Fat Like Me

It's hard not to notice the cheesy advertisement: a full page in The Dallas Morning News, screaming tabloid headlines, before and after photos of big fleshy people morphed by hypnosis into small suggestive people: "True story how Mineola man wins 20-year battle with obesity"..."Fast Weight Loss"..."Instant Results."

Take Bob Denton, for example, a Farmers Branch projects manager who supposedly lost 201 pounds in 13 months. In his "before" shot, Bob has a tiny head, no neck and a belly that makes the Pillsbury Doughboy look svelte. But in the after photo, Bob stands tall, looking dapper in his coat and tie, a slender testament to the work of the Dallas Hypnosis Center. The ad is laced with language to seduce and manipulate: money-back guarantee, free introductory interview. However, its placement, adjoining the obituary section, seems the ultimate hidden persuader: Act now--or you'll be as dead as these guys. Operators are standing by to take your call.

That I am strangely drawn to what looks like a dicey come-on speaks volumes about my own fat self. By December, I am 35 pounds this side of bloat. During my wife's last pregnancy, I tried to match her weight gain pound for pound, too often indulging in her late-night cravings for Twizzlers and Milk Duds. Now weighing in at 239, I'm as big as I get.

Truth is, I haven't tucked in my shirttail since 1997. And I have been gaining and losing the same 30 pounds for decades. I've been Jenny Craiged, Weight Watched and Sugarbusted. I've gone on a liquid diet, a grapefruit diet, a cabbage soup diet. I considered myself nutritionally aware, knowing all the right questions to ask in a restaurant: Is that chicken prepared with oil? How fat is your low-fat dressing? Can you put the sauce on the side? I tried to avoid these questions in any restaurant whose neon sign flashes the words "Truck Stop," "Greasy Spoon" or "Fat Boys." Yet each time I lost weight, I managed to find it and more within a year.

Clearly, I have given my conscious mind every opportunity to will me out of my gluttonous ways. Maybe it's time to give my unconscious mind a chance. My only exposure to hypnosis was watching a stage hypnotist induce a close friend to cluck like a chicken. I was skeptical about the power of hypnosis to help people lose weight, cope with phobias, deal with pain--claims its most reputable practitioners--medical doctors, dentists, psychologists--all make. These practitioners are in regulated health-care professions with ethical standards that might theoretically be enforced against them. Texas also seems to be a breeding ground for unregulated lay hypnotists whose only credential is a certificate obtained from some suspect organization after attending a few weekend workshops. But even among the licensed health-care providers who practice hypnotherapy, there exists an ages-old argument about what hypnosis actually is: an altered state of consciousness or just a good therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient that doesn't need the metaphysical musings of a trance.

If hypnosis works, as it supposedly has for Bob Denton of Farmers Branch and Nell Dunklin of Dallas, why wouldn't it work for me? I am nothing if not motivated: My kids need an active dad who can tie his shoes without getting winded. So, in the name of investigative journalism, I decide to plumb the depths of my unconscious. I phone the Dallas Hypnosis Center to schedule my free evaluation.

Robert Hudak may have taken a page out of ancient history when he began the Dallas Hypnosis Center 18 years ago. The early Greeks would visit their "temples of sleep" where physician-priests would induce them into a trancelike state to cure what ailed them. The temple walls were covered with inscriptions from patients describing their medical miracles--reinforcement for those who followed that they had come to the right place.

The walls of DHC in North Dallas are similarly adorned with success stories. Gold plaques commemorate the many clients who are members of the 50-pound and 100-pound clubs. Nailed to the wall is the 60-plus-inch belt of the once obese Bob Denton of Farmers Branch, a dangling monument to motivation. If I have any doubt about DHC's legitimacy, I can rest easy. Its programs and services have been approved by the American Hypnotist Association--says so right there on the wall.

