The hardest thing was the lack of confidence.
A man feels more confident when he looks good and dresses well. At five foot eight, two hundred seventy six pounds, I had trouble doing either. Add a serious and chronic case of bipolar disorder into the mix, and you’ll understand why I had social difficulties.
When I was sixteen, I was slender. I have photographic evidence. I was also physically active—I was always riding my bike long distances, riding my skateboard, surfing, lifting weights. One of my favorite things to do was to set the Stairmaster at the gym at my local Jewish Community Center to the highest setting for fifteen minutes and just go at it, bang it out, practically jogging up simulated steps. After that, a game of basketball, and after that racquetball or squash, and then a swim and a sauna.
But towards the end of my sixteenth year, depression set in so horribly that I couldn’t get out of bed to go to school. I was physically violent—throwing things, breaking windows, punching holes in walls, threatening my mother with a steak skewer, lifting my brother above my head and slamming him down on the ground. Every day was a fight, everything sparked a screaming fit. Sometimes I slept all day and came down only to get food after my family had eaten.
I couldn’t stay at home—you can’t have a household when one member of it is acting that way. It wasn’t my fault, but the medications that would later help me get to the point where I was largely symptom free didn’t exist yet.
My parents gave up custody of me to the state, and I went to a variety of foster homes and psychiatric hospitals, finally landing at The Bonnie Brae Farm for Boys in Millington, New Jersey.
The Farm was the best thing that ever happened to me. They helped me get stable emotionally and stabilized on a regular regimen of medications. For the first time in my life, I could be clearheaded, act rationally, keep my temper, and have emotional peace. It was wonderful.
The other thing that was really great at Bonnie Brae was the food. Breakfast was eggs, sausage, and bacon. Or French toast and bacon. Lunches were BLTs and dinner was ribs smothered in barbecue sauce and potatoes, or spaghetti and meatballs. The food was varied but always excellent, and you could have as much of it as you wanted.
The Farm was a bucolic, pastoral outdoors sort of place, high in the green hills in northwest Jersey. Physical activity was encouraged. We were constantly playing football, full court basketball, softball, capture the flag on a huge outdoor field. We had water balloon fights in the summer. We went swimming in the pool and fishing in the pond. We caught, gutted and fried trout. In the winter we took milk crates from the cafeteria and built huge snow forts, brick by brick. Sometimes we would earn money—two dollars an hour—shoveling snow or doing other work.
I got lots of exercise, but with the new medications I was on, my belly only got bigger. I took a medication called Risperdal, which can predispose people to diabetes and cause weight gain. Risperdal was the drug that saved me, but it also caused me to balloon from 165 to 275 pounds.
In the next twenty years or so, I would make many attempts to lose weight, sometimes switching to a vegetarian diet and drinking only water. But I just couldn’t do it. Someone who is mentally ill the way I am has many different issues that interact with and on each other in a variety of ways. People teased me about my weight. I had social issues, and I was not confident. I could not dress in the clothing I liked—the clothing I was most confident in; it didn’t look good on me and wasn’t usually made in my size.
Doctors told me over and over that I needed to lose weight. I became hypertense. As a Medicaid patient, I had no primary care doctor. It was very, very hard. It would have been difficult for anyone to lose 100 pounds, but as a manic depressive I went to extremes—fast-like vegetarian diets of vegetarian chili and water or oatmeal and water for breakfast and extreme overindulgence. I could eat an entire pizza, a whole roast beef sub with extra mayo. I could eat two eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, and potatoes for breakfast. Moderation is not my natural way. I put way, way too much salt on everything.
I was 32 when I got myself together emotionally, and by the time I was 36, I had my life in a pretty good order—I had made order of chaos, and I understood that boring was best for me—keeping order, ritual, and routine kept me sane.
When I was 36, I finally got a primary care doc who told me I needed to lose weight. I rolled my eyes at her. We got to talking about my history as a mentally ill person and the changes I’d made. She said, “Oh, well, then you’ve already done the hard work. Losing weight is easy compared to stabilizing yourself like that. You just have to eat one or two less cheese burgers a week and you’ll lose weight.”
A mellow light burst upon me. I felt light in my head where previously there had been darkness.
“Wait a minute—it’s really that simple? Just eat two less cheeseburgers a week?”
“Well,” she said, “Sure. You just want to create a calorie deficit over the long term. Nobody’s asking you to buy alfalfa sprouts. If you like bacon in the morning, try eating half a strip instead of a whole one.”
“Five,” I said. “I eat five strips of bacon with breakfast.”
“Okay, so your body wants bacon. So it’s no big deal, have half a strip with breakfast and go on with your day. See, the thing is, five minutes after breakfast your body won’t know if you had five strips or half a strip. It just knows you had and enjoyed some bacon.”
I was dumbfounded. “So it’s really that simple? What about Snapple? I like to go down to the liquor store, which is kind of a neighborhood place, and I don’t drink alcohol, I drink Snapple. Sometimes I have like five or six of ‘em a day.”
“Okay,” she said, “So you one and one it. Have one Snapple and then a bottle of water for your next drink.”
“Wow.” I was really blown away by this whole line of thought. “So it isn’t black and white! Just the way life in general isn’t black and white, losing weight isn’t black and white, alfalfa sprouts or ham fat! You just go down the middle. You make little changes.”
“Exactly!” She smiled. “That’s exactly how it’s done.”
The next day, I woke up. I was going to try it out. I cut a little less than half a strip of bacon. Then, just to see what would happen I cut the fat off. I fried it up and fried an egg. I started to fry another but decided better of it . That morning I had one egg, half a strip of bacon with the fat cut off, and an orange. I drank water with breakfast. I felt great.
I never learned to drive a car—I can’t legally get a license—and I walk everywhere. Some days I walk nine or ten miles depending on what errands I have to run. That day I set off on a walk. It felt good. It wasn’t too cold. I said hello to my neighbors. I stopped at the deli and bought a lottery ticket. Then I came home, refreshed, and got to work, writing, marketing myself, doing my daily tasks.
In time, I worked a whole variety of tricks to lose weight into my routine. I go to the deli every morning still, and I get a Snapple, but I dilute it heavily with cold water I bring with me. From a 16 oz Snapple I can get almost 40 oz. I keep cold water and seltzer in my fridge so I can just grab a bottle of it and go. I cook on Sundays and freeze and refrigerate things, so I can just heat, pack, and go. I’m out and about a lot—but I don’t buy McDonalds or fast food anymore. I don’t have to—I can have a great home cooked meal wherever I am.
I love my morning walks. When I can afford an MP3 player I am going to start run/walking on the boardwalk. I started eating oatmeal, fruit and water instead of eggs and bacon for breakfast—my triglycerides dropped like a rock. I eat avocados to build up my levels of high density lipoproteins.
For me it was all about routines. Routines and rituals saved me and made me almost asymptomatic of manic depression. Now they are helping me lose weight. I’ve lost 25 pounds thus far, one quarter of my goal. It’s been twelve weeks. The other day, just for giggles, I put on my navy pinstripe sport coat. Oh, it doesn’t fit, not yet. But when I went to tie my bow tie to go to a party, the collar of my shirt fit my neck with no trouble, and the bow tie was easy to tie—I didn’t have to pull it so tight I couldn’t breathe. My khakis fit again. And that navy pinstripe? It’ll be a ways to go. But it doesn’t look like an adult in a child’s clothing on me anymore.
A man feels more like a man when he’s dressed sharp. I have a ways to go, but I know I’m getting there. And oh, dear God doesn’t it feel good!