The Real Bears

So, there’s a video that came out a few months ago called “The Real Bears“. It’s a PSA (public service announcement) that talks about the dangers of drinking too many sugary drinks, particularly cola. In fact, it’s a spoof on the famous Coca-Cola bears. You know, the polar bears in those heart warming winter and Christmas ads? Now, while I do enjoy writing about health and fitness, PSAs aren’t usually worth mentioning. And I won’t lie, I won’t enjoy writing this. But that PSA did something no other has ever been able to do: it made me cry.

What could a PSA say to make me, a 33 year old man, cry? I wondered about that for a couple of days. I watched it more times than I could count, trying to piece my feelings together. Then I figured out that it was because that four-minute video was able to simply, beautifully, and painfully accurately encapsulate such a huge part of my existence and what I’ve seen and experienced that I couldn’t help but be touched. It’s my history, in one way or another. All of it.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, here you go.

 

This post is all about me piecing together the emotions this video dragged up. What follows is a set of memories that come to mind when I watch it. I won’t be hiding any lessons or trying to teach anything. I’ll just share. Take from this what you will.

One thing’s for sure: if you have no direct association with obesity or diabetes, the video is cute and makes a point. If you do have those associations, the video is utterly tragic, and the ending seems like hope which comes too late.

Scene 1: The family watching a whale

The Real Bears

I love soda. I’ve always loved soda. I’ve also always, for as long as I can remember, been fat.

One day, I was at my father’s restaurant, sitting at the empty bar. Well, empty except for one of my dad’s friends. I was drinking a Coke when the man asked me about it. Actually, it was more of a warning that I shouldn’t drink too many because I was fat.

“I only drink one a day,” I told him. “I’m losing weight.” It made me feel good to say that, especially because I believed he believed me.

Another time I was with my mom, near the local mall. I was thirsty. SUPER thirsty, so I pleaded with her that I wanted a soda. “We’re almost home,” she said. She didn’t understand, I neeeeeeded that soda, or I might die of thirst! To save my own life, I threw the biggest temper tantrum I could muster, writhing and complaining that I needed something now Now NOW! My mother capitulated and we went to a nearby Burger King where she ordered me a large Coke. (Or was it Pepsi?) It was large because I specified THAT’S how thirsty I was.

But it wasn’t enough.

I demanded–yes, still in the tantrum state–that I wanted TWO large sodas. I was THAT THIRSTY. So she got me exactly that, two sodas. When we got them, I drank the first one in the twinkle of an eye, though by the time I was near the bottom, I realized how full it had already made me. “I still need to drink the second one,” I thought, “Because otherwise she’ll think I lied.” So I drank the second one, eventually finishing it as we got home.

(Now, if you’re about to blame my mom for bad parenting, don’t. Unless you have at least four kids, all under 10, that you’re raising largely on your own–my dad was around, but he was nearly always working at his restaurant–you have exactly zero room to talk. Oh, and you’d have to be in your mid-20’s, too.)

Speaking of my dad, one day he and I went to pick up some supplies for the restaurant. We did this every few weeks, and while it wasn’t my idea of a good time (I hated going, though I enjoyed seeing all those huge boxes in the depot), it was time I got to spend with him.

During that trip, as we walked around the store, my dad picked up a pack of Oreos. (This was only one row, so about 12 cookies?) He opened the packet and as we walked around the store, he ate them. (While I don’t remember partaking, I’d be amazed if I hadn’t.)

We finished the packet before we got to the register. My dad then took the box and put it to the side. “But you didn’t pay for it yet!” I protested. “It’s a gift from the store,” he replied. I still felt guilty about doing that, but considering how much money my father spent there, why shouldn’t the store give him a gift once in a while?

Right at the exit of that store there was a Pepsi machine which I, unfailingly, always got a soda from: $.50, every time.

After the bear’s pants rip, the papa bear and cub each tap their bellies–isn’t it cute? They’re comparing bellies!–then papa bear picks up his cub.

I always saw my dad as a fat man, and saw myself as a fat kid. Since everyone said I looked so much like my dad, I figured that my being fat wasn’t that big of a deal, even when my clothes got too tight, or my pants ripped.

Scene 2: The fish that got away

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By the time I entered 7th grade I was already 220lbs.

