The Bodhi Tree

Day 12: last blog entry, for this story at least.

Siddhartha Gautama came to India searching for enlightenment. He chose to meditate under a fig tree to find it. To capture the attention of a spiritual leader as significant as the Buddha, it must have been the perfect incarnation of a tree—a straight trunk, strong symmetrical branches, and an abundant canopy so rich that it put to shame every other tree in the forest. But, an 1862 historian described the Bodhi Tree as “…very much decayed; one large stem, with three branches to the westward, is still green, but the other branches are barkless and rotten.”[1]

The Buddha himself bowed in gratitude to the divine in that imperfect fig tree under which he obtained enlightenment. For centuries, pilgrims and tourists have come to admire that imperfect tree and to honor the events that unfolded beneath it.

If only we were more like trees. Their trunks bend against the wind, their branches curve in search of nutrients, and thier canopies grow and fall with time. Some are thick, some are thin, some strong some weak. But all are proud, and in their own ways, magnificent.

If the Bodhi Tree of 1862 heard that historian’s description of it, I imagine it would have answered with something along the lines of, I am the most perfect incarnation of myself for the life I was meant to have.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.buddhamind.info/leftside/arty/bod-leaf.htm

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David

 

I was able to laugh at the hilarity of getting this surgery only to have to wear (significantly!) bigger pants than before, because of swelling. I should probably be more worried about the short and mid-term ramifications of this. For example, what the hell am I going to wear to work? But, I think I’m still far too amazed that a human body can survive being cut in half, while for five hours, a set of hands cuts, pulls, staples and sews its biggest organ (skin) back together.

In South Florida, there are more plastic surgeons willing to cut and paste parts of your body than there are drugstores on street corners. It’s buyer’s choice. But, buyer beware, because selecting one isn’t easy. Insurance does not cover any of this, and it also doesn’t cover emergencies or any other routine procedures needed because of a botch or complication. For anyone considering something like this, or in case you’re just curious, I have three messages.

You will pay. My procedure cost $16,000. You can try to ask your insurance company to pay, but you will be disappointed with their answer. Yes, insurance would pay for abdominoplasty under the following conditions: the patient regains all 100+ pounds he lost, get’s bariatric surgery, and then looses 100+ pounds quickly. In that case, insurance would be all too happy to pay. I was able to afford my surgery only when my aunt passed away and left me about $16K in life insurance. Since she died, in part, due to diseases brought upon by her obesity, I felt at least partially justified for spending it the way I did.

Choose well. I spent hours reviewing the medical qualifications, university degrees and reviews of dozens of plastic surgeons. In the end, I went with the one who showed the most respect for the journey I had up to now, even though he promised me far less in terms of results than the others, and, cost more. When I told him my lengthy list of expected results, instead of saying “yes to all”, he answered with a story. Michelangelo’s David was carved from a solid piece of marble that had been rejected by at least two other artists, who claimed the marble was flawed and couldn’t be sculpted. When the other artists saw David and asked Michelangelo how he managed to create perfection from a flawed stone, Michelangelo said, “You were trying to create what you wanted from a stone that wanted something else. David is not a perfect man, he is the most perfect expression of this particular stone.” I don’t know if that story is true or not. But, his message was, like Michelangelo he would create the best possible result for me. And on another level, perhaps his message was that the best expression of our own bodies is indeed the one we have. I scheduled the surgery before I left his office that day.

Be patient. This is not a procedure that will give instant gratification. Though you will notice an immediate difference in your physique, there will be swelling, some pain and a restriction of physical activity for several weeks if not months after. To take my mind off the fact that I couldn’t go to the gym, run, bike, row or do anything else I wanted to do, I downloaded books and decided to take an online nutrition class. When that failed to distract me, I wrote a blog about my experience–granted I did have morphine when I made that decision.

Jackal and cobra

Day 10: I said farewell to the last of the surgical drains today. Full recovery is in sight a little ahead of schedule!

Continuing from yesterday…

At first, nothing special happened on the first day of Sophomore year. This was the first time anyone at school had seen me since I lost almost 100 pounds. The school day began as it always did. But no longer obese, I could raise my hand without ridicule, shift in my chair, or even get up from my seat. No jokes, no whispers. Freedom of movement was a beautiful thing. For the first half of the day, no one said a word to me, probably because no one knew who I was.

Eventually, my classmates saw the faint resemblance to a person they had seen before. Then came the shocked expressions, handshakes and high fives. As to the jackals who, just a year ago, were circling around me, baring their teeth? They retreated, tails between their legs.

