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Why I’m Looking for WLS Narratives (Especially, But Not Only, Norwegian)

December 2, 2014

Weight LossFat PoliticsFat HealthFat ScienceEating DisordersMy Boring-Ass LifeWeight Loss SurgeryDiet Talk

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss surgery and eating disorders.

So I want to do a little crowdsourcing about weight-loss surgery (WLS). Are you up for that?

There, now you'll be healthy.

There, now I’ll be healthy.

I’ve been interested in the subject a long time, ever since I knew such a thing existed. I remember in 7th grade —before I was fat myself — reading in the newspaper about a fat woman whose jaw had been wired shut by doctors. The sadomasochistic overtones of this extreme act were both horrifying and fascinating: it was exactly like putting your mouth in jail so it couldn’t commit any more crimes.

The woman had agreed to this treatment (obviously she must have agreed to it), but equally obviously there was an aspect of punishment and public humiliation to it. In my daily life back then, I knew only two really fat women: my neighbor and my scary-strict language-arts teacher. When the teacher went on leave in the second half of the school year, I speculated that maybe she was going away to get her jaw wired, and I shared my speculation with other children.

Just before 8th grade started, I was sitting on the floor of the Spanish/French classroom, helping the Spanish teacher organize her new teaching materials, when the language-arts teacher suddenly appeared in the classroom doorway. She was no longer fat, but just average-plump as any middle-aged woman might be.

Once she was gone, I asked the Spanish teacher, “Why did she go on leave?” She and I had a good relationship, but I was certain she would never reveal information about a fellow teacher to a child. Still, the apparition had been so startling that I couldn’t resist saying something. The Spanish teacher paused a long time: “Well….” In her face I could see her rapid ethical calculations. “Did you notice anything different about her?” So I was right, I was right! Something drastic, something deservedly drastic, had been done to the monstrous language-arts teacher.

In three years I would begin to consider myself fat, and an era of heroic secret attempts at self-starvation would begin. For the first four years these efforts failed. Why couldn’t I stop eating long enough to be thin? If only there was a way to enforce the true desires of my best self upon my recalcitrant will! If I could, like Odysseus, have myself tied to the mast, with instructions to ignore all subsequent commands for release. To decide at Time A to render myself powerless to make the opposite decision at Time B.

Just before my senior year of high school started, in 1978, I had a vivid dream of a post-apocalyptic world in which I was being chained up in a line with other slaves. In my sleep, I rejoiced: slaves didn’t stay fat! I could worry about escaping once I was thin again. FYI, not that this should make any difference, but I weighed about 140 pounds — at 5’6″ — when I had this dream.

Awake, I pondered the paradox: I yearned to be a strong-willed person in control of her own body, yet the best self-improvement technique I could imagine involved renouncing the freedom to satisfy my appetite.

The harder I tried to be thin, the more I fattened. I finished out my teenage years as a fat anorexic, though that certainly wasn’t how I thought of it at the time. I thought I had somehow turned into a secret glutton. How I think now: there are part-time anorexics, wannabe anorexics, failed or temporarily successful conventional dieters — it’s all just different points along the same misguided spectrum of food shame, food restriction, body shame, and the pursuit of thin privilege.

During those years I saw occasional media references to the new technique of “stomach stapling.” The idea was queasy-making for me, even worse than the jaw-wiring. I thought at the time, and I still think now, that even if we make the assumption that it’s good to control food intake, the digestive organs are a dangerous site at which to exert that control. Essentially, surgeries like these remove anorexia and bulimia from the behavioral realm, and enforce it at an anatomical level instead — generally permanently.

How can it ever be a good idea to deliberately damage the functionality of healthy digestive organs? In 1983, I read shadow on a tightrope, which included a few first-person stories by women who had had either gastric or intestinal bypass operations. The pain and side effects they described were horrific. I could hardly stand to think about it.

Three decades later, I figure I’m just about grownup enough now to enter the global intellectual conversation about weight-loss surgery, though both the specific techniques and the prevalence of WLS have changed in that time. Last year I co-wrote an article with a team of Norwegian researchers who were interviewing gastric-bypass patients about their experiences following surgery. What’s next?

Over the course of my own life, I’ve felt both a visceral revulsion at the concept of weight-loss surgery and also a visceral understanding of its attractive logic. I think having had this range of feelings is useful; feelings are relevant, necessary even, when we’re debating the wisdom of cultural values and practices. Some questions (e.g., Does technique X produce lasting weight loss?) are purely empirical. But others (e.g., Should technique X be used?) have both empirical and moral components. And how could you grapple with questions that involve a moral component without making value judgments?

But we still need data; feelings alone aren’t enough. Currently my Norwegian writing buddy is continuing to study the personal narratives of post-surgical patients. The patient success stories featured on the websites of for-profit clinics are glowing and happy, of course, but it would be silly to imagine that they’re typical. Does anyone out there in FFF-land know of, or know how to find, the Norwegian equivalent of WLS-survivor groups that would provide stories from the other end of the spectrum? Or, more generally, where would you start networking or what would you read if you were attempting to grapple with the question of what constitutes a typical post-WLS experience and how many WLS patients get an average result, as opposed to fairy-tale happiness or sheer horror?

