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Compassion For Self – Part 5

"You spoke to me and made me feel like a regular person and that I could do what I wanted no matter what… You inspire me to do what I do now. I often think, ‘What would Brady have me do?’” Brady showed me two photographs of her that she gave to him. Caitlin is beautiful.

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Living a compassionate life begins by taking compassionate, loving care of your health and your self. This is the 2nd Compassion enabling each us to achieve The Great Healing – for ourselves and for our planet. This weekly 11-part series excerpts and adapts Chapter 2 of the new book, The Great Healing – Five Compassions That Can Save Our World.

“An exceptionally well and persuasively written clarion call to personal and collective action, “The Great Healing – Five Compassions That Can Save Our World” is unreservedly and urgently recommended.”
— Midwest Book Review

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. . .

II

Brady tried the plan. It was 2013 when he first visited New Impact. He would participate in their program for three years. He was selected to appear in Laurie David and Katie Couric’s feature documentary, Fed Up, about the food industry and the health consequences of the food we eat.[i] Dr. Mark Hyman, who was an adviser on the project, provided nutritional guidance and recipes for the Kluge family.

Tinna mobilized everyone and the family started preparing and eating healthier meals together. Whole foods, fruits and vegetables increased their presence in the Kluge kitchen. Brady began taking regular long walks through his neighborhood with his father. After a short period of time, it was heartening for him to step onto a scale and find that he was 25 pounds lighter.

However, healthy food options in the area where they lived were limited. Brady’s middle school and high school cafeterias offered an increasing predominance of sugar and processed-carbohydrate rich, nutrient deficient food selections. The same could be said just down the road at Canes Corner, the convenience store, pizza place and gas station where students congregated after school. It’s best known for its Hurricane Fries, which are French fries covered with bacon, then a generous amount of melted cheese, topped with Ranch dressing and served in a large to-go box. At the closest grocery store, healthy whole food choices were also in limited supply. The television programs Brady would watch were bracketed by and impaled with commercials parading a dizzying array of the latest versions of soft drinks, children’s cereals, sweets, pizzas and fast foods, all high energy and fun, zestfully enjoyed — even devoured — by the hip and culturally attuned actors portraying socially accepted peers. Advertisements pervasive in print, on billboards, and online, were everywhere he’d turn; soundbites and jingles filled his head.

There was one place that should have become unwelcome terrain, the Kluge kitchen, but even there, in the refrigerator and neighboring cabinet shelves, processed food products just metamorphosed into “low fat” or “low calorie” versions of their prior selves, as sugar rich and nutritionally barren as they used to be re-packaged proclaiming change for the better. Complicating matters was the fact that their household wasn’t just Tinna, John and Brady. Each one of Brady’s three brothers had favorite foods and beverages to eat and drink and snack on, and none of them shared Brady’s problem of excess weight. In fact, his older brother Joseph had always had a bigger appetite than Brady and he was never even overweight, let alone obese.

Brady tried to create healthy eating habits, but for a behavior to become habitual, like brushing your teeth, it requires sustained successful repetition without distraction — and strong willpower. One of the hardest things for Brady was to resist the cravings, the temptation, the simple easy walk to the kitchen for something satisfying, especially in moments of unhappiness, frustration, loneliness, or fatigue.

. . .

Arriving earlier than most of the other students in the school gym locker room before gym class, Brady takes off his clothes. As soon as he takes something off, he puts something on, changing quickly and efficiently, masking his nervousness, his self-consciousness about his body, spending as little time in the locker room as possible. He doesn’t mind the exercise aspect of gym class. He just prefers to dress for it as inconspicuously as possible. Invisibly would be ideal.

