Help Yourself! Helplessness is Learned

Some of you know that I’m addicted to My 600 lb Life on TLC.  I joke with my friends that it’s my version of a 12 step program, and really it is.  Watching this show, and others like it, are just one of the things that keep me focused on my lifestyle goals.  It reminds me of where I started, where I’m going and where I am now.

One of the things I’ve seen over and over again with the patients on this show is the idea that they are helpless.  Somehow, they learned to be helpless when it comes to food, to helping themselves or making positive changes and they stop right there.  It’s like they were walking down a street and hit a ‘sidewalk closed’ sign and they don’t have the sense to go around it.  They are there waiting for someone to remove the sign.  On My 600 lb Life, the sign is their weight and the man removing the sign is Dr. Nowzaradan (Dr. Now).  Many of these patients can barely walk, some of them are confined to a bed because they can’t, and they bemoan their situation: how much they hurt, how helpless they are and how they need other people to take care of them.  With many of them, it’s how helpless they are in the face of their food addiction.

If it sounds like I don’t have a lot of patience for them, you’re not wrong.  One of the reasons this show literally speaks to me is because the threshold to audition for the show is 500 lbs.  At my heaviest, I was 438 and definitely in the neighborhood! I had trouble walking long distances and standing for any length of time.  It was seriously affecting my health and I had so many of the crappy eating habits you see with the patients on the show: too many sweets, too much fast food, not enough exercise or activity, and just too much cheap processed unhealthy food!  I’ve been right there with them. I also had my excuses for not exercising, eating healthier or losing weight.  Heard them all- said them all! “If I lose weight, I’ll have to have skin surgery and I don’t want that!” (That one is one of my favorites!); “I don’t have time to exercise/ cook real food/ buy healthy groceries!”; “It hurts to exercise!”; “I’ve tried losing weight and it’s too expensive/ hard/ whatever!” etc, etc, ad infinitum.

I’ll also admit that I stumbled into long term weight loss.  I made one change and began losing weight, and I managed to keep it going.  These patients may not have had the same lucky break that I did before they see Dr. Now for the first time, but when they get there, their mindset really doesn’t change.  For those of you who have not seen the show, Dr. Now is a bariatric surgeon and these patients are seeing him because he performs gastric bypass surgery on patients over 600 lbs.  Most doctors won’t do it on patients that size and so when these people go to see him, they almost all say: “he’s my last chance.” When they do meet with him, he tells them that the surgery is only one part of the weight loss; they must follow the diet or the surgery will be of no benefit to them, and he nearly always sends them home with the high protein, low carb diet to lose between 20-50 pounds over the next month or so to prove to him that they can make the necessary changes to qualify for the surgery.  For more than half these patients, they walk out of his office, commenting how they don’t know if they can do this, because they never tried to lose weight before! He’s not the last in a long line of weight loss attempts- he’s the only attempt! They have never tried to help themselves before this point.

Many of them struggle with the diet, fighting the cravings and some of them- no surprise- cheat (I’ve never met a dieter who didn’t cheat and that includes me!); despite all their fears about dying because they are “so big,” they still eat the foods that have brought them to the brink of death.  This is no exaggeration: one patient was over 1,000 lbs, had been told by Dr. Now that he was on literally on the brink of death and still cheated.  Many of them have heart problems or are simply too big for even Dr. Now to risk surgery, so he has them lose enough weight so he can do the surgery.  You would think this would be encouraging to many of them, but this is again, where this idea of helplessness comes in: “(angrily) I don’t know why he just won’t give me the surgery!” “If he doesn’t give me this surgery, I’m going to die!” Many of these patients have lost between 20- 60 lbs just by following the diet and they are so upset that he’s not going “give them the surgery” so they can lose weight! I’ve only seen one patient who, after losing 65 lbs, was sent home to lose more before surgery to reduce the risk to her heart, and did not moan about how unfair this was.  Her reaction was “if I don’t have the surgery, I’ve already lost 65 lbs, so I’ll just stick with the diet.” I have to say that she was unique in her attitude of being proactive.  This is the reason I remember her so clearly: all of the other patients chose not to help themselves and looked to others to do things for them.  It was most pronounced in one patient the doctor actually fired because she would not stand up.  I don’t mean “stand up for herself;” I mean she refused to stand up out of her wheelchair, gurney or bed! It hurt and she wasn’t going to do it.  She would not walk; she would not stand up; she would not try to do any kind of activity at all.  Then she had the gall to accuse him of being unfair to her.  This patient was a little extreme to be sure, but this is typical of the attitude of many of these patients: they cannot or will not help themselves, so they are dependent on someone else doing it for them.

Instant Gratification Takes Too Long

So why am I picking on these people? Because this is where a lot of us are when we go to lose weight (or anything else that’s hard).  We are stuck on that sidewalk, looking at the sign blocking our way, and don’t have the sense to go around it.  We aren’t “proactive problem solvers”- we’re the “callers for help.” We’ve gotten used to other people (or technology) doing things for us and we forget or don’t want to do things for ourselves.  I remember one episode of the show Fraser, where the tv remote broke and his dad kept trying to come up with gizmos (like a long string of taped together chopsticks) so he wouldn’t have to get up and change the channel.. Fraser asked him what he did before they invented remotes and Martin’s waspish retort:”It was hell!” We are like Martin: we don’t want to get up to change the channel; we don’t want to stand at the stove and cook; we don’t want to walk through the grocery store; we don’t even want to walk into the fast food place- we do the drive-thru!

