Thursday, April 5, 2007

Cult-Like Programs I’ve Embraced, Part I: Weight Watchers

The transformative event for me came about halfway through my first meeting. Surrounded by puffy women applauding one another for losing eight ounces, addressed by a relatively slim, excited older woman in extremely tight pants, I was about to lose my shit and leave. Like I’d left French class sophomore year, after six years of study: just up and left and never went back. This was not for me.

In 2001 I had taken stock and realized that I was at least 60 pounds overweight, pale, flabby, and tired easily. My digestive system was a nightmare; I ate nothing healthy, no matter how often I resolved to do so. My feet hurt. My knees hurt. I had had to go to physical therapy for weak ankles. My lower back was giving out alarming twinges. And I was only 32.

A confluence of events led me to Weight Watchers in January 2002. I woke up especially hung over and bloated one morning after a late night. My wife and I had started talking about having a baby. Murderers had attacked my city, and it occurred to me that life was too short to stay fat. A colleague was attending a nearby meeting and encouraged me to come with her. Another coworker, a man, had lost a lot of weight through the program the previous year. I went.

It was horrifying. Clapping, I thought, is not what I need. Little star stickers were not going to help me. And they talked incessantly about dessert – my problem was cheese and ribs and beer and General Tso’s chicken, not chocolate. Cake and cookies were for the weak. Even the way chocolate was talked about, with this faux reverence — an ironclad excuse masquerading as an object of worship in whose presence my bovine companions were powerless. When they mentioned it, I could hear the glutinous melted gunk blurring the consonants in the word itself…schawglit.

My cousin once tricked me — bait: job opportunity/switch: Amway meeting. They sat the new recruits in the front row and proceeded to attempt to break us down by asking if we wanted to get rich. That had been like this. Later, when I emerged with my psyche intact, he’d said “don’t think about it, just do it.” That was anathema to me.

I was fat, but I was no joiner. I was a dinosaur explainer, and I wore black clothing and lived in New York City. I’d traveled the country by car for six months. I’d read Atlas Shrugged AND A Fool’s Progress. I had a hip, hot wife in the record industry and we went to extremely cool shows. I was a cynical and proud atheist who hated sports and swore never to go to Disneyland. And above all I was young! What the hell was I doing in the room with the fat women salivating about doughnuts?

And then the transformative event: I let go. For one second. I shut off my brain and clapped, with a big smile on my face.

Why? Because nothing else had worked. I’d been gaining weight for ten years. I was miserable. If I thought I was too young to be in that room, I was certainly too young to keel over and die on a subway platform. And everyone said that Weight Watchers worked. So somewhere I found a switch and shut off the part of my brain that was saying “no.”

It was just enough for them to get their hooks into me.

That year, I transformed. I journaled, I counted my points, I drank water, I measured portions, I tried recipes received at meetings, I read the Getting Started book religiously and I attended my weekly meeting. I realized that I’d been reverentially saying General Tso’s schickun. I sat up front. I raised my hand a lot. And it worked. I immediately began losing weight.

Suddenly, running seemed possible. A natural complement to Weight Watchers. I started slowly during Week Five. After fifteen minutes on the treadmill, I knew one thing for certain: I was going to die. But I didn’t die that particular day, and I went back two days later. I started counting activity points.

By October I lost 68 pounds. Five years later, I go every week to keep it off.

The women — and some men — in that room are some of the bravest and dearest people I know, struggling against unimaginably deep-seated personal and cultural roadblocks, trying to find out if they’re real beneath the weight. They are, they are, they are. My leader from that first day has been one of the most – and you can imagine how using this word hurts a deeply independent and cynical thinker – inspiring people I’ve ever met. I mean, she helps people get well. How cool is that?

So I’m a convert, an acolyte, a Weight Watchers zombie who for a long time could only talk about POINTS and the POINTS system. Letting go that day was one of the hardest — and best — things I’ve ever done.

But I still don’t buy their products.


Anonymous said...

Bill you look so fab! And young. Kudos on your weight loss success and more importantly setting a good role model for the mini-braines. Hope you write more about your journey.

I've lost just over 20 lbs since November of last year. I have another 40 to go. Portion control, exercise and cutting out alot of sweets and breads really helped.

I have mixed opinions about Weight Watchers. Obviously, for people like you it really works. You needed it to kick start you and then you made it your own. But I know so many people, like my sister-in-law who has been adding those "I lost 5 lb" ribbons to her fridge and she's actually bigger now than when she started the program 5 years ago. (The sad thing is that she has a whole row of ribbons but nothing has changed for the better.)

But as far as cults go, WW is probably one of the better ones. It beats tattooing upside down crosses on your forehead. And it's more likely to lower your cholesterol.

cce said... that's a transformation. I too am a natural born cynic, a mocker not a joiner, so I can actually taste how hard the letting go and getting with the program was for you. I had a similar experience but with fellow anorexics. (Is it me, or does everyone have an issue with food?)
Congratulations on the weight loss and the road race, was that you at the NYC Marathon?

wcs said...

Wow. I'd seen the photos before, but the story is great. Some of that inspiration stuff must have rubbed off on you. Now, if you could only bottle it...

Amy Plum said...

