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I worked with Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize winner. He came to some of our CSF conferences. The first time I met him, I was picking him up at the airport. I expected this old guy whose luggage I would have to carry. The plane was late, so I thought he'd be really tired. But he came bouncing off the airplane with a small suitcase and a purple beret. He was a lot of fun. We had breakfast together and I thought he'd eat something really healthy but he had bacon and eggs. I was disappointed.
Creating a Base for Belonging and Getting Past the Past
The mismatch between the way I felt at home and the way I felt I should feel at home was dizzying. If there had been something wrong with the apartment, I could have said, I can’t connect here because of the awful linoleum, the horrendous paint job, the total lack of light. As it was, I was living in a spacious, airy place that caught the sun all day long. My flat was on the top floor of an eighty-year-old house and featured the original walnut flooring, a beautiful built-in wardrobe, and dark woodwork around all the windows and doors. There was a huge deck off the kitchen that overlooked a park, and the apartment was arranged in the drawn-out style I like best, with a long hallway connecting the rooms and serving as a corridor for breezes that blew in from the back.
It was, all things considered, a find. The landlord, an older man with an undefined but clearly well-paying job in the arts, liked the idea of a writer in the house. There was some confusion about the rent – he’d posted two different prices on Craigslist – and when I pointed this out, he immediately went with the lower number. This meant the apartment wasn’t just spacious but also cheap, an almost impossible combination in downtown Toronto, where tenant bidding wars break out over places half the size of mine.
The fact that the apartment was so undeniably great was discouraging, because it made me think there might be something wrong with me. I just couldn’t feel any sense of home there. And this in turn made me wonder if there might be something more fundamentally off about me – that my inability to connect to home might be one aspect of a larger inability to connect at all.
Because home is the starting point for a sense of belonging. We tend to think of belonging as “out there,” woven into the world around us. And it is out there, but the way we feel at home can affect the energy and attitudes we bring to that larger world. Researchers at the University of Maine created a clever experiment to test this point. The psychologists Sandra Sigmon and Stacy Whitcomb asked students to walk into a room that had only some bare essentials in it: a sofa, an armchair, a coffee table. They then gave the students access to posters, cushions, plants, books, and vases, and told each student to take as much time as necessary decorating the space. After leaving the room, each student was given tests assessing anxiety, well-being, and social confidence. When the researchers compared the finished rooms with the test scores, they found that students who spent more time decorating, and who set out the most objects with care, rated higher in terms of positive mood, reduced stress, and increased social energy.
Sigmon and Whitcomb suggested that something called “psychological home” was serving as the link between setting out a vase of flowers and having more social ties. By this, they meant that the way we relate to our home environment serves as a template for how we relate to the larger environment: the more at home and in charge you feel in your house or apartment, the more at home and in charge you’ll feel outside of it. A separate study conducted at the University of Chicago came to the same conclusion. Polling over three hundred families, the sociologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton found that people who described their home environments as “warm” or “welcoming” were more likely to be out in the community, joining clubs or teams and attending neighbourhood events. People who described their homes as “cold” were much less likely to be part of school, sports, or neighbourhood groups, meaning – ironically – that it’s the people who feel least at home who have the hardest time leaving it.
Coming Out of Hiding
Many of us think we are being honest when we say to ourselves, “I’m happy.” We think we are being honest when we tell ourselves and those we love, “I’m fine” or “Don’t worry, everything is all right.”
But often we are lying. Not on purpose. Not because we want to mislead others. But because we are in such pain, or feel so uncomfortable with how we look or how we feel, that we hide. We hide from our families, our friends, our doctors, our co-workers. We hide from ourselves. We hide because we feel ashamed. We tell everyone that we feel fine because how could we possibly admit that we are not?
For years, I lived my life in hiding, and coming out of hiding took some painful reckoning. When others asked how I was doing, I would reply in a defensive tone, “I’m fine!” The message I clearly sent with that response was “Don’t dig any deeper. Leave me alone.”
When I was seventy-five pounds overweight, I was heavy emotionally as well as physically. I gained the weight because I was out of touch with my inner needs and voice; remaining heavy was a way to continue hiding. Admitting and recognizing the power of that inner place is where my journey to permanent weight loss and health began. And it will be the same for you. Not the same story, but the same reaching inward to the place where you’ve been hiding.
