McDonald’s Used to Be My Playground

I come from a single Mom who worked more than any one person should have to in order to raise my younger brother and I. She didn’t have a choice in the hours she worked and the overtime she put in because, as a single mother, all you can see is the life you’ve always wanted for your family and reach to attain it.

For this reason, we struggled with things growing up; my brother and I, my mom and I, my grandma and I, my aunts and uncles and cousins…we all struggled. And, I was generally at the center of the drama. I wasn’t the cool, calm and collected me of now back then. In fact, I wasn’t this me until…well, very recently.

For most of my grown childhood (say 13–23), I was a terror. I was a screaming and shouting, demanding and whining, messy bucket of frustration and rage. I was also a boy of fairly significant size; specifically, round. One might have called it pleasantly plump but in reality, I was just plain F-A-T.

I was so heavy that I not only hated my body, I hated myself. Everywhere I looked there were aspirations of fitness, health and happiness in every TV, magazine and billboard advert directed at me but there was no education surrounding it and certainly no healthy offerings at McDonald’s like there are today.

Let’s role play for a moment.

You’re a single mom working as a critical care nurse pulling four, five or sometimes six 12-hour shifts in a row.

First of all, that doesn’t even sound safe.

Your kids are 14 and 8. You love them very much — in fact, you’d do anything for them, they are your pride and joy. You don’t see them as much as you’d like but when you do see them, you want to do anything you can to make them happy.

It’s just after your overnight shift at the hospital (11 pm — 11 am) where you’ve endured gun shot wounds, domestic violence, drug addicts and more. You finally arrive home and you’ve just got time for a quick 2-hour power nap. At 3 pm, your youngest son needs to get collected from school; your older son at 5:30 pm. After a quick, casual greeting in the car quickly, it’s dinner time. What are the choices? Well, typically it was McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC or The Ground Round, a local American-style pub and burger joint.

Sound disgusting? Revolting? I know…to me, too.

But then…then, I was in heaven when those were our dinner choice options. I’ll say it…I was happy as a pig in shit and, frankly that’s because I was.

After a day like the above, what Mother would have the energy to convince her two sons that she’s going to make a delicious vegetarian dish with eggplant, tofu, tomato and onion?

None. And, to be fair, who on 2 hours sleep would have the energy to even actually cook?

In school, there was no education, support or encouragement to eat healthy. I bought my lunch on most days. With no supervision at all, I could easily have a cheeseburger, a slice of pizza, french fries and a chocolate shake for lunch. There were no true healthy offerings, no words of encouragement from teachers or staff. The exception was always a few lonely, disappointed looking apples or oranges at the end of the lunch queue.

Did you see what I already have on my tray, sister?

Where, after filling my tray with all of the other ample offers, does an apple or an orange left as an after thought even come into play? I don’t think so, hey.

There’s a reason grocery stores put the fruit and veg in the front section and the chocolates on the checkout aisles. I’m just hypothesizing here but I think if they switched the placements for a month, both fruit and candy sales would drop.

With no health education other than a few classes on sex, something that wasn’t even on my mind as I was a good 50 lbs over a healthy weight, I had no true concept of how I was polluting my body.

Gym classes were also a joke as we mostly changed clothes, sat in the bleachers or walked around the track. This was ‘gym’ for a fat person where I grew up. There was no interest in teaching, training or mentoring. The gym teachers were those stereotypical gym teachers you see in American films. If you wanted to play kickball, baseball, dodgeball…you could. At least there was that. But, why would in the world would I voluntarily engage in an activity where my peers are going to ridicule me? I’m a middle school student.

Ugh. Can this day just be over yet? I’m so tired and feeling really sick to my stomach.

Last period finally arrives and I settle in and get cozy for the rest of the afternoon. I’ve arranged my schedule so that I actually have two back-to-back classes in the same room. Pretty sweet, right?

