On My 600 lb Life

I’ve had too much time on my hands. I’ve been coughing and lounging for days. I’ve been recovering and in my lax state, I found another reality television show that quickly sucked up too much of my attention and thanks to my heady mix of personal experiences and traumas quickly became a time sink that I have come to deeply regret. My 600-lb Life is a show that capitalizes on the trauma and poor coping skills within all of us and focuses on the morbidly obese of the United States who are ain desperate need of weightloss surgery to stay alive. The show is led by a small little foreign man who goes by Dr. Now and a revolving cast of people who desperately need help getting their weight under control. The show is mostly set in Dr. Now’s Houston clinic but does feature a decent amount of back and forth between the home of the patient in question and the Houston clinic. 

There are a lot of things I wanted to cover as I sank myself further and further into this, let’s be clear, problematic as hell reality show but there was one thing that kept circling around and that was the finances and economics of weight loss and dieting. Maybe next time we can talk about my personal trauma when it comes to morbid obesity or the horrible framing of the show. 

It started with an observation: many of the people on the show are living in poverty; that isn’t a judgement, it’s just a fact. And if the patient of the week is not indeed in abject poverty they are a part of a large family with a single breadwinner and several children/dependants that rely on one paycheck. Listen, eating healthy is expensive and Trader Joe’s aren’t all over the place. Food deserts are places where it’s hard to find healthy or fresh food in a neighborhood; besides if you have 20 dollars to feed a family of four: you’re going to McDonald’s, not Panera. Junk food is just more cost-effective. I remember being raised by vegans back in the early 2000s before it was cool and there is a reason Whole Foods Market is not-so lovingly called Whole Paycheck. In theory, you can shop there on a budget but everything there is indeed more expensive because you are paying for the luxury of organic and small-batch.

I say this because I noticed how often that participants of the show had a hard time buying healthy, not just because their minds and bodies had been conditioned to love junk food but because of the expense. Many work so fast-food is the only option to feed themselves or their families and even though in theory every fast-food establishment should have some options that are in theory healthy but even as a short-term solution; grilled nuggets at Chick-Fil-A does not a meal healthier make. 

There were a few cases that particularly struck me: the ones where medication and money were involved. James K. is a patient who despite being very easy to mock and jeer at because of horrible framing faced quite a few financial issues during his journey to Houston which is a vital part of the show. That’s right, folks, you have to uproot your entire life and move to Houston: a hell swamp with miserable traffic and no memorable skyline. And you don’t even move to Houston immediately, though some do. Many have to make hours long trips across states just to visit a small man who is here to mostly berate you about your lack of weight loss. I’ve been on long trips: they are expensive, time consuming and I can’t imagine having the commitment to anything that isn’t anime to do so for one man who can’t even promise a solution. If the patient does not lose enough weight, they will be denied for surgery and while the show frames that as a lack of will and while my personal inner goblins do, too; we have to see food addiction and trauma as serious issues and realize that there are at times major psychological factors that lead to food addiction and not being able to work out. Another patient, a mother, could literally not afford to feed her family with the frequency of trips she was taking to Houston and she dropped out of the program and continued to lose weight on her own. Dr. Now vilified this action because he has to make money somehow and we the audience are thus told that driving yourself into poverty and letting your children go hungry are worthy sacrifices for weight loss and weight loss surgery. 

My mother was obese and she developed a pretty serious case of agoraphobia because of it. She felt constantly judged by a world too small for her and while I wasn’t always the most caring child or teen about the issue as an adult I can now understand why such things are easily traumatizing and can lead to more complex psychological issues. I never knew what was the root of my mother’s obesity: what the inciting incident was that led her to turn to food rather than therapy but maybe it’s for the best that I don’t know. I think my mother’s own lost journey with food addiction, obesity and diabetes puts a lens on the show: it makes it doubly conflicting to watch: one part reliving the trauma of having a chronically ill parent and one part bitter anger at the lack of good personal choices made by seemingly everyone involved. 

