• Story by JULIE HALES Photos by SUSAN DELOACH •
Obesity: obe·si·ty noun
a condition characterized by the excessive accumulation and storage of fat in the body.
That is the definition found in Webster. But, what Webster does not tell you, is that obesity is much more than that, at least to the person that is “classified” as obese, the person carrying the excessive body fat.
This person feels much more than obese. They feel shame. They feel guilt. They feel the need to “fit in.” They feel depressed. They feel a lot of different emotions, mostly negative ones.
Society does not always make it easy for obese individuals. And, in reality, the obese person generally does not need assistance in feeling “less” of the person they are. They tend to do a good job of this to themselves. It is their disease.
Disease? Some people would disagree with this statement. But, if they were more educated on obesity, they may just find this to be more true than not.
Sometimes the best form of education is to hear the story of someone’s own life experience: their fight, their struggle, their pain…..and, hopefully, their ability to overcome, their success.
Anisa Grantham is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a National Certified Addiction Counselor. Anisa is also a weight loss surgery patient.
Anisa was raised in a traditional Italian family where food was love, and that cooking and eating with others was an expression of that love. Anisa became an over eater at an early age.
Anisa was only 10 years old when her parents divorced. The divorce was not well received by other family members. These were the people that she shared those memories of family gatherings and celebrations with food and love. Her parents were the first couple in this family to ever divorce. Imagine what that does to a close-knit Italian and religious family. Imagine what that does to an impressionable 10 year old girl- in her mind, she did not belong to a family any longer.
Anisa had always been “daddy’s little girl,” the only girl in the family, right in the middle of two boys. Alcohol had always been present in the family home. When the family problems began, the liquor cabinet was the place she turned. Her dad drank rum and coke and Anisa turned to the rum. In her mind, this was a way for her to feel closer to her dad, more connected. She admits that this was her first conscious thought of numbing her own pain.
Anisa’s abuse of alcohol began. So did her abuse of food. Sneaking food into her room became a nightly ritual. Cold cuts…ice cream…chips….it didn’t matter, whatever she could sneak, she did. Alcohol and food became her friends. She could trust them.
After the divorce, matters only got worse and the years just added more pounds…. and more alcohol. By the age of 15, she weighed 250 pounds and was a daily drinker. Also at 15, Mom realized she had a drinking problem. Her mother found her liquor stash. Anisa’s mom gave her an ultimatum, quit drinking or go live with her father. Anisa chose her father.
So, Anisa left her home town of Waterbury, CT and moved to Mobile, AL to be with her father in 1985. Not only was that move a culture shock, it was also Anisa’s first introduction to recovery. Anisa was introduced to a 12-step recovery program through a friend of her fathers. She met some new friends and her drinking problem got better. Unfortunately, her problem with food did not.
The family moved several times, ending up in Savannah in 1987. Anisa lived with her dad, step mother, step sister and younger brother – none of them had weight problems and at times, Anisa’s weight was the topic of conversation – the shame was overwhelming and once in Savannah, she found a way to take diet pills and skip meals – binge eating would come and go during this time. She found herself in a mold, a mold she created. She did what was expected of her. She made good grades. She got a part time job. She got complemented on all the”right” things she was doing. She had stopped drinking. But, she was able to keep her secret….starvation and diet pills.
Like many typical high school girls, Anisa fell in love and marriage seemed like her next step. But, her parents wanted her to do more with her life and made their expectations known. Today, Anisa takes responsibility for the choices that she made- and knows that she did what was expected because she was afraid not to. She talks of the fear of her dad not being a part of her life again, a fear that had been a part of her since the divorce. As a child, Anisa believed that she must have done something wrong to make this bad stuff happen in her life – she was afraid of not doing the right thing.
In 1988, she enrolled at Georgia Southern, moved to Statesboro……and began drinking again. A chain reaction of sorts had begun. Anisa had a college trust set up by her grandparents that paid for her college tuition. She had an uncle that was in control of the trust and he did not agree with some of her grades and class choices and withheld her trust at the end of her first semester. She was made to return home to Savannah.