I can’t begin to tell you the things that I didn’t do–whether because of ability or simple fright–due to my weight. For example, I was always a very strong swimmer, but I refused to join any swim teams because I was afraid of having to be shirtless in front of athletes, or worse, a crowd.

One of the more embarrassing periods came during high school, when I apparently went on a chair breaking spree. Sit. Break. Sit. Break. Sit… Two at friends’ homes, two in the classroom. That should have been a sign. It wasn’t.

In the video, it’s interesting to see how each bear is getting heftier. Mostly because it’s so true: fat families get fatter, together.

Scene 3: Insulin in the fridge

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When I first saw this part of the video, I wondered why papa bear’s leg was red. I also noticed he was too big to fit through a door, a position to which I’ve gotten frighteningly close. (Luckily I always carried my weight as well as anyone could who was 150lbs overweight.) That’s right before the bear moves all the sodas in the fridge to the side in order to get to his insulin.

If I’m talking about diabetes, it’s a near certainty that I’ll mention my grandmother (maternal). In fact, it’s her memory, and what I see of her in me (in addition to what I see of my father in me) that really drives the emotional stakes for me with this video.

The first time I can remember actually seeing my grandmother inject insulin into herself I was… maybe 16? I had seen her with the syringes before, but hadn’t ever actually watched her inject herself until then. At that point, she was having to inject herself multiple times a day.

Sometimes, when I look at myself in the mirror, I look at my own belly and see what I saw then. The fact is that my grandmother and I share(d?) a very similar mid-section.

The animators did a great job at capturing the concern with which we find those we love handling their health matters. Mama bear obviously feels for papa bear, and papa bear is obviously pained by the insulin shot.

This exchange got to me because I could see my wife and I having a similar exchange. In fact, we have, though not over diabetes. She’s seen me have to go through some painful times, and the looks were quite similar.

Scene 4: In the bedroom

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Luckily, there’s not much here to discuss, as that’s quite healthy, thank you very much.

Well, almost healthy. We haven’t been able to have kids. In their stead, we’ve tried dogs, to which I’m allergic, as I found out. Now the best we can do is stuffed animals. Polar bears, in fact.

But it’s the look of defeat in papa bear and the look of understanding in mama bear that seems most familiar. (Remember what I said about painful times?) The animators captured this beautifully.

Scene 5: Biting the fish

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At the start of the scene, the boy cub points to the soda machine excitedly, then we see everyone walking away with sodas, considerably heftier than before. I can’t recall how often as a kid I did the very same thing. My family didn’t always partake, but they didn’t have to: food, drink, sweets were all just needs, not to be enjoyed so much as to be obliged to. They were a habit.

For a family of people not paying attention to their health, time will bring weight. Of that there’s no doubt.

I got my first cavity when I was about 7. I had other cavities since then, but that slowed down as I became an adult and slowed my consumption of sugary crap. Still, the damage was done. I’ve had two root canals (including one on the first tooth), and have 2 crowns.

What got me in this scene, though, wasn’t the tooth. It was the fact that she picked up a fish to eat. Because that’s what fat people do, right? They eat. And so there’s this weird guilt that goes on whenever I want to eat, where I have to ask myself, “Am I actually hungry, or am I just eating because I’m trying to prevent hunger? Worse yet, am I eating because I’m bored?”

The key to getting fat: eat when you’re not hungry. Eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference between real hunger and what your brain things it’s hunger…due to insulin resistance.

Scene 6: At the hospital

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Every scene before this was an emotional build up. This was when the tears came. In fact, it was seeing the papa bear on an IV that really hit me. Seeing what happened next was…

My grandmother had her leg amputated when I was about 18. She was in her early 60’s, and by that time the hospital was a common place for us. The IVs, the tubes, injections, nurses, doctors. So much so that it became a place of family.

When her leg was amputated, my grandmother’s toes were starting to gangreene. She’d been having troubles with her feet for a long time, but that was just because of diabetic neuropathy, or so I thought. This was new.

After she woke up for her surgery–though very groggy–the nurse tried to explain to her what happened. Then he showed her the stump where a leg used to be, and she. Freaked. Out. At least as much as could be expected from someone so heavily sedated. To calm her, we had a small stuffed cat we were able to convince her was our cat, Koda.

That was a hard night.

