Vitality MWI

704-765-9817

Jesse Stilwell

Download PDF

My name is Jesse Stilwell and I work at Vitality Medical Wellness Institute as a Health & Wellness Advocate. I have a Fitness Nutrition Specialist certification from the National Acacemdy of Sports Medicine and I am Vitality’s longest-standing employee.

When I was 28, I rededicated my life to a singular mission; to change how the world thinks about nutrition. For the majority of my life, I allowed myself to be completely controlled by food. I allowed it to ruin my body, my mind, and my life. One day, I had an epiphany that illuminated the path to a healthier life in a body I could live in and be proud of. From that day on, I’ve been obsessed with fitness and nutrition. There is seldom a day that I don’t make the effort to further my education.

I’m including pictures that span my entire life and as well as my full story below because I think it’s very important to reflect on not only the changes I made to solve my problems, but also how the problems came to be in the first place. I apologize for the length of the story. I’m long winded!

  • jesse_before

  • jesse_after


My Transformation, Illustrated

You can click here to go to my Flickr gallery!

Problems at School

Poverty, Problems Focusing, and Terrible Teachers

I fell in love with computers and video games at a very young age. In elementary school, I was the only one that ever knew how to use the computers, adults included. My Dad broke his back the same year I was born and the ensuing bankruptcy would haunt our family throughout my childhood. A family of 5 living on one paycheck doesn’t work very well and in addition to feeling inadequate because I was always the fattest kid in school, the quality of my clothes cemented my feelings of inferiority early on. I had issues focusing in class and trouble socializing. My teachers and parents thought I had a learning disability. I had was held back twice in elementary school; once in second grade and again in third grade.

I experienced my only productive year as a student the year after I failed third grade. Mrs. Gredler was my teacher at a the newly constructed A.G. Richardson elementary school in Culpeper, Virginia. For some reason, she captured my attention and I did homework for her. I began the year getting A’s, was admitted into a program called ACE, which was an advanced program for gifted students that I failed out of in record time. Then, even for the great Mrs. Gredler, my grades began to spin back into familiar territory, never to recover again.

The following year in 4th grade, I fell back into my old habits of never doing homework and the teacher punished me for it by locking me in a supply closet and forcing me to write multiple sets of school rules. If I refused to write them — and I did of course — then they would multiply and carry to the next day. Before long, I had accrued over a hundred sets of rules and spent every day in the closet. Conveniently, the after school daycare program that I attended was provided by a company that the school district contracted to operate inside of the school. The teacher told the daycare counselors that she was keeping me after class, they never made a fuss, and I didn’t want to tell my parents that I was getting in trouble, so I spent the majority of that school year inside of a supply closet until 6:00 PM. The teacher let me out 15-30 minutes before my Mom arrived to pick me up from daycare. I did try to write my way out from under the pile of rules eventually, but never could. I still have a faint scar on my finger from a number 2 pencil rubbing the skin raw.

I did pass the 4th grade but only because I was already bigger than all of the kids my own age and I was turning into a monster comparatively. I towered over almost every kid in the school. The Culpeper County school system just pushed me through the ranks at that point, regardless of my awful report cards, attendance, and refusal to do homework. After my experience in the 4th grade, I also had a shiny new revulsion of authority figures that would serve only to multiply the speed of my scholastic deterioration.

Misinformation & The Information Highway

The Great Escape

I was active and athletically gifted in my pre-teens. I loved to play sports and I played baseball, basketball, and roller hockey in youth leagues. I played pickup or flag football whenever I could and went to the roller skating rink as often as possible. I was 220 pounds by the time I was 12, but it never occurred to me that my diet was at fault for my weight because I had always been told and believed that my weight was a genetic hand that was dealt to me. My brother was overweight and I had overweight cousins, aunts, and uncles. I was exercising a ton and still getting fatter, so it made it easier for me to buy into the idea that I was broken. I felt trapped in my body and instead of trying to fight it, I eventually just gave in to what I thought was my fate sealed in cement.

One of my brothers built me a computer with a 286mhz processor, a 36.6 mbps dial-up modem, and console-driven operating system called MS-DOS. If you’re not familiar, it looked like what you might see on a screen from a movie set in the 80′s. He gave me a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk with a program called ProComm Plus on it, taught me how to dial into other computers, and probably saved my life. I found a number in the Yellow Pages for something called a BBS (Bulletin Board System) that local people would dial into and participate in discussions, share files, and play games. The BBS wave was the precursor to the Internet boom of the early 90′s.

