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July 19, 2012

Comics Made Me Somewhat Less Fat


By Tom Spurgeon

What follows are a few, brief notes on my recent weight loss. I'd written a longer and much more humorous essay, but certain friends of mine have convinced me to do something with this other than toss that up on the site -- probably a serialized, book-length version of Comics Made Me Fat, starting in January.

I hope that you'll forgive the dry nature of what follows. I also hope that the week after Comic-Con you'll forgive the massive indulgence of engaging an issue like this one. My hope is that something in here might encourage someone.

1. So I got sick last year. I had a simple, treatable infection that was misdiagnosed twice: first as allergies, then as a double hernia. By the time it was properly diagnosed I needed to have emergency surgery during which, at great risk to my life but with no other choice, they cut about a coffee thermos' worth of flesh out of my body (the wound measured 13" x 5" x 5" five days later).

I was in a coma briefly, in the hospital for two weeks, left the hospital with a significant double-digit mortality rate figure still hanging over my head, was away from work for a month, worked part-time until year's end and nursed a wound that didn't close for three and a half months. I'm still not back at full strength. It may recur.

2. I wasn't sick because I was overweight. The weight was a factor in my recovery. When I went into the hospital I was in the middle of a period of weight loss -- nothing likely to have stuck, but a down period nonetheless. My desire to lose weight greatly intensified because of the new health realities I faced. I knew it would be easier for me over the next several months if I could get rid of as much excess weight as I could. So that's what I did.

3. I weighed 436 pounds in January 2011. (This was not my heaviest. I hit 513 in 2004.) Being in my 430s was pretty much the top end of the range of weights into which I had settled the last few years. If you saw me at a comics show from about 1996 on, I probably weighed between 370 and 435 pounds.

4. I weighed around 390 at TCAF 2011, and got to about 380 pounds right before I was rushed to the hospital for surgery in June. My weight in the emergency room was 376.

5. I left the hospital at about 355. I was 310 by mid-September. I was 250 by Christmas. I was down to 235 at Emerald City Comicon. I weighed 205 pounds last week. I haven't weighed this little since 1983, my freshman year in high school.

image6. I feel great, considering. People are very kind to me about it. I like the way I look now, I guess, although I was so fat for so long that I think I may have believed that any return to fighting trim would have also made me 23 years old again. I still have that fleshy, Boardwalk Empire head. I have a thick torso. I have a lot of extra skin. There's a lot of work left to do. Losing weight isn't always the same as getting healthy.

7. Don't get me wrong, though: I'm enjoying this.

8. Being alive is good, but let's not discount the shallow, surface joys, which are many. It's fun to wear normal people's clothes, and after an adult lifetime fighting not to ever catch myself in a reflective surface let alone a photo it's nice to occasionally stop and see what I look like and to open those e-mailed jpegs.

9. Two things stand out from that perspective. I'd say the second best thing about losing the weight from a cosmetic standpoint is that I'm no longer an imposition on people: on planes, in vehicles, wherever. I'm deeply sorry about that. I broke a toilet seat once. I routinely collapsed chairs. The best thing about losing the weight from that more cosmetic standpoint is that I no longer have to maintain a narrative that I'm losing weight. If you've never been fat for years and years you might not know how much time and energy that takes; I don't think I knew until I stopped. The way I am now, I don't have to have a story about recently losing 30 pounds or what I'm going to do about my weight in the next six months. I don't have to get upset if someone thinks I don't weigh what I'm saying I weigh. Perhaps more fundamentally, I can tell people my actual weight.

10. I'm much more deeply embarrassed that I let myself get that way for so many years, that I didn't fight it more, than I am relieved that it may have ended.

11. That said, I enjoyed every bite. More to the point: I took every bite. I did all the swallowing. I skipped every sit-up. I avoided every set of stairs. I always parked as close to the grocery store as I could. And so on. It's likely that I have a biological disposition towards overeating and even more likely that I have a giant suitcase full of hangups and emotional difficulties that helped frustrate any and all earlier efforts to do anything about it. But let's not bury my responsibility in buzzwords and gentle excuses. That was my fat, and my fault. I take full responsibility for that aspect of my health, and I die a little bit inside for anyone that doesn't.

12. Let me also point out that one of the reasons I enjoyed all that food is because eating is awesome. In many ways, habitually overeating is maximizing the awesomeness of food. We live in amazing times when it comes to chowing down. I think I would rather only read comics published through 1974 than have to shop at grocery stores and eat in restaurants that were conceived of, planned and/or executed by that same calendar year. I had some incredible meals along the way. I miss eating when I work, that sensation of being as stuffed as possible and working at full capacity. I miss cheesecake. I miss a massive meal out with friends. I miss it all.

13. At the same time, it's not like I can say I didn't get my lifetime's allotment of fruit pies, Mountain Dew and Doritos. I get to eat the other foods now.

