Keynote Address, 2005

From Recluse to Movie Star

Darlene Cates

Image of Darlene Cates
I know most of you are familiar with my journey, but I want to tell you the lessons and insights I have gathered along the way.

Our Keynote Speaker, Darlene Cates.
Photo by Terry Early.

I was born 57 years ago in the Texas Panhandle. I have a mentally challenged brother born five years after me. My parents divorced when I was twelve and that, along with being raped at fourteen, forever changed my life. I had two very loving grandparents, but a Mother and Father who didn't have much empathy for what was happening in my life. I was forty years old before I was able to put my expectations of my parents to rest. It took that long for me to understand that they were dealing with their own personal and self esteem issues. It took several years longer to put to rest my father issues. That was long enough for me to nurture the belief that I was unlovable.

Your parents are supposed to cherish you, right? So if mine didn't, that must mean I was unlovable.

When I was fourteen, in April of 1962, I met a Marine home on leave from California. We had met before, according to him, but I just couldn't remember it. Finally I remembered where and when and we chatted the night away in a little cafe where a girlfriend I was spending the night with was working the graveyard shift. He was due to go back to base on Mother's Day and asked me to see him off at the bus station. My grandmother took me and, Good Lord! he kissed me goodbye right in front of her! I thought I was going to die!

He called me all along the way back to the base, thinking I was eighteen years old. Things got very serious over the next few months and the next thing I knew he was proposing. I was desperate to be "rescued" from the rape ordeal and my mother and her abusive new husband, and how could I not fall head over heels for this handsome Marine? I decided I better "tell him the truth," so I confessed that I was "really" only seventeen. He didn't know I was fifteen till we were married. He was totally shocked, but we were already married and consummated....too late to back out now! By the way, that was forty-two years ago. On a subconscious level I wondered why my mother was so willing to let me marry so young. Another blow to my self esteem. I won't bore you with all the things over the years that kept feeding my self doubt and low self esteem. Most of you have had the same experiences.

I can tell you that most of them came from people I didn't even know. Kids, teenagers, old people. That is one of the most challenging things to overcome. For instance, you are at the mall and someone stares at you and then makes a rude comment. Most of us immediately own that comment and go around feeling bad the rest of the day. How could that person know us? In truth, the judgment made has nothing to do with us other than we provided an opportunity for that person. They feel so bad about themselves and have such low self esteem, they couldn't let the opportunity pass to try to make themselves feel superior. But now your feelings are wounded and raw and you think to yourself, "I'm not putting myself through this again." And you start staying home. You feed on the comment made, convincing yourself that it's true and wrapping yourself up in a blanket of shame. You convince yourself that it is easier to stay out of the public eye than deal with being strong. You have no self respect, so you can't demand it from anyone else.

I worked hard to make sure my kids didn't suffer from my weight issues. I was involved in every thing I could be. I made a real effort to get my kids' friends to like me so they wouldn't tease my kids about their Mom. They claim that I succeeded, and I can only hope they have been honest with me. I do know that, to this day, there are classmates that still call me, "Mom." I even had weight loss surgery, hoping that it would be the answer to all my problems. That lasted about a year and the weight began to creep back on. As my weight climbed it became harder and harder for me to walk and do what I normally did. I also had some health issues that kept me bedridden off and on for two years. My family took on more responsibility and I took on more guilt. Thoughts of suicide began to creep in and I felt I owed it to my family to release them from this burden. Imagine how miserable it felt not to have the courage to end my life for their sake? I sunk lower and lower till I didn't like to leave the house anymore. Not only was it emotionally difficult, but it was physically almost impossible. How could anyone love me now? Even God had surely turned his back on me. I felt I deserved nothing.

One day, I was at the bottom of the barrel and called my doctor. He put me on Prozac and within three weeks I began to feel a change in the wind. Things didn't look so black, but I still didn't have much self esteem. I did begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I decided to get my high school diploma and started some correspondence courses. I hit one of those spells where I felt like I wanted to try to get control of my weight so I started a TOPS club that met in my home. I had some success with TOPS in the past and thought maybe I could again. When the regional supervisor called and asked me if I wanted to go to New York it was all I could do to not laugh. I didn't want to go outside, much less NYC! She said that The Sally Jessy Raphael Show wanted fat women who didn't want to leave their homes and that they wanted to help. I had some serious doubts about that. I had watched many times as fat people were exploited on talk shows. Then my son said, "Mom, you pray for help all the time. What if this is the help and you don't go?" Well, that was a voice of reason I wasn't prepared for. That one step of faith changed my life. God made it easy for me to go there. I was treated well by everyone. I discovered six months later that I was a actress. Imagine! Some of you know about the experience I had when shooting Gilbert Grape. It was astonishing and profound. No, I'm not talking about Johnny's goodbye kisses or Leo's was better than that.