I fill out a questionnaire, which asks me whether I have ever been hypnotized (no), enjoy movies (yes), involve myself in fantasy (not since the birth of my third child). Then a pleasant, slender woman named Linda escorts me to an interview room where she asks me how much weight I want to lose.

Thirty-five pounds would be nice, I tell her.  

She says that being a writer I probably have a good imagination, which is one of the keys to being hypnotized.

I tell her the thing I can't imagine is being 35 pounds lighter.

She wants to test me to see if I am a good candidate for hypnosis and asks me to fix my gaze at a point on the ceiling. She instructs me to clasp my hands together and pretend that my two index fingers are magnets to see how long it would take for them to be drawn together. She seems pleased when it takes no time at all.

Next she tells me to imagine there is a string of helium balloons attached to my left hand, while in my right, I hold a 1,000-pound weight. She has me close my eyes and further imagine the balloons floating up and the weights coming down. After my hands move to the image, she tells me to open my eyes. "Congratulations. You're a good candidate for hypnosis."

I ask her why, but she is short on explanations. Instead she presents me with two price lists--one for the patently obese (those who need to lose more than 30 pounds) and one for the obese-in-training (15 to 30 pounds). Refusing to concede the former, I only consider the latter. For a total value of $1,575, I can get two power sessions, six acceleration sessions and three months of reinforcement sessions for only $760. "Almost 50 percent off."

Linda's sales approach is surprisingly soft: She tries to put me at ease, saying everyone can be hypnotized if they only have the right motivation.

But if everyone can be hypnotized, why the hell did I take those tests?

Truth is, not everyone can be hypnotized. Researchers at Stanford University have developed a Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale, employing 12 suggestions (including imagining a weight in one hand) to determine how trance-friendly people appear to be. Around 10 to 15 percent of the population is believed to be highly hypnotizable while 10 to 15 percent can't be hypnotized at all. The rest fall somewhere in between.

"Some of us are tremendously gifted in our ability to act on suggestion," says Fort Worth physician Dan Handel, the past national president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. "And some of us have a great deal of problems engaging in that behavior."

If you are overly analytical or skeptical, if you have trouble visualizing in your mind's eye, hypnosis may not be for you. The high-hypnotizables are more compliant, more trusting, more willing to role-play the part of hypnotic subject and suspend their disbelief.

"Motivation is a big factor," Dr. Handel says. "So is the amount of trust you place in the person conducting the hypnotism." Handel, who uses hypnosis in his medical practice as a pain management tool, says he has seen people who are not "highs get tremendous benefit from hypnosis. That just means they have a tougher time going into a trance."

Linda tells me that she has never met a motivated person who couldn't lose weight in their program, and it wouldn't surprise her if hypnosis also reduced my stress levels and promoted an overall sense of well-being. I say that would be terrific: I am an older dad and would like to be able to pick up my kids without getting a chiropractic adjustment. The problem is, I have this tendency to scarf down anything that doesn't scarf me first.

Linda suggests that my conscious mind is telling me certain things--you will never lose weight, you will always be fat. But hypnosis bypasses the conscious mind by getting you to relax in a trance state and putting healthy suggestions into the unconscious mind: Water is good for you. Eating less is a pleasant experience. The unconscious mind isn't critical, she says; it just goes ahead and does it.

Her psychic sales pitch is working. I must be in a trance if I am willing to spend this kind of money. I decide to just go ahead and do it.

It's not like I was born fat. My first signs of excess came during college, when my body responded to midnight runs to Jack in the Box by sprouting love handles. With each passing decade, I seemed to put on an additional seven to 10 pounds, no matter what kind of diet I tried. I joined more local fitness clubs than I care to mention. On an unconscious level, I must have felt that belonging to a health club was the emotional equivalent of working out in one.

No doubt I eat for emotional reasons, binging during holidays, deadlines, brunch with my parents. Being Jewish, I lust after delicatessen foods--chopped liver, smoked fish, potato salad--ethnic dishes that connect me with my ancestors and contain at least 10 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. I also love kid food--pizza, fries, shakes, pizza, burgers, pizza--and I love eating it with my kids.  

