My email mostly falls into two categories. Emails asking about my gastric bypass surgery, and emails asking about a post I wrote on another blog - a post I am not going to talk about here. (MYSTERIOUS) I find it almost impossible to answer any of these emails. The emails are so heartfelt. I read them, and I think about them, and I close them. I feel like I have very little wisdom to share. I can give empathy, but that feels hollow.
I think part of it is that I would hate to think that if I gave someone advice they might take it, and I think that if they did, I would then share some responsibility for their choices. My thoughts about everything are so muddled. People want to know if I would do it again, and I think NO. But also yes, maybe. They want to know if it has changed my life and again I think NO, but also yes.
When I look at that picture of me from before, I see someone overweight, but mostly I see someone who was in a lot of pain. A lot of things were broken then, things only tangentially related to my weight - but my weight was a convenient target for my dismay.
If only I was thinner. If only I wasn't so heavy. Then I would be worthy. I wish I had asked myself "worthy of what?" because that question was probably the key to fixing a lot of my problems.
My weight was also a convenient mask. It was easier to think that the only thing really wrong with me was my weight. That if I were thinner I wouldn't have issues in my marriage, I wouldn't have a hard time getting close to people, and that I would have the self-confidence to do all of the things I've always wanted to do. I really believed that. My weight, in my head, was the only thing standing in my way.I was going through a really rough time. I felt pretty hopeless about a few significant issues. I felt so powerless. Howling into the void, that was me. So when I found out my insurance would pay for gastric bypass, it seemed like The Answer to all of my problems. I felt like someone who had just glimpsed an escape hatch, and I reached up, and I grabbed it.
In the hospital, bad things kept happening. I was getting sicker and sicker and with each subsequent surgery, my condition got worse. My body was riddled with infection, and they called in an infection specialist doc to work on my team. (I had a TEAM.) In addition to constantly checking my levels and working to ensure that I was getting the right medication to combat the various infections in my body, the doctor would sit and talk to me. She believed that stress and despair weakened the body, and that if I could release some of that stress, it would help me to be stronger, and to get better.
She would sit by my bed, hold my hand, and talk to me in the most soothing tones, asking me about why I'd had the surgery, about what I thought it would fix. In my highly medicated, frail, weakened state, I sobbed out some of my most heart-felt worries and fears. I said things to her I'd never even said to myself.
And I started to get better.
People ask if I would recommend gastric bypass. I always say no. Gastric bypass doesn't fix anything. It's like a reset button. It helps you get down to a normal weight (mostly because you are so sick for the first 8 months or so that you can barely keep food down), but after that, you are pretty much on your own. You start to be able to eat again. Sugar no longer makes you sick. You can eat more. Your appetite returns. Your old problems that you always fixed by turning to food still exist. Whether or not you keep off the weight is entirely up to you. That is the whole trick of the thing, I think. You have to use the "honeymoon period" to learn new habits and coping mechanisms. You have to try to figure yourself out.
When one of my friends found out I was having gastric bypass he told me to be careful, that people often went off the rails after losing all of that weight. I can see why. People react to you in a different way - a way that you are not used to. Suddenly that barrier to social acceptability is just - gone. If you had problems in your relationship prior to gastric bypass, gastric bypass isn't going to fix them. You either have to choose to work at your relationship, or it self destructs. (Conversely, if you had a great marriage before gastric bypass, it usually gets better.) Because you suddenly feel powerful. You feel like you are not in a space where you want to put up with any crap (even though your spouse is still putting up with YOUR crap - because, as you find out to your dismay, perhaps your weight wasn't your only fault).
People who have had gastric bypass, armed with new found self-confidence, often make huge life changes - getting divorced, getting married, er, going back to school, switching careers, etc. If you aren't careful, you can easily wreck your life - I have seen it happen over and over and over again. But I love my husband, and I love my kids, and I am not interested in wrecking our lives.Because it does make you more self-confident. I know that is not what we are supposed to say. We are supposed to say that losing weight won't change how you feel about yourself.
But how can it not? If the number one thing you hated about yourself (whether or not you ever should have hated that about yourself is an entirely different story) suddenly disappeared, wouldn't you feel better? I have talked about this before, about how that little voice that was always whispering in my ear telling me that I should be embarrassed, that I should be ashamed about my appearance, that I should feel uncomfortable when I walked into a room - it was suddenly just gone. To be sure, I have other insecurities, but that particular demon doesn't plague me so much anymore.
