I shakily raised my arm to push the hostess call button above my airline seat. My face flamed with embarrassment as I squeaked out, “Could I please have a seatbelt extender.” I had spent 10 minutes struggling to get my lap band seatbelt connected, wriggling every which way to try and squeeze my overstuffed girth as far back into my seat as was possible to get the ends to join, but finally admitted a very bitter and public defeat.

Being Too Big

As far back as I can remember, I have always been the “too big” girl. Not content with being nearly 6ft tall, I added on layer after layer of protective padding to deal with life’s knocks and emotional traumas. I covered it as well as I could with couture from Tents are Us and perfected the art of side on poses and downward selfies to minimise the space I took up on camera. If you are fat, one of two things happens to you. You either attract Judge Judy’s who beadily assess your every mouthful with a deeply hissed intake of breath, and scathingly carp that fat is a character flaw, or you become invisible, and people’s eyes skate over and around you as if you are wrapped in a permanent cloak of invisibility. For the most part, I was invisible. If there were two people in a shop, I would always be served second (and often only after I coughed and got the attention of the shop assistant who genuinely seemed startled that anyone else was there). People would accidentally bump into me wherever I walked, surprised that their path was not clear as they made an angled beeline directly towards me. Clothes shopping was a symphony in black, black or black, no matter the season as after all, fat women apparently only like to wear either black or massively coloured patterns suited more to nightmare clowns. If I went to the average large shopping mall such as Chermside, I could find clothes that fit in just two stores. The rest simply gave pitying glances and “We don’t stock anything in your size” responses.

Shame Shame Shame

My flight to Karratha with my seatbelt shame was just yet in another in lifelong series of wounds to the soul and the life of being a fat woman. If embarrassment or shame were enough to make someone change, I would have been a twig decades ago. But shame is never enough for lasting change. All shaming someone does is either make someone loathe themselves more and continue their problematic behaviour, or give them a 24-hour boost of piety, followed by another crash accompanied by withering self-criticism of one’s continued failings. Yes, I had tried every diet under the sun. Jenny Craig turned me into a rage-filled monster. Lite n Easy was a brilliant way to create more time to snack later in the evening. 5/2 was good, but I couldn’t get the light days to match with my lifestyle. I could debate every diet shake on the market with the same aplomb as a wine connoisseur, and found doctor prescribed diet tablets either had me never moving more than 4 metres from the nearest loo, or having me not sleep for days accompanied by racing heart palpitations. I also tried a week-long fat camp, with superb low-calorie meals and constant exercise. I loved it until I snapped my ACL during netball and ended up with a year of rehabilitation.
at my worst

You know those photos of yourself that make you go “Eew!”? This is my Eew photo and was taken a few weeks after the plane trip.

Giving Up

After that particular experience, I gave up on myself, and told myself that I had run out of options so just give up trying and get used to being fat. That strategy lasted until last year when my health cascaded out of control. Terrifyingly high blood pressure was accompanied by mature onset diabetes and intense sleep apnoea that made daytime functioning a fog of greyness. More and more pills and medical monitoring devices started to take over my home and office desk, and I could see myself quickly turning into my wheelchair-bound mother who ended up immobile from lifestyle factors. I couldn’t see a way out and started to plan which retirement home was in my near future.

Rediscovering Hope

A few months after my embarrassing flight, I saw a different doctor at my medical clinic as my regular doctor was away on maternity leave. This doctor was very terse and to the point. “You need to lose weight or die within the next few years. You won’t even make it to the nursing home. There is no other choice.” I felt myself go cold, but it was the next bit that made the difference. “You know that when someone carries a large amount of excess weight that it is often genetically based, and no diet or exercise program will ever keep it off. You are not a failure, and there is nothing wrong with your willpower. I want you to take a look at the SBS TV Series “The Obesity Myth” and then go and see a specialist bariatric surgeon.” I really didn’t want to see the surgeon but decided to take the appointment figuring there was no harm in learning my options. I then binge-watched The Obesity Myth series, and for the first time in my life I felt the shame and sense of being a permanent failure lift, and felt the tiniest glimmer of hope. Hope is the number one essential ingredient for change.

Taking the Plunge

I bought out every book on bariatric surgery I could find on Amazon, and then mercilessly quizzed my medical fraternity relatives on the latest research on surgery vs diet options.

