New Year 2014
I weigh 460 pounds.
These are the most difficult words I've ever had to write. Nobody knows that number – neither my wife, my doctor, nor my closest friends. It's like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs about 195 pounds; I'm two of those guys, with a 10-year rest. I am the most important human being that most people who know me have met or will never meet.
The government definition of obesity is a body mass index of 30 or more. My BMI is 60.7. My shirts are size XXXXXXL, which big and big stores shorten to 6X. I am 6 feet 1 or 73 inches tall. My height is about 60 inches. I am almost a sphere.
These are the numbers. That's what it does.
I'm in the subway in New York, standing in the driveway, hanging on the pole. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I do not visit much New York. I do not understand how subway cars move. I pray that he does not jump into a turn or stop abruptly, because I'm terrified of falling. That's part of the discomfort. When a fat guy falls, it's hard to get up. But what scares me is the possibility that I reach someone. I take a look at the people stuck around me. None of them could take my weight. It would be an avalanche. Some people look at me, and I think they think the same thing. An old woman is sitting three feet away. Only one sheet and I would crush it. I squeeze the pole harder.
My hands start to sweat and, all of a sudden, I go to elementary school in Georgia, in the school bus lane. The driver asks me to find a seat. He can not take us home until everyone has sat down. I am the only one standing. Whenever I spot an empty space, glide to the edge of the seat and cover it up. Nobody wants the fat boy to be crushed next to them. I freeze, helpless. The driver looks at me in the rearview mirror. An older kid sitting in front of me – a redhead, freckles, I'll never forget his face – has a cast on his right arm. He reaches out towards the back and begins to watch me with her, under the waist, out of the driver's view. He catches me in the groin and it hurts, but not as much as shame when the other kids laugh and the bus driver gets up and rushes to me …
and the train stops and brings me back now.
I take my hands off the pole and go down. I climb the stairs that lead to the street and advance to the side to catch my breath. I breathe like a 30-year-old smoker. My legs are shaking from the ascent. I meet a friend near Central Park at a place called the Brooklyn Diner. I have 15 minutes in advance, on purpose, because I have to find a safe place to sit.
The night before, I had a googled interior at Brooklyn Diner to get an idea of the layout. Now, I scan the space like a gangster, looking for dangerous areas. The cabins are too small – I can not get in there. The stools are set on the floor – they are too close to the bar and my ass would hang in the back. I check the tables, gauge the chairs. They look solid – the chair looks good; yes, that will hold me back. For the first time in an hour, I take a deep breath.
My friend arrives at the hour. At that time, I explored the menu. Eggs, bacon, toast, coffee. Some bites and shame fade. At least for a little while.
From all reasonable points of view, I won the lottery of life. I grew up with two loving parents in a peaceful home. I have spent my entire career doing a job that interests me – writing for newspapers and magazines. I married Alix Felsing, the best woman I know, and I love her more now than when my heart collapsed for the first time. We are blessed with strong families and a bench of friends. Our lives are full of music and laughter. I would not trade with anyone.
Except the mornings when I wake up and throw a long, naked look in the mirror.
My body is a car wreck. Skin tags, long growths resembling moles caused by irritation, hang under my arms and in my crotch. I have breasts where my breasts should be. My belly has more stretch marks than a mother of five. My stomach is hanging below my waist, giving me what the urban dictionary calls "stretch" – as if a twisted Dr. Frankenstein grafted an extra posterior end to the wrong side. Varicose veins swell up my thighs. My calves and shins are rusty and shiny from a disease called chronic venous insufficiency. Here is what it means: the veins in my legs are not strong enough to bring all the blood back to my heart, so that it lodges in my capillaries and forces small iron dots under my skin. The veins are giving way because of the pressure exerted by 460 pounds that grow down with every step I take. My body crumbles under its own gravity.
Some days, when I see this disaster taking shape, I am so angry that I stuff my stomach with my fists, as if I could get rid of the fat. Other times, the sight plunges me into a blue fog that can spoil an hour, a morning or a day. But most of the time, I feel sadness for the life I lost. When I was a child, I never climbed into a tree nor learned to swim. When I was 20, I never brought a girl back to a bar at home. Now I'm 50 years old and I have never done mountain treks, skateboarding or wheeling. I missed so many adventures, so many good times, because I was too big to try. Sometimes, when I could try anyway, I did not have the courage. I have done many things of which I am proud. But I never thought I could do anything really great, because I have failed many times over the crucial challenge of my life.