I still don't feel pretty. My smaller body is a lot like my larger body. The same pouchy abdomen, the result of four c-sections, the same chubby legs. I look at that picture up there and laugh, because I, unconsciously, am dressed almost exactly the same in both pictures. My hair is the same. You can't see it, but I think I'm even wearing the same pair of sneakers in both pictures. I'm the same, just shrunken down. I still have my natural frown, but now people think I'm conceited instead of merely grumpy.
There was a commenter on the last post where I talked about this. She was aghast that I'd had gastric bypass surgery, that I'd let myself be cut open, that I'd rearranged my guts - all to be thin. What was I teaching my daughters? My reaction was defensive. I ended up telling her to go preach on her own blog, that she could not use my blog as a pulpit for her agenda.Mostly because she was right.
My kids don't know that I had gastric bypass. They know that I had surgery to fix a stomach problem, and that I got very sick, and that I almost died. They know that they didn't see me for a month. They know that they were terrified that I was going to die. They know that I lost a lot of weight afterward. They know that I can't eat a lot of things now, and that I have to take vitamins, and that I faint sometimes, and that I am extremely hypoglycemic now. If we go on a hike, or even a long walk, I have to take a pack of lifesavers with me, in case I get sick. They know that when I go out walking sometimes Daddy has to come pick me up in the car because I'm too weak to get myself back home.
How do I tell them that I did this voluntarily? How do I tell them that I did this to be thin? How do I tell them what I did and still teach them that their appearance is not what makes them valuable?
My daughter Emma tends to be rounder. She has her mom's body - my rounded tummy, my sturdy legs - and she has her mom's love of food. I worry about her. Not because I care if she's heavy, but because I don't want her to go through the things I've gone through. Society is harder on heavier people. We learn body image related self-hatred. We learn destructive behaviors. We learn insecurity. We learn to accept less than as all that we deserve.
Here at home we don't use the word fat. We talk about foods that make our body healthy or unhealthy, although I think they have already cracked the code and figured out that what we really mean is that if you eat too much you get fat. We try to be really active as a family - to go hiking, to go biking, to go walking. We try to teach her that her body is amazing, that she can do so many fun things with it - like ice skating, and horseback riding, and rollerblading. I don't want her to start to hate her body already.
Lately she has decided that she doesn't want to wear shorts or skirts because, for some mystifying reason, she is self-conscious about her legs. We let her start shaving (yes, at 9) because she was embarrassed about the hair on her legs and I just didn't think that was a hill to die on. If it makes her feel better, then hey. Who cares? It's just leg hair. But she is still embarrassed. I have no idea why. Her legs are just fine. They are normal legs. She is a normal kid. And yet. I know she compares herself to her naturally slender sister. I know she compares herself to the tiny girls that seem to surround her in our current ward. She already has this body shame and it just kills me.
I was talking to her about it, and trying so hard to convey to her that she is amazing. That her body is wonderful and perfect and strong, and that she shouldn't be ashamed of it. That her value is not in her appearance. That none of us will ever have bodies that are exactly the same, and that none of us will ever be "perfect". I showed her that Dove Beauty thing, so that she could understand that even people who look perfect aren't perfect. That every little part of her, even the things she didn't like, add up to make her beautiful, and perfect, and Emma. She nodded and smiled and said all of the right things, but - I don't know if it made any difference.
So how do I tell her how important appearance was to ME? How do I tell her what I risked, in order to have a more socially acceptable body? How do I tell her that I was willing to die in order to look more like what I thought I needed to look like?
I am ashamed of that. I dread the day they find out.
I know that I need to learn to get rid of my own remaining body shame. That I need to stop looking in the mirror and saying that I'm still fat. That I need to stop grimacing at my wrinkles and complaining about my hair.
The truth is that I don't really know how to teach a healthy body image. How to teach her to really see her value, to know that the shape of her body is entirely different from what value she has, or what faults she has - that they are not entwined. My own relationship with my body and my image is so broken - I am such a poor role model for her to have in this regard.
And I know I can't shield her from the messages she gets every day at school. From the insecurity she learns at church. From the aspirational beauty messages she gets when she is watching TV. (I mean, HELLO.)
I don't know what messages she will absorb. It scares me.
But maybe we can talk about being strong and powerful and smart instead of about being pretty. Maybe I can help her to know that no matter what size she is, she is amazing - that she is creative, and imaginative, and brilliant, and beautiful. That even if she is rounder, she is not less than. That she is not deserving of self-hatred, or bulimia, or gastric bypass.
That no matter what, she still shines, so very, very brightly.