February 9th, 2017
“I was shaking so hard I could hardly stand, and I had fully made peace with dying.”
Courtney Bliss opens herself up every day on social media, sharing her story with family, friends and complete strangers.
“Cancer took so much from me,” she tells us. “My ability to have children, and ability to feel whole.”
Courtney’s internet fame lies in her 180-pound weight loss. Her nearly 100,000 followers stay tuned to her feed so they can know more about her weekly meal plans, her daily workout routines and her weight loss surgery.
Like many others, I first met Courtney on Instagram as @fitmissbliss. Our similar weight loss journeys and gastric sleeve surgeries brought us to the same online community. When I reached out to Courtney to ask if I could interview her, I had no idea the close friend I’d be making.
“Your diet, your exercise … all that stuff is on Instagram,” I start, “and we’ll touch on it, but as a fellow recovering food addict, I know a lot of weight loss is mental and emotional.”
“Oh, I would say most of it.” Courtney agrees. “No one just wakes up 300 pounds. It’s a journey there just as much as it’s a journey back.”
I also didn’t know the humbling transformation story my new friend had.
“I was really happy growing up,” Courtney begins, “My Momma loved me. We were very close.” Courtney was the apple of her mother’s eye. She loved meeting new people, doing gymnastics and playing with her older sister. But in an instant, everything changed. The mother who so adored her, and to whom she was so close, unexpectedly passed away. The loss was devastating, but sadly that was not the end of young Courtney’s troubles: she and her sister were separated, and Courtney began the foster home shuffle. Like many in the foster care system, she was subjected to both neglect and abuse.
I think that time of my life is where a lot of my food issues come from,” she said. “After losing my Mom, there was this constant feeling of not enough. Not enough food, not enough love … not being enough.
“Chronic ‘not-enough-ness,’” I say in understanding. “The root of every eating disorder and food addiction.”
“Exactly; just never enough.”
She assures me that, while her youth was plagued with struggles, her life was no harder than yours or mine. “We all have our stuff. I just kept going and got by like everyone else.”
Courtney was adopted by her loving parents at the age of 15. “I’m grateful for my Mom and Dad every day,” she tells me.
On social media, Courtney doesn’t delve as much into her childhood, but she does address the next challenging chapter in her life:
“I was always tall and skinny and active, playing basketball and cheerleading, and then I just mysteriously started gaining weight.”
Not long after she was adopted, Courtney was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). It’s a struggle she’s been very vocal about on social media. “PCOS has been a huge part of my life. It was then, and it is now.”
After her diagnosis, her battle with food truly began. “It seemed like no matter what I did I just gained and gained, and eventually I just gave into it.”
By the time she was 27, Courtney had weighed over 300 pounds.
“For most of my 20s I went to sleep each night mildly afraid I wouldn’t wake up,” reads one of Courtney’s Instagram posts. “I’d say a prayer I’d make it through the night and promise God if he’d give me one more day on this earth, that I’d get healthier and do better. My blood pressure was sky high, I was pre-diabetic, had sleep apnea, hiatal hernia and had to sleep 10 hours a night with a daily nap just to function.”
It was at this time that Courtney’s life took another drastic and unexpected turn.
Courtney tells me how she had an emergency dilation and curettage procedure (a common surgery for those with PCOS) and then got an unexpected phone call. “They always test for it when you have a D&C, so I thought, ‘Of course, it’s no big deal.’ But I got a call from the cancer center and they wanted to see me right away.”
It was uterine cancer. Courtney and her doctors began a valiant effort to fight it, but the disease continued to progress. It soon became life threatening, and Courtney’s only chance at recovery was surgery. After many years of poor health and obesity, Courtney had already believed her life was destined to be short. The diagnosis seemed to confirm her suspicions.
I did not think I was going to make it off the table. I hugged my Mom goodbye, and I thought that was it.
Waking up from the successful hysterectomy seemed to bring new life into Courtney.