I disappeared for hours upon hours to get lost in the 13 inch amber monochrome monitor my brother also provided to me. I explored the relatively small world I had discovered and became addicted to being represented by nothing more than my thoughts; it was potent relief from a nagging compulsion to escape from view that had always been present in the back of my mind. Even when I was very young, I rarely felt comfortable among even small groups of people. I was ashamed of my body but not acutely aware of it. I just knew I was different and I didn’t like other people to know it. For some reason though, I didn’t have that problem in the digital world and I flourished because of it. My interest in the real world began to taper off.  As long as my face glowed with the amber light of my tiny monitor, I could forget about everything else; when the monitor turned on, my reflection would be replaced by chat or a game and I felt as if though I was being medicated by it.

Then one day, my brother started work as an administrator for an Internet Service Provider in Northern Virginia that provided dial-up access to the Internet and he discovered an account for testing that was active on all of access numbers (nodes) that the ISP owned. There was a number local to me, I dialed in, and I was officially introduced to the greatest invention in the history of mankind: the Internet.

I was still using MS-DOS and ProComm Plus, so my introduction to the Internet was in its primitive form; a text-based UNIX shell account that only had only a couple of applications available. One was ircii, a program used to access chat rooms via Internet Relay Chat, and the other was a text-based web client called lynx that I used to access the World Wide Web. I think the lack of graphics on the web and in games really forced me to be inventive with my time and I learned a lot about how computers worked during that time.

Surprise! I Hate School

The end of my academic career.

The Internet drove my grades into the ground. I was the world’s worst student and had grown too fat to play the sports I had loved when I was younger. I still hung on to an idea that I might be a NFL quarterback one day. In the summer before 7th grade, I tried out for the middle school football team. I couldn’t make it a quarter of a mile of the required 2 mile run during the last day of tryouts and that was the end of it. I volunteered to be a team manager – or glorified water boy – because I just wanted to be around football. After practices, I would play pickup games with the team while we waited for our parents to pick us up. The players always had me play quarterback and asked me why I didn’t play on the team. I’ll never forget throwing a 40 yard strike to our team’s star wide receiver and glancing over to a coach. He looked at me like a light bulb was in the process of exploding over his head right before the head coach said something to him that brought him back down to Earth. I assume he either said that I was too fat or I was a terrible student, both of which were adequately true to keep me off the team.

I ended my school career around that same time for fear of being held back yet again. It was 2 weeks before summer and the Culpeper County school system had that year introduced a pilot program designed to highlight the importance of homework. The program forced teachers to collect incomplete or zeroed homework assignments and keep a record of them until the end of the year. At the end of the year, the students either had to complete the assignments in Summer School or be held back. Game over, man.

That same school year, my parents had to go before a truancy court because I’d missed almost half of the school year. Our gravel driveway was three-quarters of a mile long and they gave me a beat up rusty blue Datsun pickup truck to make the journey to get on the bus each morning. Being an enterprising lad, I hatched a plan to ditch school by parking the truck at the end of the driveway and then I would hide in the woods until my Mom left for work. To properly cloak myself from the wandering eyes of my eagle-eyed mother as she slowly made her way down the dog-legged escape hatch into civilization, my impressive girth and flamboyant 90’s attire forced me deep into the thick forest that surrounded our property. Luckily, the heavy mini-van she piloted dug into the gravel so deeply that it echoed thunderously off of the trees until the sound eventually tailed off and when my labored breathing pattern was the only sound I could hear, I made the journey back to my truck, and sped back to my house to resume my digital reality.

I suspect that my parents were fatigued after years of fighting with me to get up in the morning, chasing the bus I’d intentionally not gotten on, or instinctively attempting to summon a parcel of faith in their offspring when I told them I’d done my homework even though I’d told the same lie every night for a lifetime. When I told my Mom that rather than repeat the 8th grade, I wanted to be done with school, neither she nor my father put up a fight.

