Fight or flight

ferris wheel at sunset

“Yeah Dad, what about Jan? Or is that Froggy?” my son was trying hard to tease his dad. The story of “Jan” was one that our children loved to tease their Dad about. They had only heard the story second hand from me. David was in graduate school, and I was working full-time. We were dating, but not engaged. Our relationship was serious, but not certain.

My husband is the kind of fella who always had a lot of friends who were girls. He had girlfriends, but many were friend-girls. Without a doubt, those friend-girls were attracted to his easy-going and chivalrous nature. It had taken me months to figure out whether he was genuinely interested in me or if he was just being a good friend.

Much of my doubt was fed by feeling inferior. He was blond-haired and blue-eyed with broad shoulders. He was smart, kind, and never failed to open a door for anyone. David is the man who treats everyone in the building with respect. From the janitor to the CEO, he offers a smile and a friendly greeting.

Not that being super friendly to everyone is a bad thing, but it makes it really hard to tell if he likes you or just likes you. I was head over heels crazy about him, but uncertain of his feelings, which fed my insecurity. I was also short and overweight. The women in his grad school classes, the ones he studied with late into the night and those with whom he shared the adversity of challenging work, were younger, more attractive, smart, and thin. I figured I had good reason to feel threatened.

When he invited me to join him and some of his grad school friends at the state fair, all of whom were girls, I figured I had better be there. Before we even left his apartment, I had spied a card from one of them and read it as soon as he went to the restroom. The card was a sympathy card because he had recently lost a beloved and aging pet. The card was from Jan who told him how much she looked forward to his hugs in the library and how grateful she was for his friendship. As I read the card, my heart fell, and my breathing stopped. I was scared, and I felt a little betrayed, but I could say nothing lest he know I was snooping around and reading the card on his desk.

As we drove to the state fair to meet his friends, who included Jan, I felt queasy thinking that I was going to spend the rest of the day with this girl who I suspected was after my fella and could likely easily steal him away. I reminded myself that he had several friend-girls, and that he had chosen to include me which he would not have done had he been romantically interested in her. The notion calmed me until we arrived at the fairgrounds.

She was attractive, and I could see in her eyes that she was really fond of my fella. I could also see that she and her friends looked me up and down and decided that I was easily booted off his arm. My fella, smart and talented man that he is, was clueless to the nonverbal communication sparking all around him. Truly, as much as I love him, he believes that everyone has the same innocent heart that he has, so when Jan asked, “Oh David, are you going to ride the Ferris Wheel with me?” and giggled, he laughed too. Me? I was gut punched as she continued with, “You said you would ride the Ferris Wheel with me, but what if we get stuck at the top?”

I was incredulous! I didn’t know whether to be angry with him or with her. How could she say something like that to him right in front of me? And how dare he let her? Who was she that she felt she could ride the Ferris Wheel with my boyfriend and giggle about it in front of me? As they decided to not ride the Ferris Wheel, without consideration for me, I panicked and struggled between fight or flight. Should I just let go and watch? Should I try to be friendly to her in a passive-aggressive approach? Should I push her into a moving vehicle? Smash her face with a carnival game hammer? What if I simply asked him to take me home?

Our small group decided to walk towards the food venders to try Sweet Potato Fries (remember this was pre-keto) since that was something that she and David had wanted to try together. Slightly nauseated, I tagged along behind them as they began to talk about turning cartwheels, something I had never been able to do. “Oh David, I can teach you how to do a cartwheel! I have always been really limber, and I was in gymnastics for several years. They used to call me Froggy!”

My heart and my head started doing cartwheels of their own. I spun from thoughts of “How dare she?” to “How dare HE?” Somehow, I suspected that he was clueless of how I was interpreting the evening and their friendship. The writing on the card of how she looked forward to his hugs, the plans to ride the Ferris Wheel and get stuck at the top – everyone knows what happens at the top of the Ferris Wheel! The comment about being limber, all of it, tumbled in my head as they ordered and shared a giant serving of sweet potato fries.

Fight or flight?

Fight or flight? I had to get away from her. I had to get him away from her. I feigned illness and asked to leave. On the ride home, he asked, a little hurt, “You didn’t like my friends?” For the first thirty seconds I tried to be calm and objective, and then it all tumbled out – the card, the Ferris wheel, Froggy, and then the sweet potatoes. If he wanted to date her, then he needed to tell me. He was stunned. Dating her had not crossed his mind. They were friends. I wanted to believe him, but she was young and attractive and limber! I was fat.

At the heart of my insecurities was my weight. It never occurred to me that I was a young professional who owned her own home, was working towards a Ph.D. and enjoying increasing professional success. I had a playful sense of humor that made him laugh, and I was one heck of a good cook. I found no confidence that I could be the one he preferred because, regardless of all other circumstances, she was something that I could never be. She was thin. None of my accomplishments ever topped the insurmountable struggle of my obesity.

That night at the fair I’ve no doubt that Jan wasn’t flirting with my guy. He may not have known it, but she knew. Worst of all, she knew that I knew what she was doing, and she didn’t care. I wonder if she would have done that had I been a size 6. If I could take the now healthy weight me back in time, the evening would have ended much differently. I would have had the confidence to take that handsome fella on the Ferris wheel and boasted gleefully about our time stuck at the top. Cartwheels? Oh no dear. I would have reminded that limber young lady about self-respect and mutual respect, in the kindest way only a Southern drawl can do, and on the way to the sweet potatoes, I would have suggested a detour to the turkey legs for a keto win!

My weight almost ruined my relationship with the man who is now my husband and the father of my children because I did not have confidence. I lacked the confidence to speak up for myself, and I lacked the confidence that he could chose me because of my weight. My boyfriend never rejected me because of my weight, but I struggled to believe that he could choose me because I was fat.

Our children do not know that part of the story. They giggle and tease dad because he got in trouble that evening and was utterly clueless. They, too, are incredulous that anyone would treat their mother like that, or maybe they are incredulous that mom would let someone treat her that way. Either way, the kids know a mom whose accomplishments are not overshadowed by a struggle with obesity. They know a mom who meets challenges and doesn’t run away in shame.

Kristie Sullivan

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