How it all started
Failure is a lot easier to swallow when no one is expecting you to succeed. This was my mantra and boy did I live by it. I had it ingrained in my mind that I was not good enough for anything. Never make goals, never have expectations, I would remind myself. That way I wouldn’t be disappointed when none of those things came true. Any opportunity to better myself would be derailed by my own words. Any attempt at higher education was met with initial enthusiasm and then struck down with self-doubt and fear, so my solution became giving up before I could fail. I couldn’t stand to prove myself right by failing. Not even trying was a comfortable alternative. There were plenty of things about myself that I wanted to change. I had it in my head that if only I could fix these broken aspects of my life, my anxiety would cease to exist, and my depression would miraculously lift. I would make friends. Find love. Have a social life, for Pete’s sake!
Instead, I thought that changing me was impossible. Losing weight? That was an accomplishment reserved for those with the willpower to shed unwanted pounds. I wasn’t just chubby. I wasn’t even overweight or obese. Hardly. I was classified as the super-morbidly obese. Yes indeed. So fat that strangers find comfort in walking up to me when I am at the grocery store, or the park with my children, and telling me that I am just one donut away from a massive heart attack. OK, so they used words that were slightly more eloquent than that, but their pseudo concern over my bad health made them feel entitled to offer their textbook opinion on my mortality.
I was walking across a strip mall parking lot one day en route to Catherine’s Clothing Store. It was the only store in town that had clothes big enough to fit me, and I was wearing the largest size that they carried. Before crossing the parking lot, I responsibly looked both ways. I saw a small silver car in the distance, and accurately judged that I would be able to make it to the other side of the parking lot before the car would even reach me. I began crossing and from my peripheral vision, it appeared the car sped up, so I picked up my pace. Just as my right foot made it to the curb on the other side of the parking lot, I heard a male voice behind me scream “FAT-ASS” in my direction. At almost the same time, I felt a sharp stinging pain hit my left calf. The pain was so sudden it caught me off guard. I turned my left leg to inspect the source of the pain when I noticed a small cut and blood running down my calf. Nearby, an almost completely full twenty-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew was rolling down the curb from where I stood. I can only speculate that the guy who yelled fat-ass at me threw the bottle and that it somehow cut me once it hit me.
The weird thing was, I kept walking right into Catherine’s and the whole time I thought to myself that I deserved that. I felt that because I was such a disgusting monster, I deserved to be treated poorly since other people had to be subjected to my fatness. I felt the need to find the occupants of the car and apologize for being too fat and enticing their response to me because of it.
I was 5’9” and weighed more than 500 pounds. Even writing that doesn’t seem real. I’ve seen people who appear to weigh significantly less than I do but are unable to walk without breathing difficulties. I walked. Often. It didn’t feel like it took much effort, either. I also played volleyball and soccer with my children. I was still unhealthy, no doubt about it. It didn’t matter that, even now, my total cholesterol is 178, my triglycerides are 88, my blood pressure is pretty much 116/64 with not much fluctuation. My resting heart rate is around 70 beats per minute and I am not diabetic. I could be pushing my luck and any of those numbers could change for the worse because I am severely obese, but the well-meaning comments from strangers never take into account any of that pertinent information that my doctor knows; they just see my fat. As usual.
Oddly enough, any time I was met with rude comments, stares, and the laughter targeted at me, my reaction was always the same. I would binge on 15,000 or more calories’ worth of food. In large black trash bags, I would hide half-gallon containers of ice cream that I ate in one sitting, and multiple boxes of Little Debbie Snack Cakes that I would polish off, most times eating a whole cupcake in one bite. It wasn’t enough that I ate so much, but my mouth had to feel full while doing so. Family-size bags of Doritos and Lay’s potato chips; rotisserie chicken carcasses picked nearly clean, except for the drumsticks, because I didn’t eat dark meat. I would toss all of my filth, the evidence of just a one-day binge, and it would fill the large trash bag.
I knew what I was doing wasn’t normal. That was why I needed to hide it. I didn’t want anyone to see the repulsive way that I ate. I was worthless anyway, so I needed to prove that what people said about me was true. I was just a lazy fat-ass. I was ugly and worthless, and should feel ashamed. My worth has always been measured by my excess pounds, among other things, and I learned this unfortunate truth too early in life. The more I weighed, the less I was valued. I convinced myself that there was nothing I could do about this. This, I knew, was how it always was, and I knew it would end up being how it would always be. It was early in life that my morbid relationship with food became my whole life.
