Recovering From “Time-Release Suicide”

The “then and now” profile meme on Facebook right now has inspired me to finally make a post I’ve been contemplating for several years. For several years now, people have commented on the amount of weight I have lost, and have asked me about it when they see me. I’ve been considering a way, and a time, to tell this story online.

In 2008, I weighed 300 pounds. I never officially saw that number on a scale. I stopped weighing myself at 293. And I know I gained significantly after I stopped weighing myself. So, it might have been more than 300 for all I know. But I’m certain it was at least that.

I was pastor at Northaven. Dennise was a judge. We were in our new building and, actually, things were going GREAT.

But you could overlay charts of this numeric growth at Northaven (total number of members, members per year, or yearly worship attendance…take your pick) with a chart of my weight gain. And they would be just about the same upward curve at about the same chronological time.

I want to be clear that I am not blaming the Church for my problems. I own what I did to my own body, completely. I *am* saying, to cope with stress and worry, food had become my unhealthy addiction-of-choice.

I would binge eat, late at night. Out of sight from everyone. Often. And often excessively.

There is a famous story in our family. A woman named Kaye at the church makes the world’s best pound cake. No joke. She gave me a full pound cake (large bundt cake size…) on a Sunday, to take home to the family.

The next week, she asked Dennise “So, how was the pound cake?”
Dennise said, “What pound cake?”

I had binged the entire thing. In the car. Probably in about, oh, 36 hours or so.

I had stopped all exercise. I would binge other horrible foods. And I was conscious —completely conscious and aware— of how bad it was for me. Literally as the food went into my mouth…a bag of cookies…half a jar of peanut butter…there was a small voice me saying “this is really bad for you.”

But I did it any way. It felt good, satisfying, and soothing….even as it always felt horrible….sometimes only moments later.

I could not stop myself. I did not want to.

That’s what addiction is, of course.

I had been in the hospital once already with heart palpitations, but somehow that had not gotten my attention.

What *did* get my attention were several events that happened in succession. These events were months, and even years, apart from each other. You see, the choice to make change in my life took YEARS, not just a few weeks or even months.
And not just years to DO. Years to just even to “decide to do.”

The first event that got my attention was that my dear friend, Rev. Tim McLemore, took me to lunch. We went to Whole Foods on Preston Road, blocks from the church. We sat in the little cafe, no doubt eating healthy food. We talked about life, family, church….what friends do when they “catch up.”

And then, at some point, Tim turned the conversation to my health.

He said something like, “Eric, I’m concerned about you….I notice that you have gained quite a lot of weight…” (I looked a lot like that 2008 picture…)

He was the first and only human being to have the courage to stay this to me.

I said, “Yes…yes, I have.”

I guess I figured eventually somebody would say something.

He then said something like, “Well, I’m just worried about you….I hope you’re OK.”

I assured him that I was.

And then, he finally said, “Well, I want you to be around for a long time…I just don’t want you to die early.”

I don’t know what I said in reply. I’m sure I thanked him for his concern.

Inside? I was PISSED. I was ANGRY.

I was thinking “Who the HELL are you to talk to me this way?!”

Whatever I said, I said nicely and sweetly.

You know, like we pastors do.

I wasn’t passive-aggressive, I was “pastorally-aggressive.”

(It’s a thing…)

It’s now months later from this encounter. We are on vacation with Maria. We are in New York. We are walking the streets of Manhattan, and up and down long staircases. And I cannot keep up with my teenaged daughter. I’m constantly out of breath. I’m at times secretly gasping for air. And I’m remembering Tim’s words…I realized I wanted to live to see my daughter grow up. I was, for the first time, afraid that I might not.

“Well, I want you to be around for a long time…I don’t want you to die early.”

A picture from that trip (we also went to Fenway Park for an afternoon). We used it for a digital Christmas card that year.

