Overcoming adversity in the eyes of obesity

A story of love and loss… By Kristine Ham Thursday 6th June, 2013

matt and anthony

I sit calmly in my swivel chair facing a man who I am about to commence an interview with. Towering over me at 6ft 3 inches, he exudes confidence.  However, I know that this interview is not going to be a walk in the park for either of us. I have known Anthony for over 5 years, he is one of my closest friends and as I just-so-happen to be married to his brother, he is my family. This is the first time we have sat down to talk about his journey, in either a casual or recorded format. Prior to today, the topic has been somewhat sensitive in nature.

Two and a half years ago Anthony was severely obese. I don’t believe I have ever allowed myself to say that out loud – nor has he, or my husband Matt, for that matter. But the reality is that (by definition) he was. Nobody spoke of it directly, aside from when Anthony would use throw-away comments or make it a topic of humour. However, one day two and a half years ago, that all changed.

Matt, my husband, is an exercise scientist and had been harbouring private concerns for Anthony’s health for some time. They were so private that he had not even discussed them in depth with me. None of us know what provoked him to take action the day that he did, but he decided to lob up at Anthony’s house and demand that they go for a short drive under the guise of ‘let’s go and look at some posh houses’ (common thing to do back in the day when we were bored). He was gone for over four hours, and even when he arrived home, Anthony was still in the car and they sat out the front and spoke for another hour and a half. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was a conversation that you do not interrupt, under any circumstance.

I don’t believe anybody, aside from the two of them, will truly know what went down during that car ride. But one thing is for sure – Matt let it all out, and Anthony listened. From the coveted pieces of information they have both divulged and through this interview I may be able to shed a little glimmer of light.

165kg doesn’t happen overnight.

Anthony has been employed as a Lawyer for most of his professional career, and while that has attributed to his proclivity for prolixity (if you don’t know what that is, you soon will once you have read this article) this lifestyle was subject to some very dubious choices when it came to his health. As he put it “I loved drinking and eating, but man I loved drinking. I loved weeknight drinking, end-of-week drinking and drinking on the weekends. I liked to be social and figured this is what that meant. I understand that this was my choice, but it was very much a product of the environment where I worked – there was never a reason not to I guess. I would go to work, and then go out for beers. On the weekends I would absolutely trolley myself; then end up eating bad food as a product of the hangover.”

Another hobby which contributed to his poor health was his love of cooking. He enjoyed cooking with rich ingredients like cream, potatoes, salt and pasta. “The more the better!” as he would say. “I never thought of it as a bad thing – I figured if I was cooking at home, it was better than eating junk food. But really, it was probably worse than junk food.”

Matt and Anthony – a love that only brothers could understand

Anthony and Matt have a very unique relationship. They are the closest in age and are two of nine siblings. They have shared a house for the majority of their adult life, both during University and at the commencement of their careers. They share a very rare ability to communicate by way of using only a few short expletives and a nod. Those on the outside might consider it to be a ‘Love Hate’ relationship, but those on the inside know that it’s 100% love, delivered in a very unconventional way. They regularly engage in brutal sessions of pure name-calling and banter. They hang sh*t on each other in a way that can be offensive to the naked ear.

So what happened that day in the car?

Anthony: “I knew I was carrying too much weight and I was unhealthy, but in some skewed logic I figured that because I could walk around and play a bit of sport and I wasn’t a complete Muppet, it wasn’t all that bad. I guess I thought that if I truly wanted to, it wouldn’t be too difficult to change my ways – even though I hadn’t at that point.

I don’t know what sparked it, but Matt sat me down and said that my weight was more than just a question of vanity now, it was about my health. He told me that my lifestyle would start to deteriorate and that I would be 27 going on 37 and 57 going on 87. To hear it put that way was sobering – as a 26 year old, you think you are invincible and that quality of life is something for older people to concern themselves with. I guess that this was the catalyst.”

Matt: “I told Anthony that he was fat, but not just fat – life-threatingly fat. I recall saying that if he continued down this path he would be sure to die before his 50th Birthday. I reminded him of the pain we both experienced in losing a brother 10 years ago and that I didn’t want to go through that again anytime soon. I told him to stop being so damned selfish. I said ‘you are 26 years old, with every year it gets harder to lose weight, you will be middle-aged and then suddenly you’ll just accept it.’ I told him that I hated the way he avoided the things in life that make it worth living – such as having relationships. I was afraid that he would end up alone or worse, settling for someone who didn’t enrich his life. I told him to stop feeling sorry for himself, that you get nothing that you don’t earn and to start earning a better life before it’s too late. I told him ‘It’s not going to be easy but this is what I do – I will do everything I can from a fitness and health perspective but you need to want it.’