I should probably start from the beginning. Hi, my name is Stupid. But you can call me Fat-Ass. I’ve also gone by Whore, Ugly, and Good for Nothing. My name given to me at birth is Karen Lynn Suffern, but not many people call me by my given name. Well, actually, there IS another name I go by. I was also given the nickname Muffy. Most of my family members call me Muffy. My grandma Irma gave most of her grandchildren odd nicknames, but I didn’t mind it one bit.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “How could you call yourself these names?” That is a great question. The only answer I have as a response is one that rings true. I figure I’d better learn to embrace these everyday names, or learn to be miserable about how they make me feel when I am referred to them. Of course, I can refuse to acknowledge anyone who would call me anything outside of my name, but you know what? I can’t afford to ignore any attention given to me, whether it is positive or negative attention. While not ideal, it’s better than the alternative. It’s complicated, actually. Just trust me when I say, I have learned to be OK with the derogatory names.
I was born on March 21, 1980, in Paterson, New Jersey. I was my mother’s third child, and her third daughter. Just eighteen months later, my brother was born. My mom was a single mom to four children now. Although my father wasn’t in my life, I had my grandmother, who was there to pick up the slack. My mom ended up dating the man who would become my stepdad. Out of this union, I had two more brothers. There were six of us altogether. I don’t know exactly when my need to be a perfect child happened, but even early on I was sensitive to criticism. I was never a skinny girl. In fact, my mom would tell me stories of a time when I was an infant and she took me to the health department to receive assistance to supplement my formula because I was a sickly baby, always in and out of the hospital. Once my mom arrived, the worker took one look at me in my baby carriage and told my mom that I was such a large baby I would not qualify for any supplement because it wasn’t needed. Even as an eight-month-old, I was too fat.
By the time I was ten months old, I was admitted to St. Joseph’s hospital with pneumonia. I had actually stopped breathing several times and was revived. Even now, I often wonder how much better off I would have been had the doctors just let me die when I was a baby. I could have gained access to heaven and been with God while I was still pure, innocent, and sweet.
Much of my childhood reappears in distorted scenes in my dreams. Sometimes it happens when I am awake, and it’s always unsettling because I never know when it will happen. It’s as if scenes that are not in order will flash for just an instant on a projection screen in my mind, right before disappearing just as quickly as they appeared. I was the main character in my own play that I wasn’t willing to participate in. These images always left me feeling confused, depressed, and just drained. Mostly, I’d have to take the fragmented images and piece them together to get the whole ugly picture.
I remembered the pain I felt when I was almost six years old. I was in kindergarten. My teacher had sent us all home with an assignment where we had to trace and then copy different words on the wide lined elementary paper. I knelt on the living room floor, sitting on my feet, and with pencil in hand, I looked to my mother, who sat next to me in the chair, and asked her for help. My wonderful mom explained to me the directions, at least twice, but somehow I still didn’t understand what was expected of me. I can’t be sure if it was that I truly didn’t understand, or if it perhaps was that I was scared to begin and maybe make a mistake. I couldn’t make mistakes––ever. It was an unwritten rule that I followed. Truth be told, I was terrified of not following it. A male family member was over at the house during this time. Apparently to him, I was pretending not to understand my assignment so that I wouldn’t have to do it. He became angry. I tried to reason, in my five-year-old logic, that I truly didn’t understand what was being explained to me. This only made him angrier. “You do that homework right now, or I’m beating your ass!” he yelled. I hated when he yelled. His voice was intimidating and, considering the amount of times he yelled when talking to someone, I knew that he knew the effect his voice had. He startled me and I knew he meant business. I stared back at my paper but I couldn’t even see the words anymore because of the tears in my eyes. I blinked the tears away and watched them fall to my homework paper, leaving small, wet circles where they landed. I watched as this male family member disconnected the television and VCR from the white extension cord where they were plugged up. He doubled the cord up and wrapped an inch or two around his hand to secure his grip on it, and then swung the extension cord at me, connecting with my right thigh. The pain was instantaneous. I cried out loud as I was hit another time, and then another, and another. I tried everything to shield the blows, but there was nowhere to go and they kept coming. He grabbed me up by my right arm and kept swinging with his free hand. I couldn’t even cry anymore. It hurt so badly. When he let me go, I couldn’t even feel my feet so I crumpled to the floor. There wasn’t any part of my body that wasn’t on fire. He yelled at me to go to my room but my legs still wouldn’t work. I attempted to crawl…Every inch of me hurt, but I didn’t want to antagonize him by not following his instructions. I eventually made it to my room and I climbed in my bed. The bedsheets felt like sandpaper against my raw skin. Large, angry red welts were all over my thighs, my calves, my stomach, and my arms…they were everywhere. I cried again, softly this time, until I fell into a restless, painful sleep.