Despite my sedentary lifestyle of computer and couch, I know that the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than I consume. But I seem to be consuming more these days, which is not entirely my fault. Serving sizes at restaurants are getting massive, not smaller. Low-fat restaurants are a thing of the past. Gluttony is in: big slabs of beef, heaping helpings of pasta, sugary desserts for those bent on living large. For me, eating out isn't just fun; it's a quality of life issue. So what's an overweight, middle-aged male with a genetic predisposition toward high cholesterol and lox with cream cheese supposed to do?

In early January, after a bountiful holiday season, I return to the Dallas Hypnosis Center ready to put mind over a lot of matter. Turns out that Linda is not my hypnotist after all. It seems as though I should have some say in whom I place my trust, but instead I am introduced to Michael, an edgy Barney Fife of a man who acts as though he is the most positive human being on the planet.

"Hi, how are you?" I shake his hand.

"Fantastic. Fantastic."

This is problematic for me. I have trust issues with people who tell me they are fantastic.

Michael hustles me into a room off the hallway, one of several set up for inductions--the various procedures by which individuals are placed in a hypnotic state. The room is dimly lit, sparsely furnished--a wingback chair for him, a La-Z-Boy recliner for me. Despite his hastiness, Michael seems sincere, and he begins to take notes as I describe those destructive eating behaviors that have kept me stuck in the body of a fat guy much of my adult life: jonesing for a candy-machine fix at work in the late afternoon (the after-school snack, a hard habit to break); refusing to recognize the territorial integrity of someone else's plate (another way of overeating). But by far, my worst pattern is the lightning speed at which I eat. I know I need to cut out all foods prepared faster than it takes for me to drive around and pay for.

Michael then goes over the "ground rules," saying that if the unconscious is fed positive suggestions, there could only be one reason I wouldn't lose weight: "If you're going to keep programming your conscious mind with negative thoughts, you might as well walk out the door right now."

I stay, of course, but wonder how this thing is supposed to work nutritionally: Would my unconscious be programmed to eat low-fat foods? High-protein? Low-calorie?

There would be no diet, Michael says. "Your unconscious mind will tell your body what it needs to know."

Michael seems eager to put me under. He tells me some people don't feel all that different under hypnosis--just more relaxed--and that's good enough for now. Also, no one can be forced to do under hypnosis what he is morally unwilling to do in a waking state. No chicken clucking for me. He then instructs me to close my eyes, to push all the relaxation through my body, starting at my head, my neck, my shoulders, and quickly working down to my calves, ankles and feet. He says my eyes are getting heavy, drowsy and lazy, then tells me to stare at my open palm and place it over my face. My eyes have very heavy weights on them, he says, and the hand against my face feels like a 50-pound weight. No matter how hard I try, he insists, I can't remove it. I try--it does feel heavy.

Definitely I feel more relaxed now, somewhere between awake and asleep. But I have no idea if this is a "hypnotic trance"--some altered state of consciousness that makes its subjects more amenable to suggestion. Apparently, I am not the only one.

It's often said that there are as many definitions of hypnosis as there are hypnotists: It's a trance state, a state of relaxation, a conditioned response to repetition; it's focused concentration, compliance, suggestion, role-playing. Historically, arguments about what it means to be under hypnosis tend to fall into two camps: There are those who believe that hypnosis is a unique state of consciousness, marked by increased suggestibility and disassociation--the splitting of the conscious from the unconscious mind. And those who believe that what is wrongly labeled hypnosis is nothing more than a normal psychological reaction to a deeply compelling suggestion. This reaction has nothing to do with trance states but rather expectation and motivation.  

"No one has ever been able to measure a unique hypnotic brain wave in a laboratory," says Dr. Barry Beyerstein, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. "You get the same changes in brain function from hypnosis as you do when someone imagines that a real event is occurring without hypnosis."

