There and Back Again and Oh, Damn It: A Journey Already Once Taken

Jake Breunig Headshot

As Frodo Baggins awoke in an unfamiliar bed, the bright and comforting sunlight of Minas Tirith greeting him with warm cheek kisses, his eyes made out the silhouette of a friendly figure. Gandalf the White stood before him, beaming with relief to see the young Halfling up and finally home safely from his burdonous quest. Bounding in from the adjacent terrace came Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, leaping onto the bed and jumping with glee to see their dear friend alive. Next came Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn, three of Middle Earth’s mightiest warriors who laid their lives on the line to ensure Frodo’s success, awashed with relief to see that the sacrifices of many brave men and women did not go in vain. Finally, enter Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s dearest friend, savior, and perhaps the greatest hero of this epic tale. The two simply exchange a smile and a nod, knowing that the many Hells they faced together made their bond even stronger. They left a home they didn’t want to leave for parts unknown, met copious amounts of peril with tremendous courage the likes of which had never been seen from their kind, and saved an entire realm from a seemingly unstoppable evil. They survived a quest that was meant to be their end. 

Now imagine, after all that, Frodo reached into his pocket and found another One Ring. I bet he’d be pretty fucking miffed about it. 

In my case, the fate of Middle Earth does not hang in the balance, but the above statement is a cute way to describe how I felt when I stepped on the scale and saw the number 285; a number I had already thrown into Mount Doom in years past. To make a long story short, I had previously pushed three bills on the scale around 18 years old and worked to lose a huge portion of it in college. I never ended up reaching my goal, but I got damn close and felt amazing when I did. Then, for a multitude of reasons (both uncontrollable and potentially controllable), I fell off the train and have been chasing that boxcar ever since. Sometimes, I could grab the rail, only to let it drag me a few yards and leave me tumbling in the dirt after losing my grip. 

Now, I stand here, a decade after my first fight with the almighty chunk, armed with knowledge from every attempt thereafter and a shitload of vegetables, ready for another cage match. Hopefully, I can not only beat my nemesis again, but provide some insight to some in a similar position who might be wondering what went wrong. I don’t think it’s a matter of right or wrong, but just navigating the Mordor’s worth of frustrations that you’re facing.

The Result Is Not What You’re Angry About. I Promise.

I’m willing to bet a shiny dime that at least one person started reading this and thought I was going to get super negative and take a nice big dump on body positivity. I’m not. People are accepting that we are all different shapes and sizes for a million different reasons and health is the most important focus point. People use terms like “thicc” and “dad bod” to describe folks they want to shack (or shag) up with. The body positivity movement is making huge strides to give people a confidence they never had before. If I made buttons that said “I thought Chris Pratt was attractive before he lost the Starlord weight”, I bet I’d sell at least a handful because that is a weird point of pride I’ve seen people take. Let’s be real; it’s never been a better time to have a little extra chunky in your peanut butter. 

Why do I say all of this? To say this next part: If you are in the same situation I’m currently in, you are not angry that you’re fat again.

I promise. You’re not. Not this time, at least. The first time? Yeah, sure, but not now. The first time I embarked on a fitness journey, I was freshly paroled after 18 years in Childhood Correctional Penitentiary, one of the toughest clinks to do time in. Kids are nightmare people no matter which way you slice it. I was teased relentlessly for my size, mostly by the kids I considered my closest friends. Of course, I was angry about being fat after all that. I’ve had body image issues my whole life because “t-shirt in the pool kid” is a haunting superlative.

What’s the difference ten years later, though? The only one saying those mean things about my weight is me, and I’m pretty confident in saying the only one saying it about you is you. You know the people I call my closest friends say about my size now? Fucking NOTHING! At worst, they offer a genuine concern about my health and pair it with love, support, and a willingness to help me in any way they can. If they can love and support me, why can’t I love and support me? It took me a long time to realize that it’s because I didn’t know the true recipient of my anger; the loss of discipline. Humans crave structure in some form, whether an individual admits it or not, and one of the best feelings that comes from getting in shape is the good habits you form over that time. Half of the good feelings that came from going to the gym four times a week was simply the fact that I started liking it! It felt good to have that be part of my week and it felt weird when it wasn’t. A lot of people struggling to start the journey claim it’s a lack of motivation. Motivation is what gets you moving on day one, and there’s plenty of motivation out there. It’s discipline that keeps you going after being motivated to start, and the only thing that feels worse than having no discipline is losing the discipline you used to have. The sooner you are aware of that, the easier it is to fight to bring it back.