It was illegal to drop out before the age of 18 in Virginia, so she instead filed to have me recognized as a homeschool student. I breezed through the placement tests and to her credit, she tried briefly to actually educate me, but I was utterly dismayed by the real world by then and when forced to remain inside of it, I lost all focus and sat doe-eyed and unresponsive until I could return to my friends; a cadre of hackers and phone phreaks that would keep me occupied deep into the night.

Breaking Bad

Trading Real Life for a Fake One

In 1997, my brother got a hold of an Ultima Online BETA CD that he gave me, which was to become the first ever Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. It would not be the game to ensnare what small sliver still remained of my life. Still on my dial-up Internet connection, the game was unplayable due to the poor connection. First person shooters (Doom, Quake) progressively became unplayable to me as well because I was quickly becoming the only sucker living so deeply in the woods that high-speed Internet wasn’t available.

Although I kept gaming, I began to spend much more of my time on IRC. Internet Relay Chat was separated into competing networks, of which different types of folks congregated. At the time, AOL was booming and swept up most of the casual Internet users just looking to swap recipes and play spades. EFNet was (is) an IRC network where the majority of the hackers and hacker wannabes hung out. I called myself “herf” and I was a phone expert and social engineer that was well-respected among my fellow teenaged idiots for my ability to talk telephone company operators into doing my bidding by posing as a technician.

All of my “friends” were like-minded miscreants that shared my love of technology and anonymity. Real life identities were so protected among them that one of the ways to earn the respect of your peers was to use your various skills to uncover the real identity of another hacker, find his or rarely her contact information, and release it to a chat room, where it was devoured like chum in a kiddie pool patrolled by great whites. At any given time, there were at least four databases of hundreds of phone numbers and addresses floating around chat rooms.

One day, I wandered into a chat room for Virginians. I was bored and created a new identity so that I wouldn’t be recognized by someone from the other places I hung out. The people in Virginia chat room all had anonymous Internet handles but they were using real names to identify their friends in conversation as if they knew them in the real world but used the Internet as a means of contact instead of a telephone. The concept was strange but intriguing to me. I was out of school and sinking more deeply into depression as I became more and more immersed in my existence of non-existence.

I began to inject myself into conversations by making jokes or offering my opinion on various topics. As I lurked, I discovered I had a lot in common with a lot of people, including a love of music and technology; albeit a much more aggressive approach to the love of technology. They were all around my age but most were older by a couple of years.

IRC chat rooms offered a hierarchy that allowed the room’s pioneering members to police it as they saw fit. They were called operators, or ops for short, and the existing ops routinely hosted real-life get togethers. Half of the participants were from Northern Virginia while the other half were from the Virginia Beach area. One of the participants that I’d made friends with offered to give me a ride, as he was making the trek from Northern Virginia and for some reason, against every instinct I had that was pulling me in the other direction, I very cautiously accepted his offer. I was scared out of my mind and ashamed of my body, but felt connected to them. They accepted me without pause.

I went to many parties over the two years that would follow and even became a channel operator and hosted some of my own.

Who Needs Reality?

How to Ruin Your Life

Around that time, I met my best friend, and together we discovered and became addicted to online roleplaying games. One of them was called EverQuest and it hit us both like a drug. It combined the anonymity I enjoyed in IRC with an avatar that looked however I wanted it to look, while being powerful was only a matter of an investment of time, which I certainly had plenty of.

I had many identities, always found myself creating more, and all of them were pounding more and more nails into the coffin that contained my original real world identity. I no longer had any contact with friends from school and my contact with family was fading quickly. I sat day-after-day in the same clothes playing EverQuest. As far as the real world was concerned, I was an apparition; a small signature of energy that rifled about slightly corroding the copper phone lines I abused at all hours of the day and night. I tossed concern for my body aside and shifted all of my cares to the virtual world. Every other experience became antiquated and if not for my best friends’ equally enthralling addiction, I would have forgotten him too.

When I was 19, I desperately punched through the blackness that was engulfing me to grasp for a life raft and held a couple of jobs down as a Customer Service Representative for a few months at a time. My attendance was just as bad as it was at school and I was unreliable, often blowing work off to play EverQuest. I stopped going to the first job without a word and I was eventually fired from the second, but before that happened, I met a girl.

Only a Crazy Person Could Love Me

Or so I thought.

