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LET’S TALK LABELS

LET’S TALK LABELS-Bobby Buffet

They called me “Bobby Buffet.” When I was a kid, I treated every meal like an all-you-can-eat buffet. I ate to an extreme. I almost never got too full to keep enjoying all the delicious foods, and I liked the attention I got for being able to pack it away without ever gaining an ounce. Until I grew up, that is. Still “Bobby Buffet,” but now I looked the part. No longer a skinny kid with gangly limbs, I’d filled out as though my metabolism felt it needed to make up for lost time!

As an adult, food was still part of my narrative; the story I told myself about “being” the guy who ate to extremes. It was part of my identity forever, like a tattoo. Imagine giving a literal tattoo for an 8 year old and expecting him to comfortably wear it on his arm forever for all to see. You wouldn’t. And yet we brand and label kids all the time that way. We label adults, too, but we have less sympathy for those kids once they’ve lived a few more years.

So we fight back against extreme labels like “Fat*ss,” “Lazy,” “Slob,” and “Bobby Buffet.” As kids, the names we’re called can be worn like badges of honor or may be used to bully us and make us feel small. They do the same when we’re older, but, again, we’re expected to have somehow developed immunity as adults. “Don’t take it so personally.” So we internalize and repress the labels. But the shame still hangs heavily on us, especially when the bullying labels ring true. When we know we could be doing better, eating less, being more mindful of health and nutrition.

Worse still, there are some labels we can’t shake off, or not take personally. “Diabetes” is one of those. When I learned I was a Type 2 diabetic in March 2006, the label was handed to me as a medical diagnosis. The shame the label carried felt the same, or worse, than those other ones. This one I couldn’t blame on anyone else’s bad manners. This one was all me. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented through healthy eating habits. Being labeled a Type 2 Diabetic felt like I was slapped with the most extreme label of all: “Failure.”

I defaulted to another unhealthy habit- denial. I let the diagnosis bounce off my chest like a rubber ball and went on an extreme eating binge that lasted a whole week. I was in full-on “Bobby Buffet” mode. Unlike when I was a kid, there were no adults around to marvel, impressed at what I could put away. There were no cousins around to cheer me on as I loaded another plate high. Even my own mother wasn’t there looking down with pride as I licked my plate clean from the meal she had served me to show love.

No one was there for my binge eating. If it happens in secret and nobody’s there to call you out on it, it never happened, right? Stories I’d tell myself. Bargains and agreements, which I would break. My shame was my companion and my secret enemy as I’d put on a healthy face in front of my wife, my kids and other people, and eat extra meals in secret. I knew I’d have to make a change, but it took time.

I’d tell myself that I had my diabetes under control because I was on meds. I “had control” because I knew my body. I knew when I had spikes or drops in my blood sugar; I could feel the fatigue throughout all my muscles, headaches, and my eyes felt tired and heavy. I tried all kinds of things to maintain as much control as I could. Victoza shots injected in my stomach once a day, a trial for Jardiance, Metformin, various glucose monitors and finger pricking tests (I disliked these the most). I was on two medications at any given time.

LET’S TALK LABELS-Bobby Buffet

As my kids started to pay more attention to me and what I was doing and eating, I focused on showing them a good example. I would meal prep and show positive behavior. I would call out unhealthy labeling and including food in a narrative. In trying to be a good role model for them, I had to voice out loud a rejection of some of my own darker habits. I would hear my own lessons in my head when I continued secret extreme eating. My kids are two of my own most influential teachers, too. They model to me what really matters most.

In 2009, I was with my doctor and he told me that the results of my blood work showed that I would need to add two more medications to my routine, in addition to the two I was already on. I remember feeling angry. I was so mad that I had let myself get to this point. Overweight, out of control, and wanting to act out in some kind of rebellion.

