Meet the Characters: Rocky Tayeh
< Meet the Characters
Rocky Tayeh is a 19-year-old college student living with his eight siblings and parents in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. After a life-long struggle with obesity, Rocky underwent Lap-Band surgery. A combination of this procedure, healthy eating and physical activity has helped Rocky lose over 180 pounds. In addition to his participation with Fat: What No One Is Telling You, Rocky is an award-winning radio journalist who shares his continuing story with radio audiences through his work with National Public Radio affiliate WNYC.
Can you remember the first time that you had feelings or thought that you were overweight?
The first time it became a real issue was probably towards my teenage years, when my weight was under a magnifying glass. I was no longer "too tubby Rocky" but I was a big monster that everybody was looking at. When I was little I was overweight, and there were times where my weight was a problem in terms of not fitting into certain stuff and not being the normal sized kid in my classroom. Everybody was always thinking that I got held back (in school) a bunch of times because I looked older; my weight changed my appearance. But that wasn't really a big deal for me. (My weight) became a real issue at about age 13, when I started to question like why was gaining so much, and why I wasn't skinny like everybody else.
I wasn't your typical fat depressed kid sitting in the corner. I was very popular, and it was because of my sense of humor. So in middle school I was picked on a little bit, but I always had those snappy comebacks and sense of humor. Then during high school and junior high school I relied on my sense of humor almost 100 percent to get me through the day. Eventually there were people who would just come up to you, no joking at all, and they say, "Rocky, I really care about you and I want you to lose weight." It's really emotional to let somebody in. So I just automatically let it all go in through one ear and out the other.
Did you require special accommodations for your size when you were at school?
Oh yeah. I had mobile desks, where the seat and the table are not attached. In all the classrooms, they had regular desks, and that couldn't work for me, so I had to request (mobile desks). That was also a challenge, because sometimes teachers weren't so sensitive. Sometimes they would just say, "What are you doing? Don't move that desk. There's a desk right there. Go sit in that desk." And I'd tell them I couldn't, and they'd think I'm just being a pest. So what do I do? Do I tell the whole class I can't (sit there) because I can't fit in it? And then that will really embarrass me, so there were a couple of times where I just walked out of the classroom and stuff like that.
You've talked about an emotional addiction to food. Can you explain what that is, and what it feels like?
With me, my mom's love was shown through food. Ever since I was little, whenever I would get a reward (from my mother), it would be a lollipop or a treat. So I eat to feel good. The scientific reason I studied was that a hormone called insulin (was produced when eating), and that makes a sort of "high." But with me, (food) is sort of like a really good friend. Every emotion I had I revolved around food. So every time I would feel sad, I would turn to M&M's or candy. Every time I would feel happy, same thing. So it wasn't just a matter of eating the wrong foods, it was being connected to food in the wrong way. How do you put the food down when you've built this relationship with so many years around it? It was like a friend I couldn't let go of, so it was really strong. That's why all of those diets never worked.
Can you talk about your weight loss efforts prior to your decision to pursue surgery?
I tried the Atkins diet. I tried the fruit and vegetable diet. I tried the "stop eating at 6:00" thing. I tried to stop eating sugar completely--it just didn't work. I tried exercising as well. My dad and mom forced me to go to the gym, but that didn't work obviously. Back then when I tried those diets, I was exercising five times a week and I wasn't even losing a pound or two in that week, so it was ridiculous. It was like I was buried under 300 pounds of fat, and for me to think I can actually climb out of it was absurd.
Why do you think these methods didn't work for you?
It was impossible because of because who I lived with and the neighborhood I lived in. I lived with my parents, my family, there are eight kids in my house and my mom constantly stocks up the refrigerator for all of us, and my broccoli and tomatoes were less attended to than the chocolate chip cookies in the oven. And so, it's always a battle in my house to try and eat healthy. Like, "Eat healthy! But skip the egg nog in the refrigerator."
Your twin sister doesn't have a weight problem. Why do you think this is?
If I answered that (laughs), I would be saving so many scientists and researchers a lot of time! But I don't know. I know that my connection with food and my relationship with food and my dependency with food is much, much stronger than my twin sister's. She's a couple of pounds overweight, and her meals (are) very unhealthy, but my whole day was considered a meal to me. It was just a long day of eating, so I would definitely consume more calories than her.
Prior to your surgery and weight loss, what did a typical day of eating look like for you?