Her brother worked with me and suggested that we might get along. We talked online first. She was as shy and socially inept as I was. We had literally nothing in common with the exception of our passion for escapism. I played video games and she read books. Our first meeting was in the parking lot of a Food Lion before I drove us to my friends’ house to hang out. We each sat in awkward silence. We shared forced conversation and nervous glances; sparks flew as a deafening metal-on-metal shriek marked the familiar train wreck that was the birth of nerd love.

The same nagging compulsion to escape from view I had felt throughout my school career was getting worse. Miriam and I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on our first date in 2000. Our next date was in Maryland when we saw “Signs” in 2002 with her friend Julie. I barely left my house between the two dates and was wholly uncomfortable during the second. My reluctance to be anywhere other than a dark movie theater was not a coincidence. A lifetime of feeling different than everyone else, failing, juggling identities online, and turning myself into a stranger to even the people I was closest with was catching up to me.

Miriam graduated from college but I didn’t attend. She moved to Hampton, Virginia for her first job as a Physical Therapists’ Assistant and we maintained a long-distance relationship. My best friend got married and I was to be his best man, but couldn’t go through with it. I couldn’t sleep the night before the event and worried myself into flu symptoms; I had never had a real panic attack before then. I fought myself into a suit that was too large for me, as fat people clothes generally are, and still attended the event but his brother had to fill in for me. Miriam was one of the brides’ maids and was looking forward to going to the reception, but I couldn’t do it. It would be the first in a long line of agoraphobia-induced disappointments that I would deliver to her. On the way back home, I turned the car’s AC on full blast and pointed the vents at myself – I was drenched in sweat.

How I Ended Up in North Carolina

My only stipulation: high-speed Internet.

My oldest brother and his wife decided to move to North Carolina in 2003. My parents decided they wanted to be around their grandchildren while they grew up and sold our house. Completely dependent on them at that point and incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of living in a strange place with Miriam and burdening her — or possibly losing her — I found myself a resident of Kannapolis, North Carolina. Miriam decided that she would move from Hampton to be with me instead.

Kannapolis introduced me to my first taste of broadband Internet. Having retired from EverQuest due to a growing reoccurance of unplayable lag, I reluctantly gave the more casual, and cartoonish Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game “World of Warcraft” a chance. I was expecting to hate it but my friend played it first and told me it was alright. One day, he introduced me to a couple of women he’d met while playing. Being happily married men, we of course jumped at the opportunity to gallivant with them every night and eventually formed a guild, with my friend and I acting as guild leaders. Miriam started playing because she had nothing better to do and wanted to spend time with me. The guild eventually grew into a competitive raiding guild; almost every night the same 40 people would gather to try to kill make-believe dragons and for the first time in my life, I felt important. It was an illusion.

I became the raid leader and among the most skilled players in the guild. I studied the game, my character’s strengths and weaknesses, and proceeded to start many alternate characters. I eventually had a maximum level character of every class. I spent literally all of my time playing World of Warcraft. I got so efficient at it that I eventually made money by advancing other peoples’ characters for them. Miriam and delivery food drivers that I hid from were the only reminder that the world around me even existed anymore. I never left the house. When people knocked on my front door, I hid. I was going to attempt to see a therapist but had a severe panic attack the day of the appointment.

Agoraphobia

When leaving the house is a horrific thought.

The condition was worsening and getting so bad that when Miriam invited me to go places, it couldn’t be pre-meditated. She would have to spring the invitations on me because if I agreed to go anywhere in advance, I would have panic attacks every day until I eventually backed out anyway — and I always backed out. My best friend still lived in Virginia and even driving for 5 hours to see him became a torturous task. I was anxious about having to stop to use the bathroom to the point of manifesting the urgency, regardless of how empty my stomach was. I didn’t fit in cars anymore either, which meant that each trip, my knees were jammed uncomfortably into the dash board. I didn’t recover from that pain until it was time to go home, when I had to go through the whole ordeal again. I joked with Miriam about the likelihood of me flying out of the windshield  if we got into a wreck because the seatbelt wouldn’t fit me.

In October of 2006, Miriam and I got married. We didn’t have a wedding but instead went to the court house with my best friend, his wife, and their little girl acting as our witnesses. The short walk from the parking lot stole the breath from me and yet again, I was drenched in sweat. I agreed to a reception at our house the next day, where my one remaining friend, a few relatives, and some of Miriam’s friends attended. I felt uncomfortable in my own house. I spent much of the day hiding in a back room away from the crowd.

