I kind of can’t believe I’m sharing that. I told myself no one would ever know that number. It took me a very long time before I finally shared that number in an internet forum with strangers. Then a couple of months ago, I told my wife. Last month a couple of close friends and family. Now you.
I’m the biggest person most of you will ever know. I can hardly claim to live the kind of transparent life I aspire to and leave out something as fundamental to who I am and who I want to be as what is represented by that terrible number.
At 499.6 lbs, 5’8″ tall, my BMI is 75.9. I can lose more than half of my body weight and still be classified as morbidly obese.
I am what some medical professionals call Super Morbidly Obese. It doesn’t feel super. It feels like suicide in slow motion.
Everyone who is super morbidly obese is hyper aware of their mortality, and simultaneously turning their back on the speeding train roaring down the track towards their future. At 499.6 lbs, every little pain in your body is a sign of the heart attack you’ve convinced yourself you’re going to have at any moment.
Waking up every morning is like coaxing a grizzly out of hibernation in mid-winter. Sleep is fleeting. Breathing is exercise. Stairs groan. Chairs break. The designers of our world never considered there might be people as big as I am.
And when most people hear of someone as big as me, they don’t think “There but by the grace of God go I.” They think “How did he let himself get so fat?”
It’s a reasonable question. I have an unsatisfactory, but ultimately truthful answer.
Let’s go back to 1995 or 96. I am 17 years old, or maybe 18. I don’t remember. The number I do remember is 355. I go see my family doctor. I step on the scales for the first time since I was a little kid, and I am 355 lbs. I knew I was very fat. I was always fat, for as long as I could remember I was the fattest kid in my school. But I am shocked at the number anyway. The doctor is shocked. The doctor tells me I should go on a 2000 calorie a day diet. By way of guidance, he hands me a single photocopied sheet of paper, and sends me on my way to lose my weight.
On one side of the paper, there is a scientific definition of a calorie, and some information about BMI ranges. I think there was a recommendation that a portion of meat should be about the size of the palm of your hand. On the other side, there is line-art drawings of 3 men in profile. One has a big belly and is helpfully labelled “obese”. One has a slightly smaller belly and is labelled “overweight”. The third man has a flat belly and is labelled “healthy”.
This is the sum total of information I have been given about losing weight. There are no smartphones to track your calories on, no Google to research anything, and no way to know my BMR or TDEE or calories burned through exercise, or anything like that. I have since learned there were reference books back then that would list various foods and their caloric amounts, but I didn’t even know they existed at the time.
So in the absence of information, I tried really hard not to be hungry. Despite this, I still got hungry.
Fall of 1999. I moved into an apartment on Coburg Street. I’ve never had a real girlfriend at that time, but I had a lover who lived on the corner – a redhead named Wendy. I go see her about lunch several times a week. I can’t afford a car, but there’s a Subway on Union Street – a short walk even for a fattie.
I’m going to college, and money is tight. But I scrape together enough cash to go see most of the Saint John Flames home games. After the games, I’m always hungry. It’s late, but I get myself a foot long meatball sub, two cookies, and a large chocolate milk. 40 home games. 40 subs. 74,400 calories per season, plus the playoffs.
That year, and every year, I eat mountains of fast food, fried breakfasts and lunches, chips, and snacks. I was hungry.
I try Weight Watchers, and Atkins, and whole foods, and cleanses. Nothing changes my hunger, and my weight just kept climbing.
Sometime in 2013, I weigh 460 lbs. I decide I’ve finally had enough. Spurred on by friends who have started tracking calories using the MyFitnessPal app, I start tracking too. And for a little while, I have some success. For a little while, the numbers on the scale scale finally drop down instead of going up. I quickly fall to 440lbs. 430 lbs. 425 lbs.
I lose 47 lbs. I tell people I’ve lost 50.
But then the scale stalls for a few days, and I get frustrated. I was laid off the previous fall, and my new job isn’t going that well. I don’t feel like I have more energy, or that I look much different. I get hungry.
I went to see my old girlfriend Wendy. Then I did it again. Then I had some chips. Then I realized the start-up I was at wasn’t going to be much, and I picked up some McDonalds on the way home to sooth the ache inside me. I told myself I’d worked hard to lose 47 lbs, I deserved a pizza. I wanted birthday cake. BBQ season was upon us.