I also remember the first time I discovered self-harm. I was eight years old and I was in the second grade. The one thing that beating I received from my family member did for me was make me become a perfectionist. I excelled in school. My second-grade teacher was impressed with my vocabulary and how I was able to spell words much more advanced than my current grade level. Ms. Hinnant would have other second-grade teachers in the school come to our classroom and she would give me a word and have me spell it in front of the teachers. They were always impressed. I was embarrassed and hated the attention, but I was pleased to be pleasing all of the teachers. One day, Ms. Hinnant wanted me to spell congratulate, to help congratulate a fellow second-grade teacher who had announced she was expecting a baby. I knew how to spell the word; it was easy. However, as Ms. Hinnant and Mrs. Mallory stood in front of me with smiles on their faces waiting for me to begin, I froze. In my head, I spelled c-o-n-g-r-a-t-u-l-a-t-e, but I couldn’t verbalize it. After several silent minutes, Mrs. Mallory says “It’s OK, that is a very hard word to spell, and you don’t have to spell it for me, Karen,” and then she turned and walked away. I distinctly remember the look of what appeared to be disappointment on Ms. Hinnant’s face and my heart sunk. I had disappointed her. Why didn’t I spell the word out loud? What had happened to me? I asked myself these questions as I sat at my desk. I was holding a pencil in my hand and absentmindedly began rubbing the eraser back and forth against the skin on my leg just above my knee. I didn’t even know at the time what I was doing, or even why I thought to do it. All I know is I had uncovered what would be my go-to method to cope with stress, depression, and any other negative feeling. I had rubbed the skin from a small area on my leg. The area was red and irritated. It was pretty painful too. By the next day, it had already developed the beginning of a scab along the outer edges of the burn. All of this from a simple pencil eraser. I wondered how other things would work in leaving marks on my body.
I liked school but I didn’t like being around kids my age. Kids were cruel. Unnecessarily cruel and for no reason at all. I remember one day my class had an assignment. We were making a recipe. The ingredients had to consist of something about each person in the class, teacher included, so that we could make a friendship pie. Too bad there were so many kids in my class that didn’t understand the concept of “friendship.” When I created my recipe, mine read something like, “1 cup of Jessica’s pretty smile. 2 tablespoons of Marc’s dimples. 2 cups of Michelle’s pretty curly hair.” When it was time for my classmates to read their recipes, theirs sounded similar to mine, except that when it came to me, it was always “1 cup of Karen’s fat. 2 cups of Karen’s fat. 10 cups of Karen’s fat.” I was grateful to the teacher that after the third student described using my fat in the recipe, the assignment came to a halt and we worked on something else. I found it very painful that the only thing my classmates saw of me was my excess weight.
I graduated from rubbing pencil erasers against my skin to using anything sharp that would draw blood by the time I was nine years old. It was great. It was my secret escape from reality. I was already smart enough to know how far was too far and I never went too far. One day, I even dismantled our blender and unscrewed the blades at the bottom and used it to cut my leg. Admittedly, that scared me because I bled so much. I probably should have gotten stitches that time, but there was no way I was showing my mom and having to explain my injury to her.
My mom was already stressed because she worked 3:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. at the hospital, so my grandma had to take care of my siblings and me at night. My grandma worked housekeeping at the same hospital, but her hours were 7:00 am to 3:30 p.m. I loved my grandma. We weren’t allowed to call her grandma; she didn’t like feeling old. So we called her by her first name. Irma was the best grandma any child could ask for. She was very entertaining and boy could she cook! I loved being in the kitchen when Irma was in there. Even when we didn’t have a lot, she was able to make a good meal out of just a few ingredients. She would pan fry homemade pita bread and it was to die for!
My mom and my grandma were very close. I remember my grandma getting sick one day. She always complained of back pain and I would make her a hot water bottle and take it to her. It never provided her relief but she wouldn’t tell me that. The pain became so bad that Irma saw the doctor. As it turned out, the pain in her back was due to having cancer that spread to her spine.
