Despite all the pain I have endured in my life, dealing with my dysfunctional family, trying to piece together a life that is built on something more than a foundation of quicksand, the aspect of my life that has caused me the most sadness, the most conflict and the most torture is my weight.
I rarely talk about my weight unless it is focused on my doing something positive around it. Last year I lost 50 lbs and I talked bravely and boldly about my efforts to get there. I chronicled my efforts with kickboxing and karate and how it helped me to reshape myself. I developed a new level of confidence and became empowered as I saw my body transforming to something I had never seen before. With all that, however, I never tackled the underlying issues that I have faced for almost my entire life pertaining to weight, body image, food and self-loathing. I ended up going to kickboxing because it was yet another attempt to shed pounds and prevent myself from falling off a cliff into obesity. My weight had spiraled out of control. I was heavier than I had ever been in my life. I was miserable, hated myself and simply did not know what to do. By the grace of God, I was turned on to kickboxing and it helped me to jumpstart my efforts to begin to shed the weight that I had carried around for far too long. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. I went down several clothing sizes and liked what I saw in the mirror so much more than what was there before. I developed a new sense of confidence but the fat girl still lives inside me. The girl who has been fat since forever still looks back at me in the mirror every morning. Of course she does. I still have a long way to go. I am, by no means, even close to where I want or need to be and, in truth, I fear that the little girl who was tortured for most of her childhood about how ugly and fat she was, will never be able to break free from this prison.
I recently had a little bit of an epiphany. I realized that every single day I wake up and my first thought is about what I ate the day before. Like an alcoholic or drug addict, I take an inventory to see if I fell off the wagon. It is an involuntary reflex that I simply cannot get a handle on. The tone of my day is often set by the choices I made the previous day. I either applaud and celebrate a “good” day or I ridicule and punish myself with guilt and misery for those days that I went off the rails. And, unfortunately, my train often has a hard time staying on the track.
I am embarrassed and ashamed by my weight. While I don’t think of myself, today, as someone who is less deserving of anything because of what I look like, that was not always my truth. For most of my life, I believed I was a lesser person because I was not pretty and thin. I felt ugly and undeserving. I was bullied and tortured for the better part of my young life – and not just from kids at school. My own family tormented me and humiliated me in order to try to convince me to change my habits and lose weight. I was the butt of jokes in my house because of my extremely healthy appetite. I loved to eat as a kid but no one seemed to understand that most of it was rooted in unhappiness and boredom. Food made me happy. Oreos were a treat that soothed my pain. Ice cream or cake numbed me like a healthy hit of heroin. I was a junkie at a very young age but my own family only saw me as defective on the outside rather than seeing that I was broken on the inside.
My life was a constant circuit of feeling bad about how I looked and being subjected to abuse by those around me to the self-medication of food. I would sneak whatever I could find in order to get my fix. My mother used to make bundt cakes, wrap them in tin foil and put them in the freezer in the basement to save for a special occasion. Because I was forced to play down in our unfinished cellar and was so sad and resentful for the exile, I would use that opportunity to pick at the frozen cake and slowly and steadily consume it over days and weeks, all the while knowing that my mother would ridicule me when she saw the food was gone. My most vivid memories of my childhood involved my attempts to locate cookies and candy that were strategically hidden throughout the house to prevent me from getting to it. I was a latchkey kid who spent long periods at home alone after school and I had missions to seek out the treasure. I found cookies hidden in the oven, candy tucked away behind cans pushed to the back of kitchen cabinets. I snuck food up to my room only to have my mother find mashed up wrappers under my bed. And the circle continued. As did the abuse.
I internalized all the nasty words and the bullying. I would not accept that I was such a pariah and tried to mask it all by being funny and trying to be likable. I excelled in school in hopes that my teachers would love me and find me worthwhile. Nothing in my life made me feel worthy except for my academic accomplishments. I walked around with a giant, gaping hole inside me where my self-worth and confidence should have resided. I felt small and insignificant and, at the same time, big and fat and taking up too much space.
