That Time I Got So Skinny So Fast I Was Afraid I Had Cancer

[image description: a selfie i took in 2016 with insufficient lighting, at age 45. i’m standing on my porch at night under my porchlight in ren faire garb, clad in a tunic of forest green. my hair is shoulder-length, my face partly obscured in shadow, and i’m the thinnest i’ve been since probably my early twenties. image copyright 2016 by “strider” lee.]

For most of my adult life I’ve had sit-down jobs. In fact, for almost a decade I worked as a customer service representative in a call centre, which meant that I was basically tied to a desk for 90% of my work day, not counting the hour I spent sitting down to eat my lunch, or the two fifteen minute breaks I wasted puffing on cancer sticks outside the front entrance of the building. In addition to this, aside from the occasional short-lived health kick (usually in the form of one fad diet or another), I’ve been a lifelong enthusiastic consumer of pub food, fast food, and alcohol (mostly in the form of beer, wine, or mead). So I’ve had what’s commonly known as a pot belly, or beer belly, for as long as I can remember. Well, that’s not exactly true, because I do still remember my childhood, when I was so skinny you could see my ribs, and “ate like a bird” according to my grandmother, so that one time a neighbour accused my mother of not feeding me and threatened to call child welfare; my teen years, when as the proverbial 98-pound weakling I first started lifting weights, and my early twenties, when I had six-pack abs. But my “working out” phase was short lived, and by the time I was forty-two I thought I’d never see those days again.

Then my mother died. I was unemployed when it happened, and there was a recession so I couldn’t find work. Eventually I had to abandon my mother’s rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment in the city where I’d wound up crashing after having previously lost my higher-rent studio, and move in with my sister in what had always been the family summer home, in a semi-rural area. This tiny two-bedroom house, barely more than a shack, was run down and constantly in need of repair, but we had an acre of land which my immigrant grandparents had been able to purchase at a steal back in the 1950’s along with the house itself which was built in 1943. It had no insulation but it did have electricity, running cold and hot water (unfortunately practically undrinkable due to high sulfuric content), and since my sister had moved up there a couple years prior, it also now had a brand new wood-burning stove in the living room for heating, which we supplemented with electric heaters in the other rooms.

When I first moved permanently into my current residence, it was late summer. Come autumn, I had to start splitting logs for the fire. I don’t mean that I went around felling trees; I’m talking about a cord of seasoned firewood we ordered and had delivered to us. But these logs were too big for our firebox, so I had to learn how to split them with a maul. It wasn’t easy and it took a while, but eventually I got pretty good at it. And it’s a good thing, too, because the winters here can be long and harsh. So this was the beginning of my new non-sedentary lifestyle, brief though it would prove to be. It was literally the first year of my life in which I was ever obligated to exert that much physical effort on a regular basis (as opposed to doing so voluntarily, as with the weightlifting), but as much as I hated it at first, I couldn’t deny the benefits. By winter’s end I found I had more energy, which made me feel ten years younger.

[image description: photo of a lit wood-burning stove of the sort we have in our home. attribution: 白蛇の騎士, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. image has been modified from its original source as is permitted under the terms of the license.]

Yet I still had a bit of a paunch. I’m guessing that was due to my age, eating habits, and regular consumption of alcoholic beverages. Smoking may have played a part as well. I’ve been a tobacco user for much of my life. Started with Newports when I was twelve, switched to Marlboros when I was sixteen, then ran the gamut in my twenties. I’ve probably smoked most of the brands anyone in America has ever heard of and then some. But then in my mid-thirties, inspired by Tolkien, I became almost exclusively a pipe smoker. That lasted until I was around forty, when for various reasons it became impractical for me to smoke pipes, so I’d switched to rolling my own cigarettes at this point.

All this time, my sister had been driving our late mother’s car, which was how we were able to get groceries. But right after the last snowfall of that first winter, one evening the brakes failed as we were coming down the mountain on our way home from grocery shopping and we almost crashed. We had the car towed to a mechanic and took a taxi home, but soon learned that the cost of repairing the vehicle was more than we could afford. So after that I had to walk back and forth to town in order to fetch food and supplies. Town was two and a half miles from our house, but I had a backpack for the groceries and a folding shopping cart that I could wheel additional groceries home in (especially the many gallons of bottled water we required since we couldn’t drink our well water), and once we were blessed with warmer weather it wasn’t much of a hardship anymore. But of course, there was a limit to the amount of groceries I could get at one time without a car, so my trips to and from town on foot became quite frequent.

