I invited Julie to have dinner with me on Monday night. We were joined by my friend, Steph, whom I wrote about briefly in my chapter on South Africa (I would be happy to interview her, too, if readers are interested—just let me know). We talked to Julie about her journey to drop 130 pounds. Here is her candid interview, almost in its entirety. I only cut out the parts where we went off track. Julie is honest about the things she grapples with and still in awe of the changes in her life. Enjoy.
Cami: So when did you reach your goal exactly?
Julie: I had my surgery in July of 2008. So by the next July I believe I was very close to goal.
Cami: And you lost a total of about 130 pounds.
Cami: And so, Julie, you mentioned the surgery. What would you want people to know about the surgery you had? What did it take for you to come to the decision to do that?
Julie: I used to think that I would never resort to surgery—that I should be strong enough, have enough will power to diet it all away, but after 49 years of struggling with my weight… and it literally was 49 years… I’d been heavy all of my life. I finally decided that surgery was a valid option. And then I had to worry about if I would ever be normal after I had the surgery. So would I only be able to eat little tiny portions, and would people look at me and wonder why I was eating that way? It was a struggle to figure it out, but I finally decided it was worth it—trying to find a balance between weight loss and health.
Cami: What kind of surgery did you have?
Julie: I had a proximal gastric bypass. So they made my stomach smaller and bypassed part of my intestines, so that the food enters lower than it normally does. “Proximal” means that they bypassed a fairly short section, whereas they can also do “medial” which bypasses more or “distal” which bypasses a whole lot more. And the more you bypass, the less you absorb of the food you eat. I do have some malabsorption that can be a factor in my diet from now on. I got the shortest distance bypassed.
Cami: And how do you make up for that malabsorption?
Julie: My doctor has me take protein supplements three times a day. That’s what he believes I need. And I take heavy duty vitamins and minerals, which I stick to fairly religiously.
Cami: And you told me once what the statistics were of people who have success with the surgery verses those who don’t make adequate life-style changes. Do you remember what they are?
Julie: I worked with a nutritionist, which my doctor didn’t insist on, but she said that fewer than 20 percent of people reach their goal weight even after the surgery. So it was exceptional for me to go down as low as I did.
Cami: So, you know, I’ve watched you through this process, and I know that you didn’t just have a surgery. I know you worked extremely hard. What did you change in terms of your lifestyle?
Julie: When I decided to have the surgery, I knew I was going to have to change my life dramatically. A box of crackers could not make dinner anymore. It wouldn’t do it. Slimfast and candy wouldn’t do it anymore. So I knew I would have to change a lot. At first, I had to devote myself to my instructions—making myself drink the protein even when I didn’t feel like it. Then when I worked with the nutritionist to find foods I liked that could make smaller but nutritious meals, I began eating regularly. Now I have given up most of the calorie rich foods I used to love, but I don’t miss them terribly.
Cami: What do you think your caloric intake was when you first started losing weight?
Julie: When I first started, my caloric intake was probably 900 to 1200 calories a day. I was doing three protein drinks a day plus small meals. And I’ve always exercised religiously.
Cami: “Always” meaning your whole life, or “always” meaning once you made the commitment to lose the weight?
Julie: Actually, my whole life I’ve walked and been fairly active, but once I started this, I was really committed to becoming fit. I started doing a walk video that I could do in my home right in front of my TV, and so I was expending those calories, which meant I had to keep up with the nutritional intake for that expenditure, too.
Cami: When did you start running?
Julie: I started running… well I’ve had multiple attempts at running in my life. I always wanted to run. I would run and then I would get hip pain or sinus pain or back pain and have to stop, and I’d be back to walking. So it was probably… Bellingham Fit began their running program in April or May of 2009, and that’s when I started running in earnest.
Cami: And you were training for… what was your goal?
Julie: The Bellingham Bay Marathon of 2009.
Cami: And that race was in October of that year.
Julie: Yes. So I knew I had wanted to do that. In the year 2000 my family all got together at a cabin at my sister-in-law’s place and we all talked about our goals for the next 10 years, from 2000 to 2010. And I told everyone I wanted to run the marathon. I was between 190 to 230—I don’t know what I was at the time. I know they all thought I was totally crazy.
Cami: Did they laugh at you?
Julie: No. They didn’t laugh. My family is very supportive, but I’m sure they were kind of going, “Sure. Right.” So it was very cool to have done that in my time frame. By 2010 I had done my first marathon.
Steph: That’s so great.
Cami: Congratulations. I know your family was very proud of you. I got to see that.
Julie: My family is always supportive, but when I ran my 20-mile training run, my mother told my younger brother I was running 20 miles that day, and he said, “Oh mom, you must be mistaken. You didn’t hear her right. She’s running two miles.” And so he was blown away when he saw me running the marathon, and he was actually in tears watching me – which is pretty amazing, ‘cuz he’s a lovely guy but you wouldn’t think of your brother crying because you’re running.
Cami: Nowadays how often are you working out?
Julie: I work out at least five or six days a week, mostly six. At least 45 minutes of cardio each time, and weight lifting two days a week.
Cami: You told me the other day while we were running that you had an epiphany. What was your epiphany?
Julie: My epiphany was that now I am at the weight I should be at. I don’t really know how much I weigh because I have all this extra skin. So the scale shows 130, which I’m OK with. One-twenty-five has always been my ultimate goal weight, and I actually think if you took off all this skin I’d be below that. But it finally clicked that I wasn’t trying to lose weight anymore! I don’t have to have a calorie deficit. For so long, I’ve been trying to exercise off whatever I ate, and I realized I don’t have to do that now. I just have to work out for my health and I’ll maintain.
