The needle the doctor held was about the length of my forearm. He was right, I shouldn’t have looked down. I stood in his office in Glendale, California, my shirt and pants pulled down to my ankles. My belly was fully exposed to all the doctors, nurses, assistants and assistants who passed by and watched to see the procedure up close. It was 2010 and the knee band was still considered an exciting “miracle cure” for the obesity that plagued Los Angeles. You couldn’t drive on a freeway without seeing the “1-800-GET-THIN” billboards.
Gastric band surgery is like putting a rubber band around your stomach. There’s no internal cutting (a big pro), and your stomach remains intact, unlike gastric bypass surgery, where the stomach is cut and the intestines rerouted. The belly band sits comfortably in the upper curve of your belly and creates a small upper pocket. Basically, it tricks your body into thinking you have a stomach the size of a pigeon. You eat a lot less and get full faster – all of these were big selling points. Of course, my body would need to be tricked. I knew that at this point in my life, he wasn’t going to let a single pound go by easily.
I was only 19 when I got the band, but had been on a diet since I was 7. I was tired of being fat, tired of spending my life training on one goal and nothing else, tired of waiting for my after life fat to begin. So, I let the doctor stick a needle in the port behind my rib cage and inject a full cc of saline. I felt the sides of the band swell and completely close my stomach. Slowly he pulled the plunger back and my stomach opened up a bit, enough for water or other liquids. I had already lost 30 pounds ― more than 80 pounds. Just 80 more until my life can finally be mine.
Little did I know then that the lap band wouldn’t be a portal to a new life. It was just a trap, sold to me for $6,000―an eating disorder that I bought and can’t escape anymore.
I got the lap group because a girl was mean to me. OK, that’s the short version. But that’s not wrong. I moved to Los Angeles at 18 and 320 pounds. I fell in love with my roommate, who didn’t mind the attention, but never took me seriously as a dating prospect. She didn’t mince words on the subject either: I was too fat. Not too big to have fun, but too big to be seen, too big to fall in love with.
The long version is much longer. My mother was obsessed with my weight and put me on a diet throughout my childhood. By the time I was 18, I had been to fat camp three times, was a hardcore member of Weight Watchers, and could recite to you the basics of all the fad diets that have been around since 1997. I have drank cabbage soup, avoided carbs, cut out lunch, ate a liquid breakfast, and had a personal trainer two, three, five days a week. No expense had been spared and I was still fat. (One night, when I was at my thinnest, my dad decided over dinner to work out how much each pound of my weight loss had cost him. It was supposed to be a joke, but I don’t think I laughed much .)
We paid out of pocket for the lap group and I qualified based on the BMI requirement – I was at the end of the table in the “why aren’t you dead yet” section . I didn’t need a letter from a therapist or more than one consultation with the surgeon I chose. A deposit, some blood, piss and a CT scan of the inside and I had an operation day booked. I only drank liquids for 10 days before surgery. I spent them chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking orange juice. I lost my first 10 lbs.
Under anesthesia, I dreamed that I was kissing Catherine Zeta-Jones. When I returned, the pain was thick and rippling, pulling my chest inward and collapsing the upper half of me. It took me weeks to walk completely straight again and days to sleep comfortably. It was worth it to me then. I felt myself shrinking and reveled in the compliments that came in droves and quickly.
I will always remember those first days after the operation. I stayed in bed eating nothing but handfuls of ice cubes, popsicles and diced chicken broth. The world seemed empty and strange without the ritual of food―coffee with breakfast, drinks with friends. But it was also open, new, possible. I no longer needed food. I had beaten him. I would kill all the memories of my fat self and start over, with a lean, shiny body that everyone would love.
The first thing I threw up was an apple. It’s not on the billboards ― the vomit. Neither the potential hair loss, nor the dental damage, nor the symptoms of general malnutrition. The belly band is a real physical barrier – it literally prevents food from entering most of your stomach. If you are not chewing slowly enough or often enough? To vomit. Things that are too fibrous? Eating too fast? Or in bed? All of this will bring the food back up. And sometimes it happened if I drank water too quickly or ate things that were too cold or too spicy. Sushi, pizza and hot dog buns were all banned. I threw up in trash cans, out of car windows, halfway through a date behind a tree, and around the corner from Notre Dame Cathedral when I couldn’t help myself. But the very first time, it was an apple.
