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When I was growing up in Kentucky, I always thought of myself as big, ugly, and gross. It didn't help that I had a petite and adorable little sister. There was no one I envied more than Lauren. In grade school I watched her fling herself into cartwheels and fly across the monkey bars with ease while I hid on the sidelines. She was graceful and skinny. I was awkward and chunky. And growing.
We mirrored our parents -- Lauren got my dad's slender frame and Asian features. I was all Mom: tall and heavyset. At 10, when I already weighed 150 pounds, we visited my dad's side of the family in Hong Kong. I stood by as everyone fawned over Lauren. I know most kids go through an awkward phase, but standing next to her made me feel like a grizzly bear. I could tell my mom felt as uncomfortable as I did. From that trip on, she and I were like two peas in an oversized pod. I didn't fit in with the Chinese side of my family, so I embraced my mother's deep Southern roots, including her weakness for sweet tea and pecan pie. We shared our body hang-ups, did aerobics, and tried the cabbage soup diet together.
Despite our efforts, by high school I weighed 250 pounds. While other girls wore cute clothes, I wore long, flowery skirts and sweater sets that were more age-appropriate for my mom. You can only take being called "Big Bertha" so many times before you go searching for something, anything, to make you lose weight. I found it in the back pages of Seventeen: fat camp in California. "Come lose the weight and be with people just like you!" the ad promised. Fat camp was my safe place. I felt like I could breathe around those kids, who were my size or even bigger. We all had to stick to a strict diet and exercise program and I lost 40 pounds that summer. But when I got back to school I regained all the weight. It became a predictable cycle: lose pounds over the summer at fat camp, gain it back during the school year, return to fat camp and repeat.Piling On the Pounds
My life got more complicated when I started college at the University of Kentucky. My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the age of 41; at the same time, my parents' marriage started falling apart. It was painful watching my family crumble, and I dealt with it by going to town on fried chicken and ice cream. I gained 50 pounds.
I moved into my own place off campus the next year and while the other kids were out partying, I was home alone, eating. I would mindlessly stuff myself with cheese fries or frozen pizzas and eat until my stomach felt like it was going to explode. At the time I didn't realize I had a binge-eating disorder. All I knew was that food could make my worries about school, arguing parents, and Mom's illness go away for a while.
I gained another 50 pounds my sophomore year, and 50 or more my junior year. Most of my classes were in a three-story building on the far side of campus. I was always early, and not just because I was a good student. I knew that if I arrived late, I'd have to walk in red-faced, sweating, and ashamed. Getting there early gave me time to linger in the hallway and catch my breath. I feared the stairs most of all. This was an old building, and the service elevators were for the handicapped or the janitors, not for "lazy" 350-pound people like me.
As for dating, well, it wasn't easy for someone my size, but I was lucky to find a guy who could see past my weight to the real me. I met David, who's now my husband, online, and we were instantly attracted to each other. I felt so at ease with him. He just doesn't have a judgmental bone in his body. Maybe that made it easier for me to keep gaining weight, but really, I was just in denial. I swear that the pace at which I was destroying myself didn't register until I graduated from college and weighed almost 400 pounds.
The first time it really hit me was when I couldn't find a suit to wear to a job interview. I cobbled together an outfit of size 32 polyester pants, a wrap top, and a too-tight jacket that hid the fact that my shirt didn't actually fasten in the back. Then I arrived for the interview and sat in the waiting room. Big mistake. I realized that when my name was called, I might not be able to get up without the chair coming with me. I spent the next few minutes discreetly trying to extract my bruised thighs from the armrests.
I was surprised when I got the job, as a marketing coordinator for an IT company, but even with that boost of confidence I continued to use food as a crutch. I was doing great work, yet I felt like an outsider at the office. My coworkers were nice enough, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I didn't belong there. I didn't belong anywhere. I hated everything about my body, so I guess I didn't expect other people to look beyond it. The only thing that made me feel better was food. I often turned down lunches with my friends to binge in my car. I'd hit the drive-through for a triple burger with cheese fries. If it was a bad day, I'd get two orders.
By the time I turned 24 I'd stopped hanging out with friends completely. When you're 445 pounds, getting out of the house to socialize is usually more trouble than it's worth. The only person I saw during this time, besides my coworkers, was David. He worked late and on weekends when he wasn't at school, leaving me ample time alone to sit around and eat. I couldn't shop for clothes because nothing fit. I didn't even go to the grocery store anymore -- I'd send David with a long list.
As much as I wanted to hide 24/7, I still had to go to work. I had another "holy crap, I'm huge" moment when I rode to an event with my boss. I nervously climbed into his new SUV and started to sweat when I realized the seat belt wasn't big enough to close around me. Even worse, the alarm began to ding, alerting everyone in the vehicle that I was too fat to buckle it. I couldn't decide what would be worse -- that the dinging might continue for the whole ride or that I might actually break the seat belt. I sucked in my stomach and was able to hold the belt in place, but I was near tears. I felt like a total freak.