[image description: “country road”. landscape photo of a paved unmarked rural road winding through deciduous forest in daylight during summer, lined with telephone poles, from the perspective of a pedestrian walking on the left-hand side. copyright 2016 by “strider” lee.]

Then that summer I landed a job in the seafood department of ShopRite. That actually wasn’t in what I’ve been referring to as “town”, which is really more of a village (and one that hasn’t had a real supermarket in decades), but rather in the next village over, which meant having to walk two and a half miles into “town” to catch a bus over the mountain into the next “town”, and then walk another three miles or so along a busy highway to the workplace. At this point you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just get a bicycle. Well, eventually I did. But I couldn’t manage some of those steep hills without getting winded (I’ve had asthma since I was a child and I was still a smoker at the time), and it made me nervous having to cycle with the traffic as is required by law rather than against it so that you can see what’s coming at you; especially when an 18 wheeler blew by me so fast and close one day that the wind it created nearly knocked me and my bike off the road. Oh, yeah, and then there was that night when despite my bright headlight I didn’t see this large fallen branch lying across the bike path and I was consequently catapulted into some roadside brush and nearly impaled on a sharp jagged metal pole that had snapped (probably due to a vehicle colliding with it) and for whatever reason had not been repaired or removed yet.

Anyway, the job at ShopRite was only part-time but with all the travelling I had to do it felt more like a full-time job except for the fact that I did have two or three days a week to rest between adventures–and man, did I cherish those! And yes, being into tabletop roleplaying games, of course I likened my situation to a D&D solo adventure. Eventually, walking became so much a part of my life that at one point my friends tried to nickname me “Walker” until I half jokingly suggested “Strider” and it stuck. I’m nowhere near as tall as Aragorn, but people have often remarked that I have a long stride. In fact, a childhood friend once nicknamed me “Daddy Longlegs”. But due to the walking and the job at the supermarket I became pretty well known in the area, so it wasn’t long before people who saw me walking on the road as they were driving by started stopping to give me rides. That was mostly during the day, though, and my real problem was on certain nights; namely the ones on which it fell to me to close up the seafood department.

That wasn’t an easy job, and I only had a limited time to do it. In fact, if I wanted to make it out of there by the end of my shift I had to start before it was over, which meant that customers could still come up to the counter demanding something I’d already put away (and this happened pretty frequently). It wasn’t merely that I had to put all the fish away, all in their separate containers, I then had to get all the ice out of the display cases, and then thoroughly clean the display cases, and the rest of the department as well, including sweeping and mopping. The crux, however, was that my shift on those nights ended at 10pm and the last bus back to my little village left at the same time. So even if I closed on time (which I eventually learned to do rather well), I wouldn’t be able to catch the bus; not even if one of my co-workers gave me a ride across town. So if I couldn’t get anyone to drive me all the way home, which was often, I’d have to walk. Seven miles. Over a mountain.

[image description: “mountain road”. landscape photo of a paved mountain highway with painted yellow double lines down the centre, winding through deciduous forest in daytime during summer under clear blue skies, from the perspective of a pedestrian walking on the left shoulder. copyright 2016 by “strider” lee.]

In the beginning I had to do this at least twice a week. And it would take me around four hours. I’d typically get home at around two or three in the morning, and if I was lucky, I wouldn’t have an early shift the next day. In the summer it wasn’t so bad, except when it rained. In autumn and early winter was when it really began to suck. But it wasn’t just the weather that made it awful. Even at the best of times, it was the boredom. I didn’t feel safe listening to music or audiobooks with headphones or earbuds since I might not hear an oncoming car. So mostly I just sang to myself, or recited poetry, my own and that of others I’d memorised–and smoked–and drank. I always made sure I took plenty of beer or wine with me on my long journey, as well as a few snacks.

There were times when drivers would lean on the horn as they passed me by and some would even gesticulate at me or yell something out the window that I couldn’t make out due to the Doppler effect I guess, and the reason for that–or so I surmised–was this mistaken belief that pedestrians are supposed to walk with the traffic rather than against it, like cyclists. This is not true, as they would know if they ever bothered to read their Driver’s Manual. Walkers and bikers use the same path, at least where I live. Think about that. You want your walkers to be walking in the opposite direction of your cyclists so they can get out of the way of the cyclist without them having to honk a horn or ring a bell (or in the absence of either, yell “WATCH YOUR BACK!!!” as one errant cyclist coming up behind me on the wrong side of the road once did). Also, if you’re walking towards oncoming traffic you’re less likely to get hit by a car or truck–even if diving into the roadside brush might kill you just as easily.

