"Do you even know why girls don't like you?"
Sandy's question caught me by surprise. Not because it was blunt nor because I didn't know the answer. At 20 years old, as a junior in college, it wasn't something I enjoyed dwelling on, but it was something I understood. No, the question took me by surprise because to ask it, she was forced to first unlock her lips from mine.
Some questions are difficult to answer, even if you know the correct response. I blushed. I stuttered. I literally turned the other cheek. My overworked heart slammed on the soft walls of its cage, begging escape before it died of embarrassment.
"It's because you're fat."
Shock and alcohol crashed in waves on my synapses, blocking my ability to respond. All that came out was a quiet, strangled "Umm." Sandy remained straddled on my lap, waiting expectantly. I should have strolled out of the door, still in possession of my dignity.
But I didn't. Instead, I said, "I'm sorry."
I was sorry. I spent most of my life sorry for who I was. At my college daily's newsroom, where I toiled away my free time, jokes about my weight were tossed around like playing cards. They were always subtle enough to make me wonder if I'd merely misinterpreted a comment.
What I learned: You can work out to the point of vomiting; 5 a.m. is a lot more gorgeous when you’re rising and not putting another regrettable evening to bed; spandex really isn't flattering on anyone.
In my 20 years, I'd grown used to the bluntness, to the offhand cruelty that comes frighteningly easily to so many. But I never learned how to respond to it except to apologize. I felt guilty for igniting enough anger in others that they'd feel the need to destroy my self-esteem, partially because I felt that anger toward myself. So it came naturally to apologize to her.
Then Sandy surprised me again. "Do you want to stay over?" she asked. "Nothing else is going to happen."
What I did next felt like the definition of "rock bottom." I stayed.
It's funny how much you learn about yourself in these moments. I woke up the next morning in her bed fully clothed with a stale whiskey-fueled shame somewhere deep inside me. I stumbled out into Baton Rouge's September heat, praying I wouldn't see another human being.
How did I forget it was a game day? Thousands of people dotted campus—tailgating before the evening's football game—and it felt like each one of them stopped munching on jambalaya or chugging Bud Light to stare and pity me.
When I got to my apartment, I half-walked, half-crawled hung over and ashamed into my bathroom where I sat with the lights out, shaking with tears. Drained of both hydration and self-worth, I fantasized about being someone else. Of not being me. Of changing myself without putting work in. Once that cloud passed, I made the requisite promises to better myself.
A week later, I was drunk again and barking vague questions to someone I hadn't seen since my freshman year.
"What do you do, Dan?"
I was sad-drunk and surrounded by friends of friends who were celebrating something really terrific and life-affirming. A friend, the man honored by this party, had just beaten a particularly nasty brand of cancer. We were gathered at a college apartment to do what young people do best: drink and cheer and be merry.
And yet I didn’t feel young, because Sandy was right. Blunt and cruel, but right. She took what I knew—and despised—about myself and placed it on a billboard. At 20 years old and five feet 10.5 inches tall, I weighed 268 pounds.
I didn’t know why I asked Dan what I did. But his answer saved my life.
"I row," he said.
I hadn’t a clue what he meant. He explained. "You know ... like, crew."
I barely took a breath before responding. "That’s what I need to do. Can anyone join?"
I could feel Dan's eyes searching up and down, and I knew what they landed on: the horizontal crease in my belt where my stomach tested the tensile strength of the leather, the fifth beer of the night in my hand, and the tired resignation in my eyes.
Luckily Dan was the kind of person who believes in other people, even when those people have given up on themselves. He told me the where and when I needed to make it to LSU Crew Club’s first team meeting of the new semester. A month later, I'd curse his name.
On that day, I managed to drag myself from bed at 5:30 a.m., a time I was used to falling asleep, not waking up. When I reached the Baton Rouge dock at six, the huge orange Louisiana sun peeked over the murky green water, illuminating the slick, knotty wooden planks. The aroma of algae and early morning dew flooded my senses along with the illicit desire to drift back into sleep's warm embrace. At the end of the floating dock was a lone cypress.
"All right, we’re going to take one lap around the lake after Keith leads us in stretches," the coach announced, pointing at the 4.2-mile trail looping the water.
I pulled her aside and whispered, "I don't think I can run that far."
"It’s not an option," she replied without hesitating. "Crawl around it if you have to, but make the loop."
I discovered "full body exhaustion," a tiredness so deep, every cell craves 10 minutes of rest. You can wake up without wishing you hadn’t, without wishing you never would again.
A "jog" that took my teammates about a half hour took me nearly two. I called my mother that night and told her I was done. She begged me to give it a month.
A month later, I'd vomit into that Baton Rouge lake. As disgusting, embarrassed, and yet as uncomfortable as I felt, I knew I wasn't going to quit. It wasn't even a choice: I had to row the 2,000 meters back to the cypress at the end of floating dock. All those years of not being picked to play blacktop football at recess, all those years of not being taken seriously—none of that mattered. Because we were going to row, as a team. None of these people—still basically strangers at this point—complained about the extra weight I brought to the boat. We were in this together. It was a feeling I'd never experienced before. It was community, and it felt human. It was the first time I’d felt human in a long while.
