Despite positive shifts in how American culture treats individuals with severe obesity, there aren’t a lot of resources available to the loved ones of those who live with the disease — even though they struggle with similar kinds of issues to the ones international support groups like Al-Anon help people deal with.
That’s what Dana Rosser, whose celebrated surgeon husband, Dr. James “Butch” Rosser, practices at Gila Regional Medical Center, realized after she married a severely obese man in 1995.
While there are 12-step support groups across the world for people living with obesity, there is nothing like the organized, worldwide Al-Anon groups — support programs for children, family and friends of alcoholics — for people impacted by a loved one’s obesity.
“The foundation of my relationship with Butch is I love him,” Dana Rosser told the Daily Press at the very start of an interview for this story. It’s the same way she began a 2016 Tedx Talk, “Obesity Through the Eyes of a Loved One,” in which she tells her — and her husband’s — story; and the love she has for her husband comes across clearly in everything she does on the topic of obesity.
The pair married in December 1995, and went on to have five children together. At the urging of one of his own patients, Butch Rosser had gastric bypass surgery in 2001, after which he lost more than 160 pounds.
“I married him at 460 pounds, and sometimes the situations his weight put us in were embarrassing,” Dana said. “He broke the seat on an airplane once, and ended up in the lap of the person behind him. At that moment, all I wanted for him was to protect him — but then I also was embarrassed. And I couldn’t let him know I was embarrassed, and put on a fake facade, but inside I was cringing and dying.”
Butch Rosser’s drastic weight gain opened Dana’s eyes to the fact she was not only a wife, but also a caretaker to the severely obese love of her life, meaning she had to think about details like booking three airplane seats instead of two when they traveled as a couple. She also worried about the many health complications — sleep apnea and heart disease among them — experienced by people who are overweight by 100 pounds or more.
But Butch’s weight was not the most shocking change Dana encountered in marriage — it was realizing the severe lack of advice and resources for families struggling with an obese loved one, especially caretakers.
“I was so sad this was happening, and had nobody to tell it to,” Dana said, adding that it took her years to come to terms with what she was experiencing as the spouse of a severely obese individual. “I kept it inside, and that made me anxious and depressed at times.”
She eventually sought counseling, and was ultimately able to learn how to better support her husband as he battled with the disease, while at the same time taking better care of herself.
Just like Butch Rosser encountered double helpings of challenges in life because he grew up “fat and black in the South” — challenges he overcame by overachieving in sports, at medical school and as a renowned surgeon — Dana said African Americans like her tend to face cultural challenges when it comes to seeking out mental health counseling.
“So that wasn’t my first line of defense, counseling, but being a ‘strong Black woman’ wasn’t enough,” she said.
But in the years since, through her 2015 book, “Thru Thick and Thin: Facing Obesity Thru the Eyes of a Loved One,” as well as on her website, facingobe sity.com, and in hundreds of speaking engagements, Dana has made it her life’s work to raise awareness of the issues faced by the loved ones of obese people.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “from 1999-2000 through 2017-2018, U.S. obesity prevalence increased from 30.5 percent to 42.4 percent. During the same time, the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7 percent to 9.2 percent.”
In 2019, the most recent year for which the CDC has publicly available obesity data, obese New Mexicans aged 18 years and older accounted for between 32.4 percent and 34.8 percent of the state’s total adult population.
“There are 18 million obese people in America,” Dana said. “It’s truly a big problem. That’s why I created a workbook — a companion to my book — that gives supporters a blueprint for how to talk about it and what to say” to their obese loved ones.
Some of Dana and Butch Rosser’s actionable tips for obesity support for loved ones include:
• Own your feelings, both good and bad; accept and understand that shame and embarrassment are natural
• Self-care is essential: A loved one’s caregivers suffer when they neglect their own needs and happiness.
• Remember, you are not alone: Many people are sharing the same challenging feelings, which is why peer support is essential.
• Lead with love — as opposed to judgment, anger, sarcasm, or frustration — when approaching a loved one about obesity.
Dana Rosser has been raising awareness on the subject for 15 years now.
“They are human beings fighting a disease, just like someone with heart disease or diabetes,” she said. “The Obesity Action Coalition is really helping society move towards using new language in describing people who are suffering with obesity.”
The OAC is a national nonprofit organization founded in 2005 and dedicated to giving a voice to Americans affected by the disease of obesity and empowering them along their journey to better health, according to information posted on the group’s extensive website, obesityac tion.org.
“Through Thick and Thin: An Obesity Journey” premieres — for free — next Monday on Mediflix.com, a new health-centric streaming service that is in its soft launch phase. A trailer for the film is available on Vimeo at vimeo.com/653763674.
“Obesity is a disease, but back when we got married, I had no idea,” Dana said. “In my own creative way, I tried to help him, like with the food I prepared. Spaghetti? He would think he was eating ground beef when it was really ground turkey; and I replaced the salt with Mrs. Dash.
“It would have been really nice to have known others in my situation to have us brainstorm and have a peer support group,” she added. “And that’s why I felt the need to let people know they’re not alone.”
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at [email protected] press.com.