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Gaining Life

There’s nothing quite like holding your newborn baby in the neo-natal intensive care unit and knowing you are the reason your child is sick.

My son Eli was born three weeks early and weighed 12 and a half pounds. I’d been unable to get my gestational diabetes under control, and it would take a few days for my bloated baby’s blood sugar to normalize. I put on a brave face as the doctors told me he would be fine and I smiled weakly when all the nurses stopped by to check out my little sumo wrestler. But inside, my heart was crumbling. As a mother, it was my duty to do everything possible to protect my child. Eli was only hours old and I had already failed him.

Up until that point, I thought my morbid obesity was only hurting me. Years of tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds made me almost numb to the daily humiliations caused by my weight. I’d learned to stop caring about fashion when shopping trips became more about finding something that fit rather than an outfit that looked good. I was quite adept at asking for a table seat instead of a booth in a restaurant. I hardly noticed anymore that strangers avoided eye contact or that preteen boys always seemed to giggle when I was around. Self-loathing became a natural part of life, and while I never accepted the fact that I was fat, I readily believed the notion that I was powerless to do anything to change things. Food was my weapon of self-destruction; if my health and happiness were obliterated, then I was winning the war.

All that changed when I became a mother. I saw what my binge eating had done to my innocent son and I knew the pity party had to end. I had brought two children into the world, and I felt sure that if I were to continue on my current path, I would undoubtedly leave them orphaned. The thought of hurting them further was unbearable.

I was desperate to regain control of my life and health but I had no clue how to make that desire translate into action. Like most overweight women, my past was littered with failed diet attempts and broken gym memberships. Over the years, I had seen many doctors but found no real solutions, and the self-help books stacked on the bedside table left me confused as to the source of the problem. I understood the mechanics of losing weight; it was the make-myself-stop-eating-everything-in-sight part that had me stumped.

In late 2007, I went to a seminar about gastric bypass. In all honesty, I didn’t really consider weight loss surgery a viable option for me. Sure, I doubted whether my insurance would pay for it, and the reports of people suffering complications and folks regaining their weight after undergoing the procedure certainly concerned me. But the main reason I rejected the idea was because I thought of gastric bypass as taking the easy way out. I felt it important that I lose the weight on my own, even though my many years of trying had thus far resulted was a failure. Still, I was trying to believe that I would eventually find the answer.

Meanwhile, time was of the essence. Ever since I had Eli, my blood sugar raged out of control, and eventually, my gestational diabetes became full-on Type 2 disease. For more than a year, my doctor tried various oral medications, all with little to no success. Not only had I earned myself the label of “diabetic”, I was now facing a lifetime of giving myself insulin shots. I was devastated.

My mind kept going back to a statistic I’d heard at the gastric bypass seminar: Most people with Type 2 diabetes who have the surgery are cured. CURED. No testing strips, no syringes, no medical labels — I could lose the weight, improve my health and know that I’d done everything I could to be here for my kids. The more I thought about it, there really was no other answer.

I was 34 years old. I weighed 336 pounds. And I was choosing to live.

Having gastric bypass surgery was one of the best decisions of my life, but I’ll admit how foolish I feel that I ever considered it an easy way out. I suffered major complications and was back and forth to the hospital for weeks. Once I started to recover from illnesses caused by the procedure itself, I was faced with having to relearn how to eat with my newly-formed stomach. We’re talking months of nausea and malnourishment here, which led to me losing more than half of my hair. I started to worry I would always feel sick and I found myself wondering if I was really any better off. What in the world had I done?

But slowly, peaks of sunshine started to break through. I learned what foods I could tolerate and regular eating meant that the constant threat of throwing up began to dissipate. Post-op tests revealed my diabetes and high blood pressure had been resolved, news that made my spirits soar. My breathing was easier, my movement more natural and my energy level picked up. The future looked hopeful, something I hadn’t experienced in quite some time.

The weight came off so quickly, my mind had a hard time keeping up with my body. I walked around with my clothes just hanging on my frame, not realizing how much smaller I was becoming. Shopping for a new wardrobe was intimidating; it had been years since I actually had choices of what to buy. But boy did it feel good, trying on a shirt and discovering it was too big for me. I danced around many a dressing room.

I lost 153 pounds and I can use a host of adjectives to describe my life today: Grateful for the improved health, delighted by the things that I am now able to do, excited for the opportunities I know are waiting. But the best way to describe me post surgery? Relieved. The emotional burden I carried for years weighed more than any scale could measure, and I spent so much time crippled by my perceived inability to do anything about it. I made a brave decision in choosing to undergo gastric bypass, and in doing so, I proved to myself that I was not powerless, that I was capable, and that I am worthy.

What a joy it is to actually believe that.

by Jennifer Joyner

Jennifer Joyner is the Fayetteville-based author of “Designated Fat Girl”, a memoir about her struggle with weight. Her book was chosen last summer as one of the Oprah Magazine’s “10 Titles to Pick Up Now.”