The mile run is a run-walk for him, but he tries his best and even though he’s among the last to finish, he always completes it. He tries to hide his embarrassment and his frustration with the exercises he is increasingly unable to do physically. He cannot do a bar pull-up, not a single one, as he can’t even come close to lifting his body weight. He cannot do a push up. In the time it takes him to do a few sit-ups or crunches, other kids do fifty. Through all of this his coach, Mr. Brown, encourages him, telling him in earshot of other students that he is proud of him. One day Brady’s mother asks Mr. Brown why, given that her son’s results are less than the other students. The coach tells her, “Your son is one of my favorite students because he tries the hardest. He does his best.”

Brady does not stick with the new food regimen.

Research studies spanning 68 years have found that 85% of people who diet to lose weight gain it all back.[ii]

Brady is one of them. He gains all the weight back, and then begins gaining more. He falls short not from lack of effort. Not from lack of desire, of wanting it badly enough. He falls short for the same reason that so many people watching their weight or trying to lose weight do. Dr. Mark Hyman explains why: “The idea that willpower is the key to weight loss, that all one needs to do is limit calories and increase exercise. The logical conclusion about this distorted thinking is this: If you are overweight, it must be because you are a lazy glutton who shuns exercise and loves to eat. The subtle message here is that the overweight person wants to be fat. It is their fault that they are fat. Yet, in treating more than 20,000 patients, I have never met a person who wakes up and says, ‘Hey, today I am going to see how much weight I can gain.’ On the contrary, most wake up with every intention of losing weight but can’t, not because of a character defect, but because of bad advice based on incorrect medical assumptions.”[iii]

Brady’s world is filled with the temptations of addictive, calorie saturated and nutrient depleted, but really good-tasting fast foods, junk foods and processed foods. Dr. Furhman observes that, “The desire for fast food actually becomes more intense the more often it is eaten, because it excites impulse pathways in the brain. This drives the deadly cycle of overeating, weight gain, and more overeating.”[iv]

One research study, Food Addiction in the Light of DSM-5, compared food addiction to drug addiction. It discovered significant similarities when analyzing diagnostic criteria for substance dependence including tolerance — defined as “consuming increasing amounts of a substance to achieve the same effects or experiencing diminished effects with continued use of the same amounts” — withdrawal, habitual use, and a “reduction of social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.”[v]

Other research studies confirm a correlation with depression.[vi]The Whitehall II study in 2017 presented strong evidence linking sugar intake from sweet food, beverages, and added sugars to depressive symptoms in several populations. It confirmed an adverse effect of sugar on long-term psychological health and concluded that the reduction of sugar intake can lessen and even prevent depression.[vii]

. . .

Brady wants friends. Like almost every teenager, he has to deal with peer pressure as he tries to be socially accepted in school. And that includes the culture of food. His environment features an overriding scarcity of good whole healthy food. The pervasive social culture embraces and endorses the comfort and satisfaction these unhealthy foods provide and lacking a better understanding of what healthy whole food actually is, he lapses. And he knows it, and convinced he has failed, he grows frustrated, angry and ashamed.

Brady’s weight is now taking a toll on him emotionally as well as physically. He told me, “In middle school bullying kids just kinda said what they wanted to. In high school, they wouldn’t really talk to you, they’d just ignore you.”

“Every guy wants guy friends to go hang out with or go to the football games or what not. And I just didn’t have that. People want to say, ‘Oh, I don’t judge anybody by their looks or what not,’ but why would you not want to be friends with them if they’re friendly and they have nothing wrong with them except for the fact that they’re overweight? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Every moment of every day Brady lives within an oversized body, and he peers out at the world and watches everyone looking back. Robert L. Reece identifies “fat stigma” as “driven by a society that conflates size and health and uses size to define individual self-control and worth.” It is especially acute during adolescence and in school, and he warns that, “From destructive behaviors to low self-esteem to discrimination, the known negative effects of fat stigma should cause significant concern.”[viii]

Brady’s social awareness is acute. Moving around school through bustling corridors in-between classes, he is observant, trying not to get in anyone’s way, on guard for inbound signals that he’s somehow inconvenienced someone, anyone, of hostility or slight or — God forbid — a threat directed his way. Peering ahead with a roving subtle glancing eye, he casts a kind of visual net out in front of him in the faint hope of catching a friendly glance, a hint of a smile, an amicable something directed his way.

