No longer a number
Dennis Henning is the author of the newly published Hiding Under the Table: One Man’s Journey Through an Eating Disorder. The Sacramento native put together an obesity program for a local school district last year. Currently, he is using his own story to draw attention to his non-diet nutrition program (online at www.nutritionbodyimage.com) as well as to call attention to a disorder that’s long been perceived as affecting women only.
When it comes to eating disorders, people criticize Barbie as a bad role model, but no one ever complains about Ken. Did you have issues with either of them?
No, I didn’t. When it comes to the Barbie syndrome, I think it’s interesting: A lot of people want to blame Barbie. Well, Barbie is just a little plastic doll that is sold in a kit, so I have a hard time with that. I’ve worked with over a thousand individuals, and I’ve never met someone who said, “I want to look like Barbie.” The underlying issue for a lot of people starts in the formative years, because our parents are the only mirror we have growing up.
I personally have a propensity to be obese. I come from a family where there’s a lot of larger individuals, and I do have that propensity. But it wasn’t until my late teens and early 20s, when I really started to understand about my eating disorder, that I realized how it dated all the way back to when I was 5 years old. And all through grade school and high school, I didn’t have best friends that were people. My best friends were food.
I had a $300-a-day food habit for almost seven years. And for that $300 a day, I lied, I stole, I prostituted, I victimized everybody. And that was just to get food. Because in my mind, when I’m eating, at that time, I don’t have to deal with anything else. Food has been like Novocain for me; it was medicine to cure the emotional pain.
Did you find in your personal experience with Overeaters Anonymous (OA) that you were the rare male being treated?
The first time I went to a rehab center—the first OA meeting I attended—was myself and 24 women, eight of whom were alumni. I was the only man. And they had no idea how to work with me. You get a lot of looks. People literally asked me if I was there because I wanted to find a date.
The National Institute of Mental Health, their definition of an anorectic in America is a 17- to 25-year-old, middle- to upper-class, Caucasian female. Unless they’ve changed it over the last year, which I’m sure they haven’t.
So, how much do you weigh now?
I don’t weigh myself that often. Last time I weighed myself, I was 182.
And you’re how tall?
5 feet 11 inches, 6 feet. A long time ago, those numbers meant a lot. But I’m not a number. You know, I’m not my weight. If I gain 15 or 20 pounds, I gain 15 or 20 pounds. But I have no need to gain 15 or 20 pounds. I don’t turn to food to help me anymore.
But you must still have had issues with food a few years ago, when you got up to 275 pounds.
No, I realized that I wanted to work with people, and what I wanted to do was to test myself to see if my program worked. I figured if I was going to work this program with individuals other than myself and create a program in schools, then I needed to make sure that my program worked for me. And so I just decided, “OK, what I’m going to do is see how much weight I can gain, and then after that, I’m going to use my program to lose the weight. And in seven months, I was back down to 180 pounds.
You’ve described yourself as a bit of a hustler back then. So, how do people know you’re not hustling them now?
By example. That’s a damned good question, and people need to understand that. Because back then, if I was doing this interview with you, I’d then walk out the door, I’d probably go to a restaurant and sit there for two or three hours eating. I’d plan on who I could get money from. I wouldn’t be working a job. I wouldn’t give a damn about anybody else, because I had to take care of me. And the answer to that question is that I live the life I live now. And that’s the only answer I can give. Because I’m very honest. I was never honest in the past.
The thing that separates Dennis now from the Dennis who existed in 1994 is the fact that I like me, I love me, I respect me. I actually am productive in my life. So, therefore, being productive in my life, I’m able and allowed to be productive with other people. And to do that, honesty and self-forgiveness are two of the most important things that I had to learn.