Erika St. Pierre’s decision to make a big change—which included surgery—wasn’t easy, but it’s altered every aspect of her life
Erika St. Pierre’s turning point came at the end of a full day of lying on her couch, finding comfort only in food and then more food.
She was in a relationship “that should’ve been over a long time ago,” was deeply depressed, and sick of being morbidly obese.
“The only thing that would bring joy was to eat. I realized it was my decision to eat and my decision to make a change,” she recalls, then 25 years old, 5-foot-4 and 265 pounds. “And I decided I was going to do something about this.”
Why that particular day?
“I think being in the darkest place I’d ever been in, being the biggest I’d ever been. I knew for my sanity, I had to change. I guess I realized that if I kept going on like that, all my life was ever going to be was that.”
St. Pierre, who lives in Oakland and works as a hair stylist and makeup artist in Portland and Waterville, enrolled in the strenuous Maine Weight and Wellness Program through Maine Medical Center, with her aim toward having surgery to restrict her intake of food.
Before they can be approved for surgery, program participants must demonstrate their ability to adopt a new lifestyle that will need to be maintained for their rest of their lives.
So starting in April 2017, newly single, St. Pierre started drastically altering the way she ate, adopting a low-carb diet with lots of lean proteins and vegetables and no bread or pasta. She planned meals and prepped food for the week ahead. It wasn’t easy to transition, but she was determined, and the prep was empowering in that it made her feel in control.
Excited as she started losing weight—she dropped 50 pounds in six months—St. Pierre told some people about her ultimate plan, and what came back was “lots of horror stories about surgeries that didn’t work.”
“I later understood that the restriction helps you, but if you don’t do your work, you’re going to fail.”
Discouraged, “I stopped telling people. I didn’t want to hear the negativity.”
She’d had far too much experience with disapproval and negative comments throughout life.
With a twinge in her otherwise matter-of-fact and confident voice, St. Pierre recalls first being told she was overweight when she was just 5.
“And from then on, weight was always a subject,” she explains, noting that her parents and two younger siblings have never struggled with their weight but her body composition is different. “My weight was always brought up quite a lot—from more of a vanity standpoint, as opposed to a health standpoint. I heard ‘you’d be so pretty if you were skinny’ more times than I could count.”
Around a lot of family chaos, shaming and her extra pounds, St. Pierre stayed active, participating on a dance team and as an equestrian jumper in her early school years and playing field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse and rugby through high school—“all at over 200 pounds.” Sitting in a classroom “bored me to tears,” but she got all As and Bs without much effort. She had plenty of friends and didn’t think of herself as “the fat girl” until she saw herself in photographs.
Because of the dynamics of her family, including her parents divorcing when she was in middle school, she says she became “the backbone” of her family—“making sure everyone was OK.” She hid the pressures from friends and found ways to hide her compulsion to eat from her family.
“I knew it was my choice to eat so much food. I hated myself for eating it, but I was not actively doing anything about it. It became a binge-eating disorder because I would eat a normal amount and then I would eat again—a lot—after everyone went to bed.”
This secretive eating behavior continued through college—first at Keene State studying biology and then at the University of Southern Maine, focusing on social work before she eventually decided to follow her heart and pursue the same career her mother had, in hair styling and makeup.
St. Pierre says the times she has felt best in life are when she’s decided to make needed changes.
“Before my surgery, I was still over 200 pounds after dropping that weight. I was 215, but I was so happy because I was making an important change.”
The day before the scheduled surgery in October 2017, she had some jitters and doubts. But a salon client who is a bariatric surgeon happened to have an appointment that day and calmed her nerves.
That surgeon, Dr. Michelle Toder of Bangor, says St. Pierre has been “phenomenally successful” because she took the time to fully educate herself and understand the required lifestyle changes.
“And she had the drive and commitment to see that through,” says Toder. “She has embraced the changes. She’s so smart and understands what she has to do to make this work. She’s extraordinary in how she has reshaped her whole life, not just her body.”
“She’s extraordinary in how she has reshaped her whole life, not just her body.”
St. Pierre underwent a vertical sleeve gastrectomy, having about 80 percent of her stomach removed and reshaped. It’s a less-invasive procedure than a gastric bypass, and because it’s done laparoscopically with just five small incisions, her recovery was less intense. Within a week, she was in a gym, walking on a treadmill, and she was back to work within two weeks.
“I had been thinking about weight-loss surgery since high school, when I felt like the only value of being a person was how I looked. So I’m glad I waited until I was 25 when I was doing it for the right reasons,” she says. “I got to a point where I liked myself enough as a person and it wasn’t because of what other people thought.”
St. Pierre is now at a healthy weight. And her mindset is healthier, too.
“Now I get my joy from exercise. I was so excited when I could run a mile. Each time, I would run a little farther—hey, that runner’s high is a real thing! It’s a euphoric feeling.“
Changing her relationship with food is an ongoing challenge.
“I had to start thinking about it as fuel. I’m still working on it. At the beginning, it was very weird for me. I definitely had a food addiction. I thought about what I was going to eat from the moment I woke up till I went to bed.”
Like most people with addictions, St. Pierre admits to becoming very adept at making excuses. But now, she considers herself “very good at calling myself out on the excuses.”
“I feel so much better now in general, about how I look and feel. I’m just happier.”
She’s been in a healthy relationship since before she lost the weight with a supportive, loving man who she’s known since middle school. She hasn’t gone through therapy, but it’s something she may consider. In the meantime, work provides a daily substitute.
“I’m a pretty open book, and at work, it’s always a counseling session with clients.”
St. Pierre says she has no regrets about her decision to have surgery because of the positive changes she’s made leading up to it and after.
“It’s changed pretty much every aspect of my life. I went a long time thinking I was never going to be able to make this change, but I proved to myself that I could do it. People want a magic answer, but you have to do that hard work. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.”
Patricia McCarthy, a longtime writer, editor and photographer (patriciamccarthy.com), has three daughters and a black Lab, and lives in Cape Elizabeth.