What I found is that right now, the best hope for morbidly obese people to lose weight and keep it off was bariatric surgery. That often there is a strong genetic link (I am looking at you mum) to weight gain, and this often combines with psychological and lifestyle factors to get you to a point where your body simply won’t permanently lose the weight no matter what you do. Your body is programmed to fail.

I figured I had tried pretty much every other option to test this new theory out over the past few decades and had proven that nothing lasted more than a few weeks for me, as my weight always rebounded. Perhaps the Obesity Myth had something going for it after all.

So, I went to see the surgeon, who had a very different approach to everything I had tried before.

In his clinic, before he would agree to surgery, you had to regularly see the psychologist who specialised in eating disorders, as well as seeing the dietician and the clinic nurse for blood level screening and monitoring. You also had to attend the support group on a monthly basis to get peer support, and all of this had to be done before surgery.

In other words, they created a full support team around you to give you the best possible surgical, mental and physical chance of changing things. You see, the quality of the experts you call on can determine the results you achieve.

Before the surgery (I had a gastric sleeve), we worked through my problems with food, my emotional food triggers, and then worked out my “big why” for surgery now, explored food plans and options as well as the discussing the experience of what to physically expect post-surgery.

Nothing was left out – I knew exactly, in all the gory detail, all the weird things my body was likely to  throw at me, and I was mentally prepared to deal with each eventuality.

Looking back, their change process was superb. They kept my why at the forefront of the change process (and yes, the airline seatbelt was one of my whys), helped me think through potential problems and coping strategies, repeatedly following up to check that my thinking was still on track and embedded over a number of weeks, and made sure that I clearly knew the process and potential areas of failure.

They worked on getting things right over many weeks before the actual event, and not just a quick one week hit (like the fat camp).

Mental rehearsal and pre-emptive trouble-shooting is an intensely powerful tool in change.

I am not saying that if you are overweight you need to do what I did. Being plus sized had wonderful benefits and many of my friends remain fabulously curvaceous and I love them to bits.

I also know surgery is definitely not for everyone, and I really wish that diet and exercise worked for me. But it didn’t and given the line in the sand by my doctor, this was my last throw of the dice. For me, I needed to lose weight for my health. It was embrace drastic change or die. I chose to change.

My Buddy

However, one of the other best support parts happened by coincidence. At the support group meeting the week before my surgery, I met an amazing woman booked in for surgery the same day as me, the 8th November 2017. Bev became my surgery buddy, and we shared our nerves on the lead up to the operation, giggled together in pre-op about our stylish gowns, and were in the beds next to each other in recovery. Our first tottering steps from our hospital beds were to visit each other, like teenagers at a sleepover party. Over the next few weeks, we shared intensely personal information about everything from sleep to poop (don’t ask). Bev was a true inspiration and helped me in more ways than she realises. Having a buddy to talk with who was going through the same thing at the same time made the massive changes less isolating and much easier to deal with. While being part of a large support group is helpful, and having access to specialists post change is brilliant, nothing beats a one-on-one buddy for raging introverts to get support.
Ready for surgery
Heading into surgery with my incredibly stylish hospital attire

Family & Friends

The other thing that made a massive difference was the unwavering and intense support from my daughters, my brother and his wife. While originally very sceptical, when they could see I was determined to go ahead, they rose magnificently to the challenge. They took over the household, filled the freezer with teeny tiny portions of pureed soup made with love, and nurtured me and surrounded me with care during the worst of the healing, allowing me to focus on me for a change. My youngest daughter, in particular, became my coach, nurse, primary cheer squad and support team all rolled into one. My eldest took over running the business for me and kept it ticking over while I recovered. Intense change takes focus, energy and time. While not impossible, it is much harder to achieve massive changes without the physical and emotional support of your family, friends and important people in your life.

The healing process

So, what happened? I won’t bore you with the recovery details, suffice to say that you go back to babyhood and start from scratch to gradually get back to solid food over many weeks.

You see, your new stomach is now only the size of a tiny banana, so it takes a bit of getting used to. I had to relearn what to eat, how to eat it and how much to eat.

I had to learn my body signals for being satiated and not stuffed full (I take a sort of a sigh and need to watch for that sigh – ably assisted by my amazing youngest daughter who always spotted it when I tried to ignore it).

What I learned is that what I thought I needed to stay alive was wrong. I only needed a tiny portion of that to stay healthy and happy.

Making mistakes or ignoring my new body came with unpleasant consequences (yes, you vomit until you learn to get it right). However, after ten months I can now eat pretty much anything I like, but just a portion of an entrée sized quantity. And no, you don’t get hungry!

