We all have our struggles; we all have our personal demons that we fight. People all around us, and sometimes even ourselves, deal with drug dependency, depression, gambling, self-image issues and different types of addictions. Some struggle with issues in private, while others fight their demons more publicly.
For me, my struggle with weight and addiction to food were visibly public; but my emotional struggles were extremely private. Opening up about my fight with obesity is, quite frankly, one of the scariest things I’ve done; however, on the chance that it can help someone overcome their own issues, it is worth the anxiety.
So this is my story of a life-long battle with obesity, and the journey that I’ve been on to lose more than 300 pounds.
In August of 2014, I printed two quotes and put them up in my office so that I would see them every day.
The first quote was from Jimmy Valvano. I re-watched a YouTube video of Jimmy V. giving his speech during the 1993 ESPY Awards. Jimmy V. was a legendary basketball coach at North Carolina State University and an ESPN commentator; but at the time of this speech, he was a man dying from cancer. To listen to his speech, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuoVM9nm42E.
During Jimmy V.’s motivational and emotional speech, one thing that he talked about was the importance of knowing where you started; where you are; and where you’re going to be… Don’t give up, DON’T EVER GIVE UP!
I listened to this speech multiple times before, but this time it was different. Just a few days prior I decided to make some lifestyle changes in hopes of becoming a healthier, lighter me.
This time it was though I could actually visualize these words. I knew where I started, I knew where I was and I had dreamed of where I could be. Whether or not I would be successful, I didn’t know, but I was going to try and these words would guide me on my long journey ahead.
Big from the Beginning . . .
There are those who (for one reason or another) put on weight in high school, college, after pregnancy or a major life event. Then there are those (like me) who have just been big their entire life. I can honestly say that I do not remember a time when I wasn’t the ‘biggest’ person in class or in a group.
By the time I started kindergarten, I was already well on my way to becoming the ‘big’ kid in the class. In the beginning, I may have been the biggest out of my classmates, but it was just by a little bit; however, as the years passed, the difference between the size of my classmates and myself got even more noticeable. While we all grew taller, I just seemed to be getting a lot bigger, a lot faster than everyone else.
When you’re in elementary school, the thought is that you will just grow out of it. I can distinctly remember while growing up having people around me say things like, “when you hit your growth spurt, you’ll thin out,” and “when you get older you’ll burn off some of this baby fat.”
To be honest, I believed them. I grew up on a farm and learned the process of genetics at a young age. A calf will have some of the traits/characteristics of the mother (the cow) and the father (the bull). Genetically speaking, why would it be any different with me? I had fit parents so there wasn’t any reason to believe that I wouldn’t just ‘grow out of it’. But I didn’t.
Kids will be kids . . .
I like to think that I had a really good childhood. I had a loving mother and father, siblings, extended family and to top it off, I grew up on a dairy farm. As far as a childhood goes, I honestly couldn’t ask for anything more. While everything was ‘peachy’ at home, there were times at school that weren’t so fun. Now, I don’t want it to come off that I was bullied all through school, because that wasn’t the case. There were classmates who had it worse than me, but my ever-growing weight did provide fodder for some and made me an easy target from time to time.
My worst experience I ever had was in middle school. During band class, the metal folding chair that I was sitting on completely collapsed due to my weight. I can look back at it now with some perspective and see it wasn’t such a big deal; however, as a young teenager, flattening that chair like a pancake in front of everyone was absolutely horrifying.
This was a period where I tried to portray that everything was fine, but privately I really struggled. Why did I have to be so fat? Why did things have to be so hard? Why did I have to look so different? It’s hard asking yourself those questions; it’s even harder to not have any answers. I was struggling to find my purpose.
Finding that niche . . .
Sometimes you just need that one spark. That one thing that helps you to start believing in yourself, your abilities and your possibilities. For me that was the FFA.
FFA is an agricultural-based organization for students in middle school to the age of 21. The motto states that FFA make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education. I couldn’t agree more with this statement.
What I gained from the FFA initially was premier leadership. FFA provided me with the tools and skills that allowed me to overcome many of my insecurities. I served as president of my junior high and senior high FFA chapters before being selected as a State FFA Officer. FFA spurred my involvement in other things including student council (serving as the representative on the school board), prom chair and teen court judge. FFA gave me the foundation to being the leader that I am today and the drive to be successful.
Doctors, and Nutritionists and Hypnotists OH MY . . .
While FFA helped to build up my self-confidence, there was still the issue of my weight. From my early childhood through my late teens, I saw plenty of people who worked hard to help me with my weight problems. I saw doctors, countless nutritionists and heck, I even went to a hypnotist. All of these people did what they could to give me the information, the tools and the encouragement to make healthier life choices. The sad part is, no matter what they said or did, I just wasn’t having it.
It might surprise you that my mother is actually a nurse practitioner. I always knew that my mom was very concerned for me and my health. She knew the potential health risks for people who were obese. My family, particularly my mom, did absolutely EVERYTHING within their power to help me make changes to try and be healthier.
Some changes included having fresh fruit and vegetables around, switching from drinking regular Mountain Dew to Diet Mountain Dew and water. Then there was the milk incident.
Growing up on a dairy farm, the milk that we drank always came directly from our cattle herd, which generally has more butterfat in it than milk you buy at the grocery store. My mom thought it would be a good idea if we all started to drink skim milk. Overnight we went from milk from our farm to store-bought skim milk. To put it mildly, there was a revolution in the house. Too big of a change, way too fast. So as a family, we gradually made the change. First, we bought whole milk before switching to 2 percent, then to 1 percent, before finally agreeing to skim milk.
