The old Chinese doctor looked me up and down. He sighed as he pointed to his watch, then made an air circle with his hands before pointing to me.
He turned to my friend Lou, who acted as our translator, but there was no translation needed: I was too old. I was too fat. Having children was unlikely. It was my last hope in a 12-year epic journey to get pregnant. I'd been through three failed IVFs, an emergency IUI, six Clomid cycles, acupuncture, and more than 100 months of cycle tracking, and still — nothing.
Nothing but many, many extra pounds of weight on my 5'4" frame. I was well into the size 20s and above and had long overlooked my obesity as a side issue of stress from trying to start a family. In my mind, as long as I could buy clothing off the rack and fit into an airplane seat, all was golden.
Finally, I decided enough was enough and made an appointment with my family doctor — whom I trusted and looked on as a beloved uncle — to get an annual physical and see what all my baselines were. It couldn't be more humiliating than sitting in a back office in Chinatown being told in Chinese sign language that your youth and vitality were over, right?
I stepped on the old-school scale, the kind with the weight block and slider. I knew I weighed more than 250 pounds but hey, again, I still fit into an airplane seat and could buy clothes off the rack. No problem.
He moved the block to 250 and flipped the top slider. Nothing. He moved the block to 300 and flipped the top slider. Nothing.
He excused himself and went into another office, "Don't move, sweetheart, I'll be right back." He returned quickly, holding a black block in his hand and hooked it onto the scale slider bar.
"Shel, sometimes the scale is not sufficient to weigh certain patients, so we have to help it out."
He moved the block to 350 and flipped the top slider again.
It stopped at 10.
Three-sixty. I weighed 360 pounds. A baby elephant weighs between 200-330 pounds.
God almighty, I thought. What have I done to myself?
My ears started ringing as I made my way off the scale and onto the exam table. At some point I heard my doctor say "gastric bypass surgery" and "ideal candidate" as he palpitated my stomach and checked my heartbeat.
So, other than controlled Type II Diabetes that was surely (he said) brought on by the morbid obesity, I was healthy. No cardiac problems, no high blood pressure, and later blood test baselines showed an otherwise normal person.
Except, I was two adult males worth of normal people.
At my skinniest, when I was 18, I'd weighed 135 pounds and had a brick-house figure: 36-24-36. I wore a size 4. I had thigh gap and visible ribs. I'd reached that weight over the summer between high school and college. When I attended my high school graduation, I weighed 175 pounds. It was the most I'd weighed, ever. I crash dieted over the summer and hit the college campus three months later and 40 pounds lighter.
Every year in high school was the same: I'd gain 10 to 15 pounds during the school year because I always took six classes a semester and was chronically stressed out. Obviously, food was my drug of choice. I'd lose the weight over the summer, because I was relaxed. But when college came, I started gaining 15 to 20 pounds a year and only losing maybe five pounds each summer.
By the time I earned my degree and started a full-time job in finance, my weight crept up to 190. There were no more summers to relieve me, and my stress eating continued. By 33, I weighed 322 pounds.
I considered surgery. Truly I did. I have friends who have had gastric bypass, lap-band, and gastric sleeve surgery over the years. Some have been successful; the others have, as they say, "eaten through their staples" and have regained all their lost weight. And it concerned me that all the media surrounding surgery was overwhelmingly positive. It all sounded too simple: Get your stomach stapled, live on a liquid diet for a week, eat tiny meals thereafter, and lose 100 pounds in a couple of months. There had to be a catch.
I started my own research. And what I discovered was scary. Deaths were rare, but they did happen, and when they did, it was generally within a month of surgery. Complications included ulcers, hernias, the inability to absorb food and nutrients (resulting in malnutrition or death), small bowel obstructions, adhesions, and more.
And as I researched more, my reaction was, "No thank you, I'll do this myself." So I did.
Over the years, I'd tried low-cal diets, high protein shakes, Atkins, Scarsdale, Medifast, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, cabbage soup diets, eight-bananas-a-day diets, the Master Cleanse, and endless other regimens.
And I was still fat.
This time needed to be different. And I knew I had to stick to it. I didn't want to die young because of my weight.
I started by giving up sweets. This included sodas, which I replaced with sparkling water and plain iced tea. Within a few days, I noticed my belly wasn't as big and I didn't have the sugar crashes I'd experienced when I was drinking four or five Cokes a day and eating bread, potatoes, and white rice (all of which turn to sugar in your body).
That first week wasn't easy. I suffered from headaches and felt like I was coming down with the flu. But I kept up with my new way of eating because I'd failed too many times before.
By the end of the first month, I'd lost 14 pounds. This was monumental. I was a sugar addict, and coming off sugar was really the hardest part of this ordeal. There was one day when I raced home and baked some chocolate chip cookies with the intention of eating the whole tray. I went through the process of lovingly mixing them, baking them, and pouring a large glass of milk to accompany them.
But as soon as I put the first cookie — still hot from the oven — in my mouth, I started to cry. I leaned over the kitchen sink and spit it out. My stress was still there, but the fact that I had resisted drowning my troubles in food was a big step.
Next, I gave up fried foods and focused on eating chicken, fish, lean meat, and veggies. On the occasional holiday or birthday, I'd indulge in a sweet treat, but amazingly, sugar no longer had the appeal it once did.
After eight months, I'd lost nearly 60 pounds. My clothes were baggy on my still-fat frame, but at least people were starting to notice.
“Did you do something different to your hair?”
“You're looking younger! What's your secret?”
Yes, I was shedding pounds, but I also realized that I was still at least twice my normal weight. I had to start exercising. The thought of entering a gym was crippling to me. Being scrutinized and silently mocked was not something I wanted to endure.
So I chose to swim. Many people — including those of average weight — would shriek in horror at the thought of being seen publicly in a bathing suit, but I figured that was easier than being on display for an hour or two on a bike, lifting weights, or running in a gym. My display would last only as long as it took to walk from the door to the pool steps — maybe 20 seconds at most.
And swim I did. A mile a day, five times a week. Over the next nine months, I lost another 50 pounds, which brought my 18-month weight loss to 110 pounds.
Today, I weigh 250 pounds and still have another 90 to go. My measurements are now 46-34-46.
Do I have the perfect answer for weight loss? No. I just know what works for me, and that changes frequently. Weight loss is not linear. I've stalled for months at a time, and even gained some of the weight back only to lose it again. But the overall trend spikes downward, and I'm really proud of that.
It might sound weird, but I'm looking forward to having to wear Spanx to hold in my loose skin. It's worth it, and it'll be a reminder of how far I've come, akin to a badge of honor. One I earned all by myself. No surgery needed.