This is the second in a series of posts I am publishing that have been written by friends at my request. If you listen to the narrative of the media and diet industry, weight loss is simple: lose weight, live happily ever after, the end. However, this is rarely the something that actually happens. My purpose in sharing these stories is to give others a platform to share their experiences and help people with similar histories see that they are not alone. Issues surrounding weight and body size are far more complicated than many would like to believe.
My second post is written by friend I have met through my Facebook page. Because her story is very personal to her and she has not shared all of it with everyone in her life, she prefers to remain anonymous. Let’s call her “Susan.” Her story is one of many I have encountered that forced me to change my own point of view regarding weight and weight loss: specifically the belief I used to hold, that many still hold, that a person’s bodyweight is a simple calculation of calories burned vs. calories consumed. That if you eat less and move more, you will become small and stay that way. Susan’s story is not unique. I have encountered many others with similar histories.
This is Susan’s Story:
I ask you, the reader of my story, someone whom I will never know, have no vested interest in deceiving, make every effort to believe what you are about to read. I share this information tenderly, knowing that most of you will pick it apart, look for what I have done wrong, think of what I should do. I ask to take me on my word, that I bear witness to a body that I have resided in for 46 years, a body I have treated often like a science experiment, trying to make it behave according to the rules of thermodynamics, make it obey all the calories in/calories out rules, make it lose weight or at least not gain weight at the expected rate that science predicted. Please give me this, a moment of credibility, entertain the idea that I just might be telling the absolute truth. Then imagine how you would feel if no one believed YOUR truth about YOUR body (if every person on the planet thought you weighed what you weigh for reasons other than the truth).
I remember the day I lost stopped living in my body. I remember the exact second that it was no longer a safe place to live, and stopped being simply a vehicle for my little soul. Probably most females can remember a time when someone else first stole their space, and I remember as clear as day the moment that my sexuality was simultaneously revealed to me, and the understanding that my body was a target, was something wanted, something not mine. I was eleven.
I was of a “normal” weight as a child, whatever that is, and I ate what I wanted, played from dawn until dusk, and perceived my body as an insignificant part of who I was. During the summer of my 13th birthday, I rapidly put on 30 pounds without explanation. I was away from my hometown for a few months, and when I returned, all my friends commented about how much weight I had gained (I weighed 160 pounds at 5’9”). I suddenly had breasts, hips, tummy, and butt. Men began treating me quite differently. I truly did not understand this new way of being related to. In my mind, I was still a child. In their minds, I was something to look at, make lewd suggestions to, grab, and disturb. Women offered up diet tips and dire warning about being fat. I declared war on my body that year.
I started freshman year of high school at that same weight, and quickly got used to being the “chubby” girl. All of my friends weighed 120 pounds and wore a size 8, while I was a size 14. I started dieting then, keeping detailed food journals (I still have them), monitoring my calories to be strictly under 1000 a day, on good days under 600. I walked 3 miles each day to and from school, and rode my bike everywhere. Cottage cheese, pineapple chunks, yogurt, Jello, mushroom soup, and milk were my staples. I remember sitting watching my skinny friends eat take out from the Italian place across the street from my high school, noodles dripping with alfredo sauce, washed down with a soda, while I nibbled my carrots, dreaming of one bite, just one bite of their lunches. My self control was insoluble, but my weight would not budge. My hungry days would eventually lead to lapses at night when I would eat extra cottage cheese or oranges (my family kept ZERO junk food in the house), and the next day, every day, I would wake with the same resolve. Mondays were “start a new diet” day. I am amazed that I never turned into a binge eater or bulimic. I was a fat anorexic.
My dad struggled with his weight, and twice we went on two week “juice fasts”, consuming nothing but water and freshly squeezed vegetable or fruit juices. I remember starting the first fast at 165 pounds, and breaking it with chocolate chip cookie dough at 150 pounds. The second fast I added 5 miles of daily jogging to, spending my nights at the track of my high school, occasionally having to sit down because I became light headed. At the end of that second fast, I was treated like a champion by my friends who acted like I had done something awe inspiring. Boys paid attention to me, perhaps too much attention, I actually felt good about myself for a few weeks until one of the most painful moments of my life occurred. I had managed to continue to consume only 400 calories a day because I was enjoying the positive attention. I was walking down the street, I remember the weakness in my knees, the gnawing emptiness, the soulless hunger, my smug feeling of victory over my body, my appetite, and my brain, and suddenly two boys drove by, honked, and yelled, “NO FAT CHICKS!!!!” at me. I sat down in my exhaustion, leaned against a tree, and something in me died. I don’t know what it was, but it died. It surrendered.
I stayed at a stable 180 pounds when I stopped starving myself, eating healthily, and getting minimal exercise. When I began college, I was working 3 jobs and taking an average of 18 units of honors courses per term. My diet consisted of inexpensive carbohydrates gulped down between classes. This usually ended up including no breakfast, two bagels with cream cheese for lunch, and a giant bowl of pasta for dinner. I had zero time for exercise, and in the space of about 2 years, I put on 100 pounds. It wasn’t that it crept up on me, it literally jumped on me. I met my future husband, learned to love to cook, and we enjoyed our nights cooking inexpensive meals that usually involved white rice or pasta, all that we could afford in those days. He loved me at my size, I was healthy, and there was little I could see that I could do about my weight.
