Episode 7 was far better than episode 6. We get a more complete back story of the two clients, more face-time with Amber the trainer and Jessica the program director and, thankfully, less of Adam the fitness director, who has a vibe you’d expect of a clerk at a porn store. (Sorry, Adam, but that scene with Debbie at the golf course still irks me.) It was almost as if “Heavy” producers read my last post and listened, though I know the episodes were filmed last year. However, the new format still doesn’t trump the old one, mainly because “Heavy” is trading a more sustainable lifestyle change for “the big reveal” by keeping the clients at “the facility” for a full six months. (Yes, I still miss David and Britny, in case you were wondering.)
This week, the clients are Johnny, a 404.6 lb. 19 year-old college student, and Jill, a 34 year-old married grade school teacher. Both are hardcore food addicts, but neither realizes how strong their addictions are or what causes them to eat in response to pleasure, pain and everything in between. (And you skinny fats thought you had it bad?)
Johnny’s mother had him when she was 14 years-old and left him when he was three or four years-old. Then Johnny was put in foster care for three years before he was adopted. His addiction began at an early age because he had a fear that there would be no food, having spent his earliest years with his teenage mother, who was involved with drugs, gangs and prostitution, and then in foster care. Not only does Johnny eat out of “food-fear,” any emotion is a reason for him to eat. “Oh, I’m sad. Let’s go get an ice cream. Oh, I’m happy. Celebrate. Let’s go get something,” he says. Johnny has strong feelings of abandonment and doesn’t understand why his mother didn’t want him, something he’s carried with him since he was a child. Now, as a young adult, Johnny doesn’t have any goals, a common problem for people his age (“People his age”–did I really just write that? I guess that means I’m getting old.), yet with his weight problem and emotional issues, his confidence is low, and he knows he needs to change. “I don’t want to be the 25 year-old who dies of a heart attack,” Johnny vows.
Like Johhny and so many of the other “Heavy” clients, Jill has been fat all of her life. From grade school, she was teased about her weight and came home crying often. Once she began high school, she was never under 200 lbs. Despite her many attempts to diet, Jill always yo-yo’ed, which I can definitely relate to as someone who tried so hard to lose weight in high school because I hated getting made fun of but couldn’t because food consoled me. Now, at 34, Jill desperately wants to get pregnant, yet can’t because of her weight. After getting married, she and her husband tried for six months with no luck. Jill’s doctor says she needs to lose more than 100 lbs., which has been a challenge because she has an insatiable addiction to food. For most of her life, she thought “no one would love [her] because [she] was overweight.” Jill’s addiction is so bad she’s hiding food in her closet, sneaking behind her husband’s back to eat, because she feels guilty that she’s the reason why they can’t have a baby. Jill is disgusted with herself and completely hopeless about losing weight and getting pregnant. She says crying, “I look at myself in the mirror and think who the heck is that girl.”
Looking at Johnny and Jill, I see so much of myself in them. Like Johnny, I was 19 when I first decided I wanted to lose weight, and although I wasn’t as heavy (I was 339 when I finally made the commitment, but had been in the 350s when I first went to college.), I was so fat the nurses at my college health center would sit me down every visit with that “I’m equally concerned for you and disappointed in you” mom-look. I, too, was an emotionally-driven eater, like both clients, and for many of the same reasons–abandonment, anger, guilt and shame. Food filled the void in my life that my father left, and after so many years of being heavy, I felt hopeless, too, lost in a haze of depression and Jack in the Box. 9/11 was a dose of mortality that–it’s hard for me to admit this–I needed in my life. Seeing so much tragedy in the city I grew up in, a place that felt so tied to the person I was, was devastating and made me realize how short my own life could be. I didn’t want to be dead from a heart attack by 25 either and was compelled to not just lose the weight, but change my life.
