I was 16 when I first learned about the surgery. My mother told me she had heard of something that could help me. Something that could fix me.
The lap band surgery would place an adjustable ring around the top portion of my stomach, thus restricting the amount of food I could eat. The procedure was non-FDA-approved for adolescents but was being offered as a study for ages 13 to 17. The idea was the lap band would help me feel fuller faster and that I wouldn’t be categorized as a health risk any longer. That I would lose weight. That I would be normal.
“I want it,” I told my mom, never so certain in my life. It felt right, like this was the answer I had been searching for. I was tired of dieting, wishing to lose weight every birthday and New Year’s, throwing out clothes that no longer fit every year. I wanted more than anything to not be the fat kid, not be bullied or ostracized, and to be able to live the life I had always dreamed about. And after I had the surgery, I didn’t tell anyone about it for over a decade.
Before the surgery, I thought about the weight I hadn’t lost, the weight I could never lose no matter how hard I tried — all the diets I had failed, all the promises to myself I had broken. I felt like a failure, but now, I would be redeemed. This surgery would be my miracle.
As a pre-operation requirement, I had to maintain a liquid diet for two weeks to shrink my liver to provide easier and safer access when performing the laparoscopic surgery. I found it nearly impossible to restrict food for that long, but I was desperate, and when you’re desperate, you find the strength to do things you never thought that you could.
During those weeks, I brought a Slim Fast drink to school for lunch, careful to remove the label so that none of my classmates saw. I thought if I never addressed my problem body, it would be like it didn’t exist. If anyone asked me why I was drinking out of a no-brand can and not eating lunch, I told them it was a protein shake.
I missed a week of my senior year in high school for the surgery, and I made up some excuse as to why I was absent and why I couldn’t participate in gym class for a month. It was easier this way. My surgery was a secret from everyone I knew.
At 17, I had been through almost every diet and exercise regime, only to see the number on the scale increase. People everywhere claimed that it only took the right diet, the right moment to change their lives. It was clear that if you were fat, you were broken. If you were fat, you needed to do something to change it.
After the surgery, I started to lose weight without even trying. Halfway through a meal, I would become too full and have to stop eating or I’d get sick. But I would get sick, and often. When I went to restaurants with friends, I’d make up an excuse to go to the bathroom to vomit. I would pick at my food and shrug off comments about how little I was eating. I couldn’t eat certain foods, such as bread, and when offered any, I’d respond, “I just don’t like it.”
But although my body had changed, my relationship with food hadn’t. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had an underlying eating disorder that had persisted my whole life. I’d grown up not eating most of the day and eating large quantities at night, something not unusual for many Americans. However, this led to vomiting, a side effect of the lap band surgery, which contributed to my weight loss. In the years after the surgery, I continued to eat how I’d always eaten and live how I’d always lived: in a dysfunctional medical system in a dysfunctional society.
“It was clear that if you were fat, you were broken. If you were fat, you needed to do something to change it.”
Although I had finally achieved my dream of losing weight, I was still uncomfortable in my body. I knew I was thinner, but I wasn’t that thin. I didn’t look like the women I saw on TV and in movies. My body was changing faster than my self-perception, and the truth I now know is that no amount of weight loss would have ever made me happy with my body.
But people did treat me differently, and that mattered more than what I thought about myself. They took time to listen to me and not just stare at my size. I found that I made friends easier and was getting attention from men — something that had never happened before. I finally felt accepted.
Still, I was terrified that someone would discover my secret — not just the surgery, but the history of my body, the fact that I grew up bigger. I painted scenarios in my mind of rejection and ridicule from my friends, from strangers, as if “fat” was a terminal diagnosis.
Up until recently, my surgery had remained a secret. I was ashamed of my body, the one that made me an outcast, a target for abuse, and I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I didn’t want to draw any more attention to my body, to how I was different. I wanted to disappear into normalcy. Aside from my parents, no one knew.
The few times I was required to tell, usually to medical providers, I was almost always met with widened eyes and raised voices. “At 17?” I heard incredulous shock and judgment.
I shrunk back into my body. They couldn’t believe my parents would do that to me. They couldn’t believe I was that bad as to require weight loss surgery. They looked at me differently, as if their perception of me had changed.
But they don’t know the whole story.
In my early 20s, I started experiencing side effects from the lap band surgery. After undergoing an upper endoscopy, I found out that I had gastritis, esophagitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease. I started wondering why and how this had happened. If the surgery was supposed to fix everything, then why was I having these medical problems?
I discovered the terms “binge eating disorder” and “compulsive overeating,” diagnoses not incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 2013, six years after my surgery. I learned that these pathologies were symptoms of much larger problems: trauma, family dynamics, generational abuse, societal neglect, mental illness. Everything I had been taught to believe had been wrong, and I now needed to unearth the truth.
My relationship with food was attributed to a lack of self-control, gluttony and moral weakness, but I would learn that the issues with my mental health were never addressed or even acknowledged. It was as if I went to the emergency room with a broken leg and the doctors put a cast on my arm. The wrong part of me was being treated — and by treated, I mean blamed.
Not long after I learned all of this, I became hyperaware, obsessive, fearful of food and of my body. I began exhibiting what are seen as more “traditional” disordered eating behaviors, such as restricting and purging. And only then did people start to realize I had a problem.
“This has nothing to do with my size. You cannot look at my body and know my story.”
Here is the real story: I started gaining weight at an early age. Every professional looked at my body as something that needed to be fixed, and yet now, 15 years after my surgery, I understand the mistakes that were made.
The problem was never my body. My body was manifesting the problems with everything else in my life ― societal obsession with thinness, dysfunctional family environment, genetics, mental illness and more, as I would come to learn. It was complex, and our bodies hold all of these complexities.
In my mid-20s, I discovered how I ended up in this body and what had happened to me. I was able to finally take ownership of my body and of my story. I still have the lap band, but it is loosened and doesn’t affect me as it used to, and I can eat now without the same fears.
The side effects from the lap band — the inability to eat and vomiting — had exacerbated my eating disorder. But I’m in recovery now, which means that my mental health and my relationship with food and my body are more stable than they ever have been. This has nothing to do with my size. You cannot look at my body and know my story.
When I was 17, I didn’t know any of this because I grew up in a world where only things on the surface mattered. I didn’t know what else to do to save myself from myself, so my family and I made a decision. We made a decision with the support of medical providers and current research to give me an opportunity to live a different story. We made a decision that, at 17, affected my life in ways I hadn’t predicted, but I knew at that point I was in a losing battle. The battle would eventually end once I discovered that the battle wasn’t one with the body, but with the mind. But the shame would linger.
I have only just begun telling family, friends and co-workers about my surgery. And even after all these years, my breath still catches in my throat when I reveal my deepest secret, waiting for their reaction. Some people are surprised. Some are angry that I kept it a secret or that I would do that to my body, especially at such a young age. But most are receptive: The ones who truly matter to me don’t see me any differently than before. But having a “morbidly obese” childhood made me a victim in more ways than one, and so I had kept my surgery secret, as victims do.
I wish I could say that 15 years after my surgery, this fear inside of me has disappeared, but I still have the urge to hide, to protect myself from the judgment and scrutiny of others and from myself. To keep my surgery secret. But shame lives in secrets, and I’m writing now to rid myself of shame, to seek understanding and compassion not only from others but from myself.
Amy Scheiner has had writing featured in Slate, Blue Mesa Review, the Southampton Review and Longreads. She is currently seeking an agent for her memoir on eating disorders, generational trauma and body acceptance.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.