Monday, June 25, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of My Weight

I don’t know where it is anymore, but I used to delight in showing friends my High School ID. I remember that it was the one day of my adolescence for which my face didn’t look like a pebble beach, I made sure to bend my school uniform with a loose-necked tie with an open collar, and I posed with shit-eating, almost thuggish grin. For two minutes of high school, I managed to convince the world that I was cool.

 And most importantly, I was 145 pounds – I managed to be both short and gangly. My face wasn’t particularly handsome, my thinness only emphasized my camel-like nose and Jay Leno-like underbite. But damnit, I was fucking svelte. Six months later, I was down to 131, and my wrestling coach was telling me to gain the weight back so I could get more muscle.

Yes, I, Evan Tucker, an adult who would run halfway around the world to avoid playing a team sport, was a high school athlete – and an absolutely terrible one. At my second high school, we were all required to play sports. In my first term I got stuck with football, and my coach put me on the line as a guard because I was so awful that he didn’t know what else to do with me. From elementary school recess until high school sports, I logged thousands of hours coerced into the realization of how terrible I was at football, and nobody could show me how to be otherwise. My coaches tried all sorts of things to ‘toughen me up’ like sticking me in the middle of a circle of varsity players who could tackle me from any side, or taking me aside after practice to push a whole contraption of tackling dummies by myself. But nothing worked, nothing at all. At the last game of the season, my team still hadn’t won a game all year, and we finally had the lead. My coach put me in for a single play during that game, and during that play the other team’s guard swept by me to tackle the quarterback and recover a fumble for a touchdown. The game ended with a tie.

 Wrestling was much more pleasant, but even in wrestling, I won a single match in two years. As my coach told me, I was New England’s foremost expert on the ceiling designs of New England Prep School Gyms. In order to make weight, we would have to go on five mile runs at five in the morning in the dead of the Connecticut Winter. I would wear five layers of clothing to sweat off as much weight as possible, and at least twice arrived back at school five pounds lighter than my weigh-in two days before.  I suppose you expect to hear that I hated every minute of this, but there was a sick part of my psyche that almost enjoyed this regimen. I was in by far the best shape I’d ever be, still acne-ridden but a couple muscles away from a real sixpack. I hated wrestling itself as much as football, but I occasionally enjoyed the excruciating calisthenics.

I suppose I can’t talk about my weight without talking about the high school itself which to this day controls my feelings about my body, a subject I try not to let come up on this blog too often. I avoid talking about Hyde in part because there’s far too much to say about it, and in part because I worry how some people might co-opt anything I have to say about it for their own agendas. I will say very simply, I don’t have any truck with most of the students who pick fights with the methods of that place. Nevertheless, few people will be happier than I on the day that the Hyde Schools are shut down for mistreatment of their students, and it’s only a matter of time before they are. To this day, I view Hyde as the defining experience of my life, as I imagine most people would who went there, for good or ill. Opinions on that school differ from student to student, teacher to teacher. But given the extremity of their methods, it is impossible not to have an opinion.

After three years at Hyde, a boarding school for bad high school students who’d exhausted normal options, I swore to myself that no one but me would ever make me do any physical activity for the rest of my life. When we all read the reports about the detention camp in Guantanamo, certain methods of theirs rang eerily true to the punishments which Hyde faculty administered (or that students administered to one another). The more I read about the methods of authoritarian regimes, the more similarity there seemed to the methods of extracting information to which Hyde students were subjected. The more I read how propaganda machines manipulate language to create submissive citizens, the closer Hyde seemed to such a model. One day perhaps I’ll write about my experiences there, but even now – eleven years after it was over, much of it is still too painful to revisit.

By no means should anyone compare the methods of a New England boarding school to a totalitarian regime (I feel ridiculous even writing that), and as someone whose grandparents lived under both Stalin and Hitler I should feel particularly sensitive to that sort of comparison. But even my father, a PhD in Eastern European history who spent a year living in Caucescu’s Romania, agrees that the comparison is not without merit. So have Eastern European friends to whom I described what students like us were subjected. Even so, on a basic level, it is absolutely ridiculous to make any comparison between Hyde and any sort of police state. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that in its own infinitesimal way, Hyde School gave me an insight I never wanted into what my grandparents endured.

The greatest benefit Hyde gave me was that it was the greatest possible training for a budding writer – forcing its (often fascinating) students to observe one another to the minutest possible detail. At any moment, any one of us could be accused of doing something wrong – sometimes truly and just as often falsely, and every student there had to evaluate whether or not another student could stab them in the back with these sorts of accusations. In theory, we were all supposed to evaluate one another to help each other achieve our best in all areas of our lives. In practice, such evaluation usually dissolved into a mob mentality in which bullies found an outlet to pick on weaker kids that was completely sanctioned by the school.

Whatever else Hyde did, it gave me one other benefit. In college I found out I was a much better student than I ever was before. But were I a still better student and have managed to get the PhD in political science I’d been contemplating in the years after college, my thesis probably would have been something on the nature and methods of authoritarian states. It was Hyde which endowed me with a lifelong interest in that endlessly fascinating subject, and I suppose that at least in those two ways, I owe Hyde an enormous debt of gratitude.