Well, it gets better because my after school activity also happens to be in the same room. So, here I am from around 1:30 pm until 5:30 pm or so settled into the auditorium for my favourite class, theatre. (It’s actually two classes but I can’t really remember any distinguishing characteristics between the hours spent there in class.)

When you think about fat people, there are generally two main stereotypes that emerge: the sad, lonely and depressed fatty or the happy-go-lucky, not a care in the world, funny but secretly sad, lonely and depressed fatty.

Well, I was the second one and the theatre felt like home. Yes, home…not a second home…home. I couldn’t sing (still can’t), couldn’t dance (much improved) and I’m pretty sure I was a terrible actor but for some reason, I felt at home.

Our theatre teacher welcomed me and everyone else with open arms; the theatre became a family, a community. There were no judgments here — if you were happy being fat, be fat.

When every other class is littered with jokes about breaking chairs, unbecoming odors or some other mundane, elementary form of humour, being somewhere where you don’t have to continually think about your weight is like an oasis in the middle of the Nairobi dessert.

Begrudgingly, I would leave the theatre when the doors closed around 5:30 or 6 pm. My mom would pick me up, my brother already in the car. As we greeted, I was never truly happy to see them; I wasn’t happy about anything. And, I couldn’t understand why.

We’re in the car and it’s dinner time now.

Let’s re-cap the choices: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC or The Ground Round.

Let’s get real for a minute.

If you were a child of the 80s (and maybe 90s) living in the US, this should be an easy one for you.

Who had the best toys with their kid’s meals?

McDonald’s.

Who had the best playgrounds with those awesome ball pits?

McDonald’s.

Who had those rad boxes with the games on it?

McDonald’s.

At Burger King, you were lucky if you got a crown and smile; The Ground Round boasted balloons and KFC offered no child-friendly perks at all.

Where do you think we ended up more times than not?

You guessed it, McDonald’s.

7 of 10 times we probably ended up on McDonald’s and, believe me, that wasn’t for lack of my trying to push that number higher. Obesity in America is an epidemic. Currently, 1 in every 3 adults in the US is classified as obese and 17% or almost 1 in every 5 teenagers. On top of this, another 1/3 of American adults are overweight. Thanks to a McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Burger King on every corner, we are a nation where approximately 2/3 of the population are overweight.

This should scare you. It terrifies me.

As I grew older, my inability to use the McDonald’s playground didn’t deter me from their greasy, paper-wrapped papers of joy; it simply gave us a reason to no longer have to sit inside.

It was about this time that my Mom was suddenly around less and less; I remember her working even more, pushing herself to her physical breaking point and often ending up sick off work because of it.

Grandma started watching us a lot in the evenings. Now, we would just zip through the drive-thru of McDonald’s, grab the food and then eat at home. If we timed it just right, we could miss the one 30-minute news block that interrupted our regularly scheduled evening TV viewings by going to the drive-thru during this window.

By this point, I had moved beyond a Happy Meal and was ordering a Big Mac Super-Sized Combo with a Coke, a 6-piece chicken nugget and a small fry. I know what you’re thinking.

Where were this kid’s parents?

Well, if you’ve been paying attention, this kid is me, no matter how distant and completely dissimilar I feel to that version of myself in the present moment. And, well, you already know about my parents.

You’re probably still thinking, ‘no…someone took him to McDonald’s, someone allowed him to eat like a savage’.

But, you’re forgetting one key element I touched on earlier, I was a terror. I was a mixed up, confused and terrified teenager. I was the kid who pretended to be friends with everyone but didn’t even like myself.

When I stopped pretending, my feelings of loneliness, fear, rejection and more surfaced to the top.

They manifested themselves into anger, resentment and worse, hatred. Embarrassed enough in the outside world, these feelings bottled up inside me.

Believe me, there was no reasoning with old me. I was the bull in the china shop, the one guy never willing to lose the debate, the annoying, persistent, whining brat of a child who will annoy the other patrons of a restaurant so his parents HAVE to do something. I told you, I was a child-monster.

(I’m so sorry, Mom.)

