Open Letter Post-Surgery

So, today’s three weeks since I had my sleeve gastrectomy. I’ve been pretty quiet on social media as I’ve been recovering. First off, I want to thank everyone's well wishes and healing vibes; they have meant a lot to me. I also want to thank everyone at Penn Medicine, including my surgeon Dr. Kristoff Duhamel. The entire team has been beyond generous with their time and attention. I could not have asked for a better surgery experience. Of course, I would be remiss to not thank my wife Aubrie, who reminds me daily why I love her. I have never felt so cared for and taken care of by a partner in my entire life.

As I’ve read your posts and messages to myself and Aubrie, there have been a lot of questions, mainly centering around what the hell is a sleeve gastrectomy. In short, a sleeve gastrectomy is a weight loss procedure where 85% of the stomach is permanently removed along its curvature. Literally, they slice off the stomach. As in gone. For good. I’ll spare you the gory details, but if you want to know, I’m sure my father would be more than happy to show you a link or two on YouTube.

While I’m slowing coming back online, I have been struggling to articulate the ins and outs of my surgery outside beyond my closest friends and family. To many of you, reading Aubrie’s note about my surgery was a bolt out of the blue, that you didn’t even know I was “sick” or that  there had been anything “wrong” with me. I was looking for a privacy to my decision to go under the knife, but for all the wrong reasons.

It wasn’t until I stopped in Siren Records a few days ago and talked with my friend Blair that I got some real perspective on what I was/am going through. As we talked about putting together an open mic series at the store, he told me he really appreciated how open I was about my surgery in the handful of posts I’d made. For me it didn’t feel particularly frank, but from his perspective, he helped me to see the value in just talking about it. Not as a poem, or a creative nonfiction piece, but as me going through a procedure which could be considered traumatic. It’s major, life-changing surgery and as such it can be fucking scary. I never saw it this way. I’ve grossly underestimated how much life has already changed and will continue to change. I’ve also underestimated how important it is to share what I’m going through—not in an inspirational-click-and-share-Facebook way, but as me. As the dapperest Pinoy poet/podcaster you know. As your friend. As someone you care about.

I have been thinking about this surgery for the better part of a year—pretty much since my father had a second femoral artery bypass in January of ’17. I spent a lot of time traveling to and from Danville over the early part of last year, and there was more than one moment that I was afraid we were going to lose him. Luckily he’s as stubborn as he his nearly bald (note: the comb-over fools no one, Pop.), and come Spring, he was on the mend. While there’s much I’m proud of inheriting from my father (including said stubbornness), I also have his metabolism. It’s been a lifelong struggle, and one that I was foolish enough to think I had conquered when I took steps to be healthier nearly five years ago, losing over 117 pounds over a year and change.

Quietly, over the last few years, I was gaining the weight back. I would notice little differences in how my blazers started fitting, how shirts puckered when I sat. I would try and bear down and hit the gym a little harder, cut back on x, y, or z, and there would be wins and losses. Eventually, those wins became fewer, and ultimately, during our time in Philadelphia, I began to feel that control slide away. It was a downward spiral. I was ashamed and fell into a real depression. It’s still a hole I’m climbing out of, to be honest. As a matter of fact, that privacy of having the surgery was more about the shame I felt in gaining back so much weight. There’s the privacy of convalescence and then there’s hiding. I’ve been hiding for too damn long.

I feel like I’ve let someone other than myself down—as irrational as that sounds. As much as I have loved being back in Pennsylvania, and have made some wonderful new friends in Philadelphia—not to mention I got married in a fucking record store to the love of my life—I’ve decidedly been a pale version of misterjim. The more I thought about this surgery, the more it felt like I was taking control. After a long drive back from my parents’, Aubrie and I were sitting at the Allentown travel plaza on the Pennsylvania turnpike last fall, talking about my father’s surgery. Unbeknownst to Aubrie, I had pretty much made up my mind that I was going to have the surgery.

Even going through with this surgery felt embarrassing, like some admission of failure. When I did tell the co-workers at my “day job” (not Arcadia, mind you), I was met with personal diet tips and weight loss suggestions. This isn’t to say that those folks were being malicious in their advice, but such talk was more symptomatic of the general social reaction to people truly struggling with their weight, bereft of the capacity to the see the world other than from their own point-of-view. Whatever. I bit my tongue, put my head down, and decided to keep this operation to myself, and a small handful of people. This surgery wasn’t about dieting or losing weight, it was about being healthy. I’ve had enough of feeling ashamed for letting my health slip. The gastric sleeve was about getting myself back on track. It’s for me and no one else, to be honest.

Being away from social media has been a relief. I haven’t had to explain the who/what/whys of my operation. I haven’t been swept up in the constant stream of the 24 hour news/life cycle. It’s allowed me to rest and focus on healing, as well as slowing down. It’s a lot more difficult to rush life by when I can barely finish a cup of yogurt. Every quarter cup meal I am eating is like Thanksgiving dinner. I am relearning what full actually means, and pretty much all I can do after eating is rest. It’s intense; beyond re-learning to eat, it’s been bone broth and protein shakes and 300 calories a day. The energy level is low, but growing. Last week I started going back to the gym. Even a half hour on the treadmill feels great, but ends with me being pretty damn wiped out. You cannot rush. You can't hurry recovery along. I’ve come to appreciate this part of my life. I’ve been able to spend more time with Aubrie. There are hours of reading and records and binge watching Game of Thrones. Time feels elastic right now, but I also know that it’s not. I’m inside an eggshell of my own creation, incubating away. But it’s fragile. I’m fragile, but I’m feeling more like the best me every single day. It’s a gift to be able to heal.

So that’s where I’m at. Three weeks and some thirty pounds later. It’s a long way to go in so many ways. We’re moving to Louisville in a month and a half. By then I’ll be fully recovered in some ways, but not in others. A change of scenery means a chance to continue the due diligence I know I need to make healthier choices. I welcome a return to farmer’s markets and cooking every day. It’s a process. It’s gradual. It’s a constant. Flip the record. Thanks for reading.