Upon her return, Anisa was determined to find her way back to Statesboro. She worked two jobs, did all the right things….kept all the right secrets…..and proved to her parents that she could do whatever it took to be responsible enough to return to school. So, her parents found her a place to live in Statesboro and Anisa was able to return to college. In May of 1989, she slipped and fell in a restaurant she was working in and fractured her back in 3 places and herniated a disc. “Thank God I was sober,” Anisa said as she told this story.
Anisa found herself out of work and on Workers Compensation…a guaranteed check each week that guaranteed she had money for alcohol. Not only did alcohol continue to be a problem for her, food did as well. She began eating heavily again at this time and went into a severe depression. Her weight escalated out of control. So did her alcohol. At this time, Anisa had a roommate, Margaret. Margaret looked at her one day and said, “You are a drunk. I can’t watch you do this. You are killing yourself.”
“What Margaret said to me, it was a turning point, she saved my life,” Anisa says, “I immediately searched for a meeting. I knew I was ready and I knew where to go.” This was in January of 1990; Anisa has been sober ever since….recently celebrating 23 years of sobriety.
“The beginning was very hard for me. I had returned to college and failed 3 classes in my first 3 months of sobriety. I was put on academic probation, my parents were so upset with me they took me out of school, so my AA sponsor told me my job was sobriety and made me go to 3 meetings a day for the first 6 months. I did not want to die and I was determined to do whatever it took to stay sober….to stay alive.” Anisa said.
Through all of this, Anisa’s weight continued to escalate. She felt shame. She felt guilt. She returned to her old habit of hiding food. She binged. Her weight climbed to 317 pounds.
Anisa went on to graduate in 1994 with a degree in Psychology. She began working as a substance abuse counselor. She went back to school and received her Masters Degree in May of 1997. During this time, her weight fluctuated back and forth, sometimes showing more than an 80 pound difference. In September of 1995, Anisa met Angela Gallo, a nutritionist and registered dietician. “Angela totally changed my life. She taught me a new way to eat,” said Anisa. She was able to maintain a healthy weight and also able to experience a new self love and confidence.
In 1998, she took a job as a manager of a small treatment facility in Florida, leaving Statesboro after 10 years. She also fell right into something else….old habits. Being away from everything and everyone she knew was difficult. Then, her grandfather, Pa, as she lovingly calls him, passed away. She became lonely, depressed, and isolated. She was doing everything she knew to do; she was making herself attend meetings and get a sponsor, but she was not talking about what was going on with her and how bad she felt. Nothing was working. She slipped deeper and deeper into depression. She began working more…she worked and ate, and ate, and ate. Her weight poured back on.
In November of 1998, she hit an emotional bottom. Anisa said, “There was nothing left in my soul but emotional pain and darkness.” She could not get out of her hole. She adds, “The only thing that saved me that night was God.” Over the next 6 months, she realized she was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted and was forced to do some soul searching and seek answers, answers to take control of her life, her destiny.
She realized that when she moved to Florida she had moved there to take on a managerial position, but Anisa needed to be a counselor. She knew that one-on-one relationship with her patients was something she was missing. This revelation was a major turning point in her life…”It’s not a hat I wear, like daughter or wife…I am a counselor”
Anisa applied for, and got, a position as an addiction counselor back in Savannah. She returned home in 1999. In 2000, The Clark Center was under going renovations, the construction superintendent walked through the door of the nursing station and she looked at a co-worker and said. “I am going to marry that man one day.” Anisa smiled the biggest smile ever as she said. “I flirted with him a little, gave him my card, and three months later we were dating.” All this at a time when her weight was at 280 pounds.
One year later, in 2001, they were married….at a weight of over 300 pounds. Anisa’s entire face lights up when she talks about her husband, Wayne. “He never saw the outside, he loved me for me…the outside did not matter to him.”