Yes, that was a wake-up call, but now I was in too deep. Digging myself out seemed impossible. Food was a full-blown addiction. I knew I had to do something drastic, so I went on a super-strict diet and stopped eating carbs completely. I had probably been eating at least 6,000 calories a day in pizza, pasta, and ice cream, so it's no wonder I lost 130 pounds like it was nothing. But it wasn't sustainable or healthy. Despite being a whole person lighter, I didn't feel different inside.
From the outside my life seemed to be moving forward. I went back to school to get my master's degree and kept the weight off while David and I planned our wedding. But I still weighed 315 pounds. I still ate alone. I still sat on the couch after work feeling worthless, and I still felt trapped by my body. On top of that, my mom was deteriorating fast, and I couldn't do anything to help her. When she died I felt numb. I held it together long enough to get married, but the wedding was bittersweet without my mom there. As soon as I got home from our honeymoon I switched back to the anything-goes diet of greasy fast food, cookies, potato chips, bean dip, and (here's the kicker) diet soda. Within eight months I'd gained back all the weight, plus 10, for a grand total of 455 pounds.
David never said anything. He knew I'd always struggled with my weight, and he's such a kind person that he didn't want to make me feel worse than I already did. Maybe some people thought he was enabling my bad habits, but I'm really grateful he let me figure it out on my own.
I was 27 but I felt like I was 100. Every morning I'd have to use my hands to squish my rolls of fat through the shower door. Then I'd struggle to dress myself in one of the two pairs of stretchy pants that still fit. I've heard women joke, "I feel like a sausage in this dress!" Well, that's how I felt constantly, like I was going to burst out of my own skin. I couldn't stand up straight because of the weight of my boobs and belly, and my back constantly ached. Once I got to work, I was okay. I could sit in my chair. But by midday, fluid would start to build up in my feet and legs, which made walking to the bathroom feel like trudging through quicksand. Everything hurt.
I didn't know what to do. I couldn't run away to fat camp this time. So I tried out for The Biggest Loser. I know it sounds crazy, but I saw it as my last hope. After two fruitless auditions, though, I hit rock bottom. I sat down to watch the show with a huge to-go box of cheese fries. While the contestants endured treadmill-induced breakdowns, I felt my own emotional upheaval. How on earth did I get here? I wondered, wiping my tears with a grease-soaked napkin. You know you've hit a breaking point when you are crying your eyes out and thinking to yourself: "If only I could be banished to a ranch where I could starve and be yelled at by Jillian Michaels, then I could lose this weight! Then I would be better!"Starting to Change
I believed that if I could just be skinny, all my problems would be solved. I'd have the life I wanted: I'd be able to go on vacation without worrying about having to buy an extra airplane seat, or just go to a movie like a normal person. I'd feel comfortable and healthy. But those simple things seemed too far out of my reach. I finally decided I couldn't live that way anymore. It was time for me to face the fact that I wasn't happy with myself, and that I was the only one who could fix it.
I found a therapist to help me deal with my sadness instead of eating around it. I learned to control my desire to binge. But I knew I also had to get moving to see the pounds come off. At first I marched in place in my living room for five minutes at a time. Eventually I progressed to doing workout DVDs. Then I tried something really brave: I walked into a gym. Luckily there was a trainer who could work with someone like me. I still weighed over 400 pounds, which was definitely embarrassing. For a heart-rate assessment I had to get on a treadmill and walk until I couldn't go anymore. After five minutes at a snail's pace I felt like my heart was going to give out. I looked around at the other members, sprinting and jumping in their cute, shiny gym clothes while I could barely walk in a T-shirt so big I had to order it online. If I thought I didn't fit in at school or work, I definitely didn't fit in here. But I refused to give up.
The weight loss was a lot slower this time, but I was working so much harder for it that I really did start to feel different. It was like breaking out of a shell. One morning I was doing my weight routine on one of those big plastic stability balls, and the next minute I heard a "pshh" and was dumped on the floor. Yes, I popped it. But instead of feeling like a freak, I got up, grabbed another ball and finished my set. For a girl who used to be confined to her couch, this was major progress.
But the real turning point occurred when I conquered the StairMaster. I was terrified of that thing. The first time my trainer suggested it, all I could think about was how demoralizing it was going to be when I didn't last more than a minute at the slowest pace. (I was right.) But months later, after I had lost 70 or 80 pounds, I forced myself to try again. I started slowly. It wasn't so bad, so I bumped up the pace. It felt challenging, but I could do it. I glanced down and noticed a warning sticker: "Weight limit 400 pounds." For a second I panicked. I looked around at all the people in the gym who were about to see me break a freaking StairMaster, and then I remembered, with great relief, that I only weighed 350! After that, with my confidence on the rise, I even took up running.
So here I am now, 113 pounds down (David's lost 95 pounds, too) and still working on myself every day. I know my work is far from over. I know I'll never be a dainty size 0 like my sister, and I know for sure I'll never be perfect. The stretch marks, all the loose skin, the judgmental looks from strangers -- those things might never go away, but you know what? I don't care. I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way I learned that I was worth it. I deserve to feel good. I deserve to be healthy. And as long as I am doing everything I can to get there, I'm happy.