Ethiopians, Old Wounds and Bariatric Surgery

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“You had surgery? When? Why didn’t you tell me?” I riddled my sister with questions after she let the news of her recent gastric bypass surgery slip. Only her husband knew about the surgery. I asked her why she didn’t tell me or her friends. I did not expect her answer. She was scared. Not scared of the surgery, scared of being judged. Scared of the stigma attached to weight-loss through bariatric surgery. Scared of what people would think and say. I wanted to know more. “I hate my body,” she said. “I’ve been trying so hard for so long. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize the woman looking back at me. I did it for me. I just want to be proud of myself again. I don’t want to cry when I look in the mirror.” Though many people don’t know this, I understood exactly what she was telling me. I knew I had the right words to help. I had lived it. I started my story with “Do you remember…”

It was about 5 days after the surgery when I was finally able to get up to go to the bathroom. I had donated half of my liver to my nephew and was recovering in a tiny hospital room at Georgetown University Hospital. My doctor had removed my catheter and urged me to try and use the bathroom. I agreed that was a good idea as I felt gross and needed my morning grooming rituals to make me feel human again. I thought if I could just brush my teeth, splash some water on my face and change my gown I’d feel much better. With some help I got out of bed and wheeled my IV into the bathroom. When I saw my reflection I was surprised by how gaunt my cheeks were. I wet a washcloth and dropped my gown to the floor. I was stunned into silence. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I know that a big part of who we are and how we feel about ourselves is closely tied to our appearance. Though I don’t know what it feels like to be judged for being overweight, I do know what it feels like to not recognize your body. I know what it feels like to hate your body because it doesn’t fit the image others feel it should.

For most of my life my self-esteem was tied up in my appearance. As a child and in my early teens I was considerably small for my age. I was always the smallest kid in my class and sometimes in my entire school. Grownups would playfully describe me as puny or bony. The nicer ones would call me wiry or lean. My peers however, were cruel. They would ask me if I ever ate and would leave food on my desk. Some kids would tell Ethiopian jokes and substitute me for the punchline, eventually leading to the nickname “Ethiopian Mike.” That nickname followed me for years and made me hate my body.

All that changed When I turned 16. My family bought an old turn of the century ranch that had sat vacant for years and was in desperate need of saving. I worked hard that summer getting our ranch running. Harder than I had ever worked. We had to do much of the work by hand or with our 1947 Fordson Major Diesel tractor. I split at least 5 cords of wood that summer with a sledge and ax and when our first crop of alfalfa came in we bucked it by hand. First from the ground to the low bed trailer then from the trailer to a huge stack in the barn. These bales were made on a 1945, 3 wire McCormick baler. Which as anyone who has owned one of these ancient hulks can tell you—amounted to some extremely heavy bales. It was the equivalent of dead-lifting 120 lbs. about 600 times. We had also strayed from our vegetarian diet. We were raising cattle which led to having red meat on the table frequently. After working to exhaustion every day and eating copious amounts of protein–I was getting really strong. I felt really strong. I felt like I had grown over the summer. When I went back to school shopping I had moved from a size small to a medium and in some brands I was wearing a large.

The second day back at school I had a life defining moment. We were walking back to the locker rooms after playing soccer and everyone was taking off their shirts. I was drenched with sweat so I tentatively removed my shirt as to not call attention to myself and began to wring it out. I revealed an entirely different body than what people remembered. I was ripped. People gathered around me grabbing at my biceps and chest, patting my abs. I went home that day and flexed in front of the mirror. I liked what I saw.

I began lifting weight regularly and developed a powerful physique. It became my thing. It was what I was known for. I was the guy with the big pecs. I was the guy who looked good without a shirt. That lasted for decades. Being muscular was just part of my life. I depended on those muscles for things I shouldn’t have. All my self-esteem resided in my pectorals and biceps. But no one ever bullied me again. And no one ever called me Ethiopian Mike again. Those old wounds never healed though.

All those memories surfaced that morning as I stared into the mirror. I stared until my eyes went blurry with tears. That’s not me I whispered as I reached out toward my reflection. My eyes were like black obsidian and my chest and shoulders had shrunk. My biceps and triceps had completely disappeared. I felt like that puny 13-year-old kid again. I felt like Ethiopian Mike. I had lost 30 pounds in the matter of a week. My body had been eating itself–devouring muscle and leaving emptiness and old wounds in its place. I stared in disbelief for what seemed like an eternity. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. It had been decades since I had heard those taunts and now they haunted me again.

I got back into my bed, closed my eyes and prayed it was all a dream. I can only assume that this is how a person feels on the day they look into the mirror and see only a version of their former selves. You just close your eyes and pray that it’s all a dream. No, I don’t know what it is like to come back from being 80 pounds overweight, or trying to get your figure back after having a baby, but I can sympathize. Everyone faces their own abyss and you cannot know their pain until you’ve had to return from your own. I can safely say that I will never take for granted the pain that others are going through. Not just the physical pain, but the emotional pain. That’s what I can empathize with. The pain of losing your self-image.

I would venture to guess that most of us know someone who hides their body, someone who un-tags themselves from pictures, who feels too skinny, too fat, too bald. Someone who struggles to climb the stairs or find clothes that fit. Someone who struggles to lose the baby weight or just order a mocha at Starbucks without feeling judged. Clearly it’s not easy to just be happy with who we’ve become physically. I suppose that’s why my sister elected to have this surgery. She wanted to feel better, to be able to be a runner again without her body hurting… but a big part of it was also feeling like she can go to a water park, throw off her cover up and get in the water with no shame. It’s so hard to accept changes to our self-image and our bodies. I don’t know all of my sister’s pain–but I remember what it feels like to hate your body. I remember what it was like to hide in oversized sweatshirts and pray you didn’t get picked for the skins team.

Since the surgery I have put on weight, lost weight and put it on again. My hair has gotten grey, I have sunspots on my cheeks… I’ve changed. I’ve also done my best to purge the memories of those taunts. To free myself from those old wounds. Or perhaps they will always be there, waiting to surface when I’m in times of self-doubt. Perhaps then it will be me leaning on you, sweet sister. Until then, my advice to you  is to simply love your body, whatever shape it’s in. Throw off your cover-up, get in the water, play with your kids and love yourself.

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