The voice was familiar, a soft, sweet Southern drawl that really sticks out in an area with so many former New Yorkers.
But this was a face I had never seen.
"Hello, Bill,'' she said, greeting me and others gathered for a political forum at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
I should know this woman, I thought, but no, the face just didn't register. And then somebody said, "Hey, Susan.''
Of course. Susan Arnett, for eight years the president of United Way of Pasco County, somebody I bump into at various events.
True, I've lost some brain cells over the years. My memory isn't so keen. But this time I had an excuse.
Susan Arnett is a shell of her former self. Her waist alone went from 56 to 34 inches. She is now 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds, down from 318. Now, her smile is the biggest thing about her.
And so I asked if it would be okay to stop by her office one day and write a story about her. As it turned out, there was a much greater tale, and the transformation was not just physical. It was from suicidal despair to jubilation.
• • •
"There was a cliff with my name on it.''
That's how Arnett remembers the level of her unhappiness 19 years ago. That's when she took her first job as a United Way director in Russellville, Ark., home to about 20,000 on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Fort Smith. They have a nuclear plant there, but the poultry business is king.
Susan (then White) grew up in Russellville. Her father made feed for livestock. She tended to thousands of chickens, worked hard, made good grades and was a finalist for the Most Likely to Succeed at her high school. She won a scholarship to Arkansas State University, where she was the first female manager for the football team.
She was a "people pleaser,'' she says. "I couldn't buy trouble. And I was scared of my own shadow.''
And deep in her soul, Susan kept a secret.
At age 5, she says, a family member sexually molested her. She didn't tell. She hid her pain. But in time, somebody else figured it out.
A volunteer at the Russellville United Way just came out and asked her: Have you ever been molested?
"He recognized my symptoms,'' she recalled. "The anger, the self-hatred, my inability to form a committed relationship, the male-bashing.''
At this entry point in her United Way career, she learned the true value of the charity, the way it subsidizes nonprofit agencies, including some that provide mental health counseling.
"I could never have afforded psychological care,'' she said. "And ultimately, it saved my life.''
But her pain was so deep. She had no self-esteem. She blamed herself for the abuse.
Counseling helped, but depression still ruled. Food made her feel better, and she ate at will. It became her addiction. "I hid in a fat suit,'' she said. "Fat people are invisible, you know?
And on some really bad days, she got behind the wheel of her car and headed for the cliffs. She drove fast and direct, intending to end it all. But each time, she jerked the wheel at the last minute.
• • •
Then Susan ran. She changed jobs because she thought a new environment would help. Therapy could do only so much to chip away at the anger. Eight years ago, she ran to a place far from home, where she had no friends, no acquaintances, no history — Port Richey.
The change helped for a while, but then came more deep depression. One night she locked the garage and turned on her car's engine. She might have ended her life but in her haze, she was saved by her own sense of responsibility.
"I thought (the gas fumes) might hurt the dogs.'' Today, she still loves her "overgrown pound puppies,'' Annie and Trouble.
• • •
In 2002, at age 38, Susan finally felt she might be getting a leg up on this depression. She fell in love with Bob Arnett, the district manager at Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, and they got married.
They had one good year, she said, and then predictably, she fell back into her funk. It was much like the diet she tried that helped her get to 230 pounds before she shot back up to 318.
"The tentmaker was going to have to make my clothes,'' she said.
She fought high blood pressure and cholesterol, "and I wanted to just sleep all the time.''
Then a friend in Arkansas inspired her with stories about the Center for Laparoscopic Obesity Surgery. Susan and her husband researched the relatively new mini gastric bypass, in which doctors redirect intestines and shrink the stomach. Her insurance would not cover the procedure, so the Arnetts paid $17,000 for Susan to undergo the surgery at Davenport, near Haines City.
That was Feb. 23, 2007. Since then, she has shaped her body through exercise and guidance from holistic lifestyle coach Sandi Seegart. She reports no aftereffects from the surgery, and the reduced stomach means she now eats about six small meals a day.
"Food should be fuel,'' she says, "not a reward. I never looked at it that way before.''
Meantime, she will continue mental health counseling, "probably forever.'' She still worries about slipping back into bad habits. "Victims always have trouble trusting themselves,'' she said. "This transformation doesn't mean I won't fall off the wagon, but I have more tools in my arsenal now.''
And about that woman in the pictures who bears little resemblance to her new and improved alter ego?
"I'm still acquainted with her. I hope I never lose contact because she is the reason I'm so grateful for the blessings I now have. She allows me to reach out to help others by sharing this story. The pain is still there, but now it is not so all-consuming. I feel like I'll make it now.''
Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast Editor. You can reach him at (727) 869-6250 or at email@example.com. For more information about the mini gastric bypass surgery, go to www.CLOS.net.