I don't come from a big family -- physically speaking. In fact, for my entire childhood it felt like my mom and I were the only outsiders among her siblings, their kids, and my grandparents. And while my mom seemed to be able to take the constant "suggestions" of what we should and shouldn't eat and what we should do about our weight and when we would do it, in stride, I grew to resent family gatherings an all the criticism that came with them. Little did I know, all that time I thought I was suffering alone, my younger cousin, Kennedy, was going through her own silent hell. One that didn't become apparent to me until she reached 283 pounds toward the end of 2016 -- three pounds less than I weighed when I began my initial weight loss journey in October 2014.
When Kennedy, who's now 23, walked up to my apartment door Saturday evening, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd only seen one Facebook photo of her in the past few years that confirmed emotional eating was both of our favorite pastime, but the woman who met me at the door wasn't who I saw on social media. At some point I told the slimmed down lady in front me of, "You look good!"
"It's the surgery," she replied.
I mustered up an "Oh really?" trying to figure out what to say next. I know how sensitive talking about weight is and I also know a lot of people are reluctant to discuss undergoing bariatric surgery because of the judgement they receive from others. But once my cousin started talking about her gastric sleeve experience and I found myself identifying with far too many feelings she shared, I asked if I could interview her and she kindly obliged. This is her journey to weight gain and weight release.
When did you first start gaining weight?
College. I went through that, like, normal freshman 15, except mine was more of a freshman 45. And then when I eventually left school, I really started putting on weight.
Weirdly enough, I didn’t realize how much weight I was gaining because I had so many general body issues with myself. I would look in the mirror and I would always, no matter how thin I was, I would never see myself as that, which I know is a relatively common thing but it was some pretty severe body dysmorphia. And then when I started gaining weight, I noticed clothes weren’t fitting right, I was getting these really passive-aggressive comments from my family which would make me feel tense. Whenever I saw a commercial for this new gym or this new step machine or something on television I just knew they were looking, thinking, look at all this that you’ve done. It was uncomfortable to eat in front of people. It was uncomfortable to do anything in front of people that I never thought about before. My weight made me less self-conscious and more conscious of everything I was doing in front of others.
Do you have an idea of where your body issues originated?
Family primarily; I come from a family of thick-thighed women and I am one of them. And then it was the constant comparison to my younger sister who didn’t have those thick thighs. And hearing people say, “You can’t wear those shorts, those are inappropriate on you,” “you can’t wear this,” “you can’t wear that” and not quite understanding why, and then chalking that up in my pre-teen mind to mean I’m too fat to wear this. Not understanding that it was a safety thing, like my mom didn’t want people looking at me wrong because I was a bit more developed than my sister was. It was just me thinking, I’m overweight so I can’t do these things. That got so deeply ingrained that it wasn’t until I hit 190 pounds that the person I saw in the mirror was the person I actually looked like.
When did you diet for the first time?
My first diet was elementary school. My dad would constantly do these things where he would give up coffee or something for a while just for self-control. I saw that and was like,” I’m going to go on the Atkins diet.” So I did the Atkins diet in second grade and then from that point forward was doing some sort of diet periodically until now. It was unhealthy.
Did anyone else know?
When I was really little people knew. When I got into middle school and high school it turned into more of an eating disorder. Every day at lunch I would drink a bottle of water, I would eat three crackers, and I would eat like two French fries. It was never good food – it was just a small amount of bad food and water. And then once I was able to drive, I would pick my sisters up from school and I would do this thing when I was making dinner I would make three meals and I would throw away my meal and feed my sisters. I was not eating breakfast, I would eat my three pretzels at lunch, and I was not eating dinner. And then I was really ashamed because I still felt like I was fat. I was maybe 115 pounds.
I just didn’t ever think that I was good enough. I didn’t think I was thin enough. I didn’t think I was pretty enough. I was never light enough. It was just all of these body things that over the years led to my weight gain.
How did you feel physically during that time?
One day, my freshman year of high school I was teaching swim class and I got chills over my entire body and I passed out in the pool. Once I got pulled out of the pool and came to, I just started crying and telling my gym teacher don’t call 911, my mom would be so mad at me. So I don’t even think my mom knows that that happened. I got sent to the nurse and they sent me home sick.
When did the behavior turn from not eating to overeating?
