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Sisters share love, fear and pain of obesity

September 5, 2006
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

“My Other Body” by Ann Pai is the story of a woman’s struggle with obesity as seen through the eyes of her younger sister.

With 82 million obese American adults struggling with their issues, plus the people who love them struggling with their issues, there are plenty of emotional lessons to learn in this book.

I had to phone Pai when I finished reading her memoir. Since I watched my older sister die of obesity, I wanted Pai to tell me what I should have done, felt, or said to prevent Jeannette’s premature death.

“There are no easy answers,” Pai said from her home near Lawrence, Kan. “How can we know another person’s life?”

Pai said her sister, Joyce, weighed more than 500 pounds when she entered the hospital near her life’s end.

“Strangers and surgeons looked at her with revulsion and fear,” said Pai. “But Joyce had been my hero, teacher, confidante, and combatant. I struggled at Joyce’s bedside to remember her before obesity and to support her as she lay fighting for her life.

“I don’t know why my sister gained so much weight,” Pai said. “She was very private about that. We all wear masks to cover up whatever is wrong in our lives.”

Pai, 39, not only tells the story of her sister's fatal struggle with obesity but her own journey from compulsive eating toward better mental health

She says her memoir is different from other stories about obesity.

“This isn’t a story of victimhood or the triumph of thinness over obesity,” she said. “It’s a story of love.”

”My Other Body” weaves together three stories: the memories of sisterhood, Joyce’s decent through multiple, fatally undiagnosable illnesses, and Pai’s life as a woman managing a compulsive eating disorder.

”There’s no cure for compulsive eating, just recovery,” said Pai. “I know I’m going to be challenged by this habit of reaching for food for comfort for the rest of my life. I have to be conscious of choices. I have to choose health.

“We are bombarded by images of perfection to sell us fixes, but the mind and body are very complex,” Pai said. “There are no easy answers. We’re not perfect. We have to make as many positive choices as we can. Positive, giving, active behavior changes our lives.”

But why couldn’t Joyce or Jeannette make those choices?

“Perfectionism can be crippling,” said Pai. “The first step is impossible if you don’t see the goal. But what you do with your life is always more important than (your body’s) housing. That’s why health is important – to have a body that keeps going.”

Pai said part of her impetus in writing the book was the desire to tell her family’s story honestly, without taking cheap shots or assigning blame.

Ultimately, she wanted readers to meet a woman weighing 550 pounds and not judge her with a cold heart.

“Is this your gift to Joyce?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” Pai said. “I didn’t want to betray her and there’s not a word I would hesitate to have her or my parents read. I’m glad to have written it and I’m glad the hard part is over,” she added.

Pai said the loss of a sister initiates a complex grief, as does the loss of someone whose health declines over a period of time.

“My sister went into the hospital on Sept. 11, 2001, and died later that year,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to write about her. A year passed and the story was still gripping me.”

Finally, in January of 2003 she began to write the factual story of Joyce’s hospitalization. Then she began to write about their childhood. Then she began to write about compulsive eating. She finished the book two years later.

“I was told the story would make a difference to people,” she said. “And finishing it was marvelous and it strengthened my relationship with my parents.”

Pai said that while she has been publishing and performing poetry for 20 years she didn’t think she had the discipline to write a book.

“But I developed discipline in my career as a technical writer,” she said.

Then came her decision to self-publish the book.

“I haven’t regretted that decision,” she said. “I have the energy, health and desire to do the marketing and I have a lot more control over it.”

The book can be ordered by going to www.sunspotpress.com

“My mother told me to be fair and honest writing the story and it would work out. She was right.”

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

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