Where I Lived, and What I Lived For: Part One

Thoreau explains in Walden the key to living a happy life is to “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.” Thoreau wants us to focus on ridding ourselves of unnecessary responsibilities, freeing up our time to do what we deem the most important. Many of Thoreau’s critics make fun of him for using the word “Simplify” three times because he doesn’t stick to his own doctrine to remove unnecessary details. I think he says it 3 times because only saying  it once doesn’t stress the importance of the word.

The post-op Bariatric Surgery Patient’s life is “Change. Change. Change.” Using Change only once could never convey the amount of Change I have gone through. EVERYTHING is different: from how I interact with coworkers, friends, family, my husband and myself to how I can’t take a shower without feeling changes in my body shape every time I have to shampoo.

When I started this blog, I wanted to tell my story in chronological order.  I remained so steadfast in this desire; I’ve missed months of writing because I had not anticipated how much Change would affect my life.

Today, September 21, 2017, I reached my goal of a 35 BMI, and I am 10 months, 4 days post-op.

Last week, my husband and I went on the first trip where I was able to see the world in a way I could not have before surgery. An amazing world where I could  hike and climb for breathtaking views. On this trip I realized this blog needs to Change its linear story. Instead, from now on,  I will be jumping back and forth in time to give perspective and understanding of my present life as I experience it, yet I will not shed the chronological aspect to the story. I want to tell my story both past and present concurrently.

In Walden, the idea of simplicity appears in a chapter entitled: Where I Lived and What I Lived For. Sections of the blog which discuss the present will be titled Where I Lived; and What I Lived For to help distinguish present versus past.  

I chose Where I Lived, and What I Lived For because when I reached this view:

It hit me: “This is why I had the surgery.” I felt complete peace for the first time in over a year. I began to live inside my body and realized why I fought for the surgery and fight everyday to continue on my health journey. This is what I lived for.

The Gatekeeper

July 8, 2016: The day of my first doctor’s appointment at the weight loss clinic began by pulling on my favorite Bob’s Burgers black t-shirt and a pair of comfortable jeans, believing somehow these articles of clothing would protect me or give me comfort.

I was anxious. I was afraid they would find something wrong with me, and I would not be able to have surgery and be stuck in my body size the rest of my life. After the education session, I firmly believed the only answer to weight loss was surgery.

Side note: Every day I am vigilant to rail against the surgery brainwashing. At the education session, and during the months of preparation for the surgery, I was told over and over again about how surgery is the only answer to “real, long lasting weight loss.” Since I became more mobile after the second month post surgery, I have become the type of person I feared — A person who looks at others as potential weight loss surgery candidates. The brainwashing is so innate and severe, when I see an overweight person, my first thought is: “I wonder if they have thought about surgery.”

Fortunately, therapy has helped me become acutely self-aware. When the first thought becomes conscious, I admonish myself. I make myself recognize how beautiful, amazing and strong that person is. They are outside the house, moving around, in yoga classes, at the coffee shop living their lives. They are doing things I found impossible due to fear of people or due to the pain walking caused before surgery. I send them positive thoughts and strength for them to love themselves and find a place to exist in this world that does not make a place for overweight people to fit. End side note.

Returning to the same hospital where we attended the information session, my husband found the closest parking ramp to the weight loss clinic’s office. I was wearing the same sandals I wore the night of the information session, and the walk from the parking lot to the clinic burned my feet. My sharp back pain forced me to sit down halfway between the parking ramp and the office.

Breathless, I stepped to the front desk to speak with a thin, older woman. The woman stood up and said “Hello” with a look of recognition and  through an obviously fake smile. She expressed a familiarity with me that made me uncomfortable. She asked me, “Who might you be?”

Seriously? “Who might you be?” This phrase is uttered by adults to children or animals with their hands on their knees while they bend over to look at the child or the animal.

I told her my name, and she squinted her eyes, looking at me skeptically, as if I wasn’t who I said I was. Then after several awkward silent moments, she turned around and picked up a piece of paper off a table behind her. She placed the paper on the counter between us and looked over her glasses at me. The paper was a print out of all of my information, and she slowly, very slowly went down each box reading my name, my address, my insurance etc. She used a pen to point at each of the boxes to make sure the information was correct. Aside from the obvious violation of HIPAA as my information was laying completely printed and out in the open AND her reading my information loud enough to the entire waiting room, each answer I gave was met with the same skeptical look.

The look made me feel like she thought I was lying or confused. I felt like I was a child lost in a store and telling the security guard my mom’s information, but he doesn’t believe me when I say I’m lost. Finally she released me and told me to sit in the waiting room. This was my first day at the clinic. I was ashamed, anxious and embarrassed because I was there to ask for help. What I expected and wanted to see from the first person representing the clinic that day was empathy, compassion and kindness. Instead, I was treated like a child and a suspicious liar at the same time.  

As far as the actual appointment, it will be covered in future posts. But for now, I will be sticking to the gatekeeper.