But what's wrong with me?
What's wrong with us? By the time I write these lines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 79 million American adults – or 40% of women and 35% of men – are considered obese. The rate of obesity in American children is 17% and that of climbing. Our collective waistline transcends all boundaries: age, race, gender, politics, culture. In our fractured country, we all agree on one thing: a second portion.
The author and his parents (Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson)
As everyone knows, the cheap buffet does not exist: you always pay later, one way or another. Fat America comes with a devastating bill. According to government estimates, Americans pay $ 147 billion a year in medical costs related to obesity. That's about equal to the total budget of the US military. But money is only part of the cost. Every fat person, and his family, pays with anger, sorrow and pain. For all of us who can not lose weight, there are spouses and parents, children and friends who are in mourning. We cut lines in their faces. We condemn them for years only.
I know it from experience. I also feel it like a knife on fire right now. Because my sister, Brenda Williams, passed away seven days ago on Christmas Eve.
One of the great joys of our family was to make Brenda laugh. If someone was making a fake color joke, his eyes were wide open and his eyebrows raised up from his forehead like a cartoon. Sometimes she let out a little laugh that tickled me even more. She and her husband, Ed Williams, had been married for 43 years and had three children. Brenda has never been happier than when she had a home full of people that she loved. But she has not laughed so much in recent years. His weight frightened him and isolated him, and eventually he killed him.
Brenda was 63 years old and weighed well north of 200 pounds. Her feet were so swollen that she could almost no longer wear shoes. Her thighs were so tense, with so little warning, that she was afraid to drive. For years, she had leg sores caused by swelling. They leaked fluid and did not heal. At the end of December, one of the wounds was infected. Brenda was tough, so when she confessed that she was sick, she had big problems. Ed took her to the emergency room in Jesup, Georgia, while Alix and I were going to Tennessee to spend Christmas with Alix's parents. On Christmas Eve, my brother called at two in the morning to tell me that the situation was getting worse. We tried to sleep for a few hours, got up and took the road. The infection has turned out to be MRSA. It has spread so fast. We were somewhere outside Asheville when my brother texted: She left.
The funeral took place on my mother's 82nd birthday. She cried tears from the bottom of the ocean. She lived next to Brenda and Ed for nearly 20 years – we transferred her after her retirement. She spent so many nights telling stories about Brenda and Ed's dining room table. Now she will not come back to their house. All she can see, is the empty space where Brenda was. The infection was the official cause of Brenda's death, but her weight had killed her, certainly a poison.
What happens when one of your loved ones dies? People bring food.
He arrived at Brenda and Ed's, and at my mother's, in a few minutes and in large quantities. The neighbors prepared a potato salad and a pecan pie. People who did not cook brought charcuterie and light bread. One of Edward's friends arranged for the Western Sizzlin to send a rolling trolley of meat and vegetables on the road. No matter where you were, you were not more than 10 feet fried chicken. I stuffed everything I could on my big paper plate. The sugar and the fat repelled the sorrow, just for a minute or two, the time to breathe.
That's the terrible catch-22: The thing that soothes the pain prolongs it. What brings me back to life pushes me closer to the grave.
I think a lot these days to a guy named David Poole. David and I worked together at The Charlotte Observer – he was a brilliant nascar writer when I was a local columnist. I weighed more than David, but he was shorter and rounder. We were not alike, but we were two big with our images in the newspaper, so the readers grouped us together. People came to see me in the street and wondered if I was him. He's one of the smartest guys I've ever met, a great, fearless journalist and one of Alix's closest friends for years. David died of a heart attack at the age of 50. I am about to be 51 years old.
Guys like us do not do it at 60.
Some of us are rotting diabetes or high blood pressure on an artery, but a heart attack is what worries me the most. My doctor likes to say that in a third of cases of heart disease, the first symptom is death. Right now, my heart is testing well. But I can hear him tapping in the temples, some 80 beats per minute even when I'm resting, and I know I'm doing too much work. Sometimes, when it's quiet in the house, I close my eyes and listen, praying that it does not stop like a needle in a disc. Every day I wonder if it's the day I could end up in my chair or at the bookstore or (God help me) driving my car. At 460 pounds, I'm lucky to have been this far. It's like holding 20 at the blackjack table and waving at the dealer for another card. Without a miracle, I am forced to go bankrupt.