...But back to the weight problem. Even in my last year at Hyde, where for my last six months I managed to ‘trick’ the school into not making me play sports, I began to put on weight. By graduation, I was certainly well over a 150 pounds, perhaps even 165. During the last ‘punishment-workout’ I ever had to do at Hyde, a mere two days before I graduated, I did the one thing I’d avoided in three years of extreme physical activity – I threw up.

Six months later, my wrestling coach saw me for the first time when I came back to visit. The first thing he said to me was: “Tucker!....Step on the scale!” I was 184 pounds. By the end of my freshman year I was probably 190. By the end of sophomore year, I passed the landmark I thought I’d never reach, two hundred pounds. By graduation, I was 220.

I don’t doubt that there was an enormous confluence of reasons that made me gain so much weight in so little time; everything from laziness to medication to gluttony to anxiety played its own part. Like so many college students, I was eating like there was no tomorrow, drinking like a fish, and smoking like a chimney. All the healthiness I’d gained in those three years I happily gave up for the chance to be a different person. I felt as though I had three years of my life to make up for, and if I could help it I was going to enjoy every minute of it. I can’t say that I derived enough enjoyment to justify gaining eighty-five pounds in seven years (maybe forty-five…), but at least for days at a time, I managed to dispel the crippling fear, guilt, and insecurity with which 3 years at Hyde would leave any student with a shred of humanity.

After college, I went to live in Israel; and as Israel has done for a century of Jewish kids, it boosted my health - to the best it had been since before college. I found a workout partner who became a close enough friend that we’re travelling Europe together for a month this summer. The Harris is a good four inches taller than I, yet weighed less than 130 pounds. The experience of working out with him was everything Hyde was not. He never pushed me to overexert, was always understanding when I couldn’t complete a set, and our workouts often took three hours because we’d talk for twenty minutes between each exercise. By the end of my time in Israel, I was down to 190 pounds, and could do a strenuous, hour-long workout with no break that made me feel better by the end than I did at the beginning.

But when I returned to America, I had no idea what I was doing with my life; without a job, utterly without prospects, stuck in my parents’ house in Baltimore with no sense of direction. Within a year, I’d gained another 45 pounds. At this time five years ago, I was a full 235 lbs. It is, I vow, the largest I ever will be. For normal sized people, 235 pounds is not really that fat. But when you’re 5’4 ½, 235 pounds is enormous – not quite morbidly obese, but certainly obese with a capital O. Were I a foot taller, it would be the equivalent of being well over 300 pounds.

Most of this extra weight is carried my Falstaffian gut. My physique is surprisingly well maintained in other areas, but for years I’ve had a paunch to rival any sexegenarian. A pot belly usually comes with a greater risk of heart disease, and at my largest, I had all the symptoms of heart disease at far too young an age; pain in my chest, tingling in my arm, dizziness, windedness, and constant fatigue. On the other hand, I was eating some damn good food.

I can’t help that I love food – I love all types, all flavors, from the most gourmet to the grossest fast food.  If left to my own devices, I would probably eat every minute of every day. For whatever reason, my body has very little sense of when it’s full, and I can’t understand why people would leave some food on their plate untouched. What an alcoholic is to booze, I am to food. I long since gave up cigarettes with little trouble. I could even see myself cutting out alcohol completely with little regret. But the mere thought of limiting my food intake seems like a cross too great to bear.

In the last two years, I’ve been to two cardiologists, both of whom told me that I have no heart problems whatsoever. I do, however, have rather severe heart burn, terrible back pain, a probable ulcer, and still more severe hypochondria. The last few years have been a steady stream of constant diets and inconsistent physical activity – Atkins, calorie counting, biking, and weight lifting. Today, I start the severest diet of them all – a week-long ‘detox’ diet of nothing but fruits, vegetables and six ounces of protein a day that will hopefully take the edge off some of my most extreme cravings.  For all that effort, my weight has steadily yo-yoed between 225 lbs and 200, and never below 200.

Thin people simply never understand why a person would go to such weird lengths to lose weight. Why not simply limit your food intake and consistently get exercise? Why not indeed? Fat people have been wondering why they’re incapable of following these prescriptions for good health at least as much as their thin friends. There are only two options to believe – either fat people are simply lazy, or we have a biological problem that is not easily cured. Many people, particularly many thin people, believe the former. Perhaps they're right, but my experience tells me to doubt them. Bulimia is considered a disease, yet the condition still involves the somewhat involved process of a bulimic person finding a drain in which to throw up. In the same way, even if one has a choice to stop eating, perhaps one doesn’t. Alcoholism, compulsive gambling, anorexia are all diseases that involve a free choice as much as compulsion – yet they’re still considered diseases.

One day, I will be thin again. I truly believe this. I just hope it’s before I turn 35 or 40 or whatever age it is when ailments from bad body maintenance become truly irreparable. I want to be thin, really I do. But it’s goddamn hard. Asking me to stop eating so much is asking me to amputate one of the biggest parts of myself (no pun intended). It’s almost as though can no longer imagine my life as a thin person.

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