Some 4 million Americans are morbidly obese, the second leading cause of preventable death. Every year millions of Americans attempt to lose weight to live. This is a story of one such journey.
Starting up the steep, narrow staircase, I waited for the effects to kick in — the frighteningly rapid heartbeat, the heavy breathing, the sweat. But I had no choice.
After doing interviews below with crewmembers of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, I had to reach the flight deck, several levels up. I had a big story to cover.
Most of my life I’ve weighed too much — 200 pounds or more — and I’d grown all too familiar with the discomfort physical exertion caused me.
Avoiding stairs, hills or mountains was a skill I’d perfected, even in the active world of news reporting. I’d take elevators, escalators, a taxi. I’d pause again and again, stretching out any climb I couldn’t avoid. Anything to lessen the torture.
This time, on the ship’s stairs, it felt different, better somehow. Still, there was no time to think about that. I had to climb. And fast.
The president would be landing on the flight deck soon.
Simples things a chore
About 4 million Americans live with “morbid obesity,” so fat it’s a danger to their health.
I know what the term means without reports from medical researchers. My own obesity didn’t happen overnight. It took years — a pound at a time, the result of an insatiable appetite for high-fat, high-cholesterol foods and lack of exercise.
At age 14, I weighed more than 200 pounds. By my 33rd birthday last year, I hovered near 270 and wore a size 24. I stand 5 feet 7.
“It doesn’t affect my life. I date. I have friends. I have a job,” I always said.
That was far from the truth.
The simple things in life were a chore.
Traveling, I picked off-peak flights because it was uncomfortable to sit next to somebody.
Sleeping, I suffered from obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that, in my case, was caused by obesity. My nights were cycles of loud snoring, interrupted breathing and sudden waking.
Standing at a news conference or hustling to gather quotes — the basic demands of my job as a reporter — caused back and knee aches, sore feet and exhaustion.
Over the years, I made half-hearted attempts to lose weight — only to return to my old diet and my beloved chocolate. I had heard the statistics, read the articles about obesity mortality rates. But it wasn’t enough to make me change.
I needed a special, personal kind of nudge.
I was scared
On Sept. 6, 2002, with my weight at 268 pounds, a co-worker broke the sad news that, as much as any one thing, began to change my life.
“Do you remember my friend Yvonne?” said Lynn Elber. “She died.”
“How?” I said, shocked.
“I think it was her weight,” Lynn said.
At age 48, Yvonne Bry died of deep vein thrombosis, according to her family. Whether her weight was a direct factor may never be known, but the diagnosis has been associated with inactivity.
I flashed to the things I knew about her: A great sense of humor, a love of rock ’n’ roll and a passion for traveling — and food.
Only days earlier, I had been to my doctor for a routine physical, and the news was disturbing. My blood pressure was up. My cholesterol levels were on the rise. There was a near constant ache in my right knee.
“You’re too young to be having these problems,” the doctor said.
Now, with the news of Yvonne’s death, those words echoed. My heart started to pound. For the first time, I was scared.
Only once, at age 18, had I seriously attempted to lose weight. I starved myself and lost 40 pounds after a boy I liked made fun of my appearance. But as fast as I took the weight off then, I put it back on.
Now, I knew I had to make a change. I just didn’t know how. But I remembered that a year earlier the manager of my apartment complex had lost 30 pounds. Maria McGovern had asked me then if I wanted to go to a Weight Watchers meeting. I laughed and told her no. Now, I was ready to try anything. I called Maria.
At the same time, I turned to an old high school friend, Kimberly Baron. She had worked as a personal trainer at a women’s gym. Over the years, she had tried to coax me into working out. I always balked, saying I was comfortable with who I was.
When we went out to eat, I teased her about her “rabbit food,” as I called it — steamed vegetables, beans or a grilled chicken salad. I ordered a hamburger, french fries and a salad dripping in Ranch dressing.
“Will you help me?” I asked Kim.
“I’ve been waiting for you to ask,” she said.
One foot in front of the other
On Sept. 10, 2002, I stepped onto a treadmill in a workout room in my apartment complex. I punched the blinking buttons and started to walk, setting the speed at 2.7 mph.
“Put one foot in front of the other,” I kept telling myself. The clock ticked. At 5 minutes, I was sweating. At 10, I developed cramps in my side. At 20, I was breathing so hard I had to stop.
“Twenty minutes. I couldn’t even walk for 20 minutes,” I told Kim.
“It’s a start. It’s 20 minutes more than you did yesterday,” said Kim, who set up a cardiovascular and weight-training program for me.
A day later, I walked into my first Weight Watchers meeting, bringing along a friend, Martha Johnson. Both of us had been afraid to go alone.
I always looked at self-help programs with a skeptic’s eye. Maybe it was the reporter in me. Maybe it was the lifelong fat person, unwillingly to believe substantial weight loss was a possibility.