She was admitted to the hospital. I missed having Irma home to help me cook and to tell me stories about when she was younger, but I knew she would be coming home soon. My mom said we would have to move, because we lived in an apartment on the third floor, and Irma wouldn’t be able to climb the stairs anymore. I was excited about the prospect of moving because I hated our apartment. Our landlord was a slumlord. I went to bed that evening thinking about living in a nice house, in a better part of town, and having Irma back home with us.
The next day I woke up and got ready for school. I wanted to call my best friend Crystal to let her know to wait for me at her house so that we could walk to school together. My sister was on the phone and I asked her a few times to get off so that I could call Crystal and let her know to wait for me. She wouldn’t get off. In a fit of rage, I ripped the phone right out of the wall, effectively pulling the phone jack out of the wall and breaking it. Now the house phone was nothing more than a plastic paperweight. I left for school that morning irritated and I had a bad day the rest of the day.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how bad it was until near the end of the school day. The teacher received a call from the principal’s office with a message for me to walk to my aunt’s house after school. That was weird––why would my mom call to have us walk there? We only went there for family gatherings. After school when my siblings and I made it to my aunt’s house, as soon as we walked in, we all knew immediately something was wrong. My aunt told us to sit down. My mom sat in a chair in the corner and she looked like she had been crying. My aunt explained that my grandma Irma wouldn’t be coming home because she had passed away that morning. I couldn’t believe it. There was no way I wouldn’t be seeing my grandma again. I ran over to hug my mom and we all cried. What was really traumatic for me, and something I will never forget, is that the hospital tried calling my mom because my grandma was passing and she was calling out for my mom, but the nurses couldn’t get through because I had broken the house phone. My grandma died and because of me, my mom never got the chance to say goodbye because by the time she got the message, Irma was gone.
After Irma’s death, depression set in deeper. At the age of twelve, I was still hurting myself a few times a week and I also discovered something else. I found that food made me feel better. I would take any allowance I could get and go to any corner convenience store and fill up on several bags of chips, cakes, sodas, and candies. Since we had to take a public bus to school every day, it was easy to make pit stops to the stores before and after school, especially considering there were four convenience stores in the five blocks between the bus stop and the school.
I took on a large role at home too. Although I had older siblings, I did all of the cleaning, cooking, and other things around the house as my mom worked. By the time I reached high-school age, I was binging and purging and cutting every day. There were some days where I cut myself a few times a day. My schedule was hectic. I would get up for school at 6:00 a.m., and get dressed and out to catch the city bus by seven. I was in school by ten minutes to eight. At three, my mom picked us all up from school and dropped us off at home and drove straight to work. My two younger brothers went to an elementary school across the street from our apartment, so as soon as my mom dropped me off at home, I would walk across the street to pick my brothers up from school. I would then bring them with me to pick up my niece from the sitters. My sister was a teen mom and she was away at college so my mom had custody of her granddaughter. Once I had all three kids in tow, I would take them to the grocery store right up the street from my house and buy what we needed for dinner that night and then come back home.
Once home, I would help my brothers with their homework while entertaining a four-year-old. I then prepared dinner, fed my brothers and my niece, and then one by one gave them all a bath and put them to bed. By 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., I would start my homework. Because I was in all honors classes, I had one to two hours’ worth of homework most nights of the week. At 11:45 p.m. I would greet my mom as she got home, ask about her day, and then finish up my homework, and around one a.m. I would go to bed and begin the process all over again the next day. This was my life. Yes, I had an older sibling still in the house and there was another adult in the home too, but I was left to my own devices to fend for myself and my younger siblings and my niece.
Despite all of that responsibility, I did remarkably well in school. All of my teachers liked me. I made good grades. I volunteered in a school-based youth services program where I helped mentor eighth-graders while they made the transition from elementary school to high school. All of the eighth-graders I worked with were high risk, poverty stricken, and usually had some kind of mild developmental delay. I always had a hard time fitting in wherever I was, and despite all of the positive work I did in this program, I didn’t feel I fit in there either. I was awkward in high school. I always felt more mature than my peers. I never hung out with friends, because I only had one friend, and she went to a school across town from my school. I was hiding my secret cutting obsession and at this time had a full-blown eating disorder. I would stuff my face with calorie-laden foods until my stomach grew tight and I was uncomfortable. I would be out of breath and then run to the bathroom to purge my shame and feelings into the toilet.
