- Posted April 22, 2011 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Your 'Aha' weight-loss moments
How football and unemployment saved my life
The single moment that changed my life happened on a gloriously sunny stretch of lonesome West Texas highway.
Two friends, my wife and I were on our way to Pasadena, Calif. to see the BCS National Championship game. Our team (and presumably the Lord’s team), the Alabama Crimson Tide, was taking on the University of Texas Longhorns for the ultimate honor in college football. Since we were impoverished students without the good sense to plan ahead for the possibility the Tide would make the big game, we were driving from Alabama to California, a journey of some 2,000 miles across America. We planned the trip in chunks — driving from Tuscaloosa to Austin, Austin to Truth or Consequences, N.M. to stay with my wife’s grandparents and from New Mexico on to Pasadena. Drive for a day. Crash for a night. Press on. A simple plan that was cheap enough for us to afford.
It was the second day of the trip when it happened. I was driving, behind the wheel of my big blue F-150 supercrew truck with one friend riding shotgun and another in the back seat with my wife. It was bright as hell, like some strange meteorological confluence above the skies of Texas made it impossible for clouds to form. I was a bit bleary after the night before, and I had a nagging lack of sleep. The sun and all of its brilliance wasn’t helping.
As I navigated the twists and turns through the dry Texas brush, I started to notice something: I was getting hot. Not all-over-hey-guys-lets-turn-on-the-AC hot, but a strange hot — it was a burning sensation in my chest. I started tweaking a little, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.
And then my chest started to tighten.
And hurt. My pulse quickened, and my face went flush as I quickly put all the pieces together and tried to process what was happening.
After years of steadily packing on the pounds without regard to the future, the single scariest moment of my life had finally come to pass. I was having a heart attack.
Exactly what compels a man — one who spent the better part of 20 years on the couch or in front of the computer, sneaking junk food whenever possible and generally not giving a damn what or how I was eating — to drop 150 pounds in nine months?
“You’ve lost all that weight since February?” asked someone I ran into. I had most recently seen him at a birthday party, the last time when I actually embraced cake and other goodness with abandon.
“Yep,” I said.
I never really answered the “Why” question. I joked and said either I could lose weight or keeping eating and go for the world’s record in fat assed-ness.I played it straight and said vaguely it was “just time.” But why now? Why this “time” and not six months ago or six months from now? Why was it not when my girthy gut began to swell and stretch the extra-extra-extra-large shirts that comprised my wardrobe?
The answer was simple: I was too ashamed and scared to admit the real truth.
Even at 24, I was a prime candidate for heart trouble. I weighed more than 350 pounds, and my most strenuous workout was climbing the stairs at the law school to get to the second-floor classrooms. Sometimes that was too much for me as I would take the elevator to avoid the embarrassment of coming to class huffing and puffing, out of breath over the smallest of exertions. I ate bad, pounding McDonald’s double cheeseburgers by the sackful and never being satisfied by just one trip to the pizza buffet line. About the only thing I managed not to do was smoke, and that came more out of not wanting to spit directly into fate’s face than anything else.
So was I surprised to find myself near-convinced I was having a heart attack? Looking back on it, I sure shouldn’t have been. But at that moment, I was terrified.
Yet, I didn’t say a word to my traveling companions, choosing to calmly drive on through the scrub to our next destination. I was so resigned to my fate — that I was going to die young, eating myself into an early grave — that I didn’t even mention my predicament. Not that I had any clue where a hospital might be, of course, but any sane person in that situation would have said something.
Thankfully (for both myself and everyone else in the truck) it turned out to be nothing — at least nothing that meant my imminent demise. I drove on to our next stop (as luck would have it, a Pizza Hut lunch buffet) as my panic subsided.
I don’t remember how much pizza I had to eat that day (chance are it was more than you should eat, but probably less than what I would have normally shoved down), but that day is a clear line of change in my life, with a clear difference in the years that came before that scare and the months that have followed.
But before I could make it home to change my life, there was the little matter of getting to California and the national championship game. We made it to the Golden State without further incident, and we had a wonderful time there. For Alabama yokels, California, with its miles upon miles of freeways and smog-filled air was an experience to relish. We toured L.A., ate at a Chinese restaurant where they shot a scene for one of the “Rush Hour” movies and went to a taping of The Price is Right, where one of our crew nearly won a car.
The BCS National Championship was the actual reason for the odyssey west, and it did not disappoint. Alabama lineman Marcel Dareus committed what many would consider to be a felonious assault on Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, knocking him out of the game and Texas’ hopes with him. The Longhorns thrashed about for a while, sure, but it wasn’t enough as Alabama would win the game 37-21.