Anyone who says weight loss surgery is easy is talking out of their hat. It is the second hardest thing I have done in life after parenthood. It is a whole of life, irreversible change and is simply a tool rather than a total solution. Yes, you can still go back to pre-weight if you are not careful and try and game the system.

4 stages of weightloss

But what of the other changes?

Grocery shopping is a very different experience now. Every mouthful counts now, so I now choose better options (most of the time). I still have problems with stress and emotional eating. But I have more strategies and tools in my kit bag for reducing my stress levels and reaching for better snacks. Learning new tools increases your response options. I monitor my weight daily and have an automatic mental alarm now that triggers if the numbers go the wrong way. What gets measured gets actioned. Clothes shopping was a massive change. As the weight started to fall off, every single item of clothing (including my shoes) no longer fitted. My youngest daughter became my personal stylist, as I found I still automatically reached for black concealing clothes. While my body had changed, my psychology was still that of a fat person, and I needed someone with me to remind me to think new and not old. It is super easy to remain in old patterns of thinking and routine, and you often need reminders that things have changed. Finding that I was welcomed and could shop at every women’s clothing store at Chermside was a day of tears. I suddenly had options, and a world of colour opened up before me. However, even when I changed and tried new shops, I still struggled with finding things that I wanted to wear. I started to get discouraged with clothes shopping, but my daughter encouraged me to keep going and try new things. Eventually I found that one magical store with one superb assistant who helped me find out things I adored and that worked with my new body. The lesson of keeping going and persevering until you find the right expert to help you is a constant theme in my experience, not just for weight loss but for everything in life.

Where am I now?

I am 40kg lighter than at this time last year. My surgeon would still like me to lose a bit more, but I have plateaued as I am happy with how I am right now. I have kept quiet about having surgery until now, simply because I was not ready to deal with negative views while I was so focused on getting my health back in order. I would love to tell you that I feel much lighter and fitter, but I actually was surprisingly mobile and fit before the weight loss, so there I don’t see any real difference in my energy or physical activity capacity. On a huge plus, my blood pressure is now normal, my sleep apnoea has gone, as has my diabetes.  I was also one of the incredibly lucky ones whose skin bounced almost back to normal and didn’t turn into a deflated balloon. My doctor and I are both ecstatic!

From the outside looking in

Watching the people’s response around me to my change has been fascinating. At my local Chamber of Commerce, where I have been a regular for over a decade, it took losing 25kgs before someone asked if I had done something different to my hair as I looked different. It took until I had lost 30kgs before someone asked about my weight loss and if I was OK (with the subtext that losing this much weight must imply a deathly disease). What that taught me was no-one outside your immediate circle is interested or notices when you are in the middle of change as they are focused on their own battles. However, once they do finally see the results of your changes, then you can expect questions of how they can achieve the same results. What I also learned is the importance of minor goals (I set a goal every 5kgs) and celebrating my successes along the way, even if no one else noticed that the goals were met.

My best moment?

My ex-husband is an ex for a reason, and I had not seen him in over a year, and my kids had not told him about my surgery. When my youngest daughter was talking with him on the phone and mentioned we had been clothes shopping that day, his response was, “Has she grown too fat for her clothes? She is the size of a barn”.  She passed this on to me, so the next day she and I just happened to be at the store he was working in that day, and I wore my skinniest jeans and tightest top when we bumped into him. The jaw drop and look of shock is permanently and joyfully etched into my mind. Hey, I am now slim but not a saint.

Wrapping up

What I have found by losing 40kgs is that effective change is a blend of many things.
  • Start with hope.
  • An expert support team is vital (Remember, it may take many attempts to find the right team).
  • Know your “why” and keep that front and centre.
  • Mentally rehearse the change process by thinking through all the steps and processes.
  • Pre-emptive trouble-shooting matters. By working through potential pitfalls and how to deal with them before they kick in you minimise failure.
  • Find a change buddy for the early days.
  • Get the support of your immediate family and friends before you start.
  • Have unpleasant consequences for mistakes while you are learning.
  • Set reminders to keep your actions on track and to reflect your new way of thinking and acting.
  • Ensure you have daily monitoring and take corrective action when the alert is triggered.
  • Set small goals and celebrate each win.
It doesn’t matter if your change is weight loss, or something else, these success factors will help make your change work and stick.