Amber’s Story

I was diagnosed with a myriad of mental health problems in 2001 and among the numerous (12!) drugs that were ultimately prescribed for me over the first six months following my diagnosis, the one that worked the best has the side effect of significant weight gain. I gained 120 pounds in about a year. It was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

I was not a fat child or teenager, although I spent the majority of my adolescence thinking that I was. I started dieting for “fun” with my friends in 5th grade and was purging regularly after meals by junior high. After puberty, my weight remained between 105 and 115 pounds (I’m 5’4″) and I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t adhering to some insane diet regimen, exercising to the point of exhaustion, or berating myself for drinking 2% milk instead of skim. I was terrified of becoming fat. The thought scared me to death. I literally built my life ‘ my day-to-day existence ‘ around a strategic plan to keep from gaining weight. It consumed me. Looking back, I have no idea how I made it through high school and my undergraduate degree as so much of my energy was caught up in my weight.

Then in my early 20s I started having a lot of problems with anxiety, depression, black-outs, and just basic mental functioning. I saw, gosh, 5 different doctors and went on 10 different psychotropic drugs before finding something that worked. I still feel anxious at times, and I still occasionally feel sad and detached too, but these emotions now fall within a normal range of feelings and do not present the all-consuming hell-hole they used to. I don’t have incessantly repeating thoughts, I don’t feel as though someone is trying to hunt me down and kill me, I don’t forget days’ worth of information. In other words, I am functional again. I’m me again. Even as my weight increased, with every day I got noticeably better and giving up this new-found relief was (and still is) unthinkable.

Despite my prior aversion to even the thought of gaining weight, I found that as the pounds came on, nothing devastating happened. At first I did attempt to exercise more and eat less (at the prompting of my doctors) but it was (literally!) an exercise in futility. The Risperdal gave me a voracious appetite, stalled my metabolism, and made me so tired that exercise became a feat of heroic proportions. So instead, I just consciously decided that I wanted to feel like I had my sanity more than I wanted to maintain some number on the scale.

And the moment I made that decision (which I think I could have made at any time prior to starting Risperdal and it would have had the same positive effect) I immediately felt this weight float off my shoulders. I made a turkey sandwich for lunch and didn’t forgo the slice of cheese or mayonnaise. I remember that sandwich from five years ago! It tasted so good and for once I enjoyed eating–not just the taste of the food but the NOT feeling guilty afterwards. And as I gained weight, I found that I accepted my body more than I ever had before. I now weigh somewhere around 250 pounds (though I haven’t stepped on a scale in some time) and I feel more normal, physically healthier, and happier than I have at any other time in my life. I cannot describe how freeing it is to not worry about or feel guilty about eating anymore. I mean seriously, that occupied so much of my mental and physical energy before. That was insane.

Since giving up my obsession with weight, I have a lot more energy to devote to my writing, research, and activism. My academic work has improved by leaps and bounds. Focusing on my studies is infinitely easier when I’m not obsessing about whether or not to buy a latte before class.

But no one, and seriously I can think of not one single person, in my life gets that. People who have known me for years always knew me as the girl who goes to the gym or the girl who doesn’t eat potato chips. My family, all of whom are thin and athletic, do not understand me now and I think it has much more to do with my accepting attitude toward my fat body than anything related to my mental health. My mom and I used to be quite close but my “refusal to be healthy” has strained our relationship. She even organized an intervention for me over Thanksgiving last year. A professional counselor, my brother, my grandparents, my mom, and my step father sat in my parents’ living room and read me letters about my “addiction to food.” They gave me the choice of attending a month-long inpatient treatment program somewhere in California, attending a workshop on gastric bypass surgery (with the intention of having the surgery), or continuing on as I have been but giving up their “support.” Well, with support like that I decided to cut my losses and say good-bye. It was really, really painful. Hearing your little brother tell you he’s embarrassed to have people know you’re his sister hurts a lot. Hearing your mom say that she raised a daughter who cared about her appearance and that I had let her down hurts a lot. Hearing your grandpa say that he expects better from you and that he won’t take your phone calls unless you “get help” hurts a lot.

I keep remembering this part of Roseanne Barr’s act that I saw on the Tonight Show once way back in the day. She said if all women were fat, we’d take up more space and men couldn’t push us around any longer. We’d be fat and happy and then she said something funny that made everyone laugh. Anyhow, the thing I remember so well about that was how much I didn’t get it at the time and how it makes absolute sense to me now. The best, BEST part of gaining weight has been that I am not a slave to the ideal men have defined as beautiful. Men do not treat me like a piece of meat any longer, or at least, they do not treat me like a sexual conquest. Granted, men don’t really even see me at all any longer, and that’s a-okay with me. I don’t have to say “no” to men who ask me out and then argue with them when they want a reason why not. I don’t have to endure the inane flirting of arrogant men at work. Men don’t command me to “Smile!” any more. That alone is worth all the weight I’ve gained and more.

I’m in graduate school, I have a really good job, I bought a nice house last August, I have bunch of funny friends, I am in good health ‘ both mentally and physically, and I have 2 dogs and 2 cats who think I hung the moon. My life is exactly, precisely the way I want it to be. Whether I weigh 250 pounds or 350 pounds a year from now, I cannot imagine loving my body or my life any less than I do now. Because my life, my happiness, and my potential have nothing at all to do with my size. And I feel sorry for all women–thin, fat, and wherever in between–who haven’t figured that out yet.

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