Eating Disorders

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The Running-Shaped Hole


Prologue: A Deathbed Promise

While she was lying on her deathbed, my mother asked me to promise her that I would lose weight and get into shape.

But even as she lay there at fifty-eight years old, dying from an insidious cytomegalovirus infection that was devouring her organs, I avoided making that promise. I had the audacity to make an excuse. Sitting at the foot of her hospital bed that June day in 2006, I looked into her desperate, dying face and told her, “I just don’t have the time. I’m just too busy” — too busy being a writer who hadn’t really written anything yet; too busy being the editor of a weekly newspaper; too busy being puffed up on my own self-importance to realize what a terrible son I was being.

I wasn’t a child. I was thirty-two years old. And I sat there in a chair pulled up to the foot of a hospital bed that my mother would never leave, too sad and afraid to make eye contact with the person who had brought me into this world. My father sat at the head of the bed, holding my mother’s hand. I heard my name escape his lips in quiet, exasperated disgust. One could argue that my inability to make that promise to my mother stemmed from my wanting to remain in a state of denial about her health; wanting to pretend, even if only for a bit longer, that my mother was not dying. Making a promise of that magnitude seemed tantamount to admitting that this was, in fact, her deathbed. If I could persist in a state of stubborn self-delusion about my weight, which at the time was topping three hundred pounds, and the impact it had had on my health for years on end, then surely I could also imagine a world where my mother convalesced, where the person I loved did not incrementally disappear from her body, where her little body did not sustain her disappearing self; where she did not linger through major emergency surgeries in which long tracts of her intestine were removed, where death did not become the best option, where death did not take her from us too soon. Promising something, anything at all, in the dire confines of Intensive Care, just seemed too final, too terrifying, too real. Living in denial was just a way for me to create a revisionist fiction to insulate myself from the guilt that would descend on me like a mantle of shame whenever I recalled my failure at the foot of her hospital bed, which was often.

“That’s no kind of answer,” said my father, once my mother had closed her eyes and slipped into over-drugged unconsciousness. His own eyes were puffy and red with grief. We were only a week into what would become a torturous five-month decline. “Would it kill you just to make a little effort?”

I wanted to tell him that it might but knew this was not the time. “I just don’t know when I would fit it in,” I whined. “Getting in shape? That’s a lot of work, and I’ve got the newspaper, and the boys, and Jen and the baby.…” I was quickly out of excuses, and my excuses were all excellent reasons to put some effort into my health — both physical and mental.

Everyone knows the sound their father makes when they are disgusted with you — for failing to clean up your bedroom, for having your second bike stolen in a single summer, for being caught with a dubbed cassette copy of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, for coming home drunk for the fifteenth time in high school.… That was the sound he made then as he turned back to place a cool cloth to my mother’s fevered brow.

“That’s all she wants from you, Bobby,” he said, choking back sobs. “She wants you to be happy and healthy. Apparently, that’s too much, though.”

What would have been the real harm, I always wondered, in saying “Okay, Mom, I promise,” whether I meant it or not, when hanging in the balance was some thread of hope and happiness for a terminally ill woman: a vision of her adult son, healthy and hale, instead of the bloated gastropod slumped in embarrassment at her perfect feet. The harm, I knew, was that if I promised to lose weight, to exercise and eat right — promises I had made to myself many times in vain — I might actually have to make some monumental changes, whether she lived to see it, or not.

So, I stayed “too busy.”

She was too weak to argue with me, but my mother wore her deep disappointment and her sadness on her face. She may not have been able to eat, but she could still be mad at her son.


Flash forward to November 2012. I’m driving northbound on Howard Avenue in Windsor. I’m thirty-eight years old. I weigh three hundred and sixty-eight pounds. I’ve just left an appointment with a cardiologist, and I’m crying my eyes out behind the wheel of my minivan. My mother has been dead for six years. She slipped away that October day in 2006 while my dad walked from the hospital to their nearby home to eat supper. At the time, I was likely fresh in the door from work at the newspaper, on my hands and knees digging a Luke Skywalker action figure out from under our old upright grand piano with a school ruler. The phone rang, my wife Jennifer answered, and after a too-brief conversation, handed me the phone. The tears of what she feared was true rolled from her eyes while our son Nathanael, four at the time, stood looking up at me while my crying father told me my mother was gone.

But I’m not in tears at the thought of my mother; nor am I in tears because I barely fit behind the steering wheel. I’m in tears because I want to go to my favourite restaurant and eat my face off, and I’m in tears because I am realizing something — something crucial.

My visit to the cardiologist hadn’t been a social call. For months, I’d been out of breath, dizzy, and increasingly immobile — those were just the obvious physical symptoms. I was also depressed and scared out of my mind that I was too far gone; that failure to promise my mother that I would lose weight had poisoned my soul; that my selfishness, my gluttony, was not only going to kill me, but it was going to result in me dying a disgrace in my mother’s eyes. The only thing that would make me feel better in the face of this depth of self-loathing and self-pity was stuffing myself sick with food, while the very reason I was leaving a cardiologist’s was that I was eating my heart right out of commission.

I’m realizing I have reached some kind of crisis point.

My troubles had started several months earlier when I began noticing I was having trouble breathing while talking. At regular, conversational volumes, I was running out of air; mid-sentence, I would just peter out, take some gasping breaths, and dismiss it as some kind of acute, one-off anomaly before continuing. The very act of talking, something journalists have to do a lot of as part of their jobs, was becoming too much for me. I would sweat freely, just speaking aloud.

Once I became conscious of it, I started to worry obsessively about it. One night, I was asked to read aloud from a lengthy introductory piece at a meeting I attended with some like-minded recovering alcoholics. Following the meeting, two older women approached me and asked if I was okay; they said it had seemed as if I was struggling to breathe through the entire reading. I acted surprised and suggested that it was maybe my allergies. They weren’t buying it. One of them suggested maybe seeing a doctor, that my colour wasn’t good. Now, other people were not just noticing that I was losing my breath while talking but calling me out on it and telling me that something was wrong. They were forcing me to get honest; to stop blaming my seasonal allergies for an inability to breathe. I knew what the problem was, obviously. My lungs were having trouble moving the amount of weight piled on top of them; my heart was having trouble pumping blood to my muscles and tissues and organs. I was on the verge of some kind of respiratory collapse: an infarction, a heart attack, cardiac arrest.

I was now willing to consult a doctor. I would have no peace until a medical professional confirmed that allergies were the cause of my breathing problems, complimented me on carrying my weight well (for years I had been telling people I weighed “about 310 pounds,” but truth be told, I had no idea how much I weighed at this point. As I would shortly find out, our digital bathroom scale said I weighed “Err,” for “Error,” because it maxed out at 340 pounds), and sent me on my way with a fresh lollipop.

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