As a child, I thought my parents were perfect. I wondered if they were really my parents, if maybe there had been a switch at the hospital or some immaculate intervention they would disclose to me once I was older. I sometimes imagined them dying: in a car crash, on an airplane, murdered by evil villains, and I would feel a strange mix of profound relief and sadness right before asking God for forgiveness. Their love was overwhelming, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be what they wanted me to be, even though they always insisted: “We just want you to be happy.”
Dad’s high school letter jacket lived in the coat closet, and when I put it on, it felt heavy, like the large lead aprons in hospital X-ray rooms. On the letters were frayed icons of glory, a football and basketball stitched into the fabric. Dad tried to teach me basketball, but I couldn’t make strong swishing sounds and shout, “Nothing but net!” the way he always did. I wanted to be just like him, so he encouraged me to keep practicing; maybe one day, I could also win at this game of life.
Mom had been a cheerleader in high school and college, and I would watch in amusement as she taught my little sister, Allison, her cheers, privately wishing I could play along. Only girls were cheerleaders, though. Whenever I was sad, Mom cheered me up. She told me how great I was, how the other kids were scared and insecure, and that was why they hurt me at school. I would do extraordinary things. I could be whatever I wanted to be, whoever I wanted to be. I tried to believe her. She was the most precious gift in my life. I hoped to find a wife just like her, the way Dad had.
I liked it when they told me stories about their lives before I existed; how they’d fallen in love when they were twelve, how Mom used to go to church with Dad’s family, how Dad had saved up all his money one summer, scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins, so he could buy her a ring. He proposed in the church parking lot in their modest Louisiana hometown. They were still just kids, and Mom told me she couldn’t legally drink at her own wedding. Dad showed me how strong his forearms were, crediting that summer at Baskin Robbins from a decade before. They would kiss each other while telling me stories and laugh when I’d cop an irrepressible grin and exclaim, “Gross!” But later, alone in my room, I would think it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and wonder where my future wife was right at that moment and if maybe she was thinking of me too.
School made me cry a lot. My parents would try to comfort me, but I was inconsolable. “You learn to deal with it,” Dad assured me with teary eyes, referring to our sensitive temperaments, an affliction that had befallen the males of our family for at least three generations. Poppy, my paternal grandfather, cried every time he spoke from the heart. Poppy’s father gambled and drank, so maybe he was sensitive too and nobody knew it.
“It’s just in the genes,” Mom cheerfully insisted, but her favorite mantra confused me.
I wiped my eyes and looked up at her. “Why did God give me bad genes?”
She hesitated. “Nobody knows,” she said. “You’ll have to ask Him when you get to heaven.”
I had a lot of questions for the big guy upstairs, like, “Why can Mom eat apple pie à la mode for dinner and not get fat?” and “How come Dad has so much self-discipline, but I can’t stop sneaking snacks?”
My genes sucked. I was husky. I knew this because when we’d go to the mall to buy new clothes, Mom always asked the employees, “Where is your husky section?” I didn’t fit into regular pants, and Mom had to take me to the tailor to get my jeans hemmed. When my second grade class nominated me to represent us in a fashion show fundraising event for the school, I was unable to fit into any of the clothes, so Mom had to buy me grown man pants. After the alterations, it looked like I was wearing a parachute down the runway.
I was only a little kid, but I understood that my body was kind of a lemon. In addition to being husky, I was asthmatic. The doctors said that if I lost some weight, it might go away, but according to my parents, the asthma was in the genes too. Dad still had to use his inhaler sometimes. Plus he had sleep apnea and snored really loud, so he had to wear a machine mask at night that made him look as if he should be flying a fighter jet or rocketing into space. Mom had fibromyalgia, which made her need lots of naps and caused her body to hurt for no reason. She feared she might be in a wheelchair soon. She told me, “We are lucky to have modern medicine; otherwise, we might not be alive.” I didn’t feel gratitude though; I believed there had been an error, that God had made a mistake, that my body was an accident.
What went on down there was particularly problematic. As much as I wanted to, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t control my bladder during sleep. As young as I was, all I really knew was that peeing the bed wasn’t normal. I remember the crinkling of plastic underneath my sheets, my parents helping me get changed out of urine-soaked pajamas in the middle of the night, and the fear and embarrassment I felt whenever sleeping over at a friend’s house.
I had a recurring dream in which I’d be shuffling down the long, dark, carpeted hallway of our quaint Atlanta home. I’d turn right into the bathroom, lift up the toilet seat, apprehensively point my member downward, and finally decide to start peeing, only I was really just urinating all over myself again, and I’d wake up frustrated and confused as to why my mind kept playing tricks on me. My parents told me, “It’s not your fault,” but I was angry that I couldn’t control my body in ways others could.
I was born into a medical family, which helped me understand my health concerns but also kept me pretty neurotic about germs and genetics and diseases. My mom was a neonatal nurse practitioner, which basically meant that she cared for sick or premature babies in the intensive care unit. My father was in his third year of medical school when I was born and eventually became an oculoplastic surgeon, a physician who specialized in ophthalmology (eyes) and plastic surgery. I always wanted to be a doctor, just like Dad.
