ChicFitChef will be spotlighting individuals with unique health/fitness experiences and expertise! This new series, called “Spotlight Thursdays”, begins with the candid and powerful story of Priscilla, a college friend of mine sharing her brave & life-changing experience undergoing gastric bypass surgery.
Can you tell us a little bit about your weight, diet and exercise history prior to undergoing gastric bypass (GP) surgery?
I have been fat my entire life. Not chubby, not big-boned…FAT. Obese. As an example, I remember buying size 20 clothes in 6th grade right before I attended my first “law camp.” (Yes, there are summer camps for kids who want to be lawyers.). My quinceañera dress was a size 22. My wedding dress a size 24 or 26 (I squeezed into it.).
Probably my lowest weight ever was in high school, right before my band played in the Rose Bowl Parade. I was able to march 10 miles, playing a trumpet, without stopping. I even started going to the Y on my own and running and swimming. I wore a size 16w. I currently wear a size 14w or 16 regular. Depends on the clothing line.
I knew I was fat and that people hated fat people. But I felt that no matter what I did or what I ate, I just couldn’t get super-thin like so many people at school were. I don’t know why, honestly. It wasn’t like I didn’t eat healthy foods—my grandmother (who raised me) made from-scratch foods all the time. There weren’t really that many sweets in the house. And I loved veggies. It also wasn’t like I wasn’t active. I was in marching band and walked/rode my bike a lot as a kid. Yes, I definitely turned to food when upset, but that wasn’t all that often.
I seriously packed on the pounds my sophomore year of high school. I went from that 16w to a size 22w in one year. That was the same time that my grandfather died and all of a sudden I was left taking care of my very ill grandmother on my own. Looking back, I was stressed and depressed and scared and had absolutely no one to turn to. A part of me looks back at those times and has absolutely no idea how I made it through. Another part of me knows exactly how—I became a very angry and sad young girl who stuffed food in her mouth in the hopes that the pain would go away. I think this plus my apparently already slow metabolism put me on the path to becoming obese enough to need gastric bypass. I think this is also the time when my general liking of food became an all-out addiction. (More on this below.) I gained probably another 25 lbs in college, most of those coming in the first year after my grandmother died. I was a lost and scared kid in college, too, but I had a lot more support than I had in high school. Plus, I had to walk everywhere and never did like the desserts in the dining hall. 😀
I got married at 23 and, in addition to a husband, got fabulous health insurance that covered nutritional counseling, medically supervised weight loss, and gastric bypass. Right before I entered law school, I was on this medically supervised weight loss plan that consisted of drinking shakes instead of meals and then exercising like a fiend. I lost about 20 lbs in 3 months. Then I moved to New York City and gained it all back very quickly.
The February of my 2L year, I decided to try again and decided that if I didn’t lose the weight on my own that I was going to get gastric bypass. With the help of a nutritionist, I lost 25 lbs in a year. On the plus side, nutritional counseling let me start to learn to control my food addiction and to cope with emotions differently. But frankly, the results just weren’t there: when you weigh around 300lbs, 25lbs is nice, but not enough. I scheduled the surgery. Today, I’m thinner than pretty much any time of my LIFE. I wear the same ring size I did when I was in 5th grade. I’m in smaller clothes than as far back as I can really remember.
What made you decide to undergo GP? Was there any specific moment or event that contributed to the decision?
I don’t think there was one single reason or moment. I officially said it was because I didn’t want to put my potential children at risk—it can be dangerous for mother and child to go through pregnancy obese. But honestly? I really think I was tired of “it.” I was tired of being fat. I was tired of being judged. I was tired of always wondering if my weight was the reason people didn’t like me; why I didn’t get jobs; if it was why I tended to shy away from others. I was tired of feeling so different from everyone—different stores, different expectations, different worries. Just tired of it. And another part of me was just curious. It seemed incredible to me that I couldn’t lose the weight on my own, but that some surgery could make it happen. I just didn’t believe it; so, I wanted to check it out for myself.
Can you talk a little bit about the actual procedure? What does it entail? Was there anything you were required to do pre-operation or post-operation?