When I got my first car, the McDonald’s addiction was quite possibly at an all-time high.

My favorite meal has always been and will always be breakfast. And, the McDonald’s Egg and Sausage McMuffin with Cheese is a winner. Grab an under-toasted, over-buttered English muffin, a greasy, moist slab of mystery beef and an overcooked, definitely not free-range, egg with a slice of processed cheese and I was in heaven. Along with 2 hash browns, a coffee with cream and a large Coke, it was my favorite meal at that stage of my life.

I remember many mornings after a quick run through the drive-thru having to park on the side of the road in the little lake community I lived in and lie down to prevent myself from throwing up. A few times I wasn’t fortunate enough to realize that I could lie down to settle my stomach and, well, you can imagine it doesn’t taste nearly as good in the reverse direction.

By the time I had a car of my own, my fate of living off of drive-thru’s and the greasiest, richest foods I could find had been sealed.

I was the stereotypical funny, charismatic fat guy that everyone both laughs with and at…and, that was okay. In fact, that was more than okay. Finally, I fit into at least one box that made me like ‘everyone else’.

Why don’t I fit into other boxes? A million reasons but those are stories for another time.

There are times where I remember my family tried to cook more, tried to make it a routine and something that we had to do every night but, sadly, when you’re a single mother working those kinds of hours, it’s always going to be an uphill battle.

In my limited, lonely world view, what was the point in trying new fads or diets? Why go through the effort of going to the gym? People seemed to like this funny, fat me so why fight it even though inside I hated myself?

It’s easy to say had my teachers been more engaged, cared more about their students, things might have been different.

If there had there been education in the classrooms about healthy eating, leading an active lifestyle and the things that matter in life, would I be a different person right now? Impossible to say.

If I didn’t have a loving, genuine and hard-working Mother who literally would work herself to the point of exhaustion to care for us, what kind of a person might I be today?

The answer is it truly does not matter.

Today, I am the happiest, most fulfilled and loved person in this very moment.

As I write these words, I am sitting in my back garden with our two furry cat kids, sipping an incredible Vietnamese coffee and listening to the sounds of smooth jazz from the neighborhood surround sound. Some days, I’ll be writing with the backdrop a stunning sunset on the beaches of Vietnam and my fiancé by my side. To say life is pretty darn good would be an understatement. So, how did I get this lucky? Where did this magical turn of fate happen?

Well, it’s been years since I’ve (willingly) stepped foot inside a McDonald’s; the smells are too overwhelming and it reminds me too much of my former self, someone lost, overwhelmed and filled with pain. It saddens me to think about the old me, a depressed, shell of who I am today.

For me, dwelling on the past solves no problems. And, ultimately, it means very little. But I do believe, we should always learn from our mistakes, elevate our consciousness and share a message of hope, light and love.

For this reason, I share my story.

And, a tip or two I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Watch out for consumerism; it’s more dangerous than you think. Every day brands are subtly building relationships with you, with your family. Being aware of this and actively engage with their messaging. You can decide what’s best yourself. While McDonald’s used to be my playground of choice, these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find me stepping foot inside of one now.
  2. Don’t be a jerk. Not only is this a good life rule, it’s something I try to live by. If you’re the fat kid at school, you already know. No amount of teasing, jokes or low brow humour is going to suddenly change us. And, it’s certainly not going to make us feel better about ourselves. We may put on a brave face but your words have meaning. Remember this always.
  3. Go forward in love. And, no, I don’t mean I love you so much I’m going to feed you. I mean live your life as a loving, genuine and real person. A person who loves and respects other people isn’t mean to fat people, gays, blacks, Muslims or anyone else for that matter. They’re just not. End of story.
  4. Slow down and appreciate your life. Work less, spend more time with your family and take the time to experience each and every moment for the beautiful opportunity it truly is.

Truly, these four things have changed my life. And, I hope, even if just for a moment, they might change yours.

This is my first story on Medium and it was inspired by reading Your Fat Friend’s story here; a highly recommended read.

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