I recently started looking at photos of myself as a young girl and felt angry because I simply was not the monstrosity that my memories suggest. I was chubby but not the obese child that my family chastised me about. I remember clothes always being an issue because I was taller and bigger than most of the kids my age and my mother continually reminded me that I had to shop the bigger sizes. I hated it. I dreaded going clothes shopping because I knew it would include a torturous commentary about how i was so different than the other kids and how difficult I was.
I was difficult.
I was the problem.
I was wrong.
I was not worthy.
I was not lovable.
I came to understand, much later in my life, that my mother was projecting her own insecurities on to me. She felt ashamed by me and my size disrupted her world in ways that she simply could not deal with. Nonetheless, as a child, I believed I was to blame. I believed that I was not worthy of love because I was fat and ugly. That was my absolute truth and I struggled with it every single day. In fact, I believed all of that until well into adulthood. When I met my husband, I tried to introduce him to some of my pretty friends because I could not believe that I would be attractive enough for him to want to date me. I did not think I was deserving of him. I did not believe he could see past all the ugliness that I saw and find me desirable or worth loving. I look back at the photos of myself then and realize how adorable and beautiful and wonderful I was. I simply could not see it. I had no way of loving myself because all I had been told was how ugly and unworthy I was. They just used nicer words to say it.
When I was in my early 20s (around the time I met my husband), I was staying at my sister’s house and I had slept the night in my niece’s bedroom. My niece must have been around 8 or 9 at the time. I was just beginning to wake up but still had my eyes closed and was savoring the last moments of sleep before it was time to get out of bed. My niece, much like me, struggled with her weight from a very young age. My sister, who also struggled with her weight but managed to keep herself happy at a size 8, was very troubled by her daughter’s size and used similar tactics on her as my mother and my sister used on me. As I lay in the bed and my sister believed me to still be asleep, I heard her fumbling around in the closet trying to find clothes for her daughter for school. I listened as she whispered to her “You don’t want to be fat like Aunt Tammy…” I can still feel the sting of those words. The heartless and cruel exploitation of me married with the degradation of my niece. She managed to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. I immediately internalized the comment and turned it onto myself. She was right. I was bad. There was something wrong with me. I was not worthy. I was not worthy.
I spent most of my childhood alone and with my thoughts. It was there that I began to write to create alternate realities for myself. I created characters that lived the lives I so wished for myself. The girls were all beautiful and loved. They had friends and families and their lives were magical. Not so for me but I could create any world for them and so I did. I suppose I should be grateful for that as I would never have had the need or the motivation to learn how to express all of my innermost desires and articulate them in that way. But, no. I still have a hard time finding the silver lining. Being subjected to bullying for the majority of my academic life and never learning how to assimilate with other kids was a horrible existence. When I finally learned how to cover my pain and put on a show to let people believe that I was more confident and self-possessed, I began to develop friendships and actually was part of a more popular crowd in high school. Sadly, I could not sustain many of those relationships because I never felt like I really fit in. While my friends were going through the traditional adolescent experiences, I was desperately praying that I could just get through high school so I could move away from home and try to start a new life someplace else. I prayed that I would crack the code and figure out how to lose the weight and become normal like the other kids. What, of course, I did not realize was that the weight was becoming less and less of an issue and the damage to my soul and my fractured psyche were now what was holding me back.
There is no happy ending to this story. It is just the beginning of the road for me with this. I am just now starting to unpack decades of boxes filled with unbearable pain. And, in order for me to truly become the authentic person that I am desperately trying to be, I cannot hide this aspect of myself away. It is such a huge part of my story – not just a chapter or two. This defines me and yet it is a secret I bury so deep inside me because I don’t want to be looked at differently. I want to blend into the crowd. I want people to think I am just regular. I suppose it is why I gravitate to those who are different. It is why I still don’t fit in with the popular kids. I am a misfit. Except, today, I am proud to be a misfit.
And so my story begins….