I sank deeper into depression and spent every waking hour playing World of Warcraft. I got very skilled at the game and when my guild could no longer provide me the make-believe notoriety I believed I deserved, I applied to one of the best guilds in the world and was quickly invited to join them. I left my friends and guild to chase the dream of being the make-believe best at make-believe killing make-believe monsters. The time investment required to be on top of the heap competing among many thousands of guilds was vast, but I was willing to do it. Of 11 million players worldwide, my make-believe damage to make-believe monsters was consistently landing me in the top 100 individual rankings for my class. When I left World of Warcraft, every character slot (8) on my account had a maximum level character in it with more than half of them possessing most of the best equipment in the game.

The Epiphany

How everything changed overnight.

In spring of 2010, I was perusing comedy forums on the Internet that also had gaming forums attached to them that I frequented for World of Warcraft to sell my power leveling services and search for tips and tricks. One day, I noticed a sub-forum that I had never noticed before that had an odd name that I didn’t recognize. I clicked it out of curiosity because that’s the kind of person that I am and inside, I discovered that the Internet wasn’t just frequented by the lecherous trolls and lifeless twenty-something gamers that I once thought it was.

By sheer happenstance, the first discussion thread I saw was called Ultimate Transformations. I started scrolling slowly through the pictures and literally a wall of people turning their lives around piqued my interest. Prior to that moment, I had just seen transformations in magazines that I just figured were photoshopped. I was so cynical and and disconnected that I started to feel like the outside world was fake. Because they were users on this forum — people from my home on the Internet — it was the first time I ever felt connected to real people changing themselves. I then stumbled into another sub-forum that was filled with nutrition and exercise logs where many more people were transformations in progress and keeping journals about their journies. I read through a number of incredible stories and then spent the rest of the night searching through the rest of the forums.

That’s when I found the one that changed my life – no, change isn’t the right word – it completely and utterly annihilated my view of the control I didn’t think I had over my weight. It was entitled “The Low Carb Megathread” and it was perfectly formatted for me. Lots of information laid out in short blocks that frequently veered in different directions, as if though written for people like me who are easily bored and tend to lose focus. As I read and reread the information, a switch flipped in my head. My diet sucked, it always sucked, and maybe that’s why I was fat and not because I was broken and doomed from the womb. I felt cursed to live inside a body that I had no control over my entire life and all of a sudden, through the darkness shone a blazing beacon in the form of a pinhole of light; it was all I needed.

I started a weight loss log. My wife took starting pictures and measurements. I wrote about how I was feeling and other users commented and gave me support, or told me that I was being silly. When I looked in the mirror, I began to see my future form instead of the present as a sculptor might – I saw an unformed blob that I just had to chisel away at; when I got to the center, I would know the answer to life. Every time I looked into the mirror from that day on, I wasn’t looking at my present form and lamenting it; I was looking for things I wanted to fix and vowed to not rest until I had. I had a future, it was long, and it would be whatever I decided it would be. I posted my first progress picture.

Fitness and nutrition became everything I cared about. Instead of video games, I spent every waking hour jumping from one forum to another; one research paper to another. I watched every video I could find. I read all of the transformation stories that I could and followed a ton of weight loss logs. I steadily lost weight and wrote about how I was feeling. Every week, I called my Mom to tell her how much weight I’d lost because even though I lied to her constantly about homework, I knew she was the one person I wouldn’t lie to about my weight, and I never did.

Out of the Darkness

And into a Christopher Nolan movie.

In September of 2011, my parents invited my wife and I to join them at the beach and my brother decided to come along as well. I had lost almost 100 pounds already at that point. The agoraphobia I suffered with still had a good grip on me but something in my brain chemistry was changing. In the mirror — even in pictures — I didn’t look very different. In my head, I looked much different. Confidence was brewing and with it came courage. Inception was in theaters and being a lifelong geek, I wanted badly to see it. I missed Avatar and I wasn’t missing Inception too. I asked my brother if he wanted to go see it and he said yes. I asked my wife and she agreed to go but in the same way she’d agree to me asking her if she wanted a million dollars; hell yes I want a million dollars but it ain’t going to happen. I couldn’t blame her because at that point, she’d been with me for almost a decade and endured me backing out of many outings.

