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Meeting the Woman Inside 

One woman's story a year after weight loss surgery

A lot of things can happen to a person in the course of a year: great financial gain or loss, birth, death, relocation, change in profession. Or, as in Leslie Downey's case, a person can go through drastic weight-loss surgery, a divorce and a complete re-learning of her relationship with food.

In February of last year, I wrote about "Shelly" (see BW, Feb. 1, 2006, The Skinny on Weight Loss). At the time, she weighed over 300 pounds. No matter how smart, generous, funny or loving she was, she was always the "fat girl."

When she told me she had decided to have gastric bypass surgery, my immediate response was that surgery was too drastic. But for her, the desperate times had arrived, and called for desperate measures. She suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, aching joints and the less obvious, but no less troubling embarrassment of obesity. After years of considering her alternatives, she found a surgeon, took out a second mortgage on her house and underwent weight-loss surgery.

In the year that has passed, Downey has transformed into a new woman. Some acquaintances don't even recognize her. Some who haven't seen her in a while will walk right past with no sign of recognition on his or her face. As far as her friends and family are concerned, her core being is still intact, but there's now this quite confident woman who looks little like her former self.

This story is in no way meant to condone or condemn her decision. As with any major medical procedure, gastric bypass surgery is risky, expensive and not the right choice for everyone. But a year later, 100 pounds lighter and with a new sense of self-esteem, Downey knows it was the right decision. She reluctantly agreed to let me interview her for last year's story, and was hesitant about doing this follow-up interview as well, but did so saying, "maybe some 400-pound man or woman will read my story and find some hope."

BW: How much weight have you lost so far?

Downey: I've lost 139 pounds.

Do you think that's average?

It varies depending on what someone's starting weight was. People who don't have as much to lose as someone like me are called "lightweights" [laughs]. There's a Web site called www.obesityhelp.com. It's all people who've had weight-loss surgery.

For you, the most major change beside your weight loss is probably your marital status.

I have become a statistic.

But in your case, your husband asked you for a divorce. Isn't it usually the person who had the surgery who leaves the marriage?

I don't think so. I don't know what the numbers are, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was somewhere near the 50/50 point. Obviously for the person who loses the weight, their life changes. But for the spouse, too. The kind of relationship they are in absolutely changes.

Food plays a big part in many relationships: couples going out to eat, eating together at dinner, etc. Do you think the changes in the relationship have anything to do with the changes involving food?

Not really. I think it's more about the emotional or mental part of it.

When you are living with someone or in a relationship with someone who has serious obesity issues, it affects your life just like it would if you were living with an alcoholic.

Maybe for the spouse who doesn't lose the weight, he or she loses some kind of control. Before, the [overweight] person had limitations and relied on the other person. Now they don't.

That changes everything.

It does. Maybe he was somehow waiting until he knew I could handle it before he left. I think the numbers for divorce are huge, but I think if it's the person who had the weight loss versus the spouse, it's pretty close.

Do your children blame you, or more specifically, your surgery, for your divorce?

My kids, strangely enough, haven't commented to me either way about the surgery. They don't love me for the outside, they love me for the inside. In that way, I don't think it [the surgery] has affected them.

So they don't say, "Great. Mom had surgery and then she and Dad get divorced?"

No, because they know that Dad initiated the divorce. They didn't connect the two in any way.

What was the hardest thing for you right after surgery?

It was hardest for me in the first three months.

What made it so hard?

Not eating. I wasn't physically hungry; it was "head hunger." Head hunger is the worst aspect of this and I think it's really downplayed. I was not prepared for the head hunger.

Do you think you could have been prepared for that?

No.

I remember a few months after the surgery, you said, "I don't want to get back into those bad eating habits" but you couldn't even eat those kinds of foods. What are your eating restrictions like now?

Physically, now I can eat pretty much what I want. Fried foods make me not so happy. Sugar's not a problem for me, which is actually kind of scary. I wish it was more of a problem. I wish I had more problems than I do because I can't rely on [physical discomfort] to stop me. I have to rely on myself. And that is hard.

Do you stop yourself?

Not always. I would definitely say I don't eat like I did before and my food choices are better, but it's really hard.

Do you still have some of the same food habits as before (like hiding food or eating alone)?

Not as much as I used to. I don't have as many strange little food things. A lot of that is gone now. And I try to avoid those.

Can you ever gain all the weight back? Do you think it's physically possible?

Not all of it, but I have a friend [who had gastric bypass] who's gained back 70 pounds out of the 160 he lost.

