Big, Fat Lie

A while back, I wrote a post looking back at my bariatric surgery a year ago, and thinking about how my life has changed. That post got some attention, mostly by other health and lifestyle blogs. The conclusion I came to in that post was that, although there have been some lifestyle changes since the surgery, the weight loss was worth it.

Image of me in May 2019 weighing about 245 and image of me in January 2021 weight 145.
What a difference 100 pounds makes! Not surprisingly, I don’t have any full-body pictures of me from before.

I feel like that message might have been misleading. Yes, the weight loss has meant that a lot of things have gotten easier for me (exercise is easier, finding clothes is easier, social interactions are easier), but it’s important to be clear: this wouldn’t have happened without surgery.

Everyone will tell you that the way to control your weight is through diet and exercise. What they don’t tell you is that this advice only works if you have a “normal” metabolism that predictably burns calories as they are consumed. With the metabolism of a young, fit, healthy person, if you have a temporary imbalance of intake vs. output, you will have an equally predictable weight gain or loss, which is easily remedied by paying a bit of attention to your diet or exercise regimen.

If we’re both digging holes and I have a backhoe and all you’ve got is a spoon, it’s not your fault that I’m making better progress than you.

Lise Quintana

But there are a million things that affect metabolism, including long-term dieting, aging, certain chronic illnesses, lifestyle, and heredity. And once your metabolism starts to change, there is a cascading set of changes that reinforce it, like the production of the hormone that controls hunger and the hormone that control satiety.

It’s absolutely possible to use diet and exercise to get from morbidly obese to a “normal” BMI, those things won’t change your metabolism, and won’t change your hormones, which is why almost everyone who loses weight through diet and exercise fails to maintain that loss.

When I talk about surgery changing my life, I don’t just mean my behaviors and experiences. My body chemistry has changed. My metabolism is back to that of a fit, healthy person, the hormone that causes me to feel hunger has been curtailed, and the hormone that tells me when I’m full has ramped up. These are fundamental changes that mean that I stand a much better chance of maintaining a lower weight than I would have if I just dieted and exercised.

I say all this because I don’t want people reading about my weight loss to feel bad about themselves because they’re not achieving the same result. If we’re both digging holes and I have a backhoe and all you’ve got is a spoon, it’s not your fault that I’m making better progress than you, and it doesn’t make you weak, or a failure, or lazy.

The fact that I lost weight doesn’t mean I’m a better person than I was before. What I really want is for people to feel good about themselves – worthwhile and lovable and comfortable – regardless of their weight, shape, or lifestyle.

Apple Watch Out – It’s a Trap!

Let’s talk about my day. I’ve got a lot of tasks I need to get done every day, and most of them require sitting for stretches of time. Editing a half hour of audio can take up to three hours. Writing 5000 words can take all day. And then there’s writing software requirements documentation, which is its own little hell. To make things worse, if someone or something interrupts me, it takes me some time to get back into the flow of things, because switching contexts is expensive.

I already carry around a ton of guilt about what I’m doing versus what I’m not doing. If I’m sitting down writing, I’m freaking out that I’m not exercising, or doing software requirements, or editing a podcast. If I’m out exercising, I’m thinking about the work sitting waiting for me at home. And if I’m doing any of those things, I’m not doing my own writing, and I feel like a failure pretty much every second of every day for that.

And Apple Watch is right there to tell me all about it. But not just that – it also tells me when there’s someone at my front door, when my mother opens her garage door 70 miles away, when anyone texts me, when someone posts something to the work Slack account, when my Amazon package has shipped, when my Amazon package has been delivered, and, at 10 minutes to the hour every hour, that I should stand up and walk around.

It wasn’t that bad when I first got it, but the more companies plug themselves into my devices, the more everyone is constantly trying to get my attention, and it’s not like I can manufacture any more of that. It’s starting to affect my mental health. I realized that when I’m physically ill, I tend not to put my watch on because I want to be able to sleep all day without having it buzz me every hour to tell me to walk around. When I’m deep into writing, I take it off because I don’t want to have to respond to people’s texts or phone calls.

