Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Following Our Hearts to Guatemala for Christmas

McFadyen Family Christmas Service Trip, 2012

In case you hadn’t heard, and you probably have, the McFadyen Six will return to Guatemala next week for our second Christmas Service Trip.  There is much to do as we prepare for our journey, but a different kind of energy is now sustaining us.  The nervousness of 2012 has been replaced with genuine excitement and anticipation.  There are no unknowns this time around. The kids have experienced the landscape, the culture, the language, the food, the heart of the people…. all of the things that make Guatemala unique compared to their lives in the Boston suburbs.  And, although not speaking the language or understanding the traditions can be a barrier at times, it only adds to the depth of the experience in serving others.

I remember, two years ago, being so afraid that the kids would panic when someone tried to talk to them in Spanish or in Kakchiquel, or that they would somehow offend others if expressing their displeasure when seeing the living conditions of the indigenous Maya, but they were true champs.  They smiled, they were respectful, and they engaged with both children and adults, despite the communication obstacles.  Needless to say, both Jay and I are carrying a lighter emotional load as we pack our suitcases and discuss our itinerary, thanks to the overwhelming success of our first Service Trip.  (And, this time around, the kids know how to say “chicken fingers” in Spanish.  Pechugitas de pollo, if you must know.) 

Again, we have decided to forego receiving Christmas presents and have asked those with whom we usually exchange gifts to instead share those funds with Mayan Families for their Christmas Tamale Basket program.  In Guatemala, the tradition – for those who can afford it – is to eat a meal of meat filled tamales and hot chocolate at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate Jesus' birth.  Because most families do not have the means to purchase the special ingredients required to make the tamales (especially the chicken), Mayan Families assembles Tamale Baskets that each feed up to 10 people, and they ask their donors to consider funding one so that their sponsored student can enjoy the Christmas tradition.  As you can imagine, the need is always far greater than the supply, so hundreds of families who did not receive a basket from a sponsor line up outside of the Mayan Families offices with hopes and prayers that one may have been donated for “general distribution.”

We were delighted in 2012 to supply 150 tamale baskets, feeding upwards of 1500 Maya, to those for whom a basket had not been dedicated.  This year, we set a goal to match that glorious amount, and we have been blessed beyond words to exceed it.  As I write today, our friends and family have generously donated 178 tamale baskets on our behalf, and now we’re closing in on 200.  Wouldn’t that be amazing?
We expect to be working hard alongside Mayan Families staff and other volunteers to create and distribute the baskets all next weekend, but the first stop on our itinerary on Thursday is to assist with the Christmas Party in the agricultural village of El Barranco.

About a handful of years ago, on what was my first trip to the Lake Atitlan area, I visited the village of El Barranco and truly fell in love with its people.  It is a small community that sits on a patch of farmland and does not enjoy the spectacular views of the volcano-shored lake.  The people, though, are hard-working and hopeful and are careful to maintain the culture of their Mayan ancestors.  Children in this community learn and perform folkloric dances that tell beautiful stories of the rich history of the Maya.

At that time, Mayan Families had wished to have a presence in the village so that they could offer support to some of the most needy residents.  As is their model, they hoped to establish a pre-school that would not only serve as a teaching center but would also provide the children with a healthy meal once each day, a vitamin to supplement their nutrition deficits, a teeth brushing activity to maintain dental health and, from a safety standpoint, the supervision that many toddlers simply don’t experience as just slightly older siblings offer care while parents work in the fields.
When a property became available for rent, our family offered funding to cover the monthly rental expense for Mayan Families and we have continued that commitment for several years.  But, great news came at the end of last year as a piece of land adjacent to the current school was advertised for sale.  We were very pleased to be able to contribute toward the construction of the brand new El Barranco Pre-School which we will see in its near completed phase on December 18th.  It makes sense that it feels good to have a hand in something real and tangible, but it somehow feels extra special when you are able to give back to a country that has helped you to create your forever family.  Nothing will ever compare to the blessing that our son Will has been in our lives, but it feels absolutely necessary that part of our legacy reside in his country of birth.  And now it does.

