It's been a little over a year and a half now since I began this journey – and what a time it’s been.
I started as ‘Jenni Trent Hughes, you know who I mean – the pretty big girl with the American accent…looks like if Halle Berry had an older sister who’s a bit too fond of the pies.’ Sometime TV presenter (Loose Women, Perfect Match), sometime author (three books published), agony aunt, journalist, life coach – you name it, I’ve done it.
Was I happy? In certain ways, yes. A wonderful son, supportive friends, a decent sense of humour and a brilliant relationship – even though we were no longer together – with the father of my child. Enough work to keep the child in decent clothes and support my TK Maxx addiction.
The downside? I was lonely. I’d been separated for five years but being somewhat traditional I wouldn’t date, as I wasn’t legally divorced. At night, after my son went to bed, I would paint, read, watch TV or make jewellery until about 2am. I knew I didn’t want to continue like this, but I was too emotionally tired to change things that needed to be changed.
Then the gods stepped in and took the decision out of my hands – I became ill. Not an ‘ambulance-has-to-be-called’ kind of ill, but the ‘first-this-goes-wrong-then-that-goes-wrong’ kind of ill. I couldn’t walk upstairs without becoming winded; my blood sugar levels were all over the place; I was constantly tired; I had mood swings, my eyesight was going wonky… Friends kept saying, ‘You’re just getting old,’ but I was only in my 40s! My grandmother is almost 100 and as fit as a fiddle. So what was the problem?
Yes, I was ‘a teeny bit overweight’, I thought (ignoring the truth that more than 17 stone at 5ft 6in is not ‘teeny’ anything), but I could still hit the dancefloor. I wasn’t FAT. Heaven forbid! If you could dance without rolling over, if men still found you attractive and you didn’t have to buy your clothes from a catalogue, then you couldn’t possibly be fat.
There is a famous book by Susie Orbach called Fat is a Feminist Issue; well, I thought at the time, Fat is All in Your Head. I have friends who are a size 10 who think they’re fat – and friends who are a 22 who don’t. I was a size 28 and thought I was just fine. But then I started feeling like rubbish. And while looking like rubbish to the style fascists was one thing, feeling like rubbish was entirely another.
I spent months trying to find out what was wrong: seeing my GP, nutritionists, consultants. The short story is that I was more than several stone overweight, a whisker away from diabetes and in need of surgery on my ovaries that was going to be severely complicated by my size. While I might not agree about what is visually ‘fat’, I am informed enough to know that excess weight can seriously affect your health. But my tests were indicating that years of food fads and yo-yo dieting had made a mess of
my metabolism which was why, no matter how little I ate, the weight stayed on. This meant that I also had neither the inclination nor energy to exercise.
Around this time, I ran into a psychologist I know who’d had a gastric band fitted. She’d lost a couple of stone and was now constantly smiling, and I thought, ‘Hmmm, this might just be the way to go.’ I knew a gastric band wasn’t a shortcut, but it seemed guaranteed to work. ‘I’ll get a gastric band, the weight will fall off, I’ll remove the gastric band – hey presto!’
Finally, after months of being poked and prodded, I met with the bariatric consultant to find out about my gastric band, envisaging myself three months hence running down a Thai beach in a sarong. Twenty minutes later I slunk out of his office: no gastric band for me. Instead he said I need a gastric bypass. It’s much more complicated and it’s permanent. They were going to stitch me a new stomach in a corner of the old one and it was going to be the size of an egg cup. The most important thing the tests revealed was how close I was to diabetes. And although that is manageable, it made me decide that I had better get serious and sort out my health.
In October 2009, the day before my 49th birthday, I entered the Royal Free Hospital in London to have the operation. I promised myself that if I stuck to the rules regarding postoperative eating, exercise, vitamins and supplements, I would reward myself a year later with a birthday week in Paris. I would also take steps to officially make myself a single woman again. I wanted to be free to move on.
The physical aspects of the operation are one thing – I was lucky enough to have Hala El-Shafie (the gorgeous nutritionist from This Morning) to lead me through. She was there to help me cope with the strict pre-surgery food regime and to learn new habits such as drinking more water, eating regularly and in specific amounts, and starting the supplement routine that I will now have to follow for ever.
The surgery went well. I was in hospital for just a day and a half, and was anxious to get home and get on with it, whatever ‘it’ was going to be. There was a tricky moment when I found out that you need daily anticoagulant injections for the first week, but my son learned to do them for me. The physical recuperation from surgery was straightforward.
But the emotional stuff – that’s the biggie.
I had been a big girl since I was five. Everyone else in my family is tall and slender. I was a
major-league swot who spent weekends locked in my room with a book and packets of biscuits. My mother (5ft 10in and a size 8) was horrified that I wasn’t slim, and still doesn’t have photos of me
on display that show below my neck. My friends were always fine about my size and it was never
a problem with men. Good men would prefer a happy size 16 than a whining size 10.
So it was hard to let go of the big girl. My thanks go out to the patient sales ladies in the Marks & Spencer changing rooms, who would humour me when I went in with a patently far too big size 22, then ask for a 20, and so on until I got the correct size. When I’d reached size 16, a year after the surgery, I still remember the day in Westfield shopping centre when I stopped to look at some cushions in a window and thought, ‘That woman in the glass looks nice,’ then realised it was me. I immediately bought two cupcakes and ate them on the spot, which because of my bypass could have made me really ill. It was a shock to realise that getting to know this new, slim me might be an uncomfortable process.
How am I now? Physically, I am a size 12 to 14; I have lost seven stone. My feet have shrunk a size. I got my eyes lasered recently so I don’t have to wear reading glasses any more. I’ve discovered exercise – Zumba classes are wonderful, an hour of wild dancing where you can burn up to 1,000 calories! And I actually found myself running down the stairs to catch the tube the other day, definitely a first.
‘Often people don’t recognise me – even those who have known me for years’
I recently chopped off all my hair and turned it blonde, something I have wanted to do for decades. And the official envelope that says I am now legally single has arrived. The break-up of a 13-year marriage is never a good thing, but we remain the best of friends and we’re writing a book together with our son about coming apart yet staying as a whole.
And then there was Paris. My son came for part of the week and we had a wonderful bonding experience; he commented that we could do much more now because I don’t tire so easily. I eat a lot less, but I need to be scrupulously conscious that what I eat is healthy, as the space it goes into is so small.
Often people don’t recognise me, even those who have known me for years. And for readers considering weight-loss surgery, don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone will be happy for you – people often don’t like change, so if you do it then do it for you alone. Those who care about me are happy to see me healthy, and that’s all that matters.
Physically, I feel a trillion times better. Emotionally – it’s early days. I have always said that it is often not what you eat, it is why you eat it. Being overweight is frequently the symptom of an underlying issue and I am gently sifting through mine. The secret behind successful weight loss – whichever way you go about it – is learning why you used food in the way you did.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you this gastric surgery is the easy way out – it most definitely is not. It takes effort, it is scary. But I do believe it’ll be worth it in the long run. My son said, ‘You look different, but you also look so much happier – that’s what’s important to me.’