My inner voice was loud. “Don’t let four medications be a permanent routine, Bobby. Get it together!” My addiction had been loud, too, just two days prior when I went straight to McDonalds after getting my blood work done. “You can get control back any time.” I needed to be the right voice for myself, and sometimes that means that inner voices aren’t enough. Sometimes we just need to own our behavior right out loud. In an act of vulnerability, I admitted to the doctor what I’d just done. I told him that I had eaten several full meals. Loaded a full tray and just ate it all. Burgers, chicken sandwiches, French fries, drinks… I’d eaten until I thought I might explode.

Saying it out loud, I was able to hear that I was at a breaking point. I recognized that I just did not have moderation as a skill. I was a person of extremes when it came to food, so I’d need a routine to counter that, and the new routine contained some rules, There would be ZERO more meals at McDonalds. I actually stuck with that rule. That rebellious binge was the last Quarter Pounder I’ve ever had.

Countering my extreme behavior by swapping in healthy choices, and sticking to new routines kept me on track. When I go to the gym to work out, it helps me to stay focused on my eating. When I’m good with meal prep and making healthy food choices, I’m more motivated to keep going. The numbers are motivating, too. I was eating very lean- lots of salads- and when I went back to my doctor, he was shocked by the extreme change. My triglycerides had gone down and I was given the green light to move ahead with just two medications.

I wish my story ended there and I could just say that I “lived happily ever after” with control over my extreme relationship with food. But following that 2009 weight loss, I experienced a personal crisis that slowly brought my weight back- all of it. In 2013, I found myself moody, I had trouble focusing, and I just always had negativity swarming around my head. There was always something bothering me.

I had succumbed to taking four medications and my weight was at its absolute highest. One day I dropped my daughter off at her music class and watched her go off. I hated what she and my son were learning from me. Even if they didn’t see the secret binges I was going on again, they saw that I was always in a bad mood and that I couldn’t control my weight. They saw me frustrated with all the testing and taking meds.

I asked myself, “WTF is wrong with me?!” And I answered it out loud. And I answered it in five points in a Facebook post in a very vulnerable cry for help. I wrote honestly about how I was hiding extra meals from my wife. I wrote about my struggles and how out of control and totally stuck I felt. I added a hashtag: #FitInMyLife, because that’s what I really wanted to be. When I hit “publish,” I never had any idea what would happen next.

Within a few hours there were over a hundred likes and comments. I had no idea it would turn out that way, or that so many people would appreciate the open honesty and even be able to relate. The truth is that I should have known.

I’m a professional speaker; it’s how I make my living. One of the reason people like booking me as a speaker is that I connect through vulnerability. Being myself. Bringing my truth to the stage so the audience is able to follow my story, root for me, and picture themselves as the hero in their own story. I talk about personal branding, networking, entrepreneurship… and vulnerability.

And here I was, laying my darkest truth out there for anyone to see. Anyone! The post was set to “public.” The result: people came out of the woodwork- some I’d never even met before- offering support, encouragement, and help. Over the next couple of months, I had a nutritionist, a dietician, a personal trainer, and others offering services and support for free, just because they felt moved by my share and wanted to help me make a change they believed they could help with.

With help from these experts and a psychotherapist, I started to work on recognizing the root causes of my food addiction. One is that I’m naturally wired to be rebellious. I want to feel like I can do what I want, and I’m still learning how to satisfy that, but with moderation.

Another root is just having lived my whole life with food being such a part of The Story of Bobby. Like my food issues were part of my identity. It went beyond the label of “Bobby Buffet.” It was like, “this is who I am.” But it’s not. It’s not who I am. It’s a problem, but it’s not my identity.

I had also been equating food with love, and expressing my love through food, especially with my Mom, who makes some of the most delicious food on Earth, and uses it as a way to take care of me and show me her love. I had to learn that I can inhabit those positive labels by investing quality time, resources, accountability, and effort into the relationships that mean the most to me.