Looking back, however, I now see what a blessing in disguise this time in my life really was. I’d never felt more alive. I also briefly discovered the joys of hiking. Growing up in the city, I’d always been drawn to natural surroundings. I used to hang out in parks a lot, and often my friends and I would leave the paved paths and explore the more densely wooded, half-wild areas (usually looking for a secluded spot to smoke pot), and I had once gone on a school camping trip for a weekend in Massachusetts, where I learned a few useful wilderness survival skills including starting a fire using the hand drill method, but this was the first time I’d ventured alone into actual wilderness, if only for a short distance. I could sense a power there that could only faintly be felt in urban areas, if at all. Had things turned out differently, I have no doubt that I would have become a frequent hiker and camper. I can only imagine what it would be like to be there now, on the mountain, in the depths of winter.

[image description: “blazed trail”. rocky path through a dense deciduous forest during daytime in the summer. in the distance the blue trail blazing mark painted on the trunk of a tree can be seen. copyright 2016 by “strider” lee.]

My lot improved tremendously when my sister’s ex-boyfriend, who was a mechanic, gave her a car. She still couldn’t always pick me up because she’d also gotten a job by then, closer to home, but with equally crazy hours–that’s how it is around here, and good luck finding anything but part-time work–but at least I didn’t have to haul groceries anymore. Then, having reunited with our estranged father and his wife, who paid off our back taxes so we wouldn’t lose the house and also bought us smart phones and put us on their family plan, things were starting to look up. With the phone my walks became a lot less boring because now I could play Pokémon Go–though sometimes I could walk for over an hour and not encounter a single Pokémon, and in the meantime the game would drain my battery so quickly that I eventually had to invest in a portable charger. As I would discover later on, Pokémon were far more numerous in the city, and also far more diverse, but in retrospect the scarcity made playing in the country a lot more challenging and rewarding!

As I recall it took about six months of this regular, sustained exercise consisting mostly of walking before I began to notice, but suddenly as if overnight, the fat had melted off my bones! It happened so fast it was alarming. My first thought was that I had cancer, because one of the symptoms given on Web MD is sudden weight loss. But luckily, it wasn’t. It was apparently just perfectly normal weight loss due to all that exercise. And I hadn’t changed anything else about my lifestyle! I still drank as much, ate as much (in fact probably more, due to the increased activity), and smoked as much as I ever had before, and yet here I was, thinner than I’d been in two decades. And it felt great! I felt like I was twenty-five instead of forty-five. Just from all that walking–and I know that must have been what did it because of what happened next.

[image description: landscape photo taken with a smart phone running the pokemon go app, featuring a pokemon known as zubat, resembling a blue bat, flying over the green grass of a real life rural scene during the day in the middle of summer. in the background a large barn-like structure, painted white with a green roof, with a white picket fence around it, stands beside a mountain highway against clear blue skies. painted in large black block letters on the side of the structure are the words “local = good” in all caps. image copyright 2016 by “strider” lee.]

When I finally secured full time work, it was in the form of a nice cushy office job in the city. And a year later, despite having to walk two and a half miles to town every weekday morning to catch the bus to work, and then if my sister wasn’t available to pick me up, which was often, another two and a half miles back home again at the end of the workday–I was back to my old self again, beer belly and all, because I spent most of my days sitting; either at a desk or on the three hour bus rides back and forth between my village and the city. Also, with the addition of a propane heater for our kitchen kindly donated by a good friend’s mother, I no longer had to split wood for the fire.

And then COVID-19 happened, and I got sent home from the job on paid leave, and my sister and I didn’t leave our property at all during quarantine, just having all of our groceries delivered to us. And when my employer tried to get me to return to work a few months later despite the pandemic not being even remotely over, I refused and was subsequently let go. So since March of 2020 I’ve been more sedentary than I’ve ever been in my entire adult life, unwilling to risk going anywhere in this strange land of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who think they’re freedom fighters because they watch Fox News, and in the meantime age has finally caught up with me. Lower back pain and bad knees limit my mobility and make me less inclined to willingly exercise. My beer belly is bigger than ever before. Friends, I no longer deserve the name of “Strider”. Henceforth you may refer to me as Fatty Bolger!

“Going Down To Liverpool” by Katrina and the Waves

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

4 thoughts on “That Time I Got So Skinny So Fast I Was Afraid I Had Cancer

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