life of a fat woman
Photo by Marjan Lazarevski

I am an active participant in the Gather community. Gather (www.gather.com) is considered a “social networking” website. The focus is on bringing together people who like to write and people who like to take pictures. With the permission of the author, I have reproduced an amazing story by Wendy Hanawalt about what it was like for her to be really, really fat. She has since had gastric bypass surgery. She has given her permission to share that story as well and I will, on another day.

 

Memoirs of a Fat Broad

by Wendy Hanawalt

 

When you’re really, really fat—and by that I mean what doctors refer to as ‘morbidly obese’—there is one thing that is screamingly clear: People who are not really, really fat (RRF) have no idea what it’s like. As a formerly really, really fat person who’s now just fat, I have to say that we have no one to blame for that misunderstanding but ourselves. Our modus operandi is to hide: hide our feelings, even from ourselves, hide who we really are, hide our shame, hide our disabilities. And so, as part of my “coming out” as a person with reorganized intestines (having had gastric bypass surgery), I’m going to “tell on myself,” write about what it’s like in vivid detail, so that some of you (those who are not RRF) will have a new understanding of the experience and, at least I hope, those of you who are RRF will hear someone singing your song.

The day I went in for my surgery, I weighed 290 pounds, just a wee bit short of the dreaded 300 mark. Twenty pounds were gained during the months prior to the surgery. I was supposed to be losing weight. Indeed, one of the conditions for having the surgery was that I lose 25 pounds so that the doctors would have an easier time rummaging around in my internal organs without fighting so much fat. But I was taking four shots of insulin a day for my diabetes, without ever managing to get it down to a reasonable level. (When you have diabetes, you quite literally live and die by the numbers on your meter.) One of the jobs of insulin is to hold on to fat. In a healthy body, this is a good thing, preventing you from death in times of starvation. But when you’ve got Type 2 diabetes, you’ve got more insulin than anyone would ever need, except that your body can no longer use it, so it keeps cranking out more, which holds on to the fat and, as an unfortunate side effect, gives you a voracious appetite. As one diabetes educator said to me, “It’s one of the sad ironies of this disease that the most effective tool we have for keeping it under control also helps to make it worse.” I lost touch with the surgical team at my medical center because I figured well, I hadn’t lost the weight, so they wouldn’t touch me. Finally, the program coordinator called me and said, “So where are you about this?” I told her, and she replied, “Let me call the surgeon and get back to you.” When she did, she said, “He says get in here.” When I did, he said, “Let’s operate on you before you gain more weight.” Bless his soul.

People who have gastric bypass surgery tend to relate to their surgeons as saviors and saints. A little nutty, I thought, when I was on the outside looking in. But now, having lost 100 pounds and having gotten my life back, I can say unequivocally, my surgeon saved my life.

 

A special kind of hell

Life getting up to 300 pounds is, perversely enough, also a descent, a descent into a special kind of hell. I had bad knees: I couldn’t walk up stairs without spending minutes per stair, pulling myself laboriously up by the hand railing as I went. The stairs at my job became impossible. I blessed my employers when they put in an elevator: One less ordeal to face, first thing in the morning. I could not stand, move, walk, without crippling back pain. My son would ask me to take him to the mall, but I could walk no more than a couple of feet before I needed to sit down, sweating profusely. “You go ahead in the store; I’ll wait for you here.” If I did go into the store with him, my only thought was to find myself someplace to sit, or at least something I could lean against. I prayed for him to get done so we could leave. After a while, I gave up and purchased a cane. I noticed that people started staring at me when I had a cane, and I knew what they were thinking, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t move otherwise. I knew, as surely as I knew anything, that one day I would be one of those women on the motorized scooters, terrorizing the children as she crisscrossed the supermarket.

There was the trip to Universal in Florida. It was a special event for my son and nephew because they were going to visit all the fabulous haunted houses in this extravaganza of fantasy. I stood in one line for a half hour and nearly died. Eventually, my sister and I paid the extra $30 per person ($60!) so that we could cut to the front of the lines, and still I was in too much pain to walk. I had to stop, and my sister and the kids spent a good half hour looking for a wheelchair which I had been too proud to take at the beginning of our journey. I kept saying, “Go on without me.” I was so humiliated at having ruined their experience. But they would not.

The flight to Florida had held its own horrors. For the first time in my life, I had to ask for a belt extension. One attendant was very nice about it; the other was clearly irritated. I had ordered an aisle seat so that I could lean far into the aisle and away from any person sitting beside me. But it probably was not enough, and I could see the smoldering anger in the eyes of the person beside me, and I did not blame them, not one bit. I vowed then to never fly again unless I could afford two seats. So I spent a couple of hours leaning against the armrest, holding my breath, willing myself smaller.