When Allison was born, my mom bought me a doll to play with, in order to teach me about babies. Naturally, at two years old, I enjoyed mimicking my parents’ care for my baby sister. But my mom recalls how disturbed her father was at the idea of me having a doll. As he saw it: “Dolls are for girls.” The gender lines were drawn quickly. I was encouraged to be a good big brother and protect my sister from harm, a role I relished throughout my life. I would walk down the street with my plastic sword in hand, ready to defend against anyone who might do wrong by her.
By the time my brother Tyler was born two years later, I had taken on the role of mommy’s little helper. I was encouraged to support my mom by holding Allison’s hand in the parking lot, trading my whole cookie for Tyler’s broken one, and basically being patient and compliant while my mom did her best to deal with three children in diapers. I remember thinking of Tyler and Allison as children, and of myself as something separate, less than an adult but certainly not a child. I permitted my siblings a freedom that I didn’t allow myself, to be less than perfect, to mess up and to struggle. I was superior, more responsible, burdened in ways I couldn’t nail down.
I was always the fat kid, though I was slow to understand what this particular label entailed. I became aware of food rules and knew that there were treats I wasn’t supposed to eat except on special occasions. There was the time I joined the Cub Scouts and wore my orange tiger shirt to school for the inaugural meeting. All day, I looked forward to congregating with my buddies over cookies and other snacks. My parents somehow either forgot to sign the permission slip or forgot to pay, so I wasn’t allowed in the room. I was so sad I couldn’t have any cookies. I sulked in the fluorescent-lit hallway, trying to hold back the tears, then dragged my feet along what seemed like a mile stretch back to the carpool lot. My forbidden fruit had been identified, and the more it was forbidden, the more I felt deprived.
My body often invited unwanted attention. I was terrified of the carpool teacher. When we’d pull up for school, she would get all excited and pinch my cheeks. It hurt badly, and I wondered how my face didn’t bruise. I would walk around the entire building and enter a side door just to avoid her. I hated having pudgy cheeks. I didn’t like that people were constantly commenting on my body. Boys called me “fat.” Girls called me “cute.” Adults found me “adorable,” and I was fast to learn that this was all a commentary on my body shape.
Physical education classes and after-school sports were a nightmare. It was hard to run because I would wheeze. I was allergic to pollen, grass, ragweed, dust, and really just about every environmental allergen under the sun. Play became synonymous with exercise, and I really didn’t like to exercise. Even recess was tricky. The boys would separate from the girls and play a sport in the field. Girls would play on the playground. If I played with the boys, I almost always got picked last. In the event of an anomaly, I knew it was due to one of the captains taking pity on me. I liked playing with the girls. I’d get them to chase me around the playground and spank me. I identified girls as the safer sex.
Since my dad was finishing medical school, we moved a good bit as he transitioned from poor student to wealthy surgeon. I was born in New Orleans, but I don’t remember anything from the time we lived there. Then there was Nashville, where we lived in a small ranch-style brick house on a plot of land that was probably under an acre, but I felt as if our home were on a farm. Dad used to drive over the front yard when he left for work, pretending to lose control of the wheel, threatening to crash into the large front window of the house, where Mom and I watched with bated breath and laughed hysterically. By the time I turned seven, we were in our second home, this time in Atlanta, the same kind of house, just in a bigger city—and we weren’t finished yet, since one day we’d move to a mansion with a pool in the backyard, but not until I was in the fourth grade. In 1992, money was still tight, and Mom worked overnight shifts at the hospital to bring home the bacon.
Each time we moved houses, I switched schools, and each time I switched, the anxiety would get worse. Because I was the fat kid, it took more time to get to know my classmates and win them over. I had to rely on my personality. Each new school brought with it a new set of first impressions, a new set of bullies, and a new set of rules I had to learn how to follow. The rules were really piling up. There were classroom rules, dress code rules, gender rules, food rules, exercise rules, play rules, rules about health, rules about manners, rules about behavior toward adults, rules about everything. I was becoming an expert in the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. The rules kept me safe, but at the same time imprisoned me.
When I was nervous or embarrassed, I blushed, and then I would get redder the more I tried to stop. Kids would point out, “Chris is getting red,” and I would flush with terror. At the same time that I wanted to hide, I was starving for attention. I needed to be seen and heard, and I found out how to use being fat to my advantage. If I made fun of myself, everyone laughed. It also lessened the power of cruel little boys who might hope to hurt me. I would lift up my shirt and use ventriloquism, folding my belly into a mouth and demanding to my friends, “Feed tummy more cookie!”
Despite my social anxiety, I became a popular kid who genuinely enjoyed joking around and goofing off. The problem was that I developed a division that cut right through me. There was the Chris everyone saw, and there was the secret Chris who felt a great deal of pain. Big boys were tough, and I was a budding perfectionist. In the beginning, I was just a really sensitive little boy, but what began as a crack would eventually widen into a canyon, one large enough to swallow me whole.