Karen Harris’ personal journey to lose weight began in April 2011. She had driven to Georgetown to get her driver’s license renewed, looked at the picture on her new ID and was horrified.
“I’ve got to do something about this,” she said to herself.
But she didn’t.
Then, in July, Harris attended a wedding and had a good time — until photos of the happy event appeared on Facebook.
“I was so embarrassed. I got right on the phone, begging that any picture with me in it please be deleted.”
“Oh, don’t worry — we love you, you’re beautiful inside,” said Harris’ friends. But who wants to be beautiful inside and otherwise, by implication, on the outside?
So she initiated a walking regime and cut out the “three ‘carbs-are-the-devil’ foods: white bread, white rice and white potatoes.” By October 2011, her weight still hadn’t budged from around 350 pounds. It was so frustrating she could scream.
Harris was fighting 46 years of — let’s face it — fatness.
“Our whole family was large, especially on my dad’s side. Even as a little kid, my mom called me fat, and the kids at school poked fun at me. Although I was a straight-A student, my self-esteem was zilch. I learned young that self-deprecating humor was my salvation. If I made people laugh at me before they did, I was ahead of the game,” she recalled.
Harris’ father died at 56, and several cousins have serious obesity-related health problems. She had tried all the diets du jour. Yet, for years, she was a six-pack-per-day Pepsi drinker and a pizza lover to boot. Pizza was her nemesis. She cooked it, rewarded herself with it, had even, years ago, delivered it, and ate it — by the pie, not by the slice.
There were people Harris knew who had had gastric bypass surgery and lost weight. But that wasn’t for her, as she watched the pounds rebound as they resumed their old lifestyle habits. She watched “The Biggest Loser” on television and was inspired by the contestants who stuck through the punishment their trainers inflicted.
Harris resolved that this was the time to take her life into her own hands and, as Nike proclaims, “Just do it.”
“I’ll never forget walking into the gym the first time,” she said. “It was 8 o’clock in the morning, Oct. 17, 2011, a Monday.”
Dave Kergaard, director of training for Club Fitness of Rehoboth remembers that day, too.
“She looked very shy, reserved, unsure and scared, like a lot of first-timers. She walked slowly, with her head down, like a fish out of water. But she had a resolve about her that was different. She started to work from Day 1. She was friendly with everyone, but you could see she wasn’t here to socialize. She was focused.”
It is not surprising that, of all the hundreds of people who come through the doors of the gym every year, Kergaard remembers Harris so vividly. He has seen her metamorphosis.
“Now she carries herself with her head high and even has a bit of a swagger!” said Kergaard. “She has transformed from someone comfortable only in the far corner of the women’s training room to being a gym rat, in the nicest sense, who is an inspiration and helper to many of our members. She has an unbelievable story.”
“I’ve lost 186 pounds, to date, in 14 months,” said Harris quietly, with a huge smile.
Amazingly, through determination, perseverance, sweat and grit, Harris has lost half her body size.
It has been a very hard journey. She is in the gym, which she now calls her sanctuary, at least five days a week. For the first three months, despite all her physical efforts and changes in diet, she didn’t lose any weight at all.
“I could tell my clothes were looser, and yet the scales still didn’t budge. If it wasn’t for Dave and his support and encouragement, I don’t know what I would have done. He explained how losing fat and building muscle were two different things. And then, all of a sudden, I lost 5 pounds in one week, and then the next, and all the while I kept exercising like a fiend and eating the way I knew I should.”
That meant small quantities, lean protein, fresh fruit and veggies, nothing processed, lots of water and, Harris’ penchant, black Starbucks coffee with a half-teaspoon of sugar.
In any long-term, married couple’s relationship, when one person undergoes a dramatic, life-changing experience, the other is usually affected.
“I kept nagging her not to eat this and lower her portion size of that, and move around more, and generally I was being a pain,” admitted Harris. “I forgot that I was the one who made the decision to go on this journey, and I had no business inflicting my goals on her. It was difficult for a while, but we came to an understanding.
“She has never gone to the gym, but she started walking and, by eating the same meals as me, she has lost 50 pounds. And the great news is that she no longer needs insulin for her diabetes.”
Harris has realized that food isn’t just a problem for people like her — it is an addiction. She can’t just lose weight and then go back to her old lifestyle. Her resolve must be as absolute as a drug addict who stays clean or an alcoholic’s in sobriety.
“It’s never going to be easy,” said Harris. “Even in the gym, you see food commercials on the TV screens. I’ve even been taunted by supposed friends who wave a piece of pizza under my nose. I’ve told them pizza is one of my trigger foods that I must stay away from.
“During a recent training session at work, I was called ‘difficult’ when the food for the break was pizza and doughnuts, and I chose to stay outside the room. They wouldn’t tempt an alcoholic with a glass of vodka, but they just don’t get it when it comes to food.”
As an addict has scars from needles pricks and sclerotic veins, Harris, too, has — invisible under her clothes — her own scars: rolls of flabby skin.
“It’s disgusting, but I could never afford the cost of elective cosmetic surgery. I just look at them as a reminder of whom I used to be... and a warning of where I’ll never return,” she said.
For a long time, Harris didn’t tell her friends what she was doing. Now, she doesn’t have to: the change is self-evident. She knows she is beautiful on the inside and out. She wants to share her story as an example to others and maybe start a support group or become a trainer.
She posted her “before and after” photos on her Facebook page. They went viral — even reaching Jackie Warner, a “fitness trainer of the stars,” who shared Harris’ success on her blog.
“If I can do it, anyone can. You don’t need a fancy trainer or expensive equipment or go away from home to be on a reality show. ‘No excuses’ was my motto last year. Now it is ‘I never try anything, I just do it,’” Harris said.
The rest of us must do our share, too. Obesity is a society-threatening illness, an addiction for many, and not an opportunity for ridicule and derision. Those who work so hard to keep their weight in check deserve nothing but our support, praise and admiration.