A month ago, when I shared some of what I’d accomplished during my time off, I promised to share the rest when I got back to work. I’m back now and there’s lots to tell, but most of it will have to wait, because first I need to tell you about the single most important thing I accomplished.
I’ve been fat once before
I grew up playing sports. I was decent at some of them, played a lot, and enjoyed myself. I loved to run fast and jump high.
In 2002, having dropped out of college-the-first-time, gotten my first programming job, and gained 40 pounds too many, I lost all the weight (and improved my blood chemistry) with the Atkins diet. At 23, changing how I ate was enough. When my condition had sufficiently improved, I started playing competitive Ultimate frisbee again. I was running fast and jumping high.
I got better
I promised myself I’d keep it that way. For the better part of the next 6 years, whether or not I was playing Ultimate, lifting weights, learning Krav Maga, or eating French fries and ice cream (not usually at the same time), my weight stayed in the right spot. When it went up a bit, I’d eat carefully for a few days and it’d come right back down.
I was no longer on a strict Atkins diet, but I’d still occasionally be reminded of my sensitivity to carbohydrate. After one weekend Ultimate tourney, I came home more tired than usual — and despite running around for two days straight, 10 pounds heavier. Why? The tourney had provided the typical sideline fare of bagels, bananas, and soft pretzels, and I’d eaten some. I have no other guesses. It took a full zero-carb week to overcome my lethargy and point the scale back where it belonged.
I broke my promise
When I was considering college-the-second-time, one of the scariest ramifications of the decision was the prospect of going deeply into debt. I couldn’t begin to pay for where I wanted to be unless I got sizable private loans. I accepted that, but in my final year, the loans didn’t accept me. (It was the market downturn of 2008, a bad time to ask for credit. Still, you’d think they’d factor in that a diploma would probably help me pay them off for the previous three loans.) Even though I’d hoped not to use it, I took the money my parents had set aside for my higher education. Boy, was I lucky to have the option. It was enough to register for classes and figure out the rest later.
Suddenly it was later. Exactly seven years ago, midway through my final semester, with my credit cards maxed out, my bank balance said: $80. I snapped to attention. No matter what, bills would soon be going delinquent. All things being equal, I figured I’d rather have food on the shelves than not, and spent all $80 at the grocery store before one more bill could be auto-paid. To make my meager holdings last longer, I sought out free food at events on campus. Occasionally friends would treat me to something. It wasn’t often the sort of food I’d prefer to eat. But I preferred even more, between March and May, to be able to eat.
I had no plan for after that. I knew I’d have to move out of my student housing after graduating, but to where? With what money? With what job prospect might I stand a tiny chance of persuading anyone to lend me money or put me up someplace? New York was expensive. I couldn’t even afford to leave.
Also I was gaining weight. But so what? The risk of taking on all that debt had turned into consequences. At 30, for the first time since I was 19, I couldn’t handle meeting my own basic needs.
Friends saved me
Some extraordinarily generous friends invited me into their home with their bright and bouncy two-and-a-half-year-old child and sweet and cuddly older-gentleman cat. They lent me their car to move most of my stuff into a storage facility they’d paid for. They fed me. They found me some contract work that helped me back to my feet, which I followed as soon as I possibly could to a cheap room in deepest Brooklyn, like you do, in an apartment shared with weird flatmates and bold rodents. I was relieved and happy to be able to pay my own way again, relieved some more to be out of my friends’ hair, and happier still to be undertaking the lifelong project of attempting to find ways to repay them. Did I mention their home had been undergoing a construction project at the time? One of them had forgone the use of her office so I could live in it.
Another friend got me a full-time job, from which I ultimately learned a great deal about effective software development and found my way toward what I do now. But to begin with, I was mainly concerned with keeping my job. As I grew competent and confident within some context, I’d be given responsibility for a larger, more stressful context. Doubtless my body was being bathed in cortisol at all times.
Certainly I was urgently working at most times. I gained more weight.
I started rebooting myself
I couldn’t manage to concern myself with that. I was occupied with my comfort. As soon as I could just barely afford to move out of Rat Haven into a quiet, spacious, calming apartment near my generous friends, I piled up all my nickels to make the security deposit. The place remained mostly shiny floors and white walls for months, but I didn’t mind. I was there, alone, in my own space, calm and safe. I could afford to order in, and did. I could work from home several days a week, and did, even as my “desk” was a bookshelf plank laid across a couple upside-down U-Haul boxes. I slowly built up my savings, credit, and furnishings.
Self-displays of agency were themselves comforting. I could visit out-of-town friends on weekends, and did.
I learned some things
When I once again had some credit and some savings, I was able to take a deep breath and reflect.
I didn’t have a family to somehow take care of. I never had to live on the street or go hungry for days. I even got to keep all my stuff. Still, I learned a lot about what it’s like to be poor. I’d already understood that having money means no more and no less than having options. Now I understood that being poor means you have many fewer choices, and each of the good ones costs you far more, so you can’t afford to make many good ones, so you keep having fewer choices. It’s self-perpetuating.
I found that even when I started having money again, my mental state was self-perpetuating too. When I’d wanted to do any small thing for myself, since I couldn’t afford to do it, I’d write it down for later. This habit, learned under deprivation, was very difficult to unlearn. In a hundred tiny ways, my internal logic continued to be founded on the assumption that “I can’t, not right now, I just can’t.” One case at a time, when I observed myself limiting myself, I’d retrain myself that I could, right now, I just could.
I continued to boot up
I got better, mostly. I even made a project of improving my weight. Changing the way I ate lost me about 20 pounds, then stalled out. (I wasn’t 23 anymore.) I returned to strength training, and it felt great, but didn’t help me lose more weight. It was a minimum viable health regimen: my energy felt relatively consistent throughout the day, and for the first time in a while, I wasn’t getting fatter. But I wasn’t running fast and jumping high, because that would’ve hurt; and I wasn’t striving for it, because I couldn’t, not right then, I just couldn’t.
On a 2012 road trip with my friend Henry, as we were driving through northern Vermont toward Quebec, we were talking about what had happened to me and what I’d been doing about it, and the conversation led me to an insight: maybe the weight I was carrying around was the last chapter of the story of a tough time in my life. As soon as I stopped carrying it around, the story could be over.
It was a clarifying thought. I was thinking of it when I set out on that 2013 weight-loss project. I was thinking of it last year when I tried lifting twice a week on my own, and again when I hired a personal trainer and worked out every day at lunch. And I was thinking of it again when I couldn’t see any feedback that my incremental efforts were doing any good.
During that time when I couldn’t do things for myself and had to write them down for later, one of the less quotidian items I wrote down was “go to fat camp”. Apparently I somehow knew that when the time came, I’d need help and focus to get the needle to move in a way I could see. That item sat, unaddressed, until I finally had money and time at the same time.
The last chapter
On Saturday, I hiked 11 miles. I’d been doing a lot of hiking every day for a few weeks, so that was no big deal. (Which is a big deal.)
Also on Saturday, I was deemed ready for a high-intensity strength workout. It pushed me, and I responded by pushing myself at a new level. Afterward, sitting outside in the spring February air to cool down a bit, I was surprised to find myself weeping. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a new level at all. It was a familiar old one, long lost and now found.
I’m almost done rebooting. I can tell because I’m no longer concerned only with my comfort, but also with productive discomfort. I still have an uphill climb to return to, say, Ultimate-playing shape. But I’ve relearned how to push myself about how I push myself.
Can I finally see how this story will end?
I can, right now.
I just can.