I could go on about this show, and I probably will considering how much real estate it now takes up in my mind. From the awful framing to the considerable pressure and toll that is put on caregivers I may touch on this show again but for now, cost was the most important factor to discuss. And while in theory TLC does offset some of the costs and participants are said to be paid; with many of the numbers not adding up it seems that Dr. Now and the producers are still asking too much and refusing to budge for the sake of patients that find it simply too expensive to try to save their own lives. 

The Comforting Xenophobia of Border Enforcement Shows

Yes, it is the Year of Our Lord 2020 and I am still talking about copaganda. In my continued hunt for shows to watch that isn’t ER. I found myself down a rabbit hole of watching UK Border Force, a show all about the border agents of the UK either out trying to find illegal immigrants, undocumented workers or those bringing drugs or other illegal items into the Queen’s Dominion. It’s a pretty slow-paced show; usually just people bringing in too many damn cigarettes through customs. But every once in a while the show gets really fast-paced when someone brings in drugs via their body cavity or in the lining of their luggage. Every once in a while someone will bring in too much cash and the best episodes feature dogs on the job. But one thing came to mind as I continued, there was a shocking amount of casual racism, jingoism and xenophobia in these shows. 

The UK version was not the only border force show I’ve seen, I’ve seen the US version which is…well, American and the Australian persuasion which seems very concerned about fruit: I’m serious so much of the episodes in New Zealand are concerned about mostly Pacific Islanders bringing in native fruits that could “damage local flora and fauna”; there’s even a hilarious part where a tourist bringing in an apple that was left in their backpack from another flight causes a $5,000 fine. And while I’m not here to minimize the threat of ecological threats it all does seem so excessive. Especially when it comes to the treatment of indigious peoples bringing in food or medicine that is culturally relevant or significant to them: these border agents are literal colonizers telling the people who were here before them that their native fruits and veggies and medicine are “dangerous” and “unregulated” and have the authority to have those goods destroyed. 

Another main focus of these shows is the finding and capturing of illegal workers and immigrants with varying levels of sensitive language. Because these shows are sensationalized, it’s easy to think of them as linear good and bad. Those who work illegally and take jobs away from native Britons or Aussies are bad and the good guys are those enforcing those rules. But many of these people are coming from poorer regions of the world and are often of color and the irony is not lost on me that those in colonizing countries demanding that people of color “enter the country the right way”. Again, I am not an idealized liberal who doesn’t believe in borders and I do very much agree that it’s always best to enter a country legally, but if you are from a poor village in India or Africa and coming over to England to work is the only way you can make money to support your family: you will do what you need to do. We’re also not going to ignore that much of “developed” world had no issue relying on the labor of people of color regardless of how they entered the country (it was not of their own will) and to this day benefit sight unseen on the backs of immigrants and people of color working whether it be legal or not. 

Shows like this work because they are inherently framed as a struggle of good versus evil. The good and brave border force agents are here to keep the country safe and the bad and evil people taking up jobs and resources and not paying taxes are bad. The editing and framing is dynamic and stories are shortened and stripped of nuance and complexity. We’re meant to, through framing, camera work and editing think that all actions taken by the border force are good and meant to keep us safe while anything that puts that safety at risk is bad. But most of the undocumented workers at the chip shop aren’t causing harm. The student who overstayed on his visa is not likely a terrorist and while the person who smuggled drugs in via laptop is in fact a criminal, they’re likely doing so for money. 

There are bad people out there who want to bring in drugs and illegal cigarettes and weird pornography and there are in fact terrorists who want to hurt people. But border force shows continue to push a linear narrative in situations that are oftentimes full of nuance. People don’t flee their home countries for no good reason but we don’t have time in a forty minute reality television show for nuance.  

