The cold, white sterile walls seemed to close in on me as the doctor walked back into the holding room. My slippered feet hanging off of the edge of the hospital bed; the room smelled of ammonia and sickness.
“We have you on the highest dose of the strongest blood pressure medicine available, and it still isn’t coming down. If we can’t get it down, we may have to cancel the surgery.”
I looked past the IV lines and hanging medications to look the doctor in the eye, “If you do the surgery with my pressure this high there is a chance I could die, right?” He nodded.
“If you don’t do the surgery my pressure will stay this high, and I will die. Obviously, if the medicine you are pumping directly into my veins right now isn’t working, there isn’t anything you could prescribe that will work…and obviously, if I could lose this weight on my own, I wouldn’t be here right now. I don’t see where I have a choice.”
He said “To be perfectly honest I don’t understand how you are still here. The fact that you don’t show any symptoms means that your pressure has probably been that high for quite some time. It’s a miracle you’re still alive or at the very least haven’t had a heart attack or stroke.”
I signed the waiver. I would have the surgery that day. I would take my life back. I wanted to live.
It took a great deal to get me to that hospital on that day in October 2013. However, there are three events that stand out to me in regard to my weight and my eventual realization that I needed to make a change. All of these events seem to ironically involve amusement parks.
The first was when I was in my 20’s and my family and I were at Jazzland in NOLA.
It was hot and sweat was dripping down my face while waiting in line for a ride. We were all waiting with patient excitement, but the ride operators were having trouble getting the ride restraint to fit one particular rider.
As they were struggling with the restraint, she pointed at me and shouted, “You better check hers too because there is no way it fits her and not me.” That was the first time I remember being truly humiliated by my weight even though I have been heavy most of my life.
Then two years ago my family and I went to Disney World.
It was hot…again and from the beginning of the trip, I just could not keep up.
There I was in my 30’s, and I could not keep up with my family, some of whom were in their 50’s and 60’s at the time. Toward the end of the trip, I just couldn’t go anymore; my parents were thinking about renting me a scooter; I was spending more time alone than enjoying the happiest place on earth. In the end, while the rest of my family were making memories, I was hanging out in the hotel room waiting for the sun to go down, so I could catch a few rides and meet them for dinner.
For me, the lasting impact from this trip was missing out on all the memories that I could have made with my niece and nephew. But, instead of making memories, I sat in my room by myself, thinking about how I didn’t want to be remembered as “fat” Aunt Mandy who couldn’t do anything.
Then the third and most impacting was about a year ago at Carowinds in North Carolina. I was actually kicked off of a ride because I couldn’t fit into the seat and restraint. The humiliation from all those years ago at Jazzland came back- amplified.
For the first time, my weight stopped me from doing something I wanted to do. Yes, there have been other things I couldn’t or didn’t want to do, but I always was able to make up some reason so that the lack of participating was ultimately my choice due to this ailment or that…bad knee, bad back and so on. But, this time, I was just too…fat. While most of my excuses previously were weight related, I never had to admit out loud that weight was the factor. However, when you are standing in line with a group of friends waiting to get on a ride and you are then turned away…well, I couldn’t ignore the fact that it was my weight…not my knees, not my back, not my inability to keep up…just my size.
It was that day while watching my friends go on ride after ride that I decided I had to do something…and for me that meant surgery.
Prior to getting my surgery, I had tossed around the idea for several years. My reasons were many; some more valid than others. One reason: I didn’t want to give up Diet Coke; in retrospect, this sounds childish. However, a more valid reason; the year and a half recovery before I could have children. As a woman who has always wanted children, already had fertility issues and is knocking on 40’s door, this was a major concern for me.
I shelved the idea for a few more years.
While I was still going through my internal struggle; to have surgery, to not have surgery…
A few members of my family had the surgery with incredible results, and so I looked into it again. Riding on the disappointment of the Disney trip, I went to a seminar given by a gastric sleeve surgeon. I sat in the audience stunned as he rattled off all of the obesity related diseases and conditions that I either had or was in the beginning stages of. To drive it all home, he handed out a BMI chart.
At 5’0 tall and 270 lbs., my BMI was 50.8.
And then, like the great reveal at a Magic Show, he said, “To put it in layman’s terms, if your BMI is over 50, you are basically walking death, a ticking time bomb.”
That made my decision.
It didn’t make any sense to put off having the surgery in the hopes of maybe having a baby; additionally, I recognized that at my size, there was little probability that I would be able to successfully get pregnant and carry a baby to term anyway as the same health issues that were hindering me from making memories with my family would also hinder me from starting my own family and keeping up with future children.
After the seminar, I submitted all of my information, but my insurance did not cover the procedure. There was no way I could pay for the surgery myself and so I was back at square one…with the knowledge that I was a ticking time bomb weighing on my mind.
With the lack of insurance coverage, I figured that the surgery route was closed to me. So, I tried to lose weight on my own like I had so many other times throughout my life. But, for me there has always been a mental element.
