Living life 350 pounds lighter

Russell Holly
Jul 15, 2018 · 15 min read

In the summer of 2014 I weighed 540 pounds. I learned this by taking my first trip to the doctor in several years, and discovering the scale in the office was incapable of measuring my weight. This meant I was at least more than 450 pounds, which was higher than I had guessed when asked. I bought a scale to weight myself at home, and stared at that number in absolute horror. I was off by a LOT, and while I knew I had some weight problems I had no idea just how bad things had gotten.

To be clear, I knew I was unhealthy. I knew I couldn’t sit with my family in restaurants with booths. I knew I couldn’t sit in the theater at my kid’s school, and instead had to get a folding chair in the back of the auditorium. I knew I had broken the seat in my car twice because it couldn’t support my weight. I knew there was a physical dent on my side of the bed from where the memory foam had forgotten how to be its original shape after only two years of use. It was not a surprise that I was overweight, but when you haven’t seen a scale in a couple of years it’s not hard to guess wrong.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out how I had gotten here. My diet on most days looked a little something like this:

  • Three 7/11 Taquitos and a Rockstar Punched energy drink for breakfast
  • Wendy’s Baconator, large fries, and a Dr. Pepper for lunch
  • Half of a Papa Johns pizza and another Rockstar Punched for dinner
  • Bowl of ice cream with at least three scoops and lots of chocolate sauce

So yeah, not a tricky puzzle. There was, of course, an emotional component to this. My best friend had passed away a few years prior, and I hadn’t really dealt with it. There was a lot about my life I was generally unhappy about, and I wasn’t doing anything to deal with any of it. But something in me snapped as I sat there staring at these numbers on the scale, and knew I needed to completely change everything about my life.

So I did. My scale now reads 192, but more importantly I’ve learned those numbers are really the smallest part of what it meant for me to be healthy. In seeing photos of my progress across social media, a lot of people have asked me to talk about how I got here. This is my best attempt at breaking everything down without coming off as preachy.

Dealing with my depression

As an adult, I’ve always been a little overweight. I used to be on a particularly competitive swim team as a teen, and spent just about every afternoon out running around with friends. But even back then, I never really had an “athletic” build. I stopped being particularly active in college, but I never stopped eating like I was active and I hung out with thinner people who never gained weight no matter what they ate. But when my friend passed, I retreated into myself and accepted this feeling of loneliness. Most of my friends are scattered across the country, and when I didn’t have that local friend anymore I sunk into my work and just did what felt good. That meant playing video games and eating.

I knew the first thing I needed to do was actually deal with my friend passing. Some people do this with therapy, which is totally the safe way to do this. I did it while sobbing over his gravestone with a bottle of Jameson as company, after telling exactly none of my family I was going to do this. I can not recommend doing literally anything but this enough. Do not follow this example.

My long-term solution was to find local friends. I needed to reconnect with people around me, and actually do things with those friends. I started hosting board game nights and doing fun things with friends. Getting out of my head, spending time with my friends, actually talking with my partner about how I was feeling, it all made a huge difference. If I could do anything about this part different, it would have been to go to therapy. If you have the opportunity, talk to a professional. It’s rarely easy, but I think you’d be surprised by how helpful having someone helping you with your mental and emotional health can be.

Changing how I eat

Everything about what I was putting into my body was wrong, and I recognized that. I needed to stop, and that meant learning how to cook enough that I didn’t feel the need to find food from restaurants. I also needed to cut out the energy drinks and sodas, so I switched to water entirely and cut all caffeine out of my life. I don’t enjoy coffee, so plain ice water and maybe a warm tea once a week is all I drink nowadays. To be honest, I don’t miss caffeine. I wake up just fine on my own.

Breakfast switched from taquitos to bacon and eggs. When I started this change, it was three eggs with two slices of bacon and some toast. Nowadays I make three eggs with diced broccoli and cherry tomatoes, some form of cheese, and either sausage or bacon diced in the mix. I then take that, split it in half, and give half to my daughter.

For everything else, I started looking into fresh everything. No more frozen food, no more canned food. I have a farmers market down the street from me, so I just started buying fresh everything. I have a weekly rotation of things my family loves, and I am constantly trying new things to put in that rotation.

Breads are largely not great for you, so I started removing them from my recipes. Any time I could use things like rice noodles I will, and the same goes for naan instead of other breads. When I make spaghetti most of the family will have regular noodles, but I will use either Edamame Noodles or just eat something else. I don’t do much of anything with cauliflower outside of roasting it and eating it. I don’t like turning it into rice or anything like that. It’s a perfectly good vegetable, but rarely good enough to pretend to be anything else for me.

I also started looking outside of my cultural norms for food, and challenging myself with new recipes. Indian dishes, like Lamb Korma or Chicken Tikka Masala are huge hits in my house. We’ve also recently started doing a lot of Thai things, like Green Duck Curry and Larb Gai. These all seemed like big challenges for me, but it has been very easy to find new recipes online and giving them a try over the weekends.

