Carol's Perspective:
My Contribution to Living with Obesity

By Carol Berman

It is March, 2002.

Michael has been working on this book for about four of the 37 years we've been married. At our wedding in August, 1965 I was down to a size 8 from a 10 or 12, and he weighed about 220, having lost weight in part as a promise to me.

I suppose it is natural for him to ask me to contribute my perspective on living with obesity. After all, I have been witness to his ups and downs, heard the stories, felt his pain, and experienced some of my own.

I welcome the opportunity to write. First of all, this is where I get to defend myself against being a various times a food cop, enabler and even an unwitting saboteur. And if the truth be told, I have faced my own struggles with overeating. While I am hardly in a position to advise on how to lose weight, I think I finally have managed not to interfere with Michael's weight management.

Michael has described our first meeting in another chapter. What he said was true. It was a blind date, arranged by his sister Sheila. I was turned off by his size, and gave serious thought to canceling as I peered through the peephole of my apartment door and saw his corpulence. I was only 24 at the time, and appearances were pretty important. Luckily, I found him so interesting and charming, that I decided it was worth spending the evening. Turned out he also was a good dancer, and a very decent guy. Our values meshed and my feelings for him shifted into second gear that same evening. And then, as Michael waged a campaign to win me over, his plan was so successful that I asked him a few months later to marry me!

His courting plan involved going out for dinner, hitting his favorite restaurants and delicatessens, and taking me to concerts and theatre. It's probably not a coincidence that I found this endearing. I came from a family of eaters, and the rich dining experiences were familiar. It has occurred to me that I might have married him because of the potato salad and rib eye at Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, the grilled reuben and baked omelette loaded with cheese at the Lincoln Del, and the fondue and baked stuffed eggplant at the Lowell Inn in Stillwater. I loved the fact that he enjoyed going to concerts, and he took me to the Opera and seemed to enjoy it. (After we married, he admitted that he was trying to win my affection and doesn't like the opera, ballet, or symphony).

I think I married just the right guy for me, and the journey has been interesting. I can't separate living with Michael, and living with his obesity, from my own experience with weight management.

Unlike Michael, I was thin as a child. My seemingly limitless appetite was matched by a metabolism that could tolerate enormous quantities. Until menopause.

Michael and I have no children. Unlike couples who are childless by choice, we are childless despite a great deal of emotional pain on my part. It was less of an issue for Michael, whose expressed feelings about having children were ambivalent. After six years on birth control pills, we decided to let nature take its course. Nature didn't budge. After about a dozen disappointing menstrual cycles, I visited a gynecologist. These appointments are, to this day, called, "infertility" visits. I remember asking why it couldn't be called something more positive, but never really got an answer. After several years of often embarrassing and physically painful interventions, nothing worked. The gynecologist told us that the factors were all marginal, and that Michael's obesity was a possible issue. Apparently it affects sperm count. It was interesting to me that the subject never even came up in anything that Michael wrote.

I was approaching forty when the matter was settled once and for all. In the 70's, doctors pretty routinely recommended hysterectomy for fibroid tumors. My fears of early death from cancer, as was the case with my mother and sister, were greater than my determination to continue trying to have a child. It seems to me that the switch from being able to eat anything I wanted was turned off with that surgery. It's unclear whether I started eating more because I was sad, or whether I was eating the same way and no longer burning it as quickly.

At times, Michael has expressed feelings of guilt because my weight has ratcheted up over the years, and blames his own overeating for the fact that it has been progressively more difficult for me to lose the pounds and inches that came after the age of 35. I have tried to assure him that he had nothing to do with it. Books on women's health provide me with confirmation that mid-life weight gain for women is commonplace, and in my case, was certainly very likely if not inevitable.

I don't have extensive records on my weight. I do know that I have tried diets, including some very sensible ones and some ridiculous fads. Among them have been Weight Watchers (more than once), Counterweight (sponsored by Honeywell), Overeaters Anonymous, Diet Workshop, the Atkins Diet, The Stillman Diet, Pritikin, the Kelp Diet, a Protein Sparing Fast, and Diet Center. I've tried a cabbage soup diet, I've tried eating only grapefruit and bananas for several days, followed by days of tomato juice, and once I ate only steak and deviled eggs for nearly a week. My size has ranged from 10-18, and I have clothes in my closet in each of those sizes.

Regardless of Michael's weight, I have struggled independently, interdependently, and at times co-dependently. Let me explain.

For a long time, I have felt that Michael and I compete with one another. We love each other, but sometimes we seem to act like siblings. Even as I think I am being supportive, I compete with him and he competes with me. I think many married couples do that. Maybe it is for this reason that we sometimes seesaw in our eating behavior. Michael eats carefully, and I slack off. I call this our co-dependent relationship.

Because we do not have children, it is as easy for us to dine out in a restaurant as to eat at home. Often we make the decision at the last minute, depending on whether it's been a busy day, and recently, depending on how many calories Michael has left. When we are in a restaurant, the way the three kinds of relationships are manifested.

Co-Dependent: This is the "see-saw" phenomenon. Michael orders fish, no sauce, salad with no dressing; I order a rich gourmet dish. I feel that he is being "holier than thou." He thinks I am digging my grave with a fork.

Independent: When I realize what I am doing, I get it under control and I can function independently, ordering what I feel like eating, without regard to what Michael is eating. We each order pretty sensibly.

Interdependent: Best of all is when we function interdependently. That's when I try to work with Michael to the advantage of both of us. For example, I try to wait until Michael has ordered, and I order the same thing, or I ask if he wants to share, so we both order something healthy. This has been a helpful device in the past few years.