I also got more organized about my triggers, and building routines around avoiding them. One thing I know is that I am not perfect, and that I will falter. But if I send myself into a shame spiral around it, that’s when I go to extremes. So minimizing the harm I do to my progress is really the goal, not perfection.

LET’S TALK LABELS-Bobby Buffet

I can help myself when I do binge by just trying to moderate the severity of it. When I overeat, if I can stop myself earlier, that’s a win. I can try to space out my binges more so they’re less frequent. If I can put it off for a few hours, I may be able to put it off for a whole day, and maybe even a few weeks. That’s a win, too. Also, focusing on the turnarounds and returning to healthy routines as soon as possible helps.

Mostly, staying honest and keeping myself away from denial really helps with both my food and diabetes journeys. I started a new plan this month, just two days after my birthday. Plans have become very important to me. As a diabetic and an easily triggered food addict, I have to plan things far in advance that most people don’t have to consider at all.

For example, I’m speaking to a group of lawyers in March, and it will be from 12-2pm. Now, that falls during my lunchtime. Most people would just grab a snack before or after and be ok, but if I don’t eat by 2pm exactly, I can almost definitely count on throwing off my blood sugar and putting myself at risk for overeating anything that’s close by and fast just to get back to normal levels, rather than taking the time to find something healthy. I need to ask questions a month ahead of time about how soon after speaking I’ll be able to eat, what the options will be, and what the plan is to navigate to those options.

It’s a lot to regulate. The planning isn’t just about eating times, it’s about accountability. Being alone is a risk for me, so I try to plan to eat my meals with someone else. I have a #FitInMyLife Facebook group I go into every couple of days to share what’s going on honestly.

I also do my best to snowball small wins into bigger ones, and to celebrate the way one win can extend into others. Like giving up caffeine. Giving up the tea meant not having an excuse to go into coffee shops, where it would be easy for me to be triggered into buying a doughnut.

The more I stick to my routines, the more momentum I get and the stronger I feel as a person. The successes, just like the shame and anxiety when I’m on the losing side of my battles, extend into everything. Like a tree- feeding the roots up to the trunk reaches out to every branch. My routines moderate my extremes and they empower all my branches when I’m focused on them.

Routines make me feel focused, with better clarity, and I have more energy, so I feel that success all over, in work and as a husband and a parent. That makes me feel good about myself. When I have more confidence, I’m more likely to work out, prepare meals, and be more productive. And the positive cycle kicks in! It’s just so tenuous. I wish I could just trust myself to be reliable all the time; to do that for myself as a diabetic. To work towards total control.

I do try not to get overwhelmed; to take one day, one meal at a time. But diabetes feels like forever. Like a life sentence. Without a real cure, it makes me feel hopeless sometimes. And hopelessness leads to a dark place where I make unhealthy decisions, and the cycle starts again. I know people are working on trying to find a cure, but if there can’t be one, I’d love to see a path towards anything that looks like normal. Like a new pancreas. Can I just have a new one to take better care of?

It would also be easier to manage diabetes if I had access to no-prick tools to monitor my levels- something like a patch I wouldn’t have to think about that could just send a message to my phone. My Fitbit does that, sending me encouraging stats. I’d love alerts about how my blood sugar is in a good place, or giving me early warning about a coming spike or crash.

The Contour app I have on my phone is really helpful at monitoring patterns, but I wish even that were more proactive. I’d like more incremental notifications. Hey, I’d even take a shock therapy app if that would help, like something that sends me little zaps to say “hey! You’re doing great. Don’t eat that cookie!”

Electroshock apps aside, I have my support circle, self-awareness about my extremes, and routines that I know work. If I can’t release the labels of “Food Addict” or “Diabetic,” I can do my best to keep earning the positive labels that mean everything to me. I proudly introduce myself, right out loud, as Father. Husband. Son. Brother. Friend. Speaker. Those labels are way more “me.”

LET’S TALK LABELS-Bobby Buffet
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