This is the old me: I'd usually go to Dunk'n Donuts and order two bagels toasted with cream cheese and jelly, and an extra large coffee, French vanilla with six sugars. Then I would buy two butter rolls and two bags of garlic and onion chips to put in the butter rolls, M&M's, soda, candy and a coffee cake. Then I would go to school, and by one o'clock I would probably get a pretzel with cheese or hamburger or whatever they had for lunch. After school, we'd pick up Chinese food or another sandwich. At home, I would go to sleep.
Then when I'd wake up at 6:00, and eat another big meal. Then I would do homework until like 10:00. Then I would order Chinese food or, or have something else to eat. It was just unbelievable. I ate enough food for three people, or probably even six. The amount of money and time I spent around food was ridiculous.
What was, or is, your biggest food weakness?
Probably the biggest thing, the hardest thing, the thing I couldn't imagine giving up were gyro sandwiches. Or we would get fresh baked Italian bread and fried chicken cutlet with breadcrumbs and mayonnaise and tomatoes. Oh! I feel that craving now, but it passes. It's so much different now. I'm talking about the sandwich and something happens in my body now that excites me or hypes me up, but it passes quickly now because I'm seeing how skinny I am. It's worth it.
What made you start thinking about weight loss surgery?
At first I was one of those people who said that surgery is the easy way out, so I absolutely did not want to have the surgery. This actually changed during my senior year. Everybody just looked at me like a sad case. I didn't go to my senior prom. I didn't go on the senior trip, and I didn't go to any senior events because I was just so embarrassed of my weight. I couldn't picture myself at any of those events. My friends came back and they said, "Rocky! Why didn't you come with us? It was so fun. It was unbelievable!"
It actually came to the point where I said, "I'm not going to graduation." When I said that, I thought, "What am I going to miss in college? Are they even going to have special desks for me in college?" That's when I knew I had to have surgery or I was going to say goodbye to my life at a very early age.
Describe what it was like to carry so much weight.
Do you think about breathing? No. You don't, you just breathe. But with my weight, it was something on my mind 24/7. The biggest thing of my day would be wondering if there was going to be somebody behind me when I was walking up the subway stairs, That would be like hell for me. It's 18 stairs, then 2 more stairs, then another 3 stairs. It's just draining.
Describe the kind of hunger you experienced prior to the surgery.
It was like a magnet. So when you broke that connection between me and food, I would still be thinking, "When am I eating, when am I eating, when am I eating?" I had a binder of menus in my house of restaurants all over the neighborhood. They all know my name, and they all think I'm angry at them because I'm not going there anymore!
Talk about your preparation for surgery.
The (pre-surgical) diet was the hardest diet I was ever on because if I didn't (follow it), the surgery couldn't happen. And the doctor made that very clear. This doctor knows how hard it is, because he had the Lap Band surgery himself, so he knows all the tricky stuff. Eventually I did the diet and it was the hardest thing that I ever did.
What was the thing that frightened you most about having surgery?
The biggest scare was probably taking the easy way out, and losing my relationship with food. I didn't want to let go of food, and surgery was taking me away, so that was my biggest fear.
How did you feel about food after your surgery?
I feel the same way about food now, but it's not as strong as it was before. So let's say if the "magnetic strength" between me and food was 100% back then, it's like 50% now. If I do feel that urge to eat something, I'll eat a small portion. It feels like I'm eating a whole meal and really I'm just eating a half a cup of soup. My stomach went from 100% to 10%. So whatever would fill an infant-sized stomach will fill me up,
How did your friends and family react to your weight loss?
My family is so thrilled. They're seeing me lose the weight, so it's not a big shock to them. My friends at work, and my (high school) friends that I've held on to, they are like, oh my God. Some people never talked to me before because they were so sad for me. So now they're talking to me. They're the health-conscious people, and they're like, "Oh! Good boy! You're losing weight. Tell me how you lost weight, please tell me."
Yesterday at the supermarket, I saw a guy that I haven't seen in a long time. We're walking in, so I (say), "Hey, Ronnie!" He looks at me. Just stares at me and he doesn't know who the hell I am. I (say) "It's Rocky." And he goes, "Oh my God, hey! Hey!" And then I walk down the aisle and then his head snapped so hard to look at me, like this kid's lost so much weight. It makes me feel so freaking good!
