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  • John Staley

F is for Food & Fitness in Recovery

In my active alcoholism these things were secondary, afterthoughts if they were thoughts at all. Food, regardless of nutritional value, was simply something to be consumed. It was as Bukowski put it "fuel" for the next bout of drunken jackassery. And fitness? Ha! Aside from the occasional walk to the liquor store or neighborhood bar it was to be avoided at all costs. I reviled sports and as a kid my father would use exercise as punishment charging my brother and I with sit-ups and jumping jacks when a room wasn't cleaned or dishes weren't done. This did not lead to a healthy foundation and love for physical activity. Like many alcoholics I was hooked on sugar long before my first drink. Sugary cereal, chocolate, candy and ice cream were such exciting treats and much of what little money I had as a child was spent on such things. A sedentary lifestyle and sugar and fat heavy diet was put in place very early on.

Being a bartender and working in restaurants also helped develop a taste for rich, expensive food. Rib-eye and oysters, cured meats and stinky cheeses were often found on my plate along with all the confections of restaurant desserts. These things were readily available and quickly consumed. I had a voracious appetite not only for alcohol but for anything laced with butter, oil, salt and sugar. At my heaviest I hovered just below 300 pounds. I have thrown my back out multiple times for doing little more than lugging my considerable girth from bar stool to bar stool simply to slouch for hours on end in front of fried food and frosty, fermented beverages. My many bouts with gout were some of the most physically painful experiences in my life. There is no hyperbole in the descriptions of this particular plight. Acute and immobilizing the pain came on like a thousand acid tipped needles being jabbed into my big toe. I would be laid up for days eating celery root supplements and drinking nettle tea in hopes of any relief. Aspirin and ibuprofen did little to ease the pain. Mostly I just had to wait it out and try not to cry. My last incident with gout was in sobriety and still it was not enough to get me to change my eating habits. A bag of salami and Swiss cheese was a regular bed time snack. This was usually followed by two pints of Ben & Jerry's and then sleep. Awakened by a quart of Chunky Monkey with no where else to go while I lay in bed bloated and uncomfortable, the sugary bile slowly coming up the back of my throat as I struggled to keep it all down. These were sickening, shameful, embarrassing nights. I was eating so much ice cream that I was rotating gas stations and corner stores so as not to raise suspicion from the clerks about my Chubby Hubby problem. These same behaviors were acted out in my active alcoholism with vodka and cheap beer.

I write this having run seven miles this morning and my diet consists mostly of plants today. It was long, slow and hard to get this far and there is still far to go. I went from 272 lbs. to 192 lbs. in about a year. How? One day at a time. One step at a time. One bite at a time. It started with just walking one mile a day and some days I didn't even get that far but I kept lacing up and walking. Still the consumption of calories far outweighed any benefits I was getting from the mild exercise. Much like my relationship with alcohol my relationship with food stopped in much the same way.

"This shit has got to stop!", I thought. Knowing that I work best with structure I downloaded a calorie counting app on to my phone called 'My Fitness Pal'. The same one had helped my best friend and AIFA co-host, Jerry, lose fifty pounds! I set it in sync with my fitness tracker to log all the exercise and calorie intake and take inventory to see just what the hell needed to be done to get back on track. That first day I did not change how I ate. I simply logged everything in. The french fries, sausage pizza, peanut M&Ms, Reese's cups and more not to mention the 18 chocolate chip cookies I had for breakfast amassed a whopping 6,591 calories! That is over three times what I need. It scared the shit out of me and from that day on I began counting everything. I still ate trash in the beginning but a lot less of it. Little by little I started eating more vegetables and less cookies. Coupled with the daily walking a program started to form. A few months in I actually started losing weight! This had not happened ever in my life. There had been fluctuations, sure but never had I had marked and continuous weight loss. It was hard at first because I didn't actually see the weight loss on my body and in my face but the scale said otherwise. So I kept on. Eat less. Walk more. Repeat.

I listened to Mishka Shubaly's book 'The Long Run' on my walks and it had me in tears and wanting to run. So I started running. I was still so heavy and it hurt a lot. I would do what I could when I could but there was still plenty of walking. When I couldn't run or wanted to switch it up I found that hiking was a great way to burn calories and enjoy nature's beauty at the same time. On and on it went all Summer long. Then I signed up for a half marathon. Terrified but excited I now had a goal. Each day was simply working toward shedding weight and figuring out how the fuck I was going to run 13.1 miles, in the desert, in the dark. I would not suggest a night race in Joshua Tree for your first ever race. I had focus and was beginning to look different. People I hadn't seen in a long while would look at me in shock exclaiming, "You look great!". This never happened when I was overweight.

I still see myself as fat but slowly I have been trying to let that self-image go and look at the evidence. I ran a half marathon. My jeans are down 10 waist sizes. The miles I run on a weekly basis, the food I keep in the fridge, the lack of back pain and the way I feel when I walk past a mirror (I feel good!) are all great indicators of the progress I have made. I am beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin...literally. Cravings still come but the tools I have learned in recovery can easily be applied to diet and exercise and I look forward to the next steps of transformation without trepidation but with excitement and happiness.














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