The Social Impact of WLS as a Mental Health Pro & Post-OpApril 2, 2018
The social scene can be very different pre and post WLS. I didn’t think too much about the social impact of WLS prior to having surgery. I thought I might make more friends or people may like me more, but I didn’t think about how I would navigate social events. These are some of those experiences I have encountered. My reason for sharing them is to help make other people who have had WLS or are considering WLS aware of some of the social effects of WLS.
Social Events Before and After WLS
During and after the weight loss process you may go from being invisible in public to being visible. You may notice that you are more aware that people notice you. Prior to WLS, you may have wanted to be invisible and not be noticed. Now, you may notice people are making eye contact with you more. You may be making eye contact with other people more as you lose weight, feel more confident and better about yourself and your health. You may even speak to people who you would not normally approach or speak with.
This new social context can be scary and overwhelming at times because the brain and body are not used to the internal changes taking place within you. Though you are feeling more confident, social situations will still have challenges.
Before WLS, social events meant drinking and eating. I didn’t care what time I got to an event because there would usually be food to keep me occupied. Food was a time filler. Food was also a way to tolerate social events and talking to people who I may not want to talk to.
Have a family birthday party to go to but don’t want to get stuck talking to some relative about politics? Nothing a drink or a plate of food can’t make better. Or, being able to break away, a nice way is to say "excuse me, I need to get something to eat." Feeling awkward in a social scene until your friends arrive? Stay in the corner and have some sugary drink before they arrive to kill time. Food and drinks make the situation less tense. The numbing or comforting power of food, sugar, and alcohol.
After having WLS, the way you can navigate social situations changes. You choose not to drink, some foods don't work for you as a post-op, and you cannot combine drinking and eating at the same time. For the first several months, you may be on specific protein shakes. I was on protein shakes for about two years. The protein shakes went everywhere I did.
At first, your friends and peers may understand that you either had surgery or you’re on a “diet,” depending on your comfort level with telling others about your surgery. I was very open about it. My friends knew I had surgery, so they understood the limited diet and protein shakes. Not everyone will be understanding, and even those who were once understanding may later not be.
The Social Impact of WLS
WLS is designed to be a lifelong commitment. It will have an impact on you socially. Events, parties, and vacation with friends, family, and co-workers are a part of your social life. In our society most events involve food. Concerts, weddings, work lunch meetings, family holidays, hanging out with friends… all of these involve food.
The type of food that may be at these events may be foods you choose not to eat anymore. You choose to avoid sugar, high fat, carbonation, high carbohydrates, or fried food. You may also be limited to what poultry and meat you eat, while still eating a high protein diet. Most of the time what is being served at these events are food high in sugar, soda, wine, beer, cake, cookies, appetizers, chips and dip, pasta, fried food, rich or heavy foods.
You arrive at a party and mingle with friends or family. Let’s say it has been eight months since WLS and you have lost quite a considerable amount of weight. You may bring your own food with you or find something you can eat that hopefully won’t make you ill. People will tell you that you look great, some people may even not recognize you.
You feel more confident and happy, and then the questions begin: “When can you eat normal again?” “You still can’t eat that?” “You can’t drink alcohol?” “How can you stand not being able to eat and drink at the same time?” “Don’t you miss food?” “What is the food you miss the most?” You try to explain that this is a lifetime commitment and lifestyle change, meaning it is long term. The response you may receive much of the time is, “Oh, Okay.”
That is because they have never experienced it and thus do not get it. I have had people respond to me with, “Good luck with the lifestyle change,” or “Good for you, I couldn’t do it.” WLS provides a tool to make a lifestyle change possible.
While embarking on this lifestyle change, spending time with friends can be especially hard. If you go out you are generally surrounded by foods and drinks that you most likely don't choose to have. The question is do you tell people you are around that you are limited to what you can eat and drink. Meaning you need to decide if you are going to tell people you had surgery. If so, are you ready for all the questions about surgery? Even at 8 years post-op, I get a lot of questions. I don’t mind answering them because I see it as a way to inform people of what WLS really is.
Having WLS isn’t a quick fix like many may assume. You can keep the weight off. You can be around food and not eat it. WLS provides a tool that leads to a way of life that needs to be maintained. The surgery itself is not a lifestyle change or a quick fix.
Dealing With the Social Impact of WLS
When you have WLS, some people may not feel comfortable inviting you to social events because there will be food and drinks around and they may feel uncomfortable for you. You may have friends who disengage from you because you are no longer “the fat friend.”
So, how do you deal with the social impact of WLS? You don’t want to hibernate. You want to show off this incredible new you who is feeling great. You may have to let go of relationships with friends who can not respect your decision to have WLS or disengage with you because you are no longer morbidly obese. This may be a good time to reevaluate your friendships and social circles. It may be time to connect with people who are more active and do not focus so much on food and drinking. I took up crafting and traveling. I found social groups online that met locally. You now have a great opportunity to try new things and also meet new people.
Another way to deal with your current social circle is to let friends know that you are okay with being around food.
Let your friends know that even though you are limited to what you can eat, that you still want to be invited to social outings. Bring your own food to an event or party. I have emailed several concert venues to get permission to bring in protein bars or food I can eat to events. I tell friends not to worry about what I can eat and bring food I can eat and share. You can plan social events with your friends.
For example, since some restaurants may not be the best option for you after WLS, it might help to let your friends know what restaurants you prefer to go to. Pick the place you and your friends will meet knowing there is at least one thing on the menu you can eat. This makes it less stressful for you and your friends, and all involved will feel more comfortable and leaves all involved feeling more comfortable.
Do not stop being social because you had WLS and cannot eat what you use to. Adapting to this new you is key. The new you will mean new habits; both personally and socially. There is nothing wrong with you taking care of yourself in social situations. Remember that WLS and the lifestyle change it can provide is something you chose so you could be healthier and happier.
ABOUT THE AUTHORFrances M. Merz, MA, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over ten years of experience working in the field. She has a private practice called Another Perspective Counseling Services located in Westwood, NJ. She utilizes a variety of counseling techniques from an eclectic collection of theoretical orientations based on the needs and strengths of the individual client. Frequently, she uses cognitive behavioral, rational emotive, family systems, play therapy and solutions focused approaches.