Crunch!

Cereal

There was a certain ritual when it came to cereal in the mornings. I would wake up craving it, from the moment my eyes opened. It didn’t matter if it was 4 am or 7, I would stumble out of bed, use the restroom, wash my hands, and immediately head to the kitchen. And there the ritual could begin: open the cupboard, remove the bowl, hear it clink against the other dishes as I pulled it free, set it on the counter. We kept the cereal boxes in rows on the top of the fridge. Select the box, open the flap, un-crinkle the plastic bag inside the box from where it had been crumpled down tightly, to keep the cereal crisp. Then tip the box and hear the little morsels of sugar-y grain tinkle-tinkle-tinkle inside the bowl. Set the box on the table, open the drawer, grab the spoon and clink it against the glass bowl. Open the fridge, retrieve the milk, unscrew the cap, and then pour the white gold directly into the bowl until the cereal could just float on the top. We generally chose Skim milk; it was more water-y than the others, but it had fewer Calories than whole milk. Then lift the spoon, mix the cereal into the milk until it was evenly distributed, the perfect mix of wet and dry, still crunchy but cold from the milk. Scoot the chair out from the table and take that first delicious crunchy bite while slurping the milk off the spoon at the same time. There would always be reading material as well; some people preferred newspapers or even the back of the cereal box itself, but me, I liked comic books. I’d bite, read, clink the spoon against the side of the bowl as I scooped another bite, turn the page to find the X-Men battling Apocalypse or Magneto or Stryfe, take another bite. Crunch, slurp, flip, bam-pow-splat, clink, crunch, slurp, flip, clink, crunch.

I downed the cereal quickly, every time. There was no savoring it. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t eat it fast enough. I’d barely be swallowing one bite as I shoved another quickly into my mouth, and in 2 or maybe 3 minutes, it would be gone, leaving nothing but the milk in the bowl. The milk would be flavored by now, it would take on the color of the cereal, tan or chocolatey or yellow, and there was sugar and high fructose corn syrup making it sweet. And I could have just slurped the milk down, but it seemed such a waste to let perfectly good milk go unappreciated like that. So instead, I’d reach for the cereal box and pour just a bit in, repeating the ritual, except with maybe half the amount of the first time, just enough to float in the milk. Clink, crunch, sip, flip, clink, crunch, sip, and soon that would be gone, and there’d be even less milk. One last small handful of cereal to fill that up, a few more bites, then finally I could slurp the remnants. The bowl would go to the dish washer, the milk back in the fridge, the plastic crinkled down over whatever cereal remained, the box closed and put on top of the fridge again. And I’d be left with that Styrofoam feeling on my tongue and a heaviness in my gut.

The cereal was the perfect beginning to the day, no matter what I chose. Cereal, and milk. I never read the ingredients back then, never took the time, but the top ones would have always been ‘enriched wheat flour’, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and maybe marshmallows, depending on the brand. It might mention oats, or rice, or corn, or bran, or whatever grain had been modified to create the crunchy shapes, but almost always it was enriched wheat flour, and everyone knew that wheat was good for you. Wheat and milk. And sure, sugar, but we were Americans, and everyone was entitled to a little sugar in their diet. We earned it. Throw in some preservatives, some food dyes, and package for selling.

All of the cereals were just variations on each other, squares or circles, flakes or crisp little morsels, and some cut into the shape of some cartoon character or emblem. Some were dyed different colors, usually brown or tan but sometimes pink or green or yellow, or made to resemble something delicious. Cocoa or peanut butter or “natural fruit flavor”, with marshmallows or sprinkles or cinnamon. Some were even known for the sound effects they made, or for the color they would turn the milk.

Corn Pops, Apple Jacks, Lucky Charms, Honey Smacks, Honey Nut Cheerios, Trix, Waffle Crisp, Cookie Crunch, Fruity or Cocoa Pebbles, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, Fruit Loops, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Golden Grahams. They filled up long shelves down an entire aisle of the grocery store, each box lovingly placed under the lights so the kids could salivate over it as their moms wheeled by them with shopping carts.

“Mom, please! Can I have that!” And if there was cereal and milk, then Mom didn’t have to cook. Win-win for everyone.

No matter what the boxes advertised, things like ‘made with real fruit juice!’ or ‘now packed with vitamin C!’ or ‘part of every kid’s balanced breakfast!’, I knew that these sugary concoctions weren’t good for me. They tasted too good to be good for me. It was like having crunchy Halloween candy for breakfast. God, one cereal brand was even made by Reece’s. But I didn’t care. I let myself belief they were good and good for me, and I grew up loving them. I idolized them in a sense, all through childhood, through my teenage years, and well into adulthood. They were iconic. They made me think of home, of breakfast time around the table with family, of indulgence. Of ritual. Didn’t matter that I was different than other kids, or that dad cried all the time, or that the step-dad used his fists too much; cereal was constant. It got me through three hour blocks of church, gave me energy to get ready on school mornings, and kept me company through Saturday morning cartoons. Delicious, crunchy, wonderful cereal and milk. Clink, crunch, slurp, every morning.

