The Spiritual Path at Fat Camp

After a ten-year relationship ends painfully, Mona Kirschner finds herself searching for emotional and physical healing at a weight loss center in Brazil.

Mona Kirschner | Longreads | November 2019 | 20 minutes (5,102 words)

Day One

I look around the pool as I kick my legs backwards. I wonder how I found myself in a swim cap and a full-piece bathing suit doing water aerobics with eight ladies over 60 at a health retreat that turned out to be an upscale fat camp.

Why is it that we never tire of talking about love? Of analyzing all angles of heartbreak?

No Uber driver’s English is bad enough to deter us, no stranger on an airplane too disengaged for it to all come spilling out, the same story, again and again.

Filling the void, my therapist had said. I always hoped that when I inevitably fell apart, at least I’d be original about it.

The previous day I had rushed down to the waiting taxi, stalling outside the high gates of my apartment building in São Paulo.

I was late, throwing clothes onto the bed and settling for stretchy workout pants and an old blue sweater that was too tight on the arms. The flight was smooth, the two hours going by quickly as I stared out the window in dark sunglasses that covered most of my face.

On the other end, I shuffled through the airport with my head down and bought sweet and salty peanuts after I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I walked outside; the muggy heat relentless, but I kept my sweater on, joining a group of elderly women next to a van stamped with a logo I recognized from the website. This should be good, I thought, making eye contact with no one and finding a seat.

A friend had recommended this place, deep in the countryside of southern Brazil, a short flight from my place of birth and my home for the last 10 years, having moved back after falling in love and dropping out of school in Canada, where I had grown up with my immigrant parents and privileged life.

I was always looking for something. For love, for adventure, for a story worth telling. I shifted happily from a good kid with a scholarship to a bartender in shorts and knee-high boots with no plan, chasing the drama.

And then I fell in love with a man in that way you do when you throw yourself into something so hard, you don’t even recognize yourself when you take a step back. Fully, entirely consumed.

He had green eyes and skin that actually glowed. I saw him for the first time from the side, across a cheesy wedding dance floor. I remember feeling short of breath. I hardly saw his face. Yet I recognized him as if I had known he was coming.

The van bumped along. I watched a series on Netflix on the drive out about an artist from Brooklyn and her many affairs. I noticed how all the actors on it were thin. Something I would have never realized a few months before.

We drove onto the property, a long, winding driveway with cornfields on either side. The sky was a rich shade of blue and the sun peeked out from the clouds, hot and unforgiving.

A purple and yellow butterfly flew next to my window as we drove up. I hated butterflies, always thought of them as the mean girls of insects. All colorful, flashy wings on the same old insect body.

We arrived to a welcome drink of green juice, the glass only filled halfway, hinting at the moderation that was to come. I noticed I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years. They showed me to my room and instructed me to turn up for my doctor’s appointment at 3:15. I let my bag drop off of my shoulder.

Everyone was in their provided white robes, the blue logo embroidered on the left side. I put mine on, noticing gratefully that it hid everything that needed hiding. My thighs chafed in the heat.

The nurse was gentle, especially when asking me to step on a large, rectangular scale.

“That’s a good girl.” She said, making a note on her clipboard. The doctor put me on a diet of 850 calories a day, which sounded absurd. “What caused the weight gain?” he asked.

“Heartbreak.” I shrugged. “Wish it was a more original reason.”

What is it about comfort from strangers that is so soothing? That makes us feel as if our uncertain futures are less terrifying if someone promises they won’t be? Someone who couldn’t possibly know? And yet.

“Do you think I’m going to be okay?” I would ask anyone who would listen.

I missed him. I could feel his hands, the callouses on his palms. The softness of the finer hair on the nape of his neck. The smell of his shirts. I could see the wrinkles on the side of his eyes when he laughed. I could hear his voice. My chest on his. Could feel him pinching my side when he thought something was funny. I’d say his name aloud.

They say our brains label pain, give it a face. He had a beautiful face.

How do you determine the difference between love and fear? Should it feel so similar?