 

And then there is diabetes

The diabetes had been with me for fifteen years, starting at the time I started to gain weight. I swear that nothing in my lifestyle had changed, and yet I had gained 80 pounds. Doctor after doctor insisted that I had been eating more, doing less, that I had brought it on myself. It didn’t match my experience, and yet I thought they must be right. And so I went into a spiral of shame, first ignoring diabetes completely for a number of years and then, when it was no longer possible to do so, enduring the endless journey from doctor to doctor to doctor: the foot doctor, the eye doctor, the cardiologist, the endocrinologist. (I was almost fifteen years into my diabetes before I met a Type 2 expert at the renowned Joslin Center who told me that my experience was not in my imagination. That over and over again, he met people who gained weight inexplicably and then developed diabetes. Something about the spiral of insulin resistance.)

During that time, I developed a whole host of medical problems, some of them related to diabetes and some of them not, but always in the back of my mind was the thought, I’ve done this to myself. I’m bad and stupid and lazy and I deserve this. I deserve to die. At my highest weight, I was taking ten different prescriptions. My co-pays, even with good insurance, added up to over $200 a month. I took Actos and Glucophage for diabetes, plus two different types of insulin (which required prescription syringes), a diuretic for my blood pressure, verapamil and Coumadin for a heart arrhythmia, Synthroid for a thyroid deficiency caused by having to have my thyroid surgically removed, a diet pill, and an antidepressant. Half the pills caused weight gain, the other half strove mightily to lower the blood sugar levels elevated by the weight gain. Eventually, diabetes took its toll, and I developed neuropathy in my feet, intense burning pain, especially at night. I developed hammer toes as my feet began to curl in on themselves, a result (my foot doctor told me) of the nerves dying in my foot and leg muscles, causing them to atrophy and pull in. I could no longer wear normal shoes, resorting to sandals and sneakers to avoid the pain.

 

Personal hygiene and other horrors

Personal hygiene became a special horror. I invested in a hand-held shower to reach the places I could no longer reach on my own. My husband complained about the hand-held, hated the fact that it cut down on the water pressure. It was entirely too humiliating; I begged him not to make me explain to him why I needed it. Despite all my efforts of constant showering and drying and powdering and medicating, I developed open sores, the result of skin touching skin without exposure to air. Similarly, rashes and other infections left me screaming in agony. No ointments or powders or pills would stop the bleeding and weeping from sores all over my body. (Sorry to be so graphic, but it was my life.)

My life was spent on the couch, because there wasn’t much of any place else I could go, except to get into my car to drive to work, where I sat at a computer every day. I could barely walk my dogs down to the end of the driveway for their daily pee breaks, never mind take off on a cardio-friendly walk. My back was in such pain that even sitting on the couch proved too painful, and the only way I could get comfortable was to lay across an ottoman. The diabetes was causing a particularly fast-growing cataract in my one good eye (I had lost the sight in the other), so I was quickly becoming blind and could not read, could barely see the television. (Thankfully, it grew so fast that surgery was ordered quickly, and now I can see brilliant, beautiful color, quite clearly, a big change from the gray my life had become.) What was there to do, except to eat?

That statement is the very definition of insanity. Why would you want to do the one thing that had brought you to this disastrous state of affairs? Well, simply because it was all I knew how to do. From the time I was six years old, eating was how I learned to handle all the painful, nasty, inexplicable feelings threatening to bubble up inside me and overwhelm me. I needed to quiet those feelings, numb them at the very least, and food was very effective for that. The sensory experience of eating the food was wonderful and then, after I had eaten way too much, the dull ache, the exhaustion, was a welcome protection from the pain. I lived the first two-thirds of my life in a state of calorically induced numbness, having absolutely no clue what I was feeling from one moment to the next. I remember that I went for whole years without shedding a tear. I became adept at putting on the cheery façade in front of strangers, so that no one suspected what was going on underneath, except that, to some people, I did not seem completely “real”. Indeed, they saw me as manipulative, because they sensed I was giving them only what I thought they wanted. They were right.

With my family, the façade came down. I was generally grumpy, often short-tempered, to the point that I would scream at the children for the stupidest things. I was an exposed nerve, it seemed, and everything was hitting that nerve. Life was a toothache. The anti-depressants helped to soothe that pain somewhat, although they came with their own list of problems.

And that was my life. And it was only getting worse. I seriously contemplated suicide, because there just didn’t seem to be much point in continuing on in this fashion. The thing that stopped me was knowing what it would do to my children. But as for me? I was done.

 

Life altering decision: gastric bypass

And then, I met someone who had had the gastric bypass surgery and had lost 75 pounds. I had always stayed far away from the idea of that surgery. I considered it dangerous and too life-altering but it also seemed to me that there was something humiliating about admitting that life had gotten so bad, that I was so out of control, that I needed surgery to get headed in the right direction. But I was curious, and I asked this woman what had made her decide on the surgery. She stopped for a minute to think, and then looked at me and said, “You know what? I just decided I was tired of trying to do it ‘the right way.’

Bells went off inside me. That simple statement was what sent me in the direction of the most profound life-altering decision of my life.