It has been exactly one year since I had a vertical sleeve gastrectomy (VSG). It is hard to summarize my experience because it feels like a bramble of contradictions. I was not 100% convinced weight loss surgery would work for me. I was 100% committed to having it, but I gave myself a 50/50 chance of long-term success. And to be considered a medical success I will need to keep all my weight off for another year. At this point in my recovery, I am hesitant to even label myself as one. I think I am at the point in my recovery that the easy part of weight loss is finished. I am now beginning the hardest part of the weight-loss continuum, year 2. Research shows that bariatric patients live in the “danger zone” (cue Tom Cruise) of regaining and relapse five years after their procedure. 5 YEARS. Those numbers are devastatingly crushing because I naively thought that surgery would fix it all; that I would magically be trim, fit, healthy, happy, and put together one year out. I have been battling my weight for as long as my memory can reflect on my life. I was hoping bariatric surgery would end that struggle, that constant battle between my soul and food. I can say *definitely* it has not ended anything, which is another sour spot in my soul. But what weighs the heaviest is the realization that the work of living life at a healthy weight has everything to do with what the surgery did NOT fix and everything to do with what I never wanted to confront- myself, my addiction, and my body-mind disconnection. It’s not all doom and gloom; I have grown in ways I did not foresee, and things that I never thought would change have in fact changed. I do not in any way regret my decision to have bariatric surgery. It has been the easiest hard thing I have ever put myself through.
Here are some mind-bending contradictions I have come to accept as reality after weight loss surgery.
- Nothing has changed; expect everything.
- I feel the same. My emotions remain all over the place just like before, I am still happy most of the time, I still crave food, and I still get furious and the things that have always made me angry. I enjoy the same things; I like to read the same books. I still love my family, friends, husband, and dog. If I did not own a mirror, I would not know things are different. I am still fat. My back fat still hangs over the back part of my bra. My underarms still jiggle. I still have a closet full of clothes. My thoughts and thought patterns remain the same. My desires are still intact. I still like Cheetos.
- I get hungry now, rarely “hangry,” and when hunger does strike, I can ask myself, “Is this hunger, or is this anger/boredom/disappointment/dehydration?” and come up with the correct answer times than not. I enjoy cooking (yes, you read that right MOM)…but let’s be real; I am just now to the stage where I can read a recipe correctly and follow it. VICTORY. I do not panic when I eat five bites of food and am full; I can stop eating and not be sad about any food left on my plate or others’ plates. I have stopped giving any fucks about what anyone else eats or drinks- FREEDOM! Most of my mental capacity is free to work on things that matter instead of using that capacity to think/obsess over food and anything related to food. I look very different, and for the first time, what I see in the mirror is a pretty accurate view of how I thought I appeared. Even though I have always had permission to wear whatever I wanted to wear, I let my size dictate how I dressed. That is no longer the case. When people offer me a compliment, I say “thank you” without a qualifier.
- I have thus far been successful, but I am not yet successful.
- I have lost over 100 pounds since surgery and close to 130 pounds if I go by my highest weight. That’s pretty amazing. I do not yet weight what my surgeon wants me to weigh.
- Life is not better, just easier.
- Nothing is better. My relationship with myself, my husband, friends, family, and co-workers have not improved. But know we can all talk about weight and food and body image with more clarity and richness that would never have been possible at my high weight. I still fight food and my addiction to food. But now I have some added tools to help me battle those things, and those tools have allowed me to dump over 100 pounds. I still hate “exercise,” but, surely, it is easier to ride my Peleton or walk a few miles. And yoga has ever been more enjoyable because I can get into some of the postures that I have NEVER been able to Gumby my way into. I still feel out of place at times, but I feel like I fit better in those places than before. Things are still hard, but not everything is as hard as it used to be.
- I am an independent woman, except when it comes to food.
- NO ONE PUTS BABY IN A CORNER! Unless that corner has pizza…then this baby will be in that corner eating pizza. Food and weight loss remains the ONE area of my life that I do not feel like I can find success. It’s crazy. If you asked me if I could colonize Mars, I could say that I could. If you asked me if I could keep this weight off for the rest of my life, the answer is a solid no. Makes no sense…but it does because addition is RATIONAL- it makes sense to take the shortest pathway out of discomfort, and that is exactly what addiction is. As you can imagine, my therapist Wendy is buying a house in the Bahamas on the fees she is earning with me.
- I don’t seem to be judged differently because I am smaller, but I am treated differently.
- Weird, I know. But people linger in conversations longer; they offer more detail and give further explanations when I didn’t ask for them. I get more benefits than doubt than I ever have before. It has been subtle, but something is there that was not there before.
- No one recognizes me, but everyone sees me.
- My mom and husband are the “worst” at this- they do double-takes constantly when they see me when they were not expecting it. They come around a corner and don’t know who I am. They wonder who is ahead of them at the grocery store only to realize once I turn around it’s me. Their brains have not registered by changed shape.
- Yet everyone who sees is “before” pictures say, “I know that’s a picture of you, but I never saw you as that big. You always looked like you do now…but I know you are a different size now than before.”