And so, our service week will be spent distributing stuffed animals and small toys to children, touring the new school, visiting our sponsored students and elderly women (oh how I adore Maria and Guadalupe) and assembling and distributing the coveted Tamale Baskets.  Oh…. And let’s not forget that we’ll be participating in the Panajachel Christmas Parade too, wearing reindeer noses and tossing dulces (candy) into the crowds of people lining the streets.  (Super fun!)
So what are we giving our kids for Christmas this year?  We’re giving them the gift of being Santa Claus to a people with true needs.  We’re giving them the experience of sacrifice and the understanding that giving feels way better than receiving.  We’re building their character, shaping their values and providing them with the opportunity to be good citizens of the world.  They themselves told us last Christmas, after opening their gifts and playing with their new toys, that they far preferred the Christmas Service Trip over Traditional Christmas.  Who knows what future holidays will hold for the McFadyen Six, but – this year – we’re following our hearts to Guatemala.

If you wish to offer a tax-deductible donation toward the purchase of a $40 Christmas Tamale Basket that feeds 10 people, you can do so with a credit card (or via PayPal) through this link to the Mayan Families website.  Simply enter the dollar amount and add "McFadyen Christmas Service Trip 2014 - Tamale Basket" in the text block marked "What is this donation for?"  (Ignore the prompt that suggests that you didn't indicate a designation for your gift.)  Mil gracias!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stepping Out of the Bariatric Surgery Closet

Exactly one year ago today, on August 21, 2013, I had Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery.  Today, therefore, is my 1st “surg-iversary.” Perhaps this is old news to you… but it’s not one year old news, because this secret was mostly under wraps until recently.  Why, you ask?  I’m still asking that question myself, but this indeed is my first public “outing.”  Read on if you’d like to satisfy your own curiosity or indulge my need to finally share the story.

I was starting to write, “It all began last May,” when I realized that that’s not at all when it began.  Truly, the story starts at my first Diet Workshop meeting, 36 years ago, when I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade.  I feel a deep sense of sadness when I remember that chubby little girl stepping onto the check-in scale for the very first time, surrounded mostly by middle-aged and senior women seeking wisdom and fellowship on their weight loss journeys.  Not a single peer in sight, I realized in that moment that I had a problem reserved for grown-ups. What a fat, ugly, worthless little girl I must be if I, alone, was given this burden in childhood.  And so truly begins my story….

I have ALWAYS had a weight problem.  Even the photos of my toddler self in a ballerina tutu predict what was bound to be a life-long battle of the bulge.  Over the years, I’ve tried it all: Weight Watchers (at least 25 times… I’m a Lifetime Member!), gym memberships, my ill-conceived Facebook diet, HMR, Woman’s World, Zagorra hot pants, cleanses… you name it.  I had occasional success, in fact losing 60 lbs. in my 20s on the Weight Watchers at Work program (thank you, Lotus Development), but my lost pounds always found their way home.  At 44 years old, I was ever-so-close to accepting my fate as a forever fatty when I decided to pick up the phone and call a friend.

At the time, of course, I didn’t know that the conversation would be step one in changing my life forever.  My call was to a pal who had chosen gastric bypass surgery four years earlier and who appeared to have had quite amazing success.  And, even though I clearly remember telling my husband how absolutely crazy she was to risk her life for weight loss surgery and how I would never, ever, in a million years consider such a drastic step, I now found myself out of options and wondering if this might be the answer for me too.  I asked what I thought to be rather intelligent questions about her experience with both the surgery and the recovery, but it was this statement that unlocked the gate for me…  “Beth, I do a lot of things really well, but weight loss isn’t one of them.”

Freedom.  That’s the only word to describe the gift that was found in her words.  I had made hundreds of valiant attempts at weight loss with genuine confidence that I would finally be able to defeat the dragon on my own.  It hadn’t worked.  Each and every time I failed, the only thing I lost was another chunk of self-worth.  Perhaps I too could surrender, take someone’s hand and ask for help?

