First, if you haven’t heard my new song, do give a listen. Besides being one of the best songs I’ve ever written (and, in my not-so-humble opinion, funny as hell), it will give some context for the essay that is to follow:
Until I was 26 years old, I had always been very, very skinny. As in, I’m not sure how he manages to keep his head upright on that tiny stick neck of his level skinny.
I stayed that skinny until right around January of 2004. I was living in Tennesse, working at the now-defunct Black Bear Jamboree theater. With the holiday season over, we were on a six-week hiatus from performing (and, coincidentally, getting paid) and I was stuck in the middle of the Smokey Mountains with jack squat to do, and even less money to do it with.
The neighboring city of Pigeon Forge had a community center which contained a pool, a bowling alley, and a very nice gym. Best of all, they only charged $50 a year for membership to the community center. So, I signed up and, for the next several months, I started going to the gym 90-120 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week. The main reason I did this was to give me something constructive, yet inexpensive, to do during the days when I wasn’t working. I used to tell people that I was tired of my head being too big for the rest of my body. However, I also wanted to get buff so I could maybe start getting some…romantic attentions. I figured that getting stacked could only help my chances on that front, since obviously my goofy, clown-like charm wasn’t cutting it.
Going to the gym for the first time as a 26-year-old man was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. The only people who go to the gym at 2PM on a weekday are the kinds of people who have far too much time on their hands for things like working out, who have no compunction about grunting while they lift like they’re passing a Volvo through, and all look like giant, steroid-enhanced bugs. I walked into a huge, open room full of equipment I had never seen, with people doing exercises I had no clue even how to begin to understand. I’m pretty certain that the first day, I only spent about 20 minutes at the gym before leaving, my arms and legs quivering from only minor exertion, but mainly from complete and utter confusion and embarrassment.
The next morning I was in so much pain I couldn’t sit up in bed.
But, as is my traditional modus operandi, when I decide I’m going to do something, I dive in full-force and with the zealot’s drive. I subscribed to Men’s Health and kept a notebook of all of the weightlifting exercises I cut out of the magazine. I checked books out from the library. I researched lifting on the Internet. I spent at least twice as much time outside of the gym learning and planning than I did in the gym itself.
Things got really serious when I started spending time on the nutrition aspect of lifting. I had always eaten (and loved) crappy foods in ungodly quantities. Especially sweet things. You know those tubs of Pillsbury Orange Danish Rolls? I can polish off all eight of the rolls in that tube in a single setting, and still find myself licking the leftover orange frosting out of the little plastic cup when I’m done. Because the goal of my lifting was to put on muscle, I embarked upon a new weight-gain / muscle-building program.
There’s a maxim among a certain segment of lifters that states you can’t lose weight and put on muscle at the same time. The best way to put on muscle is to go in phases: have a phase where you bulk up, and add mass, any way you can. Then you can work on reducing your body fat, and toning the bulk you’ve added. I didn’t know if this was the right or healthy way to go, but I wanted to put on some weight. Especially with someone who was so skinny, and had always been skinny, I knew I needed to fuel muscle growth any way I could. So I followed the plan. I bought protein powder and creatine supplements. I put myself on a 4,000 calorie-a-day diet. (That, by the way, is essentially two day’s worth of food that must be eaten each and every day.)
And it worked.
When my parents came to pick me up from
that hellhole Tennesse in May, they were surprised by my transformation. At one point during their stay, I exited the bathroom without a shirt on after showering. (I never went shirtless except when swimming at home until after I started lifting.) My father asked me if I was on steroids. I was thrilled to have been asked the question. It meant what I was doing was working. (And no, I wasn’t on steroids.)
After returning home for the summer, I got a membership to the YMCA there, and I spent my days unemployed, suckling on the teat of Michigan’s welfare programs while I waited for my first semester teaching voice at BYU. And again, I spent several hours a week at the gym, working out. My muscles continued to grow.
On my way back to Utah, I stopped off to visit several of my friends who were playing at Tuacahn in St. George for the summer, They, too, were surprised by my physical appearance. I had changed so much in the 9 months since they had last seen me, they couldn’t believe it. One friend, a boy on whom I’d had a major crush, said to me, “Holy cow, Matt. You look great! What have you been doing?”
I was finally buff!
Then life hit. I started teaching, which took up a great deal of my time. I couldn’t always get to the gym regularly. Then I started performing. At the height of my “success,” I was teaching 40+ students a week, starting up a theatrical show tracks company with a friend, performing in Ragtime, rehearsing 42nd Street, music directing Crazy for You, and teaching at Center Stage Performing Arts Academy. I was way, way overworked. There was no time for the gym.
