I’ve worked at a desk most of my life. Making calls and answering emails. But at three o’clock each afternoon I would answer a very special call – the call of the dim sim. If you don’t know what a dim sim is – perhaps because you’ve never bought food cooked in ten-day-old oil and served with enough salt to preserve an elephant – let me explain. Dim sims are an Australian invention; a fusion of Asian and Australian tastes, but not in a cutting-edge, inner-city kind of way. It’s a scoop of meat (beef, pork, chicken, horse?) mixed with random vegetable ends (cabbage, carrot, turnip?), shaped into a hand grenade, wrapped in pastry, deep fried and then, for extra goodness, drowned in soy sauce. They were invented in Melbourne, my home town, in the 1920s. Cheap, ?lling and quick, they soon became a favourite of the working class, an ever-present item in every takeaway shop in the country. One dim sim will set you back about a dollar, and a bag of three was my occasional budget-friendly way to beat my afternoon energy slump.
But working for several years in a particularly stressful job with a huge workload, my occasional treat became a daily regime and my weight crept from 95 to 122 kilos. Already seriously overweight, I became morbidly obese. My of?ce was in the rear of a hospital – so in the rear it was in a metal portable in the car park. At three o’clock each afternoon I’d thread my way through the parked cars to the hospital cafeteria where a lovely display of fried goodies waited. There was healthy food there too, but alfalfa doesn’t quite call to me like grease and salt do.
On my way through the cars I had to run the gauntlet of patients who had come out for a smoke. Smoking was banned on hospital grounds, so on crutches or in wheelchairs, and dragging their IV poles, they would line up along the car park fence to get their nicotine ?x. Summer or winter, rain or heatwave, they would be there in their pyjamas. They were not a cheery bunch. There was no chatting or camaraderie. Always pale and gaunt, and sometimes missing a limb, they would stay for ?ve minutes then shuf?e back to their ward.
I’m not a smoker and would pass them inwardly shaking my head in disbelief. Didn’t they realise they were probably in hospital because of their smoking-related disease? Wasn’t being in hospital enough of a wake-up call to quit? Then one momentous day, as I passed them wrapped in smug self-righteousness, I had an epiphany, and not a pleasant one. Off to get my daily dimmies I realised I was just like them. If they were doing ‘death by cigarette’, then surely I was doing ‘death by dim sim’. The only real difference between them and me was that I wasn’t wearing pyjamas, and the only thing I could feel good about was that I still had time to do something about my addiction. If I wanted to see my kids grow up. If I wanted to live.
So, I stopped eating dim sims and biscuits and ice-creams and all the other foods I knew were bad for me and began to eat fresh wholesome food in moderation and to exercise regularly . . .
Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t.
I did what I’d done since I ?rst developed a weight problem when I was thirteen: I went on a crash diet. This one was a fruit diet. Fruit and nothing else. Watermelon mostly, plus oranges and apples, with my big treat for the day being a banana. I spent each day dreaming about that one banana. It was like a weight loss/detox/health trip all rolled into one. I felt light-headed most of the time and hungry all of the time. And boy did I pee a lot. I lasted a week. It was spaghetti carbonara that broke me. So creamy and bacony. The small amount of weight I did lose came straight back on before I could say, ‘Pass the garlic bread.’
This had been pretty much the pattern all my life. I was either dieting and ?ghting constant food cravings, or giving in to the cravings and mindlessly eating everything in sight. I didn’t really know how to eat normally. I didn’t even know what normal was.
But this time I was determined to conquer my greed and gluttony and sloth. I climbed on the Garcinia Cambogia bandwagon. Oprah’s doctor said it worked. It had 95 per cent HCA, whatever that is. Plus, it was an ancient fruit extract from Indonesia. Indonesia! And it was a fruit! It must be the answer.
Then I bought a $500 gym membership. I went twice. Twice! That’s $250 per visit. You would think for that amount they would have rolled out the red carpet and put me on gold-plated workout machines. But there was no carpet or gold-plated anything. Just me wasting more money.