What if I just took it off and never put it back on? What happens when the nonstop notifications stop? I don’t need my watch to tell me when to exercise. I don’t need it to tell me what tasks I have to do. And if Apple Pay is that important to me, I still have it on my phone. I didn’t realize how much of my mind that thing was taking up, because it didn’t happen all at once. But the nice thing is that by just taking the stupid thing off, I get it back all at once.

Fear of Flying. And Running. And Walking.

Before surgery, when I was at my heaviest, my exercise routine had a predictable pattern. I would go out hiking in the woods every day for weeks, maybe months, and then something would happen that would make me stop. Sometimes it was an injury or illness. Sometimes it was weather conditions that made walking in the woods unsafe (in windy, rainy weather, entire trees fall over). Sometimes it was something else, like the time a guy on the trail threatened to kill me.

However it happened, I would stop hiking. And then, after the illness/injury/weather/fear passed, I would still stay inside. Before my house burned down, this didn’t mean I wasn’t getting any exercise – I still had an elliptical, a stationary bike, and a treadmill at home, and I would just use them. But I don’t get the same kind of workout on a machine indoors. Running on a treadmill is a million times easier than running on the earth, because even the flattest places have those little up- and downhills, uneven pavements or no pavement, and places where I have to stop for a light or negotiate a weird bend in the road. All those things affect my speed, my balance, the amount of effort it takes to keep going at the same speed.

It means that, if I hadn’t been outside in a while, I would think about it and my mind would say “It’s gonna be haaaarrrrd” in that whiny voice my mind adopts when I don’t want to do something. Out loud, I might say “I don’t have time for a walk or a run,” but inside my mind, I know the truth. I’m resisting it because I’m afraid it’s going to be hard.

There was a time when taking a four-mile hike through the woods at a fast pace would mean that my hips and knees would ache for a few days, and heading out the next day on a hike would make the problem worse. There was a time when going too far or too fast, even in my walking shoes with my orthotics in them, would make my feet hurt. Sure, my heart and lungs were up to the job, but my skeleton was struggling. And during that time, I often listened to that little voice inside me that said “You stopped for a good reason. Don’t start again, because it’s going to be difficult and you’re going to hurt yourself.” A hundred pounds ago, that little voice was protecting me from doing myself an injury.

Now that I’m about 100 pounds lighter, I keep forgetting that it’s not hard. It’s just not. I can walk for miles in Converse (the shoes I wear most often around the house) and my feet will be fine. If I’m short on time, I can run my 3-mile circuit, saving 15 minutes off my normal walking pace (I walk with my dog, who slows me up considerably), and my knees and hips will be fine.

It’s hard work to re-program your brain. We’ve all got behaviors we’ve internalized over years – things that protected us at one time, but that aren’t helpful anymore. When I find myself in a situation where those unhelpful instincts kick in (a lot of them have to do with growing up with food insecurity, and so involve eating more than I need), it’s difficult tell myself “This is an old reaction to a situation that doesn’t exist anymore. I can react differently and it’ll be okay.”

Now I need to put that thinking to work in my running routine. It’s not as hard as I think it will be, it won’t take as long as I’m afraid it will, and I’ll be fine afterward. Thanks, little voice. I know you mean well, but you can stop now. You’re no longer needed.

You Can’t Outrun It

You probably won’t believe it, but even when I weighed nearly 100 pounds more than I do now, I liked to go running. There’s a perception that all you need to do to lose weight is diet and exercise, but as I’ve said before, it’s just not that simple. Even as I ran almost every day, I was still gaining weight. After a while, the running slowed to walking, although I was still walking miles and miles a day. But after a while, even that became difficult. I had orthotics for my chronic plantar fasciitis, but they did nothing for either my knee pain or my hip bursitis.

Right after surgery, I was counseled to walk. It’s well known that people heal better on their feet than on their backs, and since I like walking, it wasn’t difficult. As with most people right after surgery, the pounds flew off with very little effort. But, as with most people, the honeymoon phase is coming to an end. The pounds aren’t just falling away anymore. That’s fine. My BMI is within the “normal” range, I feel physically good, and I’m satisfied with how I look. Then again, I was always satisfied with how I looked.

