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Published: Sunday, 2/22/2009

Toledoan Rebecca Golden writes about her former life at 571 pounds

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The 5-foot, 7-inch Rebecca Golden has lost about 300 pounds since having surgery in December, 2005. The 5-foot, 7-inch Rebecca Golden has lost about 300 pounds since having surgery in December, 2005.
JETTA FRASER / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

If your house was on fire, you'd take the fastest way out, observes Toledoan Rebecca Golden.

So, when her weight reached 571 pounds, she didn't stroll down the hallway to the door, figuratively speaking. She crawled out the nearest window: She had gastric bypass surgery, an operation which leads to weight loss by making the stomach smaller and allowing food to bypass part of the small intestine.

"I did what I needed to do to save my life," declares Ms. Golden, who used the house-on-fire analogy in her book, charmingly titled Butterbabe, which was published earlier this month in the United Kingdom by Vermilion, a Random House Group company, and later excerpted in the Times of London.

Whether the book is published in the United States depends on how well it does in the UK, Ms. Golden says.

Subtitled The True Story of a 40-stone Outsider Living in a Size Zero World - the British "stone" equals 14 pounds - the book grew out of a piece that Ms. Golden wrote for the online magazine Salon.com in August, 2006. The Times of London asked her to expand it by 1,000 words for an article, and after that appeared weeks later, a publisher contacted her about writing a book. (You can find both of the 2006 articles by clicking on links at butterbabeblog.blogspot.

com.) Another link will take you to Amazon.co.uk.

"I will never apologise for having had surgery," Ms. Golden writes in Butterbabe, using the British spelling. "Whenever I see a ladies' magazine showcasing ordinary people who lost weight without surgery (through hard work alone!) I feel like flying to California and putting a size ten foot in some editor's boney behind.

"People judge you harshly for weighing too much - and in America a lot of people interpret 'too much' as anything over a size eight," the book continues. "But they also judge formerly fat people harshly for losing weight without struggling hard to do so in a conventional way."

That excerpt says a lot about Ms. Golden, 36, a freelance writer who grew up in Sylvania and now lives in a sunny third-floor apartment on the fringe of the Old West End. She's smart, articulate, witty, and defiant.

"People think that being overweight is a moral failing," she asserts. "I see it as a health problem."

The 5-foot, 7-inch Ms. Golden has lost about 300 pounds since having the surgery in December, 2005, at Middletown Regional Hospital in Middletown, Ohio. Her weight now is "in the 200s - which is all I'll say."

Her struggle with excess pounds started in childhood.

Ms. Golden says she went from being an average-sized 4 or 5-year-old to "a little plump" by 7 or 8. The year she turned 12, she gained about 100 pounds.

She says she's wondered if there was a hormonal component to her rapid weight gain when she hit puberty. "I wasn't exactly eating the right foods, either, and I didn't exercise a whole lot, but you could say the same thing about any of the kids I grew up with."

She's ready for those who would criticize her for raising the possibility of a hormonal trigger. "People are like, 'Oh, she's dodging responsibility for being so big.' Not really."

Ms. Golden says she's just a thinker by nature. "I try to see how things might relate to one another because I really want to understand it, not because I'm looking for anybody's forgiveness."

Over the years she tried this and that to lose weight, sometimes dropping a bit but never maintaining the effort. Her parents padlocked the refrigerator, to no avail. By the time the honors student graduated in 1991 from Southview High School, she weighed 360 pounds and didn't think she could do anything about it. "When you get past a certain point you feel overwhelmed," she says.

At Boston College, Ms. Golden earned two bachelor's degrees (in print journalism and United States history) and gained more weight despite walking at least a mile a day between classes at the urban campus.

She went on to graduate school in telecommunications at Michigan State University but dropped out in 1997. "My father died in 1996 and it was kind of a rough time," Ms. Golden explains, adding that she also was disappointed in the program in which she was enrolled.

After working briefly as a copy editor at a newspaper in Illinois, she returned to Toledo, where she was a writer for the Weekly, now defunct, and Toledo City Paper. Her writing also has appeared in publications including The Blade, Cookie Magazine, Marie Claire South Africa, and Eve Magazine.

