Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write. Nobody knows that number – not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime…”*
In this episode I interview Tommy Tomlinson, award-winning journalist and author of the memoir The Elephant In the Room, about life as an overweight man in a growing America.
He is also the host of the podcast “SouthBound” in partnership with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station.
He has written for publications including Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Garden & Gun, and many others. He spent 23 years as a reporter and local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. His stories have been chosen twice for the “Best American Sports Writing” series (2012 and 2015) and he also appears in the anthology “America’s Best Newspaper Writing.”
In this episode of Mike Inspires Me Podcast, I collaborated with Vance Hinds, another fellow in the club of extreme weight loss. We conducted a Q&A session on Facebook Live to answer questions people have about our health journeys.
My dad was a muscle car guy. All my life I remember him tinkering, tuning, tearing down and building big V8 engine cars. The rumble of those loud engines was in his blood. He took pride in those vehicles and special care with maintaining and fixing them up.
He taught me the value in using quality parts and regular maintenance. He didn’t like using cheap oil and low grade gas as he told me that using it affected performance and led to problems with the engine later on.
Contrast this care he took for his vehicles with how he looked after his own health. Unlike his vehicles, he treated his body poorly by eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. He was a bit of a bad boy and not much of a follower.
I remember when synthetic motor oil started becoming popular. He began to read up on it and started using it in his vehicles despite the fact that it was much more expensive to use. He understood that the synthetic oils were better for wear and tear on car motors. He invested his money and time into fixing his vehicles, yet he continued to neglect and abuse his own body. As the years went on, this neglect began to take it’s toll on his health.
I became a car guy like my dad. Also like my dad, I neglected my own health. I wasn’t much of a drinker and I didn’t smoke, but I ate poorly. I struggled with my weight for years. With that came a host of other health issues such as pre-diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and gastric reflux. To make matters worse, I had lost my will to live.
Why is it that we would put so much effort into fixing our cars, but invest very little into our health? Part of it may have been denial about the consequences. Some of it may have been learned behaviors.
As the years went on, my dad developed COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease aka “emphysema”) from the smoking, yet he continued to smoke. Then he got colon cancer. He had surgery to remove part of his colon to remove the cancer. A few years later he developed lung cancer and had his left lung removed. Despite years of trying to quit, he continued to smoke with his one COPD-weakened lung. I guess he figured he had nothing to lose at that point.
The guy I once thought of as cool as the “Fonz” was now reduced to a shell of a man. The cancer weakened him day-by-day, eating away at his life to the point that he could no longer take care of his cars. His pride and joy ’65 Comet sat neglected in his garage as his health was slipping away too.
He became too weak to drive his cars. My brother and I took turns taking him for rides so he could enjoy his vehicles. Eventually his condition worsened to the point that he needed to be in a nursing facility. I would come by and visit him as often as I could. When I visited I would drive up close to the side of the building where his room was and rev up the engine to my Mustang. That was my way of letting him know I was there, much like he would do when I was a kid.
He originally went to the facility for rehabilitation. Soon after it became apparent that he was in end-stage. He was in denial about his condition telling me about how he was going to get better so he could go back home and help my mom around the house and do some work on her Jeep. Eventually he started to realize that he was not getting better. He asked my mom if he was going to die.
One day we brought him home to celebrate my wife’s birthday. My brother picked him up in his Ford Crown Victoria. He was quite weak but made it up the stairs both outside and in the house. When it was time for him to go back to the facility for his meds and treatment, he was too weak to get back down the stairs to the car. We had no way of getting him outside, so I had to pick him up like a baby and carry him down the stairs. The man who had been a tough-as-nails truck driver and car guy was now cradled in my arms like a child as I carried him down the stairs. The man who once carried me as a child.
Slowly I made it down the outside stairs as my mom and family looked on sobbing, trying to hide it from him.
I set him into his car, so my brother could drive him back to the facility.
Two weeks later my brother, my dad’s best friend and I were there when he died. As he struggled gripping my brother and his friend’s hands, I saw regret in his eyes. I am certain that he wished he had taken better care of his health. He was 63 years old.
Afterwards I told my mom that we need to learn something from his poor health habits. I wasn’t going to let his death be in vain. At the time I was 40 years old and I weighed over 400 pounds. My health was in jeopardy and I realized that if I didn’t do something about it, I would likely die early too.
So in 2014 I embarked on a journey resulting in my losing over 200 pounds in 11 months. More than mere weight loss, this was my triumph over the adversities in my life.
Today I live a sustainable healthy lifestyle focused on putting quality fuel in my body and regular exercise maintenance much like my dad and I did with our cars. My one solace for losing my dad is that I was able to save my own life by the lessons I learned from his habits both with health and with our cars.