Still, I was afraid to get back to running. Hip bursitis and plantar fasciitis are persistent, and while I have an entire regimen of stretches and exercises to relieve the hip bursitis, I was afraid of aggravating it again. I still use the orthotics for my feet.

So last week, I took the plunge. I’d been walking a three-mile loop around my neighborhood, and decided to see what happened if I tried running it.

Running on a treadmill the way I used to is very different than running on the earth, and my loop has a lot of uphills and downhills. The uphills are harder on my thighs, the downhills harder on my knees. I didn’t run the entire three miles, but I did a fair amount of it. My normal routine is to run as long as I can, and then count to ten. Only then can I slow to a walk. I start running again after 100 walking steps.

After three runs this week, I can tell you how I feel. Way, way better than I thought I would. Better attitude, better sleep, better energy. The biggest problem is the fact that it’s getting hard to sit still and work on anything, and with the covid lockdown, that’s difficult. My house is clean, my stuff organized, my yard immaculate. The only thing I have left to do is…go for a run.

Removing the Frog’s Nervous System

My life recently has been defined by three things: losing about 100 pounds, losing everything I owned in a fire, and discovering that I’m on the autism spectrum.

  • Thinking about any aspect of my life, I bump up against those three things. Perhaps only two of those things at a time, but they’re always there.
  • How I react to my friends’ rallying around me after the fire: Do they love me because I’m quirky, or because I’m more attractive now that I’m no longer fat?
  • How I replace clothing since I can’t go into a store and try things on: Sure, I’m a “medium,” but what size is that in vintage clothing? At Banana Republic? At Target? And where do I find clothes that suit my very particular taste?
  • How I interact with strangers, who are the lion’s share of my interactions since the fire: Are they being kind, courteous, solicitous because they find me attractive, or because of the huge effort I put into seeming normal?

Since the fire, I’ve been thinking about my life pre-weight loss, pre-diagnosis, pre-fire. I know I’m not the only person in the world who feels that 2020 has drawn a line across my life, which was one thing before, and a very different thing after. What part of that earlier me is still there? How could things have been different?

Without the fire, I don’t think I would ever have had a reason to examine my life in the detail I have in the past three and a half months (as of this writing, it’s been 105 days since we lost our house). On the other hand, I have always been self-reflective, second guessing my every thought word and deed almost before they are completed.

I read a book where two characters were discussing two separate, but intertwined things, and one character expressed the desire to separate them. The other character said that separating them would be like removing the nervous system from a frog intact, and without killing the frog. It can’t be done, and it would be painful and disturbing to try.

I’m driven mad by how unscientific an experiment my life is. I can’t isolate any one of the above events and observe the public reaction from that thing in isolation, and if I were to hand everyone I interacted with a questionnaire that said things like “Which of the following factors was most influential in your interaction?” people would tell me they had the plague as an excuse to never interact with me. Sadly, I’m not smooth enough to figure out how to subtly ask stuff like this without the other person knowing that’s what I’m getting at.

We are each an amalgam. Not just emotionally – composed of every experience we’ve had, sensation we’ve felt, emotion we’ve endured – but physically. Every human being is an amalgam of human bits and a unique group of bacteria and various symbionts that live in our blood and guts, making each person a literal aggregate. So, it looks like going forward, I can’t separate any of the large defining events of 2020 in my experience.

I came into 2020 as an optimistic, fat little tadpole. I go out as a lean, muscular, and quite whole frog.

Surgery: A Year On

If you scroll back just a tiny bit, you’ll see that I had weight loss surgery a year ago.

What I was told before and directly after surgery was that there would be a “honeymoon period” of twelve to eighteen months. During that time, the weight would come off kind of no matter what I did. And, for that most part, that’s been true. But a lot of things have changed.

