I ‘ve been plagued with insecurity about my size since a young age. I started gaining weight from as young as six years old and, as one of the bigger girls at school, was subjected to ridicule. It only got worse as puberty hit, and I tried to cope by hiding my body under baggy jeans, T-shirts and tomboy-ish outfits. I tried every diet that I could think of. A few times, the diets worked, but I’d put the weight back on as soon as I came off them. The roller coaster of losing and gaining weight only made me feel worse. Then, I gained 30kgs during my pregnancy with my first daughter and hit rock bottom. I weighed 120kg and I was completely miserable. A glimmer of hope Around this time, a friend told me about an affordable weight-loss operation. Finally, after years of fad diets and disappointment in myself, there was a glimmer of hope. Not everyone shared my optimism; my family tried to talk me out of it several times, especially my husband. Even the doctor himself was frank about what the operation entailed and said there was the possibility of me dying on the operating table.
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But I’d made up my mind: I felt this was my only option and I was willing to take the risk in order to finally be thin. I didn’t know it at the time, but the surgery that I went for, called a jejunoileal bypass, is controversial and comes with many complications (it’s actually banned in South Africa now). A normal gastric bypass involves having the stomach divided and permanently separated; a small pouch, which can only hold a small amount of food, is created at the top of the stomach. The small intestine is then attached to the pouch, creating a new digestive system – and one that results in you feeling full on very little food, and having dramatic weight loss in the process. In the surgery I opted for, my doctor left all but 30cm of the small intestine detached – a normal small intestine is seven metres long. In my case, food that would usually take four hours to digest, would now take only a couple of minutes. I slept in the hospital the night before my surgery because it was scheduled for early the next morning. The hospital was quite far from my home so my family hadn’t arrived to visit me yet. I sat in my room alone, nervous but resolute. I felt that this was the only way forward and I was prepared for anything.
After the operation, I took two months to recover at home. I had to stick to a liquid diet then slowly move onto soft foods, only eating a proper meal weeks later. With a normal gastric bypass, your stomach is smaller so you eat much less. My stomach was still the same size so I was eating the same amount as before. I had constant diarrhoea, and I was running to the loo about 40 times a day. Sadly, there was honestly no point after the surgery that I looked at myself and was happy with my body. Yes, the weight was disappearing, but after rapidly losing 50kg in the first year, I had flabby skin, stretch marks and a huge scar from the surgery across my stomach. Even when my weight plummeted to 39kg, I wasn’t satisfied. When I couldn’t criticise my body for its size, I began to pick apart other things: now I had cellulite and stretch marks. Throughout the whole process, I always saw myself as the fat girl, even when I was desperately skinny. Complications About a year after the operation, I had to have my gall bladder removed and my doctor said it was related to my extreme, rapid weight loss.
I knew my body was taking strain and a few months later, I got a wake up call at my niece’s birthday party. We were at the Valley of the Waves and, too shy to be seen in my swimming costume, I asked to borrow swimming shorts. My niece’s shorts were a size 28 and slipped right off me. My nephew, who wore a 9-10 kiddies’ size, gave me his. They fit perfectly. As the weight continued to fall, my health grew worse. I woke up one morning paralysed, unable to move my arms or legs. Petrified, my husband took me to our local GP, who then insisted we go to ICU straight away. My potassium levels were so severely depleted that I should have gone into cardiac arrest. The doctor said she’d never treated anyone in her career with potassium levels so low. As potassium burns your veins, they had to administer it slowly via a drip over a few hours. Due to my severe low potassium, and despite the IV, I went into shock and I started having seizures. My sister-in-law knew a specialist in Milpark, so I was transferred that day and administered electrolytes one by one in ICU. It was this doctor who said to me, ‘You need to have this operation reversed because you’re dying.’
My health suffered
Despite my brush with death, I only reversed the operation three years later. Not only did my original surgery result in my body absorbing less kilojoules, but it also caused me to get less vital nutrients. I took supplements, and coped with the discomfort. I still had a huge fear of getting fat again, and, not surprisingly, I ended up in hospital often. When I eventually decided to reverse the operation, I couldn’t find a doctor who was willing to do it – most said the risk of me dying on the table was too high. I was forced to go back to the doctor that did the operation in the first place. At the time, he was being sued due to his patients having serious complications from the same procedure. But he agreed to do it and, thankfully, said he could reconnect my intestine so my body could function normally. The night before the op I stayed up until midnight crying uncontrollably, not because I was worried about dying – I was more worried about gaining all the weight back. My husband pleaded with me, asking, ‘Would you rather die than gain the weight back?’ I answered, ‘Yes.’
The morning after the reversal I started having seizures and they couldn’t get hold of my doctor because he was in court. The only option was to return to the doctor from Milpark who’d helped me before. My husband had to drive me across Johannesburg with an open wound, bags hanging out, to get me to the doctor that knew how to treat me. I stayed in Milpark for a week in ICU, replenishing my electrolytes. I think the first doctor felt ashamed, because he came to visit me in ICU. A few weeks later, he lost his medical license for good. The recovery from that second surgery was incredibly difficult. It took me months to be able to do simple things as my body had started eating itself and broken down my skeletal muscles. It was only three or four months after the reversal that I finally started feeling better. Within a year, I gained most of the weight I’d lost back and, with it, came a deep depression. I felt that I had gone to such extremes for nothing. One day I mentioned to my husband that I’d made an appointment with a dietitian and my daughter, who’d overheard me, started pleading with me not to be thin again. It was only in that moment that I realised she associated my losing weight with my constantly being in hospital. That was the turning point. I wondered what I was teaching her about loving and accepting herself the way she is?
What I know now
Today, I have learned to love my body, which means I treat it better than before. As a result, I’ve finally lost some of the weight I picked up. Now I value my body for what it can do, not for what it looks like. I started a blog (alllaboutthatbass. wordpress.com) to tell my story and share a message of self-acceptance with the world, and every day I’m humbled by the messages that I receive. So many women, even skinny ones, have conflicted relationships with their bodies. After going through hell and back with my own body, I now know that you can’t take care of something if you hate it. You have to start by loving yourself.