With a sparkle of hope in my heart, my husband and I attended an information session to learn more about weight loss surgery.  Together, we decided that I’d complete the evaluation process and trust that the results would lead us down the right path.  The summer of 2013 was spent meeting with bariatric surgeons, neurologists, cardiologists, nutritionists, and psychologists.  And, after thorough inspections of, literally, my heart and soul, they deemed me a qualified candidate.  Now the decision was fully mine.

I’ll admit that, during the months of May, June and July, there was no question in my mind that I would move forward with the surgery.  As I learned more at my doctor’s visits, talked with other friends who had chosen bariatric surgery (thanks, ladies… you know who you are!), and researched the subject online, I was convinced that this was the solution for me.  And then the call came to inform me that my surgery had been approved and we were ready to set the date.  In that very moment, uncertainty washed over me. Was I risking too much? What if I was one of the 0.5% who die as a result of the surgery?  How could I possibly leave behind a wonderful husband and four awesome kids… a family that was incredibly hard to build… simply to lose weight.  Would my friends and family judge my choice? Would they think me the ultimate failure? What if I went through with the surgery and it didn’t work?  What if?  What if?  What if?

And then I asked myself… What if your blood pressure continues to rise?  What if your sleep apnea can never be controlled?  What if you have a stroke?  What if you have a heart attack?  What if you develop colon cancer?  What if you live your remaining days feeling entirely overwhelmed by your size?  What if?  What if?  What if?

Saying “yes” to bariatric surgery was simply the most selfish yet most generous gift I ever gave to myself.  In the end, I was convinced (and I still am) that surgery would afford me a longer life with my family.  It would improve the quality of my declining health and, as a bonus, it might even help me to buy back some of that self-worth that I had lost along the way. I said “yes” and then an entirely new wave of questions hit me square in the face.

To tell or not to tell?  Throughout the evaluation process, only a handful of our nearest and dearest knew that I was considering surgery.  In fact, for fear that they would disapprove, I didn’t share my surgery date with my parents until two days prior, and – as predicted – it was not met with a positive response. They begged me to wait 10 years, until the kids were out of school and mostly independent.  They called me selfish.  They told me I was stupid to choose elective surgery.  They sent me articles quoting death rates.  And then, six hours after my surgery, they entered my hospital room with tears in their eyes and told me that they loved me and that they were afraid they would lose me.  Isn’t it interesting how much fear plays a role in the decisions that we make and the words that we choose?  It was both fear and shame that would keep me from sharing my surgery secret for many months to come.

Recovery was equally hard and scary in the first thirty days.  The liquid diet slowly transitioned to soft food like scrambled eggs and greek yogurt, and I was eating small protein-rich meals by the end of week six.  I tried to avoid events that would require food or beverage intake as I evaluated what my body could or could not handle.  And, on a few occasions, like in the North Street School parking lot, after a parent/teacher conference, I raced to find a private space where I could throw up.  The scary part wasn’t managing the food, though; it was managing my expectations of the scale.

I assumed that the weight would just fly off of me.  Haven’t you seen Star Jones or Al Roker?  Didn’t they go from fluffy to flat in a matter of weeks?  Well, that wasn’t my experience.  My surgeon, the nutritionist, the nurse practitioner and my own primary care doctor all assured me that losing slowly is the healthy way to go… that I may experience less hair loss, that my body will heal faster, that the nutrients will absorb better, that yah-dee-yah-dee-yah.  I didn’t want to hear it.  I had said yes to major surgery and if this damn procedure didn’t work, I was going to be pissed.  The end.

They were right.  The losses started and stopped almost cyclically, and once I got below the magic number (we call it “One-derland” and you can probably figure it out), my sense of panic subsided.  At this point, some people noticed my weight loss and offered their congratulations.  I accepted it but felt it was entirely undeserved.  Some went so far as to ask how I was losing the weight.  With 100% truth but not 100% full disclosure, I explained that I had significantly changed my eating habits, that I was on a high protein diet and that I had broken up with my beloved Diet Pepsi. (Bariatric surgery = no more carbonated beverages.)  My husband joked that soda sales were going to plummet thanks to my half-truth, but I still wasn’t ready to share my story.

