On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.
How Do You Know What You Like?
When you’re little, your parents expose you to stuff, and you figure out whether you like it. Broccoli, classical music, the beach – your parents give you experiences, you evaluate them as well as your age and capacity allow, and you decide whether you like them. As we grow, the sources of our influences change – media, our peers, and our observations of adults we would like to emulate all affect what we want or think of as “good.” And as our capacity to evaluate and our range of things with which we can compare grows, we can change our minds. In my house, I’ve lately had to beg my child to tell me when she’s changed her mind about a given food – within the last year, pickles, oatmeal, jalapeños, and onions have become acceptable foods after nearly two decades of staunch refusal to have them on her plate.
When I was a kid, my father’s idea of a good time was usually hiking. South Mountain Park, the largest city park in the United States, wasn’t far from our house, and we would start out from the Mormon Trailhead and hike until it met the South Mountain National Trail, which we’d take until we hit a place called Fat Man’s Pass.
The entire hike was perhaps a mile total (uphill – it was a mountain, after all), but my father’s style of family hiking was to go at a pace comfortable for a 6′ 1″ adult, and yell at the children lagging behind to stop being lazy. If I stopped to rest, the others may or may not stop, and if they stopped, they made their displeasure clear. The irony of being the fat kid getting dragged to Fat Man’s Pass was not lost on me. Fat Man’s Pass was two huge boulders with flat surfaces facing each other about 18″ apart (see the picture above). I felt a secret thrill of pride every time I slithered through the gap. The alternative was Squaw Peak (later renamed Piestewa Peak), the second-highest mountain in Phoenix – a shorter trail, but a tougher climb.
Discovering What I Liked
For a long time, I thought I just fucking hated hiking. It was punishing, humiliating, painful, and there were a million books I’d rather be at home reading. Even when, as a teenager, I relished walking for hours around my neighborhood, I never equated it with all the hiking I’d done as a child. To this day, I love walking everywhere – I could walk for hours and hours. I live on the edge of a state park, and I take my dogs into the park for a hike as often as I can (sadly, I haven’t been able to hike since the surgery because it’s still a little too strenuous, but it won’t be long before I get that back).
I also realized that I love swimming. I joined our local swim team when I was in elementary school, and won ribbons in backstroke (probably because I was one of the few kids who could keep from veering out of my lane whilst going backward).
As an adult, I’ve also come to realize that I love dancing. A lifetime of being petrified to dance in public for fear of looking foolish meant that until a few years ago, I would only dance at home with my children. It took a very conscious effort of will to get over that fear (and when I say “get over,” I mean “I’m still petrified of looking foolish but I don’t let that stop me from doing it anyway”), and now I’ve taken dance classes with my husband, done silent discos, and generally allowed myself to appreciate, even in public, how good it feels to move to a rhythm.
If You Stop Moving, You Will Stop Being Able to Move
When I was 36, I blew a disc in my spine. I was sitting on the couch reading, I sneezed, and I could feel something in my back pop. The pain was immediate and excruciating. I went to my doctor, and after quizzing me about where I felt the pain (in my lower back, down my right leg) and poking various parts of my back and buttocks, he gave me…wait for it….nasal spray for the sneezing. For two years, I couldn’t sit, stand, or lie down. Bending over was out of the question. The only time I was comfortable was when walking. Of course, during that time I still had to work, so for two years, I was just in excruciating pain every minute of every day.
I went to another doctor, complaining that my original doctor hadn’t even tried to figure out what was wrong. This second doctor turned out to be a friend of the first doctor and flatly refused to treat me at all. Out of desperation, I went to a chiropractor who first referred me to a doctor for an x-ray, which showed that the two vertebrae on either side of the ruptured disc had, over the two years I had been unable to get treated, fused, crushing and killing the nerve that had branch between them. No wonder my pain was getting better!
The doctor who took my x-ray told me very seriously that I had to keep moving, because if I stopped, I would become unable to move. I was so frightened by the prospect of spending any part of my life immobile that I redoubled my commitment to walking, running, dancing, swimming. At this point, people who know me think of me as someone who genuinely likes exercise for its own sake, and for the most part, that’s true.
But wait, I hear you cry. How could you be fat if you’re so fond of exercise?
Most people, including most doctors, will tell you that losing weight is a straightforward mathematical calculation – you just have to take in fewer calories than you’re using. Any fat person who has dieted and exercised for months only to lose nothing (or worse – gain weight!) will tell you that’s rubbish. Metabolism is a tricky thing, and the human body is a miracle of engineering that can streamline its operations and husband its resources when necessary. Fat people with a history of dieting tend to have metabolisms used to making do with very little, and so hang onto every calorie. It’s why when my thin husband and I went on the same diet, ate the same greatly reduced number of calories, and exercised every day, he lost 10 pounds over just a few days, and I gained 2.
But I haven’t let that deter me from my love of exercise. When I can’t exercise for more than a couple of days in a row, my overall well-being takes a hit – I don’t sleep as soundly, my neck and back ache, and I feel lethargic and bloated. At this point, I have a very firm idea in my mind of myself as an athlete. My size doesn’t enter into it. If doing athletic activity is at the core of who I am, then I am an athlete.
Sadly, there’s that early conditioning still in my brain. Sure, I’m an athlete, but if I’m fat, it means I’m a lazy athlete. Sure, I hike for miles every day, but if I were a real athlete, I would be running the trails, not walking. I would be spending three or four hours a day exercising, instead of the paltry one hour I normally spend. Even though while exercising my heart rate is generally elevated well above my maximum target heart rate (which should be between 83 and 140 bpm – while I’m hiking, it goes as high as 170), I’m still just not doing enough.
The promise held out by the sleeve gastrectomy was that it would change my metabolism back to that of a thinner person. My body would be more inclined to let go of the excess weight as long as I stay active. I realize that a lot of people with excess weight got there through inactivity. Being sedentary became a habit that got harder to break as they got heavier and movement became more uncomfortable. In this, I’m feeling lucky. I have always loved to move, and as my weight goes down, it gets easier and more pleasurable. I’m really hoping that these habits of mine serve me well as I go forward on this journey.
Next time I’m going to talk about health issues. There will be math.