GATEKEEPERS

After the appointment finished, I had to speak to her again with a green slip of paper the nutritionist handed to me to schedule the next appointment. This was another excruciating encounter, as she awkwardly fiddled with the schedule much longer than a person should. The appointment was over and all I wanted to do was get to the car before the tears started flowing. Instead, she became a roadblock; a way for the weight loss clinic to make sure I would return.

Once I finally had an appointment, using the same pen she used earlier, she slowly wrote in large, grandiose cursive writing the date and time of the next appointment  as if she was making a beautiful piece of calligraphy art.

Again, I thought this just must be the way she behaves at the first appointment. Nope. This is how she behaves at EVERY appointment. She asks for my information in the exact same way EVERY time.

She doesn’t behave this way with just me. No, this is her behavior with all of the bariatric surgery patients. Her behavior reinforces the stereotypes that fat people are lazy and stupid. Before the surgery, her behavior reinforced the treatment I received in the world. After the surgery, her behavior is a reminder that no matter how much weight I lose, I will still be overweight and stuck facing these stereotypes.

Now, I work every day to not allow people to make me feel like a lazy, stupid child. Some days are easy, other days suck. Weight loss clinic appointment days are one of the latter. I have hope that one day they will be the former.

Olive Green Backpack

The final shove to actively pursuing bariatric weight loss surgery came during a Chicago vacation in June 2016. My husband had a work conference for a couple days in Chicago, and we decided that we would stay in Chicago a few extra nights and make a mini-vacation out of it. We had not had a vacation that required a flight since our honeymoon in 2011.

Having never been to Chicago, I checked out many travel guides from the library. I researched what I wanted to explore in Chicago while he was at the conference and what we would explore as a couple. I made a full itinerary for the 2 days I was by myself including the museums I would visit and walking tours I would take. I bought an olive green backpack and filled it with items I needed on my adventures. My husband even put a tracking app on my phone so that if I got lost, he could easily find me.

Side note: I grew up in a town of 2,000 people in Minnesota. I went to a college, within an hour driving distance of my parents, which had 2,000-2,500 people tops in attendance. In a college of this size, I knew the majority of people either by name or by face. My college years were comfortable, no real personal growth or exposure to ideas that were different than my own. I didn’t party because I was working all the time, either studying or at a job to pay for school. In the last month of college, I was accepted for a Master’s Degree program in Boston. By that August, I was alone on a train to my new life in Boston.

My program was 2 years long, and I had every intention of sucking up as much of the city’s culture as possible in that time. My class schedule was Monday through Thursday with Fridays off. I used Friday as my “explore Boston day.” I went everywhere with my trusty backpack learning from public transit systems, museums, the North End, Southie, the Freedom Trail, Faneuil Hall, the Common, the arboretum, the flower shows, the ballet and Fenway Park. I was always alone, and I walked anywhere and everywhere. My daily commute was an 8 block walk, in all weather, to the subway station.

I would not trade a moment of my time in Boston. When I look at the diploma, I don’t just see all the classes and papers and exams. I also see my daily introduction to a wide world with diverse people and points of view. I see grip worn shoes and a threadbare backpack. My experience in Boston created and established the person I am now. End side note.

Since I have been married, I haven’t had the chance to go to a new place and explore on my own. We explore new places together, which is wonderful and I am grateful to have a fellow adventurer, but, this trip I was going to pull on my new trusty olive green backpack and explore Chicago. I wanted to feel the wind of discovery blowing in my hair and on my face. I wanted my eyes to open wide and witness experiences that only travel can provide.

We left early morning for the Minneapolis Airport with our luggage, carry-ons and my backpack. In my experience at the Minneapolis Airport, everything is far away from wherever you are. No matter which parking ramp, departure or arrival gate you are going to, from WHERE EVER you started, it will never be a short walk. Our departure gate was no exception. I only made it about 60 feet from the car into the terminal before I needed to sit down due to the pain I experienced from walking.

On the Chicago trip, I was the heaviest I would be.

To me, walking meant deep, sharp, pinching shooting pain down my back so extreme I would have to sit down. If I did not sit down, it would grow to the point where my thigh muscles and mid-back muscles would cramp and force me to sit down. Along with my back, my calf muscles could not hold my weight and would begin to pulsate and cramp, and my feet gripped my shoes to the point that I was squeezing my feet to the ground.

Even though my husband took my luggage, these 60 feet at a time through the airport threatened our ability to be on time to board. We made it onto the plane on time, but my seat belt didn’t buckle. This was a first; I was mortified and didn’t know what to do. We hid the unbuckled section under my husband’s shirt, and I was not caught by a flight attendant.

Once we were in Chicago and all checked into the hotel, I laid in the comfortable bed watching tv, with my backpack shoved into a hotel closet. The next day, was to be my first day of exploration. I got up, got dressed, threw my backpack on, walked to the elevator, walked down the hall to the hotel’s Starbuck’s 20 feet from the front door and sat down. I ordered a drink and sat for a while at a table and realized there was no way with the pain I felt that I could leave.  Instead, I went back to the room, ordered room service and spent the day lying in bed watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit re-runs.

