I found the hospital that stapled stomachs—the only one in the city, the procedure was still so new. I called. The operator connected me to the correct department.
A woman queried, “Hello, can I help you?”
“I’m calling about the stomach stapling,” I stated, trying to hide the desperation I felt.
“How much do you weigh” she asked.
“What? How much do I weigh? Two hundred and thirty.”
“You are not heavy enough,” she replied, adding, “Morbid obesity in the amount of one hundred pounds over one’s normal weight is the rule we use in order to perform this surgery, and you have to be at least that much over for your insurance to cover it. The weight range for your height is one hundred twenty-five to one hundred forty pounds, so you’d have to weigh at least two hundred and forty pounds.”
No problem, I thought. Gain ten pounds? I didn’t have to think about it. I called back in a few months and easily booked an appointment because the weight requirements were now met. A quiet little voice spoke softly, “This is insane, illogical,” but I hadn’t learned to listen.
I went forward with the typical paperwork, physical exam, and testing. After that it went smoothly except for lying once again about depression on the paperwork. Some precautions were being taken; they didn’t want to operate on anyone unstable. Rearranging your internal organs is not for the faint-hearted. I knew an honest answer would ruin my chance at a normal life, and a slim body would make me “normal.” I wanted this transformation from fat to thin, abnormal to normal, more than anything else I had ever wanted. And though depression was my middle name, I quickly checked NO with little thought or reservation.
Yet the lie followed me like a shadow heaped on all other mistakes. My lie made my insides slip apart. I hate to lie, despise dishonesty, yet have lived a lifetime of it, never allowed the freedom to say what happened to me. After all the weight dropped off, I still thought of death, dying, and not being here; thought it’d be easier. Not until long after the surgery did I begin to realize just how major an operation it was, and what a total waste.
The layers of tissue I wished to be rid of protected me, a cocoon of darkness, a whirlwind of it. Without changing the internal messages of badness or dealing with the fear of others, I would continue to turn to food and fatness to feel safe. If you don’t love yourself fat, you won’t love yourself thin. The dark road I would travel, the new me, my new stomach, brought new agony that not only matched but surpassed my original pain.
The surgery date came and, after being admitted the day prior to surgery, in between meals of Jell-O, broth, and popsicles, a compassionate nurse explained what to expect. She took me to a quiet area with stuffed chairs. Leaning in towards me, checking notes on her clipboard, she said softly, “You’ll wake with a tube down your nose to your stomach. It’s there to suction out blood and fluid. It will feel uncomfortable, but you will be able to breath and talk.”
She looked up, gauging my reaction. This didn’t dissuade me. I hardly heard her.
She continued, “After a few days it will come out and you’ll be on clear liquids here and at home for several weeks as the incision heals. You’ll be in pain but ring us for your pain meds before you start to hurt. If you have the pain relief medication regularly, on time, every four hours, especially the first week, you’ll do better. Too many patients have been in severe pain and don’t need to be, because they wait till the pain kicks in, and then ask for their medication. You are the first person I decided to sit down and explain this to. And I think I will begin to explain it regularly with others.”
She went further, “You won’t see stitches. You’ll have staples and the internal stitches will dissolve on their own.”
Her eyes searched mine to be sure I understood. I returned her gaze with a polite nod, some fear creeping in, but I felt more than ready.
I went to sleep that night grateful for her advice. When I awoke groggy from anesthesia the next day after the procedure, the tube she talked about caught in my throat. Because she had forewarned me, I remembered to breathe which quelled the automatic panic…but just barely. I kept repeating silently, “I’m all right, I’m all right,” for the next few days till the tube came out. Though hazy and still under the effects of anesthesia, I rang every four hours for pain meds, something I would have been too timid to do otherwise.
Staples ran from the middle of my breasts to my belly button, a significant wound. Samuel stayed at my side that first day but beyond that, I wanted the surgery kept private, my guts being rearranged. Maybe I felt ashamed for having the surgery, needing it, or maybe it was simply nobody’s business, or both. But one thing I adamantly told Mom, I do not want anyone to know, especially my brothers, and particularly the abusers among them; but I didn’t mention that last part, we didn’t talk about what her sons had done. Don knew, and I could accept that because he was Mom’s longtime adviser on all issues. She tried to respect my wishes for privacy but after seeing me so out of it afterwards, with tubes in every opening, her anxiety leaked out. She called them.
My secret became family news, but more than that, she needed the others to know and help carry the weight and gravity of what I had done. She could not cope with it alone. But I felt betrayed once again. This was my attempt, my effort to cut them away. A huge chunk of my stomach rendered useless via a guillotine called gastric stapling. I would be fresh, new and normal, transformed from fat to thin. My abusers weren’t going to be a part of me, they were the fat layers that would dissolve, a large portion of the stomach stapled off. But it didn’t work.
For eternity I cannot make what happened not to have happened. I cannot rid the fact that I have brothers who sought to attack instead of love me. I cannot be somebody else no matter how hard I try or how hard I wish it. It will not go away; what happened did happen. I can’t change it no matter how much I change me or how many parts I cut off. The surgery is the concrete part cut up; the parts that love and trust, already slaughtered, inaccessible even to me. If I am not worthy of love from those around me, how do I love me?