14. I said "may" in #10 -- despite the fact that all my friends I worried to death last summer just cringed -- because I honestly don't all the way know that I'll keep it off. I hope so. I plan to, and I think I will. I think this in a very matter-of-fact way. I need to. At the same time, there are 20 years of photos out there that indicate I won't. Many of them are google-able. So we'll see. The same way that in the early days of comics culture on the Internet every writer that published one comic seemed to have a column about how to make it in comics, so too is the past littered with folks giving weight loss advice and/or testimony that soon ballooned right back up to 400-plus pounds.

15. So I ate less and I exercised more.

16. Sorry.

17. I don't want to suggest that eating less and exercising more is easy, and if you've ever treated a friend's or family member's struggles as easy just because they're not your own you should maybe reconsider that and apologize. Most of us eat out of the personality that defines the rest of our lives. I ate like a comics person might eat. The same part of my emotional and intellectual make-up that has me owning three rooms' worth of comics is something that had to be negotiated when it became important I stop buying $40 of processed food at the grocery in the morning. My desire to always maximize the amount of pleasure I'm receiving, the thing that kept me reading comics when other kids dropped them, made it more difficult for me to commit to healthier living. Comics culture also encourages a sense of being smarter than the room. I wanted to lose the weight, but I wanted to lose the weight with the exact minimum effort and giving-up necessary for me to still lose the weight. I spent 25 years trying to out-clever my own body, and the entire concept of dieting. Needless to say, I never found that sweet spot.

18. I made three mental adjustments the day I came home from the hospital. The first was that I was going to lose as much weight as I could rather than find the way to eat as much as I could while still losing weight. The second was that I was no longer going to make enjoying my food my sole priority when it came to eating. The third was that I was going to lose the weight in ten-pound increments and only ever think about it that way. The first adjustment was important in terms of kneecapping my avoidance tendencies, my habit of putting the weight loss off indefinitely. That second adjustment was important because it allowed me to treat the food I ate as necessary for survival. This kept me from trying to find a way to lose the weight by only eating foods I like -- "eating foods I like" was off the table. The way I see it, if at some point you make an objection to eating something that's going to help you lose the weight because it's not that thing you prefer you're probably not ready to lose the weight. You should prefer the food that will help you do that more than the food that makes you feel the absolute best according to some other standard. The third mental adjustment is important because I'm way better at doing a series of short tasks than accomplishing a longer one. You may be different.

19. Here's how I eat. I have three meals a day. I drink a full glass of water at and between each meal. I eat either half of a pickle or a hardboiled egg an hour before bed. My total non-vacation calorie consumption is around 1650 calories. I try to have half my food at every meal be vegetables, but also include some sort of obvious carbohydrate, some protein and some fruit. Sweets except for fruit I've cut out entirely. When I fail to get a certain kind of food in what I'm eating, I have it as a liquid in conjunction with the meal.

* a half-glass of orange juice = a serving of fruit
* a half-glass of low-sodium V-8 = a serving of vegetables
* a half-glass of low-fat milk = a serving of protein

I try to eat as little fat as possible. I know full well that some nutritionists object to low-fat food items as a matter of principle; I use them.

I try to eat my meals spaced about as equally apart as was possible for me to manage, with at least two hours between dinner and bed, and 30 minutes after my late-night snack and bed.

That's it.

Here's how I exercise. I walk for 45 minutes the first thing I get up in the morning and for the same amount of time starting approximately 15 minutes after each meal. I do not have the time to do this. I do it anyway.

About six months ago I began to do some minor weight-lifting. I go four times a week. Each day is a different major body group: arms, shoulders, chest, back. I come in every so often on a "day off" and on those days work out my lower body.

I do five different exercises, three sets, eight repetitions.

That's it.

20. I know how obnoxious something like #19 can read, but I think deep down every one of us in the Mulligan Stew generation and forward knows what to eat and what not to eat, and deep down what constitutes good exercise and what's bullshit. It's only when you start trying to negotiate having to do the boring parts of getting a little bit healthier that cheats creep in and make everything more of a chore.

21. Like I wrote earlier, I have a lot of work left to do, physically and otherwise. I could stand to settle in at 195-205 as opposed to 205-218. I look like a shar-pei shirtless; I may or may not continue to get that elasticity back. I could get sick again. I'm still the smallest and weakest guy at my gym, although admittedly my gym is full of deranged, extras-from-the-gang-episode-of-Quincy looking dudes and, ironically, law enforcement types, any one of whom could probably beat the shit out of a tractor. I have the core strength of a moloid. And as this starts to round into full effect, at some point I have to try and fix the rest of my crappy life.

I'll write about all of this stuff next year to full and hopefully much more humorous effect, but I wanted to get a first salvo out there while people are asking about it. I never thought I'd weigh under 300 pounds again. I don't have a trainer, I don't have a dietitian, and I have the self-discipline of Robert Downey Jr.'s character in Less Than Zero. But I did this, and you can do something similar. Although hopefully not too similar, because that means you're in trouble, just like I was. I'm in less trouble now.



posted 5:10 am PST | Permalink

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