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Unfit: Being Overweight in America’s Slimmest State

I moved to Colorado from the East Coast with hopes that the state’s culture of healthy eating and outdoor activity would encourage me to lose the weight I’d struggled with my entire life. It didn’t work—at least, not how I expected it to.  

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Denver’s afternoon sunshine filters through the front windows of my Sunnyside bungalow as I sit in the corner of my L-shaped couch. Four years ago, I left my home state of Connecticut for Colorado, started a job as a middle school choir and theater teacher, and bought this house. When I moved in, I painted a metallic silver tree on the wall of my living room, hung a bunch of my favorite photographs, and settled in, but all this time later, there are still a few unpacked boxes. For whatever reason, today is the day I decide to empty them. Martin Sexton’s scats bounce from one wall to another as I begin sifting through old memories. Pictures, mementos, trinkets, miscellany. The unearthing of these things mostly makes me smile—until I happen upon a picture from my fourth-grade ballet class: A group of young girls, smiling proudly as they pose like prima ballerinas, are dressed in delicate white satin leotards with pink ribbons. My smile fades; I’m struck by the fact that despite the daintiness of the costumes, there was simply nothing dainty about me. I was the fat ballerina surrounded by pencil-thin waifs. Twenty-some years later, looking at that picture, I realize I have always been the chubby girl.

I went on my first official diet, Jenny Craig, in the 10th grade—although I was probably only 30 pounds overweight at the time. I lost it all. Every pound. Then I gained 50 back. My weight yo-yoed up and down for the next six or seven years until after college, when I really ballooned—and rarely came back down. One could look at my family and blame my high BMI on genetics. Or, I thought, maybe the added pounds came from the stress of leaving college behind and transitioning to my first teaching job. Or perhaps I felt depressed from the breakup with my first love and the realization that my friendships were shifting. Or it could have been that dose of prednisone for my severe asthma. Whatever the reason, binging on entire bags of Tostitos Hint of Lime chips and Cadbury Mini Eggs was not helping. Neither was a complete lack of exercise. By the time I was 27, I broke 200 pounds. Simple tasks like wrapping a towel all the way around my body, tying my own shoes, climbing stairs, and squeezing into airplane seats became daunting—and embarrassing. I desperately tried to embrace my curvier and curvier self, but it was a love-hate relationship. I kept spiraling further down the rabbit hole toward morbid obesity and, let’s face it, the rabbit hole was lined with chocolate.

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Slim-Fast, Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Body for Life, Nutrisystem, Overeaters Anonymous, diet pills, the cabbage soup diet, the grapefruit diet, exercise, therapy sessions, weight-loss specialists, and nutritionists: I’ve tried them all. Multiple times. I even auditioned for ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss. At one point, I shoved a needle full of a hormone called HCG in my leg every day for 35 days while eating a 500-calorie diet, trusting permanent weight loss would occur. I endured countless intervention-style talks from well-meaning family and friends. My only brother, Matt, even wrote me an eight-page letter begging me to get healthy so we could grow old together.

It was, in fact, Matt who encouraged me for years to move to Colorado, where he lived and where he thought a change of scenery and a literal change of pace might do my body good. Despite a great job and a good group of friends in Connecticut, when the opportunity came to teach in Denver, I took it. And from the moment I made the decision to move to the Centennial State, I was imbued with feelings of hope, confidence, and optimism. Colorado, in all its lean-state, active-lifestyle, low-calorie glory, was where my transformation was finally going to take place.

The move to colorado was a big change. I had a new job. I was living with my brother and his wife and then bought a house. I was trying to make friends. I was learning my way around a new city. Those distractions were enough of an excuse for me to continue my same old habits. I was still stocking my pantry with those lime-tinged Tostitos. I kept telling myself that when life calmed down, I would get around to letting Colorado make me over. After all, I thought, I’m bound to meet healthy people whose fitness will rub off on me eventually.

