At the beginning of the second episode of “Heavy,” I was convinced the clients wouldn’t make it, but the third one had a different feel. It was more like an episode of Intervention, telling the back stories of the clients, Ashley, a 26-year-old alcoholic weighing in at 296 lbs, and Sharon, a 47-year old, 366-pound mother whose bipolar son had committed suicide only six months ago, as if their traumas were precisely the cause of their addictions (as is often the case with Intervention. After all, no one huffs Dust-Off or shoots up all day strictly out of boredom.) Because of their histories, both Ashley and Sharon were determined, and I could tell right away these two women would make it.
Before heading to “the facility,” we saw each nearly at rock bottom. Ashley had been drinking and partying five days a week for over a year and still lived with her father, who was also an alcoholic, and her stepmother, who, it turns out, was talking shit about Ashley once she left, saying she “wouldn’t change.”
Sharon was grieving through food. Her son’s suicide had affected her so deeply that she’d gained 60 lbs. in the last six months. Ten years before when her mother died, she gained 100. Eating was Sharon’s coping mechanism, and it helped her survive two of the most tragic moments a person can experience, the death of a parent and the death of a child.
Once arriving to “the facility,” Ashley and Sharon each talked honestly about their problems, why they were eating so much and not taking care of their bodies. Though they both struggled when they first began working out, neither seemed deterred. Sharon questioned herself, but wouldn’t stop working because she wanted to do right by her dead son. Plus she had Ashley in her corner, who was basically in beast mode. It happened quickly: on the first day while doing an ab work out Ashley began feeling queasy and soon vomited because she hadn’t had any alcohol. Ashley admitted to trainer Brittany that she was drinking regularly and knowing that her mother was a drug addict and her father was an alcoholic she accepted that she had a problem, too. And she never turned back.
Each pair of “Heavy” clients bonded on the previous two episodes, but Ashley and Sharon seemed to have a deeper connection. They were a good pair, a young woman who didn’t have the best childhood teamed with a middle-aged woman who just buried her son. In each other, they found what they lost or never had. Ashley and Sharon had a bond that made me jealous. I’ve had multiple work out partners in my life, Jay, who I mentioned last week, Ramon, my first work out partner in Weight Training class, and Chris Hillman, a college friend (and better known among my college buddies as “The Jew,” though technically he was only half-chosen). Jay, Ramon and Hillman were all supportive in their own ways. They all pushed me harder and were parts of my profound weight loss (about 140 lbs. if you didn’t already know), but none of these guys were ever fat like me. Ramon didn’t puke once the first week of class. Jay was into yoga and could bend his body in ways mine only experienced by eating pretzels. And Hillman was putting up weight plates I couldn’t even imagine. I still lost the weight, but it was a lonely road.
Ashley and Sharon walked that road together, and at the one-month mark when they separated, Ashley 22 lbs. lighter and Sharon, 30, I felt even stronger: they were going to do it. Ashley said it best, “Bring me more. What’s next?” And she wasn’t talking about the next course. I repeat: beast mode.
The toughest adjustment for Sharon outside of “the facility” was feeding herself. When walking through the grocery store with Megan the nutritionist, Sharon couldn’t believe how much a serving size of potatoes was (For the record, it’s the size of a computer mouse.) or that she couldn’t use her favorite ingredients–”butter, cinammon, sugar and marshmellows”–on them. Many Americans have little comprehension of proper food portions, or, like Sharon, find it hard to accept that foods lower in fat can still have flavor. At my heaviest, I was consuming enough calories each day for two and thought because I drank Sunny Delight and starved myself occasionally after a day of intense eating that I was healthy enough. When I finally decided it was time to lose weight, I knew exercise was only part of the equation. Fueling my body properly was the other. I had to make adjustments in my diet. Despite her initial reluctance, Sharon made the adjustments, too, (There’s a particularly funny scene where David the trainer does a house inspection and finds an apple pie, but it’s a fake one filled with potpourri.) and wouldn’t allow herself to fail. She made her weight loss a memorial to her dead son, and with the confidence she built over her the month at “the facility,” Sharon knew full well: “I can do this. I’m really going to make it.”
By far, Ashley was the most determined client to date. Upon arriving home, she admitted to her friends that she had a drinking problem and asked that they not invite her out to drink or party. Quickly, Ashley learned who her true friends were and didn’t let the lost relationships affect her. Within two weeks, she and her sister had moved out of their parents’ house because Ashley couldn’t deal with her father’s drinking and poor eating habits. She was surrounded by enablers but had the perseverance to continue working out, eating healthy, taking care of herself. Though she vowed not to return to bartending, the money and tips were hard to pass up, especially now that she was out on her own, yet her will power never wavered. Ashley stayed on course; truly, she was an inspiration.
But the best part of the third episode wasn’t Ashley’s killer instinct, it was Sharon, who, at “the facility” couldn’t even get her feet into the strapped pedals of a spin bike, finally made it on a bicycle, riding around her neighborhood with her daughter and Brittany. The look on Sharon’s face could only be described in one word: victorious. She conquered her grief, her addiction, herself. “I feel changed from the inside out,” Sharon said, and that’s really what weight loss is all about. It’s not staring in the mirror and seeing a thinner face, less Oprah around the arms or tire around the waist–losing weight is changing your belief system, realizing that what you thought about yourself, what other people said about you your whole life and internalized wasn’t true. This was, perhaps, the most difficult challenge for me. I could work out. I could change the way I ate, but when I put my head on the pillow at night, I still wasn’t happy. I didn’t believe yet.
After six months, it was clear that Ashley and Sharon definitely changed from inside out, and when they walked into “the facility” on the 180th day, the change was seen on the outside, too. Ashley, whose final weigh-in was 205, a total of 91 lbs., and Sharon, whose weigh-in was 255, a total of 110 lbs., were all new women. Like Ashley said, “I’m not stopping. I’m strong enough to continue to do this… and reach the goals I want to reach.”
She makes it sound so easy.
Brian McGuigan is a writer, performer and arts get-shit-done-er working on a one-man show about his own struggles with weight loss entitled “Fat Fuck.” He’ll be blogging weekly about A&E’s new docu-drama “Heavy” on his blog brianwithani.com.