The bullies were loosing ground on all fronts. I could see in their faces the feeling of powerlessness I knew all too well. I knew exactly how they felt when they had to stop wearing their letterman jackets because they could no longer button them. And I could relate to the deep-seated humiliation and shame they felt when they received rock bottom academic class rankings or when the athletic director finally told them they would never make it to college level sports.   Others would later have full breakdowns, struggle in college or find themselves arrested—in some cases on sexual harassment charges.

Surprisingly, some of the factors that can cause children to become obese are the same as the factors that make children prone to bullying. Complicated home lives, self esteem issues and lack of appropriate coping mechanisms for emotions are just a few.[1] Furthermore, the adult ramifications for bullies and the obese children they bullied are equally scary. By their mid 20s, kids who bullied are 60% more likely to have criminal records.[2] Obese children are more likely to become obese adults and face significantly increased risks for a slew of serious health issues from diabetes to some cancers.[3]

Many who have obesity and even those who overcome obesity have body image issues. I do. You cannot just erase 16 years of life experience like chalk on a board. Though I may today wish I was a physically stronger and more toned man, I am not a broken one. I have not forgiven my torturers completely—I wish I was that saintly. But, when I reflect on why I am a relatively mentally healthy person today and a reasonably productive member of society, it always comes back to one moment. I had the power and the opportunity in those final years of high school to unleash a cobra’s venom into the jackals, but I didn’t. Though it was not easy, I restrained. I chose compassion and empathy.

 

 

[1] http://blogs.cornell.edu/ccesuffolkfhw/files/2013/07/NH-Why-Do-Some-Children-Bully-26s07gn.pdf

[2] http://blogs.cornell.edu/ccesuffolkfhw/files/2013/07/NH-Why-Do-Some-Children-Bully-26s07gn.pdf

 

[3]

A quiet moment, without drama

Day 9: Yep, still at this. A few more posts to go.

My generation was the first expected to live to 100. 100 years of this? Of boredom and living with a self that I loathed? That must have been on my mind as my 15th birthday came and went.

It happened one night in late May of 2001. I was sitting on the couch in the dark, just starring at the wall.  And in a quiet moment without drama, I got up and walked down to the basement. I had no preconceived plan for what happened next, nor can I think of anything that might have foreshadowed it.

I cleared away a few boxes and pushed the machine to the furthest corner of the basement. I put on the headphones of an old cassette tape player and swung my leg over the early 1990’s Schwinn Airdyne model exercise bike (think cycle but with movable handlebars like an elliptical). Since it was the dead of night and no one was looking or judging, for a moment I imagined myself riding that bike—not myself as I was at that time, but myself as I wanted to be. I peddled. The wheel on the bike spun. I turned the music up. I peddled harder. Before I knew it, ten minutes went by.

On the last day of school, I came home as usual and made a pizza. For the first time, I looked at the back of the box at the serving size. 1/3 of the pizza was 360 calories. I would normally eat the entire thing without a thought. Instead, I cut 1/3 of it, put it on a plate and threw the rest away. I sat down and ate it, slowly, trying to make it last as long as I could. After I finished, I did want more. But instead of the sinking feeling that usually crept up on me about this time, I came back to the mental image of myself on the Schwinn bike. Me, as I wanted to be. I went back to the basement, and swung my leg over the bike.

The plan became clear. For 15 weeks of summer, I would eat 1500 calories a day (half of what a typical person ate). I would do this in absolute secrecy. I would not see, talk to or interact with anyone who might damage the image I had of the person I wanted to be.

By the middle of summer, I was logging 60 miles a day on the Airdyne. When my shoes filled with blood from blisters and sores, I threw them off and biked barefoot. On nights I couldn’t sleep from hunger pangs, I went outside and walked for hours in the fields behind my house.

I had a clear picture of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I fought hard for it. By summer’s end, I weighed 175 pounds. Shirt size M or L. Waist size 34.

I achieved in one summer what most yogis hope to over a lifetime: I trained my mind to expel mental and physical toxins. I made physical movement my meditation and not my enemy.

I also did some things wrong. 80% of those who loose excessive weight will gain it back, plus some[1]. Though I never gained back more than 10 pounds of the weight I had lost, extreme diets can be dangerous. I should have focused on eating more whole foods and in balancing nutrient intake instead of strictly cutting calories. Had I slowed down the pace of my diet, I might have avoided the deflated skin that would resurface as a problem down the road.

But none of that mattered on the first day of my Sophomore year of high school, which was anything but a quiet moment without drama.

[1] https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20161014/how-your-appetite-can-sabotage-weight-loss#1

The Sinking Feeling

Day 8: Sore. Yesterday I spent about an hour walking outside. I needed to scratch some of the itch I had to exercise. It felt great to sweat again, but I pushed it a bit too hard. This morning, my back hurt and my knees creaked under pressure they haven’t been used to. My surgical incision lines feel stretched. On the brighter side, only a few more days until I can shower and be done with these sponge baths where I manage to get more water on the floor than over my body.

