I don’t think I’ve ever really shared on this blog what a huge fan I am of live theater. I haven’t consciously been hiding that part of my life from you, it’s just that my theater-going and my escapades in healthy living and weight loss don’t ever really overlap. They overlapped this weekend, though, when I saw a powerful new play that ended up leaving me breathless. It features strong performances and a compelling story, but what really brought the tears to my eyes (literally) was the fact that it hit really close to home. Too close to home.
The play is called “The Whale,” and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California is presenting the West Coast premiere. “The Whale,” written by Samuel D. Hunter, tells the story of the final days of a man named Charlie, who is succumbing to congestive heart failure and other complications brought on by his extreme obesity. Charlie weighs 600 pounds, refuses medical treatment except for that provided by his only friend, a nurse named Liz, and is a complete shut-in in his small apartment in rural Idaho.
The play is depressing and often very difficult to watch. Charlie is pretty much confined to his couch, an old, broken down number that’s slowly collapsing under his weight, with stacks of books instead of legs holding it up. Standing up is an excruciatingly long and painful proposition, though not as bad as hobbling, with the help of a walker, offstage to the bathroom. Charlie can barely move without wincing in pain. He can’t bend over to retrieve his cell phone that’s fallen to the floor, and even talking too much leads to shortness of breath.
The story involves Charlie’s efforts to reconcile with his daughter, Ellie, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years. Ellie is now 17, and is a nasty, vile teenager that doesn’t miss an opportunity to tell her father, to his face, how disgusting he is, that he’s a monster, and that when he dies alone in his apartment, they’ll have to remove him in pieces because he won’t fit through any doors or windows. Charlie has to bribe Ellie to spend time with him, and as the play progresses, answers to the big dramatic questions are slowly revealed, including the circumstances surrounding the death of Charlie’s long-time boyfriend, why Charlie is so focused on making amends with a daughter who couldn’t care less about whether he lives or dies, and why a young Mormon missionary is so intent on trying to save Charlie’s soul.
While the obesity is hard to ignore (Charlie is masterfully portrayed by an actor wearing prosthetic make-up and an all-too realistic fat suit), the power in the play is derived from its examination of how people treat one another. Questions are raised about whether or not people are capable of not caring. Charlie and Liz’s friendship is tested when Liz learns of some big secrets Charlie has been hiding. Motives are analyzed after Ellie maliciously betrays a new acquaintance.
For me, though, “The Whale” served as a slap to the face about what could have been. Thankfully, I never got to be 600 pounds. Thankfully, I was never housebound, relying on others to bring me buckets of chicken and Big Gulps because I could no longer fit in my kitchen. Thankfully, I never had to give up routine activities like bathing or enjoying fresh air, because my size prohibited it. But what I was constantly reminded of, time and time again as the play went on, was the possibility that, at one point, I was headed in that direction.
I used to weigh over 400 pounds, and three years ago, before I started on my weight loss endeavor, I was certain that I was never going to change. I was resigned to the fact that I could never lose the weight, resigned to the fact that my weight would be a constant source of unhappiness, and resigned to the notion that my size would eventually result in loneliness and possibly isolation. I’ve never ever EVER admitted this before, but there have been times in my past when I used to look in the mirror and question the love I had in my life. I wondered how much longer it would be before those who loved me finally wised up and turned their backs to me. I would convince myself that I was a fat, useless piece of shit that wasn’t worthy of a place in anyone’s heart, and wonder how I’d been able to hold on to them for as long as I had.
Of course, that’s all complete and utter nonsense, and I know that. I know what value I bring to the people in my life, and I know those values aren’t related to my weight or appearance. My family and friends love me because of who I am, and not because of a number on a scale. My point is that if that self-loathing persevered, and I didn’t start turning my life around when I did, who’s to say that I wouldn’t have, at some point, found myself at 600 pounds and unable to walk unassisted?
No one wants to be 600 pounds. Charlie didn’t, it just happened, over time, after poor decisions, brought on by a major depression, became habitual and commonplace. And I understand how that can happen. I’ve had periods where I’ve thought “I haven’t worked out in a few days, so what’s the big deal if I don’t work out in the next few?” Or “I’ve already eaten 3 cookies, what’s a few more? I can get back on track tomorrow.” And I’ve allowed that promise to get back on track get postponed, from “tomorrow” to “next week” to “next month” to “after my birthday”… so, in a way, I feel like I have the instruction manual to a 600-pound existence hard-wired in my DNA.
Thankfully, though, there’s a lot more hard-wired in my DNA as well. The ability to change. The ability to intercept negative feelings about myself and shoot them down. The ability to make smart decisions about food and exercise, and stick to them. Three years ago, I didn’t realize that all those things lived inside me. I had no idea I could tap into them, and use them as an instrument to lose and maintain a 160+ pound weight loss. I didn’t know what I was capable of. I didn’t know how strong I could be.
I try my hardest not to dwell on the ‘what ifs’ in life. I don’t have the time or energy to entertain thoughts like “what if I never lost the weight?” because that future is so bleak, and my current future is exactly the opposite. But today, while watching “The Whale,” I was punched in the gut with a possible answer to that ‘what if,’ and it was relentless and terrifying. It filled my eyes my tears. I was so unnerved by those two hours that I had to take a minute after the show, in the plaza outside the theater, to compose myself before moving on with my day.
After taking that minute, though, I walked away with my head held high. “The Whale” enveloped me in the misery of Charlie’s life, but now that the play was over, I replaced that misery with the overwhelming sense of pride that I have for accomplishing all that I’ve done, and basked in the glory of knowing that I will never end up like Charlie. That is a fact. There’s just no way. It’s not an option, and it never will be. I love myself too much to stray from the path that I’ve worked so hard to stay on. I am strong. I am smart. I am caring. I am in control of my health and my happiness, and I always will be.
Keep it up, David.
P.S. “The Whale” runs at the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory through the end of March. You can learn more and purchase your tickets here.