Here is a draft of Chapter 1!
April 1, 2011
It was Always the Elephant in the Room
An age-old dilemma for the late twenty-something: Do I put together a killer outfit, plaster on the fake smiles and perfect the sing-songy “how are yous?” and “what are you doing these days?” for my high school reunion, or do I avoid it like all of those dances where I’d have to slip on a size 24 dress and pretend to be content with the fact that no one ever asked me to dance, let alone take me as their date. As cliché as a scene from a romantic comedy or sitcom, we all know that the extremely overweight, single, broke, unemployed youngling’ that’s likely addicted to something or still lives in their parents’ basement probably won’t go out of their way to make an appearance. But how about a thriving young woman that just lost 175lbs, is weeks away from graduating with a Masters in Social Work degree, was just hired by a well-respected local agency as a family worker, is moving into a great new apartment and is training to run her first race next weekend? She is the epitome of sayings like “get out there and show ‘em what’cha got!”
I technically had about four years to go before one of those awkward evenings, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t walk around with a self-effacing, but satisfying “look at me now!” swagger in the meantime. I was on top of the world and wanted to flaunt it to those who’d ignored, loved, respected or were repulsed by me all the same. I always considered myself accomplished in that I was continually striving for my own conceptualization of success in school, work and relationships. How many people finish 12 consecutive semesters of post-secondary school maintaining a 4.0 GPA, land sweet internship experiences and have a whacked-out goofy persona that only those worthy of my awesomeness could appreciate? At least that’s the energy I pushed outward in order to convince myself of its merit. The truth was that I weighed 352 lbs (but I was pushing 400 lbs at one point), was entirely guarded emotionally and inundated with self-disgust and zero confidence. This was aside from my commendable wit and fine academic skills that would undoubtedly carry me through life, of course.
I easily fixed one of those problems. Yes, I truthfully mean it when I say easily because that’s what it was. Losing a total of 195lbs over the course of 13 months with diet and exercise paled in comparison to the challenges that would await me. After a first-week 8lb drop, the diet just kicked into high-gear and the weight-loss felt effortless. The phrase uttered by many became entrenched in every thought and behavior at every single moment: nothing tasted as good as skinny felt. And I wasn’t by any means skinny in those first months. I was quickly becoming normal. My first ever bag of hand me down clothes from my cousin was like gold. Flirting from guys no longer felt derisive. Walking into any store I wanted at the mall and knowing I could fit into anything was liberating. The experience of respect and acknowledgement becoming a standard was mind-blowing. Normal was still extraordinary and novel to me.
As you might suspect; it was far too good to be true. It wasn’t a dream and I wasn’t hallucinating. It really did happen, but the full impact of dropping a 6’0” male off my 5’6” female frame was much more than a physical change. I was so proud of where this journey had taken me and I subtly made sure others knew that I was no longer the same quiet, awkward, fat girl that kept to herself growing up. Any teasing for my weight was typically indirect or behind my back, but I’d argue that feeling ignored and simply different was worse. But, Ah-ha! The gift of social media. You bet your Farmville dollars that I updated pictures pound by pound! I basked in the glory of compliments and almost felt vindicated for the hurt others knowingly or unintentionally caused years prior. My confidence skyrocketed, but thrived almost exclusively on the responsiveness and attention of those around me; past and present.
I began reaching out to those who’d impacted me positively throughout the years. In these instances I wasn’t looking for them to just take notice of my transformation. It was my chance to convey that their time and influence on my life was not futile. I was going places, and losing weight was assurance that it would actually come to fruition. I was physically healthy and my dreams, as most twenty-somethings might envision, could flourish without the likely chance my weight would stop me. The health, fitness, job, place to live- it was all happening and at an awe-inspiring rate. So when I emailed my favorite college professor, who I now just call Jane, I asked if I could stop by her campus office for a visit because I wanted to tell her about my classes, internships and graduation. More importantly I wanted to finally thank her for inspiring and preparing me for my career as it was about to take-off. I had no contact with her in the two years since finishing my undergraduate degree. My weight loss wasn’t just an added bonus to show off, it was necessary for me to feel confident enough to revisit the past. I no longer had to wear the hmost shameful, embarrassing and disgusting part of me every single day. I didn’t have to save-face by avoiding unnecessary social interaction. Oh, have I mentioned yet that I was becoming a social worker?
Jane was the staff member I chose to present my hood to me at graduation and I vaguely remember how it awkwardly rested along my 23 inch neck-line. Yes, that’s the size of kid’s or petite woman’s waist! Since it was her last visual memory of me along with my 4XL sized gown in May 2009, I figured I needed to mention it somewhere in our email threads that began a couple days before we were to meet:
That’s okay I am moving to Naperville at the end of April (and not far from downtown), so we can even meet for coffee or lunch sometime if that’s more convenient. I am graduating in May and Little Friends offered me a position, so I will be the parent educator at Krejci Academy (their K-12 school) starting in April since I finished my field placement hours already. On a more personal note I’ve also lost 170 lbs in the past year, so things are going very well for me right now. I hope everything is great for you too.
