In the last eight (or so) weeks, I have been paying attention to the connection between my physical and mental health. As one improves, it seems so does the other. I feel like I have been losing weight and gaining an improved personal perspective at the same time. To highlight my physical journey, since there isn’t really a way to show my mental health changes, the pictures above demonstrate where I started compared to where I am in the present. My apologies for the blurry quality of the “before” photo; a screenshot from an old video is all I have available.

Depression first sets in, weight gain follows

I began gaining weight, noticeably anyway, in 2010. I was a fit, 175 pounds then, but within a couple years I had ballooned to nearly 230 and my blood pressure was consistently at stage two hypertension levels. A variety of factors contributed to the gain: age, poor diet, a significant job change, increased alcohol use (major) and a reduction in physical activity. Through recent therapy, I have also come to realize that depression likely first set in around that time. Chronic depression with major depressive episodes, though I was undiagnosed until recently.

My weight was far from static over these last eleven years, but has stayed above the 200 mark for at least the last eight. When I became sober at the end of 2013, I was able to lose some weight for awhile but negative thoughts and beliefs often interfered and short-circuited my progress.

By the start of 2021, I was again hovering around 220 pounds and had felt terribly ashamed of how I looked for a significant amount of time. My ex-fiancé, Crystal, had the body of a model when we met in the summer of 2020 and I often felt physically inferior, out of place, when standing beside her. She gained a couple pounds during our relationship, maybe 5, and ended up with a little belly roll that only showed when sitting. I gained at least triple that and had a pronounced, overhanging gut that couldn’t be hidden.

I was frustrated and embarrassed with my weight, as I was with nearly everything about myself, but I was unable to find the motivation to get in shape. Fears of failure stood in the way. In the last few months of our relationship, Crystal began complaining about her own weight gain, and I readily critiqued her diet and lack of exercise while ignoring my own. The mask I wore allowed me to act like I was above everything, concealing my most defeating self-doubts, but it also caused my words and actions towards others to be abusive, rather than comforting.

I don’t mean to imply that depression, or any mental health disorder, leads to weight gain, or that thin, fit people won’t be burdened by depression. This post is a reflection of my own personal experience and the connections I can make between various factors in my life. With that said, depression did play a role in how my body changed. The more shut down I became, the less I gave a shit about healthy diet or exercise. The harder I had to try in order to present myself as “normal” and “in control” to the rest of the world, the more alcohol I often drank.

The negative effects on my mental health changed my overall lifestyle in a way that was detrimental to my physical health. Becoming overweight and embarrassed by my body (yes, men feel that, too) provided yet another reason for me to hate myself. That was felt the most, in the worst way, during my relationship with Crystal. Her fault? No, of course not. My embarrassment led to jealousy and irrational worries that she would eventually leave me because of how I looked. She NEVER gave me a reason to believe that, but my own mind became convinced of it. Still, action remained out of reach.

A new perspective, improved but painful

In the middle of February, life as I knew it came to an abrupt end. If not for the kindness and words of a stranger, I likely would not be here to write these words myself. After our brief conversation, I returned to my place: sitting alone surrounded by nothing but concrete. Yes, jail. A sudden realization, painful in its accuracy, bore its way into my very soul. In all things wrong in my life, my actions were responsible. Were all the other people in my life perfect? Of course not. Had I spent as much time searching within myself, however, as I had identifying flaws in others, my life could, and likely would, have taken a much different route.

In no aspect of my life was that more true than in my relationship with the woman who loved me most. She had endured my swinging emotions in ways that nobody else had. Crystal had been made a victim by the ways I weaponized my own insecurities and fired upon her. She had loved me unconditionally, even as I hid the truest pieces of myself. Her needs for affirmation and affection frequently went unmet as my own inner turmoil turned me into an irritable and indifferent asshole on as many days as she received what she truly deserved. Her shortcomings were highlighted as mine were dismissed.

We both drank far too much and battled insecurities and unresolved resentments that were difficult to manage even on our best days. She had diagnosed depression and anxiety, and when dark days came, she needed a gentle and supportive partner. What she often received was a know-it-all man that would try to tell her the reasons why her feelings were wrong, instead of listening to understand why they existed. I thought I was being loving and helpful, I just wasn’t.

Did she mistreat me sometimes, without cause? Definitely. Through her own insecurities, often aided by alcohol, she could in fact be obnoxious and unnecessarily mean. But how many times were my own earlier behaviors the trigger for those outbursts as well?

One by one, memories of the past flooded my thinking and tore apart every mask I had worn over the previous ten years. I cried, sobbed like a child to be honest, as compassion and a capability for empathy were allowed entry into my heart. Both had been there before, but had been replaced by a stubborn insistence to choose numbness over vulnerability. I had never doubted that I loved Crystal, nor that she loved me. I had known it to be true since a kiss we shared on a fountain wall. Sitting alone in a quarantine jail cell, I accepted that the man I had been, had deserved to lose her. A genuine desire for change was finally found.