Even as my family made these changes, at the end of the day I just put too much food in my mouth. It isn’t just what you have on your plate; it’s also the handful of chips that you grab from the pantry, the leftovers you nab from the fridge and the snacks you get from the store. To be frank, I really liked food (and still do), and I ate all the time and in massive quantities no matter what a doctor, nutritionist or any hypnotist said.
On Your Mark, Get Set . . . STOP!
Until now, very few people knew this next story. Back in 2007, I began to think that I needed to do something drastic to address my weight. I was reaching the end of my college career at UW-River Falls and I weighed more than 400 pounds. I visited a doctor about the possibility of gastric bypass surgery. After countless trips to the Twin Cities for meetings with doctors, therapists and even more nutritionists, everything began to fall into place. I had met the criteria for laparoscopic gastric bypass, except for one area–I was too big!
To have the surgery that is supposed to help you lose weight, I actually needed to lose weight. I’ll repeat that; I had to lose weight, to have the surgery to help lose weight.
I was given the green light for surgery in the spring of 2008, but I had to weigh less than 430 pounds in order to have the surgery laparoscopically. So I worked and worked and worked some more and I finally got to 428 pounds with about one week to spare before surgery.
The liquid diet that they put me on prior to surgery probably helped me meet my goal. Let me tell you, drinking straight low sodium beef broth is no ribeye steak.
Surgery day finally came. My life was about to make a dramatic change and I couldn’t wait. By then, I was student teaching in the agri-science department at Independence High School. I had all my ducks in a row. I had lesson plans ready for my cooperating teacher and I had my room ready for when I got home.
My mom and I drove to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in the Twin Cities for the surgery. I checked in and then I got the lovely hospital gown. After the IV was inserted, the surgeon began to feel around my stomach. He said that my liver was still very large and even though I had met his weight requirement for doing the surgery laparoscopically, he now wasn’t so sure. This proved to be a game changer.
By doing the surgery laparoscopically, it dramatically reduces the recovery time and potential complications. Hearing the surgeon say that he wasn’t so confident that the surgery could be done laparoscopically gave us pause and caused us to rethink about going through surgery.
Initially I was thinking, “I’m in the hospital, in my ever so fashionable hospital gown with an IV stuck in my arm and I was wearing those cool socks with the grippy things on the bottom. Really, why shouldn’t I just go ahead with the surgery?”
After a conversation with my mom about the options and what the realities would be if they had to go from a laparoscopic surgery to a procedure where they open the chest, I decided that it was best to pull the plug (so to speak).
Years later, my mom asked if I regretted that decision to not do the surgery. While there were times I wondered what I would have looked like, or how things would be different, I never once actually regretted stepping away from the surgery. As strange as it may sound, something was not right that day and I truly believe I made the best decision. I just wasn’t meant to have that surgery.
Short Lived Successes; Leading to Epic Falls . . .
There have been a few points in my life where I had temporary success in weight loss.
The first time where I actually tried to lose weight was in preparation for my brother’s wedding in the summer of 2006. As any person does, I wanted to try and look my best. I was hoping to be under 380 pounds, which would have been the lightest that I weighed in years.
Being as heavy as I was, it wasn’t like there was just any scale that I could step on to track my weight. So after talking with Steve Waters, who worked in the animal processing area at the University, he allowed me to use the scale that they used for weighing sheep, hogs and cattle. It wasn’t my proudest moment ever having to use that scale, but, I did what I had to do. By the time the wedding arrived, I was under my 380 goal (just barely).
After the wedding, I unfortunately went back to my old ways. Less moving, more eating. Not quite the recipe for sustained weight loss, and as everyone claims, the pounds come on way faster than they ever melt off.
Another one of my efforts occurred when I had reached more than 500 pounds. At the time I was working in the Capitol for State Representative Mark Radcliffe. It was the fall of 2010 and I was heading back to the Capitol after taking a leave of absence to work on the campaign trail. This time I really tried to focus on portion control, but even more crucial, I got a GYM MEMBERSHIP!
I made sure that I got a membership to a gym that was within walking distance of the Capitol because I knew that if I got into my car, I would somehow convince myself that I could take that day off. Every day I walked from the Capitol to the gym and did my workout. It was a lot easier that I didn’t get into my car until after I was done with my workout.
Things were going pretty well. I was down 20, then 40, 60 and I even got to the point where I had lost more than 90 pounds. I was really getting excited about that 100-pound mark.
Then came February 11, 2011. The State Capitol erupted into chaos after a controversial change to collective bargaining rights was proposed. This day changed things more than I ever could have imagined. I found myself working in the middle of an epic and historic political storm; working long hours, answering angry phone calls and emails, all while thousands of protesters surrounded the Capitol.
It’s hard to fully describe what it was like working in the Capitol during that time. There were so many moving pieces working at one time and it was a stressful whirlwind trying to keep up with it.
My healthy efforts had gone by the way side, as mass chaos ensued with no end in sight. There were nights of sleeping on the couch in the office. One week, I arrived on a Tuesday morning and left the Capitol Friday evening.
The controversial proposal became law and is known as Act 10. Beyond partisan politicians, the proposal divided families and friends.
While the pressure of the situation put a tremendous amount of stress on me, the one thing I want to make clear to everyone is I am not blaming anyone for this. It wasn’t the Governor; it wasn’t even Act 10 that knocked me off the tracks. I knocked myself off the tracks.
With this stressful situation, instead of finding comfort in new healthy habits of working out and healthier eating. I found comfort in the simple ease of unhealthy eating. Food, and plenty of it, brought comfort and oddly, sweet glimpses of joy and peace. Just like the other times, not only did I gain the weight that I lost, but I packed on even more pounds.
Want to read more? Click here for Part II.