It’s all a form of propaganda; a show to let you see just how hard border enforcement works and to show them the “danger” they put themselves in to keep us “safe”; but we’ve already covered that due to the nature of framing and editing that danger is clearly played up for the sake of sensationalized television. The chases, the thrill, the finding people trying to enter the country without permission in trucks and the drugs, oh the drama of the drugs. It makes the border force agents look capable, exciting and like they’re really doing something; just like all the other cop shows before it. Live PD was created almost explicitly to show cops as human after a string of police shootings of unarmed black men (a string that continues on to this day). Shows like this are meant to humanize the police and law enforcement but showing us as viewers just what the police do for us. It’s meant to remind us of the danger and hope that a little good press will make it easier to swallow the bitter pill of police violence. Look at all these cops doing the right thing; ignore the ones that have committed murder in cold blood. And it’s comforting for a while to see it; it’s called “security theater”, sorta like how you feel safer with extra TSA agents after 9/11 even though they really haven’t stopped any actual terrorists and have only succeeded in being angry at my flat iron, concerned by my bra’s underwire and upset at my potato chips in my backpack.  These actions are meant to make us feel safe and secure and reassured while we are meant to ignore all of the wrong going on underneath the surface. 

What Hoarders Taught Me About My OCD

I watch Hoarders with a sick and perverse level of judgement. Hoarders is reality television at its very best featuring increasingly delusional people in houses filled with waste, with junk, with items and with emotional baggage or some combination of all of the above. And I love every damn moment of it. I will sit for hours and watch comforting doctors and reclusive and strange people engage in a battle of wills over a horse figurine. 

I have watched Hoarders until my skin crawl at the sight of roaches and mice. I have watched people in varying levels of emotional and mental decay in their fallen palaces of hubris waiting to be destroyed by a pile of used adult diapers. But one thing I never saw in Hoarders was empathy. I never felt anything for the people on the show. I never really wanted their houses to be cleaned; mostly find them undeserving of the privilege and I was always skeptical about just how much someone could recover after becoming used to such a level of disarray and filth. 

But during my lower moments in the last few months, I would sit and really listen to the therapy sections in which doctors do their best in the strangest conditions to tell someone who clearly has a problem that they have a problem. It may have been my own mental illness talking but I felt intense superiority over my own mental “stability” in those moments. Sure, I have extensive emotional trauma and the coping skills of an unwashed cabbage but at least I don’t have a dirty roach house. I may have not ever coped with the loss of my parents but at least I deal with that in a healthy way by spending too much money on backwards Japanese comic books and crying during Disney movies and not by ignoring that dishes have to be washed.

And while on a base level, I understood that many of the people on Hoarders had a mental illness or two, they felt distant and other from my own. It wasn’t until I actually started listening to the therapists on the television screen that I made a shocking realization: I was entirely wrong in my place of judgement, not just from a moral “don’t be a dick” sense but also from a mental illness standpoint. I wasn’t far away or othered from these people. I was on the same boat, just on a different level of the ship. 

I had tested mild to moderate for OCD as a kid. You know that self-mutilation stuff I’ve written about? That’s an OCD thing. It’s about control. It’s about seeing a flaw and seeking to destroy it and it’s also a cognitively dissonant moment; an awareness that I shouldn’t be doing this but an utter inability to stop. My then psych assumed the OCD came from the death of my father and low self-esteem and would go away, like he assumed all my problems would, with an SSRI. That psych was wrong of course, but it was certainly eased by an SSRI and I went on with my teen years and some of my college years with few issues and few compulsions. 

After my mother died, the first signs of something being rotten in Denmark began to surface. I had obsessive and racing thoughts that often made it hard to sleep and hard to focus. I spent money compulsively and I shopped until I couldn’t feel. This was mitigated by a lack of serious income being a broke college student but the signs were all there. I assumed that I was just manic depressive (a diagnosis that fit due to family history) and thought little of it. I was manic, that happens. 

