4 Weight-loss tips from my month in the mental ward

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Most people who are overweight blame their job for their inability to eat right and get enough exercise. Too much work, too tired after work, too much travel. The list is endless. But losing weight is so important for you career that you should go so far as to cut back on your work-officially or furtively — in order to lose the weight.

Because beware: Heavier people do worse at work than everyone else, employers discriminate against overweight people, and it’s even legal to do. (via Management Line).

So stop putting your work before your weight. Miss deadlines, cut corners, and disappear if need be. Do whatever you require to lose the weight because no amount of workplace genius can overcome being overweight – people subconsciously underestimate the quality of work a fat person is doing.

Now I want to address all the people who are going to say that it’s not fair to pick on fat people, and that I’m obsessed with fat, etc.

It is true that I am obsessed with fat. It started freshman year of college when I was under lots of stress from being a straight-A student (it was a miracle because I’m not the school success type) and from going on the kind of dates where girls take their clothes off (yes, believe it or not, I didn’t do that in high school.)

It was too much for me. So I hung out at the buffet to calm myself down. And I am a smart girl; It didn’t take me long to realize that I could take refuge in the buffet for hours and hours as long as I threw up at the end.

I did that all of freshman year. And I became an evangelist. Yep. You can do that if you’re a girl in college. You can talk with your friends about how handy throwing up is. Some people said, “You are messed up.” Most people said, “Can you show me how to do it?”

Of course I had it down to a science. You have to drink something milky first, or eat something really mushy, like pudding, so that everything comes up easier. After all, I was throwing up to decrease stress, not increase it, and nothing made me more anxious than eating something I couldn’t throw up. So I learned really fast what won’t work. (I don’t want this to be a primer for the uninitiated, but I know you’re curious. So here’s one: Plain, uncooked bagel. Very difficult.)

Here’s what happened the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I had a Ford Foundation grant to research mass movements in colonial America. I kept skipping out on the voting records in Salem, Massachusetts archives in order to throw up in the Salem Witch museum (very private bathroom there) and my research was going to be late. Very late.

I went to my parents’ house to gear up for what was supposed to be a summer of catching up on research, and my first night there, I ate pretty much everything in the refrigerator. And threw it up, of course.

My mom woke up and said, “Where’s the bread?” and “Where’s the ice cream?”

I told her I threw it up. I told my parents I was throwing up about five times a day and I was dying to stop but I couldn’t. They checked me into a hospital – a mental ward masquerading as an eating disorder clinic. There were not many eating disorder clinics back then, but I grew up in a really rich community where eating disorders are fashionable, and the place was filled with anorexics and bulimics.

1. Understand that any weight problem is an emotional problem
I learned a lot in that clinic. I learned that people who throw up or starve themselves treat food the same way as people who are obese: Obsessive patterns of trying to calm oneself down with food. I had to learn coping skills that did not hurt my health.

But the first thing I did was worry that my research on mass movements wasn’t getting done. I told everyone in the hospital that the Ford Foundation would be after me and I’d lose all my money. I also panicked that my professor — who was holding a chapter in her book for my reports on seventeenth-century town records in Marblehead Massachusetts — would kill me. Or at least not recommend me for graduate programs in history.

I went on and on about how my life as an historian would be ruined if I didn’t get out of the mental ward and go back to Marblehead. And this is how I know that you should stop working in order to deal with overeating: Because my work improved once I better understood my relationship to food.

2. Take time off so you can change bad patterns
The mental ward turned out to be one of my favorite places ever. It was so peaceful. No kidding. I spent most of my time with spritely vixens seducing young doctors (Yes, I dated one. Trust me. It’s common.) The hospital was a haven from all the stuff we distracted ourselves with. I couldn’t focus on food (it was regulated) or my professor (she couldn’t reach me) so I focused on all that was left: Myself. And it worked. I started to understand why I was eating and how I could change my patterns.