That time I broke my leg and decided it was time for Bariatric Surgery

One year into my change, I had lost 95 pounds and was already feeling great. I knew the next step for me was to start being physical again. I wanted to do something outside, and with as many friends as possible. My first time out at a group sparring event, I slid on wet grass and broke my leg close to the knee. I was sat down on my couch for months, with more time in recovery therapy, and my weight loss had basically stopped.

My doctor made a few things abundantly clear — at my current weight, every step I was like someone else taking ten steps. As much as I wanted to be physical, in ten years I would most likely have destroyed my knees. My doctor asked me, for the third time sinceI started seeing her, to consider bariatric surgery. After some additional research, I agreed.

Preparing for bariatric surgery includes a lot of proving to your insurance company that you want to lose weight. My progress up to this point didn’t matter, I needed to do more. I lost another 40 pounds, and after a year of screwing around the insurance company said I was good to go.

My weight loss was a lot more instant and surprising after this. I dropped from 340 to 240 in less than 8 months, and a lot of that was because I had already made a lot of the diet changes necessary to succeed. I was eating the same stuff, but now I was eating a lot less of it while still being comfortable. I eat six tiny meals a day now instead of three big ones, and my meals focus largely on protein.

Bariatric surgery is a serious lifetime commitment and should never be taken lightly. It’s also not a cure-all, there are several ways you can mess it up and hurt yourself if you aren’t willing to follow the rules very carefully. There is no going back to the way I was, and in my specific situation it saved me three more years of weight loss without any physical activity to wreck my knees. Without this surgery, my journey to now would have been five years longer with multiple chances for failure.

The new love in my life

As a part of the post-bariatric surgery recovery, you’re supposed to walk around a bunch. They wanted me to walk for 30 minutes every day, so I went to the local mall and did that. And then I started doing more than 30 minutes. And then I started measuring it in miles instead of minutes. And when I was walking three miles every day, I started walking faster. When it started getting cold out, I found a place to do this indoors. For a while that meant walking the mall and playing Pokemon Go, or diving into the VR games out there which really get your blood pumping. But eventually these things weren’t enough. As I lost weight, I found I could do even more. So I kept pushing myself to do exactly that.

I got a Planet Fitness membership, and started going every day. I used a fitness tracker to yell at me to be physical every day, and I stuck to it. Every morning, no matter what, I went to the gym and worked out. But walking on a treadmill was boring me to tears, so I tried to mix it up a little and use one of the stationary bikes. For whatever reason, I found I liked this a lot more. I started doing an hour on the bike every morning, until I could do 20 miles in that hour. When the weather got a little warmer, I wanted to do some things outside.

I picked up a $30 bike from some random guy on Facebook, and started riding around my neighborhood. There’s a couple of fun bike trails nearby, so I started cycling. That bike was broken in a couple of interesting ways, and it was going to cost more to fix it than to replace it, so I replaced it with a $130 bike from Costco. I told myself I would use this bike until the end of the year to see if I liked doing this, and consider getting a more serious bike next year if I felt like cycling was really something I was going to stick with.

My first month with the new bike, I went 175 miles. My second month with the new bike, I pushed myself to do 40 miles in a single ride. Last month, I completed a cycling challenge with a funding group for children’s cancer research where I rode 300 miles. It turns out I really like cycling, and there are so many great places for me to ride in my area that I keep doing it. I had no idea I was going to love this as much as I do, but it’s so much fun to push myself just a little bit further every time I am on the bike. So that’s what I do.

Today, I ride a Cannondale Topstone Sora. I wanted a bike I could grow into over a couple of years, something I could use to pursue my long-term goals. I want to start doing entire weekend camping trips from my bike, along trails that aren’t entirely paved. There’s a thing near me called the Great Allegheny Passage (The GAP for short) and I really want to tackle it. This bike is a significant investment into all of the long rides I want to do, and I’m really looking forward to learning more and more about this new part of myself.

Things I learned after losing the weight

When I dropped into the 250-ish range, shit got weird. Like, real weird. There are a couple of things about losing this much weight that no one tells you, either because they don’t know or they forgot or in the arc of their lives didn’t think these things were important. But believe me, you’re going to notice this stuff well before you notice much of anything else.

First, I never feel “thin” when observing myself without a mirror or photographic evidence. I still feel like a big guy, even two years later with loads of evidence to the contrary. I reflexively move out of the way when someone walks next to me in a hallway, I still second guess a chair before I sit in it out of fear of it breaking under my girth, and I still don’t like using public restrooms out of fear that someone is going to pants me and run off laughing. Yes, it happened. No, it didn’t just happen once. But as soon as I put myself in those situations, it becomes clear my concerns were unfounded. I’m not going to break the chair. I can actually ride things at the amusement park. Multiple people fit in hallways with me. It’s great.