“Cancer sucks. It robbed me of some of life’s greatest blessings. But without that asshole cancer, I’d never have realized how strong I was, how much I wanted to live and how hard I was willing to fight to save my life.”
Courtney and I bond as we see the similarities in our weight loss stories; we both lost a parent to obesity and didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, and we both had found a renewed determination to live and live to the fullest.
“When did you decide enough was enough?” I asked her.
“People ask me all the time, but I don’t know that it was a specific moment. A year after I beat cancer I was in Hawaii, and I couldn’t go parasailing because I was over the weight limit,” said Courtney. “I remember being on the beach in my 3X ‘fatkini’ and thinking, ‘I beat cancer. Cancer! And I’ve been able to tackle everything else in my life — why can’t I tackle this?’”
With our new determination to live our lives to the fullest, Courtney and I had also come to the same decision: each of us decided to have weight loss surgery. In Mexico.
We talk about seeing poverty-stricken Mexico and the fear we had both experienced before our procedures. We both marvel at what great doctors we had and the excellent quality of care we received despite our initial impressions. She tells me that her surgeon, Dr. Mauricio Gutierrez, was an expert physician and how grateful she is that she chose him.
I climbed onto that operating table 55% sure that I was not going to wake up. But my Momma died of obesity at 32, and I knew whether I had the surgery or not, it was time to live or die. I can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe I got on a plane, all alone, headed to Mexico, to go under the knife. But I also can’t believe I’m no longer on five medications per day and can walk up a flight of stairs without pain.
The conversation turns to the dark depths of my and Courtney’s food addictions. “People don't believe me when I tell them how much I ate. I was on my way to being featured on ‘My 600 lb. Life,’ for real.”
I commiserate. “Right; I would eat a large pizza, a half-gallon of ice cream, a packet of cookies and down a two-liter of Dr. Pepper…”
“...in one sitting,” Courtney nods, finishing the sentence for me. She mentions how I have referred to the surgery as “food addiction rehab” in the past. “I had the same experience. I had to figure out other ways to handle my feelings besides eating.”
With Courtney’s history of loss, abuse, and lack of a stable home, it’s easy to see how food would become her constant. Not only does “giving in” to a food binge release dopamine (the same chemical triggered by heroin) but it quite literally fills us. Those with food addictions commonly talk about how they no longer “feel empty” after an episode. Taking away the ability to binge leaves a lifetime of stuffed emotions at the surface. “I’m still figuring it out every day. Losing weight didn’t take away the hard stuff I’ve been through or the things I’m insecure about, it just took away how I hid from it.”
“You used to hide from your insecurities, and now you share them openly with others. It takes serious strength to embrace that kind of vulnerability, especially on the internet,” I commend her.
Losing 180 pounds in a little over 12 months has expectedly drawn a curious crowd online; with admiration from some and admonishment from others. This is understandable; such rapid and extreme weight loss is admittedly not normal or “healthy.”
The first stage of weight loss surgery is harrowing on the body; as the stomach heals, it's hard to consume much more than water and protein drinks. Caloric intake falls below what any doctor would consider healthy for a regular patient. Those who are obese have enough fat to get them through this starvation period, but it’s at the expense of necessary nutrients, vitamins, and protein.
Courtney and I share tales of our hair falling out in handfuls, as well as show off our folds of excess skin, inevitable outcomes of such dramatic weight loss. The experience is traumatic for the body, which is why it is only recommended for those whose quality of life hangs in the balance. A caloric restriction of this nature should never be attempted without careful supervision of a physician.
With the help of our doctors, nutritionists and counselors, both Courtney and I were able to recover from this stage. After a three to four-month period, the body is sufficiently healed and able to consume a healthy number of calories. At that point, continued weight loss becomes about (surprise!) diet and exercise.