Walking back to the house where we were staying after the game was another sign something needed to change in my life. We had to walk maybe a mile or so, and I couldn’t do it. After walking to the game, standing and cheering for most of the tilt and then walking around after it was over, I was exhausted. Spent. So I just obstinately sat down when we hit a particularly hilly stretch of road, forcing my friends to wait around for my out-of-shape ass to recover. It was just another embarrassment in a long string of embarrassments, dating back to days in junior high where I took a uniform away from a more accomplished upperclassman in the marching band because they only had so many large jackets and even earlier in Boy Scouts where I had to wear an adult uniform.
We eventually made it back to the house, and I collapsed into bed. After one more day in SoCal, we started the long drive back to Alabama, choosing to do it this time in one continuous merry-go-round of driving, napping, desperately trying to stay awake and drinking way too much Red Bull. I probably should have been in the “let’s-get-back-quick” camp, seeing as I had a job and all to get back to.
Or at least I thought I had a job.
In his final statement to a Chinese court before he was ushered away to the gulag, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo gave a stirring and moving defense of the natural right of free expression. Along the way, he said the following: “I have no enemies, and no hatred…[f]or hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience.” Amazing words from a man about to go to jail for nothing more than speaking his mind and advocating for a better world.
His words are deep and true, a perfect crystallization of a giving, gracious heart bursting with forgiveness.
He is the better man.
I was the managing editor of The Crimson White, the student newspaper at the University of Alabama. I had worked there for most of my tenure at the University, which to this point has been four years of undergrad, three years of law school and a semester working toward, first, the journalism master’s and, now, the mass communication doctorate. At my last stop, I had finally worked my way to a position of authority as the managing editor, the No. 2 voice at the paper. For most college graduates and/or law students, it would have been a crummy job beneath them. Four nights a week, I was at the newspaper office from 4 or 5 p.m. until whenever the paper was put to bed, which was sometimes as late as midnight or 1. The hours sucked. The pay sucked even worse. But it was my job, and I loved it.
Working until midnight with a morning class the next day didn’t leave much time for sleep. But the lack of sleep wasn’t the worst part of working there. My diet, which was never all that healthy, reached a lard-covered zenith while I was working nights, because for those four nights, it was nothing but fast food. I’d help put the paper to bed, and then I’d drive to McDonald’s or Arby’s for a bag of stuff I wouldn’t touch now if that damned Ronald McDonald himself paid me.
At Arby’s a typical meal was a large roast beef sandwich, a large order of curly fries and a large drink — a large meal for my large ass that rings up to 1,600 calories and 59 grams of fat according to Arby’s website. McDonald’s was even worse. There, the standard meal was three double cheeseburgers plain (so help you God if you put ketchup or pickles on those burgers), a large order of fries and a large drink. That gastrointestinal catastrophe came in at 2,130 calories and 94 grams of fat. Those are some numbers I might not hit in two or three days now.
It was my first day back at work, and everyone was still embracing the glow of the national championship. I had class that ran into the early evening, so I was late getting to the office that day. When I got there, the editor calmly called me into her office (never a good thing), and I sat down on the couch facing her desk. Then, she dropped a megaton shit bomb on my head: I could “no longer be the managing editor.” As I would learn through the fog of shock and dumbfounded dismay, I had not cleared my travel plans to Pasadena to her liking, and this was my comeuppance. Not wanting to discuss any future at the paper that didn’t have me as managing editor, I simply gave her my keys to the office. She walked me back to my desk and hovered over me as I packed up my belongings.I stumbled out of the office in a daze and into the cool January air, joining millions of Americans in the Great Recession as one of the many unemployed.
I was crushed. It was a crummy job, but it was my crummy job, damnit. For the rest of the month, I went through alternating stretches of directionless rage and unyielding self-pity. I didn’t know what to do with myself — all the while I’d sit in my green recliner as the creeping tingle came and went in my legs (a sure sign of diabetes) and my chest would tighten and ache.
At 24, I was waiting to die.
But as January turned into February and the signs I needed to make a change in my life piled up all around me, I had an idea:
I’d start going to the gym.
It’s just past 2:25 a.m. as I step off the treadmill for the last time and shamble toward the World Gym exit. Eight miles and 1,707 calories after my workout began, it’s finally, thankfully over.
I have an odd bond of sorts with this treadmill, the one closest to the stairs on the cardio floor. I hopped aboard one night and set about to do the default exercise, which on most treadmills is set for a maximum of an hour. This one, however, was different. As the elapsed time inched toward 60:00 that night, I was ready to be done, ready to leave and go home to do something fun or at least more lazy than exercise. But the workout didn’t stop at 60:00 — it went right on to 60:01 and 60:02 and so forth, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Being the curious type, I decided to keep working until it hit its cutoff point. 70 minutes. 80 minutes. 90 minutes. They all came. They all went. I could have stopped at any point, but I wasn’t going to let this treadmill (or my sundry obsessions) beat me. I figured it would stop at 99:59 (there was no other placeholder on the display, after all), but it switched right back over to 00:00. Yep, I had been outsmarted by a treadmill. But it earned my respect after that night.
