At 278 pounds I was dying. Sure the weight was cutting my life expectancy, but really I was dying inside. Part of me was terrified my friends or family would mention my weight, but an even greater part of me was desperate for someone to say something about it.
Visiting Disney with my family should have been something to look forward to, but instead I dreaded it. For me, it wasn’t the “happiest place on Earth;” it was a minefield of possible humiliation. Would I fit into the rides? Would that lap bar snap in place over my stomach? Would people laugh at me having to turn sideways to fit through the turnstiles? Would this be the day my family finally said something about what I had let myself become?
On a crisp fall day, my family stood watching Minnie and Mickey sing and dance in the park’s opening ceremony. Despite the nip in the air, sweat trickled down my back as I frantically scanned the gates the crowds would be funneled through. Soon it was time to go in, and I braced myself for what was to come. Luckily, my son was in a stroller, so I was spared the embarrassment of having to try to squeeze through the turnstiles and was instead ushered through a larger opening made to accommodate strollers. One worry was out of the way, but there was still a full day ahead, fraught with obstacles. I carefully orchestrated which rides we would go on, not based on the enjoyment factor but on the simple criteria that I could fit into the seat.
And then it happened. It was our turn to get on the ride. Too late, I realized those rockets were built for two, but I would have to ride in one alone. I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, plastering on a smile like I was actually enjoying myself, I was counting down the seconds until the ride would end. No one said a word about the fact that I took up as much space as two adults. We just headed to the next machine of torture.
I knew I was dangerously overweight. And probably, if someone had said, “Hey Tricia, you’ve put on a lot of weight,” I would’ve burst into tears. But when the tears dried, I might have looked beyond their statement. Reaching out to me, acknowledging the issue, would’ve showed they cared.
I have a very loving, supportive family. They show their love in a million ways, but once I became an adult, they refrained from mentioning my size. Weight is a tricky beast. There isn’t a set number on the scale that magically determines if you’re healthy or not. Weight-loss stories and plans are strewn across every magazine cover and dominate the bookshelves, but directly addressing someone’s weight is considered taboo in our society. Even knowing this, there was a demon whispering in the back of my head that if they really loved me, they would reach out to me.
I don’t blame my friends or family for my poor choices, but once I had broken that cycle, I needed to know why they hadn’t said anything. When I was an overweight child, my family talked about my unhealthy habits, encouraging better portion sizes and more activity. When I started running through fad diets in my teen years, they tried to explain more sensible approaches. But when I became an adult, and I escalated from being overweight to becoming morbidly obese, there was near silence. My friends and family tiptoed around the issue, never stating the obvious. I asked why, and the answer was heartbreakingly simple: “We loved you so much we didn’t want to hurt you.” They were afraid I’d become defensive and put up a wall, pushing away the ones who cared about me. They knew I was struggling with some emotional issues and worried that by confronting me about them, they would push me over that figurative edge. They cared about me so much that they kept quiet.
The dirty little secret behind obesity is people aren’t feeding their bodies; they’re feeding their hurts. Odds are the obese person didn’t get that way solely because he or she enjoys cheeseburgers. Sure, some people just love food, but there are others like me who use food to self-medicate until it almost becomes an addiction. Can’t forget a difficult childhood? Turn your focus to food; turn your thoughts to your next meal. Feel like you don’t deserve to be loved by others? Stuff your face until you’re obese and so uncomfortable with yourself you have an excuse to hide inside, never giving others a chance to reject you.
If someone put a gun to my head right now and insisted on knowing where my deep-rooted issues come from, I doubt I’d survive. I don’t have all those answers. I know I grew up feeling worthless, somehow never measuring up to my own expectations. I was never pretty enough, thin enough, funny enough, smart enough, good enough. I can remember having these feelings as early as elementary school. I would daydream about the day when I would fit in, when I would finally measure up. That theme continued throughout adulthood; sometimes at unexpected moments those thoughts still echo in my head. Where those issues stem from is something I continue to deal with today. Even once we start healing our bodies, our minds may still need mending. Sometimes professional help is needed to finally be whole again.
Comparing food to drugs may seem extreme, but in my life as an obese individual, junk food was my drug of choice. I exhibited all the signs of someone addicted to an illegal substance. I was constantly planning my next “fix.” I often felt unable to resist the lure of a fast food chain, and I would even eat in secret. Like any true junkie, I was constantly telling myself “I could quit tomorrow if I wanted to.”
A moment from my past floats forward: I’d dropped my husband off at work and had a sleeping infant in the backseat of my truck. I should have driven home to do some laundry or clean up the kitchen from breakfast, but instead I was sitting in a Taco Bell parking lot. I sat staring at that building, waiting for them to open, trying to find the willpower to start the truck and drive home. I didn’t need food; we’d just had breakfast. But I couldn’t resist. The employees turned the lights on, and I headed to that drive-through window. As I ate my burrito, I could taste the salt of tears streaming down my face: I was no longer in control.
Telling someone they’re eating too much isn’t nice…or is it? Maybe that statement alone isn’t, but what if it was followed up by action? “Tricia, I’m concerned about your current lifestyle. Let’s take a healthy cooking class together.” The key in reaching out to our loved ones is not just to say the words but also to offer support through action.
Beyond offering to go on walks with your loved one or researching healthy alternatives to their favorite meal, offering emotional support is part of laying the foundation of help. After I’d lost 120 pounds and had a couple of years under my belt with my new healthy life style of moving more and eating less, I thought I had all the answers. After all, I spent my free time offering help and hope to an online community of readers struggling with obesity. Yet I didn’t take the time to offer that same support to a family member who reached out to me, saying, “I’ve gained a lot of weight.” Sad to say, I had already noticed this person’s struggle, but I had fallen into the idea that it’s too risky to discuss someone else’s unhealthy lifestyle. What if he gets upset with me? What if I hurt his feelings?
If my loved one were drinking his liver into oblivion, I wouldn’t hesitate to speak up. From now on, I plan to apply that same concept to those around me who are leading unhealthy lifestyles; their health is worth more than a few uncomfortable moments to me. I reached out to my family member with concern and support. I didn’t hurl accusations or make inflammatory statements. I didn’t shame him into accepting a healthier lifestyle. Talking to my loved one face-to-face didn’t work. He brushed me off, made a joke, and changed the subject. But I wanted to help, so it was time to think outside the box. I used social media to reach out. I wrote a blog post, without mentioning his name, knowing he would read it and hoping it would open a line of communication. I said: “I see you; I acknowledge there is a problem. I’m hurting because I know you’re hurting. I love you, and I’m here to help you in any way I can.”
We all know there is more to being healthy than simply eating well—we must nurture our minds, bodies, and souls. Similarly, we can’t take a one-track approach when reaching out to a loved one. Opening a line of dialogue, one that stems from love not shame, is the first step. From there our words need to be backed up with action. Sign up for a family boot camp. Take that healthy cooking class. Lead by example. But most of all, take a risk, get involved, really be there for that obese person.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Blogger and marathon runner Tricia Minnick shares her personal story of transformation regularly in her blog. For Austin Fit Magazine this month, she shares her first-person narrative to illuminate the emotional turmoil we think we’re avoiding when we do not directly address obesity issues with those we care about. Note that this is a personal narrative. If you or someone you know is experiencing physical, emotional, or mental obesity-related symptoms that may require professional attention, please see your physician for evaluation or referral to specialists.