The phone rang in my room. I picked it up, still groggy from surgery the day before. “Hello,” I scratched out, my voice weak and hard to hear with the tube snaking from throat to belly.
“Hi, Patty,” a male voice answered. It was Chet.
I froze. She had told him. The reason I did it was because of THEM, and one of THEM called and knew.
The call didn’t go well; how could it have? I had my guts torn out, stapled, cut off from me, and one of them who had made me that way called to see how I was doing.
“Chet? Oh, hi,” I responded, my voice flat without enthusiasm, my rearranged raw, bleeding stomach knotted up even more with fear, rage, and revulsion.
“Yeah, so you’re in the hospital?” he stated. Was it wariness in his voice? He hesitated then added, “How do you feel?”
It took concentration to breathe with the stomach tube pressing against my windpipe, and the minuscule energy remaining was exhausted by anger towards Mom for divulging my predicament. Hearing his voice brought him into my sterile room, colder now with him in it, red rage obliterating the pastel walls. Struggling to cope, words failed me, clutched me, stymied me. Weak, vulnerable, and lost in the fog of anesthesia, feeling small and completely defenseless, like road kill, I barely managed a reply.
“Okay,” I said, and then nothing, my emotions were, as usual, locked tightly inside, a tornado of them. Breathe, I thought silently. Contain the rage, or burst with it.
“You’re quiet. Would you rather I hadn’t called?” he asked, seemingly agitated, incredulous even.
He waited for an answer, not getting one. He became livid. “You bitch!” he screamed. “I’m calling to see how you are and you act like that?”
He hung up, the click resounded as if he had crashed the phone down. I held out the receiver, looked at it curiously, in wonderment, astounded at what it had just delivered. Struggling, I returned the receiver to the cradle, wincing with the pain of even slight movement, hoping the long row of silver staples held. Though the minute turn sideways pulled at the tender skin, the fury I felt when hearing his voice hurt much more, deeper, down below the wound, in my spirit where I’d continue to carry hate and rage for years to come, fat or thin.
Don arrived later in the week, happily bringing a gift. It was a digital scale. I pretended to be happy and thankful, but a scale? He left it on the chair near my bed, a symbol of my failure as a woman, a scale, my judge and jury along with Don who gave it. My problems since childhood have not been my fatness though my family made it so. And so have I.
Mom picked me up from the hospital after a five-day stay. She gaily asked if I would be up to a quick stop. “I have a present for you ready to pick up from a jeweler who hand-crafts all her work.”
Surprised, I nodded.
I waited. She returned handing over a little box. I opened it finding a soft grey velvet pouch inside, and gently pulled out a delicate pair of long strands of gold, pounded flat, with a tiny pearl on the end of each. It’s a type of earring I’d never seen and surely only for the upper crust, richer women than me. The gold strand inserts into the piercing, the pearl catching at the lobe to hold it in place. They must have cost her plenty, too much for a widow living on a secretary’s salary.
I have used them a few times, but mostly they stay in that soft velvet pouch, too precious to use, costing more than any jewelry I own, perhaps even my wedding band. Or maybe I don’t use them because it feels like a reward for great stupidity caused by even greater desperation, not something I’m proud of. Even in my thirties I became easily swayed by others, especially Mom who I allowed to successfully persuade me to have the surgery. Why don’t you just put a gold ring through my nose and lead me around that way? The voices banging in my head are not kind. Still on liquids, Mom helped me make broth out of bones thick with marrow. It tasted disgusting. Later, once I was able to experiment with real food, I had mashed potatoes, even cheese curls. The cheese curls excited me: finally something that tasted good and didn’t hurt. I ate them guiltily, all five of them.
Humanly needs for contact, warmth, love—all the basics we crave which I couldn’t fulfill with humans because I feared and mistrusted them—were filled instead with food; fill the hole with food, food, and more food. I tried shopping and drinking, but food remained my main comfort and substance of abuse.
The soul resides near the stomach, maybe the solar plexus, or it floats around all organs, invisible but alive like flesh with as many needs. Food is the closest substitute place I found to fill basic emotional needs. Because it’s the wrong place, no amount of food will fill it. So the feelings and needs remained. I still felt bad, worthless, invisible, nonexistent, less than worthless, as if I weren’t real. And I still craved love, warmth, and closeness, and still ate to fill those needs and to blot out the rest, tiny pouch of a stomach or not; that didn’t stop me.
More often than not, I ate in excess of the tablespoon or two my new stomach allowed. My new friend, the toilet bowl and I, became thoroughly acquainted, not a friend you want to know or keep. The pain became a way of life. You’d think one time lying next to the moist perspiring toilet on the cold tile floor for hours, hanging on to it, waiting to vomit, would be enough to cure me of eating for needs other than hunger, but it didn’t. I overate repeatedly. Overeating now meant one teaspoon too much. But still, I lost weight: eighty pounds. I looked different but felt the same.
With the pregnancy of my second child a few years later, the pain lessoned considerably. I don’t know why and guess it had to do with the weight of the baby pressing against the stomach doing something to the nerves. Whatever the reason, I felt lucky I could eat without pain, but then excess weight returned as the baby grew inside.