I was panicking, in unflattering fat people clothes, and wearing a pair of water sandals, but I was determined to see that movie. We arrived at the theater, and to my horror, it was inside a large mall. As we walked inside, we discovered the movie theater was on the third floor. As we walked to the escalator, a loud popping began to emanate from beneath me. The floor was marble and my sandals had air holes in them, so every time I took a step, my still-impressive girth created suction and as I moved forward, the soles sounded like a child popping gum to annoy a parent. When you’re dealing with agoraphobia, it’s bad enough being in public but drawing negative attention to yourself while in public is one of the worst feelings in the world.

I kept moving despite feeling horrified and we stepped onto the escalator. Our ascent slowly revealed a gigantic line of people that crested into my field of vision and I could only describe the feeling like being on the moon and slowly watching the Earth rise with half of it missing and the other half smoldering. As the familiar sweat beads of a panic attack began to form, I suggested to my brother that we use the least populated kiosk off to the side. Another lovely side effect of my agoraphobia is that if I know there’s someone behind me, I can imagine no other target for their eyes other than every single one of my flaws. Multiply that by about 100 and suddenly every time I’m in a public setting, I feel like I’m naked on a stage.

We got our tickets and in we went. I barely fit in the seat, but the arm rests came down around me. For the first time since 2002, I was in a movie theater and the relief that the darkness provided me when the movie started made it an altogether enjoyable experience. Inception is now my favorite movie.

Cut Your Hair, Hippie

Fine, fine — I’ll conform.

After losing 100 pounds, I decided to cut my hair off that I had started growing when I discovered Nirvana in the 1990′s. Even though I have really nice hair, I knew I was hiding behind it. I was lifting weights by this point. I had started by doing some dinky exercises here and there, focusing mostly on fixing my diet instead. I watched all of the videos I could to try and get my lifting form correct. I didn’t go to a gym but instead was gifted a bench, Olympic bar, and 310 lbs worth of plates by my brother that I still use. I formulated a plan to build or retain muscle and burn fat through my diet in an effort to minimize loose skin.

When I lost 200 pounds, I was able to fit into a shirt I bought from a store. When I was growing up, not many stores carried sizes over XL because obesity wasn’t really a problem yet, so it had been a long, long time since I hadn’t had to special order my clothes.

When I was 316 pounds, I was able to fit my entire body into a single leg of one of the pairs of shorts I used to wear, and my 8X shirts fit like tents.

In September of 2011, I attended my first NFL game ever — a Carolina Panthers loss to the Green Bay Packers. Oddly, I felt far more uncomfortable in supermarkets than I did among thousands of people. Smaller crowds of people, or places where I would be forced to interact, seemed to make me much more nervous than larger crowds. On November 2nd, 2011 — the day after my 30th birthday — I weighed in at 269 pounds and officially cut my starting weight in half. Riding on that high, I faced a fear that had haunted me my entire life. The fear of initiating conversation, as silly as it sounds, ensured that the only girlfriends I ever had were those whom I spoke with online first. I could never initiate a conversation with a stranger. Some mental barrier prevented it but losing half of my body weight lit a fire under me and I decided I was going to make a move towards a new dream that I wanted to chase.

Along Came Vitality

My life changed forever.

My dream was to become a personal trainer because at the time, I thought that it would be the only access I had to obese people, so that I could help them lose weight. All that I could think about was the time I’d spent as a child hating my life and feeling trapped when all it would have taken was someone with an ounce of passion educating me on the cause of my problems. I had a thousand dreams that were crushed under my own weight and I wanted desperately to find a way to stop it from happening to other people.

I searched for gyms in the area and only found one with a functional website. It was a place in Concord, NC called the Sportscenter. I could only find two e-mails and not quite feeling telephones still, I sent an e-mail blindly to the head personal trainer and the head of sales at the Sportscenter in Concord, NC.

Not long after I sent the e-mail off, I received a response from the head trainer, Jeff Switalski. He wanted to meet me, so I agreed and got a ride to the Sportscenter. I felt a strong urge to run the other way right before I crossed the threshold into the giant gym. He met me when I came in and had the strongest guy in the room build you’d expect from a head personal trainer. He spoke with an intimidating tone of voice that didn’t match the words coming out of his mouth. He seemed almost as socially awkward as I was but with a list of humanitarian achievements so long, he could probably use it in court to have me kicked out of the human race.