On my last day of solo exploration, I didn’t even try. I was so humiliated and ashamed. So, the backpack remained on the floor where I left it the night before and spent my 2nd day lying in bed, again watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and ordering room service.

The remainder of the trip, as a couple, was a mess of cabs driving us 3 blocks to see landmarks where I would vary between 40 feet to 20 feet before I needed to sit down. In one occasion where there was not a bench, I simply collapsed on the ground. As the vacation continued, I couldn’t stand in a line at a drug store to buy lotion to help the sunburns we received, I couldn’t climb the 5 plus flights to reach our seats in the Cubs Stadium, and I was only able to enjoy A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat at the Art Institute of Chicago from a sitting position.

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On the flight home, the seat belt buckled this time. I looked at my backpack, and it looked exactly as it did when I bought it off the rack. The majority of the pictures my husband took didn’t have me in them. In the ones I was in, I was standing with half of me behind him. All the pictures I took were taken from the backseat of a cab, attempting to capture a moment of exploration while I had no control of the speed of the world around me.

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After our return, my husband called our insurance to find out about bariatric sleeve coverage, beginning what I did not understand then, the extent of the NOTHING WILL BE THE SAME journey.

But as I look at my worn olive green backpack on the floor next to me, I think of all the places I have gone with that bag, especially the day it came with me to surgery.

Living Inside Myself Among the Trees

I like to believe that the bariatric surgery journey began when I heard the words from my doctor:  “Women with a Body Mass Index higher than 35 have a 9x greater chance of having uterine cancer” in April 2016.  But my journey began in July 2015, 9 months earlier, in Itasca State Park, the birthplace of the Mississippi River in Minnesota.

Itasca is what I think of “home.”  From age 15 on, I’ve visited the park for sporadic day trips or summer weekends.  My great-grand-parents and my grandparents had their honeymoons in Itasca. This love for the park was passed down and around the family. Currently, if my immediate family wants to vacation, we go to Itasca because this is the only place we will have fun and not fight. In spite of the family vacations, my family understands my connection and bond to Itasca runs far deeper than any I have had with anyone .

When I lived 1-2 hours away from the park, I would drive there alone for a day trip or a weekend away to clear my head, fill my heart, escape into the woods or read along the beach. No matter what, I would visit the trees. Henry David Thoreau explains this far more eloquently. In Walden, he writes: “Trees indeed have hearts…I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”  Having a tree or many trees as your confidants brings about such peace and a sense of well-being. The longest I stayed away from Itasca was 4 years due to graduate school, but when I returned the trees welcomed me.

2015 was a difficult year in my family because of my mother’s health. We almost lost her several times that year, and she was forced to stay in a nursing home for a year for recuperation. Although, she has since returned home, her inability to walk on her own is a constant thought that brings me to tears. In 2015, my husband and I had not been to Itasca for 2 years because I had lost my job during that time, and we needed time to save for a return to Itasca. I never needed my park’s confidants’ comfort more than I did in 2015.

On a warm July day that year, my husband and I drove into the Douglas Lodge Parking Lot. Douglas Lodge is the main office for Itasca Park lodging and dining.

Douglas Lodge at Lake Itasca

I got out before the car was in park. My husband went up to Douglas Lodge to check us in, and I recreated a moment that I had repeated from when I was ages 15 to 24, I ran down the long, staircase which heads directly down to Lake Itasca. I truly believed I was young and that my body was strong.

Stairs Down to Lake Itasca

I made it about 6 stairs before I fell. I caught myself with my left arm on the railing and my knees and right palm caught the rest. I was bleeding, in severe pain and weeping because I couldn’t perform this ritual. My husband took me to our cabin and bandaged me up. For the remainder of our visit, the injuries I sustained kept us stuck in the cabin instead of enjoying my “home.”

At age 35, I had been living disconnected from my body for who knows how long. I was unaware of the hindrance of my weight because, in my mind, I was still 20, many, many pounds lighter and believed nothing had changed. I liken it to an inversion to Body Dysmorphia, where instead of being thin and seeing a fat person in the mirror, I was a fat person who always saw the strong, healthy person who had not aged, changed, or gained weight. I would look at pictures of myself and if I didn’t like what I saw, I just thought the camera must have hit me at the wrong angle.

I realized later I wasn’t living in my body anymore; I was not connecting or fully feeling like a complete person.  I tried, hard as I could, to learn how to live connected and inside of myself, but I was unable to find this beautiful gift of wholeness until after the surgery. The surgery has forced me to be aware of my body and its place and significance in the world. Being whole is incredibly difficult to get used to and is frightening, almost terrifying, on an hourly basis. But, the mind-body connection establishment is a benefit and bane of the surgery. Because of the surgery…

I’ve had to reclaim who I am to myself.

I’ve had to teach myself who I am.

And, in the future, I hope I learn how to accept myself.

I haven’t been back to Itasca since before the surgery. I can’t wait to return, as a stronger, more connected human being. And, I can’t wait to meet up with my old acquaintance in the pine trees.

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Preacher’s Grove in Itasca State Park