As a longtime member of the morbidly obese, I avoid my reflection as much as possible. I manage to apply my makeup and style my hair without actually confronting the evidence of what I have become. But on this day, I dare to stand in front of the full-length mirror I cannot believe I haven’t thrown out yet. I am naked, and I am hideous.
I’ve long grown accustomed to the swollen face, the limp, dull brown hair. But today, it’s the grotesquerie of my 336-pound body that I cannot fathom: My arms, pasty white and pocked with vile brown freckles, are way too short for my frame. I am 30 years old, but my breasts hang their heads due south, as if they, too, are ashamed. My short, stubby legs grow from the floor into two lumpy sides of beef, angrily shoved together to form what could kindly be called thunder thighs. How about hurricane hams? Tsunami saddles? Finally, wearily, I force my gaze onto my stomach. Mounds of dimpled, stretch-marked flesh threatens to topple the rest of my body and renders my vagina hidden from view. I want to turn away, but I am frozen in place, taking in all the gore. It is even worse than I thought, and believe me, I thought it was pretty darn dire.
As if this weren’t enough, I now have to have sex with my husband. Michael is not the problem here; he loves me unconditionally and has stood by me, even after I gained 100 pounds before our first-year anniversary. He actually, unbelievably, wants me. This I cannot possibly understand. He hugs me so fiercely, so lovingly, and I am repulsed for him. He is 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds. How can he stand to touch me? He kisses me with passion, and I try to lose myself in the moment, focusing on my love for him and the memory of our once insatiable sex life. But these days, our lovemaking is physically limited to one single position. You wouldn’t believe how we must contort our bodies to make sex work; suffice it to say the measures we take greatly interfere with achieving true intimacy. Once the act commences, there is no passionate kissing, no stroking of your lover’s face. Our being together becomes a perfunctory means to a physical end. The finale leaves me devastated.
I have achieved this pinnacle of profound misery by my own hand. I cannot stop eating. I stuff myself with cheeseburgers and French fries and pepperoni pizzas and chocolate bars smothered in peanut butter, all washed down with gallons of Mountain Dew and sweet tea. I eat until I am sick, forced to go to the bathroom and wait for the purging of my sins, one way or another. And then I eat more. In no way do I enjoy this, this feeling of having no control over what I do to my own body. I desperately want to stop, but I am terminally confused about what it is I need to put an end to. I focus on the inability to lose weight; I ignore the compulsive desire to shove food down my throat.
I try Weight Watchers and Slim Fast and the Atkins Diet. I hire a trainer, join a gym, buy exercise videos and get free weights and a treadmill. I keep a food journal and I chart my exercise goals. I see medical doctors and I try a psychologist. I confide in my pastor and I commit to a faith-based weight loss program. I pray every night, getting down on my knees, begging God to give me strength. I start out each and every day armed with a plan, hopeful for success. By lunch, I am a failure.
I am lazy and undisciplined. I believe the magazine covers that scream I can lose weight on my own, without diet drugs or surgery. I buy into the experts on talk shows who tell me when I really want it, when I finally set my mind to it, I will get the body of my dreams. I see these proclamations and conclude that I am the problem here, and this newfound belief becomes the tool with which I slather on more self-hatred. What kind of woman lets herself get so fat she’s unable to bathe properly, forced to use a hand-held shower to reach all her body parts? Loathing and bingeing and remorse form a hostile alliance to achieve what appears to be my No. 1 goal: the total destruction of me.
I feel as though I am going crazy. I have no doubt that I will die, that I am slowly killing myself with food. Too many family members have passed away too early due to heart disease; with diabetes and hypertension running amok in my own body, I accept it as fact that my fate will be the same if I don’t pull the cord and stop this train. Fighting an enemy you can see is tough enough; how do you defeat yourself? Or is that my point entirely?
