I’ve always been chubby. Food was comforting, sentimental even. When my grandmother cooked cakes, brisket, and roast beef, she’d cut off tiny “ah-ahs” and feed the kids like an aquarium seal trainer. I learned early to associate food with comfort.
Before I was 10, my parents separated and I started packing on the pounds. Food was there when no one else was, literally. I gained most of my serious weight over the course of hundreds of afternoons while my mother worked the night shift at her second job. The first thing I’d do after school was put on a pot of water to boil. I’d make rice or pasta as an afternoon snack, then later, more rice or pasta with a steak for dinner.
I was proud of my cooking. I thought it showed that I was self-sufficient and Mom wouldn’t have to worry about me. I could take care of myself. But as I kept cooking, my clothes stopped fitting. I had to start shopping at big and tall stores. There, I discovered that overweight people apparently aren’t allowed to live in the same fashion conscious world as everyone else. Everything was loud, obnoxious colors with elastic waistbands and illustrations of dogs wearing sunglasses.
I got called names like “Fatboy” by other kids. Adults called me “Big Guy,” which is kind of the Diet Coke of fat shaming. Note to adults: The sting doesn’t hurt any less, in case you were wondering.
When my grandmother cooked cakes, brisket, and roast beef, she’d cut off tiny “ah-ahs” and feed the kids like an aquarium seal trainer.
When I first heard about bariatric surgery I was in my early 20s. It felt inevitable—a looming certainty in the distance. I’d researched it and read success stories online, bringing myself to tears looking at before & afters. I was a walking “before picture.”
I’d even gone as far as scheduling the surgery twice. I cancelled both times after seeing older, heavier people in doctors’ waiting rooms and convincing myself, “I’m not as bad as that guy.”
By the time I hit my 30s I’d ballooned up to more than 300 pounds, though. And in early 2016 I was heavier than I’d ever been before. My joints ached, I had sleep apnea, and because I wasn’t sleeping right I had no energy throughout the day. My boss was even threatening to fire me for falling asleep in meetings. I had a three-year-old boy I couldn’t keep up with and my self-confidence was at an all time low. Something had to give.
It was about 140 pounds ago that I sat in my car at an Exxon gas station, sweating as I struggled to lean over far enough to pull the lever that opened my gas tank. In that moment, I made a decision that changed my life forever. That was the day I decided to get weight loss surgery (WLS).
There are a some practical matters that need to be sorted out before this type of surgery. First off, the finances. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about the insurance approval process, and mine was difficult—but not impossible. My carrier (Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield) covered the procedure at 80 percent, which meant my out-of-pocket came to about $2,500 altogether.
There are a few different types of WLS, but the common ones are called Lap Band, Gastric Bypass, and Gastric Sleeve. Most of the people I met along the way were getting the Gastric Sleeve surgery, which is what my doctor recommended for me. The procedure, he explained, involved removing a part of my stomach, creating a “pouch” about the size of a small banana. This forcibly limits your food intake, leaving you feeling full after eating much smaller portions.
I’d researched it and read success stories online, bringing myself to tears looking at before & afters. I was a walking “before picture.”
I was required to sit through multiple seminars and meetings with nutritionists, psychologists, and doctors, who tracked my weight over a six-month period as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to lose the weight on my own. After jumping through all the hoops (and not losing weight), I was finally approved with a surgery date. I was ready.
The day of the surgery, my wife took me to the hospital and she and my father stood at my bedside until the moment the nurse wheeled me away. This was it. It was really happening. I thought I’d be nervous but I wasn’t. It was more like standing outside the gates of Emerald City, knowing something incredible waited for me inside.
The doctor administered the anesthesia and as I counted backwards from 10, the world faded away.
After the Surgery
Just a few hours after I regained consciousness, the nurses were encouraging me to get up and start walking around. This helped to relieve the gas pressure caused by the anesthesia. (A weird side effect: The anesthesia caused blood vessels to burst in my right eye. My son would call me “Blood Eye Daddy” for the next week and a half.)