Getting name brand cereals was a treat. A rather rare occasion, but a treat. It was much more likely that we would get the cheaper off-brand product, made by Western Family or Malt-O-Meal instead of General Mills. We couldn’t afford Frosted Mini-Wheats, but we could certainly afford a plastic bag full of Mini-Spooners, and a bag of Cini-Mini Crunch was much cheaper than the Cinnamon Toast variety. There were rows full of off-brand options. Fruity Dino-Bites instead of Fruity Pebbles, Honey Nut Scooters instead of Cheerios, and Golden Puffs instead of Honey Smacks, Chocolate Draculas instead of Count Chocula. All of them were carefully marketed to resemble their brand-name counterparts, with designs, shapes, flavors, colors, and packaging. Pranks instead of Trix, and Honey Buzzers instead of Honey Comb, on and on and on.

These cereals, the brand-name ones, were branded into my soul. They had mascots, each and every one of them. Most Saturday morning cartoon characters from the Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers to the Flintstones, had their own cereal brands and boxes.  But each of the name-brand cereals had their own branded cartoon right on the box. The characters were colorful, with huge features, and easy to identify. Just looking at them, you could hear their voice, their slogan.

Toucan Sam (Follow Your Nose!), the Trix Rabbit (Silly rabbit, Trix are for Kids!), Lucky the Leprauchaun (They’re Always After Me Lucky Charms!), Tony the Tiger (They’re Grrrreat!), Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (I’m Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!), that weird little werewolf hedgehog on the Honeycombs box whose name was Crazy Craving (Honeycomb, honeycomb, me want honeycomb!). They had adventures, sometimes even enemies, heck, sometimes kids were their enemies because kids wanted their cereal! Saturday morning cartoons were punctuated by commercials starring these characters, the same ones that smiled on the front of every box. Some commercials ended with a dramatic “to be continued.” Would the Trix Rabbit be fooled by the kids trying to steal his cereal? Would Cap’n Crunch escape from the Soggies? What magical shape would become the next Lucky Charms marshmallow? They already had green clovers and yellow stars, why not a purple horseshoe! The commercials were exciting, and they carried over onto the cereal boxes. I could still doodle these characters on paper, I can still hear their voices in my head. It made things even more appealing. The off-brand cereals had mascots as well, but they were nothing more than images on the box. I can’t name a single off-brand character or what cereal they went with. I have vague images a koala, a kangaroo, a monkey, a dinosaur. No, without the multi-million dollar marketing campaigns of General Mills, Malt-O-Meal never stood a chance. Malt-O-Meal could only try to look like the stuff I really wanted, the stuff I saw on TV.

And there were prizes in the boxes! Generally, they were of a lower quality than something you might find in a McDonalds’ Happy Meal, but it was exciting nonetheless. The second we’d get home from the grocery store, I’d rip open the box top, tear open the plastic, and throw my likely unwashed hand down into the cereal, rifling through it until I found the small plastic package with the toy inside. A plastic ring with a spider on it; a small coloring book, the entire thing only four pages and smaller than my hand; a low quality hunk of plastic designed to look like some cartoon character; a treasure map that led to nowhere. Sometimes the prizes got very specific: an “Urkel for President” button, color-changing Flintstones dinosaurs, a Sugar Bear yo-yo. Generally, whatever the prize was, I’d play with it for approximately one minute, then it would end up in some corner of my room never to be touched again.

In childhood, when I first started snarfing down bowl-fulls of cereal, I learned the nutritional habits that would set me up for my teenage and adult life. Don’t read the labels, don’t worry about nutrition for the most part, no moderation needed. Eat as much as you can for as cheaply as possible. Why buy the 4 -dollar loaf of bread when there was a loaf for 60 cents right there? Cheap soups, meats, crackers, cake mixes. When it went on sale, buy as much as possible, and then eat as much as possible at home. There were seven kids in my family, and many meals were simply ‘fend for yourself’. The exception was always Sunday dinner, when Mom made pot roast and bowls full of mashed potatoes, and an entire pan of Little Debbie cake, and plates full of rolls. Then, there was always plenty of food. I’d already had two or three bowls of cereal for breakfast, but there was nothing wrong with having seconds, or thirds, or maybe even fourths. I’d eat so much on Sunday afternoons that I’d wind up on the couch in a food coma, my body devoting all of its possible resources to digesting the mass of chewed-up food in my gut. My stomach would poke out, I’d undo my pants and lay there, reading a book or watching cartoons, perhaps having a snooze. I’d lay there until I could move, but I’d feel bloated and exhausted for hours afterwards, all the way to bedtime. And then the next morning, I’d get up and start with cereal all over again.

