Tuesday, February 3, 2009

An addict's story

I am an addict. Most people would look at me and disagree with that statement. To them, an addict is one of those nasty, dirty criminals who would sell their children to the dealer for another line of coke, some more rocks to put in the crack pipe, or another syringe filled with whatever Willie-the-Dope-Man has on him. People look at me and see a overweight, middle-aged Black woman who needs mobility devices to walk, and they could possibly think, church lady. I look like thousands of overweight, middle-aged Black women with canes or walkers who stream out of the doors of the nearest Baptist/Penecostal/A.M.E. church every Sunday afternoon. I admit it; I do look like one of those women. But I'm still an addict of the most common, and frequently misunderstood kind. I'm a food addict. And I'm willing to bet that all those other overweight women waddling out of church every Sunday are food addicts, too. And they'd probably rather cut off their voluminous arms and legs and bleed out in the gutter before admitting that they are food addicts. I can relate to that. I didn't like making that admission, either.

Oh, no. I'm a good woman. That's a major preoccupation that overweight Black women often have. Others may call us self-righteous, but they're just jealous because we know God and they don't. We really are good, and we can prove it. You see those skanky little women on the corner, showing off everything the Good Lord gave her for any old dog out there in the street to sniff? We don't do that. We keep our legs closed because we're sanctified. Our bodies are God's temple, and we don't go sleeping around with every who-would've-thought-it like those Jezebels. We work, pay the bills, cook, clean and take care of our children. Those little slutty abominations figure it's o.k. to earn their way through life by opening their legs. They'll find out. When the doors of the pearly gates swing open and let all of us good women in, they're going to look seriously hurt because they'll be on the outside with their faces mashed up against the bars. And that's what they get for being so whorish. Only good women go to heaven.

That was my way of thinking, about twenty years ago. Before I was brought to my knees by a unrelentingly deceptive obsession with eating copious amounts of food that were high in fat and/or sugar, and low in nutritional value. My favorite pick-me-up-after a so-called bad day: A large bag of Fire-Hot Cheeto's, a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream and a tall can of Arizona Iced Tea in Raspberry. I leave it to you nutrition stalwarts to add up the grams of carbs, fat and sugar, along with the calories. Yes, I knew it exceeded the daily allowance. And that wasn't counting breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Eating like that nearly killed me. Twice. Yet, that wasn't enough to get me to stop. Even the desperate pleas of my increasingly alarmed children didn't persuade me to give up the food. The poundage I acquired on my body was overburdening my muscle and skeletal system, causing extensive cartilage damage in my left hip and lower back As a result, I became disabled, no longer able to walk without a cane or walker. Years later, I was in a wheelchair because the cartilage in my left hip was gone, and nothing remained except bone grinding against bone. Still, I kept eating.

I can't tell you exactly how much I weighed during that time. I had stopped going to see my primary care physician because the nurses always seemed to be anxious to check my weight during appointments. I stepped on the scale one time, and the digital read-out stopped on 369 pounds. Naturally, I was horrified. So I did what any food addict would do after an intense emotional shock--I went home and ate. No wonder I gained even more weight after that. For all I know, I could have been 400 pounds at that time. All that I'm certain about is that my size 4x clothes that I had to order from the Lane Bryant catalog were too tight. Even then, I refused to accept reality and order anything in size 5x. In my mind, I just couldn't have been that big.

In 2001, I read a magazine article about Carnie Wilson's successful weight loss after gastric bypass surgery. I was jazzed. Finally, there was a way out of the madness. I called Kaiser Permanente the next day and set up an appointment with my primary care physician so she could refer me to the Bariatric Surgery Program. As it turned out, Kaiser requires all prospective bariatric surgery candidates to lose 10% of the wieght at the time of the orientation. Somehow, I had managed to lose a few and I weighed 341 pounds. Now, I have been doing the yo-yo diet dance ever since I was eight years old. In my rather warped sense of logic, I knew I could lose 10% of my weight. That's easy. It's staying on the diet for longer than a week without earning an arrest record that was difficult. I'm not kidding; I turn into something worse than Darth Vader when I have to eat three ounces of lean protein and a cup of salad greens decorated with tiny squirts of tasteless dressing. The lava pit of emotions that I'd suppressed by consuming too much food was suddenly ignited in a fiery explosion, blistering everything and everybody who dares to venture in my presence.

