I’m watching an episode of “My 600 Pound Life” at the moment. It’s one of my guilty pleasure shows and sometimes it makes me feel guilty enough to put down the dessert or the bag of chips. Beyond its “this is what real struggle looks like” documentary qualities, I feel like this is one of the desired effects of the show. But I’ll admit, sometimes when I’m watching it, it makes me feel better about myself. I’m fairly certain that’s not the intended effect the producers had in mind. I’m sure they didn’t want the audience to gape at these people and think, “Thank God I’m not that bad.”
I’m not proud that I occasionally find myself being one of the gaping masses. I’m really not. I’ve been told I shouldn’t watch the show if I get a backward self-esteem boost out of it and I agree. I suppose it’s one thing to watch the Real Housewives of Wherever and think, “Thank God I’m not that vapid” or “Thank God I’m not that senseless.” Those people signed up for the frivolity and the fighting and fifteen minutes of pseudo fame. But to watch the plight of these people who have a real problem and think “Thank God that’s not me” – it’s not something I’m proud of. I’m working on it. I promise.
The woman on this episode begins her journey at 590 pounds, a lightweight in terms of the average size of people on this show. Still, she knows she has a problem because she has to crawl into the tub, lifting her enormous fatty folds over the ledge and into the water. Most people, at the beginning of these episodes, look and feel like Jabba the Hutt, hence going on the show to change their lives. And that’s really what we tune in for; we want to see people’s lives change for the better. We want to cheer on their success and root for them as they thrive. The captain of the show, the soft-spoken and vertically-challenged doctor, gives each person an outline for success: Follow my eating plan, lose some weight, come have bypass surgery, follow my aftercare instructions, you’ll lose the weight quickly and you’ll save your life. As long as you and the people around you follow those instructions, you will lose weight. It’s a guarantee.
The woman on this episode approached her weight-loss experience in the misguided belief that this little man was going to give her a magic surgery and then her body would effortlessly deflate. She expected to be lounging around the house with her enabling girlfriend living her life of thinness while eating a Big Mac and fries. I’ve seen enough of these episodes to know that different people have different reactions to the plan laid out for them. Some are apt to jump on board and others struggle considerably.
What happened was this: The doctor told her she needed to go home and lose a certain amount of weight to prove she was serious, after which he would sign off on bypass surgery. What she did instead was go home and eat like nothing was at stake. She didn’t lose a pound, rather, she gained twenty. The doctor had to immediately admit her to the hospital because he was afraid she was going to kill herself with food, and while in the hospital, he monitored and forced her to do what was best for her own well-being. The plan was clear, the stakes were literally life-and-death, but she couldn’t do what she needed to do. Not even the thought of dying was enough to shake loose her food addiction. That last word, addiction, is the key word for this show. This isn’t a people group who just loves Blue Bell ice cream so much that they gained 400 pounds. These are people who have an actual addictive disorder and need clinical help to fish their lives out of the fatty pool they are drowning in. This woman’s struggle continued but by the episode’s end, she did have the surgery and once she was home, her girlfriend wasn’t as enabling so they plunked along her bumpy road to success.
Why are we all this woman sometimes? We do we see the things we need to do for our own success and ignore it? Watching her on my TV, her story morphed from being a morbidly obese person’s story to a universal human story. While her push-back on the blueprint for success frustrated me, I realized I’m that woman. We all are now, have been, or will be that woman. She refused because she was trapped in the hamster wheel of habit. She refused because she feared the aches of change. She refused because she assumed she would fail anyway, as that had been the pattern of her life to that point. Why try? I’m only going to fail anyway.
The reasons she hindered her success are the same reasons we self-sabotage our own. Maybe it’s not about weight. Maybe it’s about moving out, maybe it’s about coming out. Maybe it’s about leaving your job or leaving your relationship. Maybe it’s about writing that book or doing that thing you know you want to do but are too scared to actually do. We routinely torpedo our own progress just like this woman did.