Sometime soon after this, Carole Carsey was the chair of the Staff Parish Committee at Northaven. Carole was a polio survivor, and one of the deepest spiritual souls I have ever known in my life. She was paralyzed from the neck down. And so conversations with her sometimes had long pauses for her breathing machine. Sometimes, the long pauses were simply to let a thought hang.
She reminded me of Yoda, as she calmly sat in her motorized wheelchair.

Anyway, I met with her monthly to talk about the church and my life. And Carole *always* brought up my physical health as being important. At her direction, Staff Parish talked about this very issue in their meeting. The *pushed* me to take the time for my health…insisting that I do so….saying that they and the church believed it to be important. I cannot emphasize how important it was for me to have this support of church leaders, to have them give me “permission” to do what I was not doing for myself.

Around this time, I also started carefully watching the people that I would visit in the hospital, including some family members. And I started noticing a marked difference in recovery for those people who were in relatively good shape, verses those who were not. (Regardless of age…) This was a real gift of making many hospital visits, over many years, to many different people.

My own parents, for example, had worked hard on their health. They looked a decade-younger than their chronological age. I thought about that.

My Mom was often mistaken as the “younger sister” when compared with her actual “younger sister.” She looked maybe ten years younger than her younger sibling. (Who has since died…) I thought about that.

I also recall my dear friend, Tom Prasada-Rao, telling stories about his grandfather, who walked five miles a day, and lived past 100 years old. Well into his nineties, he got hit by a car on one of those walks, and ended up in a hospital. He’d walked so far that he was in another county. And when the family started calling around to look for him, the hospital that had him initially told them, no, we don’t have any ninety-year-olds….because he looked to be in his seventies. I thought about that…

I got into group therapy…a practice I continue to this day, to work through some of my own issues….some of the things that might be leading me into my addictive behaviors. I thought about a lot of things there, that I won’t share here.

I started to consciously think about food as my drug of choice and the long term affects of that drug. And I remembered a small line from a David Wilcox song, “The Terminal Tavern.”

The title is about a forgettable bar that David once played, and he is trying to describe a depressing bar with a humorous little story. About the people in the bar, David Wilcox says this:

“The daily drunks, lined up like lemmings in repose…
The festering booze assaulting their entrails…like time-release suicide…”

The line gets a big laugh from the crowd in the live recording.
A big, hearty laugh of painful recognition.

I started thinking about Tim McLemore, and about that vacation with Maria (now maybe a year prior…). I started to think about all those hospital patients with vastly different outcomes. (They weren’t just statistics…I’d *seen* it with my eyes). I started to think very DEEPLY about this line “time release suicide,” and how painfully prescient and true it was. It slowly, steadily, dawned on me that this was exactly what I was doing….and that maybe it was what a LOT of us were doing.

I was committing time-release suicide.

Simultaneous to these insights, Dennise started doing a lot of reading about food and health. She pushed me to read up too.

Michael Pollan.

The film, “SuperSize Me.”

I started to learn about food manufacturing and how fast food makers literally have created labs where they TRY to develop highly addictive foods to push on us. I started learning more about food as fuel, and more about portion-size-creep.

For example, a “large” soft drink at McDonalds in the 1950s is now smaller than a “child’s” drink today.
And 7-11 sells Super Duper Big Gulps that are, quite literally, larger than the adult human stomach.

I started to realize that, yes, I am an addict. But ALSO that society itself was peddling these foods. Society, corporations, were the “pusher.” They WANT us addicted.

It started to dawn on me that the foods that are commonly available to us…virtually ALL “fast food” at that time…was not just “unhealthy,” it was flat out dangerous. There was literally no actually nutritional purpose for it, whatsoever; other than to keep us all addicted to salt, sugar, fat, and carbs.

And in my mind (and I am speaking for only myself now) I started to consider McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc….as if they were liquor stores or drug houses.

This is perhaps an image that may offend you. All I can say is, ever since that image first popped into my head, I am convinced that framing fast food this way has helped SAVE me. I continue this thinking to this day.

For my OWN health, when I see a McDonalds, I think “Crack House.” When I see a Long John Silvers, I think “Liquor Store.”