In desperation I got my husband to take a photo of me in my underwear and put it on the fridge so I had to look at it every time I opened the door. I took it down the next day when a friend dropped by. No one needed to see me in my underwear. I certainly didn’t want to. As soon as she left I went to the bookshop and bought a book on eating mindfully. I read it from cover to cover and followed all its suggestions about eating calmly and awarely. I ate calmly and awarely all day long and then mindlessly ate chocolate biscuits in bed at night.
It was the same old, same old. Get excited about the latest fad, convince myself that I had ?nally found the answer, tell everyone I was absolutely committed this time to losing weight and getting ?t, then failing miserably and putting any weight I did lose straight back on, and then some. I’d do any celebrity gimmick, new fad or sign-your-wallet-away program. Packaged food delivered to your door? You betcha! Cabbage soup? Sure thing! Eat according to your blood type? Book me in!
And manic exercise programs? I did them too. Celebrity videos, too many gym memberships to count and even a 6am boot camp run by a South African army sergeant who told me I disgusted him. I would slavishly devote myself to each new diet and exercise regime, battling hunger and brain fuzz and low energy until I couldn’t ?ght them anymore and gave in to chocolate and pasta and, of course, dim sims.
It was not until two years after my car park epiphany and many more crash diets that I decided it was time to do something sensible, slow and long term. I knew this time had to be different, because one of my beloved and very overweight uncles had just been diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer that had spread to his liver. He was doing well, but his diagnosis was a reminder that I needed to take care of myself – after all, I’d had the family curse ?ve years before. I had been diagnosed with bowel cancer when I was forty-one, when my kids were ?ve and one, and although I was lucky that it was caught early, I knew my excess weight and lack of exercise were greatly increasing the risk of it returning, and making me a target for other serious health problems.
So, I threw out the pills and the potions and joined Weight Watchers. I went to my ?rst meeting and stood on their scales. My scales at home were broken (from overstrain, I fear), so I didn’t know exactly what I weighed. I looked down and saw that my decision to take this level-headed approach was vindicated. The Weight Watchers scales showed that despite all the time, effort and money I had spent on fads since the epiphany, I had dropped only 4 kilos. I was 118 kilos. I was done with gimmicks forever.
The lady running the group saw that I was a newbie and sat me down for a chat. I told her about my goals and my long history of yo-yo dieting. She understood. She had been there herself. She said she had ?nally lost weight through Weight Watchers and was now teaching others to do the same. She talked me through the points program and said to be gentle on myself the ?rst week. It was a lot to get used to and even a small loss would be an achievement, she said. She also outlined how successful weight loss was about long-term commitment rather than intense short bursts that would always ?zzle out. The most important thing, she said, was to stick to the program, get back on it if I fell off and keep coming to meetings.
I knew she was right. I was there for the slow, sensible approach. But nonetheless part of me wanted to lie on the ?oor kicking my feet like a toddler and shouting, ‘Where’s the rare plant from Brazil that I brew into a tea and drink ten times a day? Don’t you know how lazy and hopeless I am? I want the miracle!’
I resisted the urge. I took away her brochures and got started straightaway. And just like she said, it was a hard week. It wasn’t a crash diet but it was a diet. And like all diets, I was hungry and grumpy all the time and I thought about food even more than I usually did. And the brain fuzz was bad, especially in the afternoons, and my tiredness was off the scale. I had always struggled a lot with brain fuzz and low energy. I would wake up tired and go to bed tired and in between I was, pretty much, well, tired, which wasn’t helpful for a middle-aged mum with two kids, working part-time and studying part-time. But now I couldn’t reach for my high-sugar, high-carb foods to give me a quick energy boost.
I wrote down everything I ate – which was something I hated doing (?rst rule of crime: hide the evidence) – and returned a week later. To be honest I hadn’t stuck 100 per cent to the plan, so I was a bit disappointed in myself, but I was also proud that I was back to learn more and to keep going. I put my food diary on the table in front of her and got on her scales. She looked at my very small weight loss, peered at my diary, wagged her ?nger and tsk-tsked me in front of the whole group. Then she called out, ‘Next.’
