat, even if it’s 4am and I can’t sleep so I walk around the house, open and close the fridge because the light hurts my eyes, and then pick up a brownie and eat it because I am bored and tired and stressed. I obviously was not hungry at 4am and if I was, a brownie certainly wasn’t the way to go.

Evidently I learned to deal with my emotions this way since I was a young child; a coping mechanism that has accompanied (plagued?) me for three decades, protecting me from something that I was not ready or able to handle.  Any external help from others who I sought out to remove that protective shield would unravel tightly-wrapped layers, exposing… something. And that something was raw, unchartered territory. Whatever it was, I (subconsciously) wanted it covered up, preferably in fashionable plus-size Lane Bryant packaging.  No wonder why none of the diet plans or groups worked; I have been in a civil war with myself. 

Instead of expressing my anxiety from the vicissitudes of life, I ate them.  And boy oh boy did it taste good for those twenty seconds. But then I hated myself. 

I may have developed a coping mechanism, but I had to figure out how to unlearn those habits.

That dugree eating disorder went on to become a “disease of the mind and body”, as they told us in the rooms of OA and CEA. Overeating and compulsive eating, like alcoholism, is a lifelong disease that will consume you. We were told that “I can’t do it alone”, to take on sponsors, and keep coming back to meetings. So I did, for close to nine years. I was never fully convinced; I knew there was something else going on. 

When that doctor diagnosed me, he ripped off a figurative Band-Aid, sending me on a roller coaster of emotions. I was forced to start dealing with my weight, more than I ever had before. For me, that did not mean learning how to eat in a healthy way; I knew the fundamentals already, but I always sabotaged them. The question was why.

I went on a long journey me to discover and accept myself, respect my strengths, beautiful traits, and areas in which I need guidance.  I came to realize that all of us are products of our upbringing and cultural backgrounds. For those of us who grew up in emotionally unhealthy environments, it takes all the more digging and self-exploration to undo those negative thoughts and feelings. For me, I had to learn the basics of expressing myself in a healthy manner, not in a passive-aggressive or overtly aggressive way (I still have a long way to go). Despite being an adult, I still need to consult with friends and therapists about how to communicate – I never learned how to do so in a healthy manner, so I beat myself up about things, overate, and then beat myself even more. And then I eat.

Emotional eating was my mechanism of choice, and every step I took with that army of professionals brought me one step closer to the battle line, with more ammunition to fight a battle against myself.  For thirty years, I  concentrated on everyone else while I criticized and ignored myself. It's hard to learn how to accept and trust yourself, and how to figure out and express what your REAL needs are, especially when you never had models for that at home. But, contrary to popular belief, that pint of Ben and Jerry’s and fresh baked goods don't help you solve your problems. They tend to make them worse.

I soon came to realize that fighting and changing myself wasn’t the way; I had to listen to myself; tune in to my own intuition and embrace it. I needed to discover the wonders and beauty of the person within, silenced all these years, and accept her; respect her. I was done numbing my emotional pain with food, I needed to be courageous and confront what was really going on inside.

I now know that I am on a lifelong journey, of weight loss and healthy living, but more importantly, of listening to and nourishing myself - body, mind, and soul. 

Sometimes that dugree talk is painful, and other times, it is refreshingly honest. It has been ten years since that wake-up call from the doctor. They journey has not been an easy one, but it has shaped me into who I am. And I can finally say that I am proud of myself, all 250lbs of me.

[i]  Here’s the list of practitioners I consulted with over the past few years: (1) various dieticians; (2) personal fitness coach; (3) acupuncturist; (4) family doctor (G.P.); (5) orthopedist (for lower back and knee pain); (6) gastroenterologist (IBS, indigestion, reflux); (7) dermatologist (eczema); (8) podiatrist (foot pain); (9) psychologist ; (10) psychiatrist; (11) dentist (for cavities, sugar eating away my tooth enamel and other such fun stuff); (12) addiction counselor; (13) OA/CEA meetings and sponsors, (14) and probably a few more that I'm missing right now...