Jan 7, 2022

Carrying The Physical And Psychological Weight

I feel kind of stupid writing about myself on here,  After all, who the hell am I?  I'm not a celebrity, or an artist, or even a content creator.  I'm just a dude who hasn't really done anything remarkable in this world who happens to have a lot of interests without really being an expert in any of them.  However, writing sometimes helps me to come to terms with things, so what the hell.  Today, I'm going to talk about myself and my struggle with my weight.

This came to the surface of my mind from the strangest of places.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a review about The Matrix Resurrections.  It's a movie that I didn't particularly enjoy and I don't recommend.  In the process of writing it, I went searching for a photo that shows the Matrix poster that was hanging on my closet door back in the days when the first Matrix movie was the only one that existed.  In the process of searching for it, I saw a lot of pictures of myself and the way that my weight has fluctuated in my life, and it's been on my mind ever since.

When I was a little kid, my grandfather used to call me "the raging toothpick" because I was always very skinny.  It didn't matter how much I ate, it didn't seem to matter.  That continued into my teenage years and my early 20's.  This all started to change when I was around 22 years old.  I was continuously overeating to cope with depression, but I was now getting less exercise and I had been prescribed a medication that had weight gain as one of its most common side-effects.  As a result, I had blown up to over 300 pounds by my mid 20's.

When you're a 300 plus pound dude, there aren't a whole lot of styles that are available to you.  I had a lot of aloha shirts in those years, partially due to the fact that I was raised to believe that I was part Hawaiian (which is a whole separate personal crisis), and a lot of dark clothes to hide the weight as best as I could.  It got to a point where I was seriously concerned about my health.  I have a family history of diabetes on both sides, and I started to really hate what I saw when I looked in the mirror, so I started a diet after the 2005 holiday season.  As of January 1st, 2006, I cut out all snacking and recreational eating.  I still allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted for breakfast, lunch and dinner (within reason), but no dessert, no snacks, and nothing to drink except for water and coffee.

The diet worked out pretty well.  I lost over 50 pounds in the first year, and the weight loss got easier the longer that I continued to eat healthy.  I felt better about myself, both physically and mentally, so there weren't nearly as many moments of depression when I felt compelled to overeat.  This helped give me the confidence to go back to college and earn my degree.  It was around the summer of 2009 that I reached the lowest weight that I ever remember being as an adult - 159 pounds.  At this point, I decided that it was alright to have snacks and to ease up a bit on the diet.  I eventually settled in to around 180 pounds and found that this was my resting weight.  If I didn't allow myself to binge eat, but I also didn't count calories or skip out on the occasional dessert or snack, I tended to hover between 175 and 185 pounds.

I majored in psychology, and one of the earliest things I learned was the effects that major life stressors have on your physical and mental health.  In 2011, I experienced six major life stressors at virtually the same time: the death of a close family member, graduating from college, getting married, moving to a new home, starting a new career, and taking care of a sick/elderly family member.  Experiencing a single major life stressors lead to changes in your life that are crucial and, in many cases, permanent.  They're not always negative events that lead to bad changes, but good or bad, they are a source of stress, and human beings find ways to adapt to that stress.  The most major of these events was the first, and I'm still finding ways to cope with it ten years later.

My grandfather was the closest and most influential person in my life, even more so than my father.  He passed away a month before graduation and it hit me very hard.  I could continue writing about my grandfather forever if I don't rein myself in and focus on the subject at hand, so that's what I'm going to try to do.  When someone passes away in my family, we tend to either send or receive trays of food, which is mostly made up of either meat and cheeses or pastry.  My father and my grandmother were both diabetic and couldn't eat sugar, and I binge eat when I'm depressed, so I'll give you three guesses who ate almost all of the danishes and cookies and other baked goods that we received.  I didn't even enjoy it; I just mindlessly ate until there was nothing left, and then I went to find something else.

That became a pattern as I swallowed my stress, both metaphorically and literally, and I gained back a lot of weight in the process.  Looking back on that time in my life with a decade's worth of hindsight, it is clear to me that I had become addicted to food.  I didn't eat because I was hungry, or even because I thought it tasted good.  I ate to cope with stress and depression.  The challenge of a food addiction, compared to an addiction to something like drugs and alcohol, is that food is not optional - you need it to survive.  You can pour every last drop of alcohol in your house down the drain and vow to never pick up a bottle again.  It's an extremely large and difficult step to take, but it can be done.  You cannot throw out all of your food and vow to never pick up a fork.  Also, unlike other addictions, you will be offered food constantly.  This is especially true when the new career that I referred to earlier was to work for the confections / baking / ice cream division of one of the world's largest producers of consumer packaged foods.

