“Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.
In the fall of 2017, I had weight-loss surgery; a gastric sleeve reduced my stomach to the size and shape of a banana. I dropped 100 pounds, and no one but my parents, husband, and three lifelong friends knew how I did it. I didn’t correct those who seemed to believe that I miraculously lost weight overnight. They told me I looked “amazing” and begged me to write down everything I was eating. I kept up the façade — until I regained approximately half the weight back.
When my endocrinologist recommended I have weight-loss surgery, I was deeply offended. That was my absolute worst-case scenario, sounding the alarm that I had admitted defeat and was too weak to get my weight under control on my own. When I decided to do it anyway, there was one nonnegotiable caveat. I wasn’t going to tell anyone.
I didn’t want to hear unsolicited advice or judgment. I didn’t want to know about your third cousin’s chronic acid reflux that no amount of antacids could cure post–gastric sleeve. And I was terrified surgery wouldn’t work. So keeping it a secret meant I could stay where I was most comfortable: in denial that I had to do something to change my weight because there was no magic cure.
For most of my adult life, I teetered on the edge of 200 pounds. Food became my vice and security blanket to cope with stress, disappointments, and fear of failure (wasn’t that better than turning to alcohol or drugs?). I was president of my sorority and lived out my dream of moving to New York City and becoming a magazine writer. I was hanging on the set of Mean Girls one day, interviewing Matthew McConaughey the next. To overcompensate for my uncooperative body, I pushed myself to be a confident go-getter. I was the loudest so I didn’t have to be known as the fattest. I was ambitious so I could receive praise for my accomplishments instead of pity for my number on the scale. Yet every time I put myself out there, I turned to food to push down self-doubt, a myriad of insecurities, and a crushing case of imposter syndrome.
I’d dieted since high school, when I did Jenny Craig (I had to get special permission to use the microwave in the teachers’ lounge to heat up tasteless soups for lunch). In college, to fit into my sorority’s Saturday-night uniform of tight black pants and going-out tops, I used Fen-Phen, even though it gave me heart palpitations. That lasted a single semester; then the pants became too tight and the top no longer even fit over my head. Right before my 30th birthday, there was a 12-step program for food addiction where I cut out flour, sugar, and anything with taste — and practically overnight the cultish program made me thin. After I left, I gained back every pound and at least ten more.
At 31, I met my wonderful husband, got pregnant, and gave birth to my beautiful daughter. My postpartum weight soared to 240 pounds, the highest I’d ever seen on the scale. I was still wearing maternity clothes at my daughter’s first birthday party and failing miserably at all the quick-fix diets that helped my new mom-friends slip back into their pre-pregnancy jeans. I got winded from marching my daughter around in a circle during music class.
My endocrinologist became increasingly worried about my postpartum weight. That’s when she brought up weight-loss surgery as my best solution. “You really think I’m that fat?” I demanded. She stumbled over a reply, but I already knew the answer. After the appointment, I headed straight to the nearest pizza parlor to devour a pepperoni pie.
Weight-loss surgery was a 40th birthday gift to myself. My insurance plan did not cover it, but a small inheritance I received after my grandfather passed away did. I prepared with a liquid diet, no caffeine, and lurking on online weight-loss-surgery support groups I never actually joined because I refused to believe I was one of them. Members shared details of “Food Funerals” where they’d travel far and wide for gluttonous “final” meals before their stomachs could no longer hold more than a morsel.
On the morning of my surgery, a few pangs of loneliness and regret hit when I glanced at my phone and there were no “you got this” texts. I told my office I was taking care of “personal” business for a few days. I told everyone else that I was taking a week “off the grid” for an all-consuming new work project. The small inner circle who did know about my surgery received text updates from my husband. “Remind them not to tell anyone I had surgery!” I implored my husband every time his phone buzzed.
After the surgery, I woke up with excruciating gas pains, bloating, and a lust for food like the one my teenage self had for Luke Perry. As my new stomach healed, it could only hold less than eight ounces per meal. Excess sugar and carbs could cause “dumping syndrome” (which is exactly as gross as it sounds), and I had to wait 30 minutes between eating and drinking — doing them together made my stomach feel like it could explode. I didn’t question any of these rules. I had no choice but to accept them as I navigated my new, tiny, “secret” stomach.
At first I was militant about my post-surgery diet. No carbs, not even fruit. I rode my Peloton daily, drank 100 ounces of water, and the weight melted off. I went from oversize sweats to skinny jeans. “It’s not fair,” moms at carpool complained, positive that I was keeping a fancy new weight-loss program from them. Good friends and long-lost acquaintances reached out every time I posted a new, svelte photo of myself on social media. When you’re heavy, no one asks what you did to get there. But when you lose a dramatic amount of weight, everyone feels they have a right to know how you did it, bite by bite. I always gave the same meek reply: “I’m just obsessed with my Peloton.”
I was self-aware enough to know some people were dubious. After a playgroup where everyone fawned over my “tiny” frame and marveled at my willpower, one mom texted me: “I know everyone tells you how amazing you look. You were amazing before losing weight. I hope being thinner is something positive for you but it’s only ‘amazing’ if the process that got you there fulfilled you.” I was overcome with anger that she saw right through my crop top and knew (I assumed, at least) that I’d had surgery. Fearing she’d out me to all the moms in town, I replied, “Don’t project your body issues onto me — I have a great therapist if you need one.” We never spoke again.
Still, I rode the wave: posing in a boudoir-style photo shoot as a birthday gift for my husband, buying an entire wardrobe in the “Juniors” section of Forever 21, wearing cut-out dresses and ill-fitting bikinis. I was a size 6, which was the “perfect” size of the Wakefield twins in the Sweet Valley High books I voraciously read as an overweight teen. The size I always thought would make me “perfect” too.