Do away with the mystical ruminations, says the cognitive-behavioral scientist, and accept the idea that what brings about change is powerful suggestions, whether given under relaxation or not. All that is needed is a trusted psychotherapist who communicates a firm suggestion to a motivated patient without any hypnotic induction whatsoever.

Both camps do agree that those who are the most responsive to suggestion are those with active imaginations who can role-play the part of hypnotic subject as if they are protagonists in their own movie. They are true believers in the process and deeply internalize the suggestions because they are committed to personal change.

Like 75 to 85 percent of all those who practice hypnosis, DHC preaches that hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness and not just a good therapeutic relationship. Of course, the center is all about motivation and building up a belief in the hypnotic process--which Michael The Positive is now trying to do by giving me the sort of post-hypnotic suggestions that will make my hunger cravings go away: You are losing weight starting today...You are eating slowly starting today...You are drinking eight glasses of water each day starting today.

Michael then tilts me back in the recliner and puts a pair of headphones over my ears. He has me listen to a relaxation tape, which I will take with me and play every day starting today. The tape swells with New Age music--a saxophone player who sounds like Kenny G. If there is anything that can pull me out of an altered state of consciousness, it's the musical stylings of Kenny G.

Upon leaving DHC, I commit myself to the program, come hell or high fat. For the first few days after my induction, I don't seem as hungry and make a conscious (unconscious?) effort to avoid eating while standing, walking or driving. Exercise is a problem because I have shooting pains in my foot, an old injury that has come back to haunt me. At bedtime I listen to the tape that Michael has given me, hoping Kenny G will program my unconscious after I drift off to sleep. The voice over the music is DHC's own Robert Hudak, a sultan of sleep who encourages me to visualize images of descending elevators through which I am to go deeper and deeper into relaxation. Once there, he suggests that I cut back on my portions, exercise daily, avoid eating late--all the behaviors that my conscious mind knows and abhors. But after two more sessions with Michael and a change of tapes, I can't seem to lose either pounds or inches.

Michael thinks it may be because of my lack of exercise, and he offers suggestions in hypnosis that deal with pain management: The mind is more powerful than the body; I can exercise through the pain and it won't bother me.

It still bothers me.

At one weekly session, Michael is running late so I am passed off to Deryl Harrison. Although not pleased about seeing someone new, Deryl seems earnest enough--says he has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy. He has written a play about his experiences--Trance with Me--and he wants to talk about writing. But I want to know why I am not losing weight like Bob Denton of Farmers Branch or Nell Dunklin of Dallas. I have been listening to the tapes, which are beginning to both irritate and bore me.

"Those folks in the ads and on the walls are the stars," he says calmly. "They're the ones who can go into the deepest state of relaxation and become the most suggestive to hypnosis." He urges me not to overanalyze the process, tells me the repetition in the tapes is meant to condition me into developing new eating habits. "Everyone is susceptible to suggestion--just look at TV commercials and advertising."

Which is, of course, how I got hooked into this thing in the first place.

He puts the headphones on me and talks me down--so to speak--telling me to open and close my eyes 10 times, breathing deeply each time. With every breath, he says, I will feel more relaxation going through my body. Oddly enough, I feel more relaxed than before: My arms and legs tingle, my mind wanders, and I listen without really listening.  

Only I'm getting kind of hungry.

The following week it's back to Michael, who seems less rushed this session. He tells me that the Dallas Hypnosis Center is a $2 million a year operation that sees 80 people a day, 85 percent of them for weight loss. He received his hypnosis certification through the American Hypnotist Association, which he believes is in Oregon somewhere. I ask him if there is any state licensing of hypnotists in Texas, and he says no. "That's because there are no cases of hypnosis ever harming anyone."