Following the car ride…

I asked Anthony how he felt leaving the car that day, he said; “When you think of it (the weight), you can rationalise it and put it aside for another time, however, when someone says it out loud to your face, it is pretty confronting. You feel that you owe it to yourself and to them to do something. The shock of hearing it was more impactful than the content of the conversation. To have someone tell you that they are genuinely concerned is a rare conversation. When someone says it to you with a sober face it is honest and hard-hitting.”

Anthony went onto say that he felt shame more than anything. He felt as though he was letting his family and his friends down. His ego and pride had taken a battering because all of a sudden it was clear that what he might have perceived as their opinion of him had in fact, changed.

Anthony can’t remember exactly what happened the next day, but he recalls that during that week he walked into the gym and asked for a program.

Setting foot in the gym for the first time

“Matt had informed Chris, one of the coaches that I would be getting involved. I’ll never forget what Chris said, it was simple but very impactful – ‘it’s great to see you in here, mate’”.  Anthony told me that turning up at the gym for the first three months was a very conscious decision; it wasn’t something that became a habit within a few short weeks. There were times, undoubtedly, that he would think ‘I just don’t want to go in today’ but he fought those demons – mostly through a desire to not get a strongly worded rebuke from Matt as to his non-appearance.

During this time Anthony fought to rationalise Matt’s words against his own. It wasn’t an immediate acceptance – he was doing it because Matt wanted to do it but he knew that he needed to want it. Somewhere along the way those ends met and it is hard for him to put his finger on the exact moment, but it was several months into the process.

Over time the disdain for the gym and the clean eating started to subside, and he recalled the first couple of times where he would genuinely look forward to walking into the gym, or cooking up a fresh batch of broccoli.

Measuring progress

Anthony can’t recount if the results were quick or slow, because he wasn’t sure where he started… exactly. In the first couple of months he made a conscious decision not to step on a scale because he was too scared of what he would see. He just wanted to rip in and get cracking on a training regime in order to start to feel ok about the whole idea and hopefully start to turn it into a habit.

Emotional at this stage, Anthony felt that if he stood on the scales week to week and did not see a change he might not be able to handle it. He didn’t want to knowingly place himself in a fight or flight situation immediately for fear of taking the ‘flight’ option.

Eliminating the opportunity of using physical weight as a motivator, Anthony instead turned to the weight plates for motivation. Seeing them get bigger and eventually double in size was a fantastic motivator.  Anthony recalls that at the start of a 12 week weight program, he was bench pressing 60kg. By the end of 12 weeks he was doing complete sets of 90kg and moving up to 120kg. While he was pumping out 120kg he was secretly thinking ‘how good is this? Even when I look the way I do, I can bench 120kg!’ Another milestone was his very first 160kg full depth squat. More recently, within the last few months Anthony performed his very first un-assisted chin-up – I was witness to this event and words cannot express the elation on his face. It was a very nice moment.

The next milestone that Anthony recounts is when he flew down to Sydney to participate in the Tough Mudda Adventure Race in 2012. He cites it as biggest physical achievement and crowning glory over the last two years. He can still remember the fear and subsequent pain he experienced when climbing over the very last obstacle – the half pipe. After 21km of physical onslaught he didn’t think he had anything left in the tank. Matt, knowing he did, along with the rest of the team encouraged him every step of the way and he nailed it. “Having never participated in anything like that before, I was unaware at how much pride I would experience just by finishing. When I stood on top of that half-pipe, I took a moment; I stood up, turned back to the crowd and the remaining contestants and just held my arms out. For an observer, that was probably a celebration of a relatively benign experience. For me, it meant so much.”

At this point in the conversation I am conscious of the fact that we still haven’t mentioned a weight metric. This was because weight loss really became incremental to the cause as he was still petrified of standing on the scales.  Anthony told me “I am not ashamed of who I am and where I am today, but I was. I didn’t want negative feedback. No matter how much I saw come off or go on, it would never be enough. Everything was a shock, training, eating, new habits – I didn’t need any more shocks.”

