To Whom it May Concern:
My name is Christina Dunham. I’m 30 years old and the last time I stepped on a scale large enough to weigh me, I was 525 pounds. As a woman who is strong, a bit stubborn and fiercely independent, this plea comes with the utmost humility and humbleness – I need help. Let me start from the beginning.
Much of my childhood is vague and blurred. The ugly bits of trauma are stashed somewhere deep in my subconscious, held down with copious amounts of food and guilt. By the time I was six years old I was already considered morbidly obese and by the time I was 12, I’d already tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds. I no longer felt like a child, but a spectacle. As high school began, the weight began to pile on at an even more alarming rate. Diagnosed with anxiety disorder, it completely debilitated me both emotionally and physically. It became more and more difficult to maneuver in my world and was constantly in pain, but I was always hiding behind a forced smile. I was the likable, yet stereotypical “fat, funny girl” who always made a point to make you laugh first, because that way, you couldn’t laugh at her only with her.
After a long, tumultuous relationship with my Dad turned incredibly sour, I found myself homeless my senior year of high school. Up until this point, I had been a straight-A student. My junior year I was accepted into our community college for dual-enrollment, planning to jump-start my lofty career goals. This plan collapsed underneath me and I ended up couch surfing the remainder of my high school career, scraping together enough credits in after-school classes in order to graduate on time. I lived off food-stamps, a meager part-time job and the good nature of friends. After graduation, I found the first full-time job that would hire me and a studio apartment furnished with nothing but outdoor furniture and a mattress on the floor.
It was in all of these moments, food was my escape. In the early years, perhaps out of boredom, but then it turned ugly and it became out of pure necessity – Because even when all else failed, I still had the dollar menu.
By the time I reached 21 I was well over 400 pounds. I fell in love with the first man who loved me in spite of my weight, but it wasn’t enough to pacify my addiction to food. By 23 I was married and topped the scale at 500 pounds. For the first time in my adult life, I had medical insurance. By 24, I crashed dieted to 450 pounds to qualify for LapBand surgery. By 25 I was sick every single day. Nothing I ate stayed down and shockingly, I made it 403 pounds. Regardless of what I ate, I never made it below that weight. By the time I was 27, I gave up – On weight loss and on my marriage. In a matter of months, my husband left, I was consistently sick or in pain and I was utterly depressed, and my weight ballooned back to 460 pounds. I was alone again in a world that terrified me. I didn’t know life could get any harder.
In November of 2015, I had strange bouts of unexplained chest pressure. Convinced it was my irrational anxiety getting the best of me, I ignored it for weeks. Finally, after feeling odd for an entire month I went to the walk-in clinic. All my tests came back normal. I explained to the attending doctor my symptoms one last time. Pressing my hand into my chest, right on the breast bone I explained that it just feels like a constant, uncomfortable pressure, as if something was pushing on me all the time. He sits on his rolling stool, calmly glides next to my bed, looks me straight in the eye and tells me these words I’ll never forget: “There is something pressing on you. It’s the rest of you.” I don’t remember much of the conversation after this, but do remember gathering my belongings as quickly as I could and sauntered to my car as fast as my body would allow. Breathless and exasperated, I fell into the front seat and sobbed.
As I pulled myself together over the coming weeks, I tried to put this experience into perspective. Still having difficulty breathing, I watched what I ate very carefully. I lost weight rapidly and in 6 weeks managed to lose 30 pounds. Then the aches set in worse than before and my breaths became even more shallow. My friends were convinced this was not normal for me and noticing this steady decline, urged me to go to the emergency room. At their incessant prodding I once again found myself in a hospital bed, this time staring at an x-ray of what was explained to me was an enlarged heart. I was too big to fit in any of the scanning machines, but from what they could tell, it was likely “CHF.” Being in the medical field, I was familiar with this terrifying acronym – Congestive Heart Failure. What?!? But I’m 28 years old! 28-year-olds don’t have heart failure! I was told that it was extremely rare, but most likely caused by my severe obesity. I was referred to my primary doctor for follow-up the following week.
As I made my way in to see my doctor, I’d grown increasingly uncomfortable. Everything is difficult. He explains that we’d do some preliminary tests, but he’s sure this pain I’m experiencing is merely acid reflux, probably brought on by the way I eat. I go home, tired of doctors and convinced that I just must be crazy. The following week the fevers started. I ate ibuprofen and Tylenol like they were candy, just to find any sort of relief. I couldn’t walk to the bathroom without sitting down halfway there. I could only lay on my left side, if I tried any other position I was on fire. It went on like this for a week, but I refused to see any more doctors. My sister, checking on me, panicked and called in for reinforcement. My mom, rushing from out of state, drove me to the hospital the next day. Refusing to leave without answers, they finally admitted me on February 29th, 2016 – Almost 3 months after this ordeal began. At 7am the next morning, I was woken by a tech doing an echo-cardiogram, a simple ultrasound procedure. Within minutes, nurses and doctors rushed into my room. Terrified out of my mind, I asked what was going on. The doctor explained that I was going to ICU, I was going to be scheduled for immediate surgery – I had massive amounts of fluid on my heart, a condition I was later told was called a pericardial effusion. As I lay in the ICU, I vaguely remember being stripped naked by half a dozen sets of hands as they prepped me for surgery, but I do remember all the questions that rolled around in my head. How did this happen? Why was this not detected sooner? How serious is this? Am I going to die? As the surgeon appeared, my first question I blurted to him, “Did this happen because I’m fat?” A kind look in his eyes, he answered with a resounding, “No. This is a case of bad luck mixed with the incredible misfortune of being overlooked far too long.”
It was on that day they made an 8-inch incision between my breasts, lifted my rib cage and cut a small “window” from the sac surrounding my heart. In a space designed for around 2 tablespoons of fluid, the doctor removed almost 2 liters of fluid off my heart. My surgeon told me had I waited another week, it was very possible my heart would have simply stopped beating from all the pressure and I would have been gone. For months, my heart was slowly suffocating and I was brushed off time and time again because all the doctors saw was just another fat girl with a heart problem.
On the evening of my final day in the hospital, my mom sat at my bedside. Crying for the first time since this all began, I told her I wanted to be done. Done with fighting and done with life. I’ve fought and clawed every single moment of my life to make something of myself, but I will never win this battle. There is no light at the end of my tunnel, there is no silver lining in any of my clouds. She held my hand and we cried together. After a long silence, she told me something that still rings in my head: “Every cloud has it’s silver lining, sometimes you just have to add your own sparkle.”
I tell you all of this, not to tell you how awful my life has been, but to paint a portrait of woman who has known heartbreak, rejection, pain and fear…But one who has also known perseverance, kindness, courage and determination. I am a full-time employee and full-time college student. I pride myself on getting up each morning and facing the day, determined not to let my body 500lb frame dictate who I will become. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that I just can’t do this alone. As my joints continue to wobble underneath me, as hygiene becomes near impossible and as I continually debate facing the world because I no longer physically fit inside it, I concede to my own limitations and ask for help. More than anything, I want to be a mother. I want to fall in love. Heck, I’d love to just be able to buckle a seat belt again. There are so many other seemingly meaningless moments obesity steals from me each and every day and I’d just love the opportunity to capture a few of those back for the first time in my life. I truly appreciate all your time reading my rather long-winded letter and I hope I’ve captured your enough attention to consider reaching down for a hand up. I know this is a long, tumultuous journey, but if life has taught me anything so far, it’s that everything worth living for is worth fighting for!