The love had been there, at some point. Perhaps it was passion. It faded. The fear was constant. I was afraid of the fights, I was afraid of staying, I was afraid of leaving. I was afraid of being alone, of regretting it, of missing him, of realizing there’d be nothing better.

We introduced ourselves at the welcome address, our names, where we’re from, why we were there. I sat in the back. They assigned each one of us a table that we’d sit at for the week. Mealtimes clearly required military-level control. I looked down at the sad six grapes in front of me and tried to concentrate on chewing whatever absurd amount of times was recommended by one of the many (thin) doctors who gave a painfully slow speech before we could eat. Was it 40 times?

My ex and I used to get kicked out of bars for our screaming matches. He was jealous, I was hysterical. I thought it was romantic. I ended it after almost 10 years. He was my first love, all I knew. It was my decision. Courage and strength showed up suddenly, like unannounced dinner guests to an otherwise lonely affair.

He loved me. But he was terrible to me. We were terrible to each other. I plotted and hoped for my freedom for years. Yet the loss, the gaping hole felt like it was only getting bigger.

Love or fear?

They gave a tour of the grounds, the clinic, the vegetable garden, the main house.

I set my stack of books on the bedside table. I looked at the clean, neatly made single bed and sighed. I listened to Miles Davis.

Dinner was pea soup.

***

Day Two

The 6a.m. wake-up call seemed like a joke. The phone rang shrilly and I slammed it down, rolling back to sleep, the soft sheets over my head.

Breakfast was at eight, I was relieved to see a slice of bread along with the expected minimalistic fruit platter at my assigned table.

‘What caused the weight gain?’ he asked. ‘Heartbreak.’ I shrugged. ‘Wish it was a more original reason.’

I went to water aerobics. I went to yoga class — a light, tailored-for-the-overweight elderly version. I had a strange massage. Something about my lymph nodes.

I swam to the edge of the pool, looked out to rolling hills that resembled Tuscany. Or what I thought Tuscany would look like. Cows dotted the field, orderly rows of vegetables growing under the too bright sky. I thought about how enjoyable this would be under different circumstances, perhaps if I recognized any part of myself.

Heartbreak is such a selfish state of being. We are completely unable to see outside our bubble of pain. Anything can trigger a new burst of sorrow or anxiety, and we dip into it easily, used to the waves by now, letting them wash through us, showing no resistance.

“You just need to get over it.” My sister would say.

Yoga, meditation, long walks, pottery class. We were all trying to occupy our minds. All running from something.

That afternoon a heavily overweight lady in red glasses and a great black and white printed dress introduced herself.

“I’m Elaine” she said, holding both my hands in hers as I tried not to squirm away, “You’re going to be okay. After my divorce it took a year, but it passes, sweetheart.”

She hugged me too tightly. I looked down and mumbled my thanks, embarrassed at how good it felt.

I sat on the grass in my robe, my newly acquired belly rolls uncomfortably sweaty. I read poems on impermanence. I thought about his laugh. I thought about my freedom. I thought about how the pain has become a companion I don’t remember ever being without.

I’d never liked chocolate, would brag and shrug when people asked, appalled, how that could possibly be. Now suddenly I needed it, obsessively, constantly. Nothing brought the same comfort. Preferably with peanut butter. How horribly cliché.

“Now you know how most of us feel,” my sister said. “Took you long enough.”

I’d gained 18 pounds in 90 days. Even at fat camp, it must be some sort of record. The other inmates were impressed.

Ricardo, my table neighbor, was 74.

“I’ve been here over forty times,” he said, amused at my shock, his shaky hand holding his fork delicately as we each sat awkwardly at our one-person tables.

We talked about daily caloric intake. We talked about how beautiful Lisbon is. We talked about his daughter, who got divorced, but is happy now. Everyone seems to have a story like that.

His bright eyes twinkled. “You’re so young,” he said. I rolled my eyes. Everyone seemed to say that.

“I‘ve never felt young, Ricardo.” I said. “Even less so now.”

My room was simple and clean. It looked like rehab. I read a lot of poetry. I fantasized continuously about calling him. About what I would say. I tortured myself with different versions of his reaction. I ran through the conversation over and over in my head. I tried to step off the hamster wheel. Usually, I failed.