But weight-loss surgery isn’t brain surgery. My constant obsession with food never went away — it just adapted to my smaller stomach.
After two years, I thought I could handle eating a little more, and the weight crept back.
What used to be loose-fitting jeans now gave me a muffin top. My ass looked bigger and rounder. At meals, my favorite game became, “How many bites until I’m really full?” First I tested the limits with veggies and proteins, then I got daring and played Russian Roulette with carbs and sugar.
At first, my endocrinologist wasn’t fazed, insisting the gain was “normal” and my body was “settling” (similarly to the way one’s face might after Botox or injections). Then came the medical interventions and damage control. I was prescribed Ozempic (way before Hollywood scooped up the supply) to keep my metabolism in check. Doctors suggested my meals become even smaller or offered referrals to specialized nutritionists — everything I thought I could finally walk away from post-surgery. The gain was subtle — I was still far from the 200 zone on the scale — but every extra pound brought an intense urge. Not for pizza or soda, but to end the secrets and lies. My frustration over gaining weight was hard for others to grasp because they didn’t know the full story. Being honest and saying out loud — to myself and to others — that I lost weight thanks to surgery but was struggling with weight gain was the only way I could receive support and take accountability. Hiding that I had surgery wasn’t hurting anyone but myself. I’d stayed silent as a few friends and family went through with weight-loss surgery and openly documented their journeys, surprising myself with how jealous I felt of their honesty. They had cheerleaders and motivation. For me, the compliments and cries of “You’re so tiny!” slowly tapered off. Anytime someone looked my way, I felt self-conscious, positive they were calculating how much I gained.
The first admission was at a wine-and-cheese girl’s night. When my friend, the host, noticed I only took three sips of Malbec and two bites of manchego, she demanded I have more. “I wish I could, but this filled me up — a side effect of weight-loss surgery,” I shakily told her. “Oh, my sister had that surgery too,” she matter-of-factly replied. I was dumbfounded that as I told more family and friends, they already suspected or didn’t care. The most common reply was, “I figured you had surgery — you eat so little and you lost weight so quickly!” But a few were hurt that I didn’t trust them. Some were even relieved because they worried my dramatic weight loss and small portions were fueled by an eating disorder. I feared weight-loss surgery would place a giant red “F” on my chest, screaming “failure,” “fat,” and “freak” — because I’d be the “girl with no stomach.” While I felt badly that my lies of omission caused hurt and unnecessary worry, I was grateful there was no proverbial “F” on my chest, as not one person judged or shamed me after revealing I had surgery.
Post-surgery, I wanted to believe that I was “cured” and no longer had to diet, eat in secret, or organize my closet from “skinny” to “fat” clothes. My lifelong cycle of failed diets and weight gain was fueled by secrets and lies. Hiding my weight-loss surgery gave history permission to keep repeating itself. Continually keeping secrets would never break my vicious cycle of gaining, losing, and regaining weight. I imagined coming clean about my surgery would be like dropping a massive bomb. In reality, no one was surprised, no one cared, and, most of all, everyone was relieved that I wasn’t superhuman. And I felt that relief, too. I’d been working overtime to mask my flaws. Being honest that I needed help and couldn’t control my weight on my own made me feel lighter than I did after losing 100 pounds. It eased the constant chatter in my head that excessively wondered what others thought about my body each time the scale went up or down. No longer having to hide my surgery allowed me to turn my focus inward and pay attention to my own feelings about my body.
Even with the truth out there, I’m still a work in progress. My relationship with my body and food will always swing back and forth — like everything else in my life. Sometimes my career is on fire, and other times I feel stuck. Sometimes all the Klonopin in the world can’t ease the anxious chatter in my mind; other times I’m calm and clear headed. I can be an amazing wife and mother one day and want to run away the next. Sometimes I marvel at all my body’s been through, awestruck that my stomach is small enough so I can finally see my C-section scar. Other times I still buy clothes three sizes too big to hide any signs of cellulite, flab, or weight gain. I try to accept and honor my body — and be okay with its imperfections rather than lie about them.
I viewed my weight-loss surgery as a punishment. Instead, I should have been grateful for the long-overdue self-care. Before surgery, I used food as my sole coping mechanism, eating until I was so stuffed I couldn’t move. Self-care was a long drive with stops at every fast-food restaurant in my town. Now, even if I don’t always choose the healthiest option, I physically can’t keep eating when I feel full. I’ve kept off 50 of the 100 pounds the surgery helped me lose — and it’s the longest I’ve ever maintained a weight loss. My blood pressure, cholesterol, kidney function, and hormones are all in a healthy range. I stop eating when I’m full even if my brain desperately encourages me to push the limits. I openly participate in weight-loss-surgery groups and embrace the support. I no longer feel like I’m better than them. I’m one of them.
A big topic for those who’ve had weight-loss surgery is non-scale victories (“NSVs”), little wins like comfortably crossing your legs or seeing your feet in the shower. Mine? Consciously eating until I’m full — even if that’s after three bites — without pushing my stomach to handle more. Encouraging my husband to sneak peeks when I step out of the shower. Accepting that some days I love my body and others I want to crawl out of my skin. Sometimes I agree to step on the scale at the doctor’s office; other times I refuse. Some weeks I’ll ride my Peloton and meal prep, and other weeks I order in and watch Bravo — and that’s okay. But I’m out of hiding. When friends ask about why I’ve barely touched my meal, I don’t play coy or pretend I found some magic cure. I openly remind them, free of shame or fear of judgment, “This is all my stomach can handle because I had weight-loss surgery.”
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