After that, the challenge was not just having her on the wheel chair, but transferring her from the bed to the chair, and back. She wasn’t strong enough to carry herself, and her single leg was too weak as well, so we were left to devise ways of moving her back and forth.

Once, we tried to get her into a car, and it was my job to pull her in. I failed, and she began to slip down, with her leg pinned under her. The pain was obvious. I can still hear her yelps of pain.

This is one of my biggest fears, diabetes. (That, along with uncontrolled weight gain, becoming one of those super fat people riding around in those scooters.) I wish I could say I do my best to prevent it, but I need to dedicate more time to doing just that. I’m still too damn fat, and it will catch up to me unless I do something about it. Sure, I try to eat the right foods–including not drinking sodas, especially non-diet sodas–but it isn’t enough, especially since I have a habit of eating TOO MUCH of them. My biggest enemy is the lack of movement. (It doesn’t help that my ankles and knees are all kinds of messed up.)

My fear is that I’ll end up like papa bear. That I’ll end up like my grandmother. That I won’t be able to undo the decades of damage I’ve put my body through.

Scene 8: Watching TV, and then…

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Here we see the family watching TV, papa bear in his wheel chair, nowhere near the man we saw at the start of the video. Once strong, proud, and happily sharing life with his children, he’s now prematurely old, destroyed: a sad remnant of what he once was. It’s easy now to think back to the papa bear and the cub standing at the side of the ocean, comparing bellies just after his pants broke. An indicator of his self-destructive path tragically glazed over by love and humor. “Let’s compare bellies!” Just like fathers and sons sometimes do.

Thinking about this, we see the tragic way in which we gloss over self destructive behaviors with humor and love. The cub is on same path as papa bear, sitting at home, watching TV, staying fat. Tragically, like father, like son… only younger.

My grandmother’s last years were spent in a wheelchair. More recently, my father has lost much of his mobility due to weight, and he will sometimes require a cart to ride around in. (This has gotten somewhat better since he had his knee replaced.) My fear is that I won’t be able to walk, either; that no matter what I do, that I’ll end up just like that in 30 years. (Come to think of it, my father is about the same age as my grandmother was when she died.)

Papa bear goes to the fridge–which, as we know, they keep well stocked–opens it, then leaves the house, followed by the family.

Followed, because as the head of the family HE set the example. His wife was supportive, sympathetic, and stood by his side through the worst moments, but still let him lead. And we all saw where that got him.

At this point I’m not sure I can separate my feelings between my father and my (again, maternal) grandmother. In both cases, weight is THE dominant issue, and it’s hard not to imagine them being predictors to my own future.

My grandmother loved to cook, loved to feed us. So, too, with my dad, who loves experimenting in the kitchen. His joy comes with his family being around him, as with any father, I suppose. So food, which is associated with family and fun times and love (my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, for example–how’s that for emotional association?), is also associated with illness, aging, and death.

Family. Pizza. Hospitals. Thanksgiving. Joy. IVs. Doctors. Soda. Laughing. Memories. Love. Sickness. Fat. Security. Happy. Fear.

This ball of mixed emotion lies at the center of my reality, and therefore the tint through which I saw this video.

Papa bear, we see, is carrying with him four drinks. They get to the ocean’s edge, and he gives them to his family. To watch a whale? To gather together with food, sharing happy memories?

If you thought “NO!” at this point, so did I. So does everyone, I’m certain.

But they pour out the drinks. Something so intertwined with their emotions, with their family experiences, which also insidiously brought them destruction, was poured away.

The Real Bears 7

Yet it was too late for papa bear. A tragic, empty victory, one that came too late.

Conclusion

As I said, these were just thoughts, memories through which I saw this video. It hit me hard, probably harder than most people, because it described my life, perfectly capturing much of what I’ve experienced, what I’ve seen.

Maybe this video doesn’t speak to you. Maybe it’s just kind of cute and funny, which is what they were going for. But as someone who’s lived through what they’re presenting, this is a loaded message, a mountain of tragic experiences easily ignored thanks to humor, love, and understanding. It’s not just about soda, or even sugar. It’s about obesity. It just happens to strike at the biggest single source of calories in the average American diet.

Anyway, if this video touches you, pass it along. If it doesn’t, pass it along anyway.

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