After filling my ring with saline solution (this is called an adjustment), I was put on an all-liquid diet. Adjustments began to occur approximately two months after surgery, once the band detached from the initial implant. Saline solution was injected through a needle into a port behind my rib cage in a humiliating ritual that I then had to repeat every 30 pounds or so. The adjustments were basically resets – they closed my stomach to everything but water and broth.
Weeks of broth and prune juice (to try to get my intestines working) finally gave way to a soft food only situation. As the saline in the band evaporated, the band became looser and I could try foods that a toddler might be able to handle. The sheets I was given suggested cottage cheese, plastic tasting baby food and sugar free pudding which gave me the shit. Some nights I would go to a grocery store and order a side of hot sauce and slowly sip it with a spoon, being careful to work every morsel onto my tongue.
I quickly ignored the suggestions and devoured anything with taste, getting creative with the word “sweet”.
I decided that “soft foods” included Whole Foods homemade pico de gallo with fancy blue cheese crumbs for punch. I sliced fresh avocados and dipped them in sweet soy sauce to curb sushi cravings, ate smoked salmon with lemon juice and a thin spread of cream cheese when I wanted a bagel . I drank miso soup like it was water and obsessed over young Thai coconuts with their delicate flesh and vitamin juice.
Eating at home wasn’t the problem, it was going out. Every social event suddenly seemed to revolve around food. It was everywhere ― everything I couldn’t have. At first, I was sipping lattes while friends enjoyed cheeseburgers. I remembered that I was beyond food now. Above the cheeseburgers. Months passed and I was starving (literally) for something crunchy, with texture. I was losing weight fast, new clothes falling on me just weeks after purchase. Eventually I stopped buying new jeans and just got a belt that I drilled my own holes in when I ran out. I felt like I was constantly under siege – everywhere I watched people eat and drink and live a normal life while I carried bottles of Pedialyte and protein shakes to school so I wouldn’t pass out. Eventually I figured out that I could eat whatever I wanted and then put it all back down the toilet.
I was starving and vomiting. I got used to vomiting. I’m good at vomiting. I couldn’t do it before the band ― not by myself. Now I knew exactly what would come back and how fast. I could tilt my head back like a pigeon and miss a whole meal. I started eating things that I knew wouldn’t stay. Why not? What did it matter? I was still losing weight. No one cared how it went as long as it kept coming off.
I lost 100 pounds, then about 20 more. And then I stopped making adjustments. And then I won 50 back ― and they won’t budge.
The Lap Band isn’t as popular as it used to be. More billboards. THE gastric sleeve is now the most performed weight loss surgery in the United States (a procedure that simply cuts out a large portion of the stomach and leaves a smaller stomach intact). Although other people may have had success and been completely satisfied with their banding experience, it reportedly results in less weight loss than other bariatric procedures and, in 2019, this accounted for only 0.9% of all procedures. bariatric surgery performed in the United States. With injectables like Mounjaro and Ozempic flooding the market, bariatric surgery may soon be a thing of the past.
I get the call for a quick fix. At the heaviest, I would have given an entire limb to be thin, and I mean that literally. But miracles are not real because humans need food. We have to eat. It’s non-negotiable. When I was heaviest, I was more alone than I had ever been or ever would be. I felt like life was happening around me ― for other people. I was stuck on an island, trying not to take up so much space. I want to tell you that I won’t have the band anymore, but I can’t promise that. I was so desperate.
The world wants fat people to be desperate, to apologize, to be invisible. The body positivity movement may have changed things a bit, but we are still relentlessly searching for the “cure” for obesity. It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t need to be cured. That my body and belly were doing what they had evolved to do over centuries: maintaining my weight and keeping me alive. No plastic band was going to change that – not really.
I don’t judge anyone who takes these new “miracle” drugs. I also wanted this miracle. I just know now that miracles aren’t real. Your body is, however. And it’s worthy of love, no matter what.
William Horn is a writer living in Boston. You can find him on Twitter @WillsHorn and read everything he’s ever put on the internet here. He is currently working on a memoir and a book about being a fat professional.
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