It was always a bit of both. It would be me not eating, not eating, not eating, and then occasionally purging, but definitely binging. I remember there was a day in college, the boy that I thought I was in love with in that 19-year-old way started dating someone else even though I thought we were dating --apparently what we were doing was not --and I drove down Kirkland, which is our street with all of the restaurants, and I went to Jimmy Johns and got two Jimmy Johns sandwiches. I went to Noodles & Company and I got breadsticks and a large bowl of macaroni & cheese, and then I went to the Italian restaurant and I got two calzones and a meatball sub, and then I drove to the fazoli’s and got a large strawberry ice lemonade. I ate it in my car. I went to my dorm and I vomited it all up. And it made me feel better in that really gross backwards way. Like I was punishing myself for what I was doing because I wasn’t good enough, so look what I’m doing now. Then after that, it just turned into less of a binge-purge and more large portions, like Oh, this pizza is filling something in me. So I would sit there and I would eat an entire pizza. Over time, it just slowly became more and more. It wouldn’t be a normal breakup -- I ate a pint of ice cream. It’s I ate a half-gallon of ice cream and then I called for pizza and I ate an entire medium pizza, and I ate the breadsticks that came with it because it was on a coupon and I had to and they’re not really good the next day.
When I was home, I had some money because I was working and not having to pay for anything else so all I was doing was buying food. I would go on long drives and stop at the Ben & Jerry’s or the McDonalds -- whatever the sweet thing that would make me feel whole. It was almost like I wanted to prove something to myself. Somehow I correlated being overweight with being the physical bit of not being good enough, which doesn’t even make sense, but somewhere in my mind it was there.
But there would be times when I was like, I’m too vain to be fat. I’m still vain, even though I’m fat – I’m just vain and fat and have less clothes to wear (laughs). Once I was pretty high, [in weight] it was like, well I can’t lose the weight, might as well go to the other end of the spectrum. It doesn’t really matter anymore; people aren’t looking at me anymore so it doesn’t really matter. If I’m going to be fat, I might as well be fat.
What year did that happen?
That would’ve been 2013; 2013 I officially hit 200 pounds and I went to the Torrid and I told them I was plus-size and asked how does the sizing work, and said help me. I bought these lace overlay shorts and this cute, flowy top and then we went out to a Taiwanese restaurant and I ordered two orders of dumplings and it was like 14 dumplings and I ate them all. For whatever reason, I felt like I was going to celebrate hitting 200 and then it just kept going from there because I was like, well I’m still cute, I’m still cute. I‘m big and I’m cute. Even at my biggest, I’m big and I’m cute – because I’m cute.
But then my life kept going on and I wasn’t able to live it the way I wanted to. I couldn’t get up the three flights of stairs to my walk-up apartment without being out of breath. I started having my groceries delivered because I didn’t like having to carry those bags of groceries because it made me feel so winded that it wasn’t even worth it. I stopped walking my dog. I stopped doing anything. I don’t know how I rationalized it but at this point I know it was because I didn’t feel comfortable doing anything. I stopped going places because I didn’t want to sit on a plane and I didn’t want the looks from the people next to me because I was overflowing. I stopped going to the movies, I stopped going to theater things. I stopped going out to certain bars with my friends because I got tired of waiting in line and then having the little girls pulled in before me. That used to be me; I used to get picked, that used to be me.
When did weight loss surgery become a thought?
Surgery actually became a thought in high school when I was still in the low 100s because I had seen some show about someone who had gotten bariatric surgery and now they were super thin and this was me in my twisted mind thinking, “I could do this and then I could be super thin.” And then when I started gaining the weight I thought, “I’m stronger than that. I don’t need that. I’m better than that; that’s for the losers and I’ve never been one of those. I’m not one of those people that gives up and just does that.” And then this past year I started really, really thinking about it and doing research and looking into people on social media who have gone through this and how it’s not giving up. It’s recognizing when you need help. I realized there was something much deeper than just this weight, there was something deeper than my comfort eating. There were just some issues I needed to deal with personally before I could do something about that.
I started going to counseling before I even went to a consultation with a surgeon to really work on my food issues because I never worked on my food issues. I started religiously going to the gym because I realized that sometimes when I was dieting I was trying, but it was more like telling people I was trying. I would go to the gym four or five times a week. But you’re not really going to the gym when you do 15 minutes on the elliptical so you can feel good about yourself and like you deserve that McDonald’s. So I started actually putting in effort. I started kickboxing and doing yoga. It’s so nice to be able to channel that anger into something constructive instead of just feeling bad for myself and inevitably feeling bad for myself and eating more and feeling bad for myself because I’m eating more and I’m gaining weight and there’s that constant cycle.
Once I got to the point where I could actually work out by myself and enjoy it then I went to a consultation. They told me that I did qualify for surgery and that it’s not going to be a quick fix. You may go through this and you may end up in the same place that you were. It has to do with the effort you put into it. This is only going to help you get there.
I thought, that’s something I can do. I can put in this work and for the first time in my life I believed I actually could. I believed in myself.
What were the next steps?