Cami: What does that epiphany mean for you now as you go forward?
Julie: It helps me ease up on myself. I tend to be quite hard on myself in the way I treat myself. And it’s like, you know, it’s OK to take days off and it’s OK to eat something extra. I don’t have to pay for it with extra exercise like I did before when I was still losing. I don’t have to be perfect.
Cami: You said that you were always heavy, always overweight, but your family isn’t—at least not your siblings and your parents. What do you think contributed to your weight gain in the first place?
Julie: Well, food is an issue in my family. Everyone works on it. My mom is very controlled, and my sisters think a lot about it. So it is an issue. I had a health thing when I was a baby where I was told I couldn’t keep food down. I was quite underweight for a seven-month-old until I had surgery that fixed the problem. They finally figured it out. I personally think that period of starvation, or less intake, affected me. From then on I ate. And it was a lot of sneak eating because somehow I always knew I wasn’t supposed to be eating as much as I was wanting to because the family valued being thin. But I still always wanted to eat. So I would sneak eat a lot when I was little, which caused my weight gain, but I think the early surgery had something to do with it. I was basically malnourished for the first few months of my life.
Cami: Do you think that perfectionism you mentioned contributed to your weight at all?
Julie: Totally! All or nothing thinking is a major, major roadblock, like in thinking, “Okay, I blew the diet totally, so I can go ahead and eat what I want.” Or if I’m not being good than it doesn’t count, but now I’ve been able to moderate that so I don’t have to do all or nothing. I’m still struggling with, “Okay I ate a little extra or I’m going to go out to dinner, so maybe I should do a little extra workout.” But I’m working on it.
Cami: Talk about your struggle with changing your body image even though you’ve lost 130 pounds.
Julie: It’s hard because when I get a glimpse of myself, I know that it’s me, but I still see myself as bigger. I’m not as big as I used to be in my brain, but when I look down I see extra skin, and I think it’s a roll of fat. Intellectually I know I can slide into places I didn’t used to be able to be, and I can move more easily, but if I don’t think about it, I still get surprised when I see myself. My last driver’s license picture, I’m thinking, “That doesn’t even look like me.” I reminded myself of my teenage nephew—angular. I’m still trying to figure out who I am.
Cami: I remember when we were flying together to go to the marathon in Las Vegas. You were saying, “Look at me! I fit in this seat.”
Julie: There are things that you take for granted as a thin person that you can’t do as a heavy person. And I always did my best to go and do, but you’re limited. You can’t touch your toes because your belly hits your thighs. You run into yourself. Or you travel and you fill up the seat. Now I don’t have to think, “Will the chair hold me?” I still marvel every time I can do something.
Steph: Have you noticed a difference in the way other people look at or perceive you?
Julie: Yeah. That was one of the really difficult things, because intellectually I know that people should value me the way I am, and I’m the same person fat or thin. But, especially with men I think, “If you don’t like me fat, why would you like me thin?” But people do treat me differently. There is in some ways more respect especially with people who knew me heavy. It’s interesting because being heavy gives you power in some ways; it gives you anonymity but also power of being present because people can’t run you over. When you’re littler, though, it’s harder because you can do more, but people kind of respect you more.
Steph: That’s kind of sad.
Julie: It really is. There are heavy people who are wonderful people.
Steph: Like you, for years, right?
Julie: That’s exactly right. I’m still me. I’ve done more things now, and I feel more powerful, but there is a power in being heavy, too. I was afraid of being smaller.
Cami: Like would you be allowed to take up space in the world? Is that what it was about?
Julie: It was actually more about security for me. You know, no one could grab me and carry me off when I weighed 260 pounds. At my weight now, someone could pick me up if they wanted to. I had to say, “OK, I can handle things. I’m a grown up and it’s okay to have that vulnerability.”
Steph: Do you feel a difference in respect from people who knew you and from those who didn’t know you?
Julie: There is a huge segment of the population that thinks heavy people are just slobs who don’t deserve respect. I was always a strong person who wouldn’t let people run over me, but yes the respect thing is weird.
Cami: I know you’ve told me that you’re sometimes hesitant to tell people you had the surgery, as if you get fewer points for having lost this weight helped by a surgery instead of doing it all the conventional way. What would you say to people who are trying to make a decision about how they’re going to go about changing their life in terms of weight loss?
Julie: Some people think the surgery is a bit of a cop out, and I used to think that, too. But you still have to totally change. And thank God the surgery did something for me the first six months to a year; I really didn’t care about food for the first time in forty-nine years. I didn’t wake up thinking about the food I wanted to eat that day or about the food I couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t eat. So it helped for me, but I still needed to make the good choices about eating the right things, taking my protein, exercising, drinking my fluids. It was hard work either way.
Cami: What would you say to others who have struggled with their weight their whole lives and haven’t ever been able to achieve their goals? What kind of encouragement would you offer them?
Julie: Number one is you have to do it for the right reasons. You have to do it to be healthy and to be able to move and to do. I was tired of my body holding me back. In deciding how you’re going to lose the weight you have to weigh out the benefits of a method with the consequences. I learned that… there’s a saying that “nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.” Most heavy people have heard that. And I’d heard it but never believed it. When you have a hundred pounds to lose by denying yourself, it takes forever. You have to get to the point where you believe that it is true. I feel so wonderful being able to move and to do. It was not worth eating a whole box of crackers. I can eat normally.
Cami: Thanks Julie.
Steph: Thanks for letting me a part of this.
Julie: Thank you.