That didn’t stop the eating though. Fortunately, I was still dancing for several hours a day, six days a week. And teaching voice can be quite physically demanding. That helped to keep the weight down. Nevertheless, I began to put on a tiny little bit of weight, but not enough to be noticeable, even to me.
Then I retired from performing, moved to Seattle, and set myself up in front of a never-ending parade of computer screens. It was right about this time that the weight really started piling on. So much so that, from 2007 through 2014, I went from 175 pounds to 212.8 pounds. That was what I weighed when this picture was taken in June.
Now, it’s hard to see from this photos, but “Uncle Matt” has become rather rotund. I looked bad, and felt bad. I was starting to form a set of manboobs. I had a bout of kidney stones last summer that could be traced largely back to my diet. I threw out my back in February lifting a case of diet soda into my shopping cart–and I had been experiencing lower back pain for months and months before that. I was getting out of breath walking from my car to the office. The worst, though, was when I was at my parent’s house in June for a miniature family reunion, and I couldn’t play with my nieces and nephews because I was so out of shape. Not only couldn’t I play with them, but I didn’t even want to. I am only 36 years old.
More importantly, though, I was really starting to feel bad about myself mentally and emotionally. I had never really dialed back my excessive eating from when I was dancing or lifting weights. I had also allowed my eating to take on an emotional component. I began to use food as my drug of choice to deal with the emotional pain I was experiencing over losing some close friends, walking away from active participation with the religion around which my entire life had been built, and dealing with the fallout of my coming out. I was (and still am) an emotional train wreck, and I used food to cope.
In a lot of ways, I’m glad that food was the drug to which I gravitated. I don’t really drink (can’t stand the flavor of most alcohol), and I don’t do drugs. If I did, though, I suspect things would have gotten a lot worse a lot more quickly. My naturally addictive personality could have gotten me in a whole bunch of trouble. Or even dead. Instead, I medicated myself by stuffing my face and spending ungodly amounts of money I didn’t have on stuff I didn’t need.
Once I saw the picture above, I knew it was time to get it together. I still have five of my six grandparents alive (I have 6 due to divorce and remarriage, in case you were curious.) One side of my family lives for a long time, and is quite healthy through it, still quite active and engaged. The other side lives for a long time, but is plagued by health problems, many of which could probably have been managed by better habits earlier in life. I realized that if I want to be able to have a long, healthy life well into my 80s or 90s, those habits have to start now. Additionally, since I’m single and there’s a very real possibility I will remain so for the rest of my life, my ability to remain active and take care of myself well into old age is of the utmost importance to me. I don’t have children who will be able to take me in, watch over me, or even put me in a home if the need arises. I’m going to have to take care of a lot of that myself, and the thought thoroughly terrifies me. The longer I can live an active, independent life, the longer I can go without being forgotten in some home somewhere.
So, after returning home from Utah in June, I began. I started going on longer walks every day. Then, 49 days ago, I downloaded and installed a couple of apps on my phone to help me track the calories I eat each day, and how many calories I burn by doing various forms of exercise. I began to run 3-4 times a week, and swim laps at least once a week. I set a 2,100 calorie-a-day diet, with one weekly cheat day. And perhaps, most surprising of all, I’ve managed to stick with it.
The last time I weighed myself, I had gone from 212.8 pounds to 198.4 pounds in 7 weeks. There was a massive psychological victory when I looked at the scale that day and saw that the number started with a 1 instead of a 2.
My plan is to hit my goal weight of 180 (stretch goal: 175) by the end of the year. If I am able to keep up the same pace of weight loss, I should be able to do that. When it starts to slow down, though, I suspect it will become more difficult.
I’ll go into the specifics of what I’m doing, and why it’s working for me in my next blog post. But for now, just know that my new “thing” is getting healthy again. I still hate running. I still would rather lay in bed for an extra hour than get up and go swimming before work. But I would also like to be able to travel the world and do fun things after I retire. I want to be able to play with my nieces and nephews. I want to be able to play with their kids, when they arrive. I can’t do that if I’m too fat to get out of my chair, or if the strain of carrying such a big belly damages my back so badly I can’t sit or stand.
In the past couple of years, I’ve seen several truly inspirational examples of folks who are doing great things physically. My 61-year-old father is running half-marathons, despite having had both knee surgery and major spinal surgery on his neck in the last two years. My cousin lost over 100 pounds by changing her lifestyle with exercise and nutrition. I have a co-worker who lost nearly 80 pounds and is now running triathlons and Iron Mans. Even the owners and co-founders of the Goulet Pen Company (the company that really got me hooked on fountain pens) recently lost a great deal of weight in order to get healthy to live long lives with their kids.
I’m down 15 pounds. I’ve got another 20-25 to go. All I know is, this year for Christmas I’m going to be asking for new clothes!