I eat all my feelings.
I put that 47 lbs back on even faster than I’d lost it, and I just kept going.
Later that year I go to see a new family doctor about an infection. He does a big bunch of tests. He’s surprised I’m not diabetic (so am I). My blood pressure is high, but not high enough to require medication. He casually tells me I should lose “some weight”.
I tell him about my 50 lbs loss, subsequent gain, and ask him how I should go about losing weight. He tells me I should only lose 1 lb a week, not 2 or more, and that I should cut out ice cream. Ice cream is the only actual food he mentions in the entire discussion, and there is no mention of calories, nutrients, portion sizes, or anything like that. I haven’t had ice cream in like a decade at this point, and give him a quizzical look. He shuffles me out the door, one issue per visit I guess. I don’t even get a photocopied sheet of paper to take home.
I’m not making excuses. I eat insane amounts of terrible food, and I know that’s not good for me. But I mean, good grief. Fat people don’t even need to go to the doctor, because we already know the diagnosis – fat and hopeless.
May 4th, 2018. The day I turned 40. I write a birthday message online about how futile battling my food addiction feels. The response is overwhelming. Your responses are overwhelming. I write about how getting older scares me so much. About how tired I feel. You tell me you understand. You tell me I’m worth it. You tell me you get it. I think the message resonates with you because I didn’t write about my food addiction as only a weight problem. I wrote about my habitual overeating as trying to fill up that dull aching vacuum that most people feel, because the biggest battles most of us will ever fight will be in our own heads. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but I’ve come to know that’s true for almost everybody.
January, 2019. 499.6 lbs. Propelled in part by re-reading your encouraging comments on my old birthday post, I declared war on my body. Not for the first time by a long shot, but for the first time I know this war, like most modern wars, is not a tidy fight with a beginning and an end. There is no final objective. No goal weight. This guerrilla warfare will go on forever now, or at least until I am dead.
I am so hungry, but this time it is finally different. It feels different, even much different than the time I lost 50 lbs. I am hungry to undo as much damage to my body as possible. I have been so cruel to myself. I am hungry to walk without getting winded. I am hungry to fly without needing a belt extender, without encroaching on someone else’s space. I am hungry to go to a new restaurant and not worry if they’ll seat me in a cramped booth. I am hungry to spend more time in nature. I am hungry to enter a room and not have to worry if I’ll break the chairs. I am hungry to buy clothes I can try on in a store. I am hungry to climb a mountain. I am hungry to ride a bike again some day. I am hungry to be comfortable enough in my body to get on the stage and act again. I am hungry to make many more photographs.
I am hungry to go back to work in an office, with a team, and to be a better employee. I am hungry to be a better friend. I am hungry to be a better husband. When your are morbidly obese, the people who support and love you wear some of that weight too.
I am hungry to live. I want to eat up as much sunlight as I possibly can before they burn up my body and scatter me in the wind. I want to use and enjoy the strength my body has right now, because there is no promise it will be there tomorrow.
I am hungry to know what the man inside me who weighs less than 355 lbs looks and feels like. I’ve never met him. He was just a boy the last time I saw him, and for most of my life I have been scared to meet the other me. I convinced myself being fat is some part of what made me different and special. I’ve been scared my accomplishments are not enough. I’m not scared anymore. I am getting old, and I need to know who the smaller man inside me really is.
I’m also still hungry for food. Making good choices about what and how much to consume is hard for me, but I’m finally taking it to heart that being fat is harder.
I told myself the day I weighed in at 499.6 lbs that I would never tell anyone that number. Since you’ve made it this far, you know I failed at that, but I also told myself something else that I’ve actually managed to do to date. I told myself that I would never see 500 lbs on my specialty bathroom scale.
That brings us to today.
For my fortieth year, 65.4 lbs lost.
It’s barely a shovel full out of this colossal mountain I have made. I have such a long way to go, but I’m going. And you can burn the boats, because I am never returning to where I was.
There is always hope.
I am 41 years old tomorrow, and I am finally looking forward to the year ahead.