There were five small scars from the incisions but they didn’t hurt very badly. The hardest thing was drinking water. I just couldn’t take in much as my newly smaller tummy got its bearings. Just a few small sips at first. I was able to drink about a cup by the time they discharged me.
I got home, sat on my couch, and let it sink in like a new tattoo. I’d followed through. This was a Decision with a capitol D. Irreversible. But it’s not like you have the surgery and suddenly life is a bunch of fluffy ducks.
I’ve heard people say that weight loss surgery is “taking the easy way out.” In my experience, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
Here’s what it really feels like: You’re still 300 pounds but the weight feels impermanent—like it doesn’t belong to you anymore. You begin to think of your body as a temporary shell from which the real you will eventually emerge. You obsess on everything you need to do to reach your goal. It’s all you think about. It’s all you talk about. For a while, it’s all you are.
The next few weeks were the most radical in terms of dietary changes. For 14 days I could only have clear liquids as my pouch began to heal. Water, protein shakes, and chicken broth (I couldn’t stand the beef broth—ugh, gross). Then another two weeks of soft solids and mushy foods like sugar-free Jell-O, cottage cheese, and loosely scrambled eggs.
It. Was. Miserable.
If I had to pinpoint the hardest part of the whole experience, it would be those first few weeks after surgery. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a problem with food but an issue with my entire lifestyle. I’d built routines that gave me comfort. Tough day? Eat heavy and watch TV late at night. Feeling bad about myself? Drown my sorrows in candy and root beer.
Now, without those crutches, I was forced to deal with my issues head-on. I can only imagine this is similar to what drug addicts feel when they go cold turkey. There were nights I laid in bed, crying because I physically couldn’t eat the way I wanted to. There were days I sobbed to my wife on the phone, cursing the doctors and regretting my decision. Sometimes I dealt with it by taking bites of the foods I missed, savoring the feel of them in my mouth and then spitting them out.
But the weight started coming off.
Then, slowly, I began introducing more solid foods: fish, hard-boiled eggs, sliced meats. I found ways to mix it up. Eventually, I was cleared to start eating normally and healthier patterns took root.
Through the Looking Glass
It’s been 16 months since the surgery and the world I live in today bears little resemblance to the one I grew up in. When someone laughs, I don’t assume they’re laughing at me. If people are nice, I don’t assume they feel sorry for me. My clothes fit and I don’t have to shop at big and tall stores anymore. I can chase around my toddler and play on the floor with my new baby boy—and feel no pain. I’m more confident, I smile in pictures, and I’m not embarrassed to eat in front of other people. I can even wrap a bath towel all the way around my body.
For those of us who have battled with weight issues all our lives, it’s difficult not to tie our self-worth into how we perceive our appearance.
Are there negatives? Sure. I miss eating a juicy hamburger and a mound of fries. But I’ll still eat about half a burger and a fry or two. I don’t deny myself the things I love—it’s more about moderation and making better choices consistently.
Nowadays, I’ll have a protein shake for breakfast, turkey and cheese roll-ups for lunch, and then I try my best to eat a balanced, normal-sized dinner (that’s protein, vegetables, and a small amount of carbs). Switching to smaller plates helps control portions and makes it look like you’re getting more. Multivitamins and calcium are a must to get in the nutrition I need due to the reduced amount of calories I take in. (Every day is a struggle to take in the 65 grams of protein and 64 ounces of water my doctor recommends.) I work out at least three days a week and now that my body doesn’t creak and groan with every step, I actually enjoy it.
I’ve heard people say that weight loss surgery is “taking the easy way out.” In my experience, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. It isn’t a cure—it’s a tool. Total body transformation requires discipline, struggle, and support. My diet’s not perfect. I don’t always get to the gym and I’m still searching for those elusive abs (they’re in there somewhere!).
For those of us who have battled with weight issues all our lives, it’s difficult not to tie our self-worth into how we perceive our appearance. Whatever shape you are, my hope is that you have the courage to love yourself—whether that means taking pride in the person you are or working to transform yourself into who you’re meant to be.
My journey is far from over. I’ve got a long way to go and my goals are always evolving. Today, I feel better than ever before and every day I’m one step closer to my best self.