It mentally helps me in a way that may not help you, but there you have it.

All this eventually led to big changes in the way we eat as a family, and eventually to a lot more exercise. Somewhere in here, Dennise also got much healthier, and she has also lost quite a bit of weight, and could tell her own story. We helped and encouraged each other a lot. Between us, we’ve lost something like 160 pounds.

That’s a whole person.

I had been a cyclist years before. But when I started this journey, I was so heavy that I literally could not get on my bike. I would have blown the tires.

So, first I started by walking. I took long walks, almost every night. I started monitoring my food intake with an app (My Fitness Pal) and counting my steps.

I eventually lost 20-25 pounds, just this way. (Walking is amazing exercise, when paired with eating well…)

That got me down to a weight where I could start riding my bike again. Which has, eventually, led to a loss of between 80-90 pounds total. (Although…I’m just coming off my my WORST holiday season in about six years….and I’ve bounced up some…)

Probably about 2 or 3 years ago now, people started to really notice the weight loss, and commenting quite a bit. It’s been a gradual decline, not a sharp one. Nutritionists tell me this is good. And it’s really been a 5-7 year process, not a 2 to 3 year one.

Here’s the Data Over the Years

And near the end of it now, I feel way, way better overall. Yes, I’m gonna die, and yes I have definitely aged. I get that. No question.

But recently, somebody told me that Dr. Kenneth Cooper has reframed the way he talks about aging in a way that makes total sense to me. He says what we should visualize, by being healthier, is not necessarily longevity, but better quality of life. We should work on these things to change the “bell curve” of our own demise.

We all dream about peacefully falling down dead at an old age, with no pain and little fuss.

But the only folks who actually do that are usually those in pretty good shape, who eat well and exercise as long into their lives as they can.

Those who don’t exercise, or don’t eat well? They actually have a slow, steady, and often painful decline…over years if not decades. They end up in bed for months and years. This was exactly what I had been seeing, observationally, by making hospital visits to church members for almost 30 years now.

So, it’s really not even about looking better for me. And although I appreciate the compliments, I don’t let them flatter me. Because the addicted person, the fat person, is always still in there. This journey has been about FEELING better in whatever time I have left in this life…any compliments I get about looking better are a gravy (food metaphor) and actually usually make me quite uncomfortable. I liked myself at every size. But I *feel better,* much better, these days. And that’s why I do it.

Eating better foods literally makes my body feel BETTER.
Not morally better. Physically better. This distinction was also a huge insight for me. For years, I had assumed that people who ate healthily and exercised perhaps looked down on people like me, or saw themselves as morally better. Maybe some do. Frankly, I now just have compassion on anyone who is struggling with weight or health issues.

For ME, what eating better does is help me feel PHYSICALLY better. I had no idea this was a “thing.” I had no idea that food as fuel, rather than as a drug, could even have that effect.

But this journey is a constant challenge. I’m quite clear that this addiction to bad food and poor health is a lifelong issue, and not something I will one day move beyond. I keep going to therapy, keep riding my bike, keep pushing myself to eat better even when I fall off the wagon.

And! I try to speak to myself with a combination of both stridence and love, decisiveness and compassion. Beating myself up about it never helps…in fact, that’s no doubt what kept me stuck for years.

What I try to tell myself is now, in love, what Tim McLemore told me years ago now.

“Eric,” I say to myself, “I want you to be around for a long time…I don’t want you to die early.”

I tell this story now (and, as I said, I’ve waited…and been afraid to tell…for several years…) because I know I am not alone. I know that there are friends of mine reading this right now who perhaps need some encouragement to get started, or who perhaps even feel hopeless.

Hopefully, this story has helped you. Or maybe it’s just pissed you off, like I originally was with Tim. Or maybe it makes you sad. I don’t know. I’m not gonna judge you, or try to mind read your feelings. I know I’d occasionally read “success stories” back when I had not started the journey, and either be angry or depressed.

I tell this story to give you a realistic sense of what it took for ME…just how many months and years it took me to finally *start* some action…and how after I took that action it still took months and years to see so called “results.”