What I learned: You can work out to the point of vomiting; 5 a.m. is a lot more gorgeous when you’re rising and not putting another regrettable evening to bed; though consuming 1,000 calories in an hour is easy (and generally enjoyable), burning as many breeds tears; spandex really isn't flattering on anyone. I discovered "full body exhaustion," a tiredness so deep, every cell craves 10 minutes of rest. You can wake up without wishing you hadn’t, without wishing you never would again.
While I loved every minute of it, rain at 5:30 a.m. (and the extra sleep it provided) became proof for the existence of God. Paradoxically, so did the clear mornings spent gliding over the water. Rowing is like drumming: all timing and precision, and for some the best way to keep that time is to let the mind wander while the body works. For the most part, I thought about how I got to be so overweight, so discouraged.
As a kid, I was a chubby, bookish. I liked sports but had little coordination. On the schoolyard, it was easier to sit thumbing through Ender's Game than to suffer the humiliation of being picked last. It made more sense to eat chocolate and hide the wrappers from my mother inside my pillowcase than it did to be on a little league team just to sit bored in right field.
Then eating became condolence and celebration. Somewhere along the way my body convinced my brain that a good way to feel better about anything was by eating a cheeseburger. I've ordered dinner(s) by phone and referred to myself as "we" because of the sheer quantity in the purchase. I've poured water on leftover pizza to keep myself from gobbling it up when I wasn't hungry.
But with the team as support, I lost the weight. The cinephile in me desired a three-minute montage, new body at the end. That is not what happened. Instead, it was grueling and daily and painful and often dreadfully boring.
During practice, our coxswain ordered us to repeat a mantra with every stroke. Mine was "live." My love of cheese fries was an addiction. My mass (+ gravity) was a potential early death. I avoided cameras and parties and pools and the beach and friends and restaurants/dinners/venues where people would witness me eating and events where I had to wear pants with a tucked-in shirt.
So I had to remind myself, every day, that I was doing this not just to remain alive, but to live.
No one thought I was going to become a competitive athlete, but they still pushed me on every stroke. My teammates cared more about each other than they did about winning. Because of their support, when I finally conquered that four-mile run, I felt like I had won. It felt that way when I bought a pair of leopard-print spandex—my teammates purchased equally outrageous prints to wear to our coach's history class to her chagrin—and boldly traversed campus in them. Sophomoric, sure, but it felt like winning. That's what made our final regatta so much more precious.
At the finish line of that regatta, tears flowed down my face while blood streamed down my arms from busted blisters. The protective tape that wrapped my hands had been unceremoniously laid to rest in the Tennessee River. It was cold, wet, and miserable—and it was heaven. We felt like we were rowing on molasses instead of water, our time hovering around 23 minutes, but the poor sots in the other boat came up behind. And for our performance, we were awarded a gold medal. A tan line of that metal formed on my neck in the following weeks, because I constantly wore it under my shirt.
But this isn't a victory story, because the thing about victory stories is that they end. Life keeps going.I lost 90 pounds, and I graduated. And over the next five years, I gained half of the weight back.
My life included accepting an internship at Washingtonian magazine, where I learned "magazine office" is often synonymous with "conveyer belt of free, fancy, and fatty foods." One day, we had 50 wedding cakes on our conference table. We were encouraged to try them all. Red velvet. Deadline. German chocolate. Deadline. Vanilla cream. Deadline. When I opened my eyes, my waistband had expanded along with my folder of stories.
I find myself avoiding invitations again, hiding from sunlight. A vacation to the beach sounded worse than a stint in Alcatraz. What remained so emotionally elusive, somehow, was that this was my choice. Even if I couldn't always see it. It was time to make a new choice.
A few months ago, I dragged myself to the gym to swim a few laps, my first since the summer spent swimming a daily 3K with a teammate, when I felt the best I'd ever felt in my life, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The only swimsuit I had that still fit were my leopard print shorts, once bought so proudly as a childish means of showing my newly fit body off while hiding behind the humor the loud shorts offered. Now, I felt creepy wearing them.
There are moments that define our lives. We look back at them like photographs and postcards. Sometimes, those souvenirs give us warmth, and sometimes they make us cringe with the pain of regret or guilt. Sometimes, they do both. I look back at my night with Sandy as a fork in the road that I couldn't see at the time. So too will the image of myself at the pool in once proudly purchased leopard-print spandex will stay with me, another fork in the road of my life.
Everyone always tells me how hard it must have been, losing those 90 pounds. But it was easy: I had a team around me. Now I'm on my own. Community isn't as easy to find as it was in college. That's one of those vestiges of normal American life. It's something you have to accept, but it's not something that has to control you. It is important to take care of your body, for your health, your family. For yourself. But it’s a choice. And it's a choice you have to make alone.
It's a choice I have to make alone.
When I gained part of the weight back, the offhand cruelty didn't return. A vestige of age, an at-base muscular body that carries it better, a confidence found in the past five years: Who knows the reason? Sandy's comment drifts in from time to time. It always will. So many comments always will. But I remember being out in the boat. I remember my coxswain's orders. I remember my teammates helping me (literally) pull my weight. It drowns out that horrid cornucopia of insults. And with each run, my mind focuses on why I'm making this choice: To live.
Lead photo: (Photo: Stephan Kareth/Flickr)