Tuesday, 17 December 2013

...people look like...the stars on a clear night, in the wilderness.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine re-tweeted the post of a mutual co-worker.  It was the blog post of a gentleman who works as a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon.

In one of the most compassionate works I've ever seen posted in my 20+ years online, Dale Favier reassured and comforted every average person out there; people like you, and me, and anyone with any tiny bit of insecurity about how they look.  He wrote:

"... nobody looks like the people in magazines or movies.  Not even models.  Nobody."


He ended by saying:

"I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness."

With all my heart, I wish that I could be one of those stars.... just a point of light in the cosmos, glittering and shining down on a benevolent Earth.

But the truth is that I don't feel that way, and this Earth is not benevolent - especially not to people like me who don't "fit"the standard of beauty accepted in Western society.

When I first started to gain weight 20 years ago the instant response of the medical professionals around me was "stop eating - exercise" and then to throw the infamous Fen-Phen combination at me, without a single test.  It was 2 more years before surgery revealed the cysts on my ovaries pumping out excess testosterone, causing me to gain weight, my skin to darken in patches, and my hair to fall out in clumps.  The next "solution" was high-dose estrogen coupled with prednisone, which is noted for causing people to have a "moon-face".

To say that I ballooned would be an understatement.  As two doctors fiddled with the combination of medications to control the development of the cysts, my size 6-8 self quickly went to a 10, jumped to a 14, and then, size 18 by the time I moved from Toronto to Ottawa in the summer of 1996.  I also went from being one of those annoying women with short, painless, clockwork periods to weeks-long, severely painful episodes that kept their own schedule.  My Ottawa doctor tried other drugs that failed to control my symptoms before recommending surgery to at least stop the periods.  It also meant I could ditch the drugs since I wouldn't have the side-effects of the cysts.

The weight has stuck - no matter what I do short of starvation.

So I made the decision to have my body mutilated just so I would stop being such an affront to the society I live in.  Grown men think it's sport to oink at me as I pass on the street, or hang out their car window and yell "hey fatty, get off the street".  Other women feel free to comment on what I eat: "why do you eat salad all the time?" from someone I used to work with.  I wanted to say that if I didn't eat salad she'd probably ask me if I "really should be eating *that*?"

Being single all my life and using internet dating has been especially soul-destroying.  Unsolicited messages from men telling me to get off the site and leave it for the thin and beautiful girls.  And heaven forbid you turn down a man's overture:  "I was just going to throw you one since you're so ugly, I'm sure you're desperate for it".  Strange women telling me that I "owe it to the men" to post full-length pictures of myself to prove that I'm fat, despite my bluntly-worded profiles through the years.

In one of life's fabulous ironies, it seems that I fall into that odd category of "in-between" - too fat for the "normal" people and too thin for the men who like larger women.  It also made me a target for some pointed comments when I went to the orientation for weight-loss surgery.

Where I live, a team of medical professionals must assess your fitness to have the surgery.  Your family doctor sends an application to an assessment centre and you then go through physical and psychological testing for these individuals to decide if you will be one of the lucky few.  They play god with your life.

However, the assessment centre for my location is in another city about 2.5 hours away from me - and I don't drive.  Due to cutbacks in trains and buses, travel times are at odd intervals, and with appointments scheduled during working hours, I certainly can't ask any of my friends to drop everything to drive me.

I arrived at my orientation session after a long, nausea-inducing bus ride, got a ginger ale, and settled into my seat at the front as I wanted to be able to read the slides and take notes.  After detailed explanations of the surgical procedures involved in weight loss, a dietician went to the podium to talk about how to eat following surgery.  She was going through a long list of what could and could not be eaten and then stopped and looked pointedly at me.  "You will never be able to drink another carbonated beverage in your life," she said.  "This means no beer, no champagne and definitely NO ginger ale", the last said loudly with a glare in my direction.

I was taken aback, but that didn't prepare me for what came next.  We had taken numbers when we arrived and were called up to get our packages of documents to be filled out for the ensuing appointments before surgery.  The nurse who had explained the surgery to us took down information on each person and, asked each if they had any type of weight-loss surgery before.

Until she came to me.  I provided my name and address and, then, without looking up, she said "and you've had weight-loss surgery before."  It was not a question, but a statement.

"No, ma'am, " I replied.

Her head shot up and she had a clear look of disbelief on her face.  "YOU haven't had a lap band?" she asked, in a tone I can only describe as a sneer.

"No, ma'am," I repeated, as levelly as I could.  I was the smallest potential patient in the room.

She showed me where to sign that I had received my package and handed it to me without another word.  I made my way out of the building to a taxi stand to go back to the city centre, where I waited 5 hours for the bus home.

With a few words, these two women had made me feel that I was unworthy of their time and attention.  I shrank inside in a way that my body refuses to follow.

It was several weeks before I got the letter detailing my first set of appointments.  We had been advised that for those from out of town, every attempt would be made to schedule two appointments in a day.  Mine were one each Thursday for a month.  Each visit would require my taking 2 days off work to travel to and from the other city, plus hotel, taxi and meal expenses.  None of which is covered by the universal health care plan in my province, nor by the private extended insurance I have through work.