I’d kill for a peanut butter cup.


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The human experience, as they say. Looking around at this group of people, all in search, all in the process of something. Ricardo hugged me, held my face with his soft, wrinkled hand.

“You’ll be okay.” He said. “Don’t move backwards. Leave it where it lays.”

Dinner was pumpkin soup.

***

Day Three

I managed to get myself up for the early morning hike that day. It was a Tuesday. The rain came down softly on the dark green, rolling hills, the gravel crunching beneath my feet, the ladies panting beside me.

If you made a decision driven by something that wasn’t real, was it still the right decision?

Love or fear?

There was a little room in the clinic building that had heated seats painted sky-blue and twinkling lights in the ceiling that mimicked stars. My favorite spot.

I laid on my back there and stared up at them, thinking about New York, about that one night, about the other guy, the catalyst I held on to like a coward to help me get myself out.

I tried to piece together all the things he had said that night. I wished I remembered his words exactly so I could play them back to myself and bask in them, like that little square of sunshine on your bedroom floor in winter.

I had eaten it all up, thirsty, desperate, for someone to save me. But I had committed the typical beginner’s mistake, the first sin of love, confusing beauty and a good soundtrack with knowledge and truth.

It did the job, but we pay for taking shortcuts. I ended my long-term relationship immediately, and when the half-hearted affair inevitably fell apart a few months later, when we both realized it was actually nothing, I had nowhere to turn. I never considered that I could perhaps save myself. Shortly after, I caught myself eating six apples in one afternoon, at a hotel where they offered them in the lobby in small, shiny mounds.

Odd. I thought, looking in the garbage to count the cores, famished.

Yoga class was at three. It was painful. I had never had problems with mirrors. I’d enjoyed them all my life. An advantage of being naturally thin. How naive it was to not have realized the struggle that most women, most people face. How shocking it is, when you find out how much of your identity lies in your body, your vanity. I looked to the side at my body, at my belly, at my thighs, at arms that did not resemble my own. Who is that?

Classical music played in the dining room. The dietitian made the rounds, her overly made-up face frozen in a stoic smile. Light pink lipstick and pearls.

I dreamt of my ex all night. Ten years we were together, and I wouldn’t dream about him then. A friend told me that I was assigning the pain of loss to him, giving him an importance he didn’t actually possess. It made sense, in the way that abstract facts you can’t actually confirm do.

They played a gong at mealtimes.

The ladies told me about Kiko, whom they described as an “oriental” with healing prowess. I flinched at the misuse of the word. Apparently it was intense, and you either loved or hated her.

I swapped out my shoulder massage for an appointment with her that afternoon, and after a lunch consisting of an elaborate salad expertly designed to distract you from its salad-ness, I walked over to the right building.

Kiko summoned me from an attic over a winding staircase. I looked up near the top and she stood in the doorframe. She was petite, wore white, had salt and pepper hair cropped close to her head, silver glasses and a thin, knowing smile. As I walked in the light shone softly through the white curtains.

Yoga, meditation, long walks, pottery class. We were all trying to occupy our minds. All running from something.

“You so young!”’ She said, “What’s wrong with you? Why you here?”

I went through the familiar story, as she told me to lie down on a mattress on the floor, proceeding to crack my back and neck in creative ways, all the while telling me about her arranged marriage that ended badly. Another story for my collection of heartbreak tales. She talked fast, tiny hands kneading.

We moved to a bed next to some odd-looking contraptions I was trying not to look at.

I had never tried acupuncture before. The first few pricks weren’t so bad. Then she moved to my hands — told me to take a deep breath in, that this would hurt. When she placed the needle on the base of my thumb, inside my palm, the pain was brutal, sharp, and surprising. I cried out, hot tears streaming steadily down my face. She asked if I had cried since the breakup. I realized I hadn’t. Only the night of, maybe.

“Point of sadness,” she said. “Breathe through it.” I closed my eyes.

“How could this possibly be the right thing if it hurts this bad?” That’s what I had said those few yet long months ago. I was desperate, shaking. The memory stuck with me forever: watching his face looking up at me as the elevator doors closed, the man I knew, unrecognizable in his shock.