Things changed a lot when my parents divorced. I was the sixth of seven children, and the two oldest kids were already out of the house. Then, just after my fourth grade year, we packed up the U-Haul and Mom moved us from southwestern Missouri to southeastern Idaho. Dad stayed behind with my brother and one of my sisters, who wanted to finish school there, and Mom took the three youngest kids to start a brand new life. We moved into a rental home and Mom started a new job, working more than full-time as a second grade teacher. To make things worse, she got a concussion in those first few months. I was 11, my younger sister Sheri was 7, and eating became more out of cans and boxes than ever before. Lunch was often at school, where we were given whatever equivalent of healthy lunch was being served at the time, but at home, it was much easier to simply eat cereal. Every morning, every evening, and sometimes for all three meals on the weekends. This diet, supplemented by toast and peanut butter, cans of Spaghettios, and Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, became the staples of my diet.

I’m sure I learned the food pyramid somewhere along the way. There was very likely a discussion about vitamins and nutrition in my sixth-grade health class. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I started processing that food was impacting my day to day health. I began to realize that cereal simultaneously made me feel stuffed full, but also left me ravenously hungry within a few hours. I was starting to notice boys more now, and the guys I noticed usually had big calves and strong chests and muscular arms. I wasn’t exercising, ever. I avoided it. And I was eating constantly. I was average in height and weight, but I had no muscle definition. I began to realize that with what I was eating, I couldn’t poop for a few days at a time, or that some of them, Honey Smacks and Golden Puffs in particular, made my urine smell just like the cereal. I had headaches and back aches more often, and less energy, and my sleep suffered. I was less confident, more prone to depression. I needed to change things.

And so, I shifted my eating, not much, but some. I would only have one bowl of breakfast cereal, and I would try to make a healthier choice. I could purchase Cinnamon Life, or Wheat Chex, or regular Cheerios, or Honey Bunches of Oats, or whatever their Malt-O-Meal counterpart brands were. These were healthier decisions, and I could still keep my ritual. The cartoons and prizes were gone, but I still got the crinkle of the plastic, the plink-plink of the bowl, the pouring of the milk. And now I could add two or three spoon-fuls of sugar and mix it in before I ate it. A much healthier choice. And if I kept it to one bowl, and added two slices of toast with butter, and a big glass of orange juice, and maybe a multi-vitamin. And no more cereal for lunch and dinner. Instead, I could have spaghetti and lasagna, and garlic bread, or chili with crackers, or sandwiches with bowls full of chips and a glass or two of Kool-Aid. And Sundays, for big family meals, I could still eat as much as I wanted. After all, I was the only boy in the house now. Now maybe I’d start to feel better, have more energy, and start to look good. I wouldn’t even have to exercise!

This routine lasted me for years, diversifying my diet and keeping my cereal to just breakfast time. It lasted through my two -year missionary service, when I had to shop and cook for myself exclusively. I came up with about 25 ways to eat Ramen noodles, and went through hundreds of jars full of peanut butter, and I even added some fruits and vegetables along the way for good measure, but every morning, cereal. It lasted me through two years of college, when I discovered a deep-and-abiding love for microwave pizzas (only 99 cents for an entire plate-sized pizza!) and microwave burritos, still every morning, cereal and milk. When I first started working out regularly at the gym, I finally grew out of my skinny self and put on some muscle, gaining 20 pounds in one year, but I never changed the way I ate and never got enough protein. And every morning through all of that, breakfast cereal with milk and sugar. My beloved life companion.

And thus it continued, through graduate school, through my several years to be the best Mormon boy possible, through all of my attempts to no longer be gay. And then, finally, I got married. I was maybe 10 pounds overweight then. And when that didn’t fix my homosexuality either, well, the portions got bigger, and so did I. Three or maybe four bowls of cereal at breakfast, or maybe just one bowl if I got one of the big salad bowls to eat out of instead. A family size bag of M-n-Ms per day in my office. A burger and fries for lunch. A liter of Pepsi and a bag of microwave popcorn for an afternoon snack. Huge helpings of whatever dinner my wife made that evening. And, between the ages of 27 and 30, I got up to 255 pounds. And then, between the ages of 30 and 31, I got back down to 175, a total of 80 pounds loss. But that journey, that’s another story completely. But I will say that losing my weight meant starting to pay attention to what I’m eating, to developing an education about myself. It required mindfulness and self-inventory. And ultimately, it led me to coming out of the closet and starting a bold new life.