To understand my weight loss journey you need to also understand what else I had to lose—small step by small step—before I could shed pounds and find my true self.
I grew up in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, with three siblings, one sister and two brothers. We had a happy home and my parents were loving and supportive. My dad was resourceful, reliable, and sturdy. But it was my mom who was in charge of things. She was strict and she set high standards for me and my siblings; she wanted the best for us all and pushed us to achieve.
I was always a strong-willed young girl. I loved the challenge of competition. I was an athlete—I ran, swam, and played soccer. I loved horses. I was always on the move, rarely looking behind me as I forged ahead into my next new adventure. Always in a rush, I sometimes didn’t look ahead either. I had more than a few run-ins with telephone wires and bushes and tree roots!
At university I studied science. I also fell in love hard and fast when I was just twenty years old. Since my then-love was a couple of years ahead of me academically, I interrupted my studies when he graduated and together we went out west. I believed in his dreams for our success and for our future together. We were married when I was twenty-three—not unusually young for the time, but definitely an age when I was only just beginning to understand myself.
I didn’t question giving up further education for my husband’s career: it seemed natural, something I could do to show him the depth of my love and commitment. Besides, didn’t I have the rest of my life to figure out what I wanted to do?
But very early into my marriage, my connection to myself began to disappear. I cannot tell you about one specific moment, or even one particular event that triggered my separation from myself. It was a slow build. But day by day, month by month, I began to lose a sense of my own importance. It probably began with the very simple act of giving up what had been important to me—studying science—for someone else’s dream.
Even as I was thrilled to have children, I think I really let go of the real Tosca when I became a mother. Like many women (of all ages), I jumped into parenthood and all its responsibilities and quickly became absorbed in making other people happy. What I can see now is that when I focused so completely on caring for my kids, I stopped knowing how to care for myself. But that wasn’t the only reason I began hiding.
Early in my marriage, we moved a lot for my husband’s job. The moves were necessary for his career, but they were also disruptive and I was more or less solely responsible for the logistics of each move and for helping the kids adjust each time. I loved my husband; the heavy lifting was a way of showing my support. But each move was stressful and each one took a lot out of me. It should have been goodwill that was building in our partnership, but instead there was mounting tension, and I felt I had to walk on eggshells. A lot of the time, especially at home, I felt nervous and vulnerable. This emotional environment made me withdraw from myself even more. It didn’t feel safe to simply be me. Even now as I describe it to you, the reader, I realize I was then and am still afraid to admit that my relationship was transitioning from love to routine, and ultimately to something very different from love; it was abuse.
When I was twenty-six, I gave birth to our third beautiful daughter. Soon thereafter, we moved yet again, the seventh time in ten years. Again, I felt enormous joy bringing forth this new life into the world. But I was beginning to realize that there was a darkness creeping in and around me. I was busy, busy, busy and yet never made time for myself. My movements kept me out of my head and out of my heart. I scurried around for others. I wanted to think everything was perfect. I began to tell myself, “Everything is fine.” “You should be grateful.” But somewhere deep inside me I knew these words were just not true. And on the surface life was indeed grand. I loved our house, our great community, our pretty little suburban neighborhood. I got wonderfully lost in being a mom. I loved being with my girls and teaching them about school, life, and themselves. Isn’t this what I needed to make my life meaningful, my heart feel safe and purposeful?
The surface never tells the whole story. In reality, with each passing day, month, and year, I was becoming less happy, less relaxed, more stressed, and more sad. I found myself relying on destructive ways of covering my anxiety and dulling my own yearnings. “Time for myself” was time spent eating. I had a warped sense of what it meant to indulge my own needs!
My bad habits consumed me. Some of these habits may even seem familiar to you. I stayed up late after everyone went to bed, made myself comfortable on the living room sofa, and lost myself in a quart of ice cream or a jar of peanut butter. Swallowing one spoonful after another, I no longer tasted the food or felt the pleasure of its sweetness. Rather, I shoveled in food to obliterate my own feelings of sadness. My husband and I had drifted far apart—he busy with work and I busy managing the house and family to a self-imposed perfection. I berated myself if the house was messy or if there were things left undone at the end of a busy day. These late night feed-fests were a way of battling back the feeling that I was a loser. I was desperate to block out the constant, gnawing fear that something was terribly wrong with me, with my life. One of the most basic human needs, according to Tony Robbins, master life coach, is the need to feel significant. Caring for everyone else was meaningful work and had my marriage been happy, I might have felt differently, but all I knew then is that the care and feeding of other souls didn’t satisfy my own soul’s need for significance.