A new beginning

Armed with two pencils and a stack of copy paper, I began frantically writing. The memoir that I’m working on, Bourbon on the Rocks, is based on the most recent two years of my life and was started that very night. For thirty-two days, I wrote, filling hundreds of pages with nothing but the truth about who I had been towards others and how they had truly been towards me. When I was finished, it was clear that Crystal had been far from perfect, while I had fallen short of even common decency.

Did I choose that for myself or for our relationship? No, not consciously. In the midst of our arguments and hurt feelings, I simply had no ability to see reality. Defensiveness ran on auto pilot, in both of us at times, and shielded me from acceptance of my own wrong doing. I truly believed that Crystal’s needs were unreasonable, that her complaints were unfair. The more I came to hate myself, the more I acted out resentments towards her. It was almost as if I actually resented the fact that she so clearly loved me, while also believing that I gave her every reason to. All the while, I drank to kill the pain inside, even when it led to pain for those around me.

On my second day of writing, I received a physical. I was 215.6 pounds, severely dehydrated and my blood pressure was 162/130. One thought came to mind as I witnessed an expression of concern on the nurse’s face: I can change.

I began eating selectively, avoiding caffeine and putting in an appropriate amount of exercise. After a week, I had lost a whole pound. Had I made a similar effort even a couple weeks earlier and achieved so little, I would have considered myself a loser and given up. Instead, with an improved perception, I just kept going. I wrote, I meditated, I opened myself up to others and I exercised.

Thirty-two days passed and I returned to the outside world with a nearly complete memoir in my hands. I weighed 198 pounds and my blood pressure had improved to be very close to normal levels. Unfortunately, I also returned to my new life feeling more certain of my love for Crystal than I ever had been. Being painfully aware of the fact that the relationship was over, regardless of the significant changes that were being realized in me, my growth was derailed for a few days. I gained a small amount of weight, allowed negative thoughts and self beliefs to return and began settling into an old pattern of self-centered withdrawal.

The unexpected words of a friend, “If you need anything, call me… You’ve got a whole lot to offer this world… Love you, bro,” pulled me back. I connected with both a therapist and an MD, completing quizzes and answering questions for the better part of two days. I came away with the diagnosis I mentioned above, chronic depression with major depressive episodes-anxiety-ptsd, and a prescription to go on meds. The same meds that Crystal was on during our relationship, actually, and intended to help me overcome the very same struggles that my unhealthy mind expected logical words to defeat in her. Good for you, Karma.

To accompany my newly acquired medication and therapy, I entered the outpatient alcohol relapse prevention program that I had arranged before returning to freedom. I do believe that my alcohol abuse was a symptom brought on by untreated depression. It was, after all, a means of squashing my own misery so I could carry on with my bullshit pretense of being a well-adjusted big shot. It’s something of a chicken or the egg situation, I know, and regardless of which came first, alcohol abuse requires a targeted treatment program. I am two months sober today.

My weight has continued to fall, down a total of 25 pounds as of this morning, as my mental health improves. I am gaining noticeable muscle in my core, slowing the gains found when looking at a scale but increasing my self-confidence at the same time. I still experience negative thoughts and doubts, on a daily basis even, but I no longer ruminate and turn inwardly against myself. I can honestly say I haven’t felt irritated by, or angry towards, anybody in almost a week. I find myself just accepting people and things as they are, looking to find the good rather than focusing on the bad.

I do miss Crystal. She manages to sneak into my thoughts on a regular basis. I won’t even pretend that all the help I’ve received, or the changes made as a result, have erased that from my life. While I feel like I become a slightly better man with each passing day, sometimes I wonder if I don’t miss her more on that same schedule. Writing posts like this, or working on my memoir, certainly don’t lead me to appreciate her existence any less. The therapeutic benefits of pushing through the pain, sometimes tears, will help my full potential to be realized. It took losing her to finally begin moving in that direction.

I am on my way. I am proud of myself today. My son told me that he is, too. Yes, I have a son. I deliberately try to leave him out of my writings, including him only when truly necessary. This is one of those times, because reading a supportive text message from my ten year old boy, well, that meant the world to me. As hit and miss as I was for Crystal, I haven’t been any better for Junior. He’s been through an awful lot in the last couple years, but is beginning to believe in me again.

Crystal, though, is gone, and it’s likely that she will never learn of any of the positive changes that I am making. With the damages that have been inflicted, I don’t believe it would matter to her if she did. Losing her was painful. Admitting what she truly meant to me, while accepting that I hadn’t deserved her… that set this whole growth process in motion. In spite of the incredible love I feel for her, she is not part of my motivation for ongoing change.

The improvements I seek are for me, selfishly so. And I know that I am getting closer to being a man that does deserve to be loved in the way I once was, and also capable of returning it without fear.