The needle the doctor was holding was about as long as my forearm. He was right, I shouldn’t have looked down. I stood in his office in Glendale, California, shirtless and with my pants pulled down to my ankles. My abdomen was on full display for any doctor, nurse, assistant, or orderly who would come and peek in to see the procedure up close. It was 2010 and the lap band was still seen as an exciting “miracle cure” for Los Angeles’ obesity rampant. You couldn’t drive down a freeway without seeing the “1-800-GET-THIN” billboards.
Gastric band surgery is like putting a rubber band around your stomach. There is no internal cutting (a major benefit), and your stomach remains intact, unlike a gastric bypass, where the stomach is cut and the intestines rerouted. The pelvic band sits snugly against the upper abdomen and forms 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 which were big selling points. Of course, my body would have to be tricked. I knew it wasn’t going to drop a pound at this point in my life.
I was only 19 when I got the tape, but I was put on a diet when I was 7. I was tired of being fat, I was tired of spending my life being trained for a single goal and nothing else, I was tired of waiting for my life to get fat to start. So I had the doctor stick a needle into the port behind my chest and inject a full cc of saline. I felt the sides of the band swell and completely close my stomach. He slowly pulled the plunger back and my stomach opened just a little, enough for water or other liquid. I had already lost 30 pounds – only 80 to go. Only 80 more until my life could finally be mine.
Little did I know then that the lap band would not be a portal to a new life. It was just a trap that was sold to me for $6,000 – an eating disorder that I bought and now can’t escape.
I got the lap band because a girl was mean to me. Okay, that’s the short version. But it’s not untrue. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 and 320 pounds. I fell in love with my roommate, who didn’t mind the attention but never took me seriously as a partner. She didn’t mince words either: I was too fat. Not too fat to fool around, but too fat to be seen, too fat to fall in love with.
The long version is much longer. My mom was obsessed with my weight and put me on diets throughout my childhood. By the time I was 18, I’d been to Fat Camp three times, was a hardcore Weight Watchers member, and could tell you the basics of every diet fad since 1997. I drank cabbage soup, avoided carbs, skipped lunch, ate liquid breakfasts, and had a personal trainer two, three, five days a week. No expense was spared and I was still fat. (One night, when I was my skinniest, over dinner my dad decided to calculate how much each pound of my weight loss had cost him. It was meant to be a joke, but I don’t think I laughed much.)
We paid for the lap band out of pocket and I qualified based on BMI requirements – I was at the other 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 my chosen surgeon. A deposit, some blood, piss and a CT scan of my bowels and I was booked in for a day of surgery. I only drank liquids 10 days before the surgery. I spent them smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking orange juice. I lost my first 10 pounds.
Under anesthesia, I dreamed that I was kissing Catherine Zeta-Jones. When I came to, the pain was thick and surging, sucking in my chest and breaking the top half off of me. It took weeks before I could walk fully upright again and days before I could sleep comfortably. It was worth it to me back then. I felt myself shrinking and reveled in the compliments that came thick and fast.
I will always remember the first days after the operation. I lay in bed and just ate handfuls of ice cream chips, popsicles, and chicken broth thimbles. The world felt empty and alien without the food ritual—coffee at breakfast, drinks with friends. But it also felt open, new, possible. I no longer needed food. I had beaten it. I would kill every memory 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 puke. Neither does the possible hair loss or tooth damage or symptoms of general malnutrition. The pelvic ligament is an actual physical barrier – it literally prevents food from entering the larger part of your stomach. If you don’t chew slowly enough or often enough? To throw up. Things that are too fibrous? Eating too fast? Or in bed? All of this will keep the food coming back up. And sometimes it happened when I drank water too fast or ate things that were too cold or too spicy. Sushi, pizza and hot dog buns were a no go. I’ve thrown up in trash cans, out of car windows, in mid-step on a date behind a tree, and on the corner of Notre Dame Cathedral when I couldn’t help myself. But the very first time was an apple.