He had fought hard to get us back together, finally realizing too late that he loved me a lot more than he’d showed for almost 10 years, the words I had wished to hear for so long flashing on my screen for months. But his numbness in the crucial first days was just enough to set me free. I ignored all his messages. And by the time I fell apart, crawling back, convincing myself I made a mistake, he was long gone.

“Turn!” Kiko said.

I flipped over, keeping my eyes closed. I noticed a flame by my right shoulder, and I squeezed my eyes shut tighter.

We were on to cupping — hot glass cups suction on your back and belly. Kiko moved swiftly. The suction was so hard it felt like they were lifting me up. “Breathe through it.” She repeated. When she was done she gave me a swift slap.

“You find God,” she instructed. “And stop taking it out on your body.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said, as she looked at me skeptically. “On both counts.”

I walked out lighter than I’d felt in days. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, I thought. It didn’t matter. The cups left nine neat round bruises on my back.

I painted a wooden box at the arts and crafts hut, led by a lady who looked to be about 130 shuffling about. I meditated in the garden. I ate watermelon at the 3:30 snack time — a generous three pieces. I forgot to chew slowly.

Ricardo had told me he snuck in some red wine, and was surprised to hear I didn’t bring my own treats. That minx. We drank it in the library, giggling between small sips.

I took a bike out on the trails, enjoying the poetic satisfaction of the wind in my face on the downhill after beads of sweat poured down my temples and down my belly as I pedaled the uphill.

I felt a slight turn that day, a step towards something resembling freedom. I was wary of these. In my experience, each step forward was accompanied by two that dug back in. But I was grateful all the same.

“It’s not an upward trajectory out of heartbreak, you know,” my friend Ashley had said one day.

I thought of him less, although I still heard his laugh.

I laid in the sauna. I said my own name aloud.

Dinner was vegetable soup.

***

Day Four

Who is that bitch? I thought to myself in yoga class that morning, a newcomer among us. She was tall, model thin, gorgeous, with ramrod straight posture and a perfect messy bun.

I had woken up sweaty and confused before class after oversleeping by three hours. It was the best sleep I’d had in months, but missing breakfast is blasphemy around these parts. I grabbed my robe and rushed down, relieved to see the designer fruit plate was still on my table. I took a survey, cautiously, of my emotional state. Mornings were always worse. They say that with grief, you have a split second of numbness when you wake up in the morning, until you start wondering what the horribleness is. Then you remember. But I felt okay, I massaged the point on my palm that was still sore from Kiko’s needle the previous day.

After breakfast I had an appointment with the dietitian. She had long hair dyed red and wore too much eye makeup. She had a funny accent and a kind smile. She told me about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She told me to eat a piece of fruit during meals to avoid sugar cravings. She told me she’s been through something similar, and the mantra they all say: that it will pass.

I took a shower, trying not to obsess over my naked body and how unrecognizable it was, looking straight ahead to the gray tiles as I lathered.

They said prayers before lunch. I closed my eyes and thought about garlic prawns.

Chew slowly.

Love or fear?

I walked down to cooking class, where the plump chef’s demonstration was already under way. She taught us how to make bread out of sweet potato, and a low-calorie vegetable pie. At the end, she made peanut ice cream.

“I’m one of you,” she said, making a sweep of the area in search of any looming dietitians.

She let us all have a scoop. I looked up at the too-bright sky as I moved it around on my tongue. It was bliss. I considered taking the leftovers of the insane individual who left half of theirs. I managed to get a hold of myself. Barely.

The Bitch wore a flowery dress with a flower crown in her hair and had toned arms and a beautiful smile. She refused the scoop, and when I looked at her in shock she laughed and said, “I’m saving my calories for the 3:30 fruit time!”

I could have slapped her.

I checked my email on the shared computer, having handed in my phone when I arrived. “How do you feel? Has your body forgiven you?” My best friend Jess asked in a carefully worded email. A valid question.

“I think it’s trying.” I said.

That day’s massage was to improve blood flow. The therapist hugged me before and after. I fell asleep. My blood seemed to flow the same way, but it felt nice.