I told him that I wanted to be a personal trainer but didn’t really know the best route to take. We talked for a while and I told him my story. I hadn’t worked in over a decade, except for a few bucks here and there for playing peoples’ video game characters for them. I told him that I was willing to do janitorial work if it meant being around the gym. The Sportscenter didn’t have any steady work available but I mentioned that I was good with computers. Their network had apparently been acting up and they’d had some minor computer issues around the complex, so I met with Bruce Burchfield, who owned the Sportscenter, and being a genuinely nice guy, he bent over backwards trying to help me out.

Bruce gave me a free gym membership for 6 months. It’s a nice gym so that was a really cool gesture but I still worked out in my guest room. there wasn’t a chance I would feel comfortable working out in front of anyone, and I didn’t have a car anyway . I was desperately seeking work because the better I felt about myself, the more like a loser I felt for not having one. So when they offered to let me design the website for the new CrossFit Cabarrus expansion they were constructing, I agreed even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. To my credit, I warned them, but they still let me do it. It didn’t turn out too badly.

Then in January of 2012, my dream to help people change their lives fell into my lap. Dr. Jeffrey Galvin and his wife Paula had just opened a branch of their blossoming business in some newly renovated office space above the Sportscenter. Jeff Switalski talked to Dr. Galvin and told him my story. He wanted to meet me, so I took my trip up the stairs into my future: Vitality Medical Wellness Institute.

The first time I walked up those steps, I was completely out of my element and scared. I clutched the railing like an old lady clutches her purse in a bad neighborhood. But I pushed right through, right into my new life.

Dr. Galvin and I started talking and soon discovered that the nutrition regimen he was recommending to his patients was the exact same one I’d concluded through research was the best option for my own fat loss. Dr. Galvin initially wanted me to help me as a patient but my dream was staring me in the face and I intended to be relentless. I volunteered my time to help around the office, confident that I could prove I belonged there eventually. I knew my knowledge of computers would give me an advantage.

Meanwhile, my primary interest was helping people. I had insight into the minds of people struggling with body image and ignorance of nutrition. I was also a research junkie and constantly expanding my pool of knowledge. Dr. Galvin had 20 years under his belt as an Emergency Room physician that exposed him to the destructive consequences of a bad diet that just worsened over the years. Through different circumstances, we’d come to the same conclusion: the way that the country thinks about food needs to change.

It felt right. I faced a major fear that I had never faced before to get my foot in the door at a gym that just happened to host a medical practice upstairs to help people lose weight and get healthier. I volunteered to work for free. Dr. Galvin and Paula agreed that it felt right and allowed me volunteer my time, which took a lot of trust and a lot of faith because I was still essentially a stranger. One of the folks who worked for them was a girl named Karley who lived about a minute away from me. She picked me up on her way to work almost every morning out of sheer kindness. Having not left my house for a decade, I of course let my license expire.

When I started volunteering at Vitality, I had already lost quite a bit of weight, but I was still dealing with many internal struggles. I came on as a patient and had labs drawn, which uncovered many problems that may have contributed to my depression and some of my weight gain, including low testosterone and hypothyroidism. My agoraphobia had mostly waned but I definitely still had trouble interacting with strangers, which certainly wasn’t the best trait in a business setting. The Galvins were incredibly patient with me though and gave me every opportunity they could to prove myself.

Since working here at Vitality, I’ve been introduced to hundreds of amazing people and patients. I’ve undergone another transformation that has nothing to do with my weight but rather my soul. My intent was to help the obese lose weight originally but I’ve since discovered that all kinds of people have bad relationships with food; men and women of all ages and frames are living inside of bodies that they believe are flawed when sometimes simple a simple variation here and there can change everything. A simple conversation once a week can help to alter the course of someone’s entire family.

In January of 2013, I will have been employed by Vitality Medical Wellness Institute for a year. In just that short time, in just this microcosm of Concord, North Carolina, I’ve seen people completely alter the course of their lives and veer off of a road that lead to disaster to one that rose to hope instead. I feel alive again and like an active participant in a pretty great adventure. I’d just like to thank Dr. Galvin and Paula Galvin for believing in me and breathing life back into me when they didn’t have to. They’ve become like a second set of parents to me and great role models.