Bless me, father, for I have sinned: I covet greasy double cheeseburgers, fried chicken legs and Ruffles straight out of the bag. I covet Krispy Kreme hot donuts that melt on my tongue. I venerate bowls filled with M & M peanuts, savoring them one by one, then stuffing my mouth with handles, then wetting my finger to pick up the last bits of chocolate dust and candy. My brain vibrates with pleasure; my taste buds moan with desire. This is happening time and time again, day after day, and I arrived here, closer to the end of my life than the beginning, weighing almost a quarter of a ton.
The first diet I remember was pills. At the age of 11 or 12, my mother took me to a specialist diet doctor. She was growing more and more at Sears. I do not remember telling him anything about eating well or exercising. I just remembered a long cabinet filled with white plastic bottles. At the end of the visit, he gave me a handful of pills as bright and as happy as Skittles. Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was amphetamines. They did not dampen my appetite – I was always slipping into the fridge at night for a bologna sandwich or banana pudding. But the next day, I could walk the basketball court for hours. It seemed like a good compromise.
The next diet, if I remember correctly, was sweets – those little chocolate candies offered in a box like a Whitman sampler. They called Ayds, an extremely unfortunate name. They were supposed to be a kind of appetite suppressant. They have not sufficiently suppressed my appetite to prevent me from eating five or six instead of one.
Tomlinson as a child (Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson)
I remember the first time carbohydrates were bad for you in the 1970s. The Woolworth lunch counter in my hometown of Braunschweig, Georgia, sold a diet plate of a burger patty on a lettuce leaf with a slice of cottage cheese. My mother and I looked at the picture on the menu as if it was a platypus at the zoo. We pretended to worry about carbohydrates for a while. Mom even bought a little guide on carbohydrates that she kept in her wallet. He said that biscuits and cornbread were bad for us. It did not stay long in his wallet.
Tomlinson and his mother (Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson)
I ate low-fat foods and carbohydrates, calories, protein and fruits and fiber. I tried the Mediterranean and brought my talents to South Beach. I avoided processed foods and knocked out enough of SlimFast to drown a rhinoceros. I ate SnackWell cookies (low fat, tons of sugar) and pieces of dry tobacco (no sugar, tons of chemicals, a slight smell of kerosene). It has been said, at different times, that eggs, bacon, toast, cereals and milk are all bad for your health. I have also been told that each of these things is an essential part of a healthy diet. My brain is pretty fogged at breakfast. Do not fuck with me like that.
Here are the two things I came to believe about diets:
1. Almost all plans work in the short term.
2. Almost no diet works in the long run.
The most depressing Google search on five words that I can think of – and I'm thinking of a lot of depressing Google searches with five words – is taking its full weight. Losing weight is not the hardest part. The hard part is living with your diet for years, if not the rest of your life.
When we go on a diet – especially an accelerated diet – our own body turns against us. Nutritional studies have shown that hunger suppressing hormones in our body decrease when we lose weight. Other hormones – those that warn us that we need to eat – tend to increase. Our bodies beg us to gorge ourselves at the first sign of privation. It makes sense when we think about the history of humanity. There was no Neanderthal greedy. They ate to survive. They are hungry for long periods. Their bodies sent alarms telling them that they had better find something to eat. Our DNA always hides a fear that we are going to starve. But now, most of us have access to more abundant, cheaper, and more addictive food than at any other time in the history of mankind. Our bodies have not caught up with the modern world. Our cells think we are storing fat for a harsh winter while it's a happy hour in Chili's.
Even worse, when people lose a lot of weight, their body slows down their metabolism. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health recently discovered this by studying candidates for the eighth season of The Biggest Loser. Good Medical has made a big story about the study. He was showing a picture of one of the candidates, Sean Algaier, and indicated that he was now a pastor in a Charlotte church, just 15 minutes from my home.
A few days after reading the Times story, I went to meet Sean. His office has solid chairs.