Yoga class was better that day, I felt a small sense of progress. I tried to avoid the mirror, but couldn’t resist a small look and changed my tank top to a baggy t-shirt after class.

I fantasized about the chocolate covered nougat I would devour as soon as I got to the airport. I didn’t think about him as much. I ran four kilometers on the treadmill. I read the teachings of an American Buddhist nun in my room.

I’d never liked chocolate, would brag and shrug when people asked, appalled, how that could possibly be. Now suddenly I needed it, obsessively, constantly.

The sunset was shaping up to be a good one, I took a bike out past the gardens to the lake, set it down on the gravel path, and walked towards the bridge, insects and birds buzzing around me.

I sat down in the middle of the bridge, looking out onto the lake and watching a fish jump up out of the water. I thought of how much he loved to fish. I let the tears flow down my cheeks, dripping onto the wood.

I closed my eyes and told him I loved him. I thanked him for his kindness, for his cruelty, for loving me, for the decade where we shared our lives. I thanked him for all the times he made me feel safe, I told him that at times, he had made me happy. I told him I deserved better. I apologized for breaking his heart. I told him I was letting him go.

The lake was still, green. Moss-covered branches reached for each other.

I told him he was free to be happy.

I walked back to my bike and pedaled hard uphill, back to the building, forcing myself to push through, my thighs burning, sweating and gritting my teeth.

Dinner was cauliflower soup.

***

Day Five

“You look like a different person. Your eyes, they’re brighter,” Two of the ladies said to me, shuffling up the drive after breakfast.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling, embarrassed.

The early morning hike was invigorating — 10 kilometers through the farmlands around the property. Gravel crunching beneath my feet, the ladies panting beside me.

I dreamt of him again. Only this time he was there, and I didn’t want him around. I kept thinking of butterflies, of cocoons. An unoriginal, yet accurate analogy.

The Bitch was having tea, her blond hair glowing in the sunlight as she threw her head back and laughed as a group listened to her every word. Turns out she was a famous model. She wasn’t really a bitch. She was lovely, of course. In search just like the rest of us.

I went to the gym and did weight training for an hour. Was relieved to see my body retained muscle memory. I felt stronger than I had in weeks.

I walked through the orchard and greenhouses. Lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes. The birds chirped relentlessly.

I went to yoga, faced down the mirror again.

Love or fear?

There was a commotion — a group had gone missing. The staff was rushing about in their boxy light pink dresses and orthopedic shoes, making calls.

Turned out they had escaped down the road and were having fried rice and hotdogs at a bodega a few blocks up. A dispatched van headed out to bring them back. They looked pleased with themselves, if a little red-faced. We laughed and laughed.

I took a nap after lunch, in awe of the view of the fruit trees from my window that I hadn’t noticed before. I read a bad novel about a girl who made shoes.

I went to arts and crafts class where the teacher, Miss Ingrid, told us it was her 49th wedding anniversary that day, and that her husband left her a rose when he left for work every day of their lives since they met. Lucy, sitting next to me, told her story of how her husband left her; she was here to try and lose the 30 pounds she gained since, and to work on her anger and anxiety. She had sad, unfocused but bright blue eyes and wispy blond hair, and wore a loose-fitting t-shirt that said, “Be in the Moment”. Awkward capitalization included. She painted a wooden box black with an old, dry brush.

Miss Ingrid hugged me when I left — told me I was beautiful, and that I did a great job.

I cried, my new thing.

I watched as the ladies gathered, drinking tea, talking. The stories we tell ourselves and each other, they are the fabric that makes up our suffering and our joy and our lives.

Roberta, Bruna, Elaine, Anna Maria, Dieter, Ricardo, Fatima, Ellen. They were 12, 26, 62, 18, 17, 8, 22, 6 pounds up. They were healing from breakups, the deaths of loved ones, eating disorders, trauma. They told dirty jokes, were businessmen, dermatologists, immigrants. Some had the perfect meditation stance. Most had grandchildren. But all of them were experts on battling their bodies. Everyone was fighting the same fight.

