Standing on stage at St. Bart’s Square in central London, looking out over 14,000 cheering fans, all I could think was, “How does a guy like me get to a place like this?”
It was June 2001, and I was performing alongside world-renowned artists like Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney as part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. I was undoubtedly more awestruck than any audience member at the event. I had only started singing the year before, the professional culmination of an indescribable emotional and psychological journey that started in the spring of 1997, when I underwent gastric bypass surgery.
I sported a size 40 regular canary yellow zoot suit for the Queen’s concert, strutting confidently back and forth across the stage as I sang big band classics to an audience of thousands. Five years and one month prior, those few steps would have left me gasping for air. Back then, I weighed exactly 400 pounds, and I had lost all hope. My life had become unmanageable. I checked myself into the hospital and declared “physical bankruptcy” as I turned my body over to the experts–a team of doctors and nurses who offered me a one-time chance to start over.
Like many gastric bypass surgery patients, I had been overweight most of my life. As a child I was euphemistically called “husky,” and I managed to use my weight to my advantage by playing football starting in the second grade. But by middle school, the coaches had to move me up a league level because I was heavier than the other children my age. In the next league, my teammates just called me fat, and I was relegated to the position of benchwarmer. I couldn’t have been more miserable.
After high school, I entered in the Navy in hopes I could see the world and all it had to offer. Not long after boot camp, I was stationed in far northern Japan as a liaison between the military police and the local Japanese law enforcement. For a bit of fun and exercise, I signed up for the base football team. Ironically, a month later the city mayor and base commander were watching a game when they struck upon the wild idea of recruiting me into the sport of sumo. (You know, the fat guys in diapers?) I went to my first practice the very next day and was on the amateur sumo wrestling circuit a few weeks later, serving as a sort of goodwill ambassador to Japan while competing in cities across the country.
My salvation came one morning as I was getting ready for work. I was listening to Good Morning America on the television as I went about my usual routine, and my ears perked up as Charlie Gibson read a report about a radical new surgery for the morbidly obese. I immediately read everything I could get my hands on about this new gastric bypass technique, and I eventually qualified for the surgery after being diagnosed with sleep apnea. Three months after hearing the report on the morning news, I was admitted in the hospital having weight loss surgery.
After weight loss surgery, the weight truly just melted away. I lost nearly 200 pounds in a year’s time and could not believe the transformation I was seeing right before my own eyes as I dropped down from a waist size of 56 inches to just 34 inches. The biggest challenge during this time was not cutting back on food or increasing my physical activity, but rather the lack of mental and emotional support available to weight loss patients.
Because gastric bypass surgery was still a new procedure, there were no support groups or help centers for those of us who had undergone the treatment. The doctors were great about the mechanics of the surgery, but they had no idea what it was like inside of a brain that had just gone through such a radical change. I strongly encouraged my surgeon to set up a regular meeting for his patients, so they could share their experience and insight with one another. Today, his weekly sessions regularly draw 20 to100 pre- and post-op patients. (I also created my own website for gastric bypass patients this year and am working on a self-help book for people who have had the surgery.)
I came to realize that the weight was never really the problem, but rather, a symptom of other unresolved issues. Although I was grateful for the weight loss surgery and the transformation that followed, I discovered it could never be a complete solution, because it was a physical remedy applied to a mental, emotional and spiritual problem. Like taking an aspirin for the pain of a brain tumor, the gastric bypass only addressed the most superficial part of a serious illness. I was now realizing that to accurately get to the root of the problem, I had to stop focusing on my waistline, and start focusing on the gray matter between my ears. So, what did I really want? Now that the fat suit was gone, I was left with me, but I didn’t know who “me” was.
In the four years since deciding to pursue my dreams I have performed on three continents, appeared in local and national media, and rubbed elbows with celebrities. I have established three set-ups of my 17-piece big band–one in Dallas, one in London and one in Tokyo–and recorded a critically acclaimed CD.
“How does a guy like me get to a place like this?”
Craig Thompson, better known as “Big T,” a former sumo wrestler who used to tip the scales at 400 pounds has since reinvented himself as a singer and bandleader. As one of the earliest to have Gastric Bypass Surgery, in 1997.