On that night, for the first time, I was open to it.
It was simple things, things I already knew, that made the most sense: Eat breakfast, keep a food journal, watch food portions, take a lunch to work, pack snacks, drink water and exercise.
I can do this, I thought. I just have to commit to it. At that moment, I knew I had to treat it like a job — make losing weight the priority, and take all the steps that would require. Tuesdays, I decided, would always be “weigh in” day, the day I stepped on a scale.
That night, I threw out everything in my refrigerator, including the cookies-and-cream ice cream. Chocolate candy also went.
I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends who had comforted me over the years. There would be times when I’d reconnect with these “friends,” but I made a rule that night never to bring them home again.
Restocked with fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish, my refrigerator looked like it belonged to somebody else.
The first week I lost 10.1 pounds — a bag of potatoes, I told friends.
First week was easy
That first week was easy. It was something new.
The weeks following became much more challenging as I balanced my diet and how much I missed certain foods with the demands of a job involving long hours and last-minute, far-flung assignments.
Beyond a handful of friends and my mother, I told no one. Not even my dad. I was afraid of public failure, and that knowing nod that comes from people who hear what you’re doing but don’t believe you.
At first, I wasn’t completely honest with a supervisor at work, explaining my Tuesday night obligation as a nutrition class. Later, I acknowledged I was attending meetings to lose weight.
But you can’t tell the news to accommodate your schedule.
Based in Orange County, Calif., I have helped cover just about anything happening in the area. In October 2002, the Anaheim Angels were making their improbable streak toward the World Series.
For more than a month, I had managed to stay away from the smell of fast food, a particular weakness. Suddenly I was faced with the overwhelming smell of hot dogs, pizza, nachos, popcorn. A giant cinnamon pretzel almost got me. I carried a bag of baby carrots to the stadium like a lifeline.
The problem was the Angels kept winning. So I found routes through the ballpark that bypassed food stands — the emergency exit staircases.
By the time the Angels won the World Series, I had lost 23.4 pounds — two bags of potatoes.
Evidence of success
During a vacation that fall, my mother, who is a medical transcriptionist and, like the rest of my family, is slim, confessed: “I’ve been worried about you for years. Every time I transcribe these doctors’ notes about their morbidly obese patients and all their problems, I think about you.”
I asked her why she didn’t say something sooner.
“Chelsea, do you know how you would have reacted?” she asked.
Yes, I knew. My defensiveness at any criticism of my appearance came from enduring years of fingerpointing and teasing.
But my mother’s previously unspoken concern was something I would hear repeatedly over the months, from colleagues and from friends.
My best friend since childhood, Jeanine Todd, was blunt: “I want us to be old friends, sitting in rocking chairs.”
That vacation taught me new lessons about the challenge of losing weight.
While traveling it was impossible to pack meals, tough to get to a gym. I had to pick restaurants wisely. No buffets. No Italian, Mexican or Chinese — too much cheese, sauce and salt. Grills, not steak houses.
I bought day passes to gyms, power-walked and used the hotel pool.
By the end of my trip, my clothes were falling off. Standing in my grandmother’s living room, I tugged on my jeans and they slipped over my hips and dropped to the floor.
My grandmother started to laugh, and I was near tears. It was my first tangible evidence of success.
It was mid-November, and I had lost 35 pounds. I was no longer carrying around a 4-year-old child, I told friends.
The reward of new clothes
Buying clothes was always a lesson in humility.
At a mall with dozens of stores, only a few carried my size. But by early December, I had nothing left to wear — and I was assigned to cover a VH1 awards show.
Walking into a department store with Martha Johnson, I followed the familiar route to the back to the large sizes.
I grabbed a size 20 pair of pants and a 1X long blouse that hung past my hips. It was habit. I had always worn long, loose clothing because I believed it hid the fat.
“This is too big,” Martha said. “You have to stop thinking like a fat person.”
We walked across the aisle. I grabbed a size 18 pair of black pants and an X-Large burgundy blouse.
“Please fit, please fit, please fit,” I muttered as I tried them on.
The pants were snug in the waist. The blouse fit. The last time I had worn this size, I was just out of high school.
Before, I always celebrated success by eating. After that, I rewarded myself with clothes.
By the second week of January, I had lost 60.4 pounds — an 8-year-old.
Guess what I found today?
As my weight dropped, my physical activity began to increase. I went from 20 minutes a day, three times a week, to at least 90 minutes, five to six times a week. I geared my days around getting to the gym. If I got home from work at midnight, I went to the gym at midnight. If I was having a really bad day, one that threatened my diet, I went twice.
Often, Martha and I met at a small workout room at my apartment complex. It wasn’t much — a treadmill, a bicycle, a stair stepper and a universal weight set. I felt safe there. There were no women with perfect bodies, no men to feel inadequate around and no waiting for the equipment.
