As I dashed to the net with my arm outstretched, my muscles burned – yet still the shuttlecock fell just short of my racket and another game was lost. I felt so self-conscious as I puffed around the court, with my too-tight shorts digging into my thighs. Losing myself in a game of badminton had seen me through some tough times but, now, even this wasn’t bringing me joy. Maybe Mum had been right about how much my weight was affecting me...
A few nights earlier, I’d told my mum, Tracey, and stepdad, Anthony, how upset I was that I could no longer fit into one of my favourite dresses. And that was when they sat me down for a serious talk. Mum, full of concern, explained how they both wanted to talk to me about my weight, as they’d seen me becoming increasingly unhappy. There was no judgement in her voice and, after all I’d been through, I could see how much it pained her.
I’d been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the age of 16. It’s a condition that causes inflammation of the large intestine, which can be incredibly painful and it meant I could be going to the toilet up to 30 times a day. For the next five years, I managed it by being incredibly careful about what I ate and did, but it meant I wasn’t able to join in with many of the things my friends were doing.
A life-changing development
Then, at 21, after a day spent in agony, I was admitted to hospital and told I needed immediate surgery to remove my large intestine, as it wasn’t responding to treatment. During the operation, the surgeon rerouted my small intestine through a hole in the abdomen – known as a stoma – into an ileostomy bag attached on the outside at my waist, which would collect the waste products that normally pass through the digestive system. Having the stoma saved my life, but it was a huge moment that left me with a complex mixture of feelings. I needed to come to terms with this dramatic change to my body, but – and this was a big but – suddenly, I was free...
It meant the restrictive regime I’d been following so carefully could stop. Now, I could join my friends at gigs and nightclubs, and reclaim the youth I’d been missing out on. I drank cider to my heart’s content and stopped for kebabs as I weaved home from nights out. In just over a year, I went up three dress sizes.
By the time Mum sat me down in June 2018, my self-confidence was on the floor and I also had a nagging worry – deep down, I knew that how I’d been living wasn’t a healthy way to respond to such a major change to my body. But when Mum suggested Slimming World, I cringed. ‘I can’t go to one of those groups by myself, I’ll be too nervous,’ I said. ‘Would you come with me?’
Facing my fears
To my relief, Mum said she’d come along for moral support and soon, we were walking through the door of our local group. My anxiety in social situations was partly rooted in my illness, and I instinctively avoided groups of new people. Yet, when I met Liz, the Consultant, I immediately warmed to her. My confidence dipped when I saw my weight was 14st ½lb, but I knew I was in the right place to change that. It would be a long time before I managed more than a shy smile to anyone other than Liz, though I was taking it all in, listening to how the other members overcame challenges and adapted their favourite recipes. While I hadn’t told the group about my condition, or that there were certain vegetables I couldn’t digest, their ideas were sparking my own thoughts on what I could swap in.
As well as all the vegetables I had to steer clear of, I couldn’t eat anything spicy, either. That still left me with a huge range of meals to choose from, or ones I could adapt with different ingredients. Both Mum and I were excited to see our weight go down and, after a couple of months, I was already a stone closer to my 11st target.
As my weight fell, my confidence in group grew. The friendliness of the other members, as well as that feeling that we were all in it together, took away my fear of being judged and I started chatting to the people around me and joining in.
Around the same time, my weight loss had started to slow. Liz reminded me about the Body Magic programme and explained how it could support my weight loss. I still played badminton twice a week, and now I decided to start mixing it up by going to the gym, too.
As I worked towards my Gold Body Magic award, the confidence I’d lost in my body gradually returned.
At badminton one day, a tall, handsome newcomer caught my eye. I started chatting to Nick before, after and sometimes during matches, but then our growing friendship had to be put on hold because I was due to have a nine-hour operation, followed by weeks of recovery. I’d been told that, afterwards, I’d have two choices: I could either live with the ileostomy bag as a permanent fixture, or I could undergo a more complicated surgical procedure to reconnect my digestive system inside my body.
Gaining a new perspective
Achieving weight loss milestones each week had given me such a self-esteem boost that I’d started to see my condition in a different way. My ileostomy bag was a part of my life and, in a sense, a part of who I was, so in January 2020, I made the decision to keep it.
On the day I returned to the badminton club, Nick greeted me with a big grin and said: ‘I missed you. Where’ve you been?’ The first part of that question made my heart skip so much, I found myself giving a very honest answer, telling him everything about my condition and the operation. I’m not sure what I expected his reply to be, but it wasn’t the one he gave: ‘Do you fancy going for a drink?’ Later, Nick would tell me that that was the moment he’d realised he was falling in love with me. ‘You were so honest and positive that I knew I wanted to be with you,’ he said. Something had definitely changed in me – by now, I’d hit my target weight and I felt more self-assured than ever before.
Soon after, I was nominated for my group’s Woman of the Year award, and each of the nominees took a turn speaking about their journey. I decided to tell everyone about my stoma, and what a huge difference Slimming World had made to me. I said: ‘At the beginning, I told myself I couldn’t do this. Now, though, I know I haven’t let my condition beat me. With your help, I’ve shown myself I’m stronger than I realised, and I’ve made myself proud.’ I spoke from the heart and got a wonderful reaction from Liz and my new friends in group.
Focusing on my wellbeing has helped me to see everything in a more positive light. I’d love to think that sharing my story might give other people hope that things can get better – and that if you do have a hidden illness, you can still lose weight and come out fitter and stronger on the other side. It’s made all the difference in the world to me!
*Weight loss will vary according to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.