A big part of my coming out was recognizing that the rules and customs I’d grown up with, the ones that felt good and the ones that didn’t, weren’t all that healthy. Breakfast cereal represented comfort and sustenance for me, excitement even. But ultimately, it was entirely threatening. It comforted me while harming me, it filled me up and left me hungry for more. After my weight loss, I started studying food and nutrition more. I learned how scientists altered the wheat plant so that products could stay longer on the shelves, basically stripping them of all nutritional value. I learned how they make high fructose corn syrup, about the spike in the American obesity epidemic for both children and adults, and the similar spike in diabetes and other related illnesses. I learned that nearly every product sold in grocery stores, even those labelled as health foods, are labeled and advertised in ways that appeal to the market they are directed for, that words like ‘low-fat’ or ‘multi-grain’ or ‘packed with vitamin C’ or ‘organic’ may not mean anything at all. I learned that corporations and big businesses fuel and fund the laws and regulations around advertising and marketing, and how it pervades nearly every aspect of culture.

Take Cap’n Crunch for a moment. It’s a simple product, crunchy corn cereal in little rounded square shapes. It takes amazing with milk. Cap’n Crunch was created by Pamela Low in 1963. She remembered how her grandmother would put butter and brown sugar over rice, and that was the inspiration for the original flavor. Low also helped create several candy bars. Before she came up with the cereal, she had a marketing plan, then she perfected the recipe, feeling it left the consumer with the right amount of, and I quote, “want-more-ishness”. They hired scientists to perfect the recipe, came up with the name, and designed a silly white-haired pirate captain to appear on the box. They gave him a name: Cap’n Crunch, his full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch, by the way, and then a uniform and a backstory, with a full team of animators and storytellers to help them. He lives on Crunch Island, which contains Mt. Crunchmore, a mountain made of cereal. They came up with a slogan, a jingle, pretty colors to put on a cereal box, and then launched it on the public. A few years of success, and they launched a new brand: Cap’n Crunch with Crunch-berries! And then, a few more years, and Peanut-Butter Crunch, with a new mascot, Smedley the elephant! Then in the 1970s, they put out Vanilly Crunch, with the mascot Wilma the White Whale, and the fruit-flavored Punch Crunch, with the sailor Harry the hippopotamus. And then, in 1982, Choco Crunch, with the mascot Chockle the Blob. The following decades have given us dozens more variants: Christmas Crunch, Halloween Crunch, Deep Sea Crunch, Galactic Crunch, Polar Crunch, and Home Run Crunch, as well as the charmingly named “Oops! All Berries”, Mystery Volcano Crunch with Pop-Rocks in the cereal, and Airhead Crunch with sugary Airheads mixed right in!

Cap’n Crunch is owned by the parent company, Quaker Oats, a company around since 1901, and a company which is in turn owned by, surprise surprise, PepsiCo. PepsiCo employs the food scientists who alter the corn and wheat crops, who make the corn syrup, who design the preservatives, and who study the exact amount of crunch per bite that will satisfy their customers. And they do the same for chips and crackers, cheese-foods and yogurts, lunchmeats and carbonated beverages. And if that doesn’t change the way you look at the cereal aisle in the grocery store, well, nothing will.

A few years ago, I went to a family reunion, where hundreds of extended family members had gathered for a big summer celebration. There were tables full of food. Donuts, fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, caramel popcorn, buckets of licorice. I remember walking up and down the rows of food and just witnessing how every food item was saturated in sugar, corn syrup, and enriched wheat flour. And then, in the center of one of the tables, a small bowl of green salad and another of grapes. Every person there had giant platefuls of food, stacked up on top of each other. And I knew they would finish the plates and then go for a pile of dessert off the far table. Nearly everyone there was obese. And this was the culture I’d grown up in, the ones my grandparents had set up with their own children. My grandparents had been raised in the Great Depression years, during a time of great scarcity, when they had to eat when they could, and then as much as they could. And they’d raised their children this way. And somewhere along the way, that had turned into a culture of just, well, indulgence without thinking. And this, my family and every other, this was the public the companies were marketing to.

I could go on and on, but I’ll close with this. I remember being 12 and waking up, immediately looking forward to a bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch. I poured the milk, I wolfed down the cereal, I poured more and ate it too. And I remember realizing that the top of my mouth was raw. It felt like the skin was cracked. It hurt, it was tender, and I could almost taste blood. “Oh my word,” I thought. “I’ve eaten so much Cap’n Crunch, the roof of my mouth is bleeding. I should go look in the mirror and check.” And I did. But first, I had just one more bowl of cereal.

