How The NHS Helped Me Lose 24 Stone
Caroline Chisholm used to sleep on the sofa a few steps away from the front door so she could make it to the taxi that would deposit her at her office each morning. She would ask the driver to stop on the way home to pick up a huge takeaway and order more food to be delivered in the evening. She was in her 20s, weighed 40 stone and was a virtual recluse.
They were dark days, rooted in an unhappy past. Chisholm ate and ate to make herself unattractive to men. She had run away from home with a stranger at the age of 16, lived with him in Oxford briefly and, when they broke up, was abused for three months by the landlord who rented her a room. Lost and lonely, she had a short relationship with another man and became pregnant when she was 17. She returned to her home town of Bedlington in Northumberland, where she gave birth to her daughter, but having broken with her family, she lived alone with her baby.
As time went on, she became unable to get up the stairs, let alone take her daughter out. A childminder took the girl to school. Chisholm continued to eat. Breakfast was toast and cereal. She would get through 10 packets of crisps at work and order a jacket potato for lunch which would be delivered if the order was over £10, so she would add a sandwich as an afternoon snack. On the way home she bought a large Big Mac meal with chips and a drink, a large McChicken sandwich meal, a double Cheeseburger and a wrap. She began eating them in the taxi and finished them at home. Around 8pm she would have two 12in pizzas delivered – buy one, get one free – and eat both. “I did that every single day,” she says.
Chisholm today is a different woman, impossible to identify as the binge eater of yore. Now 33, she smiles all the time, is energetic, engaged and outgoing. “I go on dates with people and they say I’m beautiful,” she laughs, almost in disbelief. She has lost 24 stone.
Bariatric surgery may have saved her life. But as much as the surgery, it is the psychological help she has received that has transformed her. Nobody has stomach-shrinking surgery on the NHS without a long process of counselling and education, learning about food and nutrition. Chisholm is one of the vast majority of morbidly obese patients who have psychological issues that urgently need to be addressed. Matilda Moffett, the psychologist at the bariatric unit in Monkseaton medical centre belonging to Northumbria Healthcare trust, helped her talk about the abuse by her former landlord. “I thought the only way to deal with that was to get so big and disgusting that he wouldn’t come near me,” says Chisholm.
She knew it had gone too far when she had to resort to ordering her clothes from the US. It was costing her a fortune. She had a job in NHS administration, ironically, but did not have to move out of her chair at work. At the GP surgery, where she went for her swollen legs, her weight was off the scale, but she hated herself and ignored advice to lose weight until she started having difficulty breathing. In the end, she asked for help because of her 11-year-old daughter. “She wanted to go out. I sat and looked at her and thought she is the best girl in the whole wide world and she only has me,” she says.
She was referred to a weight management programme, which all potential bariatric surgery patients must complete, demonstrating that they have made changes in their lives and are losing weight. Chisholm struggled, though, until she saw Matilda. “I was scared to lose weight in case it [abuse] happened again,” she says. “I had to deal with that. She listened and asked questions which helped me understand it. I realised it was not my fault and it was nothing to do with the way I looked.”
She had a stomach-reducing operation called a gastric sleeve two years ago and the weight fell off. She physically cannot eat more than a few mouthfuls at a time. Some foods, such as bread and chewy meats, are hard to get down. She feels full very fast and cannot eat within half an hour of drinking anything. It’s not the easy option that some assume, which is why the year of counselling and dieting is vital. You have to want to succeed – and Chisholm really does.
“I go out, I walk, I go to the gym, I take my daughter places, I passed my driving test. I’m going abroad next year and that will be my first time in an aeroplane.” Food is always a struggle, she says. She thinks about it, but it’s what she calls “head hunger”. She lost 10 years of her life, says Chisholm. She does not intend to lose any more.