I have time from 4:00 to 5:00 on Friday afternoon – in between clients. Any possibility we could grab a cup of coffee? Can’t wait to see you – and wow, 170 pounds. Outstanding!!!! I may not recognize you.
“I may not recognize you.” There’s no chance she would. No one had unless they saw me throughout those 11 months, before that pinnacle month of April.
However casually I wanted to address my weight loss with people as a simple “fyi,” I knew I would look drastically different and that became a source of severe anxiety. It was only 11 months since I’d been so morbidly obese. There were a lot of people that I hadn’t seen in that time span who only knew me as heavy; out of state friends, extended relatives, you name it. Showing them how I now looked was so much easier through pictures- I was spared the I just saw a ghost or deer in headlights reactions that’d become so customary since they would occur behind the privacy of their computer screens or smartphones. My own great-aunt turned pale and froze with a dramatic jaw drop that I was sure was turning into a full-blown heart-attack after she realized who I was at a family party. It wasn’t the surprise itself that caused me discomfort, it was feeling like a stranger in front of people who’ve known me forever. This time I walked into a Starbucks in the lively downtown Naperville area. It was just a block away from Jane’s private practice office above a local sandwich shop where she’d be walking from shortly after 4:00 pm. This would become our regular meeting spot from now on. It’s funny how a small turn of events can turn two solid years of zero communication into a friendship I’ve come to treasure. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself- in that moment it was terrifying.
This was one of those gray days where everyone expresses some variant of “I could just stay inside and nap all afternoon.” Plenty of cold, intermittent showers necessitated a warm trench-style raincoat, grey boots and a number of bobby-pins to tame my frizz-prone hair. As I stood to the left of the register waiting for the tea I just ordered after scanning the area for the familiar face, I saw her about ten feet from the front door. I cleared a giant lump in my throat momentarily thought, “Maybe she actually will recognize me, my hair’s the same, I always wore it up like this in college.” She approached the register and similarly glanced around. I interjected with a wave and “hi!” I honestly don’t remember our immediate greetings which in actuality is a good thing. So many other encounters felt awkward and unnatural with tons of “oh my goshes” and near tears. This almost felt like seeing her on any old Monday morning in her office or prior to her class. My mind was nostalgically traveling back to college.
I had taken numerous classes at Benedictine University, a small liberal arts school outside Chicago, with Jane and excelled on every exam, project and paper. I still use a fake mask of humility to deflect the bright, blinding beam of pride that must radiate from my smirk when I think about the time she scribbled in standard red ink at the end of a term paper that I should get my doctorate in social work. I held her in high esteem for her professional knowledge, experience and guidance in helping me discover social work as a career path to seriously consider. She was the first person I called (okay, actually I cried and hyperventilated on her office voicemail) when I found out that one of my prospective graduate programs lost my application when I was anxiously awaiting a letter of acceptance and was approaching the decision-making deadline. She quieted my irrational ranting and helped me narrow it down to what mattered. Despite the cost difference, I truly wanted my degree from Loyola University Chicago anyway. When I met a challenging impasse during an assignment or had questions pertaining to my undergraduate field placement she had all the right words of encouragement. She wasn’t even technically my faculty advisor, but my go-to person for everything school/career-related. It wasn’t until this late afternoon did I realize that that was the extent of my rapport with her. Sure, she was aware of my family’s financial struggles and my Mother’s battle with a chronic illness, but that’s only because I incorporated it into a project for her Social Welfare course on Social Security Disability Insurance. This was characteristic of most of my friendships and relationships throughout my first twenty-four years; narrowly focused and guarded.
I naturally thought the first question about the weight loss would be “How did you do it?” There were no pills, surgeries, or other seemingly unorthodox methods. It was just inflexibly rigid changes to my diet and exercise. I suppose the excitement and astonishment of those around me that it was actually happening, for real this time, caused few to stop and question whether my new behaviors were in fact “healthy.” I was adhering to the protocols of a nationally-known weight loss program. So it was being properly monitored, right? The meeting leader once asked if I was actually eating to which I responded with a brazen, “Yes. I am definitely still eating, thank you.” Not only did I speak the honest truth, but my “I’m a professional and you are not” sense of entitlement kicked in. How dare some lady whose qualifications were simply a) having success on the program herself and b) receiving some corporate training question me? I was eating and losing weight, plain and simple. I was the highly trained professional and was getting a Master’s degree and state license to prove it.
Clearer memory of our reunion began after we both ordered and Jane said, “you have to tell me all about this.” I went to grab an empty table while she awaited her coffee. The conversation would obviously go there, but as I sipped my calorie-free black tea I opted to evade it for as long as possible. My plan was to the tune of “I’ll talk about myself without talking about me at all;” the courses I took, my concentration in the program, the internships, the job offer. There was plenty to keep the conversation going and this was the extent to which I’d opened up to her or anyone else before. After sitting down Jane initiated the inevitable when she simply said, “This is amazing, but I still see you. You’re the same person I remember, I can tell by your eyes.” Already this conversation felt different than all of the others and I was surprisingly at ease. In all of the cookie cutter conversations sugar-coated with praise and requests for my “secrets” to losing weight, no one, not even me, ever took the time to acknowledge that I was still the same person. I was and still am Melissa.