When I got married, I weighed about 127 pounds—thin for a woman of my height (5'8"). But ten years later, the number on the scale had reached two hundred and four pounds. I was a bloated and obscured version of my former self.
At two hundred plus pounds, I avoided mirrors and cameras. I hid myself in big, bulky clothes. Everything about my body made me feel awkward, ill at ease, not good enough. The photo on this book is one of the only ones I have of myself at that time—it’s not that I threw them all away, but rather that I rarely stepped out from behind the camera to allow myself to be photographed! I didn’t want to document my unhappy weight. I didn’t want to document my sad truth.
In addition to simply gaining weight, I also started to be physically unwell. On several occasions I even passed out. This was hypoglycemia at work—my organs were beginning to complain about my poor diet. My blood sugar would soar, then plummet, taking its toll on my entire body. I was often sweaty, clammy, and dizzy. I sometimes had heart palpitations—an irregular heartbeat that caused a tightness in my chest. This really scared me because my father had suffered from heart disease all his life, and ultimately the disease took him from this world. I didn’t want the same fate for me and my kids.
As perhaps you know, food has a terrible way of being both a problem and a solution. With each passing day, month, and year, I continued to use food to calm me but also to squelch my dreams and block out my thoughts of my future. The more I ate, the more I felt further diminished, unworthy, and dependent. I had trouble even remembering who I had been as a girl and young woman before I married. Some days, I would quickly glance at photos from my childhood. The images staring back at me of the smiling, strong, confident girl had nothing to do with who I had become. Yet most troubling of all was that I couldn’t figure out how to connect the dots: I knew I ate too much, but how, really, had I become this person staring back at me in the mirror?
Not surprisingly, I was on edge all the time, and I took even a passing comment about my weight as a deep criticism about me as a person. I saw disapproval in other’s eyes. And I heard a nasty voice in my ear: “You look fat today.” “Why are you wearing that blouse?” “Those jeans don’t exactly flatter you.” “Are you crazy or something?”
How had I become this sad, overweight, powerless woman? And what was I doing to myself? Where was my belief in my own power?
The bigger I got on the outside, the more I retreated into my litany of self-criticism. I resisted listening to a deep part of me who wanted that frank inner conversation—about my marriage, about my future, about what I wanted to do with the rest of my time on Earth. I was depressed, lonely, and powerless to seek help. In truth I didn’t know where to look. I needed this book all those years ago but there wasn’t anything like it at the time of my crisis.
This feeling of paralysis kept me stuck in my destructive, repetitive behaviors. I didn’t realize these negative patterns were part of the prison I was building around myself. There were rare occasions when I allowed myself to peek out and have fun, usually with my children, but most of the time I was introverted and quiet.
I focused on the girls, wanting only to keep them safe and happy, and their busy lives provided good cover. But was this real? Was this even good for the girls if it was so wrong, so bad, for me?
Of course, children always see more than you want them to—they knew I was unhappy. They knew something was not right in the house. Because I was not taking care of myself, because I was eating fatty, sugary foods that zapped my energy, I was compounding an already bad situation.
I am certain many of you can relate to that experience: our families are our priority, but it’s a slippery slope from taking care of others to neglecting ourselves. It becomes—without our even realizing it—somehow more comfortable to put the needs of others before our own. And to be sure, this “giving up” and giving so much of ourselves feels good—it’s one way we can show our love for others. But of course there are many ways to show our love for others that don’t compromise our own needs and hopes and dreams. I didn’t realize that then at all. In a way, I think that I shifted into sacrifice mode so that I could mask my own fears of being who I was. But sacrifice comes at a price, and mine was to become emotionally, physically, and spiritually depleted.
