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Graphic photo warning: Scarring from weight loss surgery picture included within the story.
Everyone that I’ve met since June 16, 2010, has had an intense and almost morbid curiosity about what it felt like for me to almost die.
They ask questions like:
“Did it hurt?” Yes.
“Were you scared?” Yes.
“Was there a white light?” No.
“Did you know you were going to die?” No.
“How did this happen?” Ah –- now there’s a question worth answering.
The last time I was a normal weight, I was four years old. Even then, though, I was bigger, more solid, and broader than other little girls. The word "petite" could never have been used to describe me, and even at that young age, I was constantly comparing myself in relation to others. I knew I wasn’t what people thought a little kid should be. All the smaller, slimmer, cuter girls, the ones who liked to wear dresses and say cute things; the ones who dressed in pink and loved princesses -– they were what adults responded to. Even at that young age, I was set apart; I was different.
I was already treated as clumsy and ungainly, and shoved to the back of the ballet and tap classes so that slimmer, cuter little girls could be featured. I was called "butterball" in swimming classes -- by the instructor. And when I couldn't fit into my flower girl dress as part of my Halloween costume, I cried to my mom about how fat I was.
She didn't correct me.
From that day, the battleground was pretty clearly laid out: It was me against the weight. Me against food. Me against every small and large opinion that everyone around me had about my weight and food.
Me against my body.
For people who have always been naturally thin, or athletic, or basically anyone who doesn't think twice about what she looks like when she walks down the street, it's hard to describe exactly what it feels like to live in a body that is seemingly divorced from one's mind. My body was a prison that was doing its best to keep me from succeeding at life. I hated it.
It was “The Reason” why I was so isolated from everyone, so different. Life for a fat girl is not easy, but hey, if you’re reading this, I am betting you already know that. It doesn’t do well to dwell on what it’s like to grow up fat, because it’s a narrative with which we are familiar and that so many have had to survive, or are trying to survive now: summers at fat camp, an early diagnosis of hypothyroid, clothing that never fit, an inability to find anything in the right size and constant teasing for my weight.
A million small aggressions that seem harmless at the time, but have all the same momentum and potential for destruction as a thousand tiny cuts. So we don’t need to say more than this about growing up fat: It was hell. There were no pretty dresses or proms; there were no dates. There were very few friends. There was a lot of isolation and scrutiny. It was being put under a microscope every day of my life where everything I did (or did not do) in terms of exercise, and every bite of food I put in my mouth was free game for comment. Because I was not a person.
Just Fat. I felt like a prisoner in my own skin; my body was an enemy that needed to be fought and I tried everything: every diet, every restriction, every pill that was available. I did everything I could imagine to erase the stigma of being Fat.
I was never able to lose more than 10 pounds, no matter what I did.
I flew 3,000 miles away, trying to outrun my reputation as “the Fat One.” I desperately looked for people who would be willing to go on a date with me, thinking that would finally make me appreciate my body, if I could see someone else appreciate it without recoiling in horror.
Instead, it quickly devolved into an early introduction to coerced sexual acts that left me with the conclusion that the only way anyone would ever want to be with "the fat chick" was if I put out. I lost my virginity to someone I had been on two dates with, because I thought virginity was something that had to be "gotten rid of." I had sex with people whose names I could not remember the next morning; people who would pretend not to know me if we passed each other on the street. My entire self worth was wrapped up in how other people viewed my body, and with each rejection, I retreated farther into myself, both figuratively and literally.
Throughout this whole time, I never thought any of this treatment was particularly wrong, to be honest.
When my gall bladder went septic because it was so overloaded with gallstones (thanks Xenical!), and I had severe pancreatitis, a liver infection, and jaundice, I believed I deserved it, because I didn't have enough discipline to lose weight on my own. I thought I deserved the bad treatment I got from everyone because I was fat. If someone was nice to me, I knew it was because they felt sorry for the Fat Girl, not because I was cool or worthwhile. I didn't deserve to be treated like other thin, pretty girls. Because that wasn't me. It was as if I were some kind of other species, wholly separate from the feminine ideal.
My body was my enemy –- and what do we do with our enemies? We cut them down to size.
