Back in the day The Smiths' enigmatic frontman sang a little ditty that went like this:
From the ice-age to the dole-age … there is but one concern ... I have just discovered: Some girls are bigger than others ... Some girls are bigger than others ... Some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.
What Morrissey failed to expound upon is that girth is a problem for grandmas, too. Some grandmas are bigger than other grandmas, and “Edna,” grandmotherly through and through, was very big, very addicted to Peanut Butter M&M’s and pretty much consumed with consuming sugar in general.
What, you’ve never heard of Peanut Butter M&M’s? You thought there were only Peanut M&M’s? I had never heard of them either until Edna waxed poetic about their candy-shell-covered peanut-buttery goodness with the efficiency of a chief marketing officer.
Edna spoke of her affinity for her drug of choice like one might describe their bond with an abusive spouse—or heroin. It was all too obvious that her complicated relationship with the melt-in-your-mouth, not-in-your-hands treat was quite literally killing her. Nonetheless, poor Edna was hopelessly drawn to the latest, greatest variety of M&M’s, and each new day marked yet another failed attempt to escape the clutches of those pushers at Mars, Incorporated.
I imagine that there are many, many people who don’t think of food as a dangerous drug.
How could Peanut Butter M&M’s have such power over a grown-ass grandma? I can almost hear the less compassionate among you railing against Edna right now: "That’s crazy, she’s weak, she should just quit buying them, nobody's making her eat them …"
Obesity is one of the few things that we still seem only too happy to shame. If that isn't the case in 2018, it certainly was in 1992. Frankly, the Eating Disorder Unit was the only place I’d ever been that viewed obesity as a real live disease. It was seen as every bit as much of an eating disorder as anorexia and bulimia.
Certain substances, including sugar, white flour, caffeine and alcohol, were described as addictive to those of us who had a tendency to overeat or binge. Some sugar made us want more sugar and the same was true of the other substances.
It was explained to us that we were not suffering from a lack of willpower, but an inability to stop our brains from telling our bodies that more sugar was better than some sugar. The craving for more was real, science was even starting to say so.
Edna couldn’t quite wrap her head around all the addiction talk. She had been raised to believe alcoholics were bad people, not sick people, and that those who ate too much should just push their weak-willed selves away from the dining room table. Edna just wanted to lose weight, not be treated for an eating disorder.
Edna’s daughter, raised in a kinder, gentler era where there was simply more awareness and understanding about mental health and addiction, had moved mountains to get her mother onto this unit. She really tried to get Edna to accept that this was about more than losing a few pounds. It was the same old argument: “Mom, if you could stop shoving M&M’s down your throat, wouldn’t you have stopped already on your own?”
Edna thought of herself as fat and lazy—not addicted to M&M’s—because that was just crazy talk.
Some days, I related to Edna completely. Wasn't being weak willed preferable to being a cuckoo junkie? Other days, I was like: tell me what to do to get better and I’ll do it. Let’s start at the beginning and see when and where my busy little head started to get the best of me and when food, or a lack of it, became my only means of comfort. You say I’m sick, then please, make me well!
Despite “not getting” the nature of the treatment facility in which she found herself, Edna was just plain loveable. I couldn’t help but adore the quintessential Ohio grandma. I also couldn’t deny that her weight was making it difficult for her to live a full and useful life.
One of Edna’s few remaining joys was swimming at a gym several mornings a week with other “big ladies.” Edna loved the feeling of weightlessness that the pool afforded her. She felt free and unencumbered. As luck would have it, there was a weird basement pool in this facility and I got to go swimming with Edna one day.
The other patients, the ones who were here on purpose and had packed actual suitcases in preparation for their stays, they had bathing suits. Me, I had ended up here accidentally ... and bikini-less. Who knew there would be swimming? Suit-less in the conventional sense, I was told to piece together some sports bra and shorts combo, the likes of which probably costs $150 in the Athleta catalog at this very moment.
Sadly, the skinny skinnies had to miss out on the whole pool outing because they weren’t allowed to exert energy and burn calories. The sickest of the sick were pretty much on house arrest. Their only crime had been choosing to go hungry on purpose. So long suckers! I intended to pretend that I was in the middle of the ocean and tread water like it was my job. I had to find creative ways to be active—April had taught me that much.
Swimming with obese people turned out to be pretty fun. It was so much fun that I didn’t make good on my intention of leaving the shallows to exercise in exile. The fatties and I were like no afternoon at the pool you’d probably ever seen. We laughed so heartily, so authentically ...
I can only speak for myself, but I hadn't felt this free in ages, which is strange being that I was currently institutionalized.
Suddenly it was somehow okay to be with those strangers, who had become my friends, and enjoy the moment. I forgot about myself for a little while in the water, and I didn’t miss me a bit.
Then, I had a sensation: hunger. For the first time during my stay, actually for the first time in months, perhaps years, I felt a normal sensation of being hungry and I wasn't compelled to deny or fear it. I didn’t want to leave the pool to be alone to binge or starve—I wanted to go with those people to the cafeteria and eat until I was satisfied.