Getting mentally prepared to start a transformation

We’ve all experienced false starts that didn’t feel so false at the beginning, but in retrospect, we were clearly ill-prepared and as a result our effort was ill-executed.  So before you decide to get started, you need to decide how to decide to get started.  You might look for some triggering event where it really hits you “something has to change.”  That’s good, but you’re going to need probably a little more than that to get psyched up.  “Oh crap, I’m in danger” can only take you so far.  You must be excited.  Being worried that you won’t be around for your kids is one form of motivation, but it’s exhausting.  Instead, you need to be excited about how much energy you will have to play with your kids!

You might observe the success stories of others by watching YouTube videos or reading blogs like this.  It might seem strange, but I absolutely recommend watching videos of people who seem to have it all together already, who don’t appear to be struggling all that much, because they have a lot to teach.  Just be sure to keep reading here for the perspective of someone who did have to fight their way down from 285 pounds after years and years of yo-yo dieting and struggles with pain, inflammation, and willpower!

Elliott Hulse is a great example of a motivational role model who’s been “there” a long time.  This guy is an amazing person with a complex and beautiful narrative that goes far beyond physical fitness, woven into most of his videos.  He’s not full of braggadocio, so if he seems like he’s bragging, consider that he’s a pretty honest guy and honesty often looks like bragging when we, as the observer, are insecure with ourselves.  He’s not full of jokes and zany ideas, but he’s not afraid to “get weird” once in awhile either.  He is absolutely trying to help everyone become the strongest version of themselves.  He doesn’t just tell people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear, and he has the confidence to say “I know what you need to hear” without cowering and qualifying his every word.

I recommend getting really comfortable with “getting started” as an idea before you really begin in earnest.  I don’t mean to build up this giant emotional wall that you have to overcome — you already know it’s there, don’t make it more intimidating than it already is.  You need to think about how you’re going to build a ladder with time, with lots of scaffolding and rest zones, to get over that damn wall, and you’ll have to realize that there are always new walls to scale, and that’s not a bad thing.  The effort to change and transform is what ultimately takes us from survival-oriented scurrying task-workers into successful, empowered individuals.

It’s OK to make quick simple changes right away, but don’t start measurably depriving yourself too much until you’ve made a commitment to transforming and maintaining your improvements every step of the way.  Expose yourself to lots of good things and positive vibes, feel like you’re taking charge of your life just by getting fascinated with fitness, turn it into something that interests you by watching how infectiously motivated others have become, and you’ll be ready to throw yourself in headlong once you’ve put the right amount of effort into simply noticing and observing (mindfulness all the way!) what success looks like and knowing through multiple examples that it’s possible to get there.

Right now the current narrative is “1% of people who try to transform their bodies succeed,” and we all look at that and say “well, I’m screwed.”  I’m not going to bother digging up some citation or link to a study that says “yep, here’s how we define that 1%.”  What you have to do is turn that into a statement about your own willpower and determination, after deciding how large that 1% really is.

Consider what this is really saying.  Obviously it’s not saying “1% of all people in America are in good shape.”  No, one percent of people who are already starting from a bad position physiologically are absolutely able to transform themselves.  This doesn’t mean that 99% percent of all people fail after putting their heart and soul into it, either.  There are multiple categories of people who either fall outside of this entire calculation, or skew the numbers in your favor.

  • Many people simply feel fine with their bodies as they are, and that’s fine, they might be perfectly healthy within normal parameters, and so they never find themselves in the group of “people who tried and failed.”  So those people don’t fall into the “99%” — they are in an entirely different category.
  • Many people don’t feel fine with their bodies, but never really try to improve.  Doesn’t make sense to include them in the 99% either.
  • Many people are unhappy with where they are, and make some changes, but experience a false start.  That doesn’t mean they’ve failed!  They just haven’t moved themselves into that 1% yet.  This is akin to being a smoker who takes eight times to quit.  Every time you quit, you are get some experience being a non-smoker, and become a little more prepared until you truly find yourself quitting the habit for good.  Quitting smoking is not impossible, but it’s certainly in my experience just as difficult as getting into shape.  Just like smoking, you have to commit before you start, deal with the fact that you might fail many times along the way, and keep deciding to commit to success, even though you know there’s a good chance you’ll fail “this time.”