I began exercising regularly in 1994 when I was awarded a room and board scholarship at UC Berkeley, and was able to drop down to 1 job. I remember my dorm mate marveling at how little I ate, considering how much I weighed, as did my close classmates. I think that no one actually could fathom how meagerly I ate, and assumed that I must be sneaking food. The only 2 people in the world that believed me were my husband and my best friend, as I had lived with both extensively. Just knowing that 2 people in the world took me at my word kept me going some days.
I got married, began a successful career in information technology, and had 2 children whom I conceived easily and quickly, despite my “advanced maternal age” of 35 and 37, respectively, and my morbid obesity (I weighed around 300 then). I remember going into my first prenatal appointment, glowing with joy, and my OB/GYN giving me dire warnings about my weight, that she was certain that I would have a pregnancy complicated with high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia. She was wrong. I had ideal pregnancies, and continued to work full time and exercise daily during both. During my first pregnancy, I had chosen a birthing center, as I preferred the ambiance to that of the hospital across the street. I got there, heavily in labor, so happy to be in a non hospital environment with colors pink and peach. The nurses there had me undress, took some vitals, and then told me that “I was too fat to have my baby there”. They explained that if I needed a C-section, they would not be able to handle a person of my weight, though I was perfectly healthy. I walked across the street, in shock, in labor, so shaken. I think that experience resulted in me having a c-section, as my labor ceased, and never progressed.
When my second child was 2 years old, I decided to have weight loss surgery. The lap band was all the rage then, and I was tired of being fat. I was the mom pushing 2 babies in a double stroller up steep mountain trails, I was the 334 pound mom going down the slide with her babies in her lap. I was the mom who knew her children would be embarrassed of her some day. I was very active, working full time, exercising nearly every day, eating a nearly vegetarian diet, yet my weight stayed at 334 pounds, and I knew that eventually my joints would betray me as I aged, and I would not be able to hike, swim, and walk into old age like I dreamed. I had read fat acceptance literature for years, I knew many fat positive, sexy, confident fat women, but I was simply unable to turn myself into one of them. I was tired of dreading social events, being asked to be the fat bridesmaid, buying ugly clothes, wondering if I could fit into the booth at the restaurant, I was over the self consciousness and self hatred that I simply could not shake. I had achieved every single thing I had set out to in life, but applying 10 times the diligence towards unsuccessfully losing weight had left me defeated, and I am not a person that can easily resign to a fate. I seemed unable to alter the weight gain trajectory that my body was on., so in September 12th, 2007 I had weight loss surgery, and over the next 5 years slowly lost 110 pounds. I was eating so little that my hair was falling out, I was anemic, but I worked out 2 hours every day, getting up at 4:00 am to do an extremely strenuous boot camp class before work, then hiking after work. I felt like I finally had a “normal” relationship with food. I could eat anything I wanted, but only a bite. I no longer had to count calories, I simply ate literally nothing, or threw up most of what I did consume.
Everything in my life changed. Everything. My marriage fell apart because people began treating me differently, suddenly I mattered, doors were opened, attention lavished on me, men who previously had ignored me now wanted me. I realized I had settled greatly for a passionless, dull, safe marriage with a man really not suited for me intellectually or emotionally.
About 5 years after I had the surgery, I began to experience nighttime saliva reflux. I would wake up choking, and usually ended up coughing up copious amounts of saliva that was pooling in my throat. This put me at great risk for pneumonia, as I often aspirated saliva into my lungs, and developed a chronic cough. My food intake dipped to about a cup of food a day, so I began drinking milk in large volumes, up to a quart a day, and my weight crept up. I went to my doctor who ran some tests, and determined that my lap band was too tight, and that I had damaged my esophagus from throwing up. He suggested that he remove all the saline out of it (which removed any restriction and appetite suppression), and let it rest for 6 months. He also suggested that I consume 800 calories a day or I would likely regain weight.
I tried. I really and truly tried, but without restriction, a normal appetite returned, and though I was religiously consuming 1500 calories a day (the minimum amount that I can consume without being obsessed with food, and constantly ravenous), and burning off 300-500 calories a day with exercise, my weight quickly climbed back to 290 pounds.
So here I am today, at 290 pounds, with a lap band inside of me that likely needs to be removed. My odds of keeping off the remaining 40 pounds is less than 5%. My doctor has advised that I get the vertical sleeve, an irreversible surgery which involves 90% of my stomach being removed.
I don’t know what I am going to do. I hate being fat again. I hate it more than anything, and I hate that I feel trapped in a body that I cannot seem to control. I hate that once again, I am the fat one eating the salad, surrounded at the table by friends eating normally who are slim. I hate that I am the fat girl hiking up hellish mountains, counting calories burned again. I hate that again I am the girl that everyone assumes eats a lot and never exercises. I hate that no one believes me. I hate it. I hate it.
I miss living in a body that felt like friendly territory, even though looking back, I know that I was dying by starving slowly, just to feel alive. Just to be believed. Just to feel like I existed, even in a body that was really not mine.
I would like to thank Susan for sharing her story with us. Although many parts of it are different from my experiences, other parts are very similar. I have learned that we can all have different personal truths and different experiences in life without invalidating each other. I would like to add myself to Susan’s list of people who believe her.