While browsing on Facebook the other day, I came across an interview that an old friend had posted. It was an interview of Roxane Gay, a writer I had never heard of. She was on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and she was talking about her new book – Hunger. The book is a memoir about what it is like to be fat. Her experiences of how the fat happened to her and how she navigates a world that it unsympathetic and unwilling to really see her.
I ordered the book and when it came in started immediately. I am now 90 or so pages in and I have not really stopped crying. You will see a few blog posts as I read through the book – it is bringing up things in me that I don’t like to think about. But I see this as the work before the work. So much is required of me in this time before weight loss surgery and this is what has to happen for the changes to make sense – I have to get to the root of the issue. I have to know why.
As part of my pre-surgery information, I had to get a psych evaluation and the therapist I met with asked me if I had trauma in my background. Was there some defining moment where I turned to food to “fix” my soul in some way? Did something terrible happen that made me want to gain weight, to hide? The simple answer is no. There was not.
But the more complex answer is, there were things that were hard for me and it is possible that I took to food to deal with those things – not trauma exactly – but hard things.
When the therapist asked me if I had trauma, I told her (as I say often) that I grew up in the Leave It To Beaver house. Mom and Dad were high school sweethearts who were married, literally, until death do them part. I lived in the suburbs, went to good schools, and while we were not rich, we were not exactly poor either. I didn’t have all I wanted – but I had all I needed.
It felt a little like the fact that I was fat would be so much easier to explain if something really bad happened to me. As if whatever reasons led to my weight were invalid because it was not severe trauma. No one said that to me but that is how it felt.
I have racked my brain now for months trying to understand how I got here. I remember Oprah, another trauma survivor who turned to food, stating emphatically that it is not what you are eating, its what’s eating you. So what was eating at me? What had caused this need in me to be filled with food?
In the book, Ms. Gay, says that her trauma made her want to be bigger as it was safer – she was stronger and bigger and undesirable, to men especially, when she gained weight. It made her disappear. It made her fade away. That idea has resonated with me. Not so much that I wanted to be bigger or stronger or undesirable. But that the weight made it possible to disappear.
I don’t have the clearest memories of being a kid. They are like flashes of light that quickly fade away when I concentrate on them. But here is what I do know. I was extremely shy. And I wanted more than anything to belong. That is a combination that lethal to those with social anxiety. To feel like you are on the outside looking in (“Waving Through A Window” as the new broadway show Dear Evan Hansen calls it) and that there is a world you are not quite a part of but so desperately want to be. And when the barrier is you – your personality, your fear, your reluctance to be different – you can’t escape.
When my family moved to Woodbridge, I left a neighborhood where there were kids my age that I spent time with every day. We were outside playing in Stevens backyard – usually some sports related game. They all played on teams – I was the one who was not athletic – and I remember Steven would always choose me to be on his team as he was the one boy and I was the unathletic one. He believed that as the boy he could win – even with me as his partner – against the other girls. As a fully grown woman and a feminist, I see the conceit in that idea. But as a kid, it just meant that I was not left out. I was included and I felt like I belonged there.
There was a girl in the group who didn’t think I belonged. She tried to get me to quit often – by calling me names…by calling me fat. I was the 5th kid – the one that made us an odd number. The one that wasn’t athletic anyway so why was I playing? The one that made it obvious that she was younger than we were and she felt pushed out by me. It’s the first time I really remember being bullied – maybe the only time I felt it so blatantly.
To this day I still remember her name. I can’t picture any of those kids in my mind, but I remember all of their names. Marsha, Janet, Steven and Denise. I remember that I was a part of something there. I didn’t feel like I was lonely.
But moving to Woodbridge was a different story. No one in the neighborhood was my age. They were all younger or older than me. I still went outside, but I spent more and more time alone doing it. My first school year in Woodbridge was 5th grade and I remember having a best friend for the first part of that year. But it didn’t last the school year. It was the first time I remember being hurt by a “friend”. And I really don’t remember any other friends from that year.
And I turned to books to fill my time. I loved to read and as I got older, I read more and more. Barely leaving the house some days. My summers were rarely filled with friends and outings and fun in the way that we think of summer days. I read, alone, in my room a lot. I still rode my bike and roller skated and walked the neighborhood but I stayed in a lot.
And yet, I still don’t remember that I was eating an extraordinary amount. I was larger than other kids my age, but I was not really big…yet.
And then high school came.
I had friends in high school. I was not popular but I was not friendless. I was involved but I didn’t belong. Or at least it felt that way. I felt overwhelmed by the whole thing. And if I look back, I was more than likely depressed. I didn’t care about a lot of things. I cared about people. I cared about what people thought – but I didn’t really care about myself. Or for myself. And I tried to be invisible.
Ironically, I was not invisible by my own doing. Not only did I stick out more as I gained weight but I wanted to be on stage. Singing was the only thing I thought I did well. And I wanted to do it all the time. In front of people. I was apparently a masochist.
The weight came on during high school. I don’t really remember being bullied – I was just ignored. I have often said I was nobody in high school and that is exactly how I remember it. I spent 4 years singing in choir but after I graduated, my choir teacher didn’t even remember me. She made a big impression on my life – not in the best way – but she had no clue who I was. I had not even existed in her eyes. I avoided class reunions for the same reason – you didn’t notice me in high school, I can’t imagine paying to go a reunion and no one having any idea who I was.
I make it sound grim. Please know – there were exceptions. There was my drama teacher, JC, who was a lifeline for me. She kept me around. She cast me. She let me belong to something. A few friends like Donia and Amy and Janna. Each whom I had a different kind of relationship with and each who filled the friendship role. And there were the other friends – the ones who were with me for a time (we shared a class, a club, an activity). And those that I just knew because we had mutual friends. As I said, I was not popular but I was not friendless.
When I look back and I think in some ways it must have been hard to be my friend. I didn’t care about myself enough at times to make an effort. And those that stuck with me were so special to me. Still are. I have not spoken to some of them in a long time, but I remember the friendships. I will always remember them.
In my 20’s it got harder. I spent a year at VCU and didn’t really make a single friend. Not one. I had 2 girls on my floor who I spent time with but they would drop me regularly when it suited them to do so. I saw my parents every weekend for the first 3 months because I was lonely. I always said I moved home and transferred to Mason because living in Richmond was not for me. But really – I think I may have stayed if I had made just 1 friend there. Just 1 person who cared about me at all.
I had a best friend at the time, Randee, and she was in college as well (I think that timing works out right) but I was alone at school. And then I went home and I was alone there as well. Mason was a school I visited – I commuted to class and then back home. And I didn’t make a single friend there either. Not one person.
And then I ruined the friendship with Randee – looking back it was a moment of self-sabotage that was born out of an overwhelming feeling of change happening and my inability to deal with it. I will forever be grateful for her love and friendship at the time of my life that I knew her and forever sad that I caused it all to end.
As an adult I finally found my way when it came to how to have friends. How to not feel so desperate to have them. How to relax into them and how to be ok with taking the friendships for what they are – not what I expect them to be. I have a few close friends who are scattered about the country. Each fills a space in me. And I have J who does not complete me but he makes me a better version of me.
I say all of this because I need to speak my truth. I think I turned to food to fill the void that I felt people were not filling. It was never enough when I was younger – I didn’t have enough friends or I wanted other people to also be my friend and they were not. And I turned to food because I could – and it justified why people were not my friend. It gave reason to what I could not articulate.
And now food has been my friend longer than any people have. And breaking up is hard to do.
I will continue to write about this. Please feel free to ask questions or comment. I am a work in progress.