I had always maintained that the Smith College Alumnae Lives update never found me completing a postdoctoral fellowship or building schools for girls in Afghanistan because even after my graduation in 1994 as a nontraditional age student, I still only wanted to be a writer. The risk factors had not dwindled.
My profile never appeared in Smith Women in the World because in the 12 years since leaving Smith I had remained holed up in the southeast corner of Vermont maintaining a low profile and modest income in administrative positions that afforded me the time and energy to focus on what I had always imagined would be my contribution: novels and theatre that would help make sense of the world.
I had spent the better part of my youth writing the book-and-lyrics for five original, full-length musicals, all of which were successfully produced in Vermont and Boston. When my collaborator and I parted ways, I applied to the Ada Comstock program at Smith and when accepted as a Sophia Smith scholar, I began work on an epic fantasy novel whose setting in 13th-century Europe and China required extensive research.
Under the generous mentorship of my academic advisor Elizabeth Harries, I produced Book One while at Smith and received the Gertrude Posner Spencer Prize for excellence in writing fiction. It took me 10 years to finish Books Two and Three, after which I wrote a shorter YA novel, more for comic relief than anything else.
During this time I worked as a program administrator at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. I lived alone and spent most of my spare time writing, rewriting and sending out queries. This intense focus on my private, secret, creative life magnified unhealthy habits and demons that had always been with me, but now dominated: a two-pack-a-day tobacco habit, a disordered relationship with food, a morbid preoccupation with mortality, a reluctant atheism, agoraphobia and a tendency to remain withdrawn and always somehow in hiding from the world. I managed my solitude by viewing movies I had seen multiple times late into the night and investing almost all of my emotional life in two cats.
At age 55 I suffered a mild heart attack, which the doctors referred to as my wake up call and which I turned into a ferocious midlife crisis with the help of my panic disorder and a coldblooded reality check. I was a 324-pound, chain smoking Type 2 diabetic who had thus far acquired no life partner, no children, no house, no property of any kind, no actual career and no second income, no savings, pension or retirement plan, no hope, it seemed, and no glory. The only things I owned were an 18-year-old Toyota Corolla and the PASSION we are all encouraged by personal development gurus to find, nurture or maintain in order to realize our potential and live our best lives.
Although I had never abandoned my passion, suddenly I could see my passion abandoning me to the consequences of failing to prepare adequately for retirement: a life lived as one of the mentally ill homeless sleeping in doorways and filling up shopping carts with returnable beer cans. The shock kicked off a sustained anxiety attack, a maelstrom of four years’ duration that covered all manner of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual distress and required the utmost in terror management, psychotherapy, crying jags and frequent trips to the ER during hair raising episodes of SVT tachycardia. When I found myself contending with the ghastly symptoms of colitis, I could only assume that my body was mirroring some enormous purge and life-changing transformational process. It occurred to me that when I found my footing again, I might have a good story to tell.
When I am asked what compelled me to write Magnificent Obesity: My Search for Wellness, Voice and Meaning in the Second Half of Life, I can choose from several different answers.
1. Vindication. The only way I could justify the havoc I had made of my life was to gracefully explain how and why I had failed. I should have been a book editor in New York. I should have been a professor of English. I should have had children. At the very least, by now I should have been settled and secure.
2. Opportunity. The misery memoir is a popular genre. If I could turn my panic disorder, multiple addictions and dysfunctional family into compelling prose, if I could forge the onset of aging, an obsessive fear of death and a hopeless longing for God into something accessible, I might finally gain a toehold in the only career I had ever wanted.
3. Connection. If I could be insightful, honest and compassionate about my struggle, my disclosure might be of service to others. Immediately after my heart attack, I quit smoking cold turkey, enrolled in the hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, worked out six days a week, joined Weight Watchers and lost 20 pounds. When it became apparent, however, that the real work ahead of me involved braving my anxiety and the emotional pain it masked, I pulled together a sizable support team of doctors, therapists and priests, helpers, healers and friends, people whose patience and kindness proved that it takes a village to make a happy, self-actualized adult. As I stepped into my own shoes and began experiencing the joys of authentic life, I considered the potential for heartening and emboldening others by exposing my vulnerability and acknowledging the charity of those I call the “angels we can see.”
4. Inspiration. After two chapters, I came up with the title Magnificent Obesity. I was thinking of the movie Magnificent Obsession when inspiration struck and although I had no idea what the title was supposed to mean or convey, it caught the eye of an agent and then a publisher and after the submission of a 60-page proposal, resulted in a book contract.
5. Obligation. Less than half way through the book I became convinced that the only reason I could possibly have for writing it was the fact that I had a contract and a deadline. I could not imagine how my story could be of interest to anyone else.
6. Individuation. Until now, I had written only fiction, tales of other people living other lives in other times. I had never written from personal experience. Now, given the challenge, I struggled to find my own voice and in doing so, began to find my own self.
By the time I felt stable enough to begin the book, huge buried parts of me had come up for air. I had crept more than halfway out of my cave. Although I was not the fabulous, empowered, completed human being I had imagined I would have to be in order to write the book, I was standing in the shower of light at the end of the tunnel, feeling whole, very well and full of new beginnings.
But it was only after the book’s release that I discovered another and possibly best reason for writing it. The narrative reveals that when I was 12 and first putting on weight, my 14-year old brother bullied me mercilessly, though never in the presence of others. His verbal abuse created a vortex of fat shame that can draw me in still.
Recently, when I called my mother to ask whether she liked the book, she blurted, “I am so sorry! I am so sorry I didn’t protect you from your brother!”
Startled by the force of her feeling and tremor of tears in her voice, I answered, “Mom, it’s possible you didn’t even know about it.”
She cried, “But I should have known about it! And I should have protected you! I am so sorry!”
I also wept and in that burst of regret, I encountered a sunburst of gratitude and relief. It seemed that the writing of the book was only half the story because the process of personal transformation would continue even after its completion, a process that would allow longstanding grief to find release and forgiveness in a surge of shared tears. Exposure, acknowledgement and apology revealed the book’s true aim:
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- Why I Write - July 8, 2014
- Let it Be and Let Go - February 12, 2013
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