When I was at university, I had about a hundred different jobs, one of which was tending bar in a karaoke bar that sat alongside a Chinese restaurant in Oceanside. We had these two regulars, who I’ll refer to here as Dave and Sam. They came in absolutely every night. The nights I worked, the nights I didn’t – they were there. They always sat at the end of the bar, about two seats apart, Sam nearest the exit so he could go out and smoke. My boss was this knock-out Filipina single mom in her late 30s, and I’m pretty sure they and every dude in that restaurant were head over heels for her.
Sam was really smooth – almost like something out of a movie. He smiled, but never too much, and was only really nice after he’d had one too many, so usually quite late in the evening, when he’d started buying rounds and killing my tips (he was a very bad tipper). He was in his late 50s or maybe even early 60s by that point, and he was always well-dressed, in slacks and a button-up shirt, never jeans – I doubt he even owned a pair. He drank something classic – martinis I think, or maybe old fashioneds – and he didn’t talk too much. He’d go crazy when I’d sing “My Funny Valentine” – that was how I won him over, actually – and though he was reserved, he was a good guy.
Dave, however, wasn’t reserved at all. He was one of those guys who just exudes generosity and kindness. Dave was heavyset – probably weighed just under 300 lbs – and didn’t drink a drop. He was in recovery. He didn’t smoke, either, as he’d quit that not long after he gave up booze. So nobody gave him any trouble for chowing down on as much deep-fried bar food as he fancied…Dave had already made some very difficult decisions in the name of his health and wellbeing.
Here’s the thing: Dave was a recovering alcoholic who spent every single night (except meeting nights) at a bar, and never drank. Still, he was addicted to food – maybe before he gave up drink too – I wouldn’t know – but I imagine it got a lot easier to eat too much after he gave up drinking and smoking. Meanwhile, Sam was also most definitely an addict. Don’t get me wrong – he was very responsible with his addiction, always handed his keys over when he needed to and was never disrespectful to anybody. But he was in that bar every single night. And every night he put back at least 4 or 5 of whatever highball it was he drank.
So why do I bring this up? Because studies have shown that people tend to eat more around certain other people – friends, families, romantic partners, people who are heavier than we are – and I know for certain that I and my friends have enabled one another to eat too much on many occasions. This wasn’t so bad at 3:00 in the morning after a night out dancing when we were in our early 20s. But time flies by, and when I got to my late 20s, it started to occur to me how destructive this was. Mind you, I didn’t do anything about it – not right away, anyway. In my own time and in my social life, I was eating and drinking too much, probably in part to self-medicate, as I was quite stressed, and also because I’d somehow convinced myself that over-indulging was a reward for hard work. The end result, however, was that I was becoming increasingly unwell…nice “reward”.
Did Sam and Dave enable one another? I would say no. Definitely not. I would say they accepted each other, and supported each other. I think Dave was resigned to the fact that Sam was never going to come with him to a meeting, and I think Sam was just really proud of Dave for getting through what must have been a really hard time in his life. Neither of them ever had a bad word to say about the other, or anybody else for that matter, unless my boss or I were being mistreated by the clientele. And yet, the way their lives were going (and this may have changed, mind – it’s been a long, long time), Dave was never going to lose any weight, and Sam was never going to go to a meeting.
That was okay for them, because they didn’t want to change.
But if you do, does that mean you have to give up on the only people you know you can trust? Does it mean you have to enter into some kind of a monastic abstinence of fun? Well, no, but it does mean changes have to happen.
When I first gave up cigarettes, all my triggers were on high alert. Coffee, fatigue, insomnia, frustration, accomplishment, waiting…these were all things that meant time-for-a-smoke. But the hardest trigger by far was booze. The fact was, drinking had become extremely difficult, because I fixated on having a cigarette. So I developed a trick: I drank vodka and soda water when we went out with friends, and while everybody else kept on drinking, I moved on to plain-old soda water. No explanation necessary. But the smell of cigarettes just kept wafting in through the doorway…and don’t get me started on house parties! Before I gave up smoking, I would go to these events and spend the entire time outside smoking and chatting and drinking my wine – now I was relegated to the indoors! It wasn’t even the same people indoors! I didn’t know how to socialize without a smoke. This caused anxiety, and mixed with a couple of glasses of cab, I found myself spiriting away back home to my pyjamas and a movie long before the wee hours until which I had previously stayed out.
