Thursday, August 22, 2013

Morbidly Obese to Athlete

Contributed by Jenny Branson

In 2007, I had a life altering moment. At 450lbs., I had just lost my job, living in a two bedroom apartment that I could not afford on my own. I was in my closet of a washroom, and was having some difficulties with my mobility. Faced with this situation I asked myself two questions. The first question I asked myself was; who was going to help me? The list was short. The second question I asked myself was if I wanted to live or die, and I cried. (I still do when I think about it).

The truth of it was, that at the weight I was at, that is the direction I was headed, to a faster death. In that moment so many things came to the forefront of my awareness. All these years that's what I have been doing to myself. I was killing myself.

I spent hours, over the years, crying. Feeling sorry for myself, helpless and out of control.

I was unable to have my own identity growing up, and when I tried to have my own, I was in the wrong. Or better yet, as children will think, something was wrong with me. My self-destructive behaviours were developed at a very young age. I perpetuated and nurtured them until the ripe age of 35. I was smoking marijuana at 6:30 in the morning to be able to emotionally suppress, and function throughout my day. I smoked a pack of cigarettes every two days. I drank, a lot. And the obvious, I ate.

You see, at 450lbs I never had a problem doing things. I mean, doing things essential to survival. I was barely doing them, but I was doing them, and if the things I was doing to survive didn't work out, then I would punish myself. Telling myself how worthless I was. This self perpetuating cycle seems too surreal looking back at it now.

I was active. I used to organize softball and volleyball teams for fat people, not only in Ottawa, but Toronto as well. I was an official Canadian advocate for the International Size Acceptance Association. I gave speeches at Beauty Pageants for large women. I did interviews with the Media, and met with associations to help large people survive in a thin world.

The whole time I was depressed, lost, angry, and directed all of this at myself through my eating, drug use, drinking, and other destructive behaviours. All I could think was things like “it’s all my fault” and “what is wrong with me that I can't change things?” I was setting the worst example for my daughter, whom I had at the age of 15. Believe me when I say, history repeats itself. There is a reason why it does. It started generations prior, and the cycle begins before we are born. Breaking the chains is not something most of us consider ourselves strong enough to do.
That day in the washroom though, I chose to live. Making that decision is what helped me stay motivated in maintaining a much healthier lifestyle today. I wanted to know what it felt like to believe that I deserved different, that I could make a difference for future generations. I needed to know what it's like to be at peace with who I am. I CAN break the generational chain of abuse. Peeling the layers away to get closer to that has taken years.

The first steps I took were changing my diet and getting active on a more regular basis. I was very limited physically, and financially. I looked at what the majority of my food intake consisted of at the time. It was simple carbs, I lived off of simple carbs. Not only did simple carbs give me a lot of emotional support in my times of psychological crisis, but they were within my budget. I ate what I knew, and what I was taught to eat. I was taught to be resourceful and survive. I knew how to do that like no other, living just to survive. Was I really living though?

I tackled the Atkins diet. I modified it a bit. I ate salads twice a day, had a good supper, and healthier snacks. Since I was laid off, and it was near the beginning of the summer, I started going to outdoor pools and bouncing around, literally. No exercise program, just bouncing around to get active. I did this five to six times a week. There were times I was using pools that I wasn't allowed to, but to me it was all about survival. After three months of this I regained some flexibility. You know how I noticed? I was in THE washroom.

The summer was over and I needed an indoor pool. An indoor pool where I felt comfortable, was affordable, and had a gym. I found one downtown. A good friend, at the time, decided to join me for motivation. I kept up my routine of working out 5 to 6 six times a week. Sometimes for two hours at a pop once the gym was incorporated. I started at 5mins on the elliptical machine and went thru hell with shin splints, etc. I was so proud of myself at one point in time that I had worked my way up to 45mins while still weighing close to 400lbs. I was still doing well with the eating, and was more determined than ever because I was seeing results. I still had my vices to help me through the transition. Some days after exercising that's all I could do. I could barely move some days due to bad shin splints and/or plantar fasciitis. I was still drinking, smoking marijuana and cigarettes. Of course the eating took a slip sometimes, but in 8 months I lost 80lbs.

I was sick, and hospitalized within the year. In the following year I went back to work after being hospitalized for cellulitis in the leg for a second time. Very serious stuff if you know anything about it.

In 2008 I went back to work and was offered the Gastric Bypass surgery. For the first time in my life, I was doing well with losing the weight on my own and making some serious changes. I asked if I could put the surgery off for a year. In that year, I made healthier choices and changes, but I gained 3lbs. I was so frustrated. I was at 373lbs. truly the situation could have been worse. The hardest change to implement while working full time was being able to work out. I was still eating healthier, but of course I was still participating in some very unhealthy coping mechanisms too.

When the hospital called me a year later, 2009, I accepted the weight loss surgery. I do not regret having the weight loss surgery, but sometimes I don't like telling people this part of the story. It's almost like, for them, the surgery did all the work for me. Truly it did not.

I needed no help from others. I was at an extreme I beat myself up all the time about a lot of things in my life. It's funny, if others criticize me I fight for myself but when I do it to myself I usually give in and agree. I'm a loser. I needed help.

From 2009 to 2010 the weight rapidly came off. I lost another 200lbs in about a year and a half.