For example a special event or holiday would come up, and so I would tell myself that I wasn’t going to diet that day. And, sometimes I would go back on my diet the next day and other times I would wait weeks before getting back on program. I am the queen of making excuses for why I can’t do something; most of these excuses have to do with physical activity…I tried a boot camp once, and it took me days to recover.
In some ways that one boot camp felt like Disney World all over again where I was left out of breath, beet red, unable to keep up with everyone else. Other times, I tried to sneak into the gym at odd hours, but I never felt like I was able to do enough. And, if the numbers on the scale didn’t move fast enough, I felt validation in my mind-set where I decided that if the results weren’t fast coming why even bother. It was this cycle of self-defeating thinking that created an internal dynamic where my physical limitations caused my mental limitations which for me, like many, became a recipe for failure. A few pounds would come off here or there, but on those days I wavered, it seemed like all of the weight and then some would come back on instantaneously.
It’s possible that I could have lost the weight on my own with time, but I was so preoccupied by the surgeon’s dire warning that I felt a sense of urgency unlike any I had felt before. The incident in North Carolina happened as I was going through this internal struggle, trying to lose the weight on my own and really fearing for my life; I felt as if I could drop dead at any moment.
And, with this urgency driving me while at Carowinds, while waiting for my friends to get off of another ride I wasn’t about to attempt to ride, I texted my mom and asked if she and my stepfather could help me pay for the surgery. My urgency was fierce and the way I saw it they could help pay for the surgery or my funeral.
Thankfully, they agreed. None of us had any idea how close that bomb was to going off until the day of the surgery.
Prior to scheduling the surgery, the doctors wanted me to lose 20 lbs. Like so many times before I began dieting in earnest.
However, despite my valiant efforts, I was only able to lose 10 lbs. in 3 months. In August of 2013, I called the surgeon’s office and spoke to the nurse. Fueled with the resolve built at that seminar months prior, I felt like I was going to die before I lost that last 10 lbs. My determination and frustration touched something within the nurse; they scheduled my surgery for October 24th, 2013. I was only able to lose 3 more pounds.
The two weeks leading up to the surgery were torture. They put you on a very strict diet which eventually leads to a liquid only diet by the last few days prior to the surgery. It was October and so as the pre-holiday season, it seemed like everybody was having a party. One event that made a particular impression on me was my niece’s sweet 16 party. There was food everywhere. And, I couldn’t have any of it, not even one bite. I chewed sugar-free gum and drank water; I would slip outside every few minutes to get some fresh air and escape the food smells.
The day before the surgery I went in to do all of my pre-op, and still no one took my blood pressure. I’ve always known I had high blood pressure. How could I not? I am overweight, and it runs in both sides of my family. For years, I was stuck in this cycle where the doctors would check my blood pressure; it would be high; they’d prescribe a low dose fluid pill and send me on my way with instructions to “lose weight and check back in.” This continued for years and so eventually, I just stopped going in for check-ups. My medication was never increased; I wasn’t prescribed something new and obviously, business as usual was not sufficient for me.
As a result of my history of high blood pressure, it was no surprise to me that my blood pressure was high on the day of the surgery. But, for it to have been so high as to stop me from having the surgery, that was unexpected. When the nurse checked my blood pressure on the day of the surgery it was approximately, 217/107. She went through the typical list of questions to ensure I wasn’t just suffering from ‘white coat’ syndrome and so then she checked it again, muttering “That can’t be right.”
She then asked if I had headaches, nausea, blurry vision. Nope. I had none of those symptoms. She sighed, “Well, with a blood pressure that high you should.” They transferred me to the holding room and immediately started me on medicine. Nothing seemed to work. They kept increasing the dosage, asked me to try meditating; I tried anything and everything they could think of.
Some think that gastric sleeve or laparoscopic surgery is an “easy way out” or a means of “cheating.” I’ve had some folks actually say this to me; that I took the easy way out. But, I disagree with them. There is nothing easy about the surgery process, there is nothing easy about the recovery and the adjustments you need to make afterward to truly benefit. Those changes are rigorous and life changing, if you embrace the process. What many don’t understand is that when you reach the point where I was, you are on a timeline trying to avoid death. I had to do something or I would die. I don’t think I had the kind of time required to have lost the weight healthily and on my own.
For me, surgery was not a “solution”…it was and is a tool.
New Orleans is a food city, and the culture down here has a strong connection to food as a means of celebration, of mourning, of socializing…and so on.
We, South Louisiana Cajuns, eat for everything and so the social aspect and being included is integral to our way of life and culture. The need to participate is strong and so like when I could not enjoy the rides at amusement parks, not being able to eat like everyone else when out with friends and family is a challenge and in some ways it feels like I am watching from the sidelines again. Just because I may not be physically hungry, doesn’t mean I don’t get mentally hungry and crave the same social camaraderie that everyone else is experiencing through sharing food with each other.
An excellent example: the boat blessing was this past weekend in my hometown. Boat blessing parties are legendary for large amounts of food, alcohol and hopes for a successful shrimping season. And, at the party I attended there were crawfish as far as the eye could see, and I could only eat six!!
