Gaining an Inspiration to Lose

Associated Press Writer

About 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 crew members of the aircraft carrier 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, and I'd grown all too familiar with the discomfort that physical exertion caused me.

This time, on the ship's stairs, it felt different, better. 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.

*

About 4 million Americans live with "morbid obesity," so fat it's a danger to their health.

My own obesity took years -- a pound at a time, the result of an insatiable appetite 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.

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.

Standing at a news conference or hustling to gather quotes 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.

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?" Lynn Elber said. "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. Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that usually develops in the leg and can lead to complications if it breaks off and travels in the bloodstream to the lung. Whether her weight was a direct factor may never be known, but the diagnosis has been associated with inactivity.

Only days earlier I had been to my doctor for a routine physical. My blood pressure was up. My cholesterol levels were rising. 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. I was scared.

I knew I had to make a change. I just didn't know how. But I remembered that a year earlier Maria McGovern, the manager of my apartment complex, had lost 30 pounds with Weight Watchers. I called her.

I also turned to an old high school friend, Kimberly Baron, who had worked as a personal trainer. She had tried to coax me into working out. I always balked.

"Will you help me?" I asked Kim.

"I've been waiting for you to ask," she said.

*

On Sept. 10, 2002, I stepped onto a treadmill in a workout room in my apartment complex.

Disappointed afterward, I told Kim: "Twenty minutes. I couldn't even walk for 20 minutes."

"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. 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.

At that moment, I knew I had to treat it like a job -- make losing weight the priority. Tuesdays, I decided, would always be "weigh in" day, the day I stepped on a scale.

The first week I lost 10.1 pounds -- a bag of potatoes, I told friends.

*

That first week was easy. It was something new.

Subsequent weeks became much more challenging as I balanced my diet with the demands of a job involving long hours and last-minute, far-flung assignments.

Based in Orange County, 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 fast food. Suddenly I was faced with the enticing 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.

*

During a vacation that fall, my mother, who is a medical transcriptionist, 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 came from enduring years of finger-pointing and teasing.

That vacation also taught me new lessons about the challenge of losing weight.

While traveling, it was impossible for me to pack meals, tough to get to a gym. I had to pick restaurants wisely. I bought day passes to gyms, power-walked and used the hotel pool.

By the end of my trip, my clothes were falling off.

It was mid-November, and I had lost 35 pounds. I was no longer carrying around a 4-year-old child, I told friends.

*

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.

Often, Martha and I met at a small workout room at my apartment complex. I felt safe there. There were no women with perfect bodies, no men to feel inadequate around and no waiting for the equipment.

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.

It's hard to explain: I could feel the weight loss in my clothing, but I couldn't really see it.

Then, one day, 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 kneecaps, quadriceps, biceps, a collar bone.

By the end of February, I had lost 71.3 pounds -- a fourth-grader.

*

I sometimes cover Hollywood.

Once, interviewing C.C. DeVille, the Poison guitarist known for his over-the-top antics, I asked 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?"

I just nodded.

The problem is, I wanted to tell him, it isn't just Hollywood; it's everywhere: At work, where editors wondered 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.

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 never made it to the Oscar parties. Breaking news sent me elsewhere. But it didn't matter.

I was wearing a size 12. By the first week of April, I had lost 80.1 pounds -- a fifth-grader.

*

I can't pinpoint exactly when people started to treat me differently. But I remember moments.

One was meeting a longtime friend whom I hadn't seen in a year. His one-word comment: "Wow!"

Another: I arranged to meet my mother at a coffee shop, and she craned to find me on the patio. I was sitting right in front of her.

I waved. After a smile, 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."

On July 1, I broke the 100-pound mark. I lost a Hollywood actress, I joked.

*

How? I've been asked that a lot.

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 aircraft carrier 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 I wasn't winded or sweating, I 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 planes. I can work through the day and still have energy at night to go to the gym, or go on a date.

Today, at 163 pounds, I wear a size 8. And like the average American woman, I have a few more pounds I'd like to lose.

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