My first real friend in Denver was a woman named Liz. She was a school guidance counselor and wellness coordinator—and an Ironman athlete. After just a few weeks of knowing me, she invited me to join her group of friends for a weekend in the mountains. I wanted to go, but…I didn’t ski. Just thinking about stuffing myself into a pair of snow pants gave me visions of the snowsuit scene from A Christmas Story. Plus, ski boots are anything but forgiving on big calves. No problem, I thought: I’ll just stay in the lodge by myself while they’re on the mountain and hang with them when they return. Which is exactly what I did. And my strategy of avoidance worked swimmingly until everyone got back from skiing and wanted to hop into the hot tub. Bathing suits, like ski boots, are unforgiving.

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Thinking summer activities might suit me better, Liz and I attempted a hike. Encouraged by a story I read in this magazine, I chose the short, 1.2-mile trek to Hanging Lake, one of the state’s most stunning alpine pools. Before we left the house, Liz had to talk me out of my not-insignificant fear of holding the rest of our hiking group back. Although her encouragement—along with my asthma inhaler—helped me make it to the top, I had to stop every 10 feet to catch my breath. What should’ve been a 45-minute hike took me twice as long. It was right about then, as I gasped for scarce oxygen, that I began to consider that Colorado might not be as good for me as I had thought.

As the weeks and months wore on, the pressure mounted. Everyone I chatted with seemed physically unable to talk about anything beyond which triathlon they were competing in or how they’d climbed another fourteener the previous weekend. In Connecticut I had, at times, felt uncomfortable with my weight, but I began to notice that Colorado’s incessant sportiness and its relentless need to be active (and then talk about it) was making me feel worse about myself than I ever had. I was sad—a lot. I shied away from activities that scared me. I had trouble keeping up with my nieces. I took too many naps. My dating life was disappointing and disheartening. On a daily basis, I beat myself up about why an intelligent woman like me couldn’t make the changes she needed to make. I felt like a failure. And I felt alone and isolated. So much so that I could completely understand why shiny, happy Colorado—where everyone is seemingly fit and smiling and emotionally centered—has the seventh-highest suicide rate in the nation. Somehow, I mused, when you don’t snugly fit into the Colorado prototype, all that contentedness just feels like insult to emotional injury. I was 37 years old, and in early 2014—four years after moving to the state—I reached my heaviest weight ever: 247 pounds on my five-foot-one-inch frame. Colorado had not been the quick fix I’d been hoping for; instead, it was taking a psychological toll. I knew I needed to try something different.

When my aunt first suggested weight-loss surgery, I was offended. Extreme was one way I looked at it; that it was cheating was another. No matter how many times I failed to control my weight, I still harbored the belief I could do it on my own, that resorting to easy-way-out surgery was unnecessary.

But as the scale crept toward 250, I reconsidered. In August 2013, I attended a free informational seminar on baria-tric surgery at Rose Medical Center. The room was packed with people who looked like me. I was shocked—and admittedly, comforted—by the fact that there were other morbidly obese Coloradans. This, I thought, must be where the 20.7 percent of Coloradans who are obese have been hiding!

Listening to the physician leading the seminar talk about how obesity contributes to sleep apnea, fertility problems, hypertension, diabetes, incontinence, and arthritis, among other things, was nothing new to me. I had heard it all before, but it hadn’t had any effect. Two statistics he mentioned, however, were new to me: 89 percent of morbidly obese people fight depression, and for the morbidly obese, traditional weight loss therapies offer only a two to five percent chance of long-term success.

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That number—five measly percentage points—freed me. I could not do this by myself. Very few people in my situation, self-inflicted though it may have been, could remedy the problem on their own.

Over the next few months, as required by my insurance plan, I met with surgeons, underwent psychiatric evaluations, and attended weeks and weeks of prep classes. These workshops helped me plan for the surgery, explained the differences between the three types of bariatric surgery (I chose the gastric sleeve, which meant surgeons would permanently remove up to 70 percent of my stomach), allowed me to ask questions, provided a support group, and assisted in mentally preparing me for what my life would be like post-op.