It also makes me feel sad that people couldn't accept me for who I was back then. I didn't want to be one of those people losing weight because society treats you bad. But unfortunately, that was a big reason why I had to lose weight: because fat people are not treated nice.
I'm honestly telling you that there's no fat person in the world that's happy. So you have to admit that you're really sad, and tell the world that you really don't have control over your weight. Just admit it.
There're some people out there who don't want to admit it, and that was me. I said, "What are you talking about? I'm fat and happy. I'm fat and fabulous. I'm fat and I love myself. Fat is in, fat is the style." And I would totally convince myself that if I'm fat and I like myself. But that was just a huge denial. I know everybody saying that they like being fat is such a lie. I can honestly say from my heart that there's no way a person would choose it willingly. It's just not a happy life.
Were you worried at all about telling people that you had surgery?
At first, people would ask me how I lost the weight, and I'd say, "Diet, exercise, healthy eating, broccoli." But then I'd think "Who the hell am I (kidding)?" And I would say, "I had surgery..." and I would tell them the truth.
I know that (surgery) is not the easy way out, and it does take a lot of willpower and strength on your part, so I tell people: I had surgery. People who know me seem really thrilled about it. But there's of course a part of me that's wondering if they think what I used to think, "This kid just took the easy way out." But then I don't care anymore, because it's about me and it's about being healthier.
Can you talk about your surgery, and describe what the healing process felt like?
The surgery didn't have all the pain related to gastric bypass. This was a newer, much safer surgery--it's the Lap Band. There's like an internal, rubber band-type balloon. It's like an adjustable rubber band on the top portion of your stomach that creates a new size stomach.
After the surgery, you leave the hospital the next day, and you have just five very tiny, tiny scars on your stomach. And you go on a liquid diet again for about a month, which was 20 billion times easier than the liquid diet before the surgery.
Talk about the "post-surgery Rocky." Tell us about the "new you."
(Before surgery) I had a tight schedule with food. But now when I'm hungry, I surround myself with much better, "Lap Band friendly" food. But I don't plan my day around food anymore.
So I'll tell you what I ate today. I had a small coffee with skim milk and four Splendas, and I didn't even finish that whole thing. Right now I'm going to go get a soup from this really good soup place in Brooklyn. I think it's a chicken vegetable soup and it's a small (portion), and it will hold me for the day. And so, I take the bus to get the soup, but I just feel so good that I'm going to walk home.
Sometimes I'll have a small Nutrimen shake. It has 160 calories. (Laughs.) I read the calories now! And at lunchtime, this skinny lady who's my producer, I eat less than her, which feels so good because she's the size of a pencil!
What's your weight loss been?
I lost about 180, 190 pounds. I let go of a suitcase of weight. I went from a 6X to a 2X. It felt so good throwing my fat clothes away.
I still have more weight to lose. I'm not a slim jim. (Laughs.) I don't want to be super, super skinny, but I want to go down to a healthy weight which is probably 200 or 175. I'm 6'1".
When you see a person that's as heavy as you used to be, what goes through your mind now?
I was taking the bus and I saw this huge, huge kid, maybe about 15 years old. I saw him walk on the bus and I started crying because I know how sad he is. I saw the stupid people on the bus give him dirty looks. They looked at him like he was a spectacle, like he was an amusement show. I just felt so sorry for him. I wanted to pull him over and give him Dr. Fielding's number or give him somebody's number so he can get help. But I also knew how he would feel if somebody were to do that. I knew he'd probably be very angry inside.
So here's my goal for me in life: I want to try to sort of "push" this weight issue. That's why I started a website. And also telling my story just so a lot of people can hear how hard it is to be overweight.
Is there anything that we're missing here that you would want to tell them?
I think the problem with weight starts when you're little. If you try to fix this problem at the age I did, it's just too big of a problem. So you should attack this problem when you're little--and it really is a whole family situation. You can blame it on McDonalds, you can blame it on Dunk'n Donuts. But it all starts in the family and how you guys work it out.
When I was little, I wanted to be an actor and a TV reporter. Being a fat huge person, you can't do that. But now, I feel like my career paths are unlimited. I'm high on life. I'm not high on food anymore. I feel like I can do anything I want.
Rocky's web site: www.samrrockytayeh.com
Columbia University's Lap Band site: www.columbiasurgery.org/ divisions/ obesity/ surgical_lapband.html