For years, Brady would eat his school lunch by himself. Food was certainly a comfort for him, he enjoyed food, but he didn’t enjoy eating much in large public places. Students would look at him and who knows what, if anything, was on their minds, but behind the glances there just might be, “There’s the fat kid eating” or “There’s the refrigerator — he’s always full of food.” One time there was another student, who was eating alone, so Brady sat down next to him. The boy gave him an uncomfortable look, stood up with his tray and resettled further down the table. Brady wondered if the boy had friends about to join him, if maybe Brady had encroached on the space they would need, but none appeared.

Brady would like to eat lunch with someone, to eat comfortably in shared company. He is open, he is outgoing, and he is ready to welcome someone to join him should that ever happen.

One day it did.

Caitlin was a 10th grader as well — a slender, short brunette — and when they first sat down and ate lunch together neither said hardly a word. But they accepted each other’s company and that was more than enough. For the rest of 10th grade and throughout junior year, whenever they had the same lunch period they would find each other. When they emerged from the cafeteria line with lunch trays in hand, they wouldn’t enter the large dining hall with its teeming mass of students, its noise and energy, preferring instead to eat together over at one of a few tables by the cafeteria entrance. Once they’d finished eating and deposited their trays, they walked into the commons — the large wide corridor that a visitor would enter upon arriving at the school. Opposite the glass cases displaying trophies and photographs of the school’s champion football teams and triumphant student athletes from years gone by, there’s an alcove a few feet deep with sets of double doors that open into the school auditorium. Brady and Caitlin would spend the remainder of the lunch period seated on the alcove floor facing one another, each with their back to the wall.

During all of these lunch periods together spanning nearly two years of high school, they spoke very little. They never saw each other in class or elsewhere in or outside of school. But having each other’s acceptance and company meant a lot to both of them. All Brady knew about Caitlin was that early in high school, or it might have been in middle school, she was put into a special needs class. She felt she didn’t need to be in a class with the developmentally disabled and she tried to get out of it but was not allowed to. Caitlin was soon regarded almost like a den mother by these students. Brady remembers, “She was the first to speak up if anyone tried to bully them and the kids looked up to her because she was above their level intellect-wise.”

When the semester ended, and that class was over, she found that she was branded — she was held back academically. And other students knew. Students always know. It affected her social status, her social life. And while Caitlin never talked much about her personal life, Brady sensed that she might have been dealing with family issues as well. He knew that she was really intelligent, but was never able to rise out of the academic track or escape the social stigma she was mired in. Caitlin was not allowed to graduate high school on stage or with a diploma.

Brady’s peers judged him from the outside — based on his weight. Caitlin was judged from the inside — her peer status was based on her academic track. They both based their own self-worth on what their peers perceived them to be, not on who they really were. Caitlin would return to school in a later year to get her GED. They reconnected after a few years. Brady told her that he “was thankful for her during that time for just being someone to talk to and sit with and because she always accepted me for who I was.” And she told him, “No — thank you. I was in a position where everyone I thought were my friends left me. You still spoke to me and made me feel like a regular person and that I could still do what I wanted no matter what… You inspire me to do what I do now. I often think, ‘What would Brady have me do?’” Brady showed me two photographs of her that she gave to him. Caitlin is beautiful.

. . .

At home, Tinna continued her best efforts to keep Brady on track.

“He was my little chatterbox. And he’s always been driven. When he was little, I used to tell my sisters, ‘He’s every mom’s dream.’ He was the perfect kid. He did not have the terrible twos. Usually I could just look at him mean and he’d stop what he was doing. He was just easy, the most compliant kid you ever met. He would get his homework done, he’d get straight A’s, he’d remind me of stuff when I was overwhelmed, he was like my little sidekick. He’d get in and cook with me, he’d clean the house on his own. So, it was a bummer, it was real hard for me when he hit teenage years because things changed so much.” Tinna tried to understand and to help but felt increasingly helpless. He was eating too much, he was eating in-between meals, he was snacking before bed. “I didn’t really know what to do.” She can’t go without food in the house because she’s feeding four boys. They argue — increasingly — and Brady withdraws, retreating more and more, deeper and deeper, into his room, his sanctuary.