They were an eccentric, dynamic and loving group of people. Each with their own battles of love and loss and calories and struggle and joy. They listened to my story; I listened to theirs. We swapped favorite hamburger joints in the city, stories of the people we loved, and the men who hurt us.

I will never forget any of them.

Dinner was carrot soup. It was delicious.

***

Day Six

I was leaving that day. I’d be getting weighed that morning.

I woke up early, grabbed my robe and bounced down the stairs. “Good morning, ladies,” I said to Ana Maria and Yvonne, who were drinking tea in the lobby. Tea was the one thing we could consume freely, so we drank a lot of it.

“Good morning!” They replied.

I waited anxiously in the clinic. The calming sound of flowing water was coming from somewhere as I tapped my slippered foot on the marble floor.

The same kind nurse from the first day smiled. “Ready?” she asked, infuriatingly chipper. She measured my upper arms, my thighs, my butt, my belly, my chest. My face looked different. My skin looked better. My complexion was less pale. I glanced back to the mirror on the wall. It still didn’t look like me, but perhaps I was starting to resemble a new version.

I stepped on the scale like it was no big deal, holding my breath. I had lost seven pounds. I exhaled.

I felt relieved. I felt guilty for feeling such relief.

They were an eccentric, dynamic and loving group of people. Each with their own battles of love and loss and calories and struggle and joy.

I had shed more than the weight. I took off my shoes and walked through the woods, where I ran into Ellen hugging a tree.

“I’m absorbing its energy!” She said.

I thought, why not, and hugged along with her, looking up into the branches, the dew drops falling on my face.

The last lunch was a treat — two courses and dessert. I tried to chew slowly, enjoying every second of it. I didn’t want to leave. The structure of this place, the serenity that comes with rules, the fact that everyone there is suffering, so you can finally indulge in being your worst self.

The driver was waiting outside. I couldn’t find the ladies to say goodbye. I retrieved my phone grudgingly, not wanting to turn it back on.

They packed me a snack for the road — a homemade granola bar and an apple wrapped in a pale yellow napkin. I vowed not to eat it as soon as I got in the car.

As I walked down the driveway with my bag, Lucy called my name.

“Are you leaving already?!” she asked.

“I am,” I said, smiling. “I could only afford the five days.”

She rushed to me and hugged me like my mother would have.

“Look at you. You’re wonderful. Who wouldn’t love you, sweetheart?”

She looked me in my eyes and held my gaze until I looked down, uncomfortable and deeply touched. I think back on that and wished she had advised me to take on that task myself.

Ana Maria walked by and kissed my cheek, telling me she would introduce me to her son, the judge.

Ellen told me to have a blessed flight home. She said my aura was brighter, and took my number for us to have dinner sometime. Roberta gave me her card and told me, “ You got this.” Ricardo patted my arm and returned my poetry book, and gave me his email address and a note wishing me good luck, scrawled in pencil inside.

I got in the car, tired, elated and somewhat free. My heart was full of the stories I had collected, my notebook bursting with lessons on nutrition, sleeping patterns, spa recommendations, massage therapists, psychotherapists, acupuncturists, poems, and phone numbers.

I thought of the cheesy quotes I had read about bravery, about journeys and new beginnings. I thought of the stupid purple butterfly I saw on the day I arrived.

Love or fear?

I think the answer was there all along, under the fog.

I turned on my phone: 166 messages.

I thought about how hard it would be to keep up the eating habits I had learned, how scary the world looked, and how freeing it was to be able to eat anything I wanted, even after just a few days of practicing control.

The driver looked at me through the rearview mirror.

“First time?” he asked.

“Yeah, first time.” I said. First breakup, first love, first time I lost control, first time I fought for it back.

I thought of him, carefully. It still hurt, and probably would for a long time. It still felt surreal, 10 years gone in a flash, the path of my life altered completely on a cold night in August. A huge, brutal, bright, terrifying future ahead.

Dinner was tomato soup. I made it myself.

* * *

Mona Kirschner  is a Brazilian writer and linguist. She is working on a collection of non-fiction essays and lives in Brooklyn with her partner, a Great Dane and a toothless cat.

Editor: Sari Botton