When I started this blog, in a fit of bravery, I was convinced that the story was just going to flow right out of me. It turns out that writing about being fat and crazy is kind of hard. Of all the things to write about — homeschooling, gardening, poodles, grain-free grass-fed meatballs — I choose childhood obesity and mental illness. Good thing fat and crazy is such a fundamental part of my story.
I got fat at age eight. I just woke up one morning transformed from the pretty little second grader with golden ringlets to the biggest kid in the whole third grade. My hair turned course and thick, my eyebrows grew together, my cheeks puffed up around my eyes, my belly rounded out over the top of my stirrup pants. I assumed the change was temporary and invisible. I assumed the strawberry SlimFast my mother packed as my lunch was going to fix the problem.
I quickly learned to edit my life around my body. When I noticed that the weight listed on my “All About Me” poster was 50 pounds heavier than my fellow 4th graders, I convinced my teacher to correct my mistake with permanent marker. I made a point to be as helpful as possible to all teachers, especially PE teachers in an attempt to go on as many administrative errands during PE as possible. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the exercise, it was just that physical activity drew attention to my body, and my body was not like the others’. As long as I was still or talking, no one could see how out of place I was.
Being a straight A student who could talk her way out of anything eased my way. I discovered that as long as I was more exceptional for my talent than I was for my weight, it almost didn’t matter. Almost.
By the fifth grade, it was clear that I wasn’t going to be normal again. I mastered the art of “the fat friend.” I was the best friend and trusted confidante of the prettiest, most popular girls in school. I would walk with them to the “secret spot” behind the portable where 10 year olds practice kissing in front of their peers, then walk alone to the 7-11 for a chili cheese Big Bite, frosted Donettes, and a Super Big Gulp.
No adult ever talked to me about my weight. No one ever acknowledged that I was a little girl with a big problem. No one helped. In an attempt to guard my self-esteem, the adults in my life allowed me to become obese at ten years old.
While my weight was never discussed, my constant headaches, stomach aches, insomnia, and refusal to go to school earned me a trip to the pediatrician and the eye doctor. The eye doctor got me nothing but a stern lecture about crying wolf, the pediatrician got me a diagnosis of hypoglycemia and a free pass to the library with a bag of peanuts and some grape juice. By the time I was in the 8th grade, I was missing months of school at a time, trapped by hallucinations of giant black ravens hovering over my bed, pinning my head to the pillow with their beaks.
Doctors started looking for brain tumors. I fantasized about the new identity I would have if they had to shave my head to cut them out. I was disappointed when they didn’t find any.
Meanwhile, I just got fatter. I remember stepping on my mother’s bathroom scale one fall morning to discover I weighed 208 pounds. My best friend, the cheerleader, weighed 108 pounds, and somehow those numbers seemed so close. I would pray every day that God would make me thin overnight and I would lay in bed deciding which outfit of hers I would borrow to wear to school the next morning.
Despite my absence from school, I managed to do well academically. Instead of daily assignments, my teachers allowed me to write papers and do research projects based on my interest. My interest as a suicidal12 year old was the Holocaust, and I wrote many papers about Josef Mengele. Looking back, that can’t have been the best idea. My standardized test scores tagged me as a candidate for the high school liberal arts magnet program, so I climbed aboard a bus that carried me 21 miles east every day.
I loved my high school. The radical difference between my home life and school life helped me feel that I had finally escaped myself. I was rewarded for my eccentricity, challenged academically, and I had a vibrant community of friends. But still, the year I got my driver license, I couldn’t pass a telephone pole without wondering who would show up at my funeral if I just drove straight into it.
By then I had been on anti-depressants and making promises not to harm myself or others to a psychologist once a week for over a year. The talking was nice, but the drugs didn’t work. I found food to be far more powerful than drugs. My diet throughout junior high and high school was Dr. Pepper, chinese take out, Taco Bell, and school cafeteria. Both of my parents worked full time and travelled frequently, so any home cooked meal came from a box or the freezer.
When I felt sad, I ate. When I felt happy, I ate. When I felt lonely, I ate. When I felt bored, I ate. When I felt too much, I ate. When I felt too little, I ate. I managed my mental illness by manipulating my blood sugar. This approach, coupled with the side-effects of medication, helped me tip the scales at 298 pounds by the time I left for college.
By the end of my first semester, I was put on suicide watch. I sat in the counselor’s office and fantasized about how I could kill myself with the can of sharpened pencils on his desk. A week later, I was home, slicing my wrists with a safety razor. I didn’t do much physical damage, but I spent a week in intensive care at the psychiatric hospital, trying to figure out how I could get into one of the padded rooms, concerned that they might not have a straight jacket to fit me.