On May 11th, 2017 -- four years ago next Tuesday -- I undertook a diet, for the last time. I weighed 222 pounds, and my goal was to get down to 180. If I failed -- or if I succeeded and then gained the weight back -- I was done for good and all. No more diets ever again.
I didn't really understand the scale of the enterprise, back then: that the project would take up the lion's share of my intellectual, spiritual, and physical energy for four years. I succeeded. I weigh 152 pounds today. If I maintain the success for another year, I grant myself permission to declare the success official, and probably permanent; but the cost was proportional to the benefit. I would do it again, but not entirely for the reasons I started. Everything looks a little different, from this vantage. I am, for one thing, much more charitable toward my previous failures. I was navigating with crappy information, and shockingly bad advice, and I was working full time. There was no way I was going to succeed back then.
Why would a person devote this much of their life to a silly project like losing weight? In theory I buy back the four years by having won back as many years and a healthier life: but that's statistical and speculative. If I die in a car crash tomorrow, the joke's on me.
Well, some of the story is personal and rather sad. My earliest memories are of my mother collapsed in an armchair, her sky-blue eyes wide and blank, slowly and inexorably eating a container of store-bought chocolate fudge frosting with a spoon. She would eat it to the bottom and swipe every bit of it clean with her finger. She fought with her weight all her life, and lost. She warned me that I too would ruin my life if I kept eating as I did. I kept eating as I did. She was clinically depressed, and the depression was so inwoven with the eating behavior that there was no untangling them. I loved to eat too, and we would often binge together, united in defying the world's determination to take our one pleasure away from us. I learned early the phase-shift between obedience and defiance, between fighting oneself and giving way. It dominated my life for a long, long time, and not just in the domain of food.
There were two of me: one who meant to eat well and one who did not. They would struggle for motor control. At times it was so finely balanced I could watch my hand slowly reaching for the freezer door, and then jerking back, and reaching again, and jerking back, as the different selves struggled for mastery. Sometimes one would win and sometimes the other. Even as one won motor control, the other would be planning and scheming: I could binge on ice cream while planning my next diet. I could also force myself to eat a salad while planning my next binge. Only one self at a time ordinarily had motor control, but they were both thinking all the time. It was an exhausting way to live, and it did not leave me with a high opinion of myself.
It did, however, teach me a lot about being a human being. I understood early a truth that many people never learn: that I could not control myself. In a knock-down drag-out fight between my will and my hormones, my hormones would win. Not every time, sure. but the self determined to eat all the food only has to win every once in a while, to win the war. You can win a dozen battles a day for six days, and eleven on Sunday morning, and still, there you are: eating enough on Sunday evening to make a comfortable week's surplus of calories. Your 83 straight victories mean exactly nothing. You're a glutton, and everyone can see that you're a glutton, no matter how baggy your shirts are.
So I learned some compassion for people, the hard way: I learned early, and believe to this day, that no one can actually control their appetites. "Those who control their desires," said William Blake, "do so because theirs are weak enough to be restrained." I could count myself lucky -- and it was sheer luck -- that my desires were no more destructive and unacceptable than they were.
I have not mastered myself. I have learned, at great cost and with sustained efforts, to maneuver myself and arrange my life such that the self that doesn't give a damn about eating well gets control seldom, and has limited access to food when he does get control. I have not beaten him, and I never will.
We do, however, jog along more comfortably together than we used to. I still binge from time to time, under certain kinds of stress, and I imagine I always will. But I waste far less energy fighting with him, and far less being ashamed of him. I watch him go to work now with mild interest. Huh! I failed, and a binge is coming on. I don't particularly try to stop it, or even to limit it. It will wear itself out. All I require of myself is that the next day I spend some time analyzing exactly where and how I could have planned ahead or intervened so as to head it off, so I can prevent the next one. Occasionally there is no answer: nothing on God's green earth could have prevented this binge under these circumstances. Fair enough: you do what you can. No one can do more.
For the first three years of my "success" you will find two- or three-day holes in my spreadsheets where the binges happened. When the binge guy was in control, I could not muster the wherewithal to record my food consumption, my weight, or my measurements: I only started recording again when my disciplined self was in the saddle. Now there are no holes in the spreadsheets. I record binges as meticulously as I record everything else. They are just information, and I need all the information I can get.
So, there's some of the "why": putting this Manichean struggle somewhat to rest opens up some space, at least in theory, to live in a different way. To escape the depressive atmosphere of my childhood, and that blank, blue-eyed gaze into nothingness. It's fun to be lighter-weight. It's fun to be able to do pull-ups, and to imagine living to be eighty years old. But I don't know if it would have been worth four years of sustained effort, if that had been all I gained. Maybe: maybe not.
But this, this measure of peace with myself: yes. This was worth the four years.