Change isn’t easy though, and both Jill and Johnny struggle immediately when arriving at “the facility,” mainly due to the emotional issues causing them to eat. At Jill’s first weigh-in, she’s shocked that she’s over 300 lbs., saying, “To be honest with you, I wanted to go eat.” Like any addict, she turns to the thing that’s basically killing her when she learns how badly her addiction actually is. Jill works hard, and the results are seen quickly as she loses over 10 lbs. in the first week. However, her addiction is holding her back in so many ways. After a few weeks at “the facility,” she and Johnny visit the grocery store with the nutritionist, and while he sniffs a package of Krispy Kreme donuts like a rabid raccoon, Jill is clearly anxious around all the food she can no longer eat, particularly peanut butter cups, telling the nutritionist, “If I had a backpack, I would have paid for it and snuck it.” Rationalization becomes Jill’s biggest crux in coping with her addiction, and as she puts pressure on herself to lose weight in order to get pregnant, she turns to food to cope, causing Jill to hoard food in her closet. Beverly finds out and confronts Jill about it, leading to what should be another Internet meme (I’m disappointed Kevin’s “salad tantrum” still hasn’t gone viral!): Jill’s obstinate confession to hoarding peanut butter, “Heck yeah, I have peanut butter in my room. Because I needed the peanut butter.” But it didn’t end there. Jill’s reluctance to admit that she has a problem (She refused to say she was hiding the peanut butter–she was just keeping it in the closet. Where no one would find it. Because “the facility” wouldn’t let her have it. Hmmm…) spirals, causing her to hoard more contraband, chocolate-covered cashews, trail mix with “chocolate-covered something” and peanut butter pretzels. Beth the therapist addresses the addiction with Jill again, and finally, after months of rationalization and denial, Jill breaks down and says it: “I know I’m addicted to sweets.”
At Johnny’s first weigh-in, he admits that he’s been in “big denial,” but he’s scared to tackle the emotional issues, the root causes of his addiction to food. When he first begins exercising, he can’t keep up with Jill. He doesn’t want to push himself and wants to go home. Johnny says he just can’t do it, though Beverly the trainer doesn’t believe in the word “can’t” and won’t accept it from Johnny, screaming over him, “We don’t say that word.” He needs to deal with his abandonment and anger in order to cope with his addiction and fully invest in his weight loss, and eventually, Johnny does, but first he proves to himself that he can do the work outs. At the halfway point, Johnny has lost 43.8 lbs., giving him the confidence he needs to dedicate himself to his weight loss. Johnny also begins tackling the reasons for his addiction issues by opening up to Jessica the program director, prompting him to reconnect with his biological father and family. After a Google search, Johnny tracks down his family, talks to his father and understands that he didn’t abandon Johnny. His father gave him up because he couldn’t take care of him the way his adopted parents could. He wanted Johnny to have a better life; once Johnny came to terms with that, he is able to understand his addiction better and–you guessed it–enters “beast-mode.” Over the next three months, Johnny loses more than double what he did over the first three months at “the facility,” applies and gets accepted to a culinary school and begins to figure out what he wants to do with his life.
At the final weigh-in, Jill and Johnny are both visibly healthier and lighter than they were six months prior. Jill weighs-in at 209.8, losing a total of 95.4 lbs., and Johnny weighs-in at 266.4, a total of 138.2 lbs. Although the weigh-in has lost some of its charm in the new format, Johnny sweetens it up when he says, “This is the new me; this is the new life I’m going to live.”
In the new format of “Heavy,” “the big reveal” is at the end of the episode, which I’ve already mentioned I don’t like at all. The reveal makes “Heavy” like all the shows it says it’s not, turning the previously fat into spectacles in the shadows of their former selves. The show is supposed to be about helping “people achieve their personal goals,” but by not seeing the clients through at home for several months in exchange for “the big reveal,” “Heavy” isn’t ensuring the six-month weight loss at a resort is sustainable once the clients return to the lives they lived when they were fat, turning a show about personal achievement through lifestyle change into “The Swan” for fat people. Because of this, I won’t write about the reveals at all.
I will cover the follow-up though. Three months later Johnny, like Ronnie and Debbie of the first episode in the new format, has only maintained his weight loss. Jill, on the other hand, determined to get pregnant, is told by her doctor that she has 10 more lbs. to lose, and she does over the next three months, meaning she and her husband can finally start trying. (I think you know what that means….) Jill is the first of the three clients in the new format to continue losing weight after leaving “the facility.”
Just don’t mess with her peanut butter.
Brian McGuigan is a writer, performer and arts get-shit-done-er working on a one-man show about his own struggles with weight loss entitled “Fat Fuck.” He blogs weekly about A&E’s new docu-drama “Heavy” at brianwithani.com.