Suicide was always an option for me and I contemplated it all of the time. I was consumed with my own death and I often wrote dark poems about it to help me deal with the overwhelming feelings. I found myself constantly daydreaming about ways that I could successfully kill myself. I knew I didn’t want it to be messy because I didn’t want to traumatize my mother. I loved her so much. I just wished that loving her was enough to make me want to stay alive. I was moving further and further away from reality. I had actually stopped eating, and sleep was something that I didn’t remember how to do. I spent most of my waking hours ruminating and writing. I remember when I wrote my poem called “The Artist”:
The clean canvas calls out to have the creative pictures painted out
one stroke at a time and like any artist, the temptation is too great to ignore
with a skillful hand that has done this many times over, the genius begins
the brush touches the canvas and with quick flicks of the wrist, the magic begins
moving to the beat of an inaudible rhythm, the brush does what it does best
providing relief to the artist who only releases the pain with every stroke of the brush
over and over until her pain is erased and the canvas is full.
Exhaustion and exhilaration replace despair and hopelessness
examining the completed canvas provides enough energy to get the artist through another day
until she must retrieve her paint brush and begin anew; rolling up her sleeves to reveal her fresh canvas
and begin her secret artwork once again.
All of my poetry ended up being about cutting, or death and dying. I wrote about my lack of self-esteem and self-worth. A good example of this is my poem titled “Reflection”:
It’s a soul numbing experience
When you stare in the mirror
And you can’t recognize the eyes staring back at you
You wonder who the stranger is that has your same face
The stranger that mimics your every movement
The longer you stare, the more distorted the image becomes
This creature, this presence
These strange eyes
I can’t believe––I can’t accept that they belong to me.
I knew these poems were coming from a dark place in me. I did have a moment of clarity and decided that I needed to reach out to someone. Maybe even talk to my mom about how I was feeling. I knew I had Crystal too. Even if she didn’t know what to say, just having her listen was enough. As luck would have it, the next day, we had a missionary visit our apartment and invite us to his church. My mom believed in God, but I never knew her to be a religious person. She declined the offer but, upon learning that the church had a youth program, she told the missionary that she had children and if they wanted to, they could go to church. I thought that was a good idea. What better person to save me from my living hell than God himself?
I had an outlet when I began going to church. My church had a youth group and I would go to this meeting every Wednesday and to church services every Sunday. Church brought me comfort. I was dealing with a lot of demons and I figured, what better place to expel those demons than in the house of the Lord? I still felt like an outsider even though I was among peers who were Christians and who were, by definition, supposed to be in a position of grace and faith, to be saved by the blood of Christ, and to, through his word, spread the gospel and show others how wonderful Jesus was. I was surrounded by healing, or I thought.
By the age of thirteen, I was a cutter, I had an eating disorder, and now I also had a lot of suicidal thoughts. My best friend knew of my troubles and I can recall a time when we would meet up to hang out and she would go to the library to research my symptoms and then report to me the mental-health illness she thought I was suffering from. She educated me on illnesses like major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Every time Crystal would come to me with a new illness that I could possibly have, and read me the symptoms, while I would laugh at the weirdness of it all, in my head, I had to admit, many of the symptoms of a few of those disorders certainly hit the nail right on the head when it came to feelings I experienced on a daily basis. Crystal had known for years that I was hurting myself and I could confide in her because I knew she would keep my secret. It wasn’t like I couldn’t talk to my mom; it was just that I didn’t want to unnecessarily burden her. I wanted to protect her from the truth. Crystal suggested that I talk to my youth pastors. They were cool and I felt comfortable around them and I figured it couldn’t hurt. I read my Bible and prayed to God daily, so maybe talking to my youth pastors would provide some additional clarity to help me understand why I hated myself and why I longed for death.
I remember asking my youth pastors for a meeting and we agreed upon a day and time. When we met, we met in the main church building. I sat in a pew, and sitting next to me was the youth pastor’s wife and sitting in the pew in front of me was my youth pastor. My youth pastor was turned in the pew so that he could face me. I told them I had a lot of things that I was dealing with and needed guidance. I was honest about how I wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to be with Jesus and end my emotional pain. I didn’t feel good about myself and I was dealing with being depressed and being abused. My youth pastor told me that the reason I was feeling the way I did was because I wasn’t living according to God’s will. That came as a complete shock to me. I tried to be a good person, I was helpful to others, I talked to people who weren’t saved about God, and I read my Bible. So, God was still punishing me? And if so, why? What had I done? I remember leaving my meeting with my youth pastors feeling more alone than when I’d walked in there. I didn’t fit in at church and I didn’t fit in at school. And if God couldn’t even love me, I knew that I was really a worthless person.