What? Where was the lovely, go-slow-you’ll-get-there lady from last week? Did she have an evil twin? Was last week’s lady locked in a cupboard while her double humiliated me in public? I sat through the meeting downhearted, waiting for Nice Twin to come and ?nd me and tell me I’d done okay, but she didn’t appear. Evil Twin gave a group lecture on how great Weight Watchers pre-packaged foods were. That the points for an apple and a Weight Watchers Chocolate Mousse were the same but the mousse was much more ‘yummy’. She said this licking her lips and rubbing her tummy like we were children. As soon as her sermon was over I left, throwing every one of her brochures in the bin the second I was out the door.
I was dejected but I wasn’t going to give up. I was determined to lose weight and get healthy. Sur?ng the web one night I found Overeaters Anonymous. Their approach wasn’t any sort of diet; it was about accepting that you were addicted to food and needed the support and skills to change. This made sense to me, because surely the problem was in my head, and until I ?xed that I would never be able to control what I put in my mouth.
It was deep winter the night I parked near a church hall and made my way inside. It was intensely cold in the meeting room and there was only one other person there. A slim woman, about ?fty years old, behind a table of brochures and books. Over her head hung an embroidered sign that said: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Serenity? I wouldn’t have known serenity if it had bitten me on my very large arse. Did they really have that here? How could I get some? I tried to catch the eye of the lady behind the display, but she was very busy arranging her brochures. People started drifting in, laughing and chatting and bringing Antarctic wind in with them.
When there were about ?fteen people present, the lady with the brochures told us all to sit down at the large table. As she took her seat, busily getting the big minute-taking book ready, I looked around. There were a few youngsters and much older people at the table, but mainly there were women, like me, in their forties. I mentally tallied everyone’s size: some were slim and some were middling. I wasn’t one of the largest there, but I was close. Measuring my weight against other people was something I used to do constantly. In a meeting, on a train, at a party – I’d line everyone up on an invisible scale to see where I ?tted in. It wasn’t about judging others; it was about trying to ?gure out a sense of my own size. You see, most of the time I couldn’t picture how I looked. My shape was blurry. I’d shrunk and grown so many times over the years I didn’t know where I started and where I stopped.
When Brochure Lady had her notes in order she led us in the serenity prayer from the wall hanging and then announced, looking at me, that any new members present shouldn’t hold up the meeting by sharing. That it was best they just sat and listened for their ?rst few visits. She then handed over to the member who was running that night’s meeting. That member, a girl in her twenties, smiled at me and said we would start, as usual, by going round the table and everyone would say their ?rst name and how their week had been.
When it came to my turn I just said my ?rst name. Nothing else, as instructed. Everyone else described in detail what a lousy week they’d had. How they had broken their eating plan and how angry and disappointed they were. Then a young girl who had just quit her job at a chocolate factory (good move) read from a big book, Brochure Lady gave a closing promise and appointed a different member to run the next meeting, and it was over. A piece of paper was passed around for those who wanted to provide their names and phone numbers to call each other for support. I added my name and number to the list.
Everyone left in chatty, jolly groups and Brochure Lady went back to her display. I timidly approached her and asked how I should get started and what I should do next.
‘Just keep coming to meetings.’
‘Is there anything else I should be doing?’
She sighed, snatched up a few of her brochures and ?icked them at me. I took them and left.
I went back twice. Brochure Lady never got any friendlier and I never ?gured out what I was supposed to do, despite reading some of her books and listening to numerous podcasts. I was never offered a sponsor, I never shared my story and no one ever phoned me to offer support. And every week, without fail, I listened to ?fteen or so people describe how they had binged on food that week. There was never one who said, ‘I had a great week, this is really working for me.’ Not one tiny chink of serenity ever peaked through anyone’s dark cloud.
