Every now and then, I find myself missing Lucille Ball, and since “I Love Lucy” reruns aren’t on TV often enough, I get my needs met on Youtube, where I found one of my favorite scenes from her lexicon of physical comedy: The Vitameatavegamin episode. In it, Lucy realizes her longtime dream of being on TV and schemes behind Ricky’s back to be the spokes-model for a vitamin elixir. Problems arise when she has to ingest heaping spoonfuls of it on the air…and make a convincing case for being in love with the way it tastes. Yesterday, as I watched Lucy swallow, wince, and lie right through the twinkling smile she manufactured for the camera, I was struck with revelation: I’ve played a similar game for years, and it’s a big part of why I ate my way to 345 pounds.
Swallowing something I detest and pretending to like it is something I did so many times, it became knee-jerk. It became so automatic; I didn’t realize how blithely I tolerated backstabbing bosses and co-workers at a toxic job or an insulting remark from a ‘well-meaning’ friend.
But nowhere was this coping mechanism more pronounced than at the molten core of my personal life. Anyone who’s familiar with my writing career knows about the opinion essays for magazines, newspapers, and public radio. Many of them dug deep into personal topics that were sometimes painful to reveal publicly: my weight, love-hate affair with food, my father’s decline into Alzheimer’s, size bigotry. But the one topic I steered clear of was my relationship of nearly 20 years. That’s right, I said 20.
“You know,” a close friend pointed out one day after reading one of my revelation-filled essays. “You treat your relationship as if it doesn’t exist.”
An awakening thud to the gut seven years ago. And still, I did nothing about it. Why kick up the mud that I willed so hard to settle at the bottom of my psyche? I thought I’d devised a brilliant way to keep the waters muck-free: Ignore the things that my gut (always golden in its accuracy) was telling me. It’s not that I didn’t hear my gut when it sent distress signals to my brain. I always hear…but do I pay attention? For 20 years I convinced myself that sexual compatibility, intellectual chemistry, and standing on common moral ground were insignificant over the long haul. Can you imagine the energy this took? It may sound small potatoes but it turned out to be a lot of burden to live with.
This was my Vitameatavegamin: spending nearly half my life with a man I was never in love with. Trite as it sounds, the reasons why I stayed so long were, ahem, complicated. It wasn’t a horrible relationship. If he’d been abusive it would have been a no-brainer. There were the Christmas Eves we watched “The Little Drummer Boy” by the light of the tree, both of us crying at the end when the drummer boy’s lamb is healed at the manger. The strawberry birthday cakes I baked for him every June. And the 'Very Important Person' certificate he surprised me with in 1992 when I was unemployed and felt like a complete loser.
To this day he remains one of the sweetest people to have ever come into my life. And I’ll never stop being grateful for the way he was able to love me. During our two decades together he saw me gain an alarming amount of weight. He knew my history of emotional abuse and never once said an unkind word to me about my size. No one, and I mean no one (except my dogs) have given me that kind of unconditional love.
And about that triple-digit weight-gain: part of it I’m sure was me trying to prove that I was unlovable. If I got fat enough, even he would throw in the towel. I don’t think he ever would have. But that was only part of the eating equation. My other reasons were to smother the feelings of emptiness that came with being in a romantically loveless relationship. I thought a lot about the validity of simply going through life with a companion. It’s a gift that some never get, so why should I complain? Passion is intoxicating, but it fades, it’s childish, it’s an unnecessary prop. Besides, I wasn’t that unhappy. I simply liked food more than the average person. So l lived on Italian bread soaked in melted butter. No one’s perfect. It had to count for something that we cared about each other. It did count. But it wasn’t enough.
I became pretty good at lying to myself. But there’s some sort of gravitational law about truth. It can be sequestered, reconfigured, and smothered, but it has a way of winning in the end. It would pop up in front of my face when I least expected it, scaring me like a jack-in-the-box: Looking at photos of us doing our best to look the part of a happy couple, my escalating binge-eating, his attraction to gambling which had long ago spiraled out of control. Like a lot of couples in crisis, there was the phase where I took refuge in declaring him as the source of all my misery. But he wasn’t the problem. It was me and my choice to live a lie.
Then, a year ago, I did what I thought I’d never have the courage to do: I told him. It was hard, even a little painful. But not nearly as brutal as I thought it was going to be. He might not be a white-collar brainiac, but he happens to be a highly intuitive soul who knew I was telling a simple truth: I wasn’t happy. He also knew that I didn’t hate him and there was no other man standing by in the wings, waiting to pull me onto his stallion and whisk me away to a magically new life under the protective cover of his cape.
And because I was able to finally admit the truth, it left me able to appreciate him without the entanglement of pretense. He and I are friends now. Something I wasn’t sure would be possible. It’s not always easy. I was born with a uterus, which means sometimes my sense of duty and guilt can be exponential. He didn’t want our relationship to end and I know there’s a part of him that’s hurting because of it. Sometimes that weighs on me…And there’s not much I can do about that other than live with it.
I’m at peace now with releasing that burden I carried for so long. Not surprisingly, taking the big risk was followed by a torrent of weight melting off of me. And while it’s a major part of the puzzle, it’s only one. That’s what I’m learning through all of this: health and balance are multi-faceted. I can’t just focus on one area: food, feelings, exercise, relationships, desires, passion, calories, it’s all part of the picture. Knowing which area needs my immediate attention is a learning process.
Who knows, maybe I could have let it slide for another 20 years, but I don’t think so. January 2009 brought to my doorstep some profoundly life-changing moments and this was one of them. Something in me had reached the limit. I couldn’t do it anymore and the time had come to make a choice: Live for me or live for someone else.
Having this new physical and emotional freedom is gratifying beyond words. But the best part is hearing what people tell me over and over about my eyes: they have life in them again. Hallelujah. It’s about time.
Photo: Joan K. Lentini
Forward Vision Photography
Lake Luzerne, N.Y.