When I joined the Clergy Health Initiative in early 2012, I was charged with coordinating the bi-annual health screenings that, in part, help pastors in Spirited Life track their personal progress in the program. Over time, I’ve come to see my role as helping to provide a “mirror” for Spirited Life pastors. Some of our pastors love the reflection they see when they come to a health screening… 20 pounds lost, blood pressure that’s come under control, a waist circumference that means it’s time to go shopping for smaller clothes. Other pastors, I’m certain, dread what they expect to see in the health screening mirror. Despite great intentions, too many desserts were consumed last month. Mornings once spent on the treadmill have fallen victim to busy schedules, and the numbers will be evidence of that. It’d be easier to skip the health screening this next round, to not have to look in that “mirror” and see the reflection that proves the digression. After all, ignorance is bliss, right?
Not quite. You see, I know first-hand that ignorance of our health is anything but bliss. And I know this because I was once obese. Not heavy or just a tad overweight, but legitimately and clinically obese. I started early, initially gaining weight in high school, and despite running the gauntlet of several fad diets, continued to pile on weight in college.
Upon graduation, I loaded up my car, left North Carolina and headed west to San Diego. As a young adult in an expensive city, I quickly took two jobs – one working in an HIV research center, and the other, serving specialty coffee drinks in a local café. My first year in San Diego often included 70-hour work weeks, often not having a day off for 30 days in a row. My schedule, and limited budget, made it difficult (in my mind) to eat healthy meals or make time for exercise, and so I piled on even more pounds. I told myself it was okay if I was overweight, because I was doing important work for society in my HIV research job. And I was kind, charitable, intelligent. That should be enough, right? It shouldn’t matter what I looked like on the outside, because I was a good person on the inside. And sure, there’s truth to that. But in focusing on superficial appearance with that approach, I was ignoring the part of my inside that was my health. And health does matter.
Back then, my dad tried to be my first “mirror.” He’s a family physician, a two-time marathon finisher, a fit and healthy guy. When he looked at me, I knew he saw a good person, but he also saw my future reflected in many of his patients – a future that was likely to include heart disease or diabetes. But I ignored that part of my reflection in his eyes – the one of sadness over my poor health. I was even ignoring real mirrors in my apartment… no full-length mirrors hung on my walls back then. And what about pictures? Well, thanks to technology, I could quickly crop those to “shave” off my arm fat or eliminate my hips from view altogether. I spent extra time on my hair and makeup and focused on that part of my physical appearance, easily ignoring the rest.
But then, there was the picture I couldn’t fix. My brother had come to visit and one particular photo featured us standing on a vista overlooking the ocean. There was no way to crop the picture without getting rid of all that beautiful background. That’s the day I finally, truly saw the reflection I’d been so actively avoiding. I was double the size of my brother. My posture was slumped, my eyes sad. I looked unhealthy. And when I plugged the numbers from my last doctor’s visit into a BMI calculator, the big block letters that popped up agreed. I was OBESE and officially at risk for all the things my dad so feared for me.
This time, I didn’t jump on a fad diet. Little by little, I started changing my unhealthy ways and working to build healthier habits. Sugary lattes were traded for plain coffee with a bit of skim milk. Lunches eaten out were replaced with portion-controlled meals and an apple. And a few months later when my dad was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer, I decided to deal with my emotions on the pavement, and in his honor, became a runner.
Nearly 8 years later, I’m 50 pounds lighter than I was back then. My blood pressure is low, my cholesterol levels are in check, and most days, I feel pretty darn good. But that victory has taken years to achieve, and more importantly, maintain. I’ve certainly struggled through my fair share of battles along the way. A knee injury sidelined my running career 6 months after it began. More recently, after having started running again, I temporarily lost my go-to running buddy when my dog was injured in an accident. And then there’s the demanding seasonal work schedule that comes with coordinating dozens of health screenings twice a year. It’s easy to get off track. But I’ve also learned, that it can be just as easy to get back on track if I keep mirrors around me. Sure, there’s the full-length one in my bedroom now hung in a place that can’t be avoided. But there are other “mirrors” I choose to see too. There’s the bathroom scale I step on each week. The self-awareness that I feel better when eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables over processed foods. The joy that comes from seeing my recovered pup’s tongue dangling out of his mouth in exhaustion after a run. There’s a new picture I make sure to look at too and this one’s not cropped! It was taken while on vacation with friends in Europe a couple years ago. My face reflects pure happiness – and I’m literally jumping for joy in my new, lighter, healthier body.
For those readers who are participating in Spirited Life, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen me at a screening, heard my voice on the phone, or received an email from me about attending your next screening. I wanted to share the story of my own weight loss and health maintenance journey so that you’d also know how much I really do celebrate your victories with you. And that I understand the hard work, time, and setbacks that are part of the journey toward better health. I used to look at thin people and think that being skinny and healthy was natural for them. I know now that, more than likely, they reflect upon and work on their health in their own ways each day, and they surely have their own challenges to contend with on their journey.
I hope you’ll let us, the health screenings team, continue to be a mirror in your lives. And I hope that by sharing my story, you’ll take some time to find the metaphorical mirrors that might help you along your own path towards wellness.