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How Denial Kept Him From Confronting His Weight

What finally drove this man to face his obesity and take action


Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing Next Avenue series about one man’s lifelong struggle with obesity, and what he’s learned since deciding to confront it.

I opened my eyes in the recovery room and felt an overwhelming sense of relief and joy. I’d made it through a day that had been long in the making and marked by fear, stress and uncertainty. I don’t remember when the anesthesia took hold. In fact, I don’t remember anything from the surgery itself: vertical sleeve gastrectomy.

I did know that somewhere nearby, my wife, Molly, and daughter, Vika, were waiting for me and that my medical team in the room seemed pleased. Deedee, my exuberant, Liberian-born registered nurse, checked me over and uttered words that sounded strangely soothing and reminded me of the 7-Up “uncola” ads from the 1970s. She proclaimed: “It will be a new life.”

That was what I went to Texas — to a sparsely populated hospital in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth — to find.

(MORE: ‘All of Me’ Tackles Obesity and Identity)

Over the next few months, I hope to explain what led me, at 51, to decide to have 75 percent of my stomach removed. I want to provide insight into the fast-growing procedures collectively known as weight-loss surgery and discuss some of the issues and personalities that surround this new community I suddenly find myself part of.

While Deedee’s proclamation now serves as the mantra for my quest to a healthier life, my meeting Deedee was an ending — I hope — to a long trip filled with unhealthy choices, medical challenges and denial.

You Say I’m Fat, I Say You’re Stoned

I remember the event in 1984 like it was yesterday. While I was sleeping in (and likely skipping class) at Saint Mary’s College in Winona, Minn., after a late night working as a photographer at the Winona Daily News, one of my roommates walked by my open door, spotted me and thinking I was asleep said: “God, he’s fat.”

(MORE: 7 Ways Denial Can Ruin Your Health)

My outward response was silence. Inside, I sloughed off the remark by telling myself: “God, he’s always so stoned.” There. The moral high ground was mine. I was, indeed, fat, and he was, indeed, stoned a lot. I had escaped my roommate’s observation with a sleight of hand that would serve to protect me from myself for the next 30 years.

Kevin and his dad Max circa 1963-64Credit: Courtesy Kevin McGrath
Kevin and his dad Max circa 1963-64
Great Parents, Great Childhood

Life has been very good to me in so many ways. I had a great childhood. So many people see an obese person and wonder, “What’s wrong with him? What happened?” No trauma. No abuse. No mental health issues. I played sports growing up. I was voted most likely to be president by my classmates, likely owing to my dogged (and solitary in Libertyville, Ill.) support of Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race.

I was blessed with great parents. Parents who were present and cared. Parents who let me fail but helped me succeed. Parents who never stopped parenting as long as they were here with me.

(MORE: 9 Surprising Ways to Lower Your Diabetes Risk)

I lost my dad in 2004, my mom in 2010. My father’s health went into significant decline in about 2000, when a routine pacemaker replacement morphed into staph infection and a nearly month-long hospital stay that took the life out of him. Weight was always an issue for my dad. He did not exercise, and he worked extremely long hours. My father’s health struggles were directly tied to his weight and while I intellectually understood this, I was not able to use it as motivation to choose a better path for myself.

My father eventually resolved his weight issues through hard work and perseverance — good, old-fashioned diet and (a small amount of) exercise. But by the time he regained control of his eating, his path was set and it was a path that shortened his time with us.

Diet and exercise was a formula that I failed repeatedly. My mother wished to the end of the stars that I would lose weight, but she knew she was powerless over my outcome so she simply offered her support. She made a standing offer to send me to a fitness resort because my father had benefited (for a time) from a visit to the Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida. My reply was always the same: “I’m too busy.”

The Start Of A Downward Spiral

I had followed my father’s footsteps to Saint Mary’s, where I majored in journalism and political science, escaping in three years with a degree to follow the magnetic pull of my first real job: sports writer for the Winona Daily News. The lure of $6-per-hour was just too much.

College was the start of my downward spiral regarding my health and weight. Working second shift, ending most nights at Poot’s Tavern in Winona just after midnight, increased my weight and contributed to a decline in my fitness.

I couldn’t claim I was unaware of the potential consequences of overeating and living a sedentary lifestyle. The signs were everywhere.

My boss (nicknamed Bigs) at the newspaper once posed for a photograph in a striped referee’s shirt displayed in a full-page, front-of-section article/promotion called the “How Big is Bigs” contest. Guessing the weight of the fat guy was apparently a marketing idea.

Anther co-worker, who I admired greatly, took on his weight problem by embarking on the Optifast liquid diet, losing a huge amount of weight, and eventually running a marathon. His whispers to me about my weight apparently weren’t loud enough.

My refrain of “I’m too busy” was — by my mid-20s — my instinctual way of deflecting what was becoming a serious health problem. The writing was clear. But I could not understand how to conquer this demon.

Kevin (right) with his brother Steve (left) and parents Darlene and Max, in 1981Credit: Courtesy Kevin McGrath
Kevin (right) with his brother Steve (left) and parents Darlene and Max, in 1981
Diabetes Diagnosis Prompts Healthy Habits

As I continued my newspaper career, I was confronted with health news that was predictable based on my family history and should have been impetus for change: I was diabetic. Like my next older brother, my diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes came in my 20s. This news helped me reform my eating and return to exercise, mostly through playing basketball at the Y.

I lost weight, more than 50 pounds. People noticed. I bought new clothes. I felt good. But as would be repeated over the next 25 years, I eventually returned to my old, bad habits of overeating and couchsitting, a potentially deadly combination for someone with my struggles and family history.

In 1995, I enrolled in law school in the Twin Cities. I loved law school, but all of my attempts at exercise and diet were met with small, short-term successes. Down 20 pounds, then up 25 pounds six months later. Down 30 pounds, gain 40. My old favorite phrase, “I’m too busy,” became a more frequent crutch as I moved into a new career in family law, experiencing professional success all the while failing miserably at finding that elusive balance between home, work and health.

It was so confounding to achieve goals in my career that I never dreamed were possible while completely failing at managing my weight, which by my 40s was unequivocally my biggest challenge in life.

In A Death Grip

In 2006, as my wife and I prepared to travel to Russia for two weeks to adopt our daughter, I was able to temporarily muster the energy and discipline to exercise and lose weight. Long airline flights, lots of walking, frigid temperatures and language barriers were the motivation. Not to mention the stress and responsibility of becoming a parent for the first time of a seven-year-old girl.

It was an awesome trip, an amazing experience, a truly life-changing event. But then, my fitness and health struggles were repeated. I was able to rationalize that my new parenting responsibilities and our decision for Molly to cut back at work were further justifications for being “too busy.”

By 2012, I was — by nearly all measures — blessed. My career had led me to five years serving on a large, urban family court bench. After leaving the bench, my private family law dispute resolution practice was thriving. We had a great kid. Molly supported our family in so many ways, notably by making healthy choices, providing balanced meals and always making time to exercise.

Despite the many blessings, my weight had a near-death grip on me and my family. It was an anchor holding us back from so many experiences: travel, physical activity, chores. All of these pleasures turned into stressors.

In November of 2012, my previous fleeting thoughts of weight loss surgery — focused then almost solely on the lap-band procedure — turned serious. “Too busy” wouldn’t cut it. It was almost too late.

Next: A Heart Attack Waiting to Happen

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