A Spiritual Solution

Five-foot-two. 240 pounds. 28 years old. Was it too late for a new me?

by

 A smiling Noma Jewell leans on a tennis net while holding a racket.

The worst week of my life? No question: The one that began on July 20, 1981. The best week of my life? Again, the answer is easy: that same week.

"Two hundred and forty pounds!" my doctor said, eyeing the numbers on the scale grimly. "Noma Jewell, for a five-foot-two, 28-year-old, that's dangerous. You're either going to be dead or in a wheelchair by the time you're 30."

Friday, near the end of my shift at the beauty salon where I worked, my boss called me into the back for a "talk."

"Noma Jewell," he said, "I like you. The customers like you. You do a good job here. But I can't keep paying a salary to someone who spends half her time resting up in the ladies' room. If you don't do something, we'll have to let you go."

But did I want to do something? That was the question. I'd fallen back on the usual excuses all my life—I was "big-boned," I had a slow metabolism, it was all in my genes.

Fact was, I was addicted to eating. From the moment I woke up to the moment I turned off the TV at night, I ate.

Cookies, doughnuts, candy bars and ice cream made up the majority of my daily caloric intake. I threw in half a dozen muscle relaxants to cut the back pain caused by those 100 extra pounds.

I finished my shift and got into my car. My heart was racing. Okay, take it easy. You can fix this. You'll drop 40 pounds. That should be enough to keep things okay at work and keep you out of the coronary unit. You've lost weight before. You can do it again.

It was so pointless! I'd slimmed down more times than I could count. At 14, I was so scared of starting high school as a fatty that I lost 50 pounds over the summer. I literally starved myself. I gained it all right back by the new year.

Same thing in my early twenties. My girlfriends settled into marriages and careers while I languished at a dead-end job. So I went on a big-time diet. I lost 85 pounds in six months. Again, I packed it all back on within a year. My problem wasn't taking the weight off. It was keeping it off.

My latest reason for piling it on was a sad but familiar one: men. I'd gone through two broken engagements in the past six months. Fine, I figured. Men don't like me? I can deal with that. I'd rather stay home with the TV anyhow.

I was now more than 60 pounds heavier than when I'd started at the salon.

Driving home I stopped at a red light near the convenience store where I usually stocked up. I tried not to think about it. I knew what was coming.

I'd go home and scour the apartment, dumping all my goodies in the trash. I'd survive on white-knuckle willpower. It would keep me going for a few months, till I'd lost enough to get the boss and my doctor off my back, and go back to eating the way I wanted to.

I'd feel good too. My back wouldn't hurt so much. My clothes would fit. But inevitably something would set me off—a rude comment at work, an argument with a friend or relative. That's all it took.

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I would pull right back into the convenience store and walk out with two boxes of cookies and a gallon of mint chocolate-chip. It was the only thing that would make me feel better. People were lousy friends. Food never let me down.

Sitting at that traffic light—the longest of my life—it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had let myself down, time and again. Trying and failing. Now I was in real trouble. I wasn't just overweight, I was dying, as sure as if I had a fatal disease.

Did I want to live or did I want to overeat? This time I had to make a choice, a real choice. I had to do something different.

I closed my eyes. God, help me. Help me. I can't handle this. I'm powerless. You need to do something here because I can't. It's as simple as that. If you heal me, I'll spend the rest of my life helping other overweight people. I'll even give the money I save on junk food to a church or charity.

I opened my eyes. The light had turned green. I put my foot on the accelerator, not exactly sure what had just happened, but sure that something had. Talking to God was nothing new to me. But crazy as it sounds, I had never brought up my weight.

I was ashamed, I guess. Or maybe I was afraid that if I really honestly asked for his help, I would have no choice but to accept it and change.

I went home and threw away all my junk food, just as planned. Something felt different. There was no urgency, no desperation, no frenzy of self-loathing. I felt a sense of calm—almost of foreknowledge. This time something really would change. Somehow I just knew it.

The next day at work one of my regulars came in. For a second I didn't recognize her. "What happened to you?" I asked as she settled in for a shampoo. "You look like you lost 20 pounds!"

"Thirty," said the woman.

I had to know her diet secret. "Actually," she explained, "a friend introduced me to a recovery program for overeaters. There's no diet per se. They put a spiritual slant on your overeating. You ask God for help in losing weight.

"Obesity isn't just a physical problem. It's a spiritual one. Once you bring God into the equation, everything changes."

Change. That word again. Was I ready for it? Suddenly I remembered that feeling I'd gotten at the traffic light the night before. It flooded through me again: Lord, you sent this woman in here today!

A couple of days later I walked into a 12-step program for overeaters. I didn't want to be there. Then people started talking and sharing. One by one they told their stories.

One man talked about how he'd come to see the connection between his parents' drinking and his drift toward obesity as a child. My father had been a heavy drinker. I'd never made the connection between Dad's zoning out with a bottle of whiskey and my doing the same with a box of cookies.

A slender girl talked about the "God-shaped hole" inside her—one that she'd tried unsuccessfully to fill with pies and milkshakes, until she learned to bring her desire for food to the one place where it could truly be healed.

The time came for newcomers to raise their hands. I forced mine up and managed to stammer out a few words about myself. Folks applauded warmly. Afterward people crowded around. I walked out armed with a fistful of phone numbers. "Call anytime," everyone said. They meant it too.

So began my new life. Instead of a mad dash to lose weight through iron-willed determination, I took things a day at a time, and took God with me every step of the way.

Yes, the weight came off. But something more did too—the shame and anger, the feelings of worthlessness that had plagued me my whole life. I learned to turn it all over. My higher power was no longer food. That's how I kept the weight off.

Guess what? This year marks 24 years since my doctor and my boss read me the riot act. That worst week ever turned out to be the best—an incredible turning point I could never have imagined as I sat in my car desperately waiting for that long light to change.

Seven years into my new life I met a wonderful man. We fell madly in love, married and—most unbelievably of all—honeymooned in France without my gaining a pound (or starving myself)!

Before, I'd lost weight for me—so I could fit into a dress, attract a man or maybe have other women envy or admire me. Now, I discovered there were other, far better reasons to keep the weight off—and that they all involved helping others. In 1986 I joined a church and started teaching Bible classes.

The experience made me realize how much I enjoyed working with children. I went back to school for the diploma I'd never managed to get before (back in the days when the only thing I could be sure of finishing was a jumbo-sized package of cookies).

Today, I'm a tutor and mentor, working with inner-city kids. That's a miracle.

Oh, there have been setbacks. In 1990 both my parents died. I stopped talking to God, fell back into old patterns: watching TV, snacking compulsively, using food not as nourishment, but as an escape from my feelings. I relapsed, gaining 25 pounds in six weeks.

Fortunately, I had a support network: people who wouldn't let me slip back into my old self-destructive ways. People who, when I didn't return calls, showed up at my door. I got back on track, and the weight I gained came off again.

Then a few years ago my husband had triple-bypass surgery. There was the temptation to use the event as an excuse for another relapse. But this time I did the right thing, turning to my friends and to God for help.

I got through it without gaining a pound. Instead of destroying myself I reached out and helped others in their recovery.

As much as nearly anything, helping other overeaters played a huge part in keeping me where I need to be today. When you learn how to be there for others, you learn how to be there for yourself too.

Food was never just food to me. It was a substance I abused, like drugs or alcohol or tobacco. It was a substitute for a real relationship with God. Today I am a miracle. That's what change is—a miracle. And personal change, I'm convinced, never happens without God.

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