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The Bariatric Diaries

Courtney Burnett decided to have bariatric surgery because she didn't want to lose mobility like her mother and sister. The cascade of changes that it caused in her life affected far more than just her weight.

100 pound weight loss

When Courtney Burnett made the difficult decision to undergo bariatric surgery, she was carrying 280 pounds on her 5’4” frame. It was two weeks after her sister died suddenly in a car accident. More extreme changes were about to overtake her life as part of her difficult decision to have a Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, the most common type of weight loss operation in the US. 

As someone fiercely body positive, “to the point of fat liberation,” the decision to have bariatric surgery didn’t come lightly.

A fervent believer that every body type deserved respect and not shame, and that bodies weren’t anyone else’s business, Courtney didn’t feel unattractive, and the decision wasn't about how she looked or wanted to look. 

“I could no longer ride my bike without it being pretty excruciatingly painful. I really struggled,” she explained. At the time, she was in grad school for a degree in social work and needed to walk all over campus. Weight issues also ran in her family, with her mother and sister both suffering mobility issues because of their weight. Courtney decided to take action before she needed to look into wheelchairs and mobility aids. Like many people who have difficultly losing weight, she’d exhausted all other options.

“I had dieted my whole life, which is generally the story for a lot of people who are struggling with obesity. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. The weight always came back.”

Courtney's sister made the decision to have bariatric surgery before her. And while it was successful in terms of weight loss, the damage was already done to her mobility. After doing her own research, Courtney found that bariatric surgery was the only consistently reliable way to keep off the large amount of weight she wanted to lose to be able to move freely. Despite the success rates, her decision wasn’t without risk.

“There are a lot of decisions you have to make before having bariatric surgery in terms of ‘I will be this way the rest of my life,’” she explains. Like having to commit to taking supplements for the rest of your life because your body can’t absorb nutrients the same way anymore.

“You have to kind of get your head right, in terms of the way you look at yourself. Rapid weight loss is not the same as losing weight over a long period of time. There's loose skin that you have to contend with. It's not the easiest decision to make. You have to look at it as a whole, which I did, and then ultimately decided to get through with it.”

Courtney had a Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, which is a surgery that divides the stomach into two pouches and rearranges the small intestine to connect the two, effectively shrinking the stomach so it can’t hold as much food. Before surgery, Burnett had an extremely limited diet for a week and fasted the day before. Post-surgery she could only consume liquids for two weeks, beginning with clear before progressing to protein shakes.

The first solid food she remembers eating was a farm-fresh scrambled egg, which she describes as “most delicious.” That’s when she could move on to soft proteins. She wasn’t allowed any carbohydrates for around three months. It was protein shakes and sugar-free or plain yogurt. She got really into Siggi’s yogurt. She could only eat half a cup of food at a sitting, which is the point.

"The weight feels like it sort of melts off of you.”

In the first year and a half after surgery, Courtney lost around 145 pounds. At one point she was down to 135. In addition to not being able to eat much, she was also bicycling a lot. When her weight dropped to 130, it felt like too much. With the pandemic, she’s up to 165 pounds, which she’s comfortable with.

“I think a lot of people who've had bariatric surgery have focused so much on losing weight, losing weight. It can be a real mindf**k honestly to then regain some. I've had to wrap my head around that."

“I mean, we're in the middle of a pandemic. It's not a huge deal to gain 20 pounds over the span of six months. The level of activity has naturally dropped.”

Overall, Courtney says bariatric surgery changed her life “big time.” She began taking long bike rides, sometimes as long as 50 miles. She can hang out with her four kids and stay active. “If that was the only thing that had changed, it would have made it worth it. But you know, there's also little things that you don't think about, like it's easier to buy clothes.”

People treat her better, which made her a bit angry when she first noticed it, even though it was something positive happening to her. “I think that says a lot about society,” she says. “People do have a more positive view of you if you are thin.”

From job interviews and presentations to her personal relationships, Courtney's confidence took a big leap forward. Part of it was because of the positive feedback she was getting, but another part was because of the huge, life-altering change she had been able to accomplish. And, while the flattering commentary about her weight loss from people in all areas of her life was gratifying, it also stung.

“I'm glad people are noticing the effort I'm putting in because it does require effort. But on the other hand, could they maybe not pay so much attention to my body? It can be jarring to constantly be zoomed in on what your body looks like and what your body is going through. It's disorienting.”

As a mother, Courtney felt that she could be more active in her four kids’ lives post-op. Though she wanted to make sure that her three teens and one elementary school kiddo didn’t take away the wrong ideas about body image when she went through with the surgery.

“I don't feel like there's anything wrong with the way I look. But the reality of it is that the weight that I'm carrying makes my knees hurt,” Courtney explained to her children. “So, I've got to do something about it." She also made sure to let them know that the way she had to eat post-op was not the healthy way for them to eat, and that it was only acceptable because she had surgery.

Extreme weight loss often leads to relationships ending, as it did for Courtney, who went through a divorce from the father of her four children. “I'm not sure how much the surgery had to do with it," she says. "But I think it would be it'd be hard to say that it didn't contribute at all."

“I was probably more assertive about my own needs, and more assertive about my ambitions. I probably used some of the confidence I'd gained to finally say, 'This isn't working.'”

Her choice also led to changes in friendships. She had more friends who weighed more prior to surgery. “I realized there really is such a thing as thin privilege,” she said of something she knew was always there but that she truly experienced in going from a bigger person to suddenly becoming a thinner one. She had to rethink her own identity because she’d always defined herself as a fat person. 

“I still talk about my own struggles with food, because I do still struggle with food. I mean, that doesn't just go away. That’s in your brain,” Courtney says. The surgery works on your body, but then you still have to do the mental work yourself to have a better relationship with it and to stay healthy into the future. Which is exactly what she's doing.

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