She believes it was the emotional work she had done in therapy (1998- and after returning to Sav) that allowed her to take these risks in life. After meeting Wayne, falling in love, and marrying him, she felt worthy to be herself. She was now living her life. Anisa began to transform herself into the person she wanted to be. She says she was able to make peace with the secrets that had haunted her life since childhood, able to let go of regrets and shame for the choices she made that hurt people she loved, she was ready to release the shame, embarrassment and the humility of being overweight. She needed freedom and she got it. Yet, when she looked in the mirror, she realized that the outside did not reflect the healing that had taken place on the inside. She had allowed her weight to control her inner self and was no longer willing to settle for less than what she deserved.
In 2002, Anisa was weighing in at 318 pounds. It was time for a change.
“Obesity is a disease…..just like heart or lung disease….it is okay to seek medical help.” stated Anisa. And seek help is exactly what she did. Anisa had gastric by-pass surgery in July of 2002.
In the first 18 months after her surgery, Anisa lost 160 pounds. She says, “I had never experienced being thin. People treated me differently. I was saying the same things I had said for years, but it was like people were finally listening to me.”
Anisa maintained this weight loss over the next 6 years. In 2008, she had emergency surgery on her neck. She was out of the gym for 6 months. She regained 25 pounds. Now back up to 185, the embarrassment and the shame of regain after weight loss surgery was devastating. She started feeling like a failure again. She felt like a pitiful fat girl.
In January of 2009, Anisa was on a business trip in Atlanta. It was there that she met the founders of Bariatric Support Centers International. “They introduced me to The Success Habits of Weight Loss Surgery Patients. This curriculum was so basic it disturbed me. I wondered why, as a patient, I did not have this information. I attended their workshop and my life has never been the same.”
Anisa was able to lose most of the weight she had recently gained. And, she has been able to maintain that weight since. She admits it is a job. You have to work at it. She shares, “I don’t take care of myself and eat perfectly all the time…Nothing and no one is perfect. Perfect does not exist. I am just consistent with doing it (taking care of myself and eating healthy) more often than not doing it.” Anisa lives by these habits everyday now and was a featured story in the recent release of the 3rd edition Success Habits of Weight Loss Surgery Patients (Cook, C.) She also educates people to do the same thing. She offers Bariatric Workshops at her counseling practice in Rincon. She knows first hand the effects that obesity can have on someone….both physically and emotionally. She has walked the journey with many patients as they live happier, healthier lives. She teaches them how to redefine their “relationship” with food.
She adds, “I did not have surgery to be thin. I had surgery to become healthy. I wanted a happy life.” She quotes, “Faith without works is dead. This is the life that I wanted. I am living the life that I prayed for. I choose to live my life on purpose and with purpose, and with my God all things are possible.”
In Anisa’s own words:
“I describe it as a relationship with food. Food was always there in my life, through the good times, the difficult times. Food never wanted or expected anything from me. It was just there. When people in my life let me down, disappointed me, betrayed my trust or even made me happy and celebrated with me, I could always rely on food to pull me through, to make things better, if even for a little while. I know today, through education and research that there is a chemical change in the brain system when we eat certain types of food. It doesn’t make me feel any less responsible for my over eating and binge eating. It just helps me to understand that there is a process and I can make a choice to eat or not eat my trigger foods. When I am in a relationship (defined with friends/family in mind), I enjoy spending time with that person. We have our favorite places to go and activities to do. It was the same way with food. As a child, I learned that food would make things better. Food made sick people healthy, made mad people happy, it gave me hope that things would get better ‘if only for a little while.’ And as things progressed in my life, my weight became the symptom – a result of my ‘love’ for food. I loved food, yes, I used an emotion to describe how I felt about food. I had my favorites; pasta, chips, Doritos, chocolate ice cream, fried chicken, red beans and rice. I preferred to eat alone because I was embarrassed by the amount that I consumed and I didn’t like to share! I would secretly buy fast food on my way home (especially if it was a stressful day), eat the fries and hamburger before getting to the house. Then I would cook dinner and eat with everyone else and never say a word. I dated Chinese food. It was a Friday night ritual. Call in to my favorite take out, swing by “The Pig” on my way and pick up soda, chips and dessert before picking up my “love” and heading to the house- I would get into my jammies, lay out my food, hit the couch and love my food for the rest of the night – going back for seconds and thirds.
