The lived experiences of people affected by obesity are not told nearly enough. The OAC aims to share their stories and humanize obesity so they are finally listened to.
In this honest and open interview, hear from OAC Community Member Graham Lilja as he openly talks about living with and fighting obesity.
A Lifetime “Defined by My Obesity”
Q: How did you discover the OAC? What made you want to join our Membership Community?
I discovered the OAC through a weight-loss surgery podcast I found on Google. It featured an interview with OAC’s President and CEO, Joseph Nadglowski, who spoke a lot about the OAC. He made me want to visit the website.
Once I joined, I visited the OAC Community Discussion Forum. Other members posted topics and comments that stuck with me. I found a ton of education and support, and I look forward to adding more of my thoughts to the Forum as I continue my health journey.
I recently finished reading a book that gave me a valuable piece of advice: put your money and efforts into a cause you believe in. I believe I found that with the OAC. I am also lucky to work for an employer that matches my charitable donations and doubles my support for the cause.
Q: Can you tell us about your experiences with obesity and how they’ve shaped your life?
Obesity has followed me since I was 14 years old. I was the “fat kid” at school who became the “fat man” at college and the “fat man” at work. Then I became the “fat dad” at all of my children’s activities and school functions. Obesity seems to define who we are at first. Then, possibly, we get to share our real selves later.
My obesity limits my social experiences, career opportunities, and just about everything else in my daily life. My obesity determines:
- What car I drive
- Where I can buy clothing
- What entertainment I can enjoy
- How I travel
- Which doctors will see me
My obesity allows people to judge my intelligence and worth from 100 yards away.
Through the years, I’ve lost 65, 80 and 75 lbs. with diet and exercise. However, eating so few calories is unsustainable. I could lose the weight in 6-10 months and regain it in the following two years. My set point is very familiar because my body always returns to the same weight when the will to starve myself fades.
All of this has greatly burdened my self-esteem, further limiting my life experiences. When I could no longer fit in amusement park rides, I stopped taking my family there. When I had to ride a horse the size of a small elephant to go horseback riding with my family, I decided to remove that activity from my list. Almost a decade ago, when I squeezed into an airplane seat for the last time, I saw the face of the passenger sitting next to me. I knew in that moment I would never fly again.
Obesity is more than the physical weight I carry. It can be a prison cell with no peace, rest or ability to escape. Much like the chains the fictional Joseph Marley was forced to drag in the afterlife, I must drag this unwanted weight with me every moment of every day.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you’ve experienced weight shaming from healthcare providers. How have those experiences affected you?
Weight shaming in the medical profession can be as expected as the white coat and stethoscope. Regardless of why I am visiting, most doctors in my experience will choose the easy route to exit the exam room as soon as possible. They blame any symptoms on my obesity including:
- Mild depression
- Sinus issues
- Even the common cold
I recently waited two months to see a doctor for chronic pain after a post-hernia repair. My doctor told me that if I lost weight, my pain would go away. I felt like my pain was something to be ashamed of and not something to be treated. He seemed to take the easy route out of the exam by telling me to lose more than 100 lbs. Then, if I still had pain, he would get serious about his diagnosis. I couldn’t prove him wrong, but I can’t lose the weight in a couple weeks and come back just to show him that I’m not any better. I walked away sad, defeated and stuck with the pain.
I spent nearly a decade avoiding doctors. My last visit with my PCP was for a skin rash and I mentioned symptoms I was experiencing which I believed were from mild depression. He told me to wait while he left the room. When he came back, he tried selling me supplements that he profited from on the side. He told me weight-loss would solve all my problems.
Q: You’ve shared about your challenges with approval for bariatric surgery. What led you to seek surgery and what were those challenges?
I’ve been interested in surgery for about 13 years. My sister had a successful gastric bypass and inspired me to find my own road to a healthier me.
For years, I thought that if I ate how bariatric patients eat after surgery, I’d have the same results. It took me a long time and many failed attempts to learn otherwise. Yes, I lost a lot of weight very quickly, but keeping it off was impossible. My body craved every calorie and fought my willpower. My metabolism slowed when it started to think I was starving.
All of this led me to 2018 when I knew I couldn’t keep avoiding doctors. I went back and learned that I had:
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Worsening arthritis
- A BMI greater than 40
- Potential sleep apnea
- Shortness of breath
The list goes on. It was enough to make me think about a new path to weight-loss. I started to take the idea of bariatric surgery seriously.
As many know, bariatric surgery isn’t used nearly enough despite being the best-known weight-loss tool proven by science. Most of us have limited access to this treatment option due to impossible barriers. Even insurance companies require us to jump through difficult hoops for surgery approval. That is, if the insurance covers bariatric surgery at all.
People told me to seek approval from a bunch of different health providers. I was also required to complete a six-month weight-loss program with a bariatric physician. It felt like the last 30 years of proven weight-loss weren’t enough to show that I knew how to move the scale down.
Almost everyone knows that obesity can be dangerous, yet these same people blame patients for seeking a proven treatment option which can change their life. We don’t blame those who get the flu or those with heart disease who want a pacemaker. We don’t make a patient with cancer prove they deserve treatment. We do all of those things to people with obesity.
A psychologist also denied me bariatric surgery after I did a routine, required psych evaluation. I had “low self-esteem” and “felt that I lacked control over my health.” Who would be surprised that a middle-aged man battling a lifetime of obesity and chronic pain would have poor mental health? I agreed to pursue therapy despite my “new” diagnosis.
I’m currently waiting on a final decision about surgery from my insurance company. I’ve checked all the boxes and I’ve grown from the struggle. I will continue toward my goal of a healthier and smaller self.
Q: If you could pick one thing for others to know about obesity, what would it be?
I would say that no one chooses obesity. It is a disease. Like all others, obesity has many causes and willpower isn’t the miracle treatment. If that were the case, 93 million U.S. adults wouldn’t have it.
Those of us with obesity deserve the same quality of medical care given to patients with other diseases. We shouldn’t be shamed and laughed at. We deserve the same chance at a rewarding career as those without obesity. We deserve to be equal. Obesity is complex and can’t be simplified as a character flaw.
I continue to work with my treatment team and pursue bariatric surgery. I am grateful to those who have helped me along the way and I forgive those who have dismissed me because they didn’t understand. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I will help others facing similar challenges on their paths to wellness.