Nine Aprils ago, I was of my own free will, laying in a hospital bed and staring at my hands. They felt naked. The ring mom and dad got me for my confirmation and the one my aunt gave me at my high school graduation were safely tucked away in the overnight bag I left with my parents.
“You know you can’t keep this a secret.”
In a matter of weeks it was going to be obvious. I was already wondering how I’d feel about the questions and (potential) judgment from others. It had already crept up from friends I expected would be supportive, and scared me off of saying much to anyone outside of my immediate family.
“You realize this is permanent, right? This is for the rest of your life.”
True. And at eighteen years old, what clue did I have about permanence? Was I even mature enough to be making a massive life decision? My heart raced a little more quickly.
“You can do this. Would mom and dad ever support you doing something like this if they didn’t think it was going to help?”
I found myself wishing that hospitals didn’t have such stark white walls and fluorescent lights everywhere. All I wanted was a soothing blue ocean, and I tried to picture the summers we spent on Satellite Beach basking in the sun and eating pizza at Bizarro’s.
“Pizza. That’s going to be a hard one.”
Why was I thinking about food? This was the worst possible time to be thinking about food. For the next 6 weeks, there wouldn’t be so much as a crunchy Cheerio in my diet. The kitchen at home was already full of soup, tuna, cream of wheat, and eggs. Even eggs were out for the first two weeks. The panic came back and I suddenly wondered how fast I could get the saline IV out of my arm, and bolt out of the hospital before anyone noticed.
And then there was peace. There was nothing. There was silence.
“This is going to save your life.”
I’d technically been obese since my early teen years. I was always overweight as a kid, even when I swam year-round, but teetered into obesity once high school hit. Between school, marching band, drama club, forensics, a job at the YMCA, a job at the jewelry stand, and time with family and friends, eating right didn’t make my list of priorities. By the time I was a junior, I was only pretending to not hate every single thing about my body. I wanted to be pretty, so I wore lots of jewelry, dyed my hair fun colors, bought sparkly clothes at the plus-size store, and tried to convince myself that it was okay. But simultaneously, I tried every single diet in the book. Changing myself became an obsession, and I went to lengths that I am not proud of to try to lose weight. The “safe” ways like South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, or liquid diets stuck for awhile, but every attempt had an end, everything I tried failed at some point. Temporarily, I could shed a meager 10-20 lbs. but it always came back. I’d find myself buying boxes of cereal to replace the ones I shamefully decimated in a matter of a day or two, destroying the empty boxes and throwing them in a trash can away from home. I tried to hide the binges, but after awhile all it took was looking at me to know that what I ate in front of others could not possibly be ballooning my body at such a rapid pace.
It got worse when I went to college. For the first time in my life I was making food choices entirely on my own, and the freedom was almost intoxicating. Grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies for lunch, all washed down with a big glass of diet coke? Hell yeah. Breakfasts comprised of double Pop-Tarts and Odwalla smoothies? Bring on the sugar rush, baby. I’d catch myself every so often, and the shame would draw me back toward the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Before I knew it, everything would flip again and I’d be hiding in my dorm room destroying half a box of penne. Writing that out now makes my face turn hot and red. After all these years, I’m still embarrassed at what I couldn’t just control. People don’t think about someone obese having an eating disorder, but that’s exactly what it was.
And so there I was, nine years ago, freezing in a thin hospital gown, 280ish uncomfortable pounds packed on my bones, and a little sick to my soon-to-be reorganized stomach. Dr. Quinlin pulled back the curtain to my little cube in the surgery prep ward and gave me a warm smile. “How are you doing this morning?”
After all, this (wonderful) surgeon was about to make a bunch of incisions in my abdomen, close off a rather large portion of my stomach, bypass a long section of small intestine and reattach the rest of the intestine to the remaining egg-sized piece of my stomach. That’s the short description of Roux-en-y gastric bypass. For the next week and a half, I’d have only clear liquids, the two weeks after that clear and opaque liquids, the four weeks after that just soft foods, and finally a slow reintroduction to coarser solids. Basically, I was about to be an infant again. I was going to re-learn to eat, and in doing so, try to undo almost 2 decades of bad habits and damage to my body.
Dr. Q gave me a smile and a pat on the arm. “You’re going to do great, okay?”
A few hours later, my new life began. It was like hitting the reset button, getting the fresh start I always wanted. Starting from scratch.