Pill-Popper

pills

“So it’s chronic pain that brings you in?”

Dr. Mary looked up from her clipboard, a smile on her face. She tapped a pen against her chin as she listened.

“Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The pain levels are worst in the mornings. And then I sit for my job most of the day, so the pain just kind of intensifies throughout the day. It gets better a little bit when I move around. But definitely worse in the mornings.”

“Hm. And where do you tend to notice the pain most? And rate it on a scale from 1 to 10.”

I shifted my weight, hearing the rustle of the paper that lined the raised seat in the doctor’s office. “In the mornings, I’m stiff and sore from the scoliosis. I get back head aches and neck aches, and my back is really rigid and achy. More like a 6 to 8. Then after I eat and shower, it gets a little bit better, closer to like a 4.”

Dr. Mary jotted a few notes down. “And what helps to relieve the pain?”

“I usually take a few Ibuprofen in the morning, and a few more in the afternoon. That helps. And food and eating seem to help for some reason. Sometimes I use a heating pad on it.”

“What are your food habits?”

I clicked meals off on my fingers. “On a typical day, I’ll eat two bowls of cereal for breakfast plus a few slices of toast with peanut butter and a glass of orange juice. For lunch, maybe a hamburger and French fries, with maybe chips and a cookie. I’ll snack on a bag of microwave popcorn and a liter of Pepsi at work, and the caffeine helps the headache. And then dinner is variable. Maybe Little Caesers, or my wife might cook roast and potatoes and chocolate cake, it just depends on the night.”

Dr. Mary had me step up on the scale. I was 30 years old, I was 5 feet 11 inches tall, and I weighed 245 pounds.

“You’re a little overweight,” she said, when the truth was I was obese. “I think you might also be struggling with some depression. Between your job doing therapy for others, your Church callings, and your responsibilities at home with your wife and baby boy, I could understand that.”

As she tapped the pen against her chin a few more times, thinking through ideas, I wondered if there was anything she could do to help me. I felt like a shell of myself. I wasn’t sleeping, I didn’t like myself, and my marriage was beginning to feel a bit empty, a routine of church service and watching the DVR. Because of my weight, I was constantly out of breath and sweating all the time. I didn’t have any close friends, and I had just become accustomed to pretending I wasn’t attracted to men. Depression was definitely part of the picture.

“Okay, Chad, here’s what I think we are going to do,” she muttered while scrawling down a few things on a prescription pad. She was silent until she finished, then Dr. Mary looked up at me, the smile back on her face. “Trust me, I think this is going to help.”

Over the next few minutes, Dr. described the regiment of pills she was going to put me on. “I want you to start taking Cymbalta. It’s an anti-depressant. It should help your mood and your sleep. There can be weird side effects at first, some people feel electric buzzes in their brain at the beginning but it goes away, and it can result in more weight gain, but I think it will help.

“I’d also like you to begin a regimen of painkillers every two hours throughout the day. We’re going to go up to the maximum dose on those. Now, the warning labels scare some people off, but you can actually take a bit over that dose when necessary. But we are going to tackle this from two different directions. You can take up to 500 milligrams of Tylenol every four hours, and up to 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen every four hours. So I figure if you take the Ibuprofen with food and water when you wake up, say at 6, then at 8 you can take the Tylenol, and at 10 you can take more Ibuprofen, and you can alternate that schedule throughout the day. You don’t have to do this every day, but it will help on the difficult days.”

My eyes widened as she presented me with three prescriptions, for Cymbalta, for Ibuprofen, and for Tylenol, all prescription level doses that would have to picked up through a pharmacist. She told me that I might expect some digestion issues based on the high doses of Ibuprofen, and that the meds could cause long term liver and kidney problems, but that those weren’t things I needed to worry about for now.

And then Dr. Mary left, and I sat in the room for a moment, stunned. Pills. Lots of pills. An anti-depressant, multiple painkillers, and multiple anti-inflammatories every day. Would that help my headaches? Although I hadn’t had a clear agenda going in, I was a therapist by trade. My doctor had just diagnosed me with depression in a swift paragraph, yet she hadn’t recommended going to a counselor, and hadn’t asked me any questions. She’d noted that I was overweight, but she hadn’t recommended a diet or even limiting food, or exercise, or more regular physical activity.

Just… pills.

A few hours later, I had a new bag of pill bottles in my car. I sat outside the pharmacist and I placed my first Cymbalta pill on my tongue, swallowing it with a swig of Pepsi, then I did the same with the large chalky Ibuprofen. A few days later, the electric zaps in my brain that she’d mentioned would start, and the stomach issues would follow. My head aches and body aches grew numb with the pills, but they never went away. Within a few weeks, I needed the pills to feel normal, the pain intensifying without them. And within a few months, I gained another 10 pounds.