In 2009, while Sean and his wife were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sean's wife was informed of the casting call of a bigger loser in Oklahoma City. She told Sean that he was leaving. He finished in the series, but lasted only three weeks, mainly by choice. During that time, he lost 36 pounds (from 444 to 408) and volunteered to be fired because the other members of his team were struggling and he thought they needed trainers and counselors more than they did. he had not done it. He thought he could continue to lose weight at home. And he did it. It went down to 289, making a total of 155 pounds. He celebrated his success by organizing a marathon in Tulsa. It took him almost seven hours, but he crossed the finish line. "You come to a place where nothing will stop you from doing what you want to do," he says.
But he stopped. And then he slipped back. The day we discussed, about seven years after The Biggest Loser, Sean weighed 444 pounds. Exactly where he was when he started the series.
Nothing bowed him. His job in Tulsa was not going as he hoped. So he moved with his family. He had the normal stress of any parent who raised three young children. He spent time counseling and it opened old wounds. Everything rolled on him.
"I have developed this model of feeling of nothing worth it," he said. "And so I guess in my darkest places, there's always a little sense of uselessness."
Like me – like so many people – he broke those feelings with food. He would go to a Charlotte breakfast called the Flying Biscuit and gorge on biscuits and gravy. He would search the stocks of cakes and donuts they kept for the children. On his best days, he could avoid these things or eat only one bite or two. But when he felt dejected, he plunged in with both hands.
He knew that he could lose a lot of weight. He did it. But when scientists studied it, as well as the other candidates – before the show, and six years later – they made a heartbreaking discovery.
Other studies have already shown that the body's metabolism slows down when people lose weight, forcing them to consume fewer and fewer calories to keep losing them. But this study showed that for competitors who lost weight quickly, their metabolism continued to slow down even when they regained weight. Basically, whatever their mass, that's what their body wanted them to be.
We are about the same size now, Sean and me. We are two fat men who strive to be something else. He found a better version of himself but could not keep it. I have never seen my best version.
Sean had only good things to say about his stint on The Biggest Loser. I believe it, but I can not stand the show. I hate the way candidates run until they seem to die. I hate the two-way dagger of the title. I hate, more than anything else, the way men undress when they show up, all their shame displayed for the pleasure of the hearings, so that viewers will watch with disgust and tune in again next week . All the inspiration is the rancid smell of a monster show. And I hate so much because I know it would probably work. If I had to take off my shirt over and over on national television, I would really lose weight. Or die trying.
"Eat less and exercise."
That's what some of you are saying right now. This is what some of you have said throughout their reading. That's what some of you are saying – maybe not aloud, but you say it – every time you see a fat person eating fried eggs in a restaurant, Too much pad a swimsuit on the beach or watch one of those good lords – what happened to him? stories in gossip magazines.
"Eat less and exercise."
What I want you to understand, more than anything else, is that telling a fat person to "eat less and exercise" is like telling a boxer not to be hit.
You act as if there is no opponent.
Losing weight is a fucking rock fight. The enemies come from all sides: the flood of marketing tells us to eat worse and eat more. The culture that has turned food into one of the last acceptable vices. Our families and friends, who want us to share their pleasure. The chemistry of our body brings us back to the table for fear of starvation.
On top of that, some of us are fighting holes in our souls that a donut car could not fill.
My desire to eat comes from all these places. I'm almost never hungry physically. But I always want an emotional high, the one that has just made love, to find myself in the crowd to listen to good live music or watch the sun rise on the ocean. And I always want something to counter depression, when I'm worried about my job, talking to my family or being depressed for reasons I can not understand.
Tomlinson in adulthood (Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson)
There are radical options for people like me. There are training camps where I could spend thousands of dollars getting coaches to get in shape. There are crash diets and drugs leading to dangerous side effects. And, of course, there is weight loss surgery. Many people I know have done it. Some say it saved them. Others had life-threatening complications. Some are as miserable as before. I do not judge people trying to find their own way. I only speak for myself here: for me, surgery is like giving up. I know that the first step in 12-step programs is to admit that you are helpless in your addiction. But I do not feel helpless yet.
My plan is to lose weight in a simple, regular and sustainable way. I will count how many calories I eat and how much I burn. If I find myself on the right side of the line at the end of the day, it's a win. I'll be like an air mattress with a slow leak, persuading my body to think I'm not in the diet at all. And one day, a few years later, I will get up and look at myself in the mirror and think: I got there.