One rainy evening after we had wrapped, my son Mark and I were preparing to go back to the hotel. It had been a grueling day with lots of walking, and I just didn't feel like going to my trailer to change my costume of Momma, so I stayed in the car while Mark went in and gathered our things. While the day had been physically demanding, it was also a very rewarding day. At the end of the shoot, the cast and crew had surprised me with a birthday cake and gifts, as well as a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday." They were pretty pleased with themselves as I had no idea it was coming and was really hacked off because they made me walk the hall so many times. I was moved to tears at their thoughtfulness and kindness.

We were parked in a small alley. There was only one feeble light over the car and it made the raindrops on the window look like little stars. I thought, "how beautiful," and suddenly I was overwhelmed by a profound presence of blessing and love. Were those arms I felt around me, here in the car alone? I was overcome with thoughts of how much I was loved and accepted by these total strangers I worked with. Then the thought came into my mind, "See how far I am willing to go to show you how much I love you?" I believe that God Himself was there in that car, parked in that alley in Plugerville, Texas, to let me know I had His love and acceptance. My life would never be the same. And yet, it was almost ten years before I admitted to anyone what had happened. Oh, I told them about the "warm feeling," but I didn't have the courage to tell what had really happened. I am so ashamed that after all God had done for me I was still worried what people would think. But when given the chance to tell it years later, I did have the courage, and was provided with the opportunity to put the experience on video.

You know if I hadn't been a big woman, Johnny and Leo couldn't have hung off me at the same time like they sometimes did. Leo kept coming up and hugging me during a Halloween party. Eventually he brought his cousin for hugs. Later, while shooting the film, Leo was always hugging me. I think they liked my softness. Being fat brought me a world of new experiences and new people. If I had refused to go to NYC, I would have missed out on it all.

You know, this last Academy Awards I was hit with a unique situation. Everyone asked who I wanted to win the Oscar for best actor since both of "my boys" were nominated. Well, amazingly, there were four I was rooting for. I had met Don Cheadle, of "Hotel Rwanda," when taping, "Picket Fences." He sang for me in my dressing room. Jamie Foxx is from a little town ten miles from me, where I shop at Walmart. Even though I haven't met him, I wanted a local boy to do good. The idea that I knew these people just amazed me! I still marvel at how good God has been to me and how glad I am that I was open to it.

I want to share with you some of the things I have learned on my journey. Let go of past hurts and disappointments. Travel light....dump some of that baggage. I have come a long way. but can't honestly say that they don't affect me from time to time.

Stop giving your power to strangers. Ask yourself, "Why do you care what they think?" Don't spend another minute being offended, or feeling condemned or guilty.

I believe God never intended for us to compare ourselves to anyone else. It is a profound experience to let go of the fear of being judged and the fear of rejection. That has been my golden key. I would still be sitting at home with no self respect if I hadn't let go of the fear. It's hard, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. And the big bonus is that when you go out with an air of self respect and self confidence, people don't treat you badly. I meet their eyes and smile, I speak to strangers and they speak back with kindness, they smile back.

You have to let go of the fear of being a burden. I still struggle with this one.

Go to the doctor....your fear of going will kill you. I let them know when I call for an appointment that I am a big woman in a big power chair. Are the doors wide enough? Does the doctor have any qualms about treating someone my size? I am friendly and non-confrontational. I go in knowing there will be some limits on what tests can be done, but not afraid to think for myself and offer my own ideas on how to accomplish them. If I am not happy with my treatment, I find another doctor and let the first one know why I am leaving.

I ask you to remember those of our fat community that have faced serious health issues, and especially those that have died. Sometimes it was because they didn't go to the doctor till it was too late. Please don't be afraid to be weighed. Find a hospital or a clinic with a electronic wheelchair scale. If you had to have emergency surgery the anesthesiologist would have to guess how much anesthetic to give you. Your doctor needs to know how much prescription medication can be safely given.

These things take time and work.

Nothing worth while is ever easy. I don't have all the answers. I still struggle with some of these issues. Some of them I struggle with every day, some only occasionally. Sometimes I lose faith and wonder why am I here. Sometimes I crawl into a pity pool and wallow around feeling sorry for myself. I think that is normal and even healthy. But it is not normal to set up permanent residence.

You have a purpose and it is up to you to find it. That means being open to new experiences, new people, new ideas. You are more than the numbers on the scale. You have interests and hobbies, intelligence and people you love. Those are the things to count....not the pounds...the blessings. I believe that God has a purpose for each of us and that, no matter the circumstances, he will use them for our good, but we have to be open, willing, and prepared to do our part.

Above all, Do the best you can with your circumstances.

I would like to end with a quote from T.D. Jakes: Just because no one has been fortunate enough to discover what a gold mine you are, doesn't mean you shine any less.

My advice is, Let your light shine for all to see.

© Copyright 2005: This speech or any portion thereof cannot be copied or used without permission from Darlene Cates,

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