My mind stopped there, not even noticing the "... and Minimally Invasive General Surgery." I honestly believed that my primary care physician had dealt with me long enough on the weight and had recommended me to a bariatric surgeon as a last ditch effort to save my miserable life.
Had I really become one of those fat people too damn weak to get his life back in order? Or maybe it took more than desire to get the job done.
I scheduled that appointment and took that long look in the mirror, right into my sad, droopy eyes. Then down to my overhanging gut, then at my fat-dimpled rear end, then back into my eyes. The time had come for desperate measures. I had tried so very hard for so very long to stay on a healthy eating plan. I would lose twenty pounds, then gain twenty-five back. Would sit down to a nice glass of wine and finish the bottle, then another, and barely be buzzed because I had polished off a medium pizza and an order of Buffalo wings right before.
It would have taken a third bottle to take me over the hill into drunkenness. A fourth to start slurring and staggering.
I loved wine, especially during alone times. It helped me forget my misery. And alone is where I endured misery most. To the world, even to close friends, I flashed a smile and a laugh because I truly believed in the words of the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox from 1883 ...
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Almost before I knew it, I struggled onto the examination table for the consultation. In walked a young woman about thirty-five years old with a huge smile, white lab coat featuring her name "Melanie L. Hafford, MD, FACS," hand extended. I shook it firmly.
"Mr. Hatley, I see you have a balky gallbladder."
I made up my mind to discuss my larger problem as well. "That and balky dieting practices over the decades."
She laughed. "Well, let's see if we can take care of both."
She went over the process of removing my gallbladder, which didn't seem nearly as daunting as I had feared. We then went over the gastric bypass and the sleeve gastrectomy surgeries.
By the end of the consultation, I had complete faith in her. That kind of confidence in a doctor had only happened to me once before, when I met my first physician beyond pediatrics.
I'd been twenty-three. He had been my late father's physician. He remained my doctor for the next twenty-one years, until his retirement.
For the first time in such a long time, I experienced hope.
"Can we do them at the same time?" I asked, essentially committing myself to bariatric surgery.
"We can try," she said, and I heard a hint of doubt in her voice, like a grating of nutmeg over a plate of Brussels sprouts. "Because of insurance requirements, it'll be about six months or so before we can do the bypass or the sleeve, whichever one you choose, and, well, to give you a chance to really think this thing through. I don't know if your gallbladder will wait that long. Let's talk it over in a month when you come in for your first weigh-in and we start the process."
My sludgy gallbladder didn't wait the month.
It's a story for another time, but suffice it to say that another trip to the emergency room, followed by emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder, a nine-day stay in the hospital, and six weeks at home recovering opened my eyes nice and wide.
I needed to do something even if it was wrong. And I understood deep in my core that I would not be able to do it alone. I needed help.
Oh, God, I needed help.
One of my father's sayings rang in my ears like a song, "Chief, sometimes it's the bigger man who asks for help, rather than the one who plows on alone."
The bariatric surgeon.
I called and made an appointment.
She saw me first because of my gallbladder. Now, no more gallbladder. But I had a stomach that made up for it and, though I had lost twelve pounds in my involuntary nine day fast in the hospital, I made sure to eat enough to fill the empty space, put that weight back on and gained some more.
She walked in, smiling. We shook hands.
"So, your gallbladder didn't wait."
I shook my head. "No. It didn't."
She checked the incisions. "They look great. Who did the surgery?"
"He's good. Well, let's move on to the next step, then."
She pulled out some paper and drew images of what would happen with the gastric bypass (which I gathered would divide the stomach into two sections then rearrange the small intestine to connect to both) and the gastric sleeve (which would remove three-quarters of my stomach).
She recommended the sleeve.
"Good. So you'll need to come in once a month for six months for weigh-ins, you'll need to see a psychologist, and take a sleep study test for sleep apnea, get clearance from a cardiologist, and meet with a nutritionist. All of this is so the insurance will cover the surgery."
"I can do that."
"Excellent. We'll make today weigh-in number one and move on from here."
That quick. That simple. That easy.
I had joined the ranks of those in line to have the gastric sleeve. Maybe I would move an inch toward changing my life like all of the commercials claimed. I didn't care about that big of a difference. Truly, I didn't. Wishing for that would be like a wolf baying at the moon, and I would not put myself through that torture. I would never again wish for something I couldn't have.
I just wanted to be able to walk more than ten minutes before needing to sit for fifteen. I wanted to be able to tie my shoes while they were on my feet. I wanted to be able to get out of a chair without having to count to three by halves and then quarters and then eighths. I wanted to go to the State Fair of Texas with my friends and walk around with them to see the exhibits and ride the rides. I didn't care anymore about eating the funnel cakes and the corn on the cob mushy from the butter and the corny dogs covered in mustard.
Well, I did want a corny dog covered in mustard.
I couldn't give it all up.
I spoke to everyone I needed to speak to. A psychologist had me fill out a lengthy questionnaire, saw me for an hour, asked me questions, had me memorize three words which he asked me to repeat several times during the session. We talked about my parents, my siblings. Mostly, I think he wanted to know how I felt about the surgery.
I smiled. "Look, I know it's not a miracle cure. I have to do my part, and that it won't be easy. The surgery isn't the fix. It's an assist. The fix is still on me. I'm just asking for help."
"I do want you to know," he said concluding our visit, "that it's common for people to regret having the surgery after having it. That's something you may have to deal with."
Despite everything, I found it next to impossible modifying my diet and caloric intake, though. I would do well for a week or two, then the chicken fried steak swimming in cream gravy would start knocking on the door.
I would answer.
The mashed potatoes and corn would join in.
I would answer.