  1. Nothing spicy
    My stomach is tiny. I can still eat only less than 8 ounces of food at a time. Spicy food has a tendency to irritate my stomach, making it even smaller than usual, making me instantly nauseated. It’s sad, because I used to put Tabasco on everything, eat pickled jalapeños with my eggs and beans, love a good vindaloo. Nowadays, if it’s spicier than green Tabasco, it’s out.
  2. Nothing bubbly
    For a while, I tried little sips of lightly carbonated beverages. I swished them around in my mouth for a while, then swallowed. It was fine. Then I tried with regular soda. Again, fine. Then I tried just drinking something carbonated. Tiny sips. I had maybe two, and then felt the most alarming sensation I’ve felt since surgery. One of my biggest problems is not being able to burp. It sounds hilarious, but the feeling that I’m going to burst from the inside out isn’t funny. The gas bubble makes it up to about my throat and no further. It feels as though I could I could truly injure myself.
  3. Nothing starchy
    As odd as it sounds, three bites of bread, pasta, rice, or potato fills up my stomach quicker than three bites of meat. Maybe it’s because starches have more air incorporated in them, and when I get air in my stomach, well, see above. I’m not saying I don’t eat starches. I’m just saying I can’t eat a lot of them at a time.
  4. But not too much protein either
    Back in January, I had an attack of gout. I’d never had it before, and it was kind of alarming, but I went to my doctor, got some meds, and it was fine. He asked me if I knew what caused gout, and I told him I had heard it was from eating a rich diet and drinking too much. It’s why it’s called “the disease of kings.”
    “Rich in what?” my doctor asked. I hate when people ask questions that they have the answers to and you don’t. It’s rude and wastes time.
    It turns out that the answer is “protein.” Which put me between a rock and a hard place because the additional protein was called for after surgery. I’ve cut down on protein, and I’m fine.
  5. Watch the sugar
    Thanksgiving. Christmas. Easter. Birthday. Halloween. What do they all have in common? Tons of sweets everywhere. And the problem isn’t so much the calories I shouldn’t have as the fact that the sugar hits my system like a ton of bricks. My heart races, I lose focus, I start sweating. It’s not a pleasant feeling at all.
  6. Alcohol is out
    The last time I had gin (my favorite) was in February, when I poured myself a nice gin and tonic to enjoy during a Zoom meeting (yeah! in February!). After a single sip, my face felt flushed. After a second sip, it felt sunburned and went tight. I excused myself and went into the bathroom to look in the mirror – my face was beet red and the kind of swollen where my smile lines were white creases. So…that’s out.

Before surgery, I would have looked at that list and thought “that’s not living,” but there are a few things that make it okay.

Before surgery, restricting my intake meant dealing with intense cravings. The kind of addict thinking where, even when I knew the thing I wanted was killing me, I rationalized why I needed to have it anyway. Every pound was a struggle, and I consistently lost. After surgery, I don’t miss the food. It’s alarmingly easy to forget to eat for long periods of time. The strangest thing to me is that things I used to love no longer appeal to me. Almost nothing is as tasty as I remember it being.

The result is that as of today, I weigh less than I have at any other time in my adult life. My BMI is within the normal range (not that I care, but my doctor seems to feel it’s important). I feel amazing – healthy and energetic and as happy as anyone can be in 2020 (although things are looking up).

I’d say it was worth it.

How to Recreate Your Life

It’s the same every time.
“Where are you from?”
“Bonny Doon.”
“Oh, no! Were you affected by the fires?”
“Yes. We lost everything.”

…..crickets….

I always feel like a bit of a fraud saying we lost “everything.” We had packed up some stuff the night before – a few changes of clothes, our meds, our important documents, our computers, and the dogs’ food, crates, medications, and blankets.

So, we didn’t lose everything.

In the first few days, we had an unending caravan of Amazon trucks dropping off the very most basic things we’d left behind. Underpants, socks, pens. We were living in my mother’s spare room, so there was a limit to how much we needed to replace. When we moved into a rental house and found ourselves in the position of having to create a household from nothing, there was another round of Amazon deliveries and trips to big box stores.

I’ve come to see that there are four different kinds of buying I’ve been doing, and I really have to evaluate every purchase to see which kind it is before I hit “buy.”