Obesity is a medical condition. It is a progressive and chronic disease. Without intervention, obesity is deadly. When I had weight loss surgery in July 2002, I had reached a desperate place in my ‘diet history.’ I had been on many diets and meal plans, and they were successful until I stopped doing (or depriving) what I was told to do. I had two speeds, I was either on a diet and losing weight, or off a diet and gaining weight. I never found a place where I actually could maintain weight loss. I was taught at a very young age what foods were ‘good’ and which ones were ‘bad.’ I, of course, preferred the ‘bad’ foods…the high fat foods, the carbohydrates and ice cream. As I got older, I felt there was something wrong with me because I just couldn’t get it. Other people in my life were thin or able to lose weight and keep it off. There had to be something wrong with me. The shame of being overweight was deep. Each time I ate that ‘bad food,’ I believed I was bad for wanting to eat it. After all, I knew how bad it was for me. I would not put up with an abusive person in my life, yet I have taken food back
every time, thinking and believing that ‘this time was gonna be different.’ This time, I will have just one, this time, I will be able to control myself, this time I’ll stay away from fast food, this time….each time I was setting myself up. Food addiction is real, it exists. Alcohol, cocaine, and sugar all light up the same part of the brain. That is what my education has taught me. My brain doesn’t kow the difference between these substances. Once that place is triggered, the only thing my brain and body wants is more!
In my world, I say that weight loss surgery put my disease of obesity in remission. It was arrested and I was given a short reprieve to literally change my relationship with food. It was already happening before I had surgery. I had been in therapy for my own family secrets. My weight and fat had protected me from many people. But it was keeping me from being free…..free to be the person I wanted to be. I tend to go back to the behavior, the things, or the people that I know because they are safe. I was afraid to believe in myself, to believe that I could really be successful with weight loss and maintenance. I have not been afraid of failing. No, I’m pretty good at failing. My fear, for many years, was being successful. I was afraid of success…and really for only one reason….I know myself ….my follow through sucks. I’m not good for the long term. I know this about me. But, what is powerful; and I know this for sure, I’m good for ‘right now.’ For today, I can pull just about anything off (within reason). Just for today, or for right now, has worked in recovery, in relationships, in jobs, in graduate school – the idea that I just have to do this, (whatever this might be at the time) for right now. Sometimes I have to break my days into meals ‘just for this meal I will eat heavy dense protein and veggies.’ I still have cravings and I will choose to eat or walk away from a certain food. I have learned not to eat when I am angry or emotional – I tend to eat ‘at’ that person or situation. When I was upset with people and situations, I found that I wanted to eat more because I was so ‘out of control’ to make them do what I wanted! Today, I’m not responsible for the choices that people make in their lives. If I am effected, I have learned to talk about the situation. I do write in a journal, have people in my life that I trust to talk to about my feelings, and ultimately I have to accept things as they are, do what I can, and let the rest go. I am no longer willing to give people my energy. I am not the person that I used to be, I am not a people pleaser. I will not drop what is going on with me to go take care of someone else’s stuff. I used to do things like that because I was afraid of rejection, afraid that if I did not do what you wanted then you would leave me or not love me. As I lost weight and began making changes in my life, setting healthier boundaries with people, expressing my feelings, and I stopped spending time with people who drained my energy, I felt better about myself and people knew I was different. Most people in my life have encouraged the changes and are supportive.”