The more you think about it, this 1% is a factor of time.  It’s not a prison sentence where you’re either locked in with the 99%, or you’re allowed to escape into the 1%.  For ten years, you might find yourself in the “99% of people who have tried and failed,” but just as you can work yourself into competing with other businesses if you try hard enough to find a niche market that allows you to create and deliver value to others, with time you can struggle your way into that 1%, and consider that a large chunk of the 99% really aren’t trying as hard as you are.  Or they are ill-prepared.  Or they are simply ten years away from finding their path to the 1%.  This is ultimately about success.  It’s not handed down, it’s not guaranteed, but the only way to get there is to constantly try, fail, and try again until you feel comfortable with being the type of person who attains and achieves success.

No matter how you begin, I think it’s clear to me now that you have to have the determination of a mortal person who knows they will one day be dead and buried in the ground in order to start living in the body you want today.  That doesn’t mean you have to experience being close to death, or even that being close to death is what will make things “click.”  I was sort of hoping that I would experience some sort of catalytic life event years ago when I let slip a weight loss effort that shed 40 pounds but left me feeling constantly hungry and emotionally miserable.

But that moment of catalysis happened 4 years later, and I didn’t even catch it and seize it until more experience (another year of drudgery) had accumulated on top of it!  That past effort years prior seemingly triggered a cascade of anxiety and depression that bothered me off and on for years and left me feeling weak and incompetent.  I began to feel more competent at my job, but not at life. So again, I threw myself too deeply into worrying about what people thought about me at work and obsessed over that, at the expense of everything else including my marriage, my health, and my relationship with my children.  During that previous attempt to “get healthy,” I deprived myself of too much of what I needed to feel mentally well for too long like stretching a rubber band until it snapped, instead of stretching it just enough to make progress, and then relaxing it a bit.  For example, someone like me will lose weight very quickly if I drastically control carbohydrates.  But you can’t bring it all the way down below 20 grams a day for too long if you want your mind and body to perform, in my humble opinion.  And you can’t entirely stop eating refined carbohydrates, or at least complex carbohydrates like potatoes or sweet potatoes, if you grew up on those foods and they’ve brought you much joy.  You have to fit them into your life to be a normal, functioning human being who doesn’t feel deprived.  Or at least, I do.

You have to love the person that lives inside the body that you already have enough (and I’m not talking about some deep love affair with yourself, just a sense of self-care) to want it to stay alive and well, in order to help it get better.  You can’t hate yourself until you one day magically love yourself, you can’t force yourself uphill towards a crazily unattainable goal and then decide you will be happy with what you get once you get there, while hating yourself every step of the way.  You will have moments of hating yourself, sure, but you can’t dwell on them.  You have to realize that when you’re very down on yourself and feeling poorly, there’s a point where you need to kick yourself in the ass, and then you need to move on and forgive yourself quickly.  You also have to forgive yourself for needing to beat yourself up so often, until you’ll get into a groove where you aren’t frequently falling into “woe is me” mode.  You have to actually find some middle ground between “I’m completely happy with who I am as a person” and “I drastically need to improve and change my life in order to be happy with the way I’m spending my time on this planet” and you’ll need to get comfortable living in that middle ground for a long time, and accept that you’ll never perfectly attain your final goal and just sit there contentedly — you need to enjoy the process of getting stronger, for as long as you wish to be strong.

I had some help with this because I had a stereotypical event occur where I was stressed-out about something related to work, while at work, after one of my most critical co-workers left the organization, leaving me in a position to feel stranded and lonely because I depended so much on them to keep me productive and focused.  I actually slowly lost several people to other employers over time that served this role in my life.  At the time, I knew these people needed to move on and I needed to deal with it and move on too, but I didn’t really capitalize on it without suffering for another significant chunk of time first.

I’m a very good “do-er of things” but I tend to do best when I have guidance.  And it’s not always management or supervisory staff that provide guidance, but co-workers who own the problem from a different angle.  Those people were leaving and I was starting to feel very alone, like I did when I first started working in this position.

So I was twisting in the wind and stressing about something so “very important” and work-related that I can’t remember specifically what it was today, and my heart started pounding in my chest in a way it never had before.  There was no immediately intense fearful thing for me to be stressed about, I was just feeling bad for too many consecutive days and had something new to worry about, and now everything “peaked.”  My heart started spasming against the walls of my chest and my immediate thought was “I’ve experienced many forms of chest discomfort over the years, but this feels like my heart is stretching like a balloon that might pop.”  It felt like there was a blockage, and a stretching, and I was a dead man walking.  I’ve always been a somewhat fat guy with a fluttery, anxious nervous system, who could experience heart palpitations just from being disturbed in traffic.  I could feel the same sensation you feel at the top of a roller coaster just by noticing that the person in the lane next to me is slightly veering towards me.  I have a very strong fight-or-flight reaction which ties back to a generally anxious personality.  So I have had many “false alarm” chest pain moments in my life where I just quietly said “this chest pain is anxiety.”