So that’s what I did –- after many years of deliberation and a nearly successful suicide attempt, I opted for what I thought was my last option: gastric bypass surgery. That was February 9, 2006.
On paper, my surgery was an enormous success. Over the course of about 18 months, I lost 90 percent of my excess weight, going from 360 pounds to 180. However rosy my life and body may have looked to outsiders, I was still plagued with the "normal" complications of Roux-En-Y. I suffered from dehydration, malnutrition and was hospitalized a few times. I had my first hernia repair in 2007. The feelings I had carried with me since I was four years old remained: I was ungainly, clumsy, and big. I was still Fat.
I thought my prayers were being answered when a talk show heard about my weight loss success and was looking for a candidate to undergo a full body lift -- for free. Here it was: the opportunity to be normal. I had 15 pounds of skin removed, my thighs were slimmed, my waist was whittled, my butt was lifted, and my breasts were completely reconstructed. I agreed to having implants put in that were probably much larger than necessary because I wanted so badly to know what it felt like to be a woman. Twenty-seven years old and I had yet to feel like a girl.
For as complicated as that procedure was, it also was a phenomenal success on paper. I ignored all of the pain I began experiencing on a monthly, then weekly, then daily basis, no matter what I ate.
I would stay at work, shaking and sweating, because I didn’t want to admit that I needed to go home because of something I had done medically in the name of being thin. Because, since I was working in entertainment, I most certainly was not considered thin. It was the same behavior and recoil of horror from a fat phobic community. I was terrified of being fired for my appearance. I stopped eating altogether. My health became a non-issue; the only thing that mattered was that I continue to lose weight until I was “acceptable.”
I was in and out of the hospital quite a bit by that point: an abnormally enlarged appendix, and eight feet of small intestine that went on a little jaunt to the wrong side of my abdomen, courtesy of a hernia the size of a dinner plate.
Looking back on it, I probably should have realized that all of these surgeries were compounding on each other; that each time one of these emergencies happened, the risk of something catastrophic occurring increased. But I didn’t.
All I focused on was trying to be thin.
Each visit to the hospital, I was more concerned about whether or not I would lose weight than the fact that all of this surgery was going to catch up to me sooner or later.
My case file at the hospital is over 2,000 pages long. On June 16, 2010, I experienced a rare complication; something so remote that a percentage of its occurrence can hardly be measured: a strangulated hernia that went necrotic and was poisoning my body from the inside out. I was not supposed to survive.
The surgeon was still covered in my blood when he told my parents and my husband (boyfriend at the time) that I was not going to live, and that they should start thinking about funeral arrangements.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious.
There are pieces from that period of my life that are, and always will be, blank. However, I do have a brief memory of being weighed in my ICU bed and being absolutely horrified that my weight was more than 200 pounds.
Let me put this in perspective for the people out there who think that fat shaming isn’t a serious problem, or that it can’t possibly “hurt that much."
I had lost two thirds of my blood supply due to hemorrhaging, eight feet of my small bowel to necrosis, liver function at 30 percent, kidney function at 12 percent, blood pressure that would climb to 70/40 on a good day with a pulse well over 110, was ON A VENTILATOR AND KEPT IN A MEDICALLY INDUCED TWILIGHT STATE and my first, FIRST conscious thought out of all this?
"Oh my God, I'm fat."
I am often asked if I regret my surgeries; if I feel remorse, or stupidity, or a general shame over what has happened to me in the name of weight loss.
NO. I DON’T.
Why do I not feel regret, remorse, or shame? BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF.
If there is any shame to be had in this narrative, it’s on the part of the people who think it is all right to treat anyone as less than human, simply because of appearance. If there is one thing I have learned from all of this, it’s that my body is miraculous. I may have a 14-inch scar that splits my abdomen in half; I may only have half of my intestine and a quarter of my stomach, and I may have a body that is still heavier and broader than is considered conventionally attractive by our current societal ideals.
However, SO WHAT?
I relearned how to walk, talk, eat, and live. No one will ever take that away from me. I’ll never give up my power to someone else’s ideal ever again.
I am not my surgery. I am not my weight. I am not a warning lesson to others. I am not the anonymous Fat.
I am a person, and what you say to me matters.
What you say to everyone in your life matters.
Look past the shape; see the humanity instead.