Any self-respecting Cajun will tell you that knocking back several pounds is customary on such an occasion as the boat blessing…
Perhaps I am a food addict; perhaps I just love to eat. Ultimately, just because I’m not physically hungry doesn’t mean I still don’t want to eat. When you’re on a diet, you have the option to take a day off for a holiday or a wedding or some other special event. Eat what you want and get back at it the next day. I will never have that option again. There is nothing easy about that.
That said, I don’t regret the surgery for a minute; I’d prefer to eat little and live large, than eat large and live very little…or worse die prematurely.
In the months since my surgery, I have learned to pace myself better, but it’s still a learning experience every time. I’m also getting much better at listening to my body instead of my brain. You’ve heard the phrase “your eyes are bigger than your stomach”? I take that quite literally now. If I eat more than I should it hurts, or I get sick…sometimes both. I’m slowly learning the signs that let me know when I’ve had enough, and I listen to them much better than I used to.
At only 5’0 tall, I have made adjustments my whole life for being short. I have become very adaptable over the years and as a result, I never realized until after my surgery how physically limited I truly was and how much I couldn’t do. And so like I had accepted my height, I also accepted my weight not really cognizant that I had control over that and so in that way I became complacent.
But, complacent isn’t what I am now…I am wondrous. I am a new person, and I am more hungry to experience new things than I am for food, mentally and physically. But in addition to doing things that I’ve never done before, I am also delighting in the little things that I can do again…like bending over to tie my shoes.
One day at work, post-surgery, I bent over to tie my shoes and one of my coworkers was like, “Hey, you can touch your toes now!” I must have looked at her strangely because she then qualified it by explaining “You always had to put your foot on that shelf to reach it before.”
I touched my toes so many times that day I thought I was going to throw my back out!
Or, what about the first time I realized I can cross my legs…or the first time my cat came and sat on my lap because I now have a lap for him to sit on. These things might seem small, but they were milestones and victories and really just the beginning of what’s to come along my journey.
By Christmas I had lost nearly 50 lbs. and even though I could see changes in my clothes, I still couldn’t see any notable changes in my body. But, family and friends sure noticed. At my family Christmas party, my dad didn’t recognize me from the back. He was about to ask somebody who I was when I turned around. But, it was at my office Christmas party where I finally realized how much I had changed. My cousin was with me, and she asked someone to take a picture of us, she then held that picture next to the one we had taken the day of my surgery. I was dumbfounded. Who knew I had dimples…and a neck?!?
Not long after the holidays, my weight loss seemed to stall. I had read that this plateau was normal and so I didn’t worry about it too much.
But, eventually, the stall started to bug me, and I had already come so far and had sacrificed so much. I did more research and confirmed it…to continue to lose; I would have to conquer my laziness. I am the first to admit that I am and always have been lazy. Even as a kid before I started to put on weight, I just prefer not to…
Throughout the years I have tried to conquer this little part of myself; I’ve signed up for exercise classes, bought DVDs, made up my own walking programs…you name it, I tried to motivate myself to do it. But, I never stuck with any of it.
Then a gym opened up in my small hometown. I signed up and went for a little while; remember that boot camp I mentioned. But in some ways, I quit mentally before I even got started physically. And, it wasn’t too long before I gave up on that too. But, I didn’t cancel my membership…the place was too close- practically in my backyard- and too convenient- open 24/7- to ignore. So, even me, the queen of excuses, I couldn’t come up with a valid reason to quit altogether. I just continued paying my membership fee, feeling like one day I would find the motivation I needed to get my ass back in there.
Right around the same time that I was jump-starting my weight loss again I heard that the gym was going to start offering exercise classes. This got my attention. Obviously, I’m not disciplined enough to follow through with going on my own, so I thought the structure of a class would be the solution. Then, I found out that one of the most inspirational people I know was going to be teaching a Zumba class. She’d had laparoscopic gastric bypass in 2011 and was running in marathons and triathlons by the time she taught her first Zumba class; she had lost over 170 lbs. I saw and still see her success as a testament to the fact that I too can reclaim my life and be more than Aunt Mandy who can’t do anything. She had been in my shoes and is ahead of me on the same journey.
To say my first Zumba class was rough is an understatement; my legs were shaking so bad that I wasn’t sure I would make it down the stairs at the gym and then back up the stairs into my house. But I did, and after a little while I found I had energy. This was new.
Usually after exercising, I am useless for days. But, Zumba was rough but also fun, and I liked the feeling I had after a class, so I went back for another and another. One week I actually did seven classes in six days. Me…the person who could barely walk to her car without getting out of breath; I went to more Zumba classes than there were days.
Now, I see exercise as a way to spend more quality time with my nieces and nephew. I’ve already started taking my oldest niece to some classes. And, soon the gym will start having Zumba for Kids; I plan to take my youngest niece to these.
Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get my nephew to teach me how to play lacrosse. And, I want to go horseback riding or zip lining, and I want to travel, maybe go back to Disney World and experience it differently, or maybe a cruise to Cozumel…I want to try new things and motivate and inspire my nieces and nephew to live life everyday…I want them to know that it is possible to go from “fat” Aunt Mandy to “fit” Aunt Mandy…now that’s an inspiring change.
My motivation was simple; I wanted to live.