Before, Martha and I got together over dinner once or twice a week to catch up. Now we went to the gym.
She was also the one I called the times I veered off the diet.
There was one time — in the middle seat at a movie theater — when an urge for a Snickers bar just overwhelmed me. I fought it but finally gave in, stepping on toes en route to the refreshment stand. But they had no Snickers. I could have left, but I was going to have chocolate. I went for Junior Mints.
When I called Martha from the theater’s parking lot, she laughed. In Weight Watchers points, she said, Junior Mints were the least bad choice I could have made.
Eventually, I joined a women’s gym and took Martha as a guest. She surveyed the room.
“Do you realize,” she said in a low voice, “we’re not the fattest people in the room anymore?”
“Are you sure?” I asked, even though I saw what she saw.
It’s hard to explain: I could feel the weight loss in my clothing, but couldn’t really see it.
Then, one day weeks later, I turned to get something out of a bathroom cabinet and caught a glimpse of my back in the mirror. Something was pushing up the skin. It took me a moment to realize it was my shoulder blade.
Suddenly, I could see the weight loss. I had knee caps, quadriceps, biceps, a collar bone.
“Guess what I found today?” I said to Kim. “My waist.”
By the end of February, I had lost 71.3 pounds — a fourth grader. I weighed under 200 pounds for the first time since I was a teenager.
Dressing for the Oscars
Part of what I cover sometimes is Hollywood — beautiful, perfect, never fat.
Once, interviewing C.C. DeVille, the guitarist for Poison who’s known for his over-the-top antics, I was asking about his comeback from rock ’n’ roll excesses: Drugs, alcohol and weight gain.
“You can be the biggest drug addict in the world, and they will still like you in this town. But if you’re fat, they treat you like a leper,” he said to me. “You know what I’m talking about, right?”
Everybody in the room got quiet. I just nodded.
The problem is, I wanted to tell him, it wasn’t just Hollywood. It was everywhere: At work, where I had been asked by editors if I was up to an assignment; among friends, who stepped around discussions of appearance; even at the grocery store, where the checkout clerk never looked me in the eye.
But Hollywood is a special case. Every year, at Academy Awards time, I cover the post-Oscar parties, collecting celebrity tidbits. Everybody dresses up, something I dreaded.
This year, for the first time, I looked forward to it. I’d be able to pick a gown from the racks and racks of rentals available to thin women rather than the one rack for overweight women.
I selected a black velvet dress with spaghetti straps and a sheer long-sleeved jacket.
I never made it to the Oscar parties. I spent the night in Moreno Valley tracking down acquaintances of a U.S. soldier accused of throwing a grenade into a tent of his comrades in Kuwait.
But missing the Oscars didn’t matter. I was wearing a size 12. By the first week of April, I had lost 80.1 pounds — a fifth grader.
What would they say?
I can’t pinpoint exactly when people started to treat me differently. But I remember moments.
Once was when I waited nervously to meet with longtime friends, high school buddies, whom I hadn’t seen in a year. They’d always known me as fat and loved me anyway. How different would things be? What would they say?
The one-word comment when the first friend, Les Sandlin, arrived, I’ll never forget.
Two days later, on June 16, I flew to Sacramento and arranged to meet my mother at a coffee shop. When she pulled into the parking lot, she craned to find me on the patio. I was sitting right in front of her.
I waved and, at first, she gave me a strange look. Then a hint of recognition, then a wide smile.
“Oh my God,” she said.
Then she started to cry.
Later, I was near tears when I finally saw my dad and he said, after hugging me, “I can put my arms all the way around you.”
Lately, I’ve noticed checkout clerks looking me in the eye. At coffee shops and nightclubs, people engage me in conversation.
On July 1, I broke the 100-pound mark. I lost a Hollywood actress, I joked.
Finding myself again
How? I’ve been asked that a lot. People don’t want to know the step-by-step process. They want to know how I came to do it and how I stuck with it.
It began with a fear of dying and then became a fear of failing. It began with a desire to change my life, and a realization that it is a lifetime journey.
Aboard the USS Lincoln, I climbed stair after stair, about six flights, to the deck, where my job was to get the crew’s perspective on President Bush’s visit.
Finally at the top, I noticed something was funny. I wasn’t winded or sweating, wasn’t desperate to sit down. It took me a minute to realize: I was feeling normal.
And it has taken me awhile to understand that what I found along the way with my weight loss wasn’t just my health, it was my life.
I haven’t lost a former self, but I’ve shed some of her life. I sleep through the night, sit next to people on an airplane and enjoy shopping with friends. I can work through the day and still have energy at night to go to the gym, or go on a date.
Today, I wear a size 8. And like the average American woman, I have a few more pounds I’d like to lose.