After filling my band with saline (this is called adjustment) I was put on an all liquid diet. Adjustments began about two months after surgery after the band loosened from the original implant. Saline was injected through a needle into a port behind my chest, in a humiliating ritual that I then had to repeat every 30 pounds or so. Adaptations were essentially resets – they closed my stomach to everything but water and broth.
Weeks of broth and prune juice (to try to keep my bowels going) eventually gave way to an all-soft food situation. As the saline in the band evaporated, the band loosened and I was able to try foods that a toddler might be able to digest. The sheets I got suggested cottage cheese, a plastic-tasting baby food, and sugar-free pudding, which gave me the shit. Some nights I’d walk into a deli and order a side of hot sauce and slowly sip it with a spoon, making sure to work each bite out on my tongue.
I soon ignored the suggestions and devoured everything with flavor, getting creative with the word “soft.”
I decided that “soft foods” included Whole Foods homemade pico de gallo with sprinkles of fancy blue cheese for punch. I sliced fresh avocados and doused them in sweet soy sauce to satisfy sushi cravings, had smoked salmon with lemon juice, and a thin layer of cream cheese when I wanted a bagel. I drank miso soup like water and became obsessed with young Thai coconuts with their tender flesh and vitamin-packed juice.
However, eating at home wasn’t the problem – it was running out. Every social event suddenly seemed to revolve around food. It was everywhere – everything I couldn’t have. First, I sipped on lattes while friends enjoyed cheeseburgers. I reminded myself that I was now past eating. Above cheeseburger. Months went by and I was (literally) starved for something with bite, with texture. I lost weight quickly, new clothes falling from me just a few weeks after buying them. Eventually I stopped buying new jeans and just got a belt that I punched my own holes in when I ran out of jeans. I felt like I was being constantly besieged – everywhere I watched people eating and drinking and living normal lives while I carried bottles of Pedialyte and protein shakes to school so I wouldn’t pass out. Eventually I found I could eat whatever I wanted and then put it all back down the toilet.
I was hungry and vomiting. I’ve gotten used to the vomiting. I got good at vomiting. I couldn’t do it in front of the band – not alone. Now I knew exactly what would come up again and how fast. I could throw my head back like a dove and let a whole meal go. I started eating things that I knew wouldn’t stay down. Why not? What was important? I was still losing weight. No one cared how it went as long as it kept going.
I lost 100 pounds and then about 20 more. And then I stopped getting adjustments. And then I won back 50 – and they won’t budge.
The lap band is not as popular as it used to be. No more billboards. The gastric tube is now the most commonly performed weight-loss surgery in the United States (a procedure in which only a large portion of the stomach is excised and a smaller stomach is left intact). Although other people may have had success and be perfectly satisfied with their banding experience, it reportedly results in less weight loss than other bariatric procedures and, as of 2019, accounted for only 0.9% of all bariatric procedures performed in the US With injectables like Mounjaro and Ozempic flooding the market, weight-loss surgeries could soon be a thing of the past.
I get the gravity of a silver bullet. At my heaviest point I would have given a whole limb to be skinny and I mean that literally. But the miracles are not real because people need food. we have to eat It’s non-negotiable. When I was at my worst, I was lonelier than I’ve ever been or ever will be. Life felt like it was happening around me – for other people. I was stuck on an island, trying hard not to take up so much space. I want to tell you that I wouldn’t get the band again, 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’re still relentlessly searching for the “cure” for obesity. It took me a long time to understand that I didn’t need healing. That my body and gut were doing what they had evolved to do for centuries—maintaining weight and keeping me alive. No plastic band would change that – not really.
I am not judging anyone for taking these new “miracle” drugs. I wanted that miracle too. All I know now is that miracles aren’t real. However, your body is. And it’s lovable no matter what.
William Horn is a Boston-based writer. You can find him on Twitter @WillsHorn and read everything he has ever put on the internet here. He is currently working on his memoir and a book on becoming a professional fat man.
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