Tuesday, June 18, 2013

From this day forward

June is for weddings, isn’t it? Sunshine, blue skies, white gowns, white flowers. I was married the first time 38 years ago. After a four year courtship, Joe and I exchanged our wedding vows in front of a Catholic priest, a Presbyterian minister, and 40 guests consisting of family and friends. We walked out of the church and into our married life with “until death do us part” in our young minds. Six years later, we divorced. Eventually each of us married again, this time to the right partner, and we’re all still happily married today. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. 

It’s practice that will make your “marriage” to your adjustable gastric band perfect, or as perfect as any human endeavor can be. When you wake up in the recovery room after your surgery, you won’t be magically endowed with all the knowledge, experience, and habits you’ll need to succeed with your band. Even if you did tons of research, faithfully attended every pre-op educational class, and listened closely to and made detailed notes of everything your bariatric team told you, some things – important things – you’ll have to learn through the everyday experience of living and eating with your band.  

When you leave the hospital or surgery center after your surgery, you probably won’t be headed for your honeymoon quite yet. That will come later, when you’ve had enough fills to achieve optimal restriction and you begin to feel that your band is really working. The excess weight will start coming off and you’ll walk around in a dreamy pink haze, delighted with your new life partner. You might even give your band a silly private pet name, the way my husband calls me “Love Bug” (which always makes me think of my first car, a chubby yellow Volkswagen Beetle). 

Then one day, the reality of banded life will wake you up. You’ll think, “Who is this creature I’ve married?” And like Jenny, a former coworker of mine, you’ll realize that while the engagement, wedding and honeymoon were exciting and fun, the day-after-day business of marriage isn’t exciting or fun 24 hours a day. It’s hard work. It’s boring. It’s frustrating. It’s humdrum. Jenny left her new husband after only three months of marriage not because she didn’t love him, but because she didn’t love being married to him. Being a wife isn’t nearly as fun as being a bride. 

I suspect that Jenny just wasn’t old enough or mature enough to be a wife. Neither was I when I married the first time. One of the reasons most bariatric surgeons and insurance companies require a patient to have a pre-op psychological consult is to evaluate the patient’s understanding of what they’ll have to do to succeed after surgery. Are they ready for a lifetime commitment? Do they have reasonable expectations? Can they follow instructions? Are they capable of learning the new behaviors they’ll need for a productive, peaceful partnership with their band?

New bandsters need dozens of new habits – something like 60-70% of my book Bandwagon is devoted to explaining those habits, so I’m not going to try to cram them all into a blog entry (anyway, I’d rather you buy and read the book!). I’ll pick one at random. Hmmm…how about EAT SLOWLY? How are you going to turn that behavior into a habit that will serve you well for the rest of your life? 

So Dr. McMillan tells you, “Eat slowly,” and you nod your assent while thinking, “Get real! I’m too busy to do anything slowly. I have 3 kids and 2 dogs, I work 2 jobs, I take care of my elderly Aunt Bertha, I coach my daughter’s softball team, I have a house to run and a spouse who’s always on the road…” Well, you get the idea. Dr. McMillan has just told you to do something that’s very simple and yet impossibly difficult, you think Dr. McMillan needs to wake up and smell the coffee, and a door in your mind slams shut. 

Actually, Dr. McMillan is already awake, has had a cup of coffee, has tended to all 11 of her dogs and all 3 of her cats, is about to leave for the fitness studio, and when she returns she will deal with a home renovation project while running her home-based publishing business off the kitchen table; tomorrow the fun will start all over again, including a 5-1/2 hour shift at her retail job and a trip to the supermarket. She’ll do the laundry, pick another batch off ticks off the new dog, cook several meals, and get someone to come look at the leaking French doors. Dr. McMillan’s friend Nina calls her the “Tennessee Tsunami”, and despite all that, Dr. M. still manages to eat slowly every time she sits down to a meal. As a pre-op, it took her maybe 5 minutes to hoover her way through a meal that would feed a farmhand, and now it can take her up to 5 minutes to chew her way through the first bite. 