So, I never gave my will over to a higher power or humbly asked him to remove my shortcomings, as the twelve steps laid out. After three meetings I ?gured this higher power had better things to do than help a fat woman in the suburbs stop eating herself to death. He sure as hell wasn’t helping anyone in that freezing church hall.
But I wasn’t quite done trying. Still thinking the problem was all in my head, I next tried a hypnotherapist. She was a very nice woman who mostly worked with smokers but had helped a few people to lose weight. I lay on her comfy couch as she talked calmly to me. She placed the thought in my head of picturing an apple every time I felt like eating chocolate or chips or dim sims or anything else unhealthy. It worked. I love apples. Every time I craved bad food the image of a juicy Red Delicious would appear in my mind. And then I would eat the bad food anyway, followed by an apple. We went through a lot of apples at our house but I didn’t lose any weight.
Still refusing to give up, I saw an ad for a doctor who had a new approach to weight loss. First thing Monday morning I phoned for an appointment. He was so busy he couldn’t see me for three weeks. I booked in and waited impatiently, hoping he had the answer.
His of?ce was in a leafy well-to-do suburb. He didn’t have a receptionist, it was just him. He talked me through his program and showed me an online video. He seemed bored as he gave me the URL and my password and outlined how and when I needed to watch the video. Then he got me to sign two Medicare slips – all above board, he promised, just a way to help him bulk-bill his clients. Three seems to be my magic number for giving things a go. I saw him three times over several weeks and watched his video every day. It didn’t work.
During those weeks I kept thinking that if he really had the solution to successful weight loss, why did he seem so bored? And why didn’t he have any testimonials from grateful clients on his wall? And the big question: if his program was so successful, why did he (I suspected) need to commit Medicare fraud to keep it going?
Then I decided that the problem wasn’t in my head, that I just needed to eat less and move more. I hired an exercise bike for six months. I rode it several times, then hung washing from it to dry.
And then I gave up. Totally, completely, utterly. I was just too fat, too lazy, too greedy, too useless, too hopeless. No one had the answer. Not Weight Watchers, nor Overeaters Anonymous, nor the hypnotist, nor the dodgy doctor. I ?gured I may as well enjoy my chocolate and dim sims and sit on the couch watching TV with my husband every night and not bother anymore. I’d tried slow and sensible and it hadn’t worked. I’d tried ?xing my head and it hadn’t worked either. I resigned myself to being fat for the rest of my possibly very short life.
And then I lost my stressful job. I didn’t lose it as in I-putit-down-somewhere-and-forgot-where-it-was; my contract wasn’t renewed. I’d given my all to that job. I was devastated.
My husband, Russell, suggested I take some time off. Our youngest was starting primary school in seven months. ‘Why not spend some time at home with her, then get her settled into school,’ he said. ‘Then look for a less stressful job. Get your smile back.’
What an amazing, supportive man. I agreed, suddenly looking forward to the months ahead; it had been so long since I had looked forward to anything. Luckily we were in the fortunate situation of having some money in the bank, for once. At about the time Russell and I started dating I had bought a house. This was before the property boom when a single person with $8000 in savings could buy property. Instead of buying a nice tidy ?at, which would have been sensible, I’d bought a 1950s house that was sloping so badly to one side it looked like it was smiling. I lived there until we found out I was pregnant a year and a half later. That night I moved into Russell’s house, just for a few days, and never left. Russell renovated my sloping house and then we rented it out to a lovely family. We hung on to it till we could no longer manage the loss we were making on it every year and thought the property boom was about to bust. I had been wrong about the boom ending but it did mean we had a nest egg when we sold it.
So, I spent six weeks sleeping in and catching up with friends. I refocused on my studies, getting my assignments done well in advance instead of the night before. I sat in cafes and read the paper. I had a massage. I kicked a footy with our son after school. I picked our daughter up from preschool and we went and had our nails done instead of my having to leave her with a friend and race off to work. We played board games together after dinner. We did craft. We went for long walks. It was bliss. And I had six and a half months left before my daughter started school and I needed to ?nd another job.
And then Russell was diagnosed with cancer.