And once I changed my patterns with food, other things that require self-discipline improved as well. This phenomena is supported by lots of research – we want to change a lot of things in our life. For example, I wanted to stop thinking about food all the time and I wanted to work faster on the grant. Trying to do everything at once was overwhelming. But changing how I dealt with food had a positive ripple effect throughout my life.

3. Don’t be a snob
To be sure, I was not the worst off in the mental ward. There was shock therapy. There was suicide watch. I was surely one of the highest functioning patients: I was writing up my research at a brisk pace, I stopped wanting to throw up, and I got day passes from my shrink to date one of my ex-doctors.

But I learned quickly that there is no point in being high and mighty. We each have problems, and the only way to solve them is to face them. You might be fifteen pounds overweight, or fifty, or ten pounds underweight, it’s all the same. It’s all about getting to know yourself so you can take care of yourself more effectively and you can start reaching your real dreams – the stuff that really matters to you.

4. Stop using your job as an excuse
I knew as early as my sophomore year that I needed to get serious help. I knew I wanted to stop throwing up but I wasn’t stopping myself. What I focused on was the idea that I needed to graduate on time. I couldn’t let people know I had a big problem or I’d never fit in. My teachers would dump me. I wanted the problem to go away.

But the truth is that I was not really fitting in anyway, because I had to hide so much of my eating life. And my professor did dump me eventually, but it wasn’t because I didn’t get the work done. I did. It was just late and on hospital letterhead. She dumped me because after I stopped focusing on food and focused on myself instead, we both realized that being a historian was not right for me.

Taking a big pause in my work in order to deal with my issues around food was crucial to getting to know myself and creating stability in my life. So I’m telling anyone with an eating problem – if you are overweight or underweight — work can wait. Stop kidding yourself that doing your work is more important. People are always worrying that they will mess up their career by stopping their work to fix themselves. But the worst job is the job that you use to avoid your personal life.

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  1. Isaac James Baker
    Isaac James Baker says:

    Thanks so much for this post! It was really interesting, and I think you have a lot of great things to share here. I am a 27-year-old man and two years ago I ended up practically dead after not eating for, literally, weeks. I spent a month in an eating disorder ward. It was a process of rebuilding and learning how to deal with loss (in my case, my wife) in a healthy way, not a self-destructive way. Anyway, your post really spoke to me. I wrote a novel about my experience, which comes out in May. I think you’d really like it. I know I’d be honored if you’d review it for your blog. It’s not out yet, but info will be posted on my website (www.isaacjamesbaker.com). Thanks and all the best.

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    The Fat Loss Factor Review says:

    Penelope your honesty is refreshing. As the father of a daughter who has battled with weight and associated depression. I appreciate the struggle and the many disappointments dieting and exercise can bring. Breaking through can often only be achieved by a change in mind set that is brought on by a positive reinforcement of those surrounding you. It is a family affair in many of these cases. Keep up the good work. Gordon.

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    The Fat Loss Factor by Dr. Charles says:

    I learned a lot from this blog! Take some time, make a plan, open your mind, take action and make no excuses basically. Thanks 4 Weight-loss tips from my month in the mental ward. I can use these tip on many other things in life as well!

    – Tanya

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    Weight Loss says:

    Wow that is some pretty heavy stuff. Not a lot of people realize that weight epidemic can not only affect you physically but mentally as well. Your bravery on being open and honest about your experiences is truly inspirational. I also agree with your statement about changing your patterns. I just read an article that the simple placement of food can have a affect on your eating pattern. I just think that the power your mind has over your physical health is amazing. I made a video about a system that uses your will to help you in your journey to weight loss. Check it out: http://bit.ly/Th7EQ2

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    http://bit.ly/QyrES8/ says:

    There are definitely a whole lot of particulars like that to take into consideration. That is a nice point to bring up. I supply the ideas above as common inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you carry up where an important thing will probably be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around issues like that, however I’m positive that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Each girls and boys really feel the influence of only a second’s pleasure, for the remainder of their lives.

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