Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Half Ton Son

I watched "Half Ton Son", the (inaccurately named) documentary about Billy Robbins, the worlds heaviest teenager. It's available on Catch up TV here (in the UK), and here's a synopsis.

I don't claim to know the truth of this story. I'm very aware that these documentary programs take a certain slant on the story and that information may be omitted or misrepresented. The slant taken was that Billy was being killed by his mother's overfeeding, as she tried to deal with her grief over the death of her previous son, Matthew. It was tearful viewing, as Billy's mother Barbara struggled not only with the still raw grief over Matthew's death, but the guilt over possibly killing Billy. (I don't know if loading her with more guilt was the best way to deal with the situation. I think an overload of guilt can be paralysing and/or destructive. However, as I mentioned, we don't know what was omitted). She said that if he died she would want to die too, to get in the coffin with him. He said that he felt he was slowly killing her. At the end of the programme we were told that the two had been separated.

But one thing really was bothering me by the end of the programme. Billy's facial expressions and speech seemed just like a depressed person's. It turned out that he had been bullied at school, and so had had to be homeschooled. He apparently had no friends. He spent almost all his time in his room, with his mother visiting to bring him food or to wash him. His father seemed caring, although he didn't seem to spend much time with him. It seemed to me that depression might be a risk for anybody in those reclusive circumstances, especially if the circumstances had been brought about by bullying. Billy's sexuality is never mentioned, and he's treated like a child sometimes by his mother, but also sometimes by the other adults in contact with him, I felt. At one point, he laughs as he's given anaesthetic, and one of the medical staff mentions that it's the first time they've seen him laugh. And right enough, he doesn't seem to laugh or even smile much at all. After the surgery and some weight loss, he is back home, holed up in his dimly lit bedroom, and a showdown develops with his mother, who is trying to encourage him to exercise. She doesn't want to bury another son, she says and asks him, rhetorically, if he wants to die. Yes, he says, sometimes he does.

And that all worried me a lot. Maybe Billy wasn't depressed, but what I was seeing seemed to point to him needing assessment, at least. The bullying, the social isolation, the apparent eating disorder, the lack of smiling or laughter, the lack of motivation or energy and particularly the desire to die were warning bells for me. But, unless I missed it, Billy's possible depression was never addressed. It was as if his size dwarfed all other problems he might have. The answer to everything was for him to lose weight. And maybe it WAS the answer to everything - I just don't know. But even if it was, treating his depression may have helped with his motivation, and surely would have given him a better quality of life, before, after and during the weight loss. And surely, even, if the bullies had been dealt with and Billy had had supportive friends and a social life, his life would have been better in the first place.

It seems to me that it may be another case of people not being able to see beyond the fat. The fat is the problem. Removing the fat is the solution.

While Billy was in my mind, I read this other story about David Smith:
'Man mountain' who nearly ate himself to death loses 28 stone and becomes fitness instructor
David seems to have had a happy outcome. But again, I'm bothered by the description of his life as a fat man:

He said: 'I had been overweight all my life.

'I would have sticks and stones and dog mess thrown at me and I would be spat on.
I've had a broken arm and black eyes because people didn't like me because of my weight.

'It got so bad that I didn't want to leave the house and I didn't even feel comfortable in my own backyard until it was dark out.

'I felt like I deserved as much pain as possible and I wanted to kill myself.

Isn't that heartbreaking? What upsets me, is that he seems to judge himself for the terrible way he was treated, and again, the general thrust of the article is that his weight was the problem. He wouldn't have been so terribly bullied if he hadn't been fat. Now that he's no longer fat, he's no longer being bullied. Losing weight was the solution. The horror of people indulging in such utterly reprehensible behaviour as the emotional and physical bullying he describes is not addressed. Did the attacker or attackers who did this go to court? We don't know, and we get the impression it doesn't matter because they weren't the problem, David Smith's fat was. He was driven to an extreme level of social isolation, like Billy, and like Billy, he wanted to die. The same cycle of bullying, social isolation and depression, all being seen as an inevitable result of being fat rather than something that should be tackled.


