From Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul

Whatever I Want

You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.

Pearl S. Buck

Two months into my new life as a gastric bypass patient, I have begun a journey into my past to see if I can answer some of the questions I have about what led me to the 385-pound, high-water mark in my life. As this new tool has allowed me to begin shedding the weight, gain confidence and overcome my failure mentality, I have realized that what it hasn’t done is to banish my mental cravings for food. This is not totally unexpected. I knew from the start that weight-loss surgery was no magic pill or sorcerer’s spell that would make all of my fat issues disappear in a puff of smoke. But the hope is always there, isn’t it?

So, as I sit here, watching the weight disappear, notching new holes in my old belt and trying to ignore the siren song of the kitchen, I’m also looking back over the years to try to find out what hole in my psyche I have tried for so long to fill with food. For years I’ve blamed my hunger on a slow metabolism, super-size stomach and a faulty telephone line between my belly and my brain. Now that my stomach holds no more than a couple of ounces, and I know that I’ve recently filled that with dense protein, any feelings of hunger cannot be related to my belly. In fact, the sense of fullness that I’m feeling even as I type would suggest that, were I to give in to the impulse to grab a snack, I would probably find myself hugging the toilet in the near future, as all engines reversed.

So, into the past . . . as a child I grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. I can easily recall weeks when our only food was potatoes and government-granted bricks of processed cheese. Breakfast, lunch and dinner . . . potatoes and cheese. In all fairness, I have since spent time in countries where this abundance would be reason for celebration and now understand what a blessing from God it was to have food, any food, on the table when so many in this world do not. However, that reasoning has little impact on the mind of a child or the mental pathways and habits that are formed during this most influential time of our lives.

Over the years life improved, but only slightly. It wasn’t until I was out of high school that I lived a life completely free of government financial aid. We were “poor,” and that was a message that echoed both from our bank statements and from the innermost parts of our self-image. By the time I was ten or twelve, I had ceased to ask for anything beyond the most basic needs. The mantra in our apartment was “We don’t have the money for . . .” Regardless of the object of desire, the answer was always the same.

Lest there be any jumping to conclusions, I want to make it clear that this WAS the reality. I had no miserly mother who saved every extra penny for her own clothing, booze or cigarettes. Mom did the best she could with very, very little. When she said we could not afford it, it was because there were not enough pennies in the cookie jar to buy bread, much less the new style of jeans, the latest record or the new Nikes that all the “cool” kids were wearing. Thus, I became used to the mantra and tried to keep my chin up despite the taunts of other kids and the deep-seated sense of being less than my peers. The only thing that saved me from serious psychological damage, at least in my opinion, was that I grew up in a home rich with love. Positive reinforcement, loving touch and acceptance were as plentiful as cash was not.

So, starting at an age younger than I can remember now, I began my own mantra. A handful of words that represented a respite from the unfairness of our privation. For every gift-laden store window, every school trip that left without me, every trip to the secondhand store, I repeated these words: “When I grow up, I will have whatever I want.” This was the magic spell. The hope of things unseen that helped me survive on potatoes, cheese and two-dollar tennis shoes from Kmart. “Whatever I want.”

Twenty years have passed since I became able to work and earn my own money and provide things for both myself and my loved ones that we hadn’t had for so long. What greater joy than to walk into the burger restaurant and order one . . . no, TWO . . . of the biggest burgers they had, as well as the largest french fries and the super-sized drink. To look at the menu and present myself with “whatever I want.” No one could tell me we didn’t have the money; why, I could pull the bills right from my own wallet and order everything on the menu (and sometimes it seems that I tried).

What greater proof that the days of want and lack were gone forever—to banish that fear and self-loathing—than to swagger down the junk food aisle and grab all the jumbo bags of chips, all the Oreo cookies (and not the cheap, stale knock-offs) that I wanted and toss them into the cart? Big, colorful bottles of Coke were far more satisfying than ten-for-a-dollar packages of generic Kool-aid. Delivery pizza was expensive. Poor people couldn’t afford to have an extra large with everything on it brought to their door, right? Therefore every call to Dominoes reinforced the proof that I could have whatever I wanted. And every extra burger, every ice cream cone, every jumbo bag of chips was a time machine that whispered comfort back over the years to a little boy sitting at a worn Formica table with nothing on his plate but a baked potato.

Every dollar spent, every mouthful of food was a silent cry that I would not spend the rest of my life as it had started out, in poverty and want. Deep in my mind, in my heart, did I think I was doing it for him? Did I really believe that every overindulgence on the part of the teenage me, and later the young-adult me, could somehow justify the faith that a little-boy me had placed in his helplessly frustrated mantra? You bet I did. You see, I owed it to him. The only way to justify his lack was in my own abundance. The greater my excess, the less he haunted my dreams. And it had to be reproven every day, every hour, every time the opportunity arose to either deny myself (We don’t have the money for . . .) or to slake my hunger, thirst and desire (whatever I want).

I was thirty-five years old and growing rapidly toward 400 pounds before a stronger, more insistent voice finally drowned out the mantra. This voice was the fear of death. Within three months I had been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure and a cholesterol level so high that it couldn’t be charted. I could barely cross the room without losing my breath. At home I had a wonderful, loving wife who cared for and supported me, a church full of people who I loved and who loved me, and the first steps taken toward my dream of being a novelist. The only thing that stood in the way of being a healthy, happy, successful man was a little boy in a dingy apartment kitchen repeating over and over, “Whatever I want. . . .”

And by some miracle, by the earnest prayers of my loved ones, I finally listened to a new voice. Another year has passed since then and I’m now several weeks out from my Roux en-Y (RNY) surgery. Forty-five pounds have disappeared since the operation, as well as forty before, and another pound follows almost daily. But I still hear the continuous calling from the pantry and refrigerator, and the whispers as I drive past the seemingly innumerable fast-food joints between my work and home.

So I must remember whose voice it is that I’m hearing. Food has no voice, I remind myself; it is deaf, dumb and dead, a collection of elements and nutrients that cannot act on me unless I act on them first. No, food does not call to me. I call to me—a younger, lesser version of myself who only understands that he is being told, once again, what he cannot have. I struggle to teach him a new mantra, as I struggle to justify his deprivation: “When I grow up, I will have whatever I need.” And after all these years I begin to realize that maybe that is what he really meant.

Perry P. Perkins

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