“There is absolutely NO foolproof way to maintain healthy weight other than a proper diet and regular exercise,” Courtney emphasizes this to her followers regularly. “Yes, I have a [smaller stomach] that keeps me from binging, which is a huge blessing for this former food addict. But this tool doesn’t keep me from eating crap. This battle is 90% mental. The saying ‘get your mind right’ is SO true here,” she reiterates.
“My 180-pounds weight loss was VSG weight loss surgery, strict macronutrients, calculated Ketogenic grain-free diet, HIIT cardio, HIIT circuit training, heavy lifting and yoga. I’ve worked hard for my weight loss.”
Courtney has a unique body shape; her natural waist to hip ratio is so significant that it draws a lot of attention.
“I get asked about waist training a lot. Definitely one of the more common questions. I’ve been very vocal that, at the beginning of my weight loss journey, I tried waist training for about six to nine weeks. I gave it up as it aggravated my acid reflux. In the end, it did nothing for me; it was one of those stretchy-spandex ones. No boning or anything.”
“Basically just a waist shaper then,” I laugh.
“Right! Totally useless. I didn’t start to see my waist until much further along in my weight loss. It’s just my natural shape.”
“Well, of course, we hope you used a waist trainer; then we could use it and have your shape too!”
Courtney shakes her head at me, smiling. “Girl, my passion is helping others achieve their goals. If I got this waist through a waist trainer, I would tell EVERYONE.” We imagine the kind of money companies would pay to have her claim their product created her shape. “But it’s just my African-Latin genetics,” she shrugs.
And as all women know, each of us has our insecurities. “The way you want my waist? That’s how I feel about your thighs!” She tells me.
I nod. While I have always been self-conscious about my midsection, I have never worried much about my legs. I have naturally small stems that I can only attest to my mother’s genes.
The conversation turns to plastic surgery, a common follow-up after extreme weight loss. Often VSG patients will have skin removal surgery, breast augmentation or body lifts. In the weight loss community, this is commonly referred to as “plastics.”
“I know you thought about plastics; at least skin removal,” I tell her. “Are you moving forward with that?”
Surgery terrifies me. Both the cancer and gastric surgeries were a matter of life or death. This?” She motions toward the extra skin on her stomach. “I don’t think it bothers me enough to risk having surgery again. For now, I’ve decided against it. I could always change my mind, of course, and if I do, I would tell my Instafamily. They’ve been there every step of the way.
From the very beginning of Courtney’s weight loss journey, she has been getting questions and requests for advice daily. Her extensive study of Ketogenic dieting and personal experience with weight loss surgery made her an incredible resource. Those who had made it past the first stage of VSG and needed help with the diet and exercise found someone who knew what they were going through. And as her following grew, so did the requests.
Courtney’s joy in helping others, along with her strategic meal planning, has now brought another amazing transformation in her life: running her own business.
Courtney has helped over 1,000 clients achieve weight loss success after their surgeries. I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit her office and see her in action. Her well-tested process for determining a client’s body type, identifying their specific dietary needs and creating their completely individualized meal plan is nothing short of astounding. What started as a weight loss journey to save her life has grown to become both her life’s passion and full-time work.
I was hiding in the same job at the same desk for 10 years. Every step of this has changed my entire life and what I believed I was capable of.
And Courtney’s life continues to transform. Not only did she leave her desk job to help her clients full time, but she recently moved across the country to a new city and got engaged to the love of her life.
A before and after photo she recently posted had this caption, “The girl on the left never thought she’d find true love. Never thought she’d ever escape a job she lost passion for a long time ago. Never thought she’d leave Alaska. Never thought she’d go to bed without worrying about if she’d wake up. The girl on the right did all of those things. Literally. Every single one happened within 17 months.”
Courtney’s story is one of bravery, determination and defying the most impossible odds. Her message is simple: we can all do hard things.
“Don’t give up. Don't ever tell yourself or allow anyone else to believe you’re too far gone. You’re not. I wholeheartedly promise you; you have the power to become the person and to create the life you dream of.”