Brady knows he has a problem, but he doesn’t fully understand it. “It wasn’t a specific incident. I don’t know why I went through that period. I don’t know why I felt so withdrawn. It wasn’t just a mental health issue. It was a physical problem, like I would be tired all the time. I felt awful and sick all the time and didn’t want to get out of bed.”

He surrenders to the satisfaction of something in life he can control, the pleasures of food. Somehow, and he doesn’t understand why, he can no longer feel it when he is full.

Dr. Mark Hyman explains that. “When you eat carbs and sugar, insulin spikes and your blood sugar drops. The insulin drives most of the available fuel in your bloodstream into fat cells, especially the fat cells around your middle, otherwise known as belly fat. So, your body is starved of fuel, and this stimulates your brain to make you eat more. You could have a year’s worth of stored energy in your fat tissue and yet feel like you are starving.”[ix]

Sleep apnea sets in and deeply restive full-night sleep eludes Brady. A recent study found that overweight patients who ate a diet high in fat and ate processed meats often, as Brady did, had twice the severity of obstructive sleep apnea compared to patients who ate processed meats rarely or never.[x]

In senior year, working part time as a supermarket cashier, he begins to experience acute pain, like needles, in his feet. The strain of the body weight he is carrying on a job where he’s always standing has given him plantar fasciitis, an increasingly painful foot condition resulting from the inflammation of the thick band of tissue connecting his heel bone and his toes.

At 16, he now has high blood pressure and based on his blood sugar level and BMI he is now officially pre-diabetic. His doctor determines it has not yet reached the point where medication is recommended. He weighs 250 pounds and has a 42-inch waist. If the doctor had recommended at that moment that he begin medication, Brady would’ve gone down that road.

Brady’s self-esteem, low ever since elementary school, bottoms senior year. He sees guys dating, pretty girls giving him no attention. He lacks the friends everyone else seems to have and it’s depressing. A numbness — a resignation — threatens to become overwhelming and he often awakens now to find himself not wanting to get out of bed.

Dean Ornish, M.D., best-selling author and president/founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, emphasizes a compassionate approach to those suffering from depression and loneliness. “One of the worst things about depression is that you feel like you’re seeing things clearly for the first time. That all the times you ever thought you’d be happy or healthy or things would go well you were just fooling yourself and now you’re really seeing things clearly. That’s why one of the hallmarks of depression is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness… Part of the power of darkness is to obscure the fact that you really do have a choice… While I’ve found that fear of dying is not a very sustainable motivator, joy of living is and a sense of meaning is… What is sustainable is joy and pleasure and freedom and love. And if you feel like you’re freely choosing to do this, if you feel like this is going to really improve the quality of your life, not just prevent something bad from happening down the road, ‘Oh, I think more clearly, I have energy, I look better, I look younger, I lose weight, I sleep better at night, I can think more multi-dimensionally,’ these are the things that really make a difference… And you don’t have to wait long to see the benefit.”[xi]

Brady wasn’t seeing that benefit.

Happiness directly influences your health and visa-versa. Numerous research studies have confirmed that happiness and a positive state of mind have beneficial effects on heart health,[xii] stress levels, and susceptibility to illness and disease. Brady was not healthy — and he was profoundly unhappy.

But his situation has a silver lining — something his parents cannot be prouder of. Brady was always an outstanding student. He told me that upon entering 8th grade, “They put me in Honors because I was really good at math. And I really loved science, even at that age. I had a great science teacher, Mrs. Crenshaw who even to this day I really respect, and who helped me develop my liking for science.” Spanning his scholastic career, and throughout junior year, Brady maintained his straight-A grades. He passed an Advanced Placement (AP) test in U.S. History and applied for early acceptance into North Greenville University, a small college nearby with an esteemed Pre-Med undergrad program whose graduates have a high acceptance rate into medical school. Brady was offered admission.

