3rd Place Co-Winner in the 2021 LifeWriting Contest.
by Sara Etgen-Baker
I started not being fat in September 1982, having battled with varying degrees of obesity since I was eight years old.
I’m sitting at my desk thinking about this remarkable fact of my life. It’s raining; I’m facing a window in which I see the reflection of a woman sitting at a computer. She startles me. Even now, some 39 years later, I sometimes have trouble seeing she is me. Yet, I know her quite well. We went on a great journey together. She weighs 170 pounds less than she did when she was 28. It’s the most surprising and miraculous thing I know about myself—but there was no miracle.
Becoming thin was a long, arduous two-year journey that began with counting calories, exercising portion control, and walking initially for just 15 minutes at a time. My arms and legs rubbed together, chaffing then scabbing over. But each day I pushed myself walking five minutes longer than I did the day before until one day I walked for an hour and eventually two. While walking, I explored the many dark alleys of my own feelings and experiences, figuratively and literally peeling away layer after layer of myself learning to understand myself.
Early on, I figured out that as agonizing as being overweight was, it was nothing compared to the anxiety of changing from a fat person to a thin person and facing the terror of being thin. Yes, the terror of being thin. “Why,” you ask, “did I fear the very thing I so desperately wanted?” Seems irrational, right? I was unaware at the time, but being fat protected me from my fears. If that shield was gone, then I’d be vulnerable. Vulnerability was more frightening than remaining obese. But what was I afraid of? My emotions? My inadequacies? My emotional wounds? My sexuality?
Over the course of my journey I came to recognize that life’s riddled with stressors, problems, and emotions—large and small—that must be faced, solved, and handled. I was a frightened adult child who believed she was ill-equipped to solve life’s challenges and problems let alone the emotions affiliated with them. Emotions were just too high-risk and painful, and I avoided them at all cost.
I swallowed them, using food as my mother did, pushing them aside and numbing them along with my fears and inadequacies. What started out as an occasional comforting treat mushroomed into a full-fledged, seemingly irreversible habit I used to “solve” all the normal fears, uncertainties, and problems of life—at least for that moment. Nothing hurt so much that it couldn’t be soothed with a large piece of chocolate cake, a whole bag of chips, or a hamburger and fries. For a short period of time, I felt comforted and happy.
I often ran to the cookie jar or raided the refrigerator to assuage a host of feelings—jealousy, anxiety, boredom, imperfection, restlessness, anger, sadness, fear, frustration, stress, and depression. But after such moments of immediate gratification, I experienced deep gloom and an intense feeling of self-contempt, drowning my sorrows afterwards in quarts of ice cream. My compulsive eating took on a life of its own, totally unrelated to physical hunger; it became an instantaneous response to every situation, fear, and emotional problem I encountered. I gave food control of my life creating a vicious cycle in which I compulsively depended on food in order to cope. In short, I was a food addict! What a horrifying revelation!
Another surprising and important revelation came after having lost 60 pounds. I was well on my way to caring for myself—an important step in self-respect and concern for my physical well-being. I had only one body to see me through all my years and couldn’t keep abusing it without serious consequences. I couldn’t take feeling well for granted, but wrestled with caring for myself while denying myself food—my rock so to speak. Denying myself food was frightening until I realized that for most of my life I hadn’t denied myself food at all. But what I had denied myself was self-love, replacing it with food. No wonder I was addicted to food! Again I asked myself why? How?
Until I fully dealt with the how and why I got that way, I knew it would be impossible for me to take weight off and keep it off. Obesity was the way I’d chosen to irrationally torment myself for my inadequacies, imperfections, and shortcomings. I had to learn to love myself, shortcomings and all.
Over the course of 39 years, I discovered many of the mostly forgotten or fully unconscious reasons why I needed some way to punish myself, some way of closing myself off from the fullest expression of myself. I learned, for example, the extra weight was a kind of armor—a way of keeping people out. Life was demanding; there were too many expectations, and I so much wanted to be a good girl, do well, and not disappoint anyone—first my parents, then my spouse, boss, co-workers, friends, relatives, and neighbors. But the adult me was angry with myself for having spent so much time pursing such an empty, meaningless quest. I secretly lived in terror of facing the possibility that I was special after all and taking responsibility for my uniqueness. When I didn’t, I felt shame and guilt for having sold out. That shame and guilt were so profound that self-destruction, suicide by food, was inevitable.
I was afraid of my libidinal drives, unsure of how to deal with the energy that smoldered within. I became fat, making myself sexually invisible and refusing to give myself the gift of physical attractiveness. I convinced myself that being fat made me strong, commanding, powerful, and healthy. At some level, I believed that if I got thin, I might die or lose control. Fat was my maiden shield and strength. How could I survive without it?
Being fat also gave me a rather odd sense of belonging and camaraderie with my friends and relatives, many of whom were fat. Each of them was an important and influential person in my life. As I changed my eating habits and patterns of thinking I feared they’d reject me. Many did. One even said, “You’ve betrayed us. I liked you better when you were fat!”
What surprised me the most was the grief I often felt—a grief I couldn’t explain. Why was I grieving when I was being successful? Over the years, I realized I was mourning the loss of my identity of being fat, an identity I’d carried since I was eight years old.
I pause from writing this essay, again catching a glimpse of my reflection in my office window. During our journey together we vanquished many of our fears. We bled together and realized we couldn’t bandage our broken pieces and wounds with food. We found the strength to open up our wounds, stuck our hands inside, and pulled out the core of the pain that was holding us in our past and keeping us fat.
“I AM her; she IS me!” I exclaimed, jumping up from my chair. We won the losing battle!
A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara Etgen-Baker’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.
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