Jean Braithwaite

4 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    December 2, 2014 12:16 pm

    The Yahoo group, OSSG-gone_wrong, is a group of WLS survivors and has the stories of quite a few people who have died from having WLS. It has a list of complications and lists of supplements needed after WLS. It also has a list of tests that need to be done periodically to try and ensure that WLS patients can maintain their health. Obviously, even doing all of that doesn’t guarantee you’ll survive.
    My best friend had her first WLS 20 years ago – a vertical banded gastroplasty (stomach-stapling). She had her second one a year later when it came undone and she started to regain weight (she had gone from 400 lbs to 160 lbs, and was 5′ 8″ tall). In my opinion, she should never have been a candidate for this surgery (or any WLS for that matter). She was a multiple personality (I knew of at least 8 different personalities, and there were more that she didn’t “let out”), and she self-injured (cutting, punching trees/brick walls, punching walls with her hand in a glass/jar, breaking windows with her fists). She also had a massive ventral hernia that had been repaired with mesh – it ran across her abdomen from one side of her ribcage to the other. When she lost the weight the first time, that mesh got tangled with her intestines, parts of them died and hardened, and had to be removed. She ended up with short gut syndrome, and in spite of that, still started regaining her lost weight. She died the day before her 43rd birthday, in 1997, leaving behind a husband and two teenage sons.
    Even with her as an example of how things can go spectacularly wrong with WLS, I had the same surgery (VBG) a month after she died. I’m 17 years out from that surgery, and I can honestly say it was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life (and I’ve made some pretty damned bad decisions, believe me). Granted, I didn’t have the mental problems that she had, and I didn’t have the physical problems that she had, but even though I didn’t have those problems, and VBG is “supposed” to be one of the less “dangerous” variations of WLS, it still caused me problems that have seriously affected my quality of life. I’m fatter now than I was before surgery. I’ve gone from being able to walk several blocks without pain (I had back problems and arthritis in my rt knee before surgery) to using a walker to having to use a mobility scooter to navigate the world outside my house. I have 4 teeth left on the bottom that are broken and need to come out, along with 5 more that are broken off at the gum line and will have to be surgically removed – years of vomiting has a way of eroding your teeth (I already had an upper denture from a partial plate that eroded the molars it hooked to). I’m seriously limited on what I can eat without ending up in the bathroom immediately (no fruits, no veggies, no milk/milk products, nothing fried or greasy, and the list goes on and on). I have venous insufficiency in my lower legs, which has made them permanently discolored (reddened and thinned skin on my shins) from the years of misdiagnosis and wrong treatment – I now have to wear compression stockings all day, and still need to spend most of my time sitting with my legs elevated to keep the swelling down. I have migraines and fibromyalgia, and was finally diagnosed with spinal stenosis, arthritis in my spine, and bulging discs – before I demanded an MRI, and before my WLS, I’d been told that my back problems were caused by my weight and if I just lost half of my body weight, I would be “cured” (yeah, so not happening). In spite of all the problems I have, my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol are still in the “normal” range, just like they have been for my entire life, even though I’m 61 years old and have been DEATHFATZ ever since I was 22 (I weighed 350 lbs from the age of 22 until 17 years ago, and I’m now up to 400 lbs, I’m 5′ 8″ tall). But I was told that I was too fat to have a knee replacement – funny how we’re too fat for surgeries that will improve our quality of life, but we’re never too fat for WLS, which most likely will screw up what quality of life we have, if it doesn’t outright kill us.
    WLS is one of those medical interventions that should have never been discovered – it does more harm than good. Sorry, I’d rather be alive and fat than dead and thin.

    • December 2, 2014 11:35 pm

      Vesta, your story is heartbreaking. I honor your courage in telling it. People need to look clearly and honestly at the whole spectrum of WLS outcomes.

      Can anyone join OSSG-gone_wrong at will, or do you need to be invited?

      • vesta44 permalink
        December 3, 2014 6:26 pm

        I think anyone can join. I don’t recall getting an invitation, but I’ve been a member for about 10 years now, and my memory isn’t as good as it used to be. . . .

  2. The Worried Squirrell permalink
    December 21, 2014 5:24 am

    A friend of mine was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and basically scaremongered into having lap band surgery, and like so many other weight loss attempts, it didn’t work. So she had the sleeve surgery (i think that’s what it’s called) and has now been in the hospital eight times in three months, because it is causing her horrendous pain. Morphine and fentanyl were barely helping so now she gets celiac plexus blocks. Which is where they stick a HUGE needle through your back to your abdomen and basically give your aorta, the big artery that runs through the middle of your abdomen, a local anaesthetic. But she’s lost 80 lbs so she gets reinforcing praise from her doctors and family even though she’s very weak and ill.

    You know, i would rather take my chances with the worst predictions about fat and poor health than deal with that.

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