My very first word as a baby was Dorito and every fifth word from that day forward. Food and I developed a very close bond. Together, we got through break-ups and the loss of family members. Food was there to celebrate with me after victories as well. Food and I were picture perfect together except for one detail: my relationship with food was ruining and shortening my life.
Before I tell you “my moment”, let me tell you what life was like. Prolonged standing was painful and I had to wear braces on my ankles joints. I couldn’t physically do my already unphysical job or even accept social invites to do any non-movie related activity. Buying clothes was a matter of just grabbing anything that fit. Getting in and out of my car was a workout and I would never avoid eating something for health reasons. It was ruining my ability to be a good father to my kids. I was spending $750 on fast food and convenience store garbage.
On the outside I wasn’t an unhappy person. In fact, a majority of people around me seemed to like me and think I was a positive, happy person, but inside I was just living day to day.
I had settled in life and love. I was not long for this world.
My Turning Point
It’s November 2010 and I’m sitting alone at the desk in my bedroom, as I frantically prepare a lecture I’m giving later that night. I’m invited as a guest speaker to encourage a class of incoming college freshman to avoid the 5 addictive behaviors the college has found kids struggled with in past years. There’s something about the subject that’s made me procrastinate until the very last minute.
But I have this great idea. I’m going to take five tennis balls and write on them these behaviors. I’ll ask for a “volunteer” and throw all the tennis balls at once at him. He won’t be able to catch them but I’ll give him a second chance but this time, I’ll toss the balls one at a time. He’ll be able to catch them, showing we can handle any challenge incrementally. I love the idea because I’ve never gotten the chance to throw things at an audience before.
So I need five tennis balls but they only come in packages of three so I leave one behind in my room. I scrawl in permanent marker the names of the behaviors to avoid:
- Drug Use
- Alcohol Abuse
- Sexual Promiscuity
- Dishonesty and plagiarism
- Unhealthy Eating Habits???
The first 4 are no brainers: I don’t do drugs or drink and I am an honest, monogamous man. But when I think about teaching them the importance of avoiding unhealthy eating habits, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.
Here’s the thing: Even though I weighed 440 pounds and had a 58-inch pair of pants and a 5XL Shirt on, I believe in my heart that no one really knows I’m addicted to food. I have hidden my overeating all my life and like the OJ Simpson’s alleged murder, it’s a paradox where everyone knew what happened even though no one actually saw it.
But once I see my weakness there on the tennis ball, my world is reeling. For a moment, I feel unjustly accused but I know I’m kidding myself. The truth falls on my head like a piano in a bad cartoon.
And now that the blindfold is off, I am aware of everything: I see my stomach hanging off my body. I actually feel it resting on the top of my mid-thigh. I hear my loud breathing. I realize I’m killing myself–one meal at a time.
I think back on what I’ve eaten that day and plug it in one a food journal app and find I’ve had over 7,500 calories and it’s only 4:30pm and I haven’t even had first… or second dinner yet.
Running From the Truth
That night, I grabbed the tennis balls and get in my car to go teach the lecture. When I arrive, I leave the unhealthy eating tennis ball in the car and decide to just use the other four, rationalizing that nobody likes a hypocrite. And in that moment of fear: running from a tennis ball, I recognize my surroundings as absolute, pathetic rock bottom and finally saw what I’d become.
After I give my talk, I decide to become a new me. This isn’t my first attempt to lose weight– I’ve tried everything from South Beach to North Pole but this time I would be perfect from now on.
So, here’s the thing about rock bottom. Sometimes we think we’ve arrived and then things get worse than what we thought was as bad as it could get and then you realize you’re looking up at rock bottom. I call this area:
Rock Bottom’s Back Side
My decision to never eat unhealthy food again consumes me like a wildfire for almost 24 hours before I cave in at a Mexican Fast Food joint after a night out. Within a mile of leaving the drive-thru, I’ve inhaled a two-pound burrito, 3 tacos, and an order of fries so big they actually put it in a 1 Liter Cup. To make matters worse, I see the unhealthy eating tennis ball mocking me from my passenger seat. My skin crawls with shame. I grab my accuser, throw it out the window and drive home. I’d failed another diet.