Lay hypnotists, however, have been battling for legitimacy in Texas for years, often using the "no harm" argument to gain a legal foothold. But in 1993, the Legislature redefined the practice of psychology to include the use of "hypnosis and hypnotherapy for health-care purposes." If questions arise as to whether a lay hypnotist has entered into a therapeutic relationship with a client, he can now be prosecuted for practicing psychology without a license.

Because the Texas Board of Examiners of Psychologists, the state agency that regulates the profession, is understaffed and only acts on filed complaints, the practice of hypnosis has become so unregulated that the state has become a certificate mill for lay hypnotists with little training or experience. The contention that these hypnotists "do no harm" still rankles professional hypnotherapists who see the proliferation of lay hypnotists as something akin to a social ill.

"Weight loss is a very complex problem," says Dallas clinical psychologist Reginald Humphreys, who uses hypnosis in his practice. "You need to screen out other psychological and medical problems, and lay hypnotists have no ability to do that." They don't deal with the underlying problems that contribute to weight gain--depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, emotional issues--says Humphreys.

But what difference does it make if you get results?

Although there is no scientific consensus about weight loss and hypnosis, says Dr. Humphreys, "There is no way to rule out the possibility that some people may derive superior benefits from it. Plenty of clinical studies bear that out--and some don't."

My own clinical trial is failing miserably. Six weeks into the program and I have lost three, maybe four pounds--and who's to say it's not water weight? What if I'm not susceptible enough, trusting enough, imaginative enough? What if my desire to write an article about hypnosis is causing the critical part of me to sabotage the induction? What if those damn tapes are just driving me up a wall? I miss a few appointments and then stop going altogether. Whatever the reason, it's a conscious decision on my part.

Three months elapse, and there it is again--the Dallas Hypnosis Center ad that beckoned me to call in the first place. It strikes me as strange that most of the same success stories are featured, and I wonder why there are few new Bob Dentons and Nell Dunklins to take their place. If the place services 80 people a day, certainly more of them have true stories to tell about losing 70 pounds in five short months.

Two weeks ago, I phone Hudak, the president of DHC, and inform him that I went through his program in January and it didn't work for me. But in fairness, I am interested in interviewing him as well as those who have benefited from his program.

If I really want to see "hypnosis in action," he says, I should attend his Thursday-night group session.

I tell him I'll be there.

Although I once told hypnotist Michael I might someday write a story about my hypnotism experience, I feel a bit awkward when I return to DHC as a reporter. I am directed into a large room of 30 or so mostly middle-aged women (and three men) who are buzzing like a congregation before the start of church services. I sit next to a blond-haired woman who introduces herself as a salesperson for Epson and a true believer: She had lost 100 pounds at DHC but then gained back 50 after her boss increased her travel time. Now she is determined to lose the 50 again, knows she can because she has the ability to go into deep trances. The first time she went under, she says, Hudak told her to visualize her metabolism as an oven, burning away her fat. When she came back to full consciousness, she was completely soaked in sweat.

Hudak enters the room wearing his signature V-neck shirt, his mesmerizing dark eyes and swept-back hair adding to his stage presence. He told me that as a young man he was always fascinated by the workings of the mind, but he dismissed a career in psychology, finding its methods too "long-term." He went around the country taking hypnosis classes but found them confusing and considers himself self-taught. Yet Hudak and the hypnotists who work for him have credentials from the American Hypnotist Association, which is in Washington State, he said. He runs a school for the association, offering intensive hypnosis workshops and internships to wannabe hypnotists.  

Three former DHC employees later tell me that the American Hypnotist Association is Robert Hudak. "It's Robert, a guy in Austin and a guy in Washington," says Deryl Harrison, my hypnotist for a day, who says he recently quit after a two-year run at DHC. "The day after I went to work there, my name was on the wall as a member of the association."

Even Hudak's detractors say he is a "master hypnotist" who has developed quite a following. But they claim the secret of his success is not visualization but volume. "I used to work phones on Sundays after the ad would run," says a Dallas hypnotist who spent eight months at DHC both as a trainee and on staff. "We would take 75 to 100 calls. Overweight people are desperate people who have tried everything. If we got you in the door, we were going to sell you."