My weight fluctuated a lot over the past ten years.   It went up in the years following my grandfather's death, topping out at around 280 pounds, after which I would commit myself to eating healthy and lose the weight.  That wasn't easy, especially during the years of my career when I had access to as much chocolate and ice cream as I could ever want.  Sometimes, I would fall back into my old habits of binge eating to cope with stress, and sometimes I would get back on the wagon and take off a few pounds.  I'm pretty sure the lowest weight I got to after graduation was 215, but I eventually settled in at around 230 by my 37th birthday.

As my weight stabilized, so did my mental health, though I can't say for sure whether the chicken or the egg came first.  Additionally, I was doing pretty well in my career.  I earned three promotions in my time with the company, first to social media specialist, then to consumer engagement specialist (which was, essentially, the quality coach for my team), and finally to project trainer.  The pay wasn't fantastic, but as cheesy as this may sound, it was rewarding and I felt driven in much the same way that I did in college.

My motivation as a trainer came from a desire to make a positive difference in people's lives.  I spent a lifetime dealing with autism, social anxiety disorder, and as I've come to terms with today, an eating disorder.  I have had a lot of jobs over the years, most of which were in some form of customer service, and while I was a hard worker with no attendance issues, I often ran into social roadblocks.  To put it simply, I just don't know how to talk to people sometimes.  My intentions are good, but it often comes out wrong and I screw everything up.  Most of the people that I trained didn't have the same challenges that I have, but they did have their own personal struggles, and I was committed to making their transition to a new job as smooth and stress-free as possible.  Training people to talk with consumers about food certainly wasn't the career path that I had in mind when I decided to be a psych major, but I made it work for me.  That's when I went to El Paso, and everything changed.

There's a lot going on in this chapter in my life, but I'm going to do my best to stay on topic.  I was around 230 pounds (give or take) when I touched down in El Paso in 2017 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but that didn't last.  Long story short, I had gone Charlie Sheen for a few months, and I ate and drank more in a three month span than I ever have before or since.  I couldn't tell you how much of this was an attempt to use food to cope with stress, or part of an overall manic episode.  The results were the same regardless.  I ate breakfast at the hotel, lunch at the office, and then had two or sometimes three separate dinners at night during the week, and weekends were even worse.  I went to as many bars, fast food, food trucks, diners, and restaurants as I could find, and I ate like a mad king.

When I got rid of Facebook, I downloaded all of the photos that I had posted on there.  I went through them and found a photo that I took at an airport bookstore.  I saw this book cover and posted a photo of it with what I thought was a funny caption.  Looking back on it now, I wonder how much of this was a joke and how much of it was an unconscious cry for help.

It wasn't long after my three months bopping back and forth between NEPA and El Paso that I was the one who was making the transition to a new job.  Again, I don't want to get off topic, so I'll over-simplify the hell out of this time in my life by saying that it was very stressful, and the stress that I caused to myself and to others was entirely my own fault.  I knew it then and I know it now, but I want to stay on the topic, so I'll close the subject by saying that I was continuing to binge on food as a coping mechanism.

In the first two years after El Paso, I hovered at around 260 pounds, give or take a few, on any given month.  Frankly, considering how much I ate and drank in 2018 and 2019, I'm kind of surprised that my weight stayed as low as it did.  On New Years Day 2020, I decided that I was going to go back to the same diet that worked for me fourteen years earlier.  I was doing pretty well in sticking to healthy foods until a few months later when Covid-19 closed the door on the world as we all knew it.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been fewer opportunities to stop for fast food and donuts.  On the other hand, with so many things closed (especially in 2020), there weren't many things to do besides sit around, read books, listen to music, watch movies and eat.

I know a lot of folks have stories about how they had time to reflect during the initial lockdown and make improvements in their life, like exercising and eating healthy.  I wish I could say that I had one of those stories to tell, but my response to this was far less inspirational.  I am by no means a hypochondriac, but in the early days of the virus before the vaccine, I was fully prepared for the possibility that I was going to catch Covid-19 and that it would be where my story ends.  I was even making a list of things that I owned that I knew could probably get a good price on eBay so that my wife would be able to stay afloat financially until the life insurance check came in.  However, from a food perspective, I pretty much just said screw it - I'm not dying with a belly full of carrots and lettuce.