Jane is a therapist and I was too, but my title was brand new and only backed by the education, training and passion that put us in the same field. Unlike the program meeting leader, I felt humbled by those who’ve proven themselves in the field. Jane deserved a level of veneration for her decades of experience in understanding people, their plights and a responsiveness to their needs so seamlessly woven into her communication style-even in our casually talking. What she had to say mattered to me and I was about to have a genuine conversation about my obesity. When did I gain the weight? Was there a specific event or age in which it began? Have you tried other methods to lose the weight? What triggered this last successful attempt? What made you decide now was the right time to deal with this? How did your family address your weight? Or did they at all? And the ultimate question with an answer seeming so obvious at the time: “Do you ever feel like you are hanging on to your new eating habits with white-knuckled sobriety?”
That was a term I was all too familiar with after having studied the nature of addictions in Jane’s Alcoholism course my senior year. As is the case in any adventure thriller where a character desperately clings to life from the edge of wall or building with a fisted-grip clenched so tight that all color drains from their tiring hands, was I frantically holding on to this diet? The character is either spared in a heroic rescue or plunges to a dramatic death and his fate often depends on his ability to maintain that grip. One slip-up and it’s over. We see this all the time with alcoholics and dieters alike; with a single beer or slice of chocolate cake, a person can revert to the same cycle of destructive behaviors. I hastily answered with what was probably an unconvincing “no, I’m never going back to being the old me.” Woah! No one’s asked me that yet and the mere thought never even popped into my head. I was momentarily panic stricken and then relieved to change topics slightly.
Jane sipped her coffee and leaned back in her wooden chair with a familiar expression on her face that usually meant “I’m pondering something, but give me a second to formulate the words.” She did this all the time in class when intriguing questions were asked and I could imagine it similarly playing out in her office during sessions with clients.
“You know Melissa, your weight was something that I always struggled with while you were at Benedictine. Here you were, this bright, amazing student doing so well in all of her classes and getting straight A’s. You were very successful, but here was this very obvious, severe weight problem that you never talked about and we never talked about. It was always just this elephant in the room. And was it my place to say anything? Would that have made a difference for you?”
Is this what it was like to actually talk to a therapist? Well duh, I was! But I’d never actually been in counseling before myself and very few people ever spoke to me about a topic this real-no holds-barred. There are many social work, psychology and counseling programs throughout the country that require its students to take a gander at becoming the patient, client or consumer of therapy. It wasn’t mandatory in my graduate studies at Loyola, but always hailed as an invaluable opportunity to gain a new perspective from the other side of “the couch.” Addressing one’s own personal struggles, issues or the taxing effects of working with others so closely on their own was a respected decision. I always self-righteously ignored the general idea; the need for counseling didn’t apply to me. My immediate family members were the ones with depression, anxiety, chronic physical illness and other considerable challenges. I was getting by just fine. Yes, I weighed close to 400 lbs, but on the whole I had my life together.
In response to Jane’s question, I rationalized for both our peace of minds that it wouldn’t have done much good because I wasn’t ready to hear or deal with it at that time. In truth, I have no idea how I would have received that type of conversation. I was taken aback that she actually gave my weight that much thought –I must have figured everyone learned to bury it like me. I don’t know how a person could get by day to day with a problem that permeates literally every aspect of their existence without suppressing the embarrassment and pain. Would my admiration for Jane have stirred the spark to get this done a few years ago?
How was this never an issue or a topic of conversation? My amazing mother sat by my bedside when I’d have a breakdown and we’d talk late into the evening about wanting to lose weight and feel normal, but these were rare and always initiated by me after a triggering event. And now that the weight was gone, Jane was the only person that talked to me directly about the process. Loved ones didn’t ever approach it, so I began to mull over the possible reasons. Were people in my life quietly burdened with some sense of guilt for not doing more to help me? My best friend from high school, Michelle, told me the previous December that she never thought of me as being that heavy. I just assumed friends and loved ones were doing something I’ve never been able to do- accept me for who “I am on the inside”, despite my weight and physical appearance. Obesity is different than many of the other faces of personal turmoil because you literally wear it on the outside twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Despite my hard exterior, was everyone just fearful of how fragile I really was? Would the conversation be too risky, even if I was literally destroying myself?
Jane had to get back to her office for her 5:00pm client so we wrapped up our conversation, hugged and parted ways with plans to definitely meet soon for coffee again. I quickly jogged while jaywalking across the street to dodge the approaching Friday afternoon rush hour traffic and the continued raindrops. As I took a deep breath of cold air, I felt filled. I couldn’t have conjured a more perfect story of where I’d be two years after finishing my undergrad career. Physically, my legs felt as weightless as they did when I’d hit the pavement each afternoon to train for my first race next weekend. Little did I know in that moment how relevant our hour-long conversation would become. I truly was the old me and a fancy diet and tighter clothes wouldn’t be able to hide the truth in the weeks and months to follow.
The “difference” a year made.