So by extrapolation, why should we work to lose weight when we can have a surgery to do it for us? Why should we try to figure out this problem when we can simply have “a procedure” and it’s done for us! This is how we got so overweight as a society and why losing the weight is so hard: it’s work, and it’s hard work to boot! We don’t want to work; we don’t want to have to figure it out; we don’t want to have to wait to lose the pounds.  We want it all and we want it NOW!! Since we can’t find the easy instant weight loss solution, we are stuck there looking at the sidewalk closed sign and don’t know how to get around it or move it ourselves.  This is what makes me so angry: helplessness is learned! It is a choice!

We taught ourselves to be helpless and let others assist in that teaching.  Instead of getting up and doing for ourselves, over time, we have let others people do for us and eventually, we have forgotten not only how to do things for ourselves, but how to even begin to help ourselves.  I remember when I first started college and was in the computer lab working on papers.  When I started there, I didn’t know crap about computers and if I couldn’t figure out how to do something, I had to ask the lab assistant (the geek the school paid to play games and assist us flounderers).  But I hated asking for help, so when he or she came to take care of my problem, I insisted they show me how to do it.  Their first inclination was always to do it for me because it was faster than actually explaining it so I always told them “show me so I don’t have to bother you again” and they jumped on that (more time for games!).  I remember one time, the laser printer died and they had to switch everyone over to the inkjet, and I watched how he did it, so at the end of term weeks later, when the line for the laser jet was 11 people deep, I switched my computer over to the inkjet sitting there idle and got my paper printed in 5 minutes.  Everyone in line for the laser printer was aghast: “how did you do that?!” It’s that old adage: “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” I’d like to say it’s a noble and high-minded attitude that makes me this way, but the truth of the matter is I just hate asking for help. For me, being helpless is excruciating! I was bedridden once with a broken arm and leg for nearly three months and it was a horrible experience.  The thought of being bedridden for years on end due to my weight is truly insane.

This is what our culture teaches us: ask for help and have someone else do it for you.  It wasn’t always a bad thing.  As the technology grew, we needed someone to help us learn how to operate it, but somewhere along the line it followed the same route as the college lab assistants: it’s faster for me to do it for you than to teach you how to do it, and eventually, it became the job of assistants and customer support techs to stop teaching and keep doing it for us.  But now this learned helplessness is killing us by making us lazy, making us fat, making up stupid.

We don’t get up and move anymore, because cooking takes three minutes in the microwave or we get drive-thru or delivery or go out to eat.  So we just sit there and someone feeds us, usually processed food and way too much of it! We eat what is easy and simple and convenient, instead of choosing food that actually takes a little a work to procure and prepare.  Why cut up and prepare a whole chicken when we can get something we just have to heat up? Why peel and boil and mash the potatoes when we can buy the potato flakes or frozen mashed potatoes?  The poor eating habits are bad enough but it’s also making us stupid. I recall watching an episode of Hell’s Kitchen where the “chef” contestants had actually had to cut up a chicken into 8 pieces, something I learned to do at 12, and more than half of them either didn’t know how to do it or did it badly. We are not learning how to take care of ourselves and since we don’t know how to do it, we cannot teach it to the younger generations.

Choose Life

There are two things the patients on My 600 lb Life almost always say that make me absolutely crazy-mad. One of them is “I never tried to lose weight/ diet before!” and the other is “I’m getting my life back!” What is so maddening about the first statement is what I’ve been talking about: they had never tried to help themselves before. They talk about their journey to 500 or 600 lbs or more, talking about continually gaining weight through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, until one day, their legs just couldn’t hold them anymore and now they were stuck in the bed! To me, common sense would dictate that when it hurts to walk, or you have to sleep with a CPAP because your body weight will smother you, you would begin to make some changes in your lifestyle.  But these people didn’t and I think this goes back to the learned helplessness. They don’t know how to take action to help themselves, and when other people try to help them, they don’t know how to accept the help or how to put it into action. They are stuck in a holding pattern, getting sicker and sicker, waiting for someone to fix their lives and tell them how to live their lives.  It is really very sad, but it is a choice!

That is what is so infuriating about the second statement: they chose to give up their lives.  They chose food and helplessness over actually living.  Rather than choosing to act for themselves, they chose to sit in bed or the sofa or wherever and be helpless. You can choose to sit there, or you can choose to do something- anything.  It’s very simple to choose to lose weight: choose not to eat the mashed potatoes or the fries or the chips- whatever!  The choice is simple, but the execution can be hard. Try to leave them there, and the more times you can, the easier it gets, especially when you begin to notice the positive changes in your health.  That’s really how it worked for me; I chose not to eat the fast food anymore, and the more times I chose something else, the easier it got and the more weight I lost, the better I felt and the easier it became to choose the healthier option.  It was not always easy, but it was always my choice.  I chose to take action to help myself.  There were days that I hated it, but it is my life.  I never want to sit helpless.  I could never choose to give my away my life.

One thought on “Help Yourself! Helplessness is Learned

  1. I’d not heard of the show but after reading your blog I looked it up and watched an episode on YouTube. I Just. Don’t. Get. It. (I watched Chay). Someone is so incredibly overweight that they are willing to humiliate themselves on national television,(I mean, is it really necessary to see him in the shower?) but it doesn’t seem to occur that perhaps a diet is a good idea? No-one has tried to teach them that living off fried food and ice cream isn’t helping. He genuinely had no healthy eating education, no dietitian, nothing. And then when he did start eating healthily and exercising and lose 120lbs pre surgery, why not just continue with the healthy eating and exercising? It clearly was working. Why have surgery? But then it is easy to judge. I’m sure there are skinny people who would look at me (bmi around 40) and say, why doesn’t she just lose weight? It’s all about the scale of the problem (unintentional pun there).

    As the saying goes, don’t criticise sometime until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. That way, you are a mile away AND you have their shoes!

    Liked by 1 person

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