Years go by. I wait for my "aha" moment, I look for my "rock bottom." I wish for willpower to be bestowed upon me from up above. Amazingly, none of this happens. Having tried everything else, I reluctantly agree to have weight-loss surgery. As I schedule the procedure and sign the forms, I feel like a failure and a fraud. Isn't weight loss considered "less than" if achieved through a surgeon’s hand?
I have the surgery, and it does not go well. Several complications land me in the hospital multiple times, so sick and (finally) unable to eat. I lose half of my hair from malnutrition, and I feel depressed, wondering why I didn’t consider the possible side effects of the gastric bypass more carefully. Weeks go by. I lose weight faster than my mind can keep up, and even though I am still so weak and spend most of my time in ratty old pajamas, holed up in my house, alone, I do notice that the scales are finally moving in the right direction. The faintest of smiles begins to grow behind my eyes, on my lips, in my heart, and a long-lost friend returns: hope. But something even more amazing happens in this post-operative haze of waning illness and cautious optimism. I make a life-changing discovery: I am a food addict.
One of the many changes that come with gastric bypass is that one’s ability to digest carbs and sugar is forever altered. Too many of either will cause you to have any number of symptoms, all unpleasant. My mind, of course, knows this, but four months after the surgery, I find myself standing in the checkout line at the grocery, staring at individual bags of Doritos, Cheetos and potato chips. My newly formed stomach isn’t hungry per se; I’m still gleefully getting used to the fact that I no longer really experience true hunger. But my mouth waters, thinking of the salty, cheesy flavor of those chips, and I figure it won’t hurt to have a couple. Before long, without thinking, I eat the entire bag. I haven’t even thrown away my trash before my heart starts to beat rapidly. Beads of sweat collect on my brow, and for the next two hours, when I’m not lying down from dizzy spells, I am standing over the toilet, dry-heaving (gastric patients aren’t afforded the ability to truly vomit, which is unfortunate because doing so would almost certainly make me feel better). I feel so sick. I feel so stupid.
Until the next day, when I agree to do it again. I justify buying the bag of barbecue Lays by telling myself I need to do it, to show that I can and will limit my intake, just like I am supposed to. Once again, I eat the whole bag, and am hideously sick. And then, unbelievably, I do it again the very next day -- this time with Funyuns and promises of more self-control -- all with the same violent result. As I stand in the grocery store on the fourth day, trying to talk myself into the purchase of yet more Doritos, it finally, gloriously, dawns on me. I am addicted to food. My natural instinct, my driving compulsion, is to abuse food, no matter the consequences. Looking back now at my life before surgery, the classic signs of addiction are so obvious: wanting to stop but being unable to quit the behavior, constantly making deals with myself, theorizing one last indulgence would give way to abstinence, always eating alone, ashamed for others to see, hiding food in my house, in my car, in my desk at work, going to great pains to get rid of any evidence of using. I am undeniably a substance abuser; it’s just that my substance is other people’s sustenance.
Addiction is not a banner I wave with pride, nor is it a shield I use to deflect blame. For me, it is a simple fact. And if even one of the doctors I consulted in all my years of extreme dieting had mentioned food addiction, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through the physical anguish of gastric bypass. Maybe I would have joined a 12-step program for overeaters instead of enduring a festering abscess, a collapsed lung and a ruptured gall bladder. But there’s no need for bitterness.
Today, I can boast some impressive achievements: 153 pounds lost, diabetes and hypertension gone, active and varied sex life restored (thank you very much). Therapy is helping me understand how I allowed these horrible things to happen, and I suppose there are many years of work ahead, figuring out ways to snuff out an instinctual need to self-sabotage. The enemy I am fighting is still me, and the battle is still fierce. But in this war, I am not lazy or undisciplined, wearing an ill-fitting suit of self-loathing. I am fully armed, ready to defend myself at all costs. I am finally sure that I am worth fighting for.
Jennifer Joyner is an author and journalist in Fayetteville, N.C. Her food addiction memoir, "Designated Fat Girl," is published by Globe Pequot Press.