The Vanishing Man

Dain Dillingham
Jan 2, 2018 · 7 min read

With the new year comes new resolutions and while there are a thousand different goals that could be set, undoubtedly one of the resolutions we see most often is to lose weight. But this year, I don’t need or want to lose weight. I want to gain it back. These days our relationships to our bodies, what we feel they say about us, whether real or perceived, and how they make us feel, are fraught with emotional landmines. Explosions of hurt and shame we somehow never feel prepared for and often feel even less equipped to address honestly with ourselves. I know this because I’ve spent four years wasting away beneath layers of clothes and unseen pain.

It’s a difficult thing to feel yourself disappearing.

It’s even harder to watch it.

One lost calorie at a time. One pound. One more bone you can see today that wasn’t there the one before. For the last four years I’ve been in a constant struggle with food and putting words to it has felt like a weight I haven’t been able to lift. But I’m hoping to change that.

Four years ago I woke up in a strange room, in a strange place, with lines running in and out of my body, more questions than answers, and barely the strength to ask any of them. I’d just been through surgery to repair a shattered C5 vertebra which subsequently left me paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors spent that day and the next six weeks helping me to understand not only my current situation but my life going forward. What I couldn’t of known though, and what they couldn’t of had a way to tell me, was what it would really mean to see and feel the changes my body would have to go through.

At the time, my right bicep was the only muscle that seemed to work but it wasn’t enough to lift a spoon, or fork, or anything yet, so over those first few days and weeks, family, friends and nurses alike took turns feeding me and helping me eat. It was a feeling I will never forget. I had been a star athlete and someone who worked with my body all of my life, and now here I was asking for someone to cut and give me a slice of hospital hamburger or meatloaf or whatever fine delicacy was on the menu that day. It felt helpless. It felt embarrassing. It felt like a constant reminder of the trauma I’d faced in my accident. It just felt…awful. And it made me not want to go through the process. So I didn’t. Or at least, I did it as rarely and as quickly as possible.

I’ve since regained all of the strength and ability to not only feed myself but fix my own food. And while it is a skill and level of Independence I take immense pride in, eating still feels like a task for me. My blood pressure tends to fluctuate after I eat, which for me, means that as I sit in my chair I can start to feel dizzy, as though I’m about to black out if I don’t lean back so that my blood flow can even itself out. This feeling can last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. It can be frustrating even when I’m just by myself at home, let alone if I’m out with friends. I try to hide it. I tilt back in my chair quickly. I continue talking as though I’m not seeing black spots in my vision. Eventually it passes and life goes back to the version of normal I’ve come to recognize.

I’ve also spent hours stressing that if I eat too much I’ll become overweight and I won’t be able to work it off. Within that is just a societal fear born of the way we’ve all seen overweight people treated, especially overweight and disabled people, and it’s that they’re not taken seriously. It’s the people we view as being burdens whether to society or their family or whatever. I had no idea just how internalized that fear was until I found myself in this position of vulnerability. This feeling, thought, and in many ways truth, that I could be one of society’s cast offs. Dismissed in the eyes of others for choices I didn’t have a chance to make, but were instead made for me by a body that betrayed me. I saw that fear in every pasta dish and piece of pizza that landed in front of me. And as is the case with so many of the things that frighten us the most, I sought strength and a blanket to hide under in something I thought I could control. That thing was my next bite. Or in many cases, a first bite. I’ve often looked up and found myself in the middle of an afternoon having still not taken the time to eat. So whether it’s been fear, or just the technical difficulty, eating has taken on significance that I often just don’t want to deal with. And so I don’t.

If the loss of appetite and that fear has been a hurdle to get over, then watching my body’s muscle disappear has been like tumbling down a mountain. My arms, my chest, my legs. Every day a little more of me seems to come up missing. As I get ready for bed every night there’s a caregiver that helps me take my pants off and every night, every time I see my legs, they look a little smaller. A little less like they were ever mine. I wonder how did these ever carry me across the court or through end zones. How did this ever walk me to class or through the downtown streets of my childhood. These can’t belong to me. They must be someone else’s. But they’re not. They are in fact mine. And they’re all I’ve got.

I went in to the hospital at 210 pounds. Today I’m about 155. I try to not have to look at myself in the mirror with my shirt off. I don’t like to see my shoulders. Or the way my collarbone protrudes out, like it could burst through my skin at any minute. I’ve noticed in particularly lean months when my cheeks start to look sunken. There are times I’ve seen myself in pictures and felt as though I were looking at a ghost. The reality is that the weight loss is a physical manifestation for what I’ve felt emotionally since the injury and that is simply the sense of losing myself. Of losing who and what I was. Not just the athlete and the worker but the guy who’s laugh and love for life could fill even the emptiest room. When I see my body I’m at once reminded of everything I was, everything I’ve lost, everything I’m not and everything I will never be again.

Why is it that we find ourselves so trapped in these bodies that should be our happy homes. Why are we so hard pressed to look out of our windows at a life we so desperately want to live but can’t open the door to go be apart of. These lives that we see others smiling in wondering if they’re real or if they’re as forced as the ones we’ve found ourselves wearing over dinners we can’t remember the words to with half eaten plates we hoped no one noticed.

The difficulty then, for myself and I think others, is in finding a way to build a new sense of self. In finding a way to confront and acknowledge my body and all of the changes physically and emotionally over the four years, and not just love it, but feel an ownership of it. Because I have spent a lot of time since my injury feeling powerless. Because in many ways I very much was. I was laid naked at the hands and feet of doctors and nurses and caregivers and life. I felt as though Death could have taken me and I would’ve left without a whisper. And it has been very hard to escape that feeling. At times I have found that power on the page, in the voices of my family, and in the touch of someone who loved me. But I have to find a way to see it within myself. I have to find a way to be more than just a whisper. To live my life as a statement. As a proclamation not just that bad things can be endured but that they can be overcome. And that I don’t have to be afraid of mirrors or store windows that show a reflection of myself I’ve spent too long trying to forget.

And as with all things this requires help. It requires time. It requires actual proactive steps like setting an eating schedule for myself and calorie intake and work out goals. It requires being successful some days and failing lots of others. It requires being honest about who I am and who I want to be. This collarbone that my fingers hesitate to trace. These jagged hips. These legs like river sticks. I’m a skeleton man made of everything life has given me. More tears than blood it’s often seemed. But I’m still standing next to my faith in a day when my eyes see more than this body and this body feels like more than it looks. I feel that beat against my chest, and am reminded, and know, that hope is where the heart is.

    Dain Dillingham

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