I’ll paste the G rated summary of today’s blog entry on Facebook: It was the unrelenting bullying in middle school that shattered my self-image and self-worth, driving me to eat until I was 280 pounds.

Some details below may be disturbing to some readers.

At age ten, I felt old, spiritually and physically. Sore back, creaking knees, the works. Riding my bike fifty feet made me wheeze and sweat.

We moved later that year. I was promised that the new school would be bigger and better, and the other kids more understanding than at my last school. I hoped to loose weight. My parents hoped for better jobs. I think we were all disappointed.

When I stepped in to classroom 5B, its students erupted in to laughter. Fingers pointed and mouths dropped. As I walked the slow march to my assigned desk, I heard the whispers between the students. Fat. Lardy. Huge. My assigned desk was too small. I had to crouch down and shimmy left and right in the chair to squeeze in to it. Finally in place with my stomach resting on the tabletop surface, a boy whispered in my ear, “fatso”. The teacher was less than five feet away, and my father was standing in the back of the room.

I lived every moment of every school day for the next five years in constant fear. Although I hid in the shadows as much as possible, I would always be found in this twisted game of hide and seek. I was name-called, spit-on, tripped or laughed at daily.  In gym glass, balls, gloves and other equipment always wound up at or near the back of my head.

I was not allowed to leave my seat in class without someone making a fart noise or fat joke. If I raised my hand to answer a question, laughter would follow. If I laughed at a funny story, someone would point out how the rolls of my stomach flapped as I laughed. I stopped laughing, smiling and moving altogether in school. Although I was a year advanced in music and played an instrument, I quit, because of the constant barrage of jokes comparing my size to that of my unfortunate choice of instrument (a horn similar to a tuba).

At home, my parents and I were three angry obese people, together in the same house, but very much separate. There was plenty of yelling and word slinging from all sides but no dialogue or meaningful relationship. We peeled away and retreated to three separate levels within the house.

The bullying got more sophisticated over the course of those five years. It transitioned from attacks about my body to attacks about my being. I was told I was worthless, despicable, undesired and lazy. My only reprieve came because I had a decent mind and the favor of a few teachers. Answers to homework assignments earned me rights to small compliments. If I provided what was asked for, perhaps I wasn’t that big.  But when I refused to cheat on tests, I was punished double-time for several days after.

Adolescence is a particularly inconvenient time to be obese. When the queen bee of my class chose me as a partner for a project, warning bells raged. Blinded entirely at the attention from a confident, beautiful girl, I accepted her and her friend’s offer to come to my house to complete the project. Trip wire crossed. As I glued the final piece to the poster board, she took my hand and put her arm around me. Before I had time to think, she and her friend threw me off balance, pinned me to the ground and, cackling, started taking off my pants and shirt. I broke free, but not before they both had a chance to pull down the front of my underwear, look inside and laugh convulsively.  I remember the horrible sinking feeling set in as I sat there on the floor, shaking.  As they explained it, my boobs were bigger than theirs, and they needed to know for themselves if I really was just a fat boy or an ugly, fat girl. I was 11 years old.

Eating excessively didn’t make any of the issues I was facing go away, but it did numb me. So, I just kept eating until I peaked in 44 inch pants and XXL t-shirts.

In terms of my story, this is the darkest part. It does get lighter from here.

Sadly, in a recent survey, one in four sixth grade boys experienced teasing, bullying or rejection because of his size[1]. When I did a search for medical studies that documented how obese children were bullied, I came up empty.

But, it does appear that I am not alone in blogging or writing about the details of some of the worst instances of obesity related bullying. Most of the stories come from women.

Come on guys, when you’re ready, let’s share.

[1] http://www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/resource-articles-2/childhood-obesity-resource-articles/bullying-bullycide-and-childhood-obesity

Macho-y Man

Day 7: Men are not used to talking about body image, weakness and vulnerability, and I have done a lot of that over the past six days. It has been downright uncomfortable at times, and I’m not even a macho-y man to begin with. But I want to discredit entirely the notions that men do not have body issues, that we can easily brush off physical and emotional punches without bruising and that I am less of a man because I didn’t keep any of that quiet.

I want to do that not only for the sake of my own gender, but because as a father, I want to honor my two fearless little daughters.  Princess wands in hand, they, with no shortage of wit and chutzpah, always express how they feel.  Someday when they are old enough to read and understand this blog, I hope they will expect any men in their lives to communicate and relate with them on a human and healthy level about body image, other insecurities and everything else in between. It’s what their mom, Jessica, asks of their dad, Ben. It’s what Jessica has modeled to Ben throughout their own relationship and why Ben has the courage to write the way he is now.