That night, I toss and turn for hours. The refried beans and failure are like rocks banging against each other in my stomach. Finally, my alarm goes off, releasing me from the prison of a sleepless night. I struggle to my feet as my knees creaked under my weight and notice this neon green beacon of hope out of the corner of my eye. It’s the sixth tennis ball– but unlike the unhealthy eating ball, this one’s blank.
Hope and Tennis Balls
I have another chance to get this right. But this time I’m not aiming for perfection, I’m going for moderation: to catch one tennis ball at a time. I set one small goal for the week: no sugar. The next week, I would add another ball: no white flour.
That next morning, I decide to get outside and go for a walk. When I returned home after what was probably a quarter of a mile, I was breathing so hard that my roommate thought I was having a heart attack. But I didn’t die so I could probably do it again tomorrow and I might not die then either.
A week or so later, I confided my desire for health to a good friend, Bret. He
encouraged me and taught me about fitness and nutrition and told me he was confident that by the following Christmas, I could be 100 pounds lighter. I believed him and believed in the sincerity of his desire to help.
I went to a local health food store, dropped a dime and filled a cart with meat, plants, and vegetables. I brought it home, with a lunchbox that I have filled with food from my plan most nights since. I prepared food every night that was consistent with the tennis balls I’d caught so far. I had the support of my friends and family and that has made all the difference. My first three tennis balls I caught were these:
What I Ate
Most often, my meals consisted of lean meats and vegetables with the sweet potato and fruit on the side. My plate always has more vegetables than anything else on it.
After 9 months of dieting, and I was confident my joints could handle it, I focused on barbell training and increased my protein intake to facilitate muscle growth. I used compound barbell lifts with a linear progression system called StrongLifts.
When I first started eating healthy, the weight poured off of me. It’s clear to me now that my body wanted to be fit and I had been fighting it my whole life with my addiction. Despite hitting a few plateaus along the way, I lost 200 pounds in one year and 9 days.
I lost 200 pounds in a year without pills, weight loss shakes or surgery.
A few weeks after I hit 200 pounds, I ran my first 5K race with my entire family there cheering me on at the finish line. I had become the man they would always know: healthy, strong and happy. Loved by others always, but finally by himself.
On the 18 month anniversary of my weight loss journey, I participated in the Wildflower Triathlon and although it was too far away for my family to attend, I was surrounded by some supportive friends and finished the race without too many hiccups (you can read the full account here).
WHY DID IT WORK THIS TIME?
Sometimes, when we start on a big goal, it feels so overwhelming that we want to give up before we begin. I work with my clients and teach that by focusing on finding joy in the journey and each incremental step, we can turn a “goal” into inertia that keeps you moving.
“I didn’t lose 225 pounds. I lost one pound 225 times.”
This was huge difference this time. See, this was not the first time I’d attempted a change, but this is the first time it stuck (I’ve been at my goal weight for almost two years now). Every other time, I did it for a girl or a suit or some other reason. This time, I did it because I realized that I deserved to be healthy and happy and I deserved to live.
Did I have external motivation? Of course. I was concerned that relationships had deteriorated due to my poor health. I like the attention that comes from the opposite sex now. I love being strong in and out of the gym. I get a rush from completing a new personal best or when I did my triathlon.
This is my gym log for the first two years.
As you can see, I was devout in my attendance. I switched workout programs too often, which I would not recommend and actually regret. But the truth is that even imperfect activities done with ridiculous frequency get results, and I think you can’t argue that I got results.
To this day, I still haven’t consumed a single sugary dessert since that day: no cake, no pie, nothing of the sort. I don’t think this extreme nature is necessary for everyone, but I was addicted to unhealthy food and I know that had I allowed myself “cheat days” (I hate that description because it makes you married to a diet or meal plan and gives you guilt even when you plan the deviation from normal).
But ultimately, I know myself and where I personally came from and being the person I was, I would have fallen off the wagon due to discouragement and cravings that would have come back. I was like an alcoholic and no one ever tells an alcoholic to once a week go do a happy hour and get it out of your system, so why would I do it?
I love not having limits. I work for a construction company in marketing (I don’t actually do construction) so when a homeowner for the first time offered for me to go on a ladder and check out the damage in his attic, I said yes. The truth was that I don’t know enough about construction to actually know what I was seeing, but I was just excited to be able to climb a ladder for the first time in my life and walk around up there because a couple of years before, no one would have in their right mind invited me to climb anything.