And what a miracle. What a life it has become. There is not a day that goes by that I do not believe that Dr. Quinlin saved my life in April 2004. Yes, I have had to make an effort—one that felt unbearable at times for the first year post-op. Yes, I still have to work at making good choices every day. Yes, I still have to fight the (much fainter) urge to fall back on disordered eating and a distorted perception of food.
But do you know what I can DO now? I can bike 20 miles, I run 5k and 8k races, I do ninety minutes of yoga six days a week, and go through body weight circuits like a champ. And mostly I do all of this just because I CAN. Because there was a time that it felt so impossible, and so far out of my reach that I didn’t even dare to dream of it. There was a time when I was out of breath after one flight of stairs. I always believed that even if I was somehow thin, surely I would never be athletic.
People often think of gastric bypass as some golden ticket, or “the easy way out.” There’s not a post-op alive who hasn’t heard that line and had to grit their teeth and smile thinking, “You have no (expletive) clue what you’re talking about.” It’s not easy to withstand those first few restrictive months, the physical healing takes a long time, restaurants are difficult for the first year post-op, finding 70 grams of protein everyday can be really hard, grocery shopping was a nightmare at first because I had to evaluate every label and ingredient, and I had (and have) to be ridiculously careful consuming sugar or alcohol; the former because I hate feeling nauseated, and the latter because I would like to remember entire conversations. If you were (as I was) a major food addict prior to surgery, there’s a good chance you’ll look somewhere else for comfort. If you aren’t prepared it can turn into something ugly like alcoholism. As a regular contributor to a weight loss surgery forum, I can tell you that it is a familiar refrain. Trust me when I tell you that this was not an easy way out. It was as hard, if not harder than any diet I ever tried. The reason it worked for me was its two-fold approach: Restriction and malabsorption. Since the stomach pouch is quite small, the amount of food that can fit is much less than normal, and since part of the intestine is bypassed there is a reduction in the amount of calories that the body absorbs. The malabsorption is effective for about the first year and a half, but the restriction remains permanently for the most part. It is not uncommon for patients to experience some weight re-gain once the “honeymoon” period is over. I most certainly did. I put 30 lbs. back on before I looked in the mirror and thought, “Don’t waste this. You got your second chance.” I’d accepted remaining overweight because it was better than being obese.
“But that isn’t why you had this surgery. You had it to be truly healthy.”
So I re-grouped, started tracking my nutrition and exercise, and worked to find the balance that helped me get to and maintain a weight in the normal range for a woman of my stature.
I am literally half of myself. But unless I told you (and I do tell people because it has been such an incredible life change), you’d probably never know I had surgery. You’d probably just think I have a small-ish appetite. I still eat all of the things I used to love, just less, and I’m a lot pickier about the quality of the food I eat. We have dairy, meat, and poultry products delivered from a local farm once a week, and buy as much of our produce from the nearby farmers’ market as much as possible. Sometimes that isn’t so great for my wallet, but the way I see it, food is part of my health care costs. And my health is more valuable to me than I can explain.
So here I am, nine years later and 135-140 lbs. less than my highest recorded weight. There is one pair of size 22 pants that hang in the very back of my closet. Every so often when I am feeling truly discouraged, I fit myself into one leg of those pants and remember all that I couldn’t do, and everything that I can do now. It might not be a big deal to someone else, but to me it’s nothing less than miraculous. Could I have lost weight and maintained that loss without weight loss surgery? To be honest, I’m not sure. I understand so much more about obesity now that I know my problem was not simply a lack of willpower. I’m not sure what I’d be like today if not for RNY surgery.
But I know what I really am today, and what I am is so grateful that I still cry my eyes out every single year on one special day late in April. My heart overflows with gratitude for Dr. Quinlin and his staff. Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping me to achieve a healthy and active life, the life I never dared to dream of as a food-addicted, ashamed teenager. Every single run, every single yoga practice, and every single healthy check-up I think of you. I will never, ever forget what you did for me, and the compassion and care that you showed every step of the way.
I remember the first time that I wasn’t bothered that I couldn’t find a cab outside of the Prudential Center and would have to walk the mile home to my dormitory carrying 6-7 bags of groceries (a Thanksgiving turkey for dinner with friends included!).
Looking up at the cloudy, gray November sky at that moment, it was more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen in my life.
Ciao for now,