For me, the hamster wheel of habit is the biggest foe in my life – Goliath’s stubborn older brother who takes a lot more than a stone in a slingshot to knock over. I’m a creature of habit. I thrive on my routine. It’s what gives me structure in a city that can feel irreverently untamed at times. I like knowing what time the empty train arrives at my subway station each morning so I can sit and read during my commute. I like my specific hole-in-the-wall Starbucks with the baristas who know my name and my order when I walk in on Mondays and Fridays. I like stopping at my neighborhood grocery store to get food to make dinner with each night. I then like getting home to my tiny apartment, taking off all my work clothes and making dinner in my shorts. I like knowing which of my TV shows are on each night, a structure unto themselves. And when spontaneity is required, I’d prefer a week’s notice. Adding something to my routine takes work and planning and a mental adjustment so I won’t lash out like a garbage person. I’m stubborn and as much as I love adventures, I’d enjoy them more if they were calendared in advance. So I get it, it’s tough. But, it’s impossible to expect something new to happen in your life if you are unwilling to make changes.
That leads to the aches that changes bring. More than just a reorganization of a routine, change is a tearing process. When we are at the gym building muscle, we are actually tearing the muscles in order for them to grow back bigger and more fortified. Change requires work, something our “I want it now” society rails against. For the people on this TV show, change meant eating less and mentally fighting against a body that is telling you otherwise. For me, sometimes it’s the change of adding an hour at the gym before I go home from work. That effectively pushes everything on my nightly schedule back an hour and at some point, something has to be bumped. As a teenager, I could run on four hours of sleep, but today, if I don’t get my beauty rest, I will wake up as a seething morning monster ready to claw out your eyes and self-esteem. That’s tough for me to move and shift things and embrace that as my new routine.
Another change I found difficult this year was trying a new church. Walking into a new church should be a welcoming, stress-free experience. You’re entering a room full of people who have the same foundational belief system you do and are singing about it corporately. Instead, it often felt like I was standing in a room full of strangers who already had the rhythms and patterns of this church figured out and I was the kid standing at the back of the Sandlot trying to find a way into the game. I went to the same church for the first 21 years of my life and while I’ve attended great churches since then, the hunt for a new church this year has been tough.
It’s not that I’m completely change-intolerant, I’ll fess up to liking a big swooping shift in direction here and there to liven things up a bit, but even liking the change doesn’t mean it’s ache-free or that there isn’t a risk to it. That risk leads to overthinking, which then culminates in the Debbie Downer of self-inflictions: the assumption of failure. We bargain that since we’ve tried and failed before, or many times, that this time won’t be any different. Maybe that’s less an interior struggle and more something we’ve been told from someone in our circle. “Yeah right, because it worked so well last time…” First off, decide at this moment that you can not and will not allow anyone to speak death into your spirit. You should surround yourself with people who will speak hope and positivity and constructive criticism into your life. Secondly, when someone does say something that is less than encouraging, you have to set those comments on fire. I’m a realist and I know you can’t always completely rid yourself of those negative people. They’re your mother or your uncle or your sibling or your parrot. But you can learn to ignore them; you can decide to not allow them into that part of your quest for betterment. And as the parrot teaches us, don’t say things to people you wouldn’t want said back to you.
One of the things I find ironic about the human experience is that the only constant in our lives is change. The world around us is in a constant state of upheaval – shifting and morphing and evolving. We should be too. My favorite part of “My 600 Pound Life” is near the end of the episode when the person goes into the doctor for the last televised time. They’ve been fighting for their lives for over a year at that point and they’ve lost considerable weight. I love the look on their face when they step off the scale that final time and realize they are not only achieving their goal, but they are doing so mightily. We, as the viewers, celebrate with them in that moment. I think my personal daily approach should mirror that. I want to celebrate the victories both small and large that are a result of the changes I’ve made either on my own accord or because the world around me shifted. That feeling of corporate congratulations we feel toward people on TV we’ve never met before should be exponentially more vibrant in our own flesh-and-blood lives.
Change the way you interact with change. Let it be like the muscles in your biceps and pecs at the gym. It’s going to take work and there will be aches and tearing, but what’s on the other side is a you who’s stronger, more fortified, and more sure-footed. Then, you can step out of what weighed you down and into what’s next. That’s really what “My 600 Pound Life” is trying to illustrate for us and summon from within us. And, just like it’s life-or-death for those people, changing your routine, your patterns or your perspective is just as crucial for your own well-being.