Before I quit the pills cold turkey, just three months later, I felt my depression get worse. The decision to quit the pills and replace them with nutrition, exercise, and therapy came suddenly.

But for that time before that change, I was just a typical American, as fat on the outside as I felt on the inside, and using pills to numb the pain.

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Emotionally Obese

emotionalobesity

When someone comes out of depression, they have to learn how to feel all over again. It isn’t some magical shift, where the depression is replaced by joy and ease. Those positive feelings are there, sure, but the negative feelings have to be felt as well. There is a learning process to feeling sad, scared, mad, and guilty again, and then learning how to use the emotions to create positive experiences.

Somewhere along the way, we grow to believe that “emotional” means “weak”. We say things like “My husband just died, but I can’t let the kids see me cry. I have to be strong” and “I know I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’m not going to be scared. I just have to stay positive.”

We expend exhausting amounts of energy toward avoiding feelings that make us uncomfortable, feelings that are a natural part of the human spectrum. We can’t avoid feeling those feelings any more than we can avoid feeling hungry or tired; we can pretend all we want, but the feelings will come regardless.

The human spectrum of emotions is beautiful and complex. There are the feelings we enjoy, like happiness, gratitude, peace, joy, and security; and then there are the feelings we believe are unhealthy or unpleasant because they bring with them a bit of pain, like sadness, fear, guilt, and anger. When people deny themselves the ability to feel and experience those emotions in healthy ways, they are dumping half of the crayons out of the box, and restricting themselves to the other half of the box. Black just doesn’t work as well without the white to contrast against, and red in only one shade isn’t nearly as beautiful as an entire spectrum of red.

Like physical and spiritual obesity (discussed in previous blogs), emotional obesity sneaks up on you, slowly over time, one pound of emotional weight added at a time. For years, I didn’t let myself feel sad or scared or angry. In fact, I believed it was unhealthy, selfish, even indulgent to waste time on those emotions. I kept a bright smile on my face while I was miserable on the inside.

It took me several years to learn a very fundamental lesson, that pushing away sadness, guilt, anger, and fear didn’t eliminate those emotions or mean that I didn’t feel them; the emotions were still present, pushed deep down where they did damage and caused pain. The only possible response to pushing emotion away is depression. Depression comes in many forms, from moderate to severe to crippling.

There are classic signs of depression: disinterest in pleasurable activities, poor sleep habits, poor nutrition habits, isolation from loved ones, lack of self-esteem, a lack of motivation, a lack of purpose, feelings of shame and worthlessness, and even recurrent thoughts of death and dying. Someone who is mildly depressed may grow to feel that walking through life sad and empty and numb is normal and natural; someone with severe depression may grow to feel that the world would be a better place without them.

My years in the closet were fraught with varying levels of depression. I grew accustomed to feeling sad and empty. I had a wife, a child, a home, a calling in my church, and a successful career, and I felt empty and numb on the inside so regularly that I thought I would never feel anything different. I even grew to believe that that was what God expected of me: to be sad until I died so that I could be happy finally.

I remember a particular time being at Disneyland with my wife, and seeing a gay couple nearby cuddling during the fireworks show. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They looked so happy. I muttered something about being disgusted that they were being affectionate in public, while on the inside I envied them, knowing deep down that I would never have that, that I would never be able to find something like that. Looking back and realizing that I once saw no happiness in my future, well, that just breaks my heart.

Turns out, depression isn’t a natural state. Emotional obesity is a learned behavior, something we choose to participate in, just like physical obesity. Depression is a real and powerful force, and it literally steals lives away. People sometimes spend their entire lives feeling trapped by their environments and situations. Women stay in codependent relationships for decades, where they are abused or confined, because they convince themselves they can’t be happy outside of it; really, they won’t let themselves feel scared and do something with the fear. Men spend lifetimes lonely and feeling unworthy of love; really, they have never learned how to experience sadness and do something about it.

I had to learn, slowly and steadily over time, that emotions that are perceived as negative are truly beautiful. They are unique, and they are crucial to survival.

I love my sadness now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be blue and lonely,  I love grief, for myself and others, the ability to look back on the difficult hand life dealt me, to be able to miss my best friend, to regret the years lost, to feel a bit empty after something I hoped for didn’t turn out like I had hoped. I think my sadness is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my anger now, in all of its powerful forms. I love being able to be frustrated when I hit the tenth stoplight in a row, the ability to feel and express the full spectrum of annoyed to enraged when injustice happens around me, to clench my fists when someone I love is hurt, to feel steel in my stomach when I experience rejection or betrayal. I think my anger is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my fear now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to my mild fears and discomforts in uncomfortable situations, the ability to embrace nervousness as anticipation or dread and confronting those feelings head on, to feel gooseflesh and heart thumps when I worry about a result or a reaction. I think my fear is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

I love my guilt now, in all of its powerful forms. I love listening to the unsettling parts of myself that have a lesson to teach me, the parts that regret a bad food choice or a harsh word, the parts that ache over lost years and missed opportunities, the parts the deliver hidden messages from my deepest core and help me to course correct and make authentic choices. I think my guilt is beautiful and powerful. I listen to it, and I feel it, and I don’t let it overwhelm me. I feel it, then I choose what to do with it.