My insurance required six months of diet classes. I had to meet with a nutritionist at least twice a month for those six months. There were certain exercise classes that I needed to go to and then just general information. Not just look at this before and after picture, but these are the really hard things that come with this. You’re going to finish your surgery and you’re going to find yourself opening up your refrigerator and being sad because you can’t eat anything in it and you’re going to have to know how to deal with that. The realities of, if you get married, on your wedding day you’re not going to be able to eat a piece of whole piece of cake. You may be able to eat a bite of your wedding cake and that’ll be it. It’s going to be uncomfortable going out to dinner for the first year because you’re not going to be able to eat with your friends. This surgery does not inhibit you from being able to eat sugar and fat, it just limits the amounts of it.
That part was the hard part because I was like, “No, If I’m going to do this and I’m going to pay all this money then I’m only going to eat spinach and kale salads and tofu, which has literally never been who I am. I didn’t get here because I like spinach and kale. I got here because I like sugar and salt and I like fat and I like fried.
On the first day after surgery they gave me cups of ice chips. I could eat three or four ice chips every 15 minutes; that was all that I could fit in my pouch. The second day, they gave me a tablespoon worth of chicken broth and a tablespoon worth of orange jello and a cup of ice chips; I couldn’t finish it.
Did that scare you?
It did. It was nerve wrecking. It was, what did I do? I can’t even eat a full bite of jello. I cannot fit more than a tablespoon inside of me. Day three was exactly the same. Day three I was released. It was New Year’s Eve and I went out that night with one my friends to a new year’s party with my bottle of liquid codeine and that was the first time I realized, Oh shit, look at what you did.
They had a bunch of candies laying around and they had jello shots and me, being a dummy, thought, jello shots, that’s jello. I know you’re not supposed to have alcohol for the first year but I can try it. My friend knocked it out of my hand because she’s a wonderful person. That did not stop me from trying to eat a peanut m&m and then vomiting it for the rest of the night because I couldn’t handle solids. But I’m kind of glad that I did that because I needed to know that this was real.
You’re three months post-surgery and down 55 pounds, how does that feel?
Now I don’t have the choice to not eat right. This took that choice from me and I’m glad that it did.
I have alarms set on my phone to tell me you need to eat breakfast, you need to eat lunch, sometimes I forget to eat and I want to make sure that it’s me actually forgetting to eat and not falling back into bad eating patterns.
I don’t feel those same, very visceral cravings for things. Sometimes I would go to sleep thinking about how I’m going to get an egg Mcmuffin on the morning and four hash browns because McDonald’s hash browns are amazing. I don’t go to sleep thinking about the meals I’m going to eat the next day. I don’t wake up only with the intention of what am I going to eat for breakfast. Food has become a different thing for me in this short amount of time.
I do counseling once every two weeks to hold myself accountable… I know what my goals are and intentionally sabotaging them is not okay for me. It’s not really the food; I need to keep myself accountable and make sure I’m not self-sabotaging. It will never be the food’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m human.
What’s the expected weight loss?
The estimated loss is that you would lose 70% of your excess weight, so whatever the highest BMI for not being overweight is, you’d lose 70% of whatever you have over that. For me, 172 pounds at the end of the year would be my estimate if I’m doing everything right. Some people lose more, some lose less. Just because you can only eat a small portion of food at a time doesn’t mean you can’t come back every 15 minutes and finish it.
I don’t want to get back to the point where I was so thin that that was the only thing I was focused on. I just want to be somewhere where I’m comfortable.
I started an Instagram account because I got tired of looking at Instagram accounts of bariatric food and it being lunchables, Velveeta cheese rolled up, or like a boiled egg. That is so boring. I like food. I wouldn’t have gotten here if I didn’t like food. Just because this is the decision I decided to make does not mean I have to eat gross, terrible, horribly processed food for the rest of my life. So I decided that I’m going to make small plates that are good for you – high in protein, low in carbs – that are delicious. If all of my meals are going to max out at four bites, they better be four good bites.
What do you see when you look in the mirror now?
When I look in the mirror I see a big girl who’s still real cute; she’s just less big than she was before. It’s nice. It’s nice to see progress. It’s nice that, even though my arm skin is getting a little bit fatty, I know I can wear those cardigans I’ve always really wanted to wear. I know that it means I’m getting smaller and I’m getting stronger. When I want to take the dog out for a walk I’m not going to be out of breath by the time I hit the door.
Do you foresee skin removal surgery in the future?
I think so. I know loose skin is inevitable, but with weight training it can be reduced. As far as surgery goes, I have already started thinking about my breasts. When I gained all that weight I had a nice set and now—they’re not. They have given their lives to the cause. But you know what? At this point I’m happy with my body. If I’m able to do it one day maybe I will but I don’t feel like it’s a necessity. My body is doing the things that I want it to be able to do. That’s being able to live. If that means I’m going to live with saggy tits then I’m going to live with saggy tits.