The actual procedure is basically a rerouting of your gastric tract. You can google for the medical description, of course, but basically, I have a tiny “pouch” of a stomach that has been sewn off from the rest of my stomach and reattached lower on my intestines. There are two ways you can have the surgery—laproscopially and open. Laproscopically uses a tiny camera and 5 small incisions and heals fast. Open cuts you right open across the stomach and takes far longer to heal. You want the laparoscopic, trust me. The 5 small incisions hurt enough. You only stay one night in the hospital and then you’re on your way home.
Before surgery, most insurers require six months of medically supervised weight loss. Most surgeons require that you go through a battery of tests to make sure you are physically and mentally prepared for the surgery. (EKG, making sure your gastric tract is healthy, etc.). Then, right before the surgery, many people have to go on liquid diets to shrink their liver—most obese people have a fatty and hardened liver (cirrhosis!!!) and it must shrink before they can perform the surgery laproscopically. That’s right—for two weeks before the surgery you don’t eat a single thing. For a person like me, who is addicted to food, this was absolutely insane and BY FAR the hardest part of the surgery process.
Post-op, you have to drink fluids (can’t eat a single thing) and walk. This is a lot harder than it sounds. You are so weak from not eating for 2 wks and from the surgery. Plus, your entire body hurts from the surgery. And they want you to walk before you leave the hospital! By the end of week 2 I was swimming and eating Jello. From there, you follow a graduated eating plan, slowly adding more food as your body can handle it. It’s totally experimental and often ends up with you throwing up for hours because you ate something too quickly or your new stomach didn’t like it. You consume maybe 800 calories a day. MAYBE. I was averaging around 500 for 2 months. I literally had to set alarms on my phone to remind me to eat. This goes away as your body adjusts. But, when I don’t pay attention, I can easily forget to eat.
Because you are eating so little, you are required to really watch your fluids and your protein. Without protein, you will not be able to heal. I was required to have at least 60 grams of protein a day. When all you can do is drink Gatorade, that’s very hard to do. I have become a connoisseur of protein powders. Getting a minimum of 60 grams a day of protein is something that gastric bypass patients have to follow for the rest of our lives, but it becomes easier as you can handle more and different foods.
Finally, you have to take your vitamins. Given how little you can eat for the rest of your life, you just can’t get all the vitamins you need. So, you take a big dose of vitamins and minerals. This, too, will be for the rest of your life.
What changes have you seen in your body since undergoing GP? Are there any changes that were unexpected or surprising to you?
Where to start? I will start with the bad, just to get it over with.
Your hair will fall out. This is normal, because you basically starve for about 3 months. However, even though it’s expected, it’s still horrible. My hair started coming out in globs around month four and just now is starting to heal and grow back. So, anyone who is interested in the surgery and loves their hair—be warned. It falls out. But don’t worry, it comes back more lovely than ever, if you get your protein and take your vitamins.
Loose skin. It is real. Again, you are warned about this, but it’s so hard to deal with in everyday life. I have skin hanging off all my limbs and my stomach. Thankfully, I haven’t had anything hang on my face or neck (yet). However, there’s nothing you can do—the only way to get rid of the skin is surgery.
Now the positive.
I have an hour-glass figure. My whole life, I thought I was shapeless and/or just sorta an extreme apple or something. Turns out—nope. I’ve got a defined waist and hips. Pretty awesome.
I have a lot of dimples. I’ve always had a couple, but now they are everywhere!
I am stronger, faster, more flexible, and more coordinated than I ever thought I was. I can run 20 minutes in a row—mind you, I never actually completed the mile run in grade school because we ran out of time! I love yoga (it used to be hard to hold myself up and my stomach got in the way of many poses). I love dancing more than ever. I love moving in general. It’s just incredible. I never really thought I would love movement of pretty much every kind. I thought I’d do it more easily, but never did I think I would get a high from it. I definitely get that now.
Has undergoing GP changed your diet/exercise habits? In what way(s)?