Obviously, that is an unacceptable way for a human being to behave in the civilized world. Inevitably, the diet was shelved for sanity's sake and remaining free of a criminal record. But for the sake of qualifying for gastric bypass surgery, I knew I could put up yet another diet. I've always been able to do anything on a temporary basis except remain silent in a room with my ex-husband. Besides, the people on the web sites dedicated to weight loss surgery said that they had lost all of their excess weight. and they didn't have to suffer through another diet. They ate tiny amounts of food and they were never hungry. Their descriptions of life after gastric bypass surgery seemed like heaven opening its gates to me here on earth. Here was my chance to be normal. I couldn't wait.

Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more

(Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

On July 11, 2002, the morning of my Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery, I weighed 311 pounds. And I managed to lose the weight without any volcanic eruptions or assault charges. I was ecstatic and looking forward to a filled with new possibilities and dreams that I could finally fulfill. Oh, and what dreams they were! I would be able to finally finish my Master's degree (couldn't handle getting around that huge campus anymore), go on pilgrimage to the Baha'i Holy sites in Haifa, Israel, travel around the world teaching the Baha'i Faith and learning more about life on this planet, walk long distances again, run, jump and swim without passing out, play softball, take Tae Kwon Do lessons and earn my black belt, learn to belly and/or ballroom dance, take a ride in one of the Thunderbirds' F-18 jets (o.k., I'll settle for an F-8), and maybe...just maybe...get to know a man by the content and quality of his inner character and do the marriage thing the right way. That's what I thought about as I watched the bariatric surgery team prepare for the operation and waited for the anesthesia to lull me into a state of blissful unconsciousness. My new life will begin as soon as I'm in the recovery room, I thought.

I should have known better.

The wonderful part of the story is that I went from 311 to 232 within six months. The bad part was that since 1995, I had developed some problems with my monthly cycle. I kept bleeding very, very heavily for two weeks, sometimes more. For at least three days every month, I was incapacitated because the excruciating pain made walking impossible. Even with these symptoms, I didn't seek medical attention. I simply did not want to be weighed. More than that, I didn't want to listen to yet another lecture about how my condition was probably caused by my obesity, and if I lost even 10% of my body weight, I would see a great reduction of pain. (That never happened, by the way. I lost a total of 137 pounds, and I was more pain after the weight loss than before.) I knew the drill well. So I had to grit my teeth through the pain and made the best of a terrible situation.

Morbid obesity may have been the cause of my osteoarthritis of the left hip and lower back, and it may have even caused the alarming hemorrhaging that was happening two weeks out of every month. But ignoring the conditions didn't make them go away, and refusing medical attention meant that the conditions progressed to a life-threatening situation. The bleeding and pain were indications of menorraghia (excessive shedding of the uterine lining) and fibroid tumors. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/menorrhagia/DS00394/DSECTION=1

One month after a successful gastric bypass procedure, I had to be re-admitted to the hospital for two emergency transfusions. I was soaking three pads in twenty minutes, and my entire body felt like a rubber chicken. The end result was that I had become severely anemic. After coming home from the hospital, I couldn't do much of anything except sit on the living room couch and stare vacantly at the television. Even walking to the bathroom would exhaust me for hours. Watching hours of soap operas in a Vicadin- induced stupor was not how I had envisioned my post-bariatric surgery life. Even though I was losing a lot of weight, physically I felt worse than I did before surgery. This revelation led to feelings of anger, despair, and finally, depression. A dark, seemingly bottomless pit of depression.

I maintained my weight loss for a year hovering on or near the 232 pound mark. But since I was still suffering from osteoarthritis and menorraghia/fibroid tumors, I wasn't able to exercise as prescribed by the bariatric surgery program. I had trouble walking five feet without falling over, so even walking around the block wasn't happening. As depression blanketed every aspect of my life, I began to think about the comfort of food. I willfully fought against these thoughts, but their persistence began to wear down my resolve. One day, I was well enough to accompany my son Marc on a short trip to the grocery store. I secretly bought two bags of Hershey's kisses. By sunrise, I was sitting in my bedroom surrounded by piles of little foil wrappers. My relapse had begun.

Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants.

(Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

So why am I sharing all of this very personal, potentially humiliating information with anyone who happens to casually surf this site? The reason is simple--I'm still recovering from this addiction, and I'm a writer. It helps me regain some clarity about issues that used to baffle me when I write about them. As for humiliation, that only works if the writer believes that she is nothing but pond scum. I'm over that. I have officially joined the human race in the past five years, and nothing can once again convince me that I'm beneath dignity. In other words, a person can be humiliated only if she agrees to it. I don't. Even though I have regained 70 pounds since weight loss surgery, I recently turned a corner in my recovery. Now, I observe my thoughts, feelings and behavior concerning food. And I make a daily practice of prayer and meditation. As a result, I have more awareness of how this addiction affects me, and I'm making much better choices. Not perfect, mind you. But much, much better.

