The unseen and unheard among us

It was during a dreary stretch of winter in late January of this year that I got an unusual inquiry regarding freelance work. The freelancer herself didn’t contact me. Rather, the query came from an employment specialist in Scarborough on behalf of a “talented creative writer who is also working on a novel.”

I provided the job-placement professional with The Bollard’s editorial guidelines and noted that we generally do not publish short stories or other works of fiction. A couple months later, the writer, Sarah Hannan, sent a couple reviews of books by nationally known authors — which are also outside my local publication’s purview. But Hannan also included a remarkable first-person account of her struggles with obesity and depression.

There wasn’t much writerly craft applied to her piece, and it didn’t have a happy ending. In fact, there wasn’t much of a resolution to the story at all. But that’s exactly what made me determined to publish it. Titled “The Weights,” it appears in our current issue.

Sarah Hannan. photo courtesy Deborah Berry

Sarah Hannan. photo courtesy Deborah Berry

I wanted to share Sarah’s story because it describes a way of life we almost never hear or see anything about. People struggling with depression and obesity are all but invisible across the media landscape. They’re very rarely depicted in movies and almost never seen on TV — unless and until they’ve heroically overcome their struggle, a la “The Biggest Loser” or, say, “Ellen.” They don’t make news until they show up on the obituary page.

Robin Williams’ tragic death this week has swung spotlights into the dark corners of our society where Americans struggle with mental and physical demons. But those lights are already turning back to the bold and the beautiful people we seemingly cannot stop looking at. (Even a TV show supposedly about women in prison, “Orange is the New Black,” has a cast of models.)

“My name is Sarah Hannan, and I am obese,” Hannan’s story bluntly begins. “Actually, scratch that. I am morbidly obese.”

This 27-year-old goes on to tell us that, at one point, she weighed over 550 pounds. It’s an admission that makes you contemplate what your own life would be like if burdened by a quarter ton of flesh and bone, and to wonder how, as Hannan puts it, “I could let myself balloon up to that size.”

Hannan explains that a combination of factors caused her weight gain, including genetics, poor diet and lack of exercise. She was over 300 pounds by the time she graduated from high school, a depressing circumstance in and of itself that was compounded by clinical depression and bipolar disorder, as well as a difficult home life marred by an earlier incident involving molestation.

Hannan was living in Waterville with her mother and sister during this time. She writes about the only job she’s ever had, at a combination Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robbins, and how she only lasted two days before suffering a mental and physical breakdown. Her sole source of income continues to be Social Security disability payments.

One morning not long after that experience, Hannan fell down at home and was unable to lift herself back up. A specially trained team of EMTs was sent to transport her to a hospital. She does not spare us mentions of the bleeding ulcers, burst cysts and other unsightly maladies that plagued her during this period, nor should she. Such is the reality of morbid obesity, the most extreme form of a sickness that afflicts a historically high and growing percentage of Americans.

Hannan subsequently received care at home from medical staff and a caseworker, but came to believe that nothing short of another hospitalization would provide the help she needed.

“I was brought to emergency rooms numerous times, only to be sent home again,” she wrote. “Finally, in a desperate attempt to get admitted, I tried to kill myself.”

The doctor who saw Hannan after her suicide attempt didn’t believe she really wanted to die, and he was right. Following this incident, Hannan was admitted to a health center in Waterville, then to a rehab facility in Westbrook, where the staff helped her lose over 200 pounds.

Since then, Hannan, who now lives by herself in Portland, has learned to keep her mental illness in check with medication and needs less supervision by visiting care workers, but controlling her appetite is still a struggle. When she contacted me last winter, she was back over 400 pounds.

It’s good for people with similar struggles to read about others who’ve overcome such adversity, but it’s equally important to know there are many who fail and keep trying.

“Don’t give up hope,” Hannan tells us at the conclusion of her story. “It’s worth the effort.”

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.