Breaking my back on Christmas Day 2005 was the most unremarkable part of the story.
I make a joke of it now saying that it happened while I was rescuing kittens from a burning building (or some such nonsense!), but the truth is so mundane that it’s no story at all.
I slipped on ice.
I landed badly on a curbstone, shattering my coccyx and a couple of vertebrae, but the accident itself was boring and pointless and a bit of a drag, and that’s why my imagination has me rescuing kittens.
My few airborne seconds were probably hilarious to anyone who witnessed them (I’d have laughed, but I’m that kind of person), but that was the start of my journey.
It was a few days later that I finally went to the hospital. I had assumed that all I had was a bruised bum, but the bruising spread down my thighs and up my back. I was struggling to walk and stand up straight, and I was also a bit numb down one side, so I went to the hospital.
It took a few days for them to diagnose that my back was broken, due to the extent of the bruising. X-rays were inconclusive, so I eventually got an MRI. It was after this that they explained to me that my coccyx was in four pieces, that there were “at least” two breaks in the vertebrae, and that I would need surgery. They also explained that my mobility would likely become impaired and that the numbness I had was likely to remain permanent.
To be honest, the prognosis didn’t really sink in for a few days until the first of my operations. It was probably the effects of the painkillers, but I felt mostly unmoved by it all. The reality sank in gradually over the subsequent months through further procedures and steroid injections in my spine when I realised that my body really was quite badly damaged.
Over the next four years, I had many more procedures and physiotherapy sessions dealing with the physical nature of the injury, but I neglected—or more likely ignored—the toll it was taking on my emotional and mental health. To distract myself from the almost constant pain, I became obsessed with my work and with acquiring new skills to show the outside world that I was “fine”—I was the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave, I took on new qualifications, I achieved promotions, and so on.
But the main thing I did was eat. Constantly. As you could expect, my weight spiraled upwards. I was always a little bit overweight beforehand, but it was never a real problem. However, within a couple of years of the accident, I found myself 100+ pounds overweight and morbidly obese.
When I reached the end of treatment in 2009, I was left with a lack of feeling down my left side, weakness in my left arm, and coccydynia (pain in the tailbone). So this was it.
This was the broken body I would have to live with, and for the next couple of years, I kept eating myself into greater and greater clothes sizes.
Fast forward to 2012. One Saturday morning, I was on a training course—one that had a specific part about setting goals and sticking to them. The workshops were great, and I learned a lot from them, so I set myself a goal.
I put a reminder alert in my phone for exactly one year into the future. I don’t think I consciously thought much about it again for the full year until one morning—7am on February 18, 2013— my iPhone alarm went off, and I received an alert:
“You’re fat! Get healthy before you’re 40”
“Past me” was a bit of an ass, but he was right. And with my 40th birthday not until September 2014, I still had time to do it. Even bleary-eyed at 7am, it made total sense. It had all the hallmarks of a well-formed goal, and I wasn’t going to argue with my phone at 7am in the morning!
So that was the day it all changed. I had told myself to do it, and I had given myself plenty of warning. But there wasn’t much wiggle room if I was going to do it before turning 40.
Nonetheless, I took my own advice.
The changes were small at the start. I started tracking my calorie intake, bought a set of Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis scales, and began tracking my body composition and weight every week. Fairly soon, I was seeing the numbers fall, which helped motivate me.
I also came to realize that food was only one part of the equation, so I eventually bit the bullet and joined a gym. Each time I went, I would walk on the treadmill for a few minutes to warm up, use some weight machines, then spend another few minutes walking on the treadmill to cool down. Over time, I increased the speed of the machine, but it was always just a fast walk.
Then one day, the gym was really busy: I started with my warm-up walk, but every time I wanted to use the machines, they were taken. So I just kept walking. It wasn’t exactly interesting, so I started doing little bursts of jogging while waiting for the machines to free up. And I was actually enjoying it. So I stopped looking towards the machines and just kept walking and jogging. The kilometers were passing, and I hadn’t fallen over yet, so I upped the pace and decided to see how long I could go on for. Before I knew it, I had gone 5 km!
It wasn’t pretty, and I wasn’t going to break any speed records, but I did it, and weirdly, I had even enjoyed it!
So that was how my routine changed. I would go to the gym and walk/jog for a while, always trying to jog a bit more than the last time. Then one day, without any drama or fanfare, I didn’t need to walk at all—I jogged a full 5 km. Wow! Again, it wasn’t fast, but it was an achievement.
Throughout all of this, my weight was dropping, making things easier at the gym. I had gone through a full wardrobe a few times over, and I had even started to run outside—where the public could see me!
Very quickly, I realized that it didn’t matter if people were watching the fat guy slowly running past them. I was doing it, it was fun, and I was feeling better about myself.
So I eventually achieved my goal. I changed my lifestyle before my 40th birthday. As of today, I am 108 pounds lighter than when I started. The pain and discomfort from my accident have not gone away, but my accident no longer defines me.
The weight loss itself has left its scars. My brain still thinks I’m the fat guy, and I have a lot of loose skin (so I look like a Shar Pei puppy). But I can feel the difference every day, making me very proud of that 7 am alarm call. It’s important to say that this was never a diet; it was a lifestyle change. I’ll need to be careful for the rest of my life not to slip back into my old ways. But if I can manage to take the weight off, it will be worth the effort to maintain it.
I completed my first 10k in at the Great Scottish Run in October 2014 in 49:25 and I’ll be running it again in October this year.