My recent six year mental health decline brought with it something new and shocking: disposable income and my own apartment. I could spend freely, no one could tell me what to do and when to stop shopping. Like a queer dragon I hoarded fabric and notions for costumes I’d never finished. Impulsively bought paint for projects that I never started and would never finish. I bought clothes for events I’d never go to. I just bought. I rarely was in excess of items because I gave away things as quickly as I added to my collection if you ignore the books that I assume my goal was to build both my dead parents back up as golems using the hundreds of books I’ve amassed. 

It led me down a deeper hole of financial insecurity and anxiety. Every purchase was a risk. Every item brought home was a failure of will and every outing was just me avoiding the fact that at home I had no one waiting for me, nothing to look forward to and my own thoughts of failure, inadequacy and misery in the still silence of my own apartment. 

And it wasn’t until watching entirely too many episodes of Hoarders on Hulu did I come to realize that maybe, just maybe I had OCD. It took one of the doctors mentioning its other symptoms for me to finally catch on. OCD wasn’t all about obsessive hand washing, it’s obsessive thoughts and behavioral patterns that can lead to compulsions which are at times serious and at times benign. What I had all these years just assumed was anxiety and probably a little manic depressive disorder was something far more complicated. It was anxiety, depression and very very clearly OCD. I did the thing that no one with mental illness should and took an online screener (which is where I finally pause and say I’m not a doctor and this isn’t meant to diagnose anyone; this is just a story time) and found out that there are many types of OCD and few of them actually have to do with stepping only on odd numbered bricks on a path or washing your hands until they bleed. I had obsessive thoughts, intense negative self-talk and compulsive behaviors that were oftentimes negative to my day to day life. 

I called my aunt and asked if she remembered any of my previous appointments and she mentioned that I usually tested moderate for the condition but that she wasn’t surprised that now as an anxious adult I tested much higher. My aunt herself tests fairly high for OCD but ignores that to continue to assume that she is well-adjusted as most African-Americans do in the face of mental illness. 

When I went to a psychiatrist again after years of avoiding my mental illnesses I mentioned my OCD and indeed it was confirmed that I had the condition and far from mild to moderate but fairly severe. I was shocked but had been steeling myself to accept the answer. I started a new medication and my compulsive shopping has indeed decreased (not to mention the pandemic that keeps me inside). Therapy has also helped as I work on retraining my mismatched brain wiring. 

What has been most helpful though is seeing other versions of OCD in media; namely John Green and his very candid discussions on anxiety and OCD during his podcasts and videos and yes, Hoarders

I try to be more empathetic now while watching Hoarders though the framing of the show certainly makes it hard to build any empathy for these people, making spectacles of their mental illness and their plight. But having examples around of me versions of OCD that weren’t just Monk did help me come to terms with the fact that in the basket of mental illnesses I carry around with me: OCD is one of them. 

Let’s Talk about Live PD

Carlos and I started watching Live PD as a piece of background noise during low moments in our convention weekends. The show is like this generation’s Cops, centering around various county police departments using dash cam, body cam and a very brave film crew to show eager viewers all the realistic, gritty and heart-pounding action that the brave men and women in blue face daily. 

It’s also one of the finest pieces of police propaganda I’ve ever seen.

So let’s talk about it. 

My human shell is that of an African-American and I grew up with a healthy respect for the police but a clear understanding that if I were to be arrested or in trouble, I would likely face much  more hardship than any of my white friends. My grandmother would always say I would be thrown “under the jail” (apparently a euphemism not unique to her) and my aunts encouraged me to stay extra squeaky clean because even if I’m doing everything right, if a friend is not, I’m likely to face scrutiny. I was not ignorant to the history of violence and terror the police have with people of color, queer people, trans people and more but my own experiences were fairly benign. I stayed out of trouble and rarely did anything that brought in police activity. 