"After a while you feel you're just pushing the cattle through," Harrison says. "If the client gets results, great. If you drop out, fine. There is always someone waiting to take your place."

Similar to an AA meeting, Hudak has each person in the Thursday-night group go around the room, stating his or her first name and announcing his weight loss. Staggering sums are greeted with wild applause and enthusiasm.

"My name is Wanda, and I have lost 106 pounds."

"I am Don, and I have lost 47 pounds..."

"I am Doris, and I have been here about six weeks, and I have lost 26 pounds."

"They can't all be lying," Hudak chides, possibly for my benefit.

From her advertisement, I recognize Nell Dunklin of Dallas (100 pounds in 10 months). A handful of people, however, say they are new to the group, still attending their individual sessions, but now ready to accelerate their weight loss.

First appealing to the conscious mind, Hudak gives what he calls a "sermon" on nutrition, promising to keep it short. He tells three tales about hypnosis, trying both to entertain and get the assembled to relax for the induction that is about to follow.

First he walks over to Nell Dunklin, sees that she is ready, waves his open hands in front of her face and tells her: "Sleep." She drops like a rock. He moves to the next woman, puts his hands behind her head and rapidly chants: "Take a nice, long deep breath all the way in. As you exhale, close your eyes and just let that nice comfortable feeling spread all through your body from the top of your head all the way down to your feet..." Then he jerks her head forward as he commands her to "sleep!" Her eyes close, her head falling to one side.

Suddenly it seems as though I am at a tent revival with Hudak the Fat Healer, laying on hands, using the same incantation, putting people out left and right. The Epson saleswoman gets the same treatment as Nell Dunklin does; only when Hudak tells her to sleep, she falls onto my shoulder. Within seconds, her mouth goes slack and her eyelids begin to twitch. I just hope she doesn't start to sweat.

All but one woman appears to go under, and she is terrified. Hudak talks to her playfully. "Don't you trust me?" he asks. She says she doesn't trust herself.

He then begins his suggestions, racing through them so fast, repeating them so often, I sense he is slightly bored by his spiel: "Small amounts of food satisfy you...food is just not important anymore...I have people who say they don't like water. Who cares? Our bodies love it, demand it, want it. You are craving water all the time."

All said, the guy definitely has a flair. I had planned to eat dinner after the meeting, but even I'm not hungry.

I leave more confused than when I came. The next day I phone Deryl Harrison and ask him to help interpret what I saw. "Was Nell the first one he put under?" he asks.

I tell him yes.

"He likes to lead with her."

"Are you saying I was set up?"

"He has people like her in the class that are very good at going under [high hypnotizables]," he says. "He's conditioned them to relax instantly on a trigger word like 'sleep.' When others see how easy it is for people like Nell to go under, there is a certain group response." Some just like the show, he says, while others may be role-playing the part of hypnotic subject, caught up in the drama of it.  

But you can't act your way out of 50 pounds of fat?

"These are the stars," Harrison reminds me. "They become part of the suggestion. The others in the support group benefit by believing it can happen to them, too."

"So when one person gets slain in the spirit, it's easier for the rest to fall?"

"Something like that," he says.

Hudak invited me to continue my hypnosis sessions, but I don't think I will be returning any time soon. I am uncertain if it's the process of hypnosis that I don't trust--or just his process. A part of me is just unwilling to make myself as vulnerable as the women I watched--although that may not be the part that is still 35 pounds overweight.

I realize I still need to lose the weight, and I'm beginning to feel motivated again: I bought my wife a treadmill for her birthday, and I've been staring at it a lot recently. And I keep hearing these advertisements on the radio about a new weight loss product called "Body Solutions"--a liquid formula taken at bedtime that is supposed to take off the weight while you sleep. As exhausted as I have been recently by our newborn, sleep is one altered state of consciousness I know I can achieve.

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