When I first met Bob and he asked me why I was overweight, I thought he was being a smart-ass. I was overweight for the same reason everybody else is, I answered smugly. I loved food.
It took me a while to get to the truth. I didn't love food. I used food to numb my negative feelings. It didn't matter what the feeling was—a phone call from someone I didn't want to talk to, a confrontation of any kind, being late, feeling tired, anxious or bored. No matter how insignificant the discomfort, my first reaction was to reach for something to eat, unaware of how much I was consuming. Living unconsciously was like being the walking dead. All my fat years—my unconscious years—are a blur to me now.
I grew up believing that people with money didn't have problems. Or certainly none that money couldn't solve. When I started my working life in Nashville and Baltimore, paying the rent and the electric bill and making payments on my car left me with just enough to buy groceries and get my hair done. Then, in 1986, my show went national. It changed the trajectory of my life. Now I had more money than I'd ever imagined, and everybody wanted some. The first thing I did was to retire my mother, father and a cousin who helped take care of me when I was growing up. My father let me buy him a new house and a Mercedes, but he refused to quit working in the barbershop. He's still there.
Then everybody came out of the woodwork. Distant family members I barely knew wanted me to completely take care of them or wanted to work for me. Relatives I hadn't seen since I was 10 years old showed up demanding thousands of dollars "because we're family." Helping my family was something I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to handle the total strangers who came to Chicago claiming to have spent their last dime leaving a battering spouse, or the teenagers who'd run away from home.
The first year, I helped almost everyone who asked me, family and strangers alike. It was stressful trying to figure out how much to give to whom, and before I knew it, they'd return for more. I was overwhelmed, but I never felt it. Once again, I just ate until I couldn't feel. By the end of the year, I weighed 200 pounds.