I called to explain my predicament and ask them to reschedule and was told that was impossible.  The woman on the phone said that if I couldn't afford to attend the 20 or so appointments that I wasn't a good candidate for the program.  That shocked me, because we were informed that there were a dozen appointments involved before surgery was scheduled - and that would be in yet ANOTHER city several hours in the other direction from my home!

I was informed that 12 was the minimum number of appointments, but there could be twice as many and they would deny the surgery if THEY felt you wouldn't be an appropriate candidate.  At a minimum, I would be out-of-pocket over $2,500, possibly more than $5,000, with nothing to show for it.

When I put the phone down, I realized what millions of Americans go through with their health care system on a daily basis.

After talking to my doctor, I called them back and cancelled the appointments.

I haven't complained about my treatment to either the Ministry of Health or the board of directors at the hospital.  At this point, it would be ridiculous to do so since a few months have gone by.

Shortly after all this happened, I learned that the medical profession has once again revised the BMI calculations.   Taller people have lower numbers than previously calculated, but for short people they've revised our numbers upward.  My BMI is now calculated at 49 instead of 43.

I am in awe of anyone with the strength of character to accept themselves at any size.

But the truth is that I can't.

I go through contortions of self-loathing on an almost-daily basis.

And that's no way for anyone to live.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Here's what you don't know about me...

For 3 years during the 1980s, I worked for one of the agencies of the Canadian Council of Churches involved in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

It's a strange place to find an atheist, smack dab in the middle of activist nuns, radical priests and the social justice arms of the member churches, but it makes sense in the context of my political liberalism.

The work of the agency stretched around the world:  mining issues in the Philippines, human rights in Chile, forestry in Brazil, Third World debt in general, and environmental matters here at home in Canada - but it was the work in Africa, specifically the independence of Namibia and the work to end apartheid in South Africa, that occupied the bulk of the group's attention.  Using church stock portfolios and the power of minority shareholder resolutions, the individual churches and religious communities would challenge the Canadian companies that polluted the earth and were involved in human rights abuses across the globe.

You could say they were tilting at windmills; the resolutions never passed, few people read the circulars that are sent before annual shareholder meetings, if they see them at all.  But I think it is safe to say that they did make a difference.  In the ensuing years, both Canada and the United States have changed their regulations regarding minority shareholder resolutions and voting, giving more power to individuals to challenge corporations and how they do business.

The difference also came about in pushing issues into public view.  Would the average Mr. or Ms. Shareholder have known that Placer Dome was polluting an island in the Philippines if it wasn't for the actions of a religious order?  Probably not...

As a secretary in our organization, I spent most days typing minutes of meetings and reports for the members, along with letters to other groups around the world.  More than anything, it was the visitors from other countries who made an impression on me:  Sister Aida from the Philippines, a tribal chief from the Amazon River basin in Brazil, and countless people from South Africa.

Most of the South Africans were young, but many of them moved with the weight of years - they were political refugees, people who had been released from prison after enduring unspeakable atrocities and horrendous injuries at the hands of their oppressors.  These young men and women were physically and psychically scarred, but their determination and spirit were unbroken despite being separated from their families and friends.  I continue to hope that the little I did to help their cause honoured them.

Shortly after I moved on to a different life, came the announcement that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison.

On that Sunday morning, I was glued to the television for that moment.  Tears streamed down my face as I watched him walk in to the sunshine with Winnie by his side.  But the best was yet to come...

A few months later, Mandela visited Canada, his way of thanking us for being one of the leading lights in supporting his cause and imposing sanctions.  It was announced that he would make a brief speech on the steps of the Ontario Legislature.

I joined the thousands of people on the lawn that hot evening in June.  Many of them were people I had worked with; I lost count of the number of I hugged in hello.  We stood together, holding hands in a long line, as Madiba spoke.

Do I remember his exact words?  No.  But the intervening years have shown us how eloquent he was and I distinctly remember his gratitude to Canada and Canadians.

My former co-workers and I parted then and it was several months before I saw them again, under sad circumstances.  One young couple, co-workers, had escaped South Africa through Botswana after being released from prison.  Joyce Dipale and her husband, Tiego Masinga (known as Rolla), had left their daughter behind with family and made their way to Canada.

Joyce and Rolla lived near me in downtown Toronto and invited me to to their home on several occasions to Sunday lunches with our friends and co-workers.  They introduced me to African food, which I admit is not to my taste.

Due to the torture Joyce endured at the hands of her captors, and after being shot by South African agents while living in Botswana, she suffered a major stroke at a very young age.  I visited her in the hospital, and found her surrounded by our mutual friends.  For a while, I sat with her and held her hand while she "talked" with me; the stroke had affected her speech processes.

It was the last time, I saw my friends from that stage of my life.  I moved on to other things and another city.

As the whole world knows, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, and he presented to the entire world an enduring image of grace, forgiveness, and leadership that so many are sorely in need of to this day.

Joyce and Rolla were able to return to South Africa and provided testimony to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

This world is a better place for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived in it, but at this moment, with his passing, it is also a little smaller and colder.

To honour him, it's up to all of us to make his vision a reality - a world where equality is granted regardless of race, religion, and gender, a world without violence and poverty, a world of opportunity for all.

Humanity will miss you, Madiba.

Thank you.