What's your ultimate weight-loss goal? What would you like your weight to be?

I don't want to pick a number. I don't feel that a number has anything to do with my body. The weight I stop losing at and don't start gaining at, and I'm working out and eating decent is the weight I'll be happy with.

Do you still measure the weight-loss regularly? Do you step on the scales and see a five-pound loss and still get excited?

Well, I was a little worried over Christmas and still lost two pounds, so I'm not so worried about it. I don't want to become obsessive about it, so I try not to weigh myself too often and I try not to think about it.

When we talked initially, we talked about your health problems--difficulty breathing, lack of stamina, high blood pressure, diabetes, aching joints--being a big factor in deciding to have the surgery. Where do you stand on all of that?

The diabetes is gone. The high blood pressure is gone. They were gone from about three months in. As for my knees, walking isn't even an issue any more. Before, I would scope out if there would be somewhere I could sit. It surprises me now, if I go to the mall, like when I went shopping for Christmas, I didn't have to stop and rest all the time. I could just keep going.

Do you have any health issues that have come up because of the surgery?

The scariest was hair loss. My hair was falling out. Look, you can see all these little hairs sticking up? That's all new hair growing back. Almost everybody has some hair loss because the body knows it's starving and that's one of the reactions a body will have to starvation. Luckily, I have thick enough hair and I knew it was only temporary, so I just hung in there. But that's purely cosmetic and it's growing back in now so it's fine. Plus, there's a lot of excess skin I'll have to deal with.

Did your doctor prepare you for all of this?

Yes, and I had read about it. He gave me this huge book to read. In retrospect, if I had anything to do different, I would have gone on to the obesityhelp.com Web site before I had my surgery and dealt with more people's personal experiences. That would have helped me a lot more.

Would you recommend the surgery to other people?

Yes. I wish I would have done it years earlier. Every 20 pounds I lose makes it worthwhile.

You mentioned your friend who had the surgery. Are you close to anyone else who's had the surgery?

I know two girls, both younger than me, who've had it, and we talk about our surgeries. It's really helpful.

Do you ever hear anything negative from people about having had the surgery?

No, but only because the people who might say anything to me about it know me and they know that if they flip me any shit, I'm not going to walk away quietly. I'm definitely going to address it. The people who would say those kinds of things wouldn't say it out of curiosity but to try and hurt me. I wouldn't tolerate that kind of behavior.

And, I guess you wouldn't surround yourself with unsupportive people anyway.

Right. Maybe it happens, but if it does, it happens behind my back so I don't care.

Any negative response from your friends or family?

I did have one friend recently say my personality had changed. I said, "If you think a divorce and a huge weight loss wouldn't change me, then surprise to you."

Do you think your personality has changed?

Before, I was a little more easily dismissed because I was the fat girl. And now, I'm a woman. I'm more direct. I was always that way but it was easier to dismiss me because I was the fat girl. Not any more. It's something I've been learning about [myself] lately. I don't know if it's about the weight loss, but I'm aware of how I deal with men, with strangers who feel that they have some say in how I conduct my life. I don't let that go any more. I don't back down as easily as I used to. I'm not afraid.

Do you have a different body image?

My body image before was that I knew that I was fat, but I convinced myself I looked better than I did. And now, if anything, it's the other way around.

Why is that?

Because I don't really know [how I look]. I don't really know. Of course, my friends tell me I look great. My friends love me. Strangers don't know what I looked like before so they aren't going to say, "You look great since you lost all the weight." Before, I knew where I stood. I knew what everyone thought of me. I could say what I wanted and act however I wanted because people knew there wasn't any fear, like from a woman worried about me saying how cute her husband was because there was no ulterior motive. I could just be who I was. I knew that whatever I said could be taken as a joke.

Do you watch what you say now to guys?

[Laughs] Yes! With my friends I'm the same, but when I'm out in public, where before I might have walked up to a guy and said, "Come dance with me, cute boy!" now I won't. Now, I'm afraid that they might think, "If I dance with her, she'll think I want more and I don't." That's my own thing. I don't know how strangers perceive me. Before, I knew how strangers perceived me. I had nothing to lose so I could totally be myself. Now I don't know how strangers perceive me so I don't know how much of myself to show them.

Were you always "yourself" before or did you always try to be funnier, more clever, smarter?

I have always felt that if I want you to be my friend, you will be and the weight hasn't changed that [laughs]. Before, I might have said I was compensating, but I'm still that way.

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