The first time on the scales.

After a few months (three or four roughly) Anthony got to a point where he was comfortable. He was aware that he was still big, but he didn’t feel that it was unmanageable or out of his control anymore. The very first time on the scales was still shocking – at 156kg he estimates that he must have started somewhere around, if not over, 165kg. The great thing from here is that no matter what happened on the scales, Anthony knew that he was able to find motivation from other things and that getting a bad result would not mean the end of his journey.

With this in mind, he was able to experience more positive results than negative as time went on until standing on the scales became more a thing of pride because he would get such a positive kick watching the weight go down.

Matt’s ‘tender’ approach.

By nature, Matt has a very ‘tough love’ approach to coaching. His very philosophy ignores the techniques, diets and gimmicks which will try to persuade you that weight loss or conditioning is easy. He believes that there is nothing easy about exercise and therein lays its appeal. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable but the results translate into comfort in everyday life. If you don’t have a go and push yourself to the limits, you won’t achieve in fitness or in life.

In the first few months Matt relaxed this approach somewhat. He did this because he was afraid that being overly aggressive might alienate Anthony and cause his house of cards to collapse. Fast-forward to today, if you were to walk onto a field where they are training together it would be highly unlikely that you would hear words of encouragement like ‘Come on mate, you can do it’. You would probably be faced with comments like ‘harden up you big skirt’ and ‘somewhere out there an eight year old is lifting more than your 1RM’. Anthony believes that Matt does this now because he knows that he can handle it.  And he can. Matt started turning the burners on once he’d seen Anthony training in the gym by himself and taking a true interest in it. Anthony prefers this as they have always hung sh*t on each other. Anthony retaliates by proving him wrong. It’s as if Matt wants him to say ‘no, it’s too hard!’ but Anthony won’t give him that kind of satisfaction.

Matt knows what Anthony is capable of and intuitively, knows when Anthony has passed his limit, even when Anthony doesn’t.  Anthony recalls that in his third year of University, while attending a rare gym session together, Matt had remarked “you’re a strong little bastard for someone who has never stepped foot in a gym before!” Matt knows that if he gives Anthony enough stick he will follow through.

Anthony recognises that the ‘NO BS’ approach doesn’t work for all people, but coming from Matt seems to hit home. When Matt shuts up, Anthony knows that it’s because he’s there.

When Anthony started hearing his own voices (not Matt’s)

12 months into Anthony’s journey he decided that he wanted to participate in an 8 week challenge that the gym was holding. For the first time this was not because Matt was telling him that he had to do it, either figuratively or literally. Anthony genuinely wanted to do it and looked forward to starting. Over the 8 weeks he tracked his process and was able to trim down 128 kg. From here on in it’s always Anthony’s voice that he hears now.

I might add a personal recount here – Matt and I took Anthony out to dinner on the weekend just passed. We were celebrating a very long week and decided to have a few beers. Anthony made it very clear that he did not want to have more than one as he had plans to meet his friend at the gym in the morning. While Matt and I told him that he had earned a few beers, he politely declined and went on his merry way home. It was a very surreal and proud moment.

A changing mindset

“In the old days I quashed my shame. I over-compensated for it in many ways. But I am more confident now. I don’t have the dragging ball of hang-ups in the back there. It’s not so much a tangible thing as it is philosophical, but I know that I can say things now with conviction as opposed to either pretending or shying away from the idea all together. That translates into choices at work and the way I approach people I don’t know.”

I went onto question Anthony about the laaaaaaadies… Ahhhh sh*t.  Anthony is a Gentleman and remains tight-lipped on such matters, he may have even blushed a little. However, he did say that he does have a larger network of comrades than he used to – both male and female. He also says that talking to women doesn’t faze him as much as it used to because the negative thoughts that used to exist telling him that he was ‘on the bottom on the pile’ are gone. He is comfortable enough in his appearance for that thought not to cross his mind. Two years ago he felt as though his personality was his only draw-card; however he doesn’t feel the need to be all things to all people anymore.  At this point in the interview things were getting a little tense, and true to character, with a big smile on his face, Anthony whipped out his phone and expressly asked me that I post this photo.

ladies

He also wanted me to remind readers that the line does, in fact, form to the left.

Jokes aside, that is a really great sweater. What is that, cashmere?