The first six months after the surgery I was quite ill, as I got pneumonia on the operating table. The surgery was done in Toronto, and the Doctor told me right after surgery that they thought they had sewn my new stomach shut and lost a staple inside my new pouch. I couldn't swallow anything for four days. Then realized the swelling was the reason why, not because the doctor really sewn my pouch shut. I knew no one in the Toronto area. No family and very few friends. I was on my own I just wanted to go home.

I had to teach myself how to eat differently. You'd have thought after six months of not being able to breathe I'd have quit smoking, but I picked it back up when emotional issues took precedence over surviving. Old habits, emotional and physical, were trying to find their way back in, and I was a basket case.  I could no longer go to food like I used to, my body was changing faster than I could keep up psychologically. I felt more alone than ever, if that was possible. I was losing friends, as fast as I was losing weight.
All I focused on was that I wanted to live. I would have tantrums. At one point I found myself mourning foods I could no longer eat, as well as being fat. I was lost in the person I was becoming. It was all unknown to me. A person was trying to emerge that I was not familiar with, and she was doing things I was afraid to do.  

After a winter of walking at the Dome, Greenbank and Pinecrest, (I figured Monday to Friday, two hours each time, I was walking about 10k a day. I watched the shape of my legs change, and get more toned.) There I met Michael Patone, a personal trainer.  I had no muscle tone, from losing the weight so fast, and what did I know about building muscle?

Shortly before I started with Mike, I gave up marijuana (January 2011) and cigarettes (February 2011). The drinking stopped immediately after the gastric bypass surgery. It was unwanted calories and really my primary way of coping was/is through food. These changes were NEEDED if I wanted to make the full transition into a healthier lifestyle. If I REALLY wanted to survive I had to do this.
I started therapy in 2010, and found myself entering into even more unknown territory. Feeling uncomfortable in my own skin for so long I was mentally scattered, an emotional volcano. It truly has been the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I was embarking on a journey into my psyche, confronting my emotional core beliefs, and rewriting them. This is something I will be working on for the rest of my life.

I was feeling so lost, and did not know what I wanted out of life, a friend suggested writing down what my goals were.

I knew I wanted to be extremely physically active, and I have always loved trying new sports. I've always had a love for swimming but never really did it in the traditional sense. I had started to do official “laps” in 2010. At one point I was swimming 1km in 25mins. I wrote my goals out in a book, and that's when another friend suggested that the military could help me reach a lot of my long term goals. I needed structure, discipline, and extreme physical activity. I wanted to travel and a pension at the time of retirement.  Something inside of me really liked the idea of joining the Canadian Armed Forces it was like a higher calling. Goals give people a sense of purpose and it felt like for the first time in my life I had a sense of purpose, direction, something to aim for.  

I started strength training with Michael Patone March of 2011. I did my first Try a Tri in 2011, and then in 2012 my second one. I started to learn how to run in 2011 and have completed more than a handful of 5km races since. I have participated in a few obstacle course races, track challenges, bouldering activities, jumping off cliffs into quarries, and helped a few people get motivated just by tagging along to the gym with them. I have lots of things I still want to try.

I have a passion for adventure. Life is good to me and it's worth living. I AM worth it. Trust me, it's not easy for me to believe that, coming from where I did. Every day I still have to rewrite that interior dialog that wants to beat me down. I still make mistakes, don’t we all? I heard something really good in therapy my first year; “What makes me so special that I can forgive others, but cannot forgive myself?”  It's true.

Currently, I am in metabolic interval training, strength training and I run three times a week. I also swim once a week. Throwing in some recreational biking, and trying new stuff, like tennis to keep things fresh and interesting. I still work on my emotional issues, and continue to learn healthier ways to fuel my athletic body.

To call myself an Athlete seems foreign, and maybe even a little bit like a lie. Only twice now have I referred to myself as such out loud. It seems surreal to hear me (or anyone else for that matter) say it, but I am! 

Changing lifestyles consists of encompassing all areas of one’s BEING.

I will have to work hard for the rest of my life, I know this, but I am very grateful and proud to have maintained my weight at about 190lbs for the last three years. I can acknowledge I've beaten some pretty tough odds so far but feel that to maintain this level of living I also need to recognize that my survival depends on moving forward. Thriving depends on being able to live in the moment. My motivations are my goals, and my healthy active role models who have helped me one way or another along my journey. My trainer Michael Patone,  Amethyst's Addiction for Women, my running coach Suzanne Hotson, Inspirational Endurance Runner Ray Zahab, Active CBC Radio Spokesperson Stuart Mills, and any person who works hard to stay healthy. Most of all, other women who know what it's like to come from situations like mine,who know that to survive they have to leave an old life behind. 

I hope to be in the military by the end of this year. The end of September would be fantastic. I am hoping that next summer is my summer for a lot of different type of races I would like to enter. I would like to participate in a Triathlon Sprint, and participate in my first open water swim. I would like to take part in more obstacle course races, I would even like to do some long distance biking and running.

 I need help to achieve this.

Please help support my dream by voting at the link below.  No sign up. No hassle.  Just click and vote (daily even, if you feel so inclined!)

Your support is greatly appreciated. 

Jennifer ”The Athlete” Branson

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