That was before the wave of very public instances of police violence. I’m not going to mention all of them because my heart hurts and I’m tired but let’s be real, in a Post-Ferguson world, the reality most people of color have known for decades became very apparent that some bad apples (a lot of bad apples) can in fact spoil a bunch. What was shocking about the instances of police violence that became public within the last few years was that it simply amplified the black voices who have been claiming racism and cruelty for decades. 

To be clear; I am not anti-cop, I am pro-staying alive. I know I am a coward and could not face danger the way first responders do, but I am also aware that this system, like many in this country, have a seriously muddy legacy with people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community. 

In the 90s, we had a little show called Cops and in that show, cameras followed cops. Now, the show in the 90s was weird and certainly does not age well. The famous clip of officers harassing and deadnaming a trans woman comes to mind but the purpose of the show was to use the cameras and visibility as an attempt to build positive press for the police after the especially racially tense 1970s and 1980s. How do you do that? Show cops in the best light possible: saving people, risking their lives, going above and beyond and showing the clear and present danger that comes with the badge and gun.

Which brings us to Live PD. In a new era of distrust and fear of the police: how do we change the image of the police in the public view? Give us a show with action, a clear winner and good guy and overall shots of the police doing good in the world.

Where LivePD loses its luster for me is in the less edited show, LivePD: Patrol Cam where sometimes I think the cops forget they’re being recorded and during one very heated altercation in which, to be fair, the cop is being attacked by a person he’s trying to arrest and just over and over again screams “Shoot him!” which: okay, let’s pause to say that yes, I know that when it comes to assault that deadly force is allowed and that yes, this was scary and frightening and could have gone south real quick but after everything that’s happened, that still just seems in such bad form. 

But Live PD’s most genius trick is in how it pretends to simply show the facts as they happen when really because of editing and framing, there is a clear narrative. Anyone who runs from the cops are evil, drugs are evil, bad people are bad. And while yes, bad people are bad and some drugs are bad; but have you ever considered why people run from the cops? Oftentimes it’s to escape warrants or fear of prison time or just fear of being caught but so often it’s genuine fear of the police. I hear time and time again on Live PD men and women say they ran because they didn’t want to get shot or risk being hurt. Now, to be fair, running is the last thing to do in the event of police nonsense but look at Sandra Bland; minus being mouthy, she did everything right and still ended up dead under some very shady circumstances. I understand that fear and for some, that fear means run.

We live in a curious world where a show can help change the perception of the police by making us all the cops in one way. Live PD is a very social show and viewers have seen people run, seen people toss drugs or have been able to “help” the cops in the chase. By giving us all badges, we can’t then question the police too much; we’re on the same team, right? And of course, all the footage of community outreach and generally just great police work: after watching a few hours of this show, it’s easy to think of the world in a binary: bad guys are bad, good guys are good and the guys with badges are good and the guy who got pulled over for speeding and happens to have a few extra pills on him is bad. 

I don’t have time to talk about how the show frames race (of all kinds, really) or how it frames women and men differently or even how it pretends to minimize use of some drugs while truly vilifying the use of other substances. I don’t have time to talk about how the show parades around police dogs like a red herring to show us that maybe, just maybe being hunted by a large dog isn’t so bad if you deserve it. I don’t have time to talk about how scary it is to watch authority figures rationalize and “explain” why deadly force would have been used but how they are truly great for not using it. I don’t have time to explain all of those things. 

I do have time to say that framing police chases and arrests as “thrilling entertainment” or by using the internet to “deputize” the masses to be more “vigilant” is dangerous, reckless and do not make us forget the men, women, children, queer people and far too many more who have been taken from us due to police violence. It does not make us forget the legacy of violence that the police have left as an indelible mark in the black and queer communities. I do have time to say that painting any police interaction as simply good and evil is naive and unrealistic. 

I do have time to say that giving us a “fun” and “exciting” piece of TV reality television is not and will never be a balm to quell decades of distrust and fear.