Now for the funny thing that happened to my manly ego at my most recent post-op visit.

I woke up with this primal urge to eat meat, hunt and make fire.   Maybe it was my mind’s counterbalance for going against my hard-wired norm of internalizing and compartmentalizing insecurities. Or, maybe I was just having a latent cocky teenage boy moment. For whatever reason, I decided to play tough guy and skip the pain medication altogether. I wasted no time in bragging about that to the medical staff at my post-op visit. Overinflating my already elevated ego, I got an additional confidence boost. Not only do I heal remarkably fast, I was told again how lean and fit I was. I ate all that up like a ribeye steak fresh off a red-hot grill atop a fire I started with my own bare hands.

And, because I was such a badass, today I would say goodbye to three of the drains (Things 1, 2 and 4) and 12 of the staples in my stomach. The drains were imbedded three to five inches deep in my abdomen and back. No problem. I was ready to be put under and get this done.

Then the nurse explained that there would be no putting under. There would be no topical painkiller. There would be no rescheduling of this appointment.

Clearing my throat to cover the little quiver in my voice, I asked what this would feel like. Apparently, some women say it’s like waxing, but it doesn’t generally hurt until the very last moment. Then, I asked what men say it feels like. She never really answered that–just sort of smirked and turned away.

In the end, all three drains and the twelve staples came out. No, I did not scream, convulse, curse or cry. But throughout, I had my arms wrapped more tightly around the rests of that examination chair than I ever did around my cuddly little childhood stuffed rabbit, who I missed dearly in those moments. Let’s just leave it at this: though I’m a pretty hairy guy, I will never, for any reason, get waxed.

Long. Deep. Euphoric.

Day 6: Yahoo, another day of no constipation despite still being on narcotics. Got word from the doctor that he took off about three pounds of skin last Friday. I knew I felt lighter! Too bad I couldn’t donate the extra skin to science for research. I took a walk around the block this morning—no near misses this time—and felt a little more give around the midsection stiches. Awesome. Healing was happening.

Then, out of nowhere I dipped. Was there too much give around the midsection?   It’s been a week since I worked out, so I’m loosing muscle by the day. And what the hell was I thinking blogging about this again? And…

Post weight-loss anxieties like this creep up from out of nowhere and hammer me over the head sometimes. I wish my apple watch could sense it coming and activate a duck-and-cover style alert so I could prepare for it.

I’m 16 years out from loosing almost 100 pounds, but I still contend with anxiety about my post weight loss appearance. Those issues peaked in my early high school locker room days–a place of no mercy for, well, anyone. Under my shirt were flaps and rolls of skin that folded over one another. Like an overinflated balloon suddenly deflated, everything gathered at my waist and at my lower back. I could bunch up all the skin and pull the entire thing two inches away from my abdomen. At rest, it all gave the illusion that I had a spare tire. Ironically, I would have felt more normal had it actually been fat. At least then if I took my shirt off, I could say I had one too many cheese curds and moved on. With the extra skin, I would have a long tale to explain, and I had locked that story away under maximum security.

What was supposed to be a celebratory time for me to start participating in life became yet another source of frustration and shame. What was so wrong with me that I just could not fix myself?

So, that is why I came five minutes early to gym class to change before anyone else arrived. And why I never went to the pool or participated in any situation that would risk me taking off my shirt, which I wore extra long and baggy.

Some people reading this nowadays might start to connect the dots. Now you know why you’ve never seen me at the pool and why I always wear dark, pattered clothing (which distracts the eye and conceals the rolls of skin).  Or, if you’ve a very keen eye, why I constantly tug and pull at my clothing.  Or, perhaps you’ve noticed nothing at all, because, after all, a lot of this anxiety is really just all in my head.

I started this entry off with healing. Now I have a choice to end it with a rest stop at a healing oasis or to continue the journey through the desert. Since it’s a beautiful Florida night, and I’m outside by the pool, shirt off by the way, watching the sunset, I choose the oasis. There’s plenty of desert left for tomorrow. So, here we go.

As with most lives of American teenagers, things got better in college. No one had to see me without a shirt on, and no one knew my story. My college friends saw me as a reasonably fit guy who liked to go running at crazy hours, especially in the dead of winter. As far as they knew, I was never, was currently not, nor would I ever be obese. My presence did not upset them or make them uncomfortable, as it did to the majority of people in my life until then. I went to restaurants in public, learned yoga in India, worked for a biotech company in Spain, set some class grading curves, got noticed by some professors, and even briefly dabbled in Ultimate Frisbee.

I participated in life. People believed I had something to contribute to the world, and so did I. All of that and more I drew in like a parched India draws in that first monsoon rain. Long. Deep. Euphoric.