I’ve even had chest pain moments where I thought “this chest pain is actually pretty bad and real.  I should take some garlic and niacin and dilate my blood vessels and stop thinking about it so much.”  As a thirtysomething I was acutely aware that heart attacks are unusual in people my age, but increasingly common, because people are not taking care of themselves and staying active the way they used to, because our society is heavily structured around sedentary work and relaxation.

And those chest pains in the past always went away, though they were likely also the result of anxiety, my blood vessels were absolutely taxed and miserable from the way I was eating.  Once I had chest pains after eating a terrible but delicious-to-me meal at Sonic — a shake, a chili dog, chili-cheese tots.  I will eat some form of that meal again, I’m sure, just for the hell of it, but it used to be a more common occurrence for me (hey, the kids love Sonic! Might as well go nuts!) and one time right after that combination I had this mix of self-loathing, anxiety, heartburn, and tightness in my chest that psyched me out and I had to tell myself “you’re not having a heart attack from eating at Sonic,” though the fact is that your arterial endothelial function can be compromised simply by eating a terrible meal, and fertile ground for heart attacks or heart failure can be slowly built up or time simply by eating too much fried food, setting you up to fall over like a cardboard cut-out version of yourself when the right amount of stress hits you all at once.  The crazy thing is that we all know that eating terribly is bad for you over time, but we don’t know that many people have keeled over and died after a particularly bad meal, the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Yikes.  But I didn’t keel over here, I felt better after taking my garlic and niacin and dare I say, I drank some whiskey and said to myself “this will thin my blood” just as my paternal grandfather wrote in his journal at one point weeks before he died of a heart attack.

So suffice to say, I’m no stranger to chest pain.  I was always more inclined to brush it off because I was a smoker until 2010, and chest pain was an occasional companion to my smoker’s lifestyle, going all the way back to high school!  But this time was different–it was the first time that I felt like I had to tell someone else I was experiencing “severe chest discomfort” in clinical terms because saying “I think I’m having a heart attack” was just too intense and too real.  I had to say something and to hear them look back at me in concern and ask “do you want to go to the hospital?”  Yes please.  I called my wife on the way there and tried to fight back tears, but I could feel my heart jumping around in my chest.  It felt like muscle pounding against sharp bone.

Here’s the really interesting thing about this story — it took nearly a year before I actually began to make serious changes despite being admitted to the hospital for chest pains!  They gave me milk of magnesia and anti-anxiety meds, and my cardiovascular markers looked “OK” so they concluded I was simply suffering too much from stress and acid reflux disease, aka GERD.  For the longest time I was taking the maximum-strength dose of generic Pepcid AC (a mild H2 anti-histamine) and friends of mine would suggest that I get onto something more hard-core like Prilosec or Nexxium.  These proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) that come with a black box warning, with the latter being a stronger, concentrated version of Prilosec.  I resisted this because I knew deep down that completely killing all heartburn would disengage my body from the feedback loop that tells you “you’re eating terrible, stop eating so badly.”

I knew that Prilosec has a black-box warning because my mom is a pharmacist and often nudges me along the way when I ask whether or not to consider a medication — it’s not intended to be used for more than 14 days because of an increased risk of stomach cancer!  You can go to Costco right now and buy 42 tablets, but the package will tell you “contains three 14-day courses” of medication.  It’s too strong, you’re not supposed to take it continuously no matter what story you’ve told yourself about why it’s OK!

It’s too effective at disabling your own feedback mechanism, and will directly damage your ability to absorb nutrients, so you end up eating even more food to get the absolutely vital micronutrients you need to have a sound body and mind, and to be free from constant malaise and fatigue!  Prilosec Is Surrender.  It’s a bad idea for most people, of this I am convinced.  That link is very clinical, but read the abstract.  It says nothing good about Prilosec.  It leads to more stomach problems, potentially cancer, and increases your susceptibility to infection from things like pneumonia.  It tears down your body’s own defenses over time.

