IanThere’s something attractive about not knowing where the finish line is.”
(Jay McNeil, Fat Man Walking)

This is my favourite line from McNeil’s account of a very personal journey, one which continues today and, based on the heft of the honesty he displays throughout, will likely continue for the rest of his life. What appears to be a book about weight loss is really an illustration of what it takes for humans to transform. In a time and place when we focus on outcomes and results, McNeil reveals the very human, emotional, fear-ridden and continuing process of changing the way he lives. That’s why the line above rings true for me: this is a story about his beginning to change in ways which not only extend his physical life but will actually make it meaningful in ways he knows he can’t yet perceive.

I know. Thirty one years ago I began my own personal journey in learning to live with my addiction to alcohol. As McNeil notes, “I had lost all perspective on my own life,” and, for me, it happened because I had also lost the ability to care about anything: relationships, responsibilities, life, health, and even other people. This is the beauty and truth of Fat Man Walking, that honesty is the only antidote when our souls and bodies, minds and hearts are sick: “Life has been scary on a daily basis since then. But there’s a joy in the clarity that comes with living an honest life,” he writes.

While I don’t know if we’re related, I’ve no doubt that we are, given the similar spelling of our surname and common Cape Breton heritage. We share a love of people and place and have worked in morning radio for extended periods of time. We made decisions to transform our lives as young men in our twenties. Our mothers’ made key interventions, as did trusted colleagues, who helped us to face the facts we denied so effectively for so long. “Looking back I could see the power of my own denial. When I don’t want to deal with a problem I can convince myself it just doesn’t exist,” writes McNeil.

It’s this openness which creates so much room for the reader to find a place in the book. McNeil reflects real human experience, with humanity and courage, with which every one of us has the opportunity to identify… if we’re honest. As someone who has been dishonest with me and others, too many times and at too great a cost, I saw myself on every page. “My life had become an open book and people were starting to connect with it. What I heard over and over again was that I was putting words to the feelings others felt,” he writes.

I also learned much that I didn’t know by reading Fat Man Walking. McNeil’s journalistic approach takes the reader through the digestive tract, the day in the life of a 400-plus pound man, the surgery procedure and all the small choices and decisions which added up to a healthier body as well as a stronger mind and spirit. These steps lead to key turning points in the narrative where McNeil is presented with what is the same question every time, as it was by the doctor who interviewed him before his lap band surgery: “Jay, your obesity is a disease. You’re the size that you are because you’re sick. You are making choices that will kill you because you are sick. So the question isn’t do you want to lose weight, it’s do you want to live?”

Because the only “cure” for McNeil’s disease is changing the way he lives and, because this process will continue throughout his now extended life, I was reminded of my own experience in how even successful change presents new challenges. Among the most compelling examples was the impact of McNeil’s new health regime on his relationship with his brother: “I was worried the changes I was making in my life would change my relationship with him. We had always been close without really being close. He lived away for most of my adult life but when I needed him I knew he was there. I wasn’t sure that was going to be true this time because in judging my own decisions and my own lifestyle it would be easy to assume I was judging his as well. I wasn’t though. I was making these changes because I had learned what had motivated my bad choices. I was making these changes because I was unhealthy and unhappy. I couldn’t assume that he was too. I needed to change for me. I had no interest in trying to change anyone else.”

The authenticity of McNeil’s feelings and intentions holds throughout the entire book. He reaches a turning point where he realizes that changing his outward appearance commands a thorough examination of his internal life. “This was about balance. By making my body healthier but continuing to live the same life I had built around me when I was the most unhealthy, I was setting myself up for failure. I needed to bring balance to those other aspects of my life.” What this internal review reveals will impress, perhaps even surprise, readers of Fat Man Walking.

In telling his story, Jay McNeil also reflects the goodness of Cape Bretoners, from the colleague with “a bullshit sensor like no one else” to the smiling nurse who leads him to a hospital weigh scale. He may not live and work on the island of his birth these days, an agonizing decision he documents in the book, but reading the words of Fat Man Walking will show how the goodness of Cape Breton still lives in him. In a time when the people of this place have been told in the “Now or Never” report by Ray Ivany to consider living and making a living in new ways, the lessons in Jay McNeil’s fine book will inspire individuals and, I expect, our society in Nova Scotia.

 Ian McNeil, former journalist & broadcaster, Baddeck, Nova Scotia, March 2014.

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