The EAT SLOWLY habit (or any other habit) doesn’t become a habit overnight. It takes many, many repetitions to turn a new behavior into a habit (a British study found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days of daily repetition to make a new behavior “automatic”).  I know it’s a big challenge, especially when you’re also trying to learn a few dozen other new behaviors and turn all of them into habits while somehow conquering the dozens of bad habits you already had, but I assure you, it’s worth the effort!


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Heavy Baggage

A few years ago, I started my JCPenney workday with an unpleasant customer encounter, so unpleasant that it took me an hour or so to turn myself around. I hate letting something like that set the tone for my whole day, but if I discard the memory too quickly because of sheer discomfort, I miss an opportunity to learn something. Of course, it’s not always obvious what the lesson is, so forgive me if this article seems befuddled. Befuddlement is a common brain condition in older people whose minds are cluttered with far more experience and data than they know how to use.

So anyway, back to Wednesday morning at JCPenney. I was happily tidying the lingerie department, setting its disorder to right the way only I can (and only I enjoy), when a middle-aged female customer stomped up to me and declared, “JCPenney used to be so good. It used to be I could come here and find a dozen bras in my size. What happened? Why can’t I ever find my size now?”

I glanced up at the woman and made a quick assessment of her, not to judge her but because things like body language and dress give me clues about customers and the best way to handle them. This one was obese, well-dressed in a stylish but individual way. She had a southern accent but not much west Tennessee twang to it, which told me that she had probably traveled more widely than is common in this area (the Kentucky border is about 15 miles from here, but I know local residents who’ve never been to Kentucky). Finally, I noticed that the woman had a grim, even fierce facial expression.

On the basis of all that, I quickly decided that a humorous approach (my favorite) was not going to work with this customer; nor was my fallback “You just let me take care of you, honey,” approach appropriate. I asked her in a neutral tone of voice, “What size are you looking for?”

The bra size she named is an odd one, but hardly surprising considering this woman’s size. I was an odd size too when I was obese, so I felt that I was speaking compassionately when I asked her what features she prefers – underwire, wire free, wide straps, thin straps, etc.

She pointed at what I call a fashion bra (as opposed to an everyday, purely functional one) that I knew isn’t made in her size. “Never mind all that. I want something like this one. Do you have it? Do you have my size?”

I was about four words into my, “No, but let me suggest…” explanation when she burst out angrily, “Just show me! Show me! Where are the size 44’s?”

For a moment I was taken aback by her rudeness. Then I felt my mother’s school-marm manner come over me. I lifted my right index finger to signify, ‘Just one minute’ and said sternly, “If you’ll let me finish my sentence, I’ll tell you.”

The instant that sentence left my mouth, I wanted to grab it back. But as my husband likes to say, you can’t unring a bell. My mind searched frantically for something that would rescue the situation. While I floundered, the customer said, still angrily, “You don’t have it, do you? I knew it! Well, that’s fine. That’s just fine. Thank you very much!” and stomped away toward the exit door.

I thought, “Well, that went well,” and went back to sizing push-up bras.

The worst part of that massive failure to communicate was that I truly felt compassion for that woman and did understand her frustration in searching for clothing to fit and flatter an obese body. I wished I could run after her and say, “I wasn’t always skinny!” but that was my baggage to carry, not hers. I could read all I want into her expression, convinced that I recognized her weight struggles and her desire to blame her obesity on everyone, including JCPenney, but herself – but we were strangers and had no real knowledge of each others’ truths. I’m not even sure of my own truths all the time, never mind truths belonging to a stranger.

My encounter with the angry fat lady that day reminded me that my weight loss surgery helped me lose more than 100 pounds of body weight. It also took some heavy emotional baggage off my hands. I’m not convinced that the baggage leftover from my travels in the land of obesity is entirely and permanently gone. I think it’s stashed away in the attic gathering dust and cobwebs. The keys to all those bags are in a small box in my dresser drawer. They’re unlabeled and jumbled in with house keys, car keys, and a few luggage tags containing defunct addresses. I don’t dare throw that mess of keys out for fear I’ll need them again some day…kind of like my fear that I’ll need my size 24 jeans again some day.

But I’m traveling light these days. A handful of keys that weighs maybe three ounces is a much lighter burden than the beliefs and feelings I used to carry along with those 100 extra pounds.