To become bedfast because of your weight is no laughing matter. To be trapped inside your house because you are too large to get through the door is tragic. To be an outcast to oneself and society is as cruel a fate as one could imagine.
And to be a witness to this state of affairs with empathy and insight takes a skill few social workers have. I was one of the many who did not.
So it was when I entered the residence of Mr. Patterson as a case-manager for Adult Protective Services, DHS. I was 37 years old, had survived serious drug addiction in New York, returned to Knoxville, finished my degree, and knew everything there was to know. Or so I thought. Now I realize that to think you know everything is the truest evidence of ignorance.
The case record did not prepare me for what I was about to see. It just stated that my client, a man, was obese and neglecting to take care of himself.
When I entered the house it was very dark, with a weak ray of light coming through the kitchen window, revealing a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a very large man lying in a bed that took up the entire room, his arms and legs outstretched like an animal about to be slaughtered. Each of his arms separated in three sections, like three enormous loaves of bread. His legs were the size of tree trunks. He was over 600 pounds.
What do you say when you meet a person like this? “What’s up, dude?”
But I soon forgot his size and noticed only his eyes, which were like those of a hunted animal that knows there is no escape.
Finally, I took out my notebook and asked the questions I had been taught to ask: What meds are you on? He nodded toward the bedside table where 15 or so medicine bottles stood along with a few used tissues and a pitcher of water.
Do you have any family members? He shook his head from left to right.
On the wall above his bed was a plaque with angels heralding the words “God Loves You.” I wondered how this gentle soul who lay there trapped in his own body felt about God’s love.
An attractive nurse with long blonde hair came in, took his vital signs, gave him his meds, and straightened up the room. Rain fell in sheets and made music on the tin roof: tap, tap, tap, like tiny soldiers marching back and forth. The sad man’s eyes followed the nurse as she moved around the room. She turned the radio on to gospel music and the man’s eyes seemed to brighten.
My client died shortly after this and I closed the case, but I never forgot him.
I have two longtime friends who weigh 400 pounds each, but I never think of them as being overweight. David was valedictorian at Bearden High School 20 years ago, voted most likely to succeed. Because of schizo-affective disorder, he has to take psychotropic meds, which has caused his weight to balloon. This is a state as bad or worse as the mental illness. He gave up for a time and began eating and drinking excessively until his weight soared even more.
His best friend, Mac, was agoraphobic for many years, until a girlfriend coaxed him out, little by little, into the world. Except for David, other people still make him nervous. In order to socialize, he has to drink. He is a computer genius and a graceful dancer. But he can only dance when he drinks.
They tell me that people treat them differently because they are obese. “The liquor store is the worst,” Mac says. “They let other people go ahead of us and are rude. And we spend a lot of money there.”
I saw this firsthand when I accompanied them to a West Knoxville restaurant. One young man snickered to his girlfriend and said loudly, “Looks like they’ve been to a few too many restaurants in their lives. Maybe they should apply to be the next Goodyear blimps.”
David, a black belt in karate, looked them dead in the eye and said, “We’re overweight, not deaf.”
“Should we take this guy out now or later?” Mac asked David, at which point the rude young man grabbed his girlfriend’s arm and scurried away. The three of us went in and enjoyed our dinner without thinking about the incident again.
There are many different kinds of traps in this world, most of our own making. There are physical disabilities, which my client had; mental illness, such as depression, which can be crippling; criminal traps such as jail; and the trap of thinking that if we could just lose five more pounds, be two years older or younger, be more confident, smarter, faster, or better, we would be happy. Why not be happy now?
My client would probably have been thrilled to be as thin as most of you are. The gifts of the spirit do not come from how we look, but how we feel inside. Why not work on your inside instead of all the externals you think are you, and see what happens?
How about it? It’s worth a try, anyway. Isn’t it?
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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