It was after she returned to Toledo that her weight climbed to its peak of 571 pounds - a number that confronted her, in neon green, for the first time when she went to see a pulmonologist for treatment of sleep apnea.

Until then she didn't know exactly what she weighed - most scales don't go that high.

"That sort of number comes as a huge shock," she writes in Butterbabe. "You try to deny its significance. If you're me, you leave the doctor's office, head directly to Wendy's and order a Classic Triple, large fries and a Cherry Coke. You eat this meal in your car, and you cry like a little girl."

Surprisingly, she says that even at 571 pounds she didn't suffer from heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure - diseases that typically go hand in hand with obesity. And in some ways she was leading a normal life.

"I drove a car. I worked. I never became permanently fused to a plaid sofa," she writes in Butterbabe. "Burly firemen never had to remove a picture window from my house so they could haul me away to the hospital. Still, I longed to do ordinary things."

What really pushed her to the decision to have gastric bypass surgery "was that I was terrified I would die," Ms. Golden says. "I read somewhere that the life expectancy for someone who weighed as much as I did was something like 33 years, I was 32 when I was looking into it. ... Given the amount of weight I would need to lose to be free of fearing death all the time, I wanted to do it in a way that would take weight off quickly."

The risks of the operation scared her, but the prospect of early death or disability scared her more.

Ms. Golden says she prepared for the surgery for six months, losing about 41 pounds by modifying her diet and exercising six days a week. She stopped drinking her beloved Cherry Coke and eating fast food, and began keeping a detailed food journal.

After the surgery, after she had lost about 160 pounds, she discovered she had mixed feelings about the new Rebecca.

"One of the only good things about weighing nearly 600 pounds is the sense of uniqueness it bestows. People had no trouble remembering me," she wrote for Salon. "But, day by day, as I dwindle down, I become more and more ordinary."

She has a different perspective now, saying that "I think I've found other ways of being extraordinary beyond being twice the size of everybody else."

She measures progress in ways that people of average weight take for granted.

"I can drive a Saturn," Ms. Golden says. The car she had before the gastric bypass was a used Lincoln Continental. The driver's seat was pushed way back to make room for her stomach; the steering wheel was arms' length away. Her body contorted in the seat, she had to twist her foot to push the pedals.

Now she can sit in a booth at a restaurant; she lives on her own rather than with her mother in West Toledo; she can use a regular seat belt on an airplane, she can give her friends' children piggyback rides, she's a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. She can walk five miles, a distance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

"The idea of having to walk more than a couple blocks from a parking lot before the surgery would have made me very uncomfortable, and anxious, because it was just exhausting," Ms. Golden says. "Every joint would hurt, my feet would hurt, my back would hurt."

And although she isn't seeing anyone right now, she has dated. "I didn't go on a date before I was 35," she says.

"I feel like I'm part of society in a way that I wasn't before, in the fray and participating in a way that I couldn't," Ms. Golden reflects.

Some changes have occurred on the inside, too. She says she feels more feminine, more womanly. She feels "stronger, tougher in some ways," but also less angry than she used to be.

"I'm not always in a defensive position," Ms. Golden explains. People who are severely obese need to be that way sometimes, "because there are people who just yell things at you on the street so you're always sort of on guard, and I think I'm not as much anymore ... I think I feel a little bit relieved that I don't need to carry that with me all the time."

Ms. Golden had a second surgery in September, 2007, to remove 35 pounds of excess skin, and says she has about 40 pounds of excess skin now.

She still works out, stays away from fast food and soda, and tries to make good choices about the quality and quantity of food she eats. "I'm losing weight a little bit, but I'm not really actively pursuing it as much as I could be, I suppose. I'm like everybody else. I think, 'Oh, I should lose weight,' but honestly I think if I never lost another pound, I'd be OK."

Ms. Golden points out that, "There's no woman who stands in front of a mirror naked and is happy, but there are things I look at and say, well, that's not so bad [and] that's not so bad."

She says she's lost enough weight now that she can do everything she wants to do, and her health is good - physical and emotional.

"I like how I've turned out," she says.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6126.



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