Today of course, I know that true beauty and happiness do not come from the outer appearance so much as from what is radiating from deep inside. But at this time in my life, I had not yet discovered this clear truth. It’s curious to me how what you put out in the universe is what you receive. When I was younger, in my twenties and thirties, I was nothing but an envelope of negativity, and that is exactly what I got back. It did not occur to me to operate from love and gratitude. I didn’t know where to look for positive support or a reality check; I didn’t even realize that I needed a reality check because I was completely convinced that I knew where I stood and that I was a bad person for getting to that place. I was convinced that I was worth nothing. The more I internalized this thinking, the worse I allowed others to treat me. It was a vicious cycle. I stayed bound in this kind of thinking for years, actually allowing others to treat me badly, further tightening the chains around my spirit. Soon, though, I was going to take a profoundly simple step: I was going to look inside myself and gather my courage to believe that I did matter. I was about to dive inward.
But in those early days, the only voice I heard was small and squeaky, telling me not to take up so much space. Hide, the little voice told me. I suppose if I were really in a prison I would curl up in a ball in the farthest corner and keep myself from view. The dominant feeling I was experiencing was shame. I was ashamed at myself for being a failure, fat, insignificant, and worthless. This was not the way I was raised or the person I had expected to be. I had allowed myself and others to destroy my purpose.
Deep down, I knew something was wrong with my life. If I had had the courage to be honest with myself at the time, I would have admitted that what was wrong was my marriage: it had soured beyond repair. My husband and I had drifted worlds apart and weren’t supportive or communicative with each other. I was not happy and I did not feel respected, truly loved, or cared for. I felt uneasy in my own home, too vulnerable to relax and be myself. But even as I am now sure that my husband was as much to blame as me, I still thought I was the one in the wrong. I doubted my own instincts: Are things really that bad? Maybe I am just holding myself to impossible standards. Don’t all women feel this way about marriage after a while?
I would try to justify my feelings, my fear of change, always arriving at the same conclusion: You don’t have what it takes to live a different kind of life. You owe it to your family to try harder and stay with them.
So I soldiered on, and kept on eating in a silent battle with myself.
Food was the only personal joy I had. Food had become my medicine, my best friend, my only safe, reliable source of comfort. After all my work for the day was done, after everyone else was in bed, I retreated to the living room sofa. I might turn on the television; sometimes I read magazines and dreamed about faraway places that looked exotic or romantic. But then I closed the cover and settled in to eat my quart of ice cream, hunk of cheese, or spoonfuls of peanut butter again and again—and, often, all of them together.
Sometimes I was scared I would be caught eating, and I actually hid in the closet for fear that my husband would angrily criticize my eating and my weight. He had a temper and I was often the target for it. He thought my overeating was a deep flaw and a sign of weakness, and I believed he was right about me. I felt ugly, unsexy, and worthless. He didn’t contradict me or help me think otherwise. My late-night trysts with food had become one of the few sources of pleasure in a life that was becoming increasingly unsafe. Under cover of darkness, I thought no one would notice what was becoming of me.
It’s not like I didn’t try to get out of this mess of an existence. I didn’t try to leave the marriage—which would have been the healthy and self-loving thing to do—but I did try to lose the weight that I felt sure was part of the problem. If only I got skinny, I’d tell myself, I’ll feel better. He’ll love me again. I’ll love me again.
I’d try the latest fad diet—high protein, no carbs; pineapple for seven days; frozen diet dinners; complete restriction. Like most diets, they worked—for a while. But then I’d start my old, familiar, destructive eating patterns. I’d reach for my trio of favorite foods—the ice cream, the cheese, the peanut butter. They were my drugs, and I was an addict.
I know now what I didn’t know then: when we pretend we are happy when we are not, when we bury painful experiences inside ourselves instead of confronting them, we end up hurting others—and ourselves most of all. But at that time in my life I was not aware of that important lesson, nor was I ready for it.
At that time, I thought that I had some kind of control over what I was doing; I believed that I could handle everything life dealt me, and that if I could just stop being as weak as I’d come to believe I was, I would be fine. I thought that losing weight was about self-control. I didn’t have enough of it, I was told, and I told myself, but I knew this quality could only come from me so I didn’t ask for any help. I kept my focus outside myself—on my beautiful, unique, wonderful daughters. I ignored myself, my body, my heart. I ignored what my gut was telling me: that I was unhappy, and that I was not being honored or respected. I used food to smother my desires. To take the place of dreaming and setting goals for myself. And I got very good at it.