It’s not easy to squeeze two hours of exercise into a 24-hour day full of so many other things, but a gym with after-hours access at least makes it possible. When life is busy, the exercise worms its way into the wee hours, keeps me up late and steals my sleep. But it is also helping me to work off the results of 25 years of good times and living-out-loud fun.
I wish it was easier. I wish I had a magic pill that could whisk all the extra weight away, like it disappeared in a puff of fairy dust and that losing weight was as simple as eating potato chips by the fistful. But it’s not.
My first trip in 2010 to the University of Alabama’s Student Recreation Center in February was only my second visit there in almost seven years as a UA student. I was a stranger to the gym and exercise, my only real experience an aerobic walking class in high school where I got into a helpful routine of walking a few miles a couple of times a week and then promptly abandoned what little work I had put in when I was done with the class.
On my first day at the Rec, I felt like a heathen sinner in a sacred temple. The lights were bright and warm, the floor and equipment spotless and well maintained. All around me were people who had taken care of themselves, who had avoided the temptations of the sinful Krispy Kreme crème-filled doughnuts and the dark lures of late night trips to fast food joints. They, for the most part, were thin and sculpted. I was neither.
I walked to the nearest open treadmill and climbed aboard. I picked a comfortable walking speed (a little under three miles an hour), did what I had to do not to fall on my face and did it for an hour. I didn’t pick the treadmill out of a grand scheme or exercise plan — it was simply the only exercise equipment I knew anything about. It became, however, part of my daily routine.
Months after that day at the Rec, I was walking out of the bathroom and into the locker room at World Gym. A bunch of the gym regulars, guys who were there three or four times a week lifting weights, were talking about what they did when a craving for a cheeseburger hit them hard. Being a bit of a burger aficionado (and longing for the sweet embrace of a greasy, meaty mound with melted sharp cheddar cheese) I spoke up, suggesting a better burger was one sans-bun without many condiments.
However, the conversation quickly turned from food to me.
The guys had been watching me as I went from the side door with the 24-hour access, up the stairs and on to the treadmill. Watching me night after night. Watching a thinner me.
“You can’t tell me it’s just been the treadmill,” said one of the fellas about my weight loss.
“Yep,” I said.
It was always the same workout. Hop on the treadmill. Let my mind roam as my feet did the hard work. And it was hard work at the beginning. Muscles ached constantly, and blisters were all too often a problem. I learned the hard way that good sneakers are a near-damn necessity after an ill-fitting pair caused bloody sores on one of my ankles that persisted for the better part of two weeks.
Rain or shine, ache or pain, from the middle of February to the end of March (when I skipped my first workout) I was at the Rec every day. I went that often not out of some iron-willed commitment, but because I didn’t have any other better ideas. I knew if I went occasionally, it’d only be easier for me to come up with an excuse not to go. If exercise was going to work, I knew it had to be methodical and consistent. It had to be just another thing I did as a person, like going to class or getting up in the morning. It had to be the new reality.
Progress was slow at first. Maybe it was a shirt here or there that fit better. Maybe it was a tight pair of pants that cutoff the circulation to my legs a little less. The first thing my wife and I noticed for sure was that the fatty deposits on my upper torso (yeah, my bitch tits) were getting smaller. I didn’t think, though, about my overall progress. I focused simply on taking it one goal at a time, getting through one trip to the Rec and living another day to chip away at my gut.
When I started in February, I didn’t really have a clue exactly how heavy I was because I didn’t have a scale. Why, after all, would I have such a thing? If my weight was the last thing I wanted to talk about, why would I have a scale to remind me of my continuing failure? My wife, though, did finally get a scale for our bathroom in March, and I vividly remember the tiny screen’s first numbers for me: 338. Calculating for a month of modest progress, we guessed that I was around 350 pounds when I started on my diet and exercise plan. When spring began to creep into the air and attention at the law school turned to final exams, I hovered around 315. Graduation and summer proper brought me below 300, and the free time given to the jobless and those not studying for the bar allowed me to concentrate fully on exercise and trying to get fit.
Today, my one hour routine at the gym has doubled, usually accomplished in two trips to the house of sweat and hard work, and I walk an average of seven miles a day on the treadmill.
Today, I weigh less than 200 pounds. I’ve lost 14 inches on my waist, three shirt sizes and more than 150 pounds. It has not always been easy, and I dream of one day living a life not constantly counting calories and worrying about everything going into my body — like it was before my great trip West, before I changed forever.
But now, for the first time in years, I am content and at peace with my health.
I am alive.
[UPDATE: I reached goal weight in January. Heck yeah.]