Diet: I am in control of food, it is not in control of me. As I mentioned above, I’m a food addict and have been for a long time. As I mentioned before, I think the addiction started after the death of my grandfather. I can’t describe it to you what it is like to be controlled by food. My whole day revolved around eating and what would be available, how it would be available, what it would be like. There was never a moment I wasn’t thinking about food. Ever. My emotions were totally controlled by food: I can remember being upset and eating an entire medium pizza in college and literally feeling myself calm down and feel better. It was insane. One minute unhappy, stressed, moody, next minute, fed and happy and bubbly. Now, I can have a dessert or a slice of pizza—but only until I’m full. Or I can have just one bite. When I’m busy, I honestly forget to eat. For first time in my life, I don’t constantly feel hungry, or become moody without food. Even when I “fall off the wagon” and attempt to eat my emotions away, I can’t. Not only does food not have the same calming effect for me anymore, physically, the most I can eat is maybe 2 slices of pizza. This tool has helped me keep my addiction under control. I have more than “willpower” to fight it. As anyone who has ever been addicted knows, willpower will eventually breakdown and you need a backup. For some alcoholics, I imagine it is avoiding alcohol all together. With food, you don’t have that ability—you’ve gotta eat! The surgery gives me the support I need so that I can really control my habits and change my life.
As for exercise—I have been a regular exerciser since I was 23. But now, I can actually enjoy exercising. I can physically move and withstand a great deal more than I ever could. I finally get that endorphin rush everyone is always talking about. And I’m not afraid anymore. No longer am I worried about breaking the equipment or being the slowest and fattest person in the room. Now, I can just go in and look “normal.” I live in Brownsville, TX—one of the most overweight places in America. So, frankly, I look “thin” or at least “average” even though I really am still about 40lbs overweight. It’s just such a relief to not constantly be second guessing whether I can do something or whether I’ll literally survive something because of my weight. It’s so, so amazing.
Has undergoing GP changed how you feel about your body/self? In what way(s)?
Absolutely. I always liked myself. I saw that I was smart and accomplished and determined. I also had moxie. But in many ways, I was very insecure and always on edge. I was forever afraid of being made fun of or teased. Before I got married, I really assumed I’d never be with anyone because they would only see my fat and not me. I hated myself in some ways and it showed through how I would shy away from people or be grouchy around them. I just didn’t want them too close for fear that they, too, would hurt me and make fun of me. I also always had this disconnect between my body and my brain. I think I felt helpless about my body, so I focused only on my brain. And, I mean, it worked to an extent. But, learning to actually see and use and understand my body has been a really neat thing. Just even understanding what I look like has been neat.
When I was near 300lbs, I never really saw myself as that fat. I didn’t really have a good sense of what I looked like or how I moved. Only recently have I begun to really look at myself. I have a hard time with it—being disconnected from my body for so long means my default is to ignore my appearance and ignore my body. But now, I try to look better—I care more about what I wear and whether I have makeup. I even care about shoes! I even wear heels almost everyday! (At 300lbs, um…yeah, that wasn’t happening—it was physically painful. And no shoes were wide enough.).
What I love most of all, though, is this sense that I really can control my body and weight again. In case you can’t tell, I’m a control freak. But a lot of that has stemmed from feeling like I couldn’t control my body—I had to eat, all the time—and I gained weight, all the time and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t lose it. Now that I can control my body, I just approach things differently. I’m happier. I’m nicer. I’m not as afraid. And I feel powerful on a very basic level. It’s freaking awesome.
The change can be seen in my “theme song” or the song I love the most. It used to be Cristina Aguilera’s “Fighter”—that was me, fighting against…everything and everyone. Very defensive. Determined. But a great deal of vulnerability. Now, it’s “I’m sexy and I know it.” No, really. I play that song every single day and absolutely feel it describes me at this point in my journey. It also shows my attitude—much more confident and a lot “lighter” and funnier emotionally.
For those readers who may be considering GP, what advice would you give them?
Be emotionally prepared. This surgery doesn’t fix your head—it just gives you a fighting chance. Make sure you really understand yourself and have strong support. Don’t expect this surgery to solve your problems. It’ll help in some ways, but really, you’ll wake up and just be yourself. You’ll be a thinner self. A healthier self. But still yourself.
If you’re prepared…DO NOT WAIT; DO NOT HESITATE. I failed a bar exam because of this surgery—I took the bar two months after surgery when I was still eating 500 calories or fewer and throwing up every other day, all day. I was a wreck when I took that test and it showed in my results. You know what? IT WAS WORTH IT. My life is completely different—and I’m not even done with the weight loss phase. Do it. Do it now.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your experience?
Best. Decision. Ever.
Are you or a loved one considering gastric bypass surgery? What has motivated you to consider the surgery? What are you hoping to gain from the procedure? Sound off below! -CFC