If you’ve ever felt backed into an emotional corner and terrified of changing even one thing about your life, you probably understand this fear. It’s not logical. It’s not rational. But the fear of change surrounds you just the same. And it can feel much, much bigger than you.
Then, slowly, I risked really looking at myself. I stared at myself literally in the mirror and figuratively by allowing myself longer periods of self-focus. As uncomfortable as it was to see the differences, I started to compare the woman I was and the woman I felt that I ought to be. I examined what was still beneath the extra weight in my face, around my tummy, and at the top of my legs. I would stare long enough to imagine myself the way I used to be: an athletic, spirited young woman who wanted to be a teacher. Who loved a good run on a sunny, cool day. Who was the captain of a soccer team. Who swam competitively.
Where had that woman gone?
Where was she hiding?
I began to search.
Now that you, the reader, have been forewarned that mine is a character not without defects, and now that I have achieved the dubious status of octogenarian, I, Alberto Camelo, have decided to continue unloading my memory in order to let the world know how it was that I overcame my flaws to become the greatest lover of this or any other century.
I did not take this decision lightly knowing full well that there are many who will dispute my claim. Being entirely aware of the storm that my declaration was bound to precipitate, I waited until I was eighty recognizing that, if the heat of the uproar became too great, my advanced age coupled with an active libido would ensure that I was soon cooling my ardour in a hotter place. I also considered the decision carefully because, as the saying goes, there is no fool like an old fool.
When I told my neighbour, Adriana, of my intent she cackled like an ancient whore and said, "You forget, old man, that I have known you for the better part of our two lives and that we once feasted together on Passion Mountain. If my memory is not riding a lame horse the feast turned out to be a snack with damp crackers and stale cheese. Perhaps you are the greatest lover of last Tuesday."
I chose to ignore this unkind remark attributing it to the emotion of jealousy which Adriana had surely experienced in large quantity long ago when I opted to bestow my affection on another who had exhibited a more delicate and less brassy nature.
Throughout these pages, the reader will observe that Adriana is more than happy to speak at length concerning the deficiencies she sees in both my appearance and my temperament. I do not deny any of these imperfections although they caused my pursuit of love to be a complex undertaking, similar to completing a doctorate without a research grant. Generally, I avoided the issue of my looks and personality by not requiring my partners to have the type of beauty that my male colleagues seem to think is necessary to achieve an orgasmic experience. Most of them spend their time chasing women instead of pursuing love which is a little like eating the corn flakes box for breakfast.
Lenny learned of Helen's hormonal issues when she accidentally texted him instead of Kirsten.
Still no period and fucking hot flash again. This is insane! I'm only 33!!!! 2 young 4 menopause.
Then: Oops, wrong person. Disregard.
U cant untext your husband. U ok?
She didn't reply.
That night in bed, he brought it up again. "Listen. About the period thing. Do you think you're pregnant?"
"No, dipshit," she said, still facing the wall. "I'm not pregnant."
"Then what is it? What's going on? Do you think you're eating too much of that salmon roe? Maybe that's affecting things. You know. In the female department."
She hoisted herself up on her elbows, misted her face with the saline spray she kept on the night table, then squinted at him. "I don't know if you've noticed, Lenny, but something is wrong with me. My vagina is drying up. And shrinking. My period stopped two months ago. My legs and feet hurt all the time. Sometimes I feel like my throat is closing. My skin is all weird. I'm losing weight and I'm scared."
Lenny felt terrible. He hated seeing her suffer, but he knew exactly what was going on. He raised his hand to touch her cheek and couldn't help wondering if her eyes had always been that far apart or if it was just his imagination. It wasn't as if he didn't care that his wife was becoming aquatic. But what could he do? What could he say?
"Maybe you should see a gynecologist."
She burst into tears and a bubble came out of her mouth.
"Benny, please put your plate in the sink."
"What would you do if I said no?" asked Benny.
"I'd tell you that just saying no is rude," replied his mom. "Then I'd explain why it's important to help out around the house."
"Well," said Benny, "what would you do if I said that I liked being rude, that I didn't care about helping out around the house, and then I chucked my plate across the room?"
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