I’ve always been fat. Or, more precisely, I’ve always identified as fat.
I was a big kid, larger than most of the kids in my classes for certain, but not what someone would call severely overweight. I was tall for my age and “husky,” and that made me different. Different was not good. To make matters more complicated, I was also gay and that was truly the worst possible kind of “different” I could be.
I spent my entire childhood hiding who I was for fear of being found out ― for fear for my life. I grew up in Canada’s Northern Ontario region, in a small town full of ignorant people. Being gay was a dangerous proposition. Eventually, the weight became part of my armor, a shield that I used to keep people at a distance and to keep myself safe.
In my late teens and early 20’s, once I had escaped my small town and began the long process of embracing my authentic self, I discovered that the gay community was not as accepting as I had hoped. The pressure I felt to conform to impossible beauty standards led me to some very dark places. I did everything possible to lose the weight. I wouldn’t eat for days on end. I began to exercise incessantly. Before long I started to pop laxatives. I would take as many Ex-Lax pills as I could handle and then lie awake with my stomach roiling and churning and burning as I prayed to God to help me make it through the night.
“I won’t do it again,” I would swear, “Just don’t let me die.” But I was lying. Eventually, the pills led to purging and the purging led to much, much worse. By 22 I had completely isolated myself ― I felt utterly alone, was anxious and depressed, and was force vomiting on a daily basis.
When I finally went for help ― because I was on the verge of suicide ― I learned that I was not alone. The things I put myself through were, and still are, disturbingly common in the LGBTQ community. Some valuable therapy and a well-timed move to Vancouver pulled me out of my cycle of self-abuse.
My weight continued to fluctuate in my 30’s and 40’s and I went from plump to chubby to outright fat, all the while feeling uncomfortable and out of place in my skin. I have a picture of me in my early 30’s taken while on a cruise. I remember not wanting to leave my room, or take my shirt off because I thought I looked too big ― at least not like the other guys on the ship. When I look at that picture today it fills me with such sadness. How lost and unaware I was ― how completely out of tune I was with my own body. I was absolutely average, but that’s not what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I hated how I looked and thought, If I were thin, everything would be perfect. I truly believed losing the weight would be a magical cure for everything that ailed me.
When I turned 48 in 2017, I weighed 262 lbs. At 6’2”, I carried the weight well, but I was definitely significantly overweight. I was on six different medications for various ailments ― most of them related to my weight ― including depression, chronic anxiety, severe acid reflux and high blood pressure. In short, I was a ticking time bomb.
That year, strangely enough, I thought I was turning 49. As disconnected as I was from my body, I was equally disconnected from my life. I was trapped in an unhappy and co-dependent marriage, was eating myself to death, and would spend most of my waking hours playing video games or watching TV to distract myself from my reality. Anniversaries, holidays, birthdays and other events were not things I looked forward to ― they were things I dreaded. They were reminders of my unhappiness and my apathy and they were avoided at all cost.
One day I was ruminating on my life and how quickly the big 5-0 was approaching when I numbly realized that I had somehow managed to lose track of myself all together. If I was born in 1969, I was only turning 48. Had I become so detached that I was off by an entire year? Believe it or not, I actually Googled, “How old am I if I was born on July 10, 1969?” Google confirmed I was “47 years and 358 days old.”
I had suddenly gained an extra year of life. I was being given a do-over.
This realization had a profound effect on me. Something shifted. I understood that this extra year was a gift, and I simply could not waste it. Shortly after my shocking discovery, I ended my marriage, started to re-engage in my life and began to change my approach to eating and exercising.
I cut out all processed foods, all sugar, all carbs ― all of the “crap” from my diet. For a man who ate a large bag of Zesty Cheese Doritos and drank a liter of chocolate milk on a daily basis, this was no easy feat. Whenever I was tempted to cheat on my new health plan, I would return to my mantra: “You got a do-over, don’t waste it.” I started to eat fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean cuts of meat, and I started to move.
At first I took short walks around my neighborhood and one day a week I met a friend to play tennis. It was difficult at first but I soon discovered a love for hiking and a passion for the outdoors I never knew existed within me. Just a few months later I was getting up at 5 a.m. three to four times a week to go hiking and I was playing tennis as often as I could. The pounds began to melt away and the progress motivated me to continue my journey. By the end of the summer, the hikes turned into jogs and then to trail runs. I was dropping weight at an incredible pace and was feeling pretty good about things.
One afternoon, after a long trail run, as I was driving home, I was overwhelmed with sadness and burst into tears. “What the fuck is wrong with me?” I cried out loud to myself. The answer came in a whisper from a voice inside my head: “You’re still the same insecure little boy you’ve always been, just in a different package.”
The “if only I was thin my life would be perfect” line I had told myself for so many years had finally revealed itself for what it truly was: a lie. By this point I had dropped close to 50 pounds but I suddenly realized that as much as things were changing on the outside, nothing had really changed inside of me. Sadly, the hard work ― the important work ― and the real change I was desperate to achieve still hadn’t truly begun.
My father used to say, “A pig in a pretty dress is still a pig.” With all of the insecurities that have haunted me for my entire life still with me today, too often I feel like that pig in that dress. I’ve now lost 70 pounds ― a truly remarkable achievement ― but at 192 pounds, I still feel like that fat little boy who can’t trust anybody’s intentions. I’ve always believed that nobody could really be attracted to me, that people were being nice to me or slept with me out of pity, or as a last resort. And despite how much has changed, the sad fact is my weight loss really hasn’t changed very much at all.
I admit that people in general ― not only other gay men ― are much kinder to me now. Aside from that being incredibly depressing, it has also triggered a whole new set of fears. I now question people’s motives like never before. Guys who wouldn’t give me the time of day are suddenly sniffing around. Heads turn and compliments come much quicker and more easily. Still, as good as that may feel in the moment, ultimately, it means almost nothing to me.
I have always wanted to be one of those people who are comfortable in their own skin, but it seems no matter what I do, or have done, I’m not. People who appear to not “give a shit” about what other people think of them both fascinate and terrify me. If they really don’t care, all I can think is, What audacity they have! What nerve! How dare they not care? That kind of freedom must be exhilarating.
In retrospect, losing the weight was relatively easy. I’ve discovered that the process of learning to love myself ― and being happy with who I am at any weight or age ― is far more daunting.
I am committed to keeping the weight off. I am no longer taking any prescription medicines and I know physically my health is in a far better place now than it was 10 months ago, but it’s the emotional ― the real ― change that I am interested in achieving now.
I am learning that the journey of my life is not from fat to thin, or young to old, it is one of finding self-awareness and love. It’s a journey where validation comes not from external sources but internal ones.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I am truly happy with my body, but I refuse to stop trying to be happy with who I am. I owe it to myself to not waste this gift of life that I’ve been given. I’ve come a very long way and overcome a lot and need to remind myself that losing 70 pounds is a tremendous accomplishment ― if I can do that, surely I can do anything.
Robbie Romu is a recovering blogger, writer and Digital Marketing Manager whose first novel remains a work in progress. Check out his work at 42stillnoclue.com.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.