- They are saying that they still see ME- my personality and prominent features, but they do not recognize my current or past shape. I am literally a fucking shape-shifter to everyone who knows me well. I guess I am a real-life X-Men!
There are some areas where I have experienced tremendous growth, and it is solely attributed to my bariatric procedure. It is no coincidence that only after physically altering my insides permanently did these elements change. And I think these shifts are only for the better.
- It’s not every day, but most days I am very excited to craft a meal for Grady and I. Before the joy came from eating food. Now the pleasure comes in bringing seemingly unrelated ingredients together and making them into something very different from their parts. Bread making is fantastic. Vegan cooking is inspiring. Setting a beautiful tablescape is rewarding. The spices are endless. The aromas are intoxicating. The least enjoyable thing about the whole dining experience for me now is the actual eating. I mean…I enjoy it, but when you only get five bites, you have to REALLY plan out those five bites well. I am amazed at the chemistry and alchemy that cooking is.
- No panic at the food disco
- My fear and worry and straight-up panic that used to consume every thought related to food have greatly diminished. It’s like taking off your too-tight bra at the end of a long day- you finally get to take an unencumbered breath. That is what this release has felt like.
- The capabilities of an empty cup
- I have a working theory on why losing weight is so hard- really impossible- for so many people. When food- anything related to food- takes up 90% of your brain’s mental capacity, it leaves you with only 10% to run the rest of your life. And when modern life requires so much of us, trying to do it all with a 10% capacity is impossible. We do not have to literal brain space to deal with food. Soon after surgery, I realized that almost every moment of every day before surgery was dedicated to something food-related- it was my entire life, and I didn’t even know it. I also understood that I now had a *massive* amount of capacity that I could dedicate to whatever I wanted to focus on. I felt limitless, unstoppable, superhuman. I finally harnessed the power and energy I knew was theorem hidden by this gray fog of addiction. And I can tell you I needed it to deep dive into all of the things that lead to my addiction and continue to keep those pathways travelable. Working through those things has been a HEAVY lift, and without my capacity back, I would not have been able to do it.
- Knowing when I have said YES too many times
- Feeling superhuman is incredible. But saying yes to everything because you finally have the capacity and energy might not have been the best thing for me 😉 This is not a new thing for me, but I think I underestimated just how convincing I could be to myself. I was on a superhigh of energy after surgery- I was not even a month out, and we moved into our giant ass home, and I would not stop until it was done. I stepped up at work in my administrative roles, took on a side hustle, became a famous chef, and triaged all things online learning once COVID hit. Looking back on those months, I realize I might have overextended myself- whoops. But here is what I learned from this time- my driving question is life was off. I was asking myself, “What’s next? What is the next big thing I need to do to feel like I am accomplishing something?” into the void expecting to hear an answer…and none ever came. But if I asked myself, “What do I want to LEARN next?” it was like the answers came back to me like an echo in the Bavaria Alps. I am a doer, an achiever, a mover, and a shaker. But the point to all of that “doing” before surgery was not grounded in growth; it was rooted in checking off a box. I am also a learner at heart; ff I am not learning, I am withering. By shifting my question from “What’s next” to “What do I want to learn next,” a whole world of joy and fulfillment opened up. I realized that I could learn new things and move on…I do not need to turn what I learn into a career or pursuit. I can simply learn new ideas for the joy of learning new things. Mind blow. And the burden lifted.
So there you have it—my reflections on a year. I don’t think I learned more this year than other years. I believe I had the time and capacity to sit and reflect on the changes and synthesis them into lasting change. Every year is filled with growth. But like trees, I think the ring that this last year has added to my trunk will be thicker and brighter than the ones made in my previous years. Those precious rings had not already been in place, who knows if my tree of life would have even survived. Surgery requires some deep roots, constant fresh water, lots of sunlight, and thick bark. And like trees, you have to be able to bend and sway with the wind and storms without breaking. You have to find your snap point and just fight light hell to withstand the gusts.
The other intriguing thing about trees is the community they make in the forests. Did you know they share resources in their root systems? They communicate just below the surface and send their extra resources to other trees in need. I have found this same type of support in the bariatric community. Their constant, underground support had kept me grounded when my resources were scarce. But it took some courage to become apart of that community. Weight loss surgery is still the underground railroad of “healthy,” which is a travesty. But I have established some roots and even find that I have some resources to share. I am excited to grow in the forest of bariatric patients and help provide the resources other people need to thrive. No one gets through life without help. A single tree is lovely, but a forest sustains. The majesty of life, like forests, resides in the diversity of its connectedness.
If you are considering bariatric surgery and are starting to put down roots in this beautiful and lush forest we call the WLS Community, please do not hesitate to reach out. You can message me here or find me on Instagram @ actively_april and @east2west_wls. I also host a podcast for all things weight loss surgery. No matter where you are in the process, we are here for you. Search “East2West_WLS: The Podcast” on your favorite podcast player. If you think I can write a lot, you should hear how much I have to say 🙂