My day to day would, if I stuck to the post-surgery rules, be very different. I’d take daily vitamins and eat low-sugar, protein-rich foods for the rest of my life. (Admittedly, I wondered how much protein might be in a bag of those Cadbury Mini Eggs.) I would have to give up alcohol—which is high in calories and low in nutritional value—for a full year after the procedure. I could not have rice or pasta or carbonated beverages. I would need to stay hydrated, which meant drinking water and not pounding Starbucks venti chai tea lattes.

I’m not going to lie: The information scared me. But I bravely pushed on. The morning of surgery, though, I lost it. I was terrified of the operation, and I was panicked about how my life was about to change. I wondered if I had made the right decision, if I was really prepared for this—until I glanced at the picture of that fourth-grade girl stuffed into that delicate ballerina costume and realized that, really, I had been preparing for this day my whole life.

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On March 17, 2014, I walked down a hallway in Saint Joseph Hospital and turned into the operating room. The fact that they didn’t wheel me into the OR and instead made me walk under my own power into this elective, life-altering surgery seemed symbolic. To me, it said something like: Hey, this is your choice, lady, so get your own chubby ass on the table. So I did.

The bases are loaded, and my shoes are dusty from rounding second and posting up, safe, on third base. From my vantage point on the softball field, I witness the sun melt into hues of orange and purple behind the distant Rocky Mountains. I can hear my teammates cheering from the dugout because, by some miracle, I’m in scoring position and one of our better hitters is striding to the plate. I hear the crack of the bat and run like hell. I feel alive—a little out of breath—and happy.

It’s been 10 months since I came home from St. Joe’s, and yes, my life has changed. I’ve lost 60 pounds. (I hit “one-derland”—under 200 pounds—for the first time since ’01.) I stopped napping. I started walking my dogs. I dusted off my bike, began practicing some yoga, and joined a softball team.

Saying it like that makes it sound like it’s been easy. But it hasn’t been. The two weeks of post-op recovery were rough. Reaching a three-week weight-loss plateau in April seemed downright cruel. Saying no to summer margaritas was more difficult than I thought it would be. Sitting around a campfire without being able to enjoy s’mores and a visit to New Orleans without indulging in red beans and rice felt unfair. Deciding how much to tell others—and who to tell in the first place—about my surgery has been mentally exhausting.

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And there was a different kind of pressure to deal with. My family and friends were watching me. I had taken this big step—and now they expected results. But the thing is, I’m not perfect. Life happens, and I didn’t always stick strictly to the rules. To wit: I met a nice man who wanted to cook me dinner on our third date. I had always felt my weight impacted my dating life, and there I was, on a date with a great guy, and he was cooking stuffed chicken breasts wrapped in bacon with pasta salad. I wasn’t ready to tell him about my adventures in bariatric surgery on our third date, but I (awkwardly) did after about three bites.

The biggest challenge, however, hasn’t been other people. My biggest challenge has been learning to be patient with, and kind to, myself. I try to remind myself that this is not a quick fix; that quick fixes are what got me to 247 pounds in the first place. I can see how someone might think surgery is a quick fix, but it’s not. The truth is, the weight will come back if I don’t continue to make healthy choices. I like to think of it like this: Surgery was the beginning of my journey, but from there, my journey’s success hinges on my hard work and determination.

I didn’t choose bariatric surgery so I could fit into any mold. Even if I hit my goal weight of 132 pounds, I don’t imagine I’ll ever be that svelte, Spandex-clad athlete Colorado is known for. I also may never compete in an endurance race or fit into a pair of ski boots that don’t give me a charley horse. And that’s OK. I don’t have to be that person. I just need to be the healthy version of me. I’m finally optimistic I can be her because my goals are now within sight. I want to live a long, healthy, active life. I want to someday get on a plane, fit comfortably in the seat, arrive at the beach, and feel excited about spending the week in a bathing suit. I can’t wait to shop in normal-size clothing stores; I want to spend the money I save not buying oversize bathroom towels on outfits that make me feel beautiful. I want to go out on a date as the new, improved me—because I am excited for someone else to be as excited about me as I am. Tonight, though, I just want to reach home base. And tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that, I look forward to making peace with Colorado—and myself.


Rebecca Palcso is a middle school teacher who lives in Denver. Email her at [email protected]

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