3 Mar 2014

Things you lose, things you gain, when you lose 70kg

6:00 am on 3 March 2014

Hauora is said to be like the four walls of a whare. I’ve never constructed a whare, but if my experience assembling office furniture purchased from Warehouse Stationery is any indication, just as soon as you’ve managed to get one tricky side in place, another swings out of alignment and requires attention; and once that’s sorted, another has gone wonky; following that emergency rejig, the first one has again rebelled  and so on, and so forth.

This, certainly, is my experience with Hauora. It stems largely from this: seven years ago I lost 70kg over a period of nine months through an intense regime of self-directed diet and exercise, 45kg of which came off in just over three months. I went from 140kg to 70kg; from obese to really quite skinny.

Sebastian Boyle halved his size in less than a year

Sebastian Boyle halved his size in less than a year Photo: Supplied

There are people who wear weight well, for whom it doesn’t seem to cause fear or embarrassment – or, at least, if it does, they don’t let it hold them back. That wasn’t me. I was constantly aware, quite consciously, that I was, well, fat, and that this was A Bad Thing.

If I was on a full bus, I tried to shift my bulk in my seat as well as I could to half overhang the aisle, or stood crammed into an inoffensive area, lest my size inconvenience anyone else. It was the same in lecture theatres, or at the movies (“Can I have an aisle seat please?”). I was quiet and restrained, because I felt embarrassed that I took up more than my fair share of physical space: my weight already announced my presence too readily.

But inside, I kind of wanted to apologise to everyone around me; to cry “I know I’m fat, and I’m really sorry about it, and please know that I know that I’m fat, and that I know it can be a bother and I’d really like to do something about it, but, well, it’s really, really hard.”

Which is why the oft-asked question “What made you decide to lose the weight?” is one I can’t really answer. It’s not like it was one sudden moment where I decided “Oh yeah, I really should get rid of this”. I’d wanted to get rid of it the entire time I had it.

But though there was no single motivating factor, there was a day where it turned around. It was in July 2006; I took a long walk to think about the whole weight thing, and, lumbering up a hill, put a loose plan together. I would slowly begin to reduce the amount and type of food I ate. I would research body science carefully. And then, come the end of the university year, I’d attack it with full force. I would leave university one year a gentleman of most robust proportions, and return slim and sprightly. Ninety kilograms, I said to myself.

On Thursday November 16, 2006, I weighed in at 133kg. The next three months can be compressed into highlights (or lowlights, depending on your glass half-full/half-empty position):

  • Bloody feet after walking 15km the first day, which prompted the purchase of a foot spa, which I used a grand total of one time. A foot spa, I concluded, was just weird.
  • Weighing myself weekly on the $1 (very public) scales outside the Bush Inn Centre pharmacy. Eyes nearly falling out of my head the first week after having lost 7kg.
  • Doing a bit of my research into the early stages of my diet, then discovering a medical study that linked my then-caloric intake of 300 a day with “sudden death”. Pushing that up to a healthier level (seriously, never linger at 300 calories a day).
  • Breaking the pedal of my ancient, bulky, Cash Converters exercycle, seemingly reconstructed from a junked cruise liner, at 11pm, and then forcing myself to run up and down a hill in an attempt to burn off the calories its destruction had denied me. Knowing that I would one day laugh about this, or shake my head at the insanity.
  • The crushing, incomparable feeling that accompanies the realisation that even though you’re barely eating anything and exercising hours a day, somehow, completely contrary to science, you areactually putting weight on.
  • The euphoria that accompanied breaking through that plateau, and seeing that all the work was actually making the weight drop steadily each week.

On Friday February 16 2007 I weighed in at 88kg. Mission accomplished, and a little bit more. And though there was a great sense of achievement at that point, it wasn’t quite what I expected. There was still something lacking.

Nor was I really prepared for how I should act in my sprightly new form, or how other people would react. Throughout the loss I’d coveted a fantasy of people being surprised at seeing me for the first time in months, scarcely believing the change I’d made. It was a good motivator. So it was with no small amount of excitement I returned to university.

Where nobody really recognised me at all.

If you have any issues dealing with social awkwardness, then believe me, that’s a hurdle you don’t want to try and navigate. You need to:

  • Ascertain that they actually don’t recognise you, and aren’t simply ignoring you for other reasons.
  • Figure out a way to say “Uh, so, it’s me” without seeming weird and without embarrassing them about a (non-existent) social faux pas.
  • Try and explain what happened without getting flustered or without seeming too proud of yourself.

So in many cases I kind of just left it and waited for people to cotton on later.*

(* I later discovered some people had recognised me, but were so alarmed by the rapidity of my transformation that they had assumed I was suffering from a fatal illness and didn’t want to say anything. Fun times.)

The common weight loss narrative is often simplified ... People will like you more! You’ll have really white teeth and laugh and ride horses and have water gun fights with attractive young people

Even I had difficulty dealing with the change in appearance. Waiting in line for my new university ID card, the day after I completed the first stage of that loss, I kept waiting for people to gasp at my visage, now that I was obviously so wondrously handsome and desirable now that I was slimmer. That didn’t happen, of course. What did happen is I had a minor internal freakout as I looked at my new ID photo.

It was really weird to see someone with whom I was not at all familiar, but was still very clearly me. While in many ways I’d had time to adjust to my change, it was still all very quick. You become very used to your body – it’s just there. With that changed completely, I felt I no longer had any real idea of how I was meant to act, or how people would react to me.

Which isn’t to paint a picture of pure doom and gloom. There was a period of adjustment, but there was never a moment of doubt that losing that weight was still the best thing I could have done for my future. I do things now that never I could have then. I’m far healthier, and I’ll likely live longer. I’m more confident. I’m happier. I can scarcely remember what it was like to be that size.

It’s just that it wasn’t as straightforward as I might have predicted. The common weight loss narrative is often simplified, I guess because it makes it far more palatable. You can achieve a dream. You can make your life better. If you just take these simple steps to improve yourself you’ll be happy. People will like you more! You’ll like yourself more! You’ll have really white teeth and laugh and ride horses and have water gun fights with attractive young people!

Anxiety doesn’t fit that narrative. Guilt doesn’t fit that narrative. Unhappiness doesn’t fit that narrative. Yet they were all there. I’d long had issues with depression and anxiety, and I quite reasonably assumed the continuation of these was tied largely to my weight. It was, but it was more complex than that. Changing one thing, even a big thing, may not magically fix everything for you.

The process of achieving wellbeing is not a one-off thing. You don’t learn it all when young, and you’re set for life: it’s a process of constant adjustment and correction. Fortunately, that works both ways. There’s always a chance to make things better, if you want to.*

(* Well, not shoddily-assembled office furniture. Once that’s together and up, it’s all over. Fortunately, you can just call it “art”.)

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