During the psychological evaluation that was required prior to surgery, I was told that it was not uncommon for people to feel depressed after surgery.  What?  Depressed?  After achieving something that seemed unachievable?  After going off of meds?  After buying new clothes?  After walking up a flight of stairs without feeling winded?  That’s just crazy, I thought.  And then came the blues.

I’m not sure what played the biggest role.  Guilt about not coming clean about my surgery?  Fear that I would be judged?  Shame that I couldn’t lose weight (and keep it off) on my own?  Or was it that, now, at a shrinking size, people seemed to approve of me more.  If they liked how I looked now, they must have hated how I looked then.  Even when my husband hugged me and said, “you feel so good,” I wept, because all that entered my mind was how I must have repulsed him for most of our married life.  I was in limbo… not embracing my new shell and feeling betrayed by my old one.  Between months two and eight, I was in a very dark place.

One of my most telling moments came in month seven when I participated in a group service trip to Guatemala with my mother.  It was February and new t-shirts and capris were in order for the 70-80 degree temperatures that we were anticipating.  Dressed now in size medium from head to toe, I was not feeling at all like myself, so I found it quite interesting, in retrospect of course, that by day two of our journey, I had revealed to my new traveling companions that I had undergone bariatric surgery the previous summer.  It was as if I was saying… “I’m an imposter.  This is not the real Beth.  You could have met her last year when she was wearing size XL.”  Why would I find it nearly impossible to tell my friends and family about my surgery and yet feel absolutely compelled to share it with absolute strangers?

I guess it’s because I’ve ALWAYS been an open book… until now.  After struggles with fertility and the ups and downs of adoption (both domestic and international), I truly considered myself to be the “go-to” girl for information.  “Ask me anything,” I would say.  But my weight loss struggles seemed somehow more personal than my family building ones.  So, unless you were one of the dozen people who asked me if I was dying, I likely didn’t “come out” to you until recently.

So what’s it like to step out of the bariatric closet?  For one thing, it doesn’t necessarily happen in an organized way.  What I had hoped would be a methodical unveiling with those closest to me learning my secret first turned into something entirely different.  You see, it’s not a subject that’s easy to broach, so there were plenty of planned outings that never happened because I simply chickened out.  Or, there were times when my friends had stuff happening in their lives that was clearly much more important than my news, so it seemed insensitive to share.  For lots of different reasons, I didn’t necessarily honor the placement of people in my life with the timing of our eventual conversation.  And the good girl that I am feels rather crappy about that.  I’m sorry if you feel betrayed.  And I’m also sorry that I have spent so much time worrying that you feel betrayed.

I tend to think that my weight indeed “shaped” (no pun intended) the woman that I became.  You see, I’ve always liked the person that I am on the inside.  I’ve been a people-pleaser for as long as I can remember, and I’ve essentially dedicated my life to serving my family and my community, near and far.  Would I have (often desperately) sought the approval of others if my self-esteem was fully intact?  Has my life been full of do-gooder actions because I wanted you to like me… to really, really like me?  I think we all know the answers to those questions.  I’ve been looking for love and validation every darn day of my life… ever since my nine year old self stepped on the scale at that Diet Workshop meeting so many moons ago.

And now for the burning questions…  Are you indeed healthier now?  Yes, I’ve been off of my blood pressure medication and CPAP machine since last November.  Did you achieve your weight loss goal?  I truly never had a number in mind.  My only two goals were to sit higher in the water than my husband in a double kayak and to be able to wear the wedding ring that I had to have cut off of my finger 17 years ago.  Yes and sparkly yes.  And how much weight have you lost?  Well, I won’t tell you the number, but I will tell you that I’ve lost the equivalent of an average fourth grader. (You can Google it.)  Yup… I was holding her inside of me for 36 years, but – with these words - I’m finally ready to set her free.

One final story… About a month ago, I was snuggling with my 10 year old son and he mentioned that he could wrap his arms all the way around me.  So, I took the opportunity to ask him how he felt about my surgery.  His response?  “Happy.”  “Why are you happy,” I asked?  “Because you’re happy now, Mom.”

Sometimes, the greatest gift you give yourself turns out to be the greatest gift you give to those you love the most.