I think that’s honest and important to say. I didn’t have any one lightbulb moment, one flash of inspiration when my “heart was strangely warmed.” It took lots of small events, learnings, and a gradual dawning inside my soul.

Perhaps this very post might become one of those moments for you.

I will say this, and I think it’s important: We Christians are TERRIBLE at true “self love.” 
And we ministers and church leaders are even worse than average Christians.

This is ironic, since loving ourselves is one-third of the most important commandment Jesus ever gave us.

But Carole Carsey helped me reframe this, and helped me remember that self-love is never self-ish. It’s required by God. And if we not loving ourselves, (“as our neighbor,” and “as God”) then we are not really living out the Great Commandment.

I had to reframe what it meant to be truly self-loving. I had to re-remember that failing to care for my health is NOT the “self-sacrifice” Jesus calls me to. In fact, it’s not self sacrifice at all. Pretending that it is is one of many lies that we in “The Church” tell ourselves.

We say…
“I sacrifice a lot for my…family…church…spouse….career…Therefore, I deserve those dozen brownies.”

No. No, you don’t. That’s called “moral licensing.” (Another subject I’ve talked a lot about in recent years…)

It’s not a way of either rewarding yourself, OR of proving that you’re a sacrificial servant.

It’s just “time-release suicide.” Nothing more.

Almost every day, I have to go back and re-remember that self care is important. I have to fight against devaluing it, or making excuses that I have other, more “important” things to do. I have to fight against morally licensing myself to eat an entire pound cake or whatever enticing food/drug is in front of me at the moment. The struggle *never* ends.

And, as for exercise, as an Enneagram 4, I’m especially prone to guilt and shame.

The way I describe it is: Every single time I exercise…especially long rides…. I am thinking to myself “I could/should be doing something else.”

Every. Single. Time.

If you do that too, just know that your health (and mine) is important. So, don’t listen to that voice.

Good health is the best “reward” you can give yourself. Not an extra brownie.

So, I write this in love…like Tim McLemore once lovingly talked to me, even as it took me years to understand it.

Just start.
Just do…something.
Make a small change.

If you can’t ride a bike, walk.
If you can’t walk a mile, walk a half mile.
If you can’t walk a half mile, walk a quarter mile.
If it’s too much to cut out all fast foods today, just cut out a little start with. (But do me a favor, and read up on just how bad they are for you, and how they are DESIGNED to addict you…)
If you don’t know where to start, get an app that tracks your calories, and do that. (If for no other reason that you’ll learn the eye-opening science behind calories, body movement, and health.)

Start the journey…down the path….
You can do it.

It’s like the film “Shawshank Redemption,” which I wrote about a few weeks back. Take out that rock hammer and work at it a little every day. If it depresses you to think of how far you have to go, or how many times you have failed before, just know that every day you change to better habits is a day where you are headed the right direction. Progress is progress, regardless of result.
And you will FEEL BETTER, even if the results don’t appear immediately.

This is my story. These are the ways of framing the issues that have helped me, and that I have secretly used to help me on my path. None of it may help you. But it does, I’ll be deeply humbled to have helped you some.

Last week at the Arboretum.

This is a spiritual and emotional journey, every bit as much as a physical one. Don’t let anybody kid you about that, and don’t let anyone tell you that it’s “easy.” It’s not easy. Some of the best things in life aren’t easy.

But it’s worth it, and YOU are worth it.

I don’t want to see you commit time-release suicide.

I want you to be around a long time….and I don’t want you to die early.

(Coda: Tim McLemore swears that he does not remember the conversation referenced in this post.)

2023 UPDATE: Brendan Fraser’s Oscar win in the film “The Whale” has inspired me to revist some of these issues. Find the new post here.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

2 thoughts on “Recovering From “Time-Release Suicide”

  1. This blog spoke to me…I am just the start (the approximately 4,564th start of losing weight. I am down about 30 from my all time worst last year, but its slow going. Great job on making a change that will add years to your life.

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