But I honestly don’t know what I’d have done if the people in my life with whom I’d eaten unhealthfully were still around when I decided to change the way I ate, because it wasn’t long before we were off to the Philippines, and anyway, most of the people I knew in London were really healthy eaters – way healthier than I was – so this is a really hard one for me to address.
However, I have gone through one hell of a lot of transitions in my life, and I know that some people just simply drop away as we change and grow. It’s painful and hurtful, but it has a lot less to do with us and a lot more to do with them looking after themselves the best they can, and no one can be blamed for that. Change is scary, and when the people we’re close to change too much for our liking, it sort of re-sets the context of our relationship to them, because there is some extent of self-definition that goes into making a concerted effort to change oneself for the better.
Case in point: It is true that in my early 20s I might have been defined as a chain-smoking party girl university student with a phone that rang off the hook who worked 3 jobs at a time and drove a little too fast and loved cheesy horror movies. Most of my friends just called me a hippie. Now I do not smoke, I go to about 4 parties a year, I’ve finished my studies (for now), my phone is pretty quiet these days, I hardly ever drive and when I do my hands are at 10 & 2 and I’m 2 km below the speed limit, and I really can’t stomach horror anymore. Could the good friend of 22-year old me be forgiven for not wanting to hang out with 35-year old me? Yeah. Yeah, they could.
Some of these changes (horror films) came gradually and without any effort. Some of them (silent phone) were less-than-desireable. But some of them (quitting smoking) I worked really hard for. It’s not like we wake up one day and say, “Right, that’s it! No more hanging out with So-and-So, because they are no good for this change I’m trying to make in my life!” The reality is that, if we are committed to the change, we’re the only ones responsible, and we will find ourselves reluctant to be in situations where it is difficult to remain true to that commitment. Likewise, those people in our lives who are uncomfortable with the “new” usses (that’s the plural of “us,” in case you wondered) might find it easier not to return our calls.
At the risk of sounding bleedingly obvious, I’ll just add that it’s probably not a good idea to fixate on said change and go around talking about it all the time, and yet it’s damn hard not to! So I probably have, and that’s probably pretty damn boring, and that could be why people have drifted away, too. Sometimes even the things that are bleedingly obvious aren’t all that easy to recognize in the heat of the moment.
We’re all just doing the best we can. Making big changes in our lives that alter how we define ourselves and how we are defined by those around us is a very stressful experience, filled with moments of self-doubt, anxiety, hope, excitement, boredom, anger, joy, and all sorts of other emotions that aren’t likely to go unnoticed. Some people will be going through their own moments of self-improvement, and will endeavor to support us in any way they can. Others will recognize how hard we’re working, and will stay in the sidelines, rooting us on. Still others will become frustrated or bored by the single-mindedness it requires to successfully end up at the other end of it, and a few months down the line will be only a painful memory of someone we used to lean on for support.
Dave was okay with the fact that he was overweight – to his mind he had already conquered his most vicious demons and that was enough for him. I’m not sure if Sam had any family, and I’m pretty sure all his friends were either in that bar or on their way. He was okay with that. But if either of them had woken up one day and said, “This isn’t enough,” I’m pretty damn certain there would have been support from the other side – Sam for Dave and Dave for Sam – to make the life changes they felt necessary. And if one of them hadn’t had it in them to support that change the other wanted to make, whose fault would that have been?
At the end of the day, we have to take these parts of our lives that are keeping us stuck and unhappy into our own hands. We have to deal with them whether or not we have support, whether or not people are in the sidelines or running alongside us. Because we’re the only ones who are going to come out the other end, and because if these efforts come to naught…well, as the great Nina Simone so eloquently (if a little directly) put it, “…if I die and my soul be lost, nobody’s fault but mine.”