Great article, Bill! I don't think I knew you when you were at that top weight - did I? I remember when you started talking about Points at work, and I thought "Oh no, not Bill". But now I say "Good for you!"

That must have been so hard to let go and let yourself join. A hundred times harder than my Restigne arts-n-crafts class.

And cce - count me in the food issue group. Bulimia-survivor here! I don't know anyone who hasn't had food issues except my husband. Besides the fact that he won't eat any fruits or veggies. (He thinks wine=fruit and potatoes=veggies.)

Anyway, hurrah for Bill!

Bill Braine said...

Thanks all!

Jayne: That's outstanding! Keep at it! My sister just celebrated 25 pounds by riding her bike around the zocalo in Mexico City with three gallons of water in her backpack, just to remind herself how much weight it was. Too bad you live in bike-free Amsterdam, or I'd recommend the same thing.

Oh, and we did have to get the WW logo tatooed on our butts, and there are some other things I'm not supposed to talk about.

cce: Everyone has an issue with food (see Amy's husband, below). That pic is me at my 2nd NYC; I've done it twice and the Vermont City marathon once (Albany or Philly to come this fall). All slow, but I don't give a rat's ass.

wcs: He who takes his motivation from a bottle has Thunderbird for a coach. I don’t know what that means. I mean, I really don’t.

Amy: I think you were there just about up until I started The Program, so you were definitely there for the glory days. Lucky you.

wcs said...

Bill, what a (hic) intereshting web shite you shent (hic) meeee two...

Anonymous said...

Nice job Bill. After my mother-in-law had some success with WW years ago I gave it a try after the holidays. Religiously counted points, climbed the stairs in my apt building and basically tried to re-think the whole food thing. I knew it had gone too far when my wife came home one night and asked what I was watching. "The Food Network" I replied, barely hearing her as I stared, salivating, at whatever it was they were cooking that night. I think I had a 12 inch Italian sub for lunch the next day and never looked back. And I still have about 10-12 lbs I'd like to lose. . . . But can't they do something to make beer worth less points?

Theresa said...

Hey bro, moving story. It was huffing and puffing while playing with that then 3-year-old "baby" that you were contemplating back when you started that got me thinking about WW again. Well it's 7 months later and as Bill said in a comment above, I'm celebrating 25+ pounds gone.... It's actually just over 30 now, and I'm starting maintenance (Jayne, this is the part of the program your sister-in-law is missing, unfortunately), which requires just as much diligence as the weight-loss part, though I think a bit less stress. As one of you said, it's about changing your relationship w/food rather than losing weight. The occasional italian hero is mandatory in that case. Rock on, all! --Bill's (formerly) "big" sister

Anonymous said...

Bill, I (re)joined WW this week and so far, on day 4, it is going fine. I've been to meetings in NYC, Chi-town and now, mid-coast Maine and the gal at the meeting here seems really fab. But I will re-read this post often b/c you capture so much of the Stuff. We all have food issues -- and those who don't are lying (really, they Must be.....)

Bill Braine said...

Hey, jane, rock it. I've changed meetings myself recently, but I keep going every week just to maintain. Insert hokey phase here, like "it's a journey"; or "start slow and taper off."

Here's a great blogger who's done WW and other methods, but who has a pretty healthy outlook on weight (and life):

Anonymous said...

Hey No-More-Fatboy,

Thanks for this. If you think it was bad for you, imagine what it's like for a Harvard-educated feminist to deal with that vapid, cheerleadery shit all given with NO CONTEXT about the culture we live in, etc. etc. and yea, it's time for me to get over it 'cause I need to lose the budda.

Shame on you for ever referring to overweight women as bovine, but I forgive ya.

Bill Braine said...

Thanks for the forgiveness. In case it didn't come through in the post, that was the impression of a younger and more foolish man.

Suburban Correspondent said...

I love you! Thanks for writing this, it's so funny - and it's good to hear someone successful at WW being funny rather than, well, self-righteous or downright maniacal. I'm a WW recidivist myself - lost my weight easily in 2006, and then put it on again just as easily in 2007. But I've gone back and am rather grudgingly re-losing it.

Cult-like - hee,hee....

Anonymous said...

I love you too. As a current WW member who, today, missing her 3rd meeting in a row due to being scared of the scale, I have to say you've inspired me. I have lost 20lbs. and have 20 lbs. to go. Thank you for this. You are not only inspiring, you're cute too! Way to go and congratulations on your success.

Miranda said...

I do the WW program online only due to the things that initially turned you off about the meetings. I am not a meetings kind of girl, and what spare time I have is precious. My doctor put me on WW because I was too fat and my cholesterol was too high. I have lost 10; have 15 more to go. I like the online tools; much handier than those on Fitday. The bulletin boards are good too for those "need support/reality check" times.

So for those who just can't stomach the clapping, there is still a solution.

M. Dianne Grotius Berry said...

Since 2000, I've held on to the more convenient WW POINTS FRAME OF MIND. It's smart, easier, conscionable. If it is the points subliminal, I've kept off at least "10" of the 16 pounds for a year. I'm still overweight, but I suggest that a member tries it for 4 seasons so they can replace old habits through all the whoopee holidays.