That gave Tinna and John great comfort because senior year, Brady lost the desire and will to attend school. And no one could persuade him or motivate him to go. They all tried. He stopped attending classes and his grades plummeted. In the spring semester Brady needed to be homeschooled in order to pass the class units he needed to graduate.

. . .

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Read Part 6 of this 11-part series next week. If you can’t wait, the book The Great Healing – Five Compassions That Can Save Our World is available on Amazon or at thegreathealing.org

“The ambitious book’s five chapters highlight compassionate approaches toward animals, self, the land, community, and democracy. Erickson’s writing displays passion, clarity, and a grasp of every topic he tackles.”

— Kirkus Reviews

“Erickson’s ability to connect climate science, copious data, and public policies with the lived experiences of people and other creatures sets this book apart. His emphasis on humane and caring methods reminds readers that winning hearts and minds is a prerequisite to capturing carbon. An inspired synthesis of environmental, cultural, economic, and political calls to action.”

— Kirkus Reviews

“An exceptionally well and persuasively written clarion call to personal and collective action, “The Great Healing – Five Compassions That Can Save Our World” is unreservedly and urgently recommended.”
— Midwest Book Review

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[i] Laurie David and Katie Couric’s Fed Up,  2014   https://www.amazon.com/Fed-Up-Katie-Couric/dp/B00MRHF9LE/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1520694651&sr=1-1&keywords=fed+up

[ii] C. Ayyad and T. Andersen, Long-term Efficacy of Dietary Treatment of Obesity: a Systematic Review of Studies Published Between 1931 and 1999,  US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Obes Rev. 2000 Oct: 1(2):113-9  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12119984

[iii] Mark Hyman, M.D.  Eat Fat, Get Thin, New York, New York: Little, Brown and Co., Hachette Book Group, 2016 pg. 33

[iv] Joel Fuhrman, M.D.   Fast Food Genocide, New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2017 pg. 24.

[v] Adrian Meule and Ashley N. Gearhardt, Food Addiction in the Light of DSM-5, Nutrients 2014 Sep; 6(9): 3653–3671.  US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Sep. 16, 2014  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4179181/

[vi] Almudena Sanchez-Villegas, Estefania Toledo, Jokin de Irala, et al. Fast-food and Commercial Baked Goods Consumption and the Risk of Depression, Public Health Nutrition: 15(3), 424–432 Aug. 11, 2011  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/529c/d930e5662b3aabcf9b3b9f26a6982fdfbcbb.pdf

[vii] Anika Knuppel, Martin J. Shipley, Clare H. Llewellyn, Eric J. Brunner, Sugar Intake from Sweet Food and Beverages, Common Mental Disorder and Depression: Prospective Findings from the Whitehall II Study, Scientific Reports 7, Article # 6286, Jul. 27, 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-05649-7

[viii] Robert L. Reece, Fighting Fat Stigma With Science, Teaching Tolerance, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Fall, 2017 

[ix] Mark Hyman, M.D.  Eat Fat, Get Thin, New York, New York: Little, Brown and Co., Hachette Book Group, 2016 pg. 58

[x] Caitlin Bove. MD, Vivek Jain, MD, Naji Younes, PhD, et al.  What You Eat Could Affect Your Sleep: Dietary Findings in Patients With Newly Diagnosed Obstructive Sleep Apnea, American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, Apr. 27, 2018   http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1559827618765097

[xi] Dean Ornish, M.D., as stated in iThrive! Rising From the Depths of Diabetes & Obesity, 9 part documentary series, Executive Producers:Jonathan Hunsaker, Jonathan McMahon, Michael Skye, 2017, iThrive Publishing LLC,  https://go.ithriveseries.com/

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