  1. Absolute necessity
    There were things we needed that we had zero of — things like baking pans, cloth napkins (we’re hippies – paper is a no-no), cleaning products, basic spices, a bed, etc. These are easy. If I can’t carry on a quotidian task without it, it’s a necessity.
  2. Re-creating the old house
    Although we’d already identified quite a few things from the old house that we’re not replacing (good-bye, harp), I keep stumbling over “we had it at home, so we should have it here.” I really have to talk myself down from buying things like huge rugs, cute little tables, my famous steamer trunk office. I mean, there’s a very good chance that I will put some of those things back, but I have no idea what the space is even going to look like right now, so I can’t start buying large, furniture-type things for a house that doesn’t exist yet.
  3. Filling up the rental house
    This place is nearly as big as our hold house, which means that there are miles of bare walls, open floors, and empty counters. At our old house, we had to create space for things because every nook and cranny was full. It’s hard to resist the urge to look at the space we’re in and think “this corner could use a little table,” or “I should get a lot more plants.” I have to keep reminding myself that we’re not staying here forever, and when we leave here, we’ll be moving into a space less than half this size.
  4. Filling up the new house
    I’ve already decided on the themes for each of the rooms, which will dictate what kind of stuff I’ll want to get. I’ve been buying smallish things that will go into the rooms -— hourglasses for the Pratchett room, a pair of raven lamps for the Clarke library — but apart from the furniture we need for daily functioning, I’m afraid to buy any large furniture until I know what the new house will look like and so what spaces we’re trying to fill.

Everyone wants to give us things to replace what we’ve had, but that’s not quite right. Then they want to give us things in themes we like, but we’re not quite ready for that. The one thing I have received from my friends that I will always accept, that I will take a zillion of no matter where I’m staying, are books. My friends have really been coming through there, and I know that once we get into our new house, I’ll already have my friends there with me.

But Is It Worth It?

Last night, my husband and I were driving along, and he started to tell me something about the weather. What he actually said was “Today broke all kinds of records—” but I cut him off. I just lost my house to global climate change. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s real, that it’s bad, that it’s getting worse.

Right after the fire, everyone asked me whether we were afraid of rebuilding, and I glibly told them “I’m not worried about fire. There’s nothing left to burn.” At the time, I believed that. My brain needed something hopeful, something optimistic to hang onto. I don’t know if I believe that now.

Politics is getting ugly. The Republican party in California has admitted to putting up fake “ballot drop off” boxes, an attempt at election fraud. The man who sits in the White House is on television calling for racist militias to ensure that he doesn’t have to leave the White House, regardless of the election’s outcome. And that man has not just abandoned environmental regulation, he’s rewarded companies for exploiting what few resources the planet has left (including human beings). The planet is dying.

It will take years to rebuild our house, and in order to get the money to rebuild it, I have to list every single thing that was in the house that burned down. As I list, I can’t help but feel judged. I have too much of too many things. Why did I need sixty assorted candles? Or fifteen decks of tarot cards? Or a dozen music boxes? How could I conscience having all those things when so many people have so little? I will likely not replace those things, but why did I have them in the first place?

I suspect part of my despair is the fact that we’re renting a house is Saratoga, a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb. And when I say “wealthy,” I mean that the house we’re staying in is worth about $3.5 million, and is far from being the largest or nicest house in the neighborhood. As with most suburbs, there are two kinds of real estate: buildings where one buys things, and buildings where one stores and displays the things one has bought. The grounds of every house are manicured, managed, sculpted into a look that is “natural,” with very necessary quotation marks. I haven’t seen a dead animal, a fallen tree, an inconvenient rock formation anywhere. The people are lovely, but it’s like tv. It doesn’t feel real to me.

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of rebuilding. I’m starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable, not just about rebuilding, but about life. I’m finding it difficult to find a way forward. I’m looking for reasons for, if not optimism, then at least some mental ease.

Tabula Rasa

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a recurring dream: I would wake up one morning and the baby would just be there. No labor, no warning, just BAM! — baby. I would look at this new baby and think “But we’re not expecting you for months! We’re not ready! We have nothing!” It was overwhelming and panic-inducing.