Being emotionally fit means not only listening to my emotional spectrum, it means embracing it. It means opening my arms up to the wind and loving my life in all of its forms. It means putting myself first before seeking to make those around me happy. It means choosing healthy, balanced relationships. It means keeping every crayon in the box, and using all of them often to color the most beautiful pictures possible.

 

(Final obesity blog coming soon on being Mentally Obese).

Physical Obesity

Obesity snuck up on me, slowly and surely over a period of months and years. I certainly knew I was overweight: I was winded and sweaty all the time, standing could be difficult and so could climbing stairs, I bought giant baggy shirts to fit over my ample stomach, and my face was fatter and rounder. I consumed bags of microwave popcorn, large bags of peanut butter M-n-Ms, liters of Pepsi, and bags of sugared mangos in between meals, and I ate seconds and thirds for dinner and had three or four bowls of cereal for breakfast. Once when I sprained my ankle, I was on crutches, and getting myself from my car to my office became a struggle.

Still, the word obese never crossed my mind. It was a dangerous word, an ugly word. In fact, the only thing worse than obese, when it came to weight, was morbidly obese, a word that implies someone is near death.

My son was flipping through photo albums recently and he looked up with surprise and his usual candor. “Dad, you were really fat when I was a baby. But not anymore, right?”

I remember the day I learned I was obese. It was at a family Christmas party, and my sister Sue had a Wii system. Wanting to engage in some fun family Wii competitions, she had a few of us create character avatars to play with on the game. I designed a little man to look like me with brown hair and clothing, and I entered my height. Then I stood on the little scale for the Wii to take my weight. In front of my entire family, the avatar on the screen suddenly ballooned out to beach ball size, accompanied by a cartoon sound effect, a rubbery boing noise. Giant capital letters flashed on the screen, followed by exclamation marks.

YOU ARE OBESE!!!

And that simple humiliation began my personal transformation and, in many ways, marked the first steps toward living rather than just being alive. It didn’t take long to realize I was eating too much and too quickly, so I began by lowering quantities of food, drinking more water, and learning a bit about what I was putting into my body. I began monitoring what I ate, what foods my body needed, and how many Calories exists in foods.

I had felt abjectly out of control of my life for years at that point, trapped by religion and culture, trapped in the closet, trapped by self-expectations that I had to work 60 hours per week and serve in the church and that it was selfish and ugly to do anything for myself.

So I began walking at lunchtime, and then I began working on the elliptical trainer at the gym during my lunch break. I started lifting weights in the mornings, something I had never done. I began dropping pounds swiftly. At my heaviest, I was 255 lbs. (I’m a 5 feet 11 inches tall). Before long I was at 240, then 230, then 220. I started gaining a bit of confidence in myself, enjoying the gains I was making and seeing the results in myself.

I learned a lot about myself at that time. I learned that weight comes on slow and steadily over time, one half pound at a time, over a period of months and years. I learned that losing weight is a relatively simple science, boiled down simply to burning more energy than consumed. I learned that the human body is forgiving, that it is eager to be healthy and will work toward health when correct decisions are made. I learned that old habits can be hard to break, but that the alternative is simply gaining more and more. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that change takes time: If it takes a year to gain 50 pounds, it is going to take more than a few weeks to take the weight off. I adopted the mantra of slow and steady growth over time.

Once I hit 220, I plateaued for a while. The weight came off more slowly and was more difficult to shed. But as long as I stayed consistent, and was patient and kind toward myself, it continued going down 1-3 pounds every few weeks. 220 became 215, then 210, then 200.

By then, I had taken careful stock of my life. I realized that I had had zero nutrition or exercise knowledge instilled in me growing up, in a family that often struggles with obesity. I realized I was participating in a religion that vilifies coffee and alcohol, but says nothing about obesity and physical health. I realized I was surrounded by people in my life who cared about me, but who completely enabled my dangerous habits and said nothing about my weight or my unhappiness; in fact, some of these people resented me or called me selfish when I began transforming myself. And I realized that it wasn’t just physical weight I had put on, it was mental weight, it was emotional weight, and it was spiritual weight. I had become obese in every sense. Dropping pounds was only the beginning of a years-long transformation ahead of me.