  1. I saw a similar documentary once, and then I had nearly the same concerns as you do now. It wasn't even mentioned whether the subjects had really been this hungry or if they had an eating disorder. Has this poor boy even been checked out for possible deficiencies? What if he's genuinely hungry because his body is missing something?

  2. Yes, lots of mothers are always feeding their children - it's something that mothers do. I don't think it was explained why Billy in particular gained so much weight or whether he had any medical conditions of deficiencies. An eating disorder was implied, but not explored.

    One thing that struck me was that eating was one of Billy's few pleasures in what seemed to be a rather lonely and deprived life, and yet he was expected to give that up without any attempt to make his life more pleasant outside of the weight issue.

  3. I really think that focusing on health and creativity and activity and making food something special and luxurious -- if one has got to eat the damn stuff, one ought to enjoy it, not shovel it in mindlessly IMO -- is the right focus. If the body feels like losing weight, and the person is getting healthier in body and mind, that's going to happen naturally. But it's unlikely to happen--or the weight to stay gone--if it's merely a pound of willpower in the midst of misery. Because losing the fat is great but like the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are.

  4. As a psychotherapist I obviously attribute as much weight to the effects of psychological trauma and illness to physical problems and eating disorders. However, in a circumstance where an individual will die if they do not lose weight, it is essential that weight loss is addressed immediately. It is all well and good to look at counselling and psychotropic drugs but, if the subject dies before any progress is made it is all to no avail. Furthermore, psychptropic drugs and mood enhancers can have side effects that could have the potentially detrimental effect on his already deteriorating health. Given the man's weight, he would require a much larger than average dosage, which would be unethical to administer if it was suspected to carry with it a risk to his life. (Further risk). In relation to medical testing for deficiencies, this is automatically done prior to receiving medical intervention of such a drastic nature. It is an extremely expensive procedure and the level of aftercare he received would not have been cheap either. With this in mind, doctor are generally quick to assess for all and any potential definciencies or medical complaints that may interfere with recovery, just to make surgery a viable option economically. It is my professionsl opinion that the mother in question in this relationship has been abusive and negligent in her care of her son. I have no doubt she loves him or that her abuse can be attributed to psychological illness, however, this is no excuse in relation to her son's lost youth. If she was beating him or sexually abusing him due to psychological illness i do not think people would be quite so sympathetic. I work extensively with young people and their families where abusive and neglect have characterised their relationships. I encountered one family where a mother killed her son by over-feeding him as an infant and he overdosed on salt. The amount he consumed was not enough to kill an adult and she no doubt loved her son. But he died due to her ignorance and abuse. I have also worked with parents who have starved their children. Food can and is used as a weapon and it is unacceptable to me that parents using it with any agenda or for any cause get away with it time and time again.

  5. RedCairo "wherever you go, there you are" - I like that.

    Anonymous, to be fair to the programme, that is the angle they took - that the mother was killing the son. And his weight was definitely addressed. I was taking another angle - that his mental health didn't seem to be being addressed (and I don't necessarily mean by talking therapies or drugs, but by looking at what was missing. He had become extremely isolated as a result of bullying).

  6. Guys> relax and have your own conclusions. His mother is kinda mentally disordered, maintains constant care and limits his area of life, so that in her thoughts it would save him from danger.

    Farther is absolutely out of this world and even he does not show his face during foootage. So the family problems have become that poor guy problem. That's the fact.

    About Bills mentality ist's better to keep silence, cos he beheaves like and alien kid/ I wanna wanna wanna gobble gobble.

    They should have isolated him from his mother and kick to exercise every hour in the hospital.

    So just enjoy the good uS medical care and cheap food to treat the guy.

    Can you imagine this to hapen in Afgan, Iraq, hungry Africa, exUSSR countries? Where people fight to survive/Nope...


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