Obesity snuck up on me, slowly and surely over a period of months and years. I certainly knew I was overweight: I was winded and sweaty all the time, standing could be difficult and so could climbing stairs, I bought giant baggy shirts to fit over my ample stomach, and my face was fatter and rounder. I consumed bags of microwave popcorn, large bags of peanut butter M-n-Ms, liters of Pepsi, and bags of sugared mangos in between meals, and I ate seconds and thirds for dinner and had three or four bowls of cereal for breakfast. Once when I sprained my ankle, I was on crutches, and getting myself from my car to my office became a struggle.
Still, the word obese never crossed my mind. It was a dangerous word, an ugly word. In fact, the only thing worse than obese, when it came to weight, was morbidly obese, a word that implies someone is near death.
My son was flipping through photo albums recently and he looked up with surprise and his usual candor. “Dad, you were really fat when I was a baby. But not anymore, right?”
I remember the day I learned I was obese. It was at a family Christmas party, and my sister Sue had a Wii system. Wanting to engage in some fun family Wii competitions, she had a few of us create character avatars to play with on the game. I designed a little man to look like me with brown hair and clothing, and I entered my height. Then I stood on the little scale for the Wii to take my weight. In front of my entire family, the avatar on the screen suddenly ballooned out to beach ball size, accompanied by a cartoon sound effect, a rubbery boing noise. Giant capital letters flashed on the screen, followed by exclamation marks.
YOU ARE OBESE!!!
And that simple humiliation began my personal transformation and, in many ways, marked the first steps toward living rather than just being alive. It didn’t take long to realize I was eating too much and too quickly, so I began by lowering quantities of food, drinking more water, and learning a bit about what I was putting into my body. I began monitoring what I ate, what foods my body needed, and how many Calories exists in foods.
I had felt abjectly out of control of my life for years at that point, trapped by religion and culture, trapped in the closet, trapped by self-expectations that I had to work 60 hours per week and serve in the church and that it was selfish and ugly to do anything for myself.
So I began walking at lunchtime, and then I began working on the elliptical trainer at the gym during my lunch break. I started lifting weights in the mornings, something I had never done. I began dropping pounds swiftly. At my heaviest, I was 255 lbs. (I’m a 5 feet 11 inches tall). Before long I was at 240, then 230, then 220. I started gaining a bit of confidence in myself, enjoying the gains I was making and seeing the results in myself.
I learned a lot about myself at that time. I learned that weight comes on slow and steadily over time, one half pound at a time, over a period of months and years. I learned that losing weight is a relatively simple science, boiled down simply to burning more energy than consumed. I learned that the human body is forgiving, that it is eager to be healthy and will work toward health when correct decisions are made. I learned that old habits can be hard to break, but that the alternative is simply gaining more and more. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that change takes time: If it takes a year to gain 50 pounds, it is going to take more than a few weeks to take the weight off. I adopted the mantra of slow and steady growth over time.
Once I hit 220, I plateaued for a while. The weight came off more slowly and was more difficult to shed. But as long as I stayed consistent, and was patient and kind toward myself, it continued going down 1-3 pounds every few weeks. 220 became 215, then 210, then 200.
By then, I had taken careful stock of my life. I realized that I had had zero nutrition or exercise knowledge instilled in me growing up, in a family that often struggles with obesity. I realized I was participating in a religion that vilifies coffee and alcohol, but says nothing about obesity and physical health. I realized I was surrounded by people in my life who cared about me, but who completely enabled my dangerous habits and said nothing about my weight or my unhappiness; in fact, some of these people resented me or called me selfish when I began transforming myself. And I realized that it wasn’t just physical weight I had put on, it was mental weight, it was emotional weight, and it was spiritual weight. I had become obese in every sense. Dropping pounds was only the beginning of a years-long transformation ahead of me.
Four years after I began losing my weight, I hit my lowest adult weight, and the most fit time in my life, at 175 lbs. I had lost a total of 80 pounds. I looked and felt better. I felt cleansed and strong and confident. And it was then that I began focusing on shedding the other types of weight I had to lose. I take care of my physical health now on all fronts: exercise, nutrition, sleep, hydration, and overall wellness. It felt, and feels, wonderful.
As I type this, I line up two photographs of myself, one from 8 years ago, and one from last summer. The first, I’m dressed in white at a religious event, literally standing in front of a painting of Jesus. My lips are curved into a smile that doesn’t match my eyes, which seem as heavy as my face, as heavy as the expectations I placed upon myself. In the second, my smile is genuine, my eyes are alive, my arms are strong and I’m alive. It’s difficult for me to reconcile these two versions of myself.
And then two simple thoughts come to mind: life is meant to be lived, and I refuse to spend another moment miserable.
(Blogs on spiritual, emotional, and mental obesity to follow).