When we eat at home, we sometimes decide to "forage," using leftovers and eating without a particular plan. Michael and I both like to cook, but it is more challenging when you limit butter, oil, cheese, prepared sauces, and other "good stuff." Continuing the categories described above, the way that our dining at home has developed also depends on the state of our eating relationship.

Co-Dependent: When we are engaged in the "see-saw" phenomenon, I might be aware that Michael is doing very well, and yet I will bring food into the apartment that he would enjoy eating. I don't tell him the food is there - it's for me, or for guests. Still, I don't need it either. I am not trying to sabotage his efforts to manage his eating, but it has the same effect. I try not to eat fattening food in his presence, but he is hard to fool.

Independent: This is where we don't plan what we are going to eat, but I deliberately order food that I sense Michael will want to eat. Invariably, he has something else in mind. We end up eating together, but having different food. Sometimes we "forage" and prepare our meals separately.

Interdependent: If we think about it and discuss what we are going to do about meals, the shopping is planned, and our meals are healthier and better organized. We make last minute decisions, but they are mutual.

Michael is a very giving person. I retired from my job three years ago. My retirement plan was Michael's income. He has never expected me to cut back on anything. In fact, he has encouraged me to work out with a personal trainer, go to a spa for a week every year, and spend my time as I see fit. I am pretty lucky.

I have only two complaints.

1. Michael doesn't like to play as much as I do. If you ask me "Would you like to ________?" (fill in the blank—ski, travel, see a play, hear a concert, go to the ballet, snorkel, ride a horse—my answer will be yes. Michael's response will be no way. I have resented Michael's limited desire for such experiences, because I have wanted to do these things together. Even as he became an accomplished photographer, he has steadfastly refused to take a safari, visit the Galapagos, or otherwise travel where his skills could be exploited. However, I have learned to adapt, and just do the things I like with someone else. I still cling to a hope that the more physically comfortable Michael becomes, the more likely he will be likely to say yes, let's give it a try.

2. I sometimes wonder if Michael has used his weight as an excuse not to engage. He isn't exactly shy, but he socializes on his own terms. He has many, many friends stemming from his work and particularly from politics. I seem to be more gregarious than he, so my friends remain my friends, but many of our friends evolved from relationships that began as his friends.

That being said, I think I have the best life in the world. I spend two mornings a week as a volunteer tutor, work at home in a pottery studio that we created in our apartment, a very unusual luxury, work with a variety of nonprofit organizations that make me feel great, and chair our condominium association.

While I am not especially happy with my size, I am happy with myself. I don't think I look glamorous, and at times, that gets me down. But I think I look good enough, and I feel great.

I think the same about Michael. He isn't skinny, but he looks great. He is walking with more of a spring in his step. He is not scary-overweight. To me, he looks handsome. I think we are an acceptably attractive couple.

I wish Michael would stop worrying about losing more, and I wish he would stop worrying about me. I can do that for myself.

These are the things that I do now that help me to live with Michael's and my own obesity:

I do not stock the cupboard with fattening treats. Even if we have guests, they will have to live with the food we offer. Each time I have chocolate in the house, I eat more than I serve to our guests. It simply undermines our habit of staying away from the stuff.

I allow myself indulgences, and separate my indulgences from Michael's. What he eats is his business, and what I eat is mine. We cannot watch each other's food. If we do, we compete. If Michael orders something that is fatty, that is not license for me to do the same, and vice versa.

Regardless of how much I am eating, I work out regularly. I am strong, toned, and flexible. This follows advice that Michael gave me, and it makes sense to me.

Also consistent with Michael's advice, I have regular medical check-ups. I have bad genes. My mother died in her thirties. My sister died in her forties. Another sister died in her early 60's. I used to think I would die when I was in my thirties. Now I think I will beat the odds. Recently, a friend and I had a full body scan and got to see each other's results. I told her that her body looked better than mine, even inside. Still, it was terrific to know that I had undergone this fairly thorough check-up.

I think a sense of humor is essential. I laugh a lot. Michael is very serious, but his wry sense of humor makes me laugh, and some of my craziness makes him laugh. I don't think I have ever consciously laughed about obesity unless it was self-deprecating. I try to find humor that is not at the expense of others. Because we are married, Michael is an easy target. If I find something amusing to say about Michael, he has plenty of quirks that are better fodder than the stuff that makes him feel bad.

I hide things from Michael. He can't tolerate having some foods in the apartment that I want to have around. I figure what he doesn't know won't hurt him. I know he's hiding stuff from me too. That's okay.

Michael has girlfriends. Every Valentine's Day, I share him with about 30 women. Shocking? Not really. This is a man who enjoys the company of women. I love that about him. I love that he is sensitive. I think it's the quality that I detected on that first date, the one that made me fall in love with him. Women enjoy his company. As long as the relationship with these other women isn't a sexual one, and as long as he lets me know that I am number one, I can handle it. Hell, I embrace it.

I try to remind myself of how lucky we are. We have not had to struggle to make ends meet. We have lots of friends and a wonderful extended family, and our life style is enviable.

We are relatively healthy. We have had excellent work experiences. We are able to give of ourselves. As for obesity, it's been a burden at times, but you know, everyone has something. Obesity is on the outside. In the overall scheme of things, it's so much better than bigotry, hypocrisy, cruelty, and the many "isms" that make the world worse.

Living with obesity? Michael says he will always consider himself obese, no matter how much weight he loses. So I guess I can just keep on living with it.