Those times I managed to cover my ears and close my eyes to the temptation, the rolls oozing with melted butter would scream until they had my attention.
I would answer.
The pecan pie with the scoop of vanilla ice cream did me in every time.
From there I rolled downhill out of control, venturing to the all-you-can-eat buffets, the double meat double cheeseburger joints, the eggs and bacon breakfast with a side of pancakes topped off with a cinnamon roll, washed down with a couple of glasses of orange juice.
I would go through the drive thru at McDonalds and order a Big Mac, fish sandwich, and two large orders of fries, hoping rather than believing that the window server would think I would be splitting the bounty with someone at home.
I didn't split it.
I ate every morsel. Every fry. Every grain of salt.
And make sure I took my blood pressure medication.
And then feel so disgusted with myself and my lack of control that I would pull the cork on a bottle of wine and finish it in a couple of hours. I might even have a second bottle. It numbed me until morning, when work would loom ahead and put my self-loathing on the backburner.
Two things I clung to on my uncontrolled fall down the mountainside. First, I stayed true to my promise and did not drink alcohol during the day. That would have been a ticket to a rehab clinic or worse. Second, regardless of my mood, my aged cat Captain Hook would hop into my lap and I would pet him. Even then I knew he did me far more good than I did him.
He would listen to me drone on and on about nothing and everything not understanding a single word I said but feeling every wash of emotion from me.
The Captain kept loneliness from taking root in my soul.
I continued to gain weight, though. One pound at a time, one burger at a time, one bottle of Pinot Noir at a time.
I dreaded the weigh-ins with Dr. Hafford. I didn't want to see the look of disappointment in her eyes when she saw that not only could I not seem to lose a few pounds and keep them off, but I put them back on with a few more for good measure.
Twice I postponed my appointment a week to avoid the utter humiliation of facing her. More like facing the scales, really, since Dr. Hafford never judged me, always had a smile on her face, kept encouraging me to swap one meal a day for a protein shake, even when I didn't do that.
Dr. Hafford suggested that I see my primary care physician to keep him in the loop. Truly I didn't want to. While Dr. Hafford didn't judge my weight, Dr. Mason couldn't help but scratch the back of his head and lower his face to hide a grimace.
"I'm glad you're taking steps," he said, looking at the chart. "You were a pretty sick boy earlier this year with your gallbladder." He shook his head. "On day three and day four, it could have gone either way for you."
I did a classic double take. Then a triple take. "I'm sorry. You mean I could have died."
"You sure could have. Streptococcal sepsis is very serious."
"Excuse me. I had streptococcal sepsis?"
"You sure did. Nasty."
"My aunt died of that."
"A lot of people do."
I felt as though he poured ice water down my back. "Nobody told me. They said that I had bacteria in my blood that causes strep throat."
"That's one way to describe it, yes."
"Hang on. Nobody told me how bad it was. Not one second of those nine days did I not firmly believe I would walk out under my own power."
"And that's just the way they wanted it. The mind is very powerful, and your belief that you would go home served you well."
I throttled my determination to take care of myself, but still couldn't lay off the massive amounts of food and, especially, wine.
And I hated myself for each bite I took, and each glass of wine I swallowed.
Oh, yeah. I needed help badly.
The last weigh-in, right after my cardiologist signed off on the surgery as "low risk," nearly brought tears. There I weighed in at 327.5 pounds (148.558 kilograms and 23.392 stones).
"I guess the insurance won't cover it since I've put on twelve pounds," I said, thoroughly humiliated and disgusted with myself.
She smiled. "From my experience, they would be less likely to cover you if you had lost forty pounds in the last six months. You gained some weight. Okay. But you tried and kept coming back to see me. That took guts, Mr. Hatley. We're going to do this."
Despite my irresponsibility, I still had a chance.
Everyone kept giving me chances. The doctors, my friends, God. Why-the-hell wasn't I taking any of them?
This one, I would take.
We took my "before picture" at Dr. Hafford's office four days before the surgery.
As the day approached, my apprehension level increased logarithmically minute by minute. Did people really feel great after the surgery? Did people ever die during the surgery or from complications of the surgery?
Then again, everything looked good. Blood tests, EKG, the whole shebang. My checkup the afternoon before went very well. I showered that evening with the antiseptic soap they provided even though it smelled like a chemistry class.
But my heart beat fast and hard. Sleep wouldn't have come if it came, so I violated orders and had some wine to relax and shake the negative thoughts from my head. I forced myself to think thin, to will myself into a body I could live with even if I couldn't be proud of it.
The next morning, December 28, 2016, I showered with the chemistry class soap again, dressed in loose fitting clothes, then waited for my friend to pick me up and take me to the surgical center. On the way she asked questions I half heard. I gave answers to the questions I thought I heard, asked a couple of questions I almost heard answers to, and we were there.
I was there, but living in a world I'd never been to before.
The sun had not yet risen.
My friend wished me the very best. I took my overnight bag, and walked inside to check in.
I had no time to think about the gallbladder surgery or what today might bring. Was I ready? Did I have the courage? Would it work?
So many times in my life I had been a coward.
—To be continued—
Rocky Hatley has been a Screen Actors Guild Member for over 25 years. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee more years ago than he would like to think about, and, as a child, was held by Elvis Presley. Raised in Texas, USA, he's a massive fan of music, plays guitar, and has the most amazing celebrity stories ever. Rocky is a passionate writer currently working on a novel loosely based on his experience as a SCUBA diving instructor. He is the co-writer of two plays produced at Manhattan South Theatre in Orlando, Florida. Barstruck and Bedtime Stories each enjoyed successful six-month runs. Rocky appeared in both. In his life he has, at times, been too thin and too heavy. This is an article about Rocky's journey to follow the lead of Goldilocks and find the "just right."