I am cold all the time now. Like, all the time. My feet are never not cold. I used to walk in the snow barefoot because it didn’t bother me, joking that I was half hobbit as I did. Now I can’t sit in a room with the air conditioning on without a desire for socks. It’s a bizarre feeling, especially when you’ve been the guy who enjoys cold your entire life. There was a six month period after my surgery where my shoe size dropped by 2.5 and I bought 10 pair of wool socks, and I felt like I was going crazy the whole time.

Not everyone who was my friend before is my friend now. That cliche “you’ve changed, man” thing hit me in a couple of places. I have changed. I would rather spend three hours on a Saturday morning riding my bike than drinking at a brunch spot, because I don’t really drink anymore. I am not on Xbox Live as much because I’m having fun playing Pokémon Go out in the neighborhood with my kids, because I’m not sweating to death just because the sun is up. I am not the same person I was three years ago, and unfortunately that’s a deal-breaker for some people.

Living my next chapter, and getting another surgery

It’s been almost a year since I first published this, and at this point so much has changed I needed to add a new section. I stayed at around 210 pounds for this last year. I thought my goal was to drop below 200, but I found a lot of other things I enjoyed doing with my newfound physical abilities. Since last July I have participated in a Century ride (that’s 100 miles in a day) and started planning for a triathlon I want to participate in. Turns out building muscle involved gaining a little, so while I did at one point drop below 200 just to prove that I could that wasn’t the all-consuming goal for my anymore.

My weight loss was so extreme and so fast that I have a lot of excess skin. I am fortunate that most of this skin is around my torso, so I can hide it with clothes, but for medical reasons it needs to be removed. As I work out more, that area is prone to sores forming, and it’s both super gross and also just sort of unnecessary weight I’m carrying around. It’s also a LOT of skin, and stuff underneath. Doctors estimated initially that it would be around 10 hours of work to get it all removed. Since no one wants to do that all at once, I open for a 7 hour procedure to handle my midsection and legs.

This procedure is a form of plastic surgery. There are parts of me that are physically removed and I’m stitched back together into this new shape. But it’s still surgery, and it’s still scary, and if I’m honest I kind of put it off for a few months because it made me a little uncomfortable. When I finally did have the procedure, it wasn’t quite as bad as I had expected. It sucked, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing about this procedure to be taken lightly and recovery took a lot longer than I’d hoped, but long term I’ll be able to do a lot more with this extra bit of me gone from the equation. And when time allows, I’ll get the extra stuff around my chest taken care of as well. It’s got the same medical issues, but it’s a lot easier to manage most of the time.

A lot of people who get bariatric surgery lapse after that first year. They start pushing the boundaries of what they’re allowed to eat, tell themselves it’s okay to have a cheat meal, or see the occasional backslide on the scale as something trivial. On a regular basis, I have other bariatric patients admit to me they’ve gained a little back and they’re not super happy about it. “I really need to get back on the plan” is a common sentence I hear. I think everyone needs their own plan, a way to guide themselves outside of a group environment. Bariatric groups tend to exist in a vacuum, where there’s only one right way to do things. I think that pushes people away who either don’t have access to every single thing on the list or look for ways to feel like themselves around friends without falling off the wagon.

The truth is, my diet doesn’t look much like the stuff approved in the bariatric support groups. My protein bars have too much sugar in them, some of my meals are a little larger than they should be, and once a week I have a beer or two with friends. I am regularly told these things are a slipper slope, and a recipe for disaster. But then I remind them I’m a great deal more physically active than they are, I ride at least 11 miles every day on my bike and much more on the weekends. I’m running and swimming at the gym, preparing for a triathlon I desperately want to participate in and feel like I did a good job. To build up my body in the right way, I had to step away from The Grand Plan a little and build something for myself that worked. And it does, I have never felt better about myself and what I’m capable of. But I also am constantly aware of what I put in my body and what it means to use that energy for good.

So here I am, now less than 200 pounds after three years of work. The person I am today is the result of years spent correcting some terribly mistakes I made in my past. I am the collective result of the damage I did to myself, by not caring what I put in my body and not spending nearly enough time trying to figure out how to make myself happy. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, because no one deserves the suffering it took to get to where I was and then claw yourself to where I am now. It’s a terrible thing, and you deserve better.

But at the same time, if you do find yourself unhappy with who you are now and want to make some changes, I hope you find something that works for you over a long period of time. Talk to a doctor. Do a ton of research. Experiment. Explore new ways of approaching the things you like. What works for you probably isn’t going to look exactly the same as what worked for me, and that’s great. As long as you find something that works for you and you are happy with the results, nothing else matters.

And if you ever need someone to talk to, I don’t know how much help I can be but I’m pretty much always around.

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