Reclaiming My Intuition (Part I)
It’s been almost 11 weeks since I had 80(ish) percent of my stomach amputated. In that time my thoughts have become a swirling blur of conflicting, confusing emotions, as disorienting to me as my now much-too-big nightshirt.
Most professionals will tell you this is normal after bariatric surgery (aka WLS: weight loss surgery). That intense emotions go with the territory of no longer being able to “eat your feelings.” I imagine this is true for many patients who go into WLS from years of hardcore dieting. But I’m not those patients and my thoughts and feelings are quite different than what I’ve read from other patients.
For starters, I don’t generally support WLS. I’ve written about this, to a degree, in a previous story, so I’m not going to get too in-depth about it here. Suffice it to say, I think WLS is pushed far too often on people who are vulnerable, desperate and prepared to risk their lives for the dream of being both thin and healthy. I was not one of these patients. I do not expect to be a weight anyone would consider “thin,” let alone the BMI charts. Nor do I think that WLS will automatically make me healthier. In fact, I went into it knowing it could create health problems I didn’t previously have or exacerbate existing ones. I went into it fully aware that I might never wake up from surgery (because with any surgery, this is a reality that should be faced and not sugar-coated).
I also haven’t dieted since sometime in late 2006 when, for a lack of a better way to put it, I just plain broke. I remember thinking that, at 30 years old, I had spent over 2 decades on a diet of some sort. First it was forced on me as an 8 year-old; later I’d inflict the constant cycle of disappointment and frustration upon myself repeatedly. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I went to a nutritionist, thinking she could help. She just put me on a diet. I went to two sessions and was utterly frustrated when I finally found a therapist, in the most unexpected rural town in the Rocky Mountain foothills, who specialized in treating eating disorders… and who didn’t believe in dieting.
Here’s the fucked up part: Tammy* was thin. She was probably about a size four. Had she been fat, I’m not sure I’d have listened or taken her seriously. This is a sad reality for fat therapists and medical professionals in general. She told me to get a copy of the book Intuitive Eating. I did and I devoured it. It all made so much sense. Suddenly there was another way. I learned to recognize emotional eating, to honor my hunger in a way that nourished my body — both physically and psychologically.
I’d been a diet blogger for about five years at that point. I bought a new domain and announced to my followers I would no longer be dieting. I actually lost friends over this decision, fellow diet bloggers; people I’d come to respect who I believed would grant me bodily autonomy, even if they didn’t want to go down the same path as I. I’d eventually come to realize that my acceptance of my body as it was — in other words, fat — was somehow threatening to them. The idea of (body) acceptance was so foreign to them that they could not read what I had to say, or even just keep in touch via emails on unrelated subjects. They had to excise me from their lives completely, as if I had a contagion they were afraid of catching.
I didn’t let it deter me. I did research about “obesity,” I learned that a lot of what I thought I knew to be true was — at best — ambiguous and often outright false. I became mentally healthy in a way I had never, ever been. It took a lot of work and dedication, but it was so worth it. When I unsurprisingly became pre-diabetic (I have polycystic ovarian syndrome and diabetes is on both sides of my family), my primary care doctor, a woman I had adored for years, who had respected my mental health needs and didn’t push me to get weighed or diet, suddenly suggested I try to just lose 10% of my body weight. I was heartbroken, angry and stressed beyond words. I wrote her a passionate letter that I read to her in person at our next meeting three months later. She hugged me and said she knew she’d crossed a line that day, that her medical training just kicked in and she regretted what she’d said almost the moment it had come out of her mouth.
I told her, even if everything they say about health and being fat is true (and we both know it’s not), I’d rather die young and mentally healthy than live the way I was (as a dieter) ever again. And I meant it.
After over a decade of IE and not dieting, after many years of refusing to be weighed at doctors’ offices, after many, many passionate essays, blog posts, rants against surgery and dieting, I was suddenly going through the process of having surgery to intentionally shrink my body. It wasn’t a snap decision. It was, in fact, an arduous process. Over six months of regular weigh-ins with my current primary care doctor (a man who is truly compassionate about the struggles of being fat in this world, and who has respected my emotional needs from Day One), while I pretended to do Weight Watchers (again), to satisfy the insurance company; a required clearance letter from my long-term psychiatrist and many, many agonizing, soul-searching sessions with my current psychologist all happened before my surgery on March 6th. I knew what I was doing. I thought it out. I researched and researched. I couldn’t be anymore intellectually prepared for the decision I had made.
But intellectual preparation is one thing. You can’t know how you’ll feel post-op (and I’m not speaking physically — because if, like me, you’ve had any sort of prior surgery you know you’re gonna feel pretty crappy). You can’t prepare for it. You can try, but you can’t actually understand any of it until it’s over and done. You can’t begin to process the aftermath before it happens. Once it does, it’s an emotional tsunami that threatens to drown you. It’s a Category 5 hurricane, complete with the eye where things are temporarily peaceful. It’s an EF-5 tornado that, in a matter of mere seconds, leaves a swath of emotional destruction in its wake.
It’s no wonder there’s a whole lot of “what the fuck” happening in my brain these days, huh?
At almost 11 weeks post-op I don’t regret my decision. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had no major complications. I have Hashimoto’s disease, which hasn’t responded well to this massive change in my body, but aside from that (which believe me, is more than enough), things have gone pretty smoothly from a physical perspective.
But I feel adrift. I don’t really get hungry anymore. Eating intuitively is something that is far, far more difficult than I could’ve imagined it would be, given the physical restrictions I deal with and given the lack of bodily cues I’ve learned to honor and rely on to guide me.
I also feel like an outcast from a community that had become home, a safe haven. I don’t advertise I’ve had surgery in the various fat acceptance forums I participate in; doing so would be both a sure-fire way to get kicked out and also a horrific violation of the safe spaces they’ve created for fat people. I wouldn’t ever do that. But I feel guilty participating when I’ve had this surgery, even though I stand by everything I’ve ever said about it, even though I am still very much fat and will always be fat — just less fat.
I also don’t belong in the WLS forums, where weight loss tickers and talks of keto versus paleo versus Whole30 versus whateverfadiscurrentlytrendy are immediate triggers for my ED. My intent to not aggressively pursue thinness would not be understood by the vast majority in these forums.
I had this surgery primarily because of an injury that couldn’t be diagnosed because I didn’t fit into an MRI machine — and the realizations that came with that that if my life had been in serious danger, I’d likely have died since the medical community doesn’t accommodate fat bodies like mine.
And it’s ironic that now I don’t fit in figuratively, either.
Author’s Note: This is the first in what I intend to be a series about my post-op journey. I hope that maybe as I explore my feelings through words I can help others in similar situations to mine.