66: Mirror, Mirror

66: Mirror, Mirror

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Mirror, Mirror

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

~Lewis B. Smedes

I sat across from Dean Wilson — feeling alone and paralyzed in the seat as I patiently watched him read through my résumé and application. I distracted myself by focusing on the man in front of me. I noticed his wrinkled khaki trousers, ancient argyle sweater, classic professorial tweed jacket, and faded, worn-out sneakers — topped off with a straggly, unpretentious Einstein-esque hairstyle. Yet, despite his frumpy appearance, I heard compassion, kindness, and respect in his voice.

“Thank you for your interest in our counseling vacancy.”

Then, he hesitated before completing his thought, “Although you have great credentials, honestly, I can’t hire you at this time.”

Unable to speak, I mustered an unenthusiastic but appreciative nod as I stood up, shook his hand, and headed for the door. Exasperated, I gained my composure, turned around, faced him, and said “Dean Wilson, I’ve been job hunting for over nine months — always with the same results. Would you mind sharing your reason for not hiring me?”

Sure,” he graciously replied. “Your credentials are great but your level of obesity indicates that you have emotional issues that will diminish your effectiveness as a counselor.”

Although his words felt like glass splinters in my heart, his empathetic candor left no lingering doubt — my obesity overshadowed my employability. When I returned home, I located the dusty scale that I had conveniently pushed into the back corner of my closet; I stepped on it thinking that I probably weighed about 200 pounds. As the dial on the scale teetered to its final resting number, the figure jumped up and slapped me in the face — 298 pounds — two pounds short of 300!

Denial crept into my mind as I thought, “This scale is old. It must be wrong!”

Luckily, I fought the urge to buy a replacement scale and decided instead to take an honest look at myself in the mirror. I gasped for breath as I suddenly realized I had never actually acknowledged the obese woman who now stared back at me.

For several days I struggled to make sense of my situation. And then I had a shocking, life-changing realization: I was addicted to food! Sadly, I had given control of my life over to food, making it my emotional escape. As I swallowed a particular food, I literally swallowed and ignored healthy human emotions, stress, and even depression. The more I ate, the more I buried those emotions, creating my dependence on and obsession with food.

Despite my newfound awareness I felt confused, ashamed, and angry — mostly angry. Even though my training taught me that anger erroneously seeks to blame, I still wanted to blame someone — anyone — for my current dilemma. I quickly decided to blame my mother, for she too was obese and, therefore, responsible for teaching me poor eating habits and modeling inappropriate coping strategies that resulted in my emotional dependence on food.

Initially, blaming her felt good — a way of venting my anger, avoiding the truth, and sidestepping my own responsibility. Sometimes I shudder when I think of just how easily I could’ve continued victimizing myself in the never-ending blame-shifting game. However, my mother lived 2,000 miles from me.

So at some point I asked myself, “What can she do in the present to make my situation ‘right’?”

Thankfully, I soon realized that blame shifting accomplished nothing but rendered me powerless to create the change I so passionately wanted.

So, I quickly turned my anger and shame onto myself until I realized that blaming myself without forgiving myself was just as futile and destructive as blaming my mother. In the beginning, though, I didn’t realize just how powerful and crucial self-forgiveness was to winning my losing battle. Somehow, though, I instinctively knew that self-forgiveness meant loving myself enough to break my dependence on food.

Breaking this dependence also required diligence, for the process was slow, arduous, and painful, both physically and emotionally. I counted calories and walked — initially only for fifteen minutes at a time, for my arms and legs rubbed together, chaffed, bled, and then scabbed. In twenty-four months, I also learned to distinguish the difference between true physical hunger and emotional hunger as I grasped an important lesson: If I wasn’t physically hungry, eating wasn’t a solution. The solution was, however, embracing my fears and becoming vulnerable long enough to examine my emotional triggers — those catalysts that could easily put me back on the compulsive-addictive cycle of dependence.

During my two-year journey, I lost 165 pounds but gained a deeper, healthier appreciation of the value of forgiveness; forgiveness minimized my fears — relinquishing their control over me. In that sense, forgiveness eventually led to understanding; understanding led to freedom; freedom led to remedy; and remedy led to hope.

Hope keeps me strong as I look in the mirror and admit to myself, “I’m Sara and I’m a food addict.”

Saying this statement is a gentle reminder of who I am, where I’ve been, and what I could easily revert back to if I didn’t remain mindful of the many lessons I learned during my journey of self-discovery.

~Sara Etgen-Baker

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