Handling the influx of compliments

Compliments are usually a fairly positive thing for most people; however as Anthony was receiving words of praise from people he hadn’t seen in months he couldn’t help but notice the shock on their faces. This was confronting he says, because “I started to wonder what they must have thought of me in the first place. Which is not at all bad, but when compliments are few and far between and all of a sudden people are complimenting your physical appearance it’s really quite hard to process.” He didn’t feel that it hindered his progress and he did appreciate it for the most part; but as he has never been one to spruik how much he has achieved, or really accept a compliment with any form of grace, it would get a bit awkward.

Staying motivated after all of this time…

Anthony reveals that it was not all a steady story of success (nor did I expect it to be). Following the 8 week challenge in 2012 he recalls a dip in motivation – he was travelling for work a bit and by virtue of circumstance his results started diminishing. It wasn’t a huge cliff, but indulgences became more frequent and his trips to the gym were becoming sporadic. His biggest fear lie in undoing all of the good work he’d already done. Faced with the alternative, he turned it around. His lapse only lasted a few weeks, and it is the longest lapse he has experienced so far.

The interesting part about Anthony’s journey to lifelong health is the different motivating factors that he finds as he goes along. Sometimes it’s the physical attributes, other times it’s the way that he feels. He also notes that the bragging rights are pretty cool – he has a colleague at work that lifts weights and they like to talk about the gym and fitness in general. It’s a man thing, I guess.

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” – Mark Twain

Indeed. Being able to buy clothing off the rack is one of Anthony’s most validating experiences so far. I am going to revert back to Anthony in the first person at this point because the way he tells the story is divine… “I bought a suit off the rack for the first time a few weeks ago. I can actually buy nice clothes. I used to buy things because they fit; now I buy them because they look good.* I am a clothes hanger. I would never have been able to buy that suit 2 years ago. I suppose that it is both a bonus and a pitfall as it is very expensive to buy new clothes…”

*That’s subjective Anthony, a paisley sweater? “Don’t act like you’re not impressed.”

Onwards and upwards.

As Anthony stretches out on the couch in my office while I sit on my swivel chair taking notes, I ask him about his 5 year plan – he responds to my question by asking ‘what is this? An interview? Who are you? Human Resources?!’  Fair play; but he elaborates.

At 120kg of pure manliness (manliness who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn) Anthony would like to lose another 10 kg – he feels that another 10kg would allow for him to be sufficiently happy with himself. He might even be a little ‘ripped’ – but doesn’t want to make any promises. “It took me a while to be comfortable enough to discuss goals and the like – I always figured it was just an exercise in perpetuity. But measurable goals are no longer a fear of mine and I find myself thinking ‘a professional rugby player is about 110kg – I could get away with that’. Notwithstanding I’ve never played a game of rugby in my life…”

He reminds me that the challenge is continuous because not only does he have to lose more, he has to keep off the weight that he lost in the first place. He intends on keeping that positive trajectory by measurable physical challenges – for example, he would like to perform 10 consecutive chin-ups without rest – he is currently at 4. He would be over the moon if he could bump up his bench press to 130kg and his squat to 180kg. I must have had a perplexed look on my face because as he told me this he very quickly followed it up with ‘that means I get to put 8 plates on the bar which is bloody impressive!’ Yeah it is.

While Anthony’s journey started out on a path to health, it continues and gets boosted with the little vanity perks along the way. Anthony hates to skite, even more so on Facebook, but tells me “bloody hell it feels great being able to see a new muscle that you’ve never seen before. Look, I’m never going to be one of those pumpers who walk around in a gym with a singlet and tense in the mirror. But I like seeing my tricep. Look at it (flexing) there’s a tricep!”

Competitive by nature, Anthony enjoys that he can see the results of the latest gym challenge go up on a whiteboard and he is up there with the big dogs – particularly, even being able to be competitive with Matt. The most he could have hoped for two years ago was to be king of trivia and to win in court. Best of all, he can now accept people’s comments about how he looks with pride.

So who are you today?

Anthony now feels guilty if he does not exercise. There have been plenty of times when people have said ‘come out for a drink’ and he says ‘no I have to go to the gym’ and they don’t understand why. (guilty). Anthony says that the reason he can’t is because its decisions such as these that he made previously that he now has to rectify. He puts an effort in now if he knows he is going out to enjoy himself prior to the fact, rather than try to make-up for it. Anthony says “For me to feel guilt about not working out is a far cry from who I was 2 years ago. If I sink 12 beers and have a kilo of pasta that is going to put me back 3 weeks. I am not prepared to do that.”