While I do enjoy donuts and ice cream, my binge eating usually doesn't center around snacks or desserts.  If I had to go the rest of my life without chocolate, cake or candy, I don't think I'd even miss it all that much.  Most of foods that I tend to overeat are things like hamburgers, sandwiches, burritos, pasta... things that could conceivably be parts of a healthy meal if eaten in moderation.  So, since I've been working from home and could have any of those things at a moment's notice, I've been doing a lot of mindless eating and have gone weeks and months where I lost track of how much I had to eat.

And now, we're at the start of another new year.  Overall, I think that my mental health is in a good place.  I may not receive the same amount of personal satisfaction from my current line of work, but the pay is better and I get to stay at home and avoid the anxiety of an office environment (not to mention the virus).  From a social perspective, I discovered my home away from home at the Mahoning Drive-In and an online community of movie fans that I at least sort of fit in with a little bit.  I'm not much better at social interaction than I've ever been, but I've reached an uneasy peace with who I am.  Not everybody is going to like or understand me, but that's alright.  It doesn't have to be a cause for conflict if I don't allow it to be.  I'm not sure what my goals are in life these days as I've just been on auto-pilot since the start of the pandemic, but at 41 years old, that might not be such a bad thing.  In the words of Ozzy, I don't want to change the world, and I don't want the world to change me.  I'm content to just be here and to live a peaceful life.

Despite all of this, I know I need to get in shape.  I look at myself in the mirror and I'm seeing the same guy with the puffy face I wasn't happy with back in 2005.  Now, that face staring back at me has 17 years of additional mileage on the odometer.  If I plan on living a few more decades and having a quality of life that makes it worth sticking around, I've got to do something.  With that in mind, I'm starting yet another diet to try to get back to a weight that's healthy for me, but I'm doing things a little differently this time.

The last time I weighed myself was about three weeks ago, and I was 279 lbs.  That's not good, but it's not the highest that I've ever been.  I've decided to go back to the 2006 diet of meals only with no snacks, but with the following modifications:
  • I'm going to finish the Pop Tarts that I already have in the house.  There's no point in letting good Pop Tarts go to waste.  But after these are gone, that's it.  I'm not buying any more until 2023 at the earliest.
  • I'm giving myself an exception for popcorn, but only when I'm out to see a movie at Regal or the Mahoning.  I don't get it with butter even when I'm not trying to lose weight, so that shouldn't be too big of a deal.
  • I'm limiting my alcohol strictly to times when I'm hanging out with my dad.  I don't have a problem with drinking aside from the additional calories, so that won't be a big deal either.
  • I'll allow myself an occasional diet soda or a glass of V-8 with a dash of hot sauce, but for the most part, I'm sticking to water and coffee.
  • Here comes the hard part: I'm going to avoid eating anything for the sake of it being a new, seasonal or limited edition product.  That's a trap that I've fallen into many times before, where I pick up a new flavor of peanut butter cups or stop at McDonald's for a new sandwich on their menu.  I tell myself that I should make an exception because if I don't try it now, it probably won't be around by the time I reach my target weight, so it's now or never.  The problem with that line of thinking is that there are so many new, seasonal, or limited edition products that I'm in a constant state of making exceptions.  I'm sure I can live a happy life without knowing what the next Reese's Peanut Butter Cup variation tastes like.  Most of them aren't as good as the original anyway.
  • Finally, I'm not going to weigh myself until New Years Day 2023.  When I went on the diet in my mid 20's, I weighed myself on a digital scale every morning and kept track of my weight in a notebook.  Back then, it served as motivation, but I was a younger man who lost weight much faster than I expect I will in my early 40's.  I've tried diets over the past ten years where I weigh myself once a week, but all it ever does is discourage me.  I would see that I lost one pound or less and think "man, I gave up all of that good food for a lousy 0.7 pounds" and then it became that much easier to say "to hell with it" and just eat whatever.  It's a trap.  I know it's a trap, so I'm going to avoid it - no weighing myself until 2023.
Well, that's enough self-absorbed yammering for now.  I'll do a status update on my weight loss at around this time next year.  Until then, back to your regularly scheduled rotation of pop culture randomness.  If you've made it this far, thank you for caring, and have a happy new year.