It is estimated that 64% of all adults in this country are overweight. However, the term overweight, according the Center for Disease Control*, is divided into two categories: overweight(33%) and obese (31%). African and Native Americans have the highest rates of obesity, and as I did for many years, they are just as hesitant to get treatment for either obesity or any of the co-morbidity conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, heart disease or kidney failure. I am sharing my story to demonstrate what can happen if a morbidly obese person does not confront this very serious medical condition.

But there's also another issue that is rarely addressed by weight loss surgery programs or other methods of medical intervention for morbidly obese patients--food addiction. Most medical professions seem somewhat perplexed by the pervasiveness of addiction to food in morbidly obese patients. The patients often refuse to identify themselves as "food addicts" or "compulsive overeaters". In their minds, the problem is weight (and that is part of it), and the solution is either dieting to a "normal" weight or having weight loss surgery. A person can cut calories and a surgeon can bypass or band the stomach, but none of these methods address the source of the problem--the mind. This is the part that no amount of surgery can alter. The morbidly obese patient is responsible for guiding his/her mind away from food and into life.

For me, thoughts of God are stronger than thoughts of food. When I have my daily conscious communication with the Almighty, I am much more at peace with myself and the world. I don't need to stuff chocolates and caramels into my mouth in order to feel good. Having a few minutes of quiet meditation and prayer is much more conducive to letting go of destructive patterns of eating. That is the great lesson for me, and it's taken me 49 years to learn it. Anything is possible with God. I wholeheartedly believe that today.



  1. Very brave. I can empathize with writing out personal fears--I used to do that every day. Thanks for helping me consider writing in the confessional form again.

  2. Thanks, Anthony. People have used adjectives like "brave" and "courageous" in references to the topics that I choose to write about. I don't really understand that. It's all about survival for me. If I don't write, I will die. And if I am not honest to the best of my ability in my writing, I will die.

    We are all running toward our inevitable demise as soon as we are born, but I have no intention of going to my death prematurely without completing the task of living a spiritually actualized life. I don't know exactly what that means yet, but I suspect that it means dedicating my life to the service of God, family, friends and co-workers, and to Mother Earth. Unfortunately, none of that is possible from six feet under ground. :)

  3. thank you for sharing your story! the more it's shared, the less shame there will be—and you're right in that there are probably tons of people out there who need to hear it.

  4. Thanks Dan, and welcome to my blog! I hope you visit again, your comments are appreciated!

  5. how about I come over there and give you a hug


    later :-)

  6. Weight is such an issue in our community. We like to sit around and talk about being big-boned but that's not the whole of it and we don't talk as much as we should about the spiritual and psychological pain we stuff down through eating. Your story is quite moving and I'm glad you're not giving up on yourself and that you're facing your addictions. I'm going to be blogging for Curves starting next month so I'm right there with you, striving to make healthier choices.

  7. Thanks for the hug, Sparky! And here's one for you: {{{{HUG}}}}

    Liz: I've come to realize that there is a serious lack of information about the connection between morbid obesity and food addiction in the African American community. The problem, in my opinion, is two-fold--the lack of information and reliance on what I'm come to term as "misguided folklore". There's the big-bone theory, "all my peoples is big", "see, I used to be skinny when I was runnin' the streets, so all I need to do is work all this off!" Let's face it, no one can possibly reach 400 pounds without a) eating well over 3,500 calories a day; b) having some sort of disconnection going on in the brain. I used to say I only ate "a little", too. But as soon as no one was looking....

    Addiction is harsh. There's song by Gil Scott Heron called "Home Is Where The Hatred Is" that is the most heart-wrenching description of addiction that I've ever heard. He sings about being hooked on heroin, but the same can be said about food addiction, too:

    "You keep sayin', kick it, quit it, but Lawd have you ever tried? To turn your sick soul inside out. And let the world pass you by."

    I've lived that nightmare.

    Thanks for your comments, Liz! Much love, girlfriend!

  8. Thank you for your courage -- I agree that most of us who are or have been morbidly obese are food addicts. Accepting the fact that we are addicts is the beginning of the path to healing. I'm wishing you all the best! :)

  9. Thank you Catherine, I appreciate your comments!


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