March 2016 Articles

BRYN MAWR WOMAN

Becoming an Athlete: One Alumna’s Journey of Self Re-Discovery after Bariatric Surgery

By Lori Summers ’95

32_AlumBriefs_BrynMawrWoman (Summers)It happened at the top of a rugged stone staircase amidst the boulders and waterfalls of Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park. I was the first one up, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. The staircase had not been short, nor had it been our first. I looked behind me and saw the rest of my group struggling up, huffing and puffing. I was barely out of breath.

If this sounds like a boast, it is not meant as one. In fact, it was a mind-blowing revelation. Less than a year previously, I’d undergone gastric bypass surgery. My weight, always a struggle for me since childhood, had reached an all-time high of 340 pounds. My blood pressure was starting to suffer, and my mobility was becoming impaired. Even a short walk was painful. I feared restaurant booths, seat belts, and airline seats. Through some combination of supportive parenting and innate stubbornness, I had managed to avoid the spiral of self-loathing and self-sabotage that so frequently comes with obesity, but I had come to realize that I couldn’t continue like this. I had tried many times to lose weight—sometimes I even succeeded. But in the end, the weight always came back, plus extra. It’s a cycle of loss and gain that millions of obese people like me can relate to.

I had long resisted the idea of surgical intervention. A seductive, insistent chorus of “I should be able to do this on my own” played on a constant loop in my head. It was difficult to accept that I had a problem that required professional assistance. It felt like admitting defeat. I began to reconsider at the gentle suggestion of a wise friend who had undergone bariatric surgery herself. Her encouragement helped me reshape my attitudes, and I began researching the procedure.

Within six months I was enrolled in a pre-surgical education course. I underwent surgery in July 2009. It went smoothly, and I experienced no complications. After about two months, I started walking on a treadmill, increasing my time as my fitness improved. Then I started walking in local parks with hills. It was difficult, but with each walk it became less difficult. This time, that “I can do this myself” mindset spurred me forward instead of keeping me from seeking help.

Five months after surgery, I got a notification from my gym about an upcoming holiday-themed 5K. Without thinking, I started to delete it, but something made me reconsider. By then, I was regularly walking two to three miles on the treadmill. Surely I could walk a 5K. I’d long sorted athletic activities into a mental category of “not for me,” but now I could reconsider that classification. I could do this. I could be someone who wears a number, who participates in a race, who has active hobbies. I could be…an athlete.

It was a moment that reshaped my entire concept of myself. I walked that 5K, and when I crossed the finish line among cheering spectators, I felt 10 feet tall. I could do this.

That spring, I discovered an interest in hiking. Although I appreciate nature, for me, the biggest part of its appeal is the euphoria of simply being able to do it. Every time I climb a hill with ease or walk further than I have before, I marvel that my body is now capable of such feats, that I have actually become someone who can do these things. In six years, that feeling has not worn off.

Weight loss is so often framed as something we must do before we have permission to love and accept ourselves, but it was only because I valued myself that I was able to fight for better. I’d always feared being the one who couldn’t keep up, but when I stood on that stone staircase, the first one to reach the top, it hit home what I had done for myself. I am still overweight, but I now regularly hike eight- to 10-mile distances. I now run that hiking club. I no longer disqualify myself from anything. The real change was not in my body but in my head.

Lori Summers ’95 is a scientific analyst and novelist. She volunteers at her local zoo, tries to hike at least once a week, and obsesses over the traveling she doesn’t have vacation days to do. Anyone with questions about bariatric surgery can reach her at madlori@gmail.com.

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