"Live Oak," Jason Isbell's song, hits me so hard, even in 2019.
There is a man walking beside me
He's who I've been
And I wonder if she sees him
And confuse him with me.
The narrator is a killer who falls in love with a good woman and sees a glimmer of a better life for himself. But he wonders what version of himself he is attracted to: the one who tries to live directly, or the one who is dishonest in his past. The song has no happy ending.
I have never been that fat. Is there anything in the fat version of me that makes me so likeable and creative and a decent human? Are the best parts of me all tied to the worst? Is there a way to untangle it and keep only the good things? Most of the time, I consider my fat as an envelope, something I have to pour so that the best part of myself can come out. But sometimes, I wonder if I am more like the shells you find on the beach, where the outside is the attraction, and the animal inside is dull and formless.
There is no doubt that if I wrote everything that would be better if I lost weight, the list would be as long as the Old Testament. If I wrote anything that could get worse, it would not fill a form. But that's why people buy insurance to protect themselves against unlikely catastrophes.
Four years later, there has not yet been a catastrophe. For the first time in my life, as I start losing weight, keeping it is sustainable. My cholesterol and my blood pressure have returned to normal. I woke up with headaches while sleeping so badly. It almost never happens now. Walking is easier. When I rent a car now, I do not have to try three or four until I find one that I can buckle my seatbelt on.
Of course, I have to lose more. But I am already preparing for the coming of the man who walks in me.
(Emily Haasch *)
I have clothes that I want it to wear. In the bottom drawer of my dresser is a pile of t-shirts too small for me now. There's one for Willie's Wee-Nee Wagon, the hot dog of my hometown, which I think is the biggest restaurant in the world. There is one for St. Paul & the Broken Bones, one of my favorite bands. There is one for fishing lures in Rapala that is so old, I do not remember where I got it. It's an XL, several sizes smaller than the ones I'm wearing now. If the day comes when I can wear an XL shirt again, I'll go to my favorite bar, Thomas Street Tavern in Charlotte, and buy a cartridge for the house.
It is a ladder on which I want the man who walks in me to climb: the folding ladder to our loft. It is valued at 250 pounds. I have never been in the attic because I'm afraid the ladder will not hold me back. Whenever we need what's waiting for us – Christmas decorations, winter clothes, an extension – Alix has to pick them up. I am embarrassed to find that there is a whole part of our house in which I have never been. I want to climb the ladder with confidence.
There is a boat that I want the man in me to put in a lake. Dad's motor boat lives in our backyard. It is green aluminum and still carries its Georgian registration number. When I was a kid, we dragged a thousand catfish overboard of this boat. Dad died in 1990 and the boat has not been in the water for a long time. I was always afraid of being so big, I rocked. You need a drain plug and a little bit of love. But he is still strong enough to hold a man of normal size, and perhaps his beautiful wife.
There is a bike that I want the man inside me to ride. Nothing fancy, I'll be fine with one of those old bikes with the right handlebars and the padded seat. Our neighborhood is full of cyclists. Il y a un groupe qui va ensemble tous les mardis soir. Parfois, nous nous asseyons sur le porche et leur faisons signe alors qu'ils glissent devant notre maison, un défilé roulant. J'en ai marre de regarder les défilés. J'aimerais être dans quelques-uns.
Je veux que l’homme en moi joue à un jeu. Zut, le basket me manque. C’est si longtemps depuis que j’ai boxé pour un rebond ou que j’ai tiré une balle dans la main. Peu importe si je suis juste le vieil homme qui gagne trois fois du coin. Peu importe si je me suis foulé la cheville pour la 18e fois. Ce serait si bon de revenir dans le jeu.
Je veux que l’homme en moi prenne un vol. Peu importe où cela se passe, du moment que je suis au centre. Je veux rester assis sans noyer les berges des accoudoirs. Je veux que la ceinture de sécurité claque autour de ma taille avec un pouce ou deux de moins. Après cela, je peux chicaner comme tout le monde sur le siège central. Mais je voudrais rester assis là-bas et me sentir bien. Juste une fois.
Cet article a été adapté du livre à paraître de Tommy Tomlinson, L'éléphant dans la pièce: la quête d'un homme gras pour se réduire dans une Amérique en croissance.
* Photos d'archives courtoisie de Tommy Tomlinson