If you think you need to tell your stomach to shut up and never complain when you throw terrible food down your gullet every day, then you’re making a commitment to being increasingly unhealthy.  But an ER doctor (wow, a real doctor!) told me he uses Prilosec every day, so did I for nearly a year.  I eventually moved up to Nexxium when the maximum dose of Prilosec wouldn’t cut it.  I began to get sickly and run a low temperature for most of the day.  But I could eat and drink whatever I wanted!  But I could see the writing on the wall — I would be getting worse until I decided to wean myself off.  It didn’t take long before I found myself sometimes taking Pepcid on top of Prilosec.  The rebound heartburn that happens when you stop taking it is incredible, by the way, and I will likely write an entire article on how I weaned myself off of Nexxium, back down to Prilosec, back down to Pepcid, and eventually got to a point where I only take the minimal dosage of Pepcid (10mg) on days where I find myself eating a lot of acid (like tomato sauce) and excessive fat or grease together, like “Pizza Night!”

Mind you, and this is an important mini-lesson, but an ER doctor doesn’t have all that much authority to make drug recommendations, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.  Nor am I the best equipped to make every decision, but I ask incredibly knowledgeable people like my mom who has been a pharmacist for around 25 years to help support my own inclinations and intuitions, with an expectation that they will tell me when I’m being full of shit and trying to concoct a false narrative, like “I need to be on Prilosec for just awhile and then I’ll take care of myself better.”

First of all, there’s a world of difference between emergency care and general wellness and health maintenance.  The ER doctor wants to keep you from coming back to the ER in the immediate future, but they aren’t the best person to consult with about your long-term health.  Sorry!

He (or she) not an authority, and is probably not taking the best care of themself either.  It’s a brutal occupation, being a physician, especially on-call. They’re living actively in a high-stress low-sleep job and telling me what works for them, but they are not weighing the long-term consequences or a deep knowledge of how that medication works into the recommendation. This is not a pharmacist or pharmacologist or research scientist, just a person with some medical training and experience telling me what worked for them.  This is very important to understand about doctors!  A doctor is typically someone with very limited experience in pharmacology who knows very little about the actual long-term risks of Prilosec, they are often cynical and would rather you be on Prilosec for life than dare to improve your diet in any meaningful way, and they often know very little about nutrition and drug interaction (seriously) because doctors aren’t trained as pharmacists or pharmacologists when it comes to the workings of medication or the foundation of a truly healthy, sustainable, non-clinically dry hospital-style low-fat diet.  They can make general recommendations, and the damage that GERD can cause is very real, but treating the symptom (discomfort) instead of the cost (poor diet, too much alcohol) leads you down a very painful road in the end, which tends to benefit them in the long run, and not so much you.

So what’s the point?  There is much more to say here, but the overarching point is that despite all of my previous efforts and setbacks, a visit to the ER did not get me on the right track, it actually sent me further down the path I was on.  But I need to experience that final reckoning, that foray into “how much more poorly can I eat, since my chest pain was probably just panic and heartburn.”  I needed to go just a little further down the road before I realize that stress and obesity were absolutely shortening my life, and more importantly, making it terrible and uncomfortable every day.

It might take you awhile to decide that you want to join the 1% of people who successfully transform their bodies and maintain it.  Along the way, many other people might be on their 5th or 8th try and nowhere close to the 1%.  In the years it takes to get there, many people who enjoy being in that 1% will die of natural causes, accidents, etc.  It’s a moving, dynamic number.  You can absolutely find yourself there, but it won’t be an accident.  It will be a deliberate, conscientious effort to attain success and to constantly give yourself a new summit to well, summit!  And again, fear along will not carry you.  You don’t see a lot of me reflecting above about “oh no, my kids won’t have a father if I died of a heart attack” even as I’m being rushed to the hospital.  Of course I told my wife that I love her, but wasn’t about to say “tell the kids I love them too and I might die!”  I knew that I would eventually improve myself, but that my current situation was standing in the way.

By the time they were visiting me at the hospital at the end of my tests they knew nothing serious was going on — at this moment in time, and I communicated that by not freaking out and acting like I’d seen the face of death.  When I was physically in the hospital and hooked up to the IV and having my blood markers checked, I fell at ease knowing that if anything popped, I’d have that crazy scary reflection before death and the miraculous technology of the American health system that is designed specifically to handle emergencies where things blow up and you happen to be close enough to a hospital.  But I didn’t come all that close after all.

Of course my kids won’t have their daddy if I die because of stupid choices that added up to a hill of death.  But a bus could hit me tomorrow and I could die, regardless of my physical shape, and how do I want them to remember me?  As someone who was fat and lazy and didn’t play with them and got hit by a bus, or as an all-around badass to look up to, willing to endure pain and work hard in order to be a good role model?  Of course I want to be around for a long time, but more importantly, I want to be around for a long, high-quality, enjoyable time.