Four years after I began losing my weight, I hit my lowest adult weight, and the most fit time in my life, at 175 lbs. I had lost a total of 80 pounds. I looked and felt better. I felt cleansed and strong and confident. And it was then that I began focusing on shedding the other types of weight I had to lose. I take care of my physical health now on all fronts: exercise, nutrition, sleep, hydration, and overall wellness. It felt, and feels, wonderful.

As I type this, I line up two photographs of myself, one from 8 years ago, and one from last summer. The first, I’m dressed in white at a religious event, literally standing in front of a painting of Jesus. My lips are curved into a smile that doesn’t match my eyes, which seem as heavy as my face, as heavy as the expectations I placed upon myself. In the second, my smile is genuine, my eyes are alive, my arms are strong and I’m alive. It’s difficult for me to reconcile these two versions of myself.

And then two simple thoughts come to mind: life is meant to be lived, and I refuse to spend another moment miserable.

 

(Blogs on spiritual, emotional, and mental obesity to follow).

the Origin of My Species

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“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.

We are Miracles, All

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One of the great lessons I have learned as a therapist, hearing human stories from every age and perspective, is simple:

In any given moment, we are as authentic as we know how to be. And the only moment we have is this one.

Picture a piece of string, fixed to one wall and stretched to the other.

This is your life. One small strand, whether you live to be 2 or 102.

We have a certain amount of control over that life span, with healthy living choices and self-preservation. Yet we are very fragile creatures, subject to injury and disease and depression, and sometimes to the poor or violent decisions of others.

And that timeline string follows rules. You can only move chronologically along it, from left to right, like flowing water. Each moment you exist feels real and vibrant and full with whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And then another moment goes by and the one you were living becomes memory, for now you are living another.

Along this timeline, we can look back at what has passed, viewing it from our present. And we can look forward with wonder or dread, also from our present. But even those moments of reflection and wonder are quickly replaced by another.

And so we face each moment with the amount of authenticity we are equipped with at that exact moment.

When I was five, and I sat in the driveway at my house feeling like my world was going to end because my mom went to the store without me… well, that’s easy to smile about now, but at that time, the pain was intense and real.

And when I was thirteen and my face broke out in terrible acne, and I looked at myself in the mirror with horror and anguish, that was real.

And when I was twenty-two and felt overwhelmed by college finals mixed with a full-time job and mounting bills and religious obligations, and I felt I would crack, that was real.

And when I was thirty and held my oldest child, newly born, in my arms for the first time, and my heart expanded to twelve times the size, and I felt elation and fear and responsibility and love beyond anything I had ever known, that was real.

And when I was thirty-four and I dropped off the divorce papers to the courts, and I grieved my marriage and my faith deeply while looking forward with steadfastness and strength and resolve and hope, that was real.

And now I’m thirty-seven, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, and it’s cold and dark outside, and a policewoman sits next to me looking weary, and my coffee is luke warm, and my soul feels inspired, and… well, this moment is real as well.

I have been through some terrible things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have ached and cried and hurt and struggled. And I have been through some wonderful things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have rejoiced and basked and thrilled and sang.

And each and every one of those moments are moments that I have lived, authentically. And each of them has passed, as they will continue to do so until my timeline is complete, and I know not when that will be.

And the end of life, people say the same things, lessons learned with full perspective: that we should live for the now, that we should live without regrets, that we should be ourselves and be true to ourselves, that we should embrace our loved ones and spend time with our friends, that we should travel and love and dance and climb.

No one, with perspective, wishes they had spent more time in pain, more time grieving losses, more time surrounding themselves with those that do not love them, more time in debt or disease or obesity or anguish or abuse.

We must, simply put, lean ourselves toward love.

I have had times in my life where I felt I wasn’t worthy of love, happiness, or peace. I felt burdened down by financial expectations or weight or religious requirements or relationship responsibilities or physical constraints. And there will always be things to hold us back. It takes a very careful balance to find love and peace for the beings we are, and to work on changing and amending our beings toward happier realities over time.

For if it took me four years to put on eighty pounds, it will certainly take me more than four days to lose it. I can’t erase tens of thousands of debts overnight. If I have suffered from heavy depression for years, it may take several months to get used to feeling hope and joy again. If I have hurt others with my choices, it will take time to reestablish trust. And if I have lost a loved one, a period of grief is necessary for healing.

The quest to find ourselves in a happy present is a noble, difficult journey. And once the present is found, we have to continue finding it, for it is always new.

But oh, what a worthy journey, when we find ourselves on new horizons with the sun on our skins and the air in our lungs, for we are miracles, all.

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