Hello. My name is Mark and I’m a yo-yo dieter (which apparently isn’t such a bad thing, it turns out). I’m a little under six feet tall and my weight seems to annually fluctuate between 205 and 240 pounds. At 240 I officially qualify as one of the fat citizens who make up America’s 33% of the global obesity tonnage. When I get down to 205, I’m consigned to the ranks of the merely overweight. Like many Americans, I rely on how tight my clothes fit to tell me when it’s time to exercise more and cut back on my cravings and unconscious food intake. If I could wave a magic wand, it would sculpt my body to a svelte 175-180 pounds of playing weight. Mostly, though, it feels like my brain rarely has sufficient processing power for me to ever feel fully in control of my eating over any extended period.
Much of my eating is the result of acquired, unskillful habit patterns: I ate poorly, with little discipline as a kid and it carried over into adulthood. The part that isn’t pure habit is emotion-driven – comfort foods are great drugs for reducing anxiety and restoring homeostasis … sort of.
It’s Not About the Food
When I look at myself in the mirror or at any other overweight person, I can be pretty sure of one other thing: they very likely have an extensive trauma history. All of us who are overweight know great suffering firsthand.
In the mid 1980s, Vince Felitti and Rob Anda were doctors working with epidemiologists (Anda for the Center for Disease Control) and program developers (Felitti for Kaiser Permanente). They discovered each others’ work and collaborated on a program they hoped would help Kaiser’s patients lose weight, and thus save the HMO millions of dollars in medical care they wouldn’t have to provide. But they failed at every turn. When Anda and Felitti then began interviewing their patients in depth, they discovered an extraordinary percentage of them had something in common: one or more of ten specific Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Those ten ACEs are these:
Here’s Felitti confirming how these experiences have partly made me fat:
So essentially we stumbled into the major engine underlying the most common public health problems in the country….huge amounts of what we saw in adults coming through internal medicine is really the result of what was present but unseen in pediatrics (my italics)….The real action lies in the translation of destructive life experiences in childhood slowly into biomedical diseases decades later. And the whole link is lost because of time, because of the shameful nature of this, because of secrecy, and because of social taboos. Nice people don’t talk about this stuff – especially not doctors! (Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease, Karr-Morse & Wiley, pg. 13)
So, essentially, Felitti is arguing, and makes a strong case that I, along with millions of others struggling with weight issues, have specific work to do. We need to increase our brain’s capacity for processing energy and information by addressing and resolving Adverse Childhood Experiences that disorganized and compromised our neurological function (mostly without us or anyone else ever realizing it; and the correlational connections have been lost through the passage of time). Time has separated the dots and made them too distant to easily connect.
In addition, adverse (or conversely, advantageous) experiences that happen to us early in life are particularly potent for affecting our ability to function because at that time “brain development is most important and explosive.” Just as my first day at school holds great power to frame much that follows associated with school and learning later on, so too does much that follows in terms of relationships. Much of life and learning is based upon many first influences – especially how I’ve grown up and relate to food with little discipline in my daily life as an adult.
The main problem with ACEs is that they adversely impact my brain neurons’ ability to make robust connections. A genetic transcription factor called GATA-1 impoverishes synaptogenesis (the brain’s dendrite creation and connection-making process). The result is an impoverished network with reduced capacity to process energy and information. How that shows up in daily life is … lack of “will power“- the inability to exercise ongoing disciplined control over what I eat. I can eat well for a couple of days or a week, but I don’t have a sufficiently robust neuro-network, particularly in my Executive Function areas, to sustain it.
Trauma Breaks Your Heart
On that list of Adverse Childhood Experiences, I’m ten for ten. So were most of the kids I grew up with. So was my older sister, who died two years ago from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) – mostly the result of trying to regulate her ACEs by smoking. Many of the other kids I grew up with are dead already, as well. I attribute the fact that I’m still alive and as healthy as I am mostly to two factors: one is I’ve worked most of my adult life as a home builder. That work required me to be physically active every day. (But when increasing responsibilities left me with less and less time for strapping on the toolbelt, I hung it up).
The second factor contributing to my relative health and wellness is: I’ve actively sought out every avenue I could find to bring some bit of healing and peace of mind to bear for myself, including two masters degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology. But quite honestly, much of what I found was of marginal value. Nevertheless, the few things I did find late in life, like Somatic Experiencing, EFT and EMDR (Reprocessing Therapy), produced dramatic results in areas unrelated to nutrition and weight maintenance (they cured me of panic attacks and increased my capacity to honor desires and dreams that might be true for me, no matter how nonlinear and inexplicable they might seem to others – like studying to be a successful stock trader, and abandoning my area of Ph.D. expertise to become a maintenance man at a Think Tank at Stanford).
Even at this late date, I’m still searching for ways to fully integrate my brain’s capacity to be able to skillfully and successfully handle this weighty issue. Wish me L.U.C.K.