Anthony’s advice to anyone who is starting out (in 25 words or less)

“Don’t worry about who you are now – focus on what you can be. It’s self-sustaining.

If you say ‘I can do this but I’ve got to a point where I’m comfortable with who I am’ you will never do anything. If you think that there is so much more in you than it is worth giving it a crack. Sure, I wish there was an easier way – I’m sure that I could have lost it through surgical means however this is so much more fulfilling. It’s simple – I like seeing my bicep; I think it’s a cool thing and If people comment on it, then it’s even better – I would like to be pious and self-righteous but at the end of the day we are animals and in a small way, vanity becomes a motivator. Nothing is easy, but nothing is impossible, with the exception of bending the laws of physics. Not to be airy-fairy but you don’t know if you won’t give it a crack.”

I did say 25 words or less (it was a 166), but that was quality enough that I’ll take it.

In closing, Matt would like to wrap this up…

(In the words of Matt Ham of Hammer Athletic)

Needless to say, I am extremely proud of my brother. After our car ride I was very scared that he would entertain the idea for a week or a month and then forget about it. I thought it would be a lot harder to persuade him than that (I guess I was pretty harsh). Anthony never ceases to amaze me in what he is capable of. Today he ran 3km without stopping after having performed an intense cardio session. I remember when getting him to run 20m was a feat. While I wanted Anthony to make a positive change, I could never have imagined the guy he is today. He is consistent with his training and for the most part his eating (I still think he could be better…). He has owned this. I know he is going to continue to succeed and his goal of 110kg will be achieved by the end of the year, if not sooner. To me, that would be the most gratifying moment in my professional career, as it is my brother and I love him – he is my most important client. (Kristine here, what? I don’t get a start?)

I will always remind him that ‘close enough ain’t good enough’ and the closer you get to your goal, the harder you have to work. So this isn’t a reprieve… pull your head in and keep going!

This story has not been written to sell PT sessions or our business. I wanted to put this story out there to tell people that weight loss is frigging hard. It is not a concentrated, crying TV show that is done and dusted in 2 months. It takes courage, discipline, time and most of all hard work. There is no sugar-coating it how hard this is, but as you have read it is absolutely worth it. Anthony is a different man, not there was anything wrong with him beforehand. I wanted to share this story for others who are faced with a similar journey in the near future. It can be done, be patient and most of all, rip in!

A few people who I’d like to thank…

Anthony and I can’t take all of the credit for this, even though I’d like to. There are other people who were involved (and still are!) in this journey who weren’t keen to be written into the story but we want to make sure they know how much we appreciate their help. They are…

 

Dominique (Anthony’s best friend) – Dom was one of the original people to approach me about how to broach the subject of Anthony’s health to him as she was gravely concerned. Along the way she provided support and encouragement, she has just been there for him.

Carson (Anthony’s roommate and good friend) – Carson inadvertently has helped Tony due to constant encouragement of gym going and cardio sessions when he otherwise might not have gone. It may be minor, but having likeminded people to live with is a great motivator.

Darren (owner of our gym) – Darren did everything he could, both financially and personally to make it affordable and easy for Anthony to get into the gym, especially at the start when it was very hard to get there. Darren has always provided words of encouragement and praise for his attendance and hard work.

Mucky (coach at the gym) – Mucky has a way with people that makes them feel incredibly special, regardless of what has happened that day. I know at the start of Anthony’s journey he hated being at the gym and the welcoming approach that Mucky took made the transition much easier and enjoyable – especially when he didn’t have to.

Brian (coach at the gym) – Brian helped Anthony with his nutrition when he needed a sterner word (outside of me) and to make him financially accountable to sticking to the plan when he stagnated a little. His guidance took Anthony’s journey to the next level.

Kristine (Matt’s wife and writer of this article, this is going to be weird) – Kri has always been one of Anthony’s best mates and when I had been not as patient with him she was always there for him to give a softer, perhaps more realistic approach to the obstacles that he has faced (mainly me). She also has dedicated much time in encouragement and celebrating his achievements, hence this article.

The Ham Family (all 10 of us) – Throughout the whole journey our family have always been a great support and have been behind Anthony’s progress, even when they have been facing challenges in their own lives.

Anthony – thank you. I love you mate.




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