We just found a rental. We’ll be moving out of my mother’s house, where we were taking up her guest room and guest bathroom and about a quarter of the living room, and into a 4-bedroom house that’s only a little bit smaller than our house was. In the month that we’ve been here, we’re rebuilt our wardrobes to some extent (a HUGE shoutout to the folks at CP Shades who sent me boxes of beautiful black linen that I’m wearing right this minute), but we haven’t replaced anything from our kitchen (except some tea things, because TEA).

So now I’m trying to figure out what I need to outfit a kitchen that has nothing. Not a bean. Not a grain of salt. Not a speck of flour. My husband and I are avid cooks, and my spice drawer (which held only the spices I used most often – the rest being in the pantry) made me really happy.

I know we can’t possibly go from this to nothing and back to this. But my brain is breaking trying to think of all the very most basic necessities I have to acquire. Salt. Pepper. Flour. Sugar. Butter. Rice. Meat. Vegetables. Bread. Part of me is afraid that I will forget something crucial, which is stupid because there’s a Safeway less than two miles from the new house.

But I have the same feeling as I go through my wardrobe. Part of the insurance claim process is documenting everything you’ve lost. The company we’re working with has given us a spreadsheet with everything a normal household would have in it. As I go through the listings, it’s really hard not to think “I need to replace that right this minute.”

I feel like I can make myself feel safe and whole again by surrounding myself with the things I had before. It’s not like I had a huge emotional attachment to those particular things (who has an emotional attachment to a bag of flour or a bottle of oregano?), but I have a very firm attachment to the life that required those things, and maybe I’m afraid if I don’t come up with exactly the right combination of stuff, that we’ll suddenly be miserable. Is this feeling common to people who have lost everything? I have no idea.

I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Even if I have to run to the store because I forgot eggs, all will be well.

How to Not Mourn

Everyone who’s heard about the fire at our house has had the same reaction: “That’s terrible! You must be so sad! I’m so sorry! That’s awful!”

I tell them “I’m fine, really. It’s okay.” Everyone thinks I’m putting a brave face on things, but I promise you, I’m not.

Here’s a typical day at our house.

My husband wakes up before me and lets the dogs out into the yard. He makes himself a coffee with his obnoxiously expensive coffee maker that can be programmed to make anything he wants, and knows that he wants a double espresso in the morning and a decaf Americano in the afternoon.

I wake up, step into my slippers, put on my bathrobe, and wander out of my room. I kiss my husband and tell him how wonderful he is, and he hugs me and says “We have a really great life.”

I go into my office, but about twenty times a day, I come back to where he is, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to peek at him. When I’m in my office, I look out the windows at the birds mobbing the feeders. Sometimes, I go out on the deck and lay in the hammock and think “This is the best life.”

After dinner, my husband and I might snuggle up on the couch in the living room and watch something. Or we might go into the library and watch something in there, or maybe put on some music and drape ourselves over the furniture in the library and read. And every once in a while, we’ll look at each other and say “Our life is amazing.”

I sit in the library and look around myself and think about how much I love the room itself, and how all the books in it have meaning to me. I look at the art on the walls and think about how much I like it.

And before we fall asleep folded up in each other, my husband and I say “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

From the outside, I’m sure it sounds just disgustingly saccharine and fake, but let me be crystal clear: I appreciated the life I had. Truly. Deeply.

I grew up with a lot of siblings and not a lot of money. The things I had were often hand-me downs, things I didn’t pick for myself. There were so many things I wanted that were out of reach, and so many experiences I wanted to have that seemed like they were for other people, not people like me.

The upshot is that when I had things, I loved them. I saw them. Every day. They were a reminder of all the good things in my life, and expressing that delight never got old. Expressing my happiness and love and joy never gets old.

When we lost our house, I was certainly sad that everything was gone. But I didn’t have the regret that comes from not recognizing or appreciating things until after they’re gone. On the other hand, the person who appreciated all that with me, the person who created that lovely life with me, the person who stands next to me and looks out at all we had built and agrees that this is the best life – that person is still here. He was the most important part of that life, and he’ll still be the most important part of whatever we build going forward.

With that on my side, how could I be sad?