Environment Is the Key and You Suck If You Try to Deny That

One of my least favorite things about dieting and fitness culture is Instagram. Instagram has taken all the bullshit and contradicting advice that’s out there and crammed it into our throats, paired with aesthetically pleasing images to ease the gag reflex. Everything you see there can be boiled down to this; the easiest way to lose weight is to be rich.

Yeah, I said it. The easiest way to do this is to have access to the best stuff/people, and all the time in the world to use it. When I was in college, I literally built my schedule around my fitness journey. I crammed almost all of my classes into two days a week so the rest of my week could be focused on going to the gym and having nothing in the way of eating right. If my friends and I wanted to go out to eat, we walked our happy asses through multiple neighborhoods and back in order to earn it. If I remember right, I even budgeted calories in my nutrition log app for drinking at parties. Were there times I let the pendulum swing too far the other way and had one or two unhealthy calorie-counting moments bordering on an eating disorder? Looking back, I think there might have been, but the point is that almost nothing was in my way. 

What allowed me to do that, though? A colossal change in environment, that’s what. I left a rural hometown where you had to drive to everything and the only thing to do for a social life was go get fast food together to a bustling city full of endless means of time occupation. I had a grocery allowance from my parents and wasn’t limited to what they kept in the pantry. My gym was included in my tuition (and it was an art school so I was usually the only one in it). The friends who teased me were far out of earshot, wallowing in the cornfields I’d left behind. 

Flash forward to now. I live paycheck to paycheck. My gym is packed to the gills at any time a reasonable human being would try to go because it’s the only affordable option for most. Nothing takes the edge off a stressful day at work than a couple beers and a big, greasy burrito from the place across the street from my apartment. My depression that peaked after graduation and knocked me off the wagon in the first place shrieks at the idea of a “Meal Prep Sunday”. Stressor after stressor after stressor piles up, all while some model who gets paid to say “it’s as easy as getting up and doing it” tells me it’s as easy as getting up and doing it. 

Yes, of course it’s just a matter of getting off your ass and taking the first step, but let’s stop pretending that everyone is climbing the same set of stairs; some people are on the moving walkways at O’Hare, looking back and telling you the staircase isn’t that bad. The sooner you stop listening to them, the less daunting it feels.

It’s Going to Be Harder This Time, Regardless of Everything I Just Said

Okay, let’s pretend all those obstacles I just bitched about having weren’t there. Even with all of the state-of-the-art equipment, a personal trainer, and a Whole Foods black card, it still would not be as easy as it was the first time. Why? Because I’m fucking older now. 28 is not a big number, but the difference between 18 and 28 is still a decade of aging. Remember when you were seven years old and could literally fall out of a tree, cry for half a minute, drink a Capri Sun, and immediately climb the tree again like nothing happened? Well, fuck you, seven-year-old Jake, for because of you, my knees now sound like a bunch of M80s each morning.

The first time I attempted this, I was at the biological peak of my physical form, gut or no gut. Do you remember how good it felt to be 18 years old? I do, and it was fucking rainbows and unicorns. I remember that I could go to the gym almost every day, drink like it was the Fall of Rome, and pull all-nighters to write term papers and think absolutely nothing of it. Now, if I don’t get exactly 7 hours, 24 minutes, and 52 seconds of sleep a night in the absolute perfect sleeping position, I wake up feeling like Bob Vila went “This Old House” all over my spine and someone bashed me in the dome with a cast iron skillet like a fucking cartoon character. My bones are older, my lungs got walloped with a few years of smoking (that one’s on me, but still), and I just don’t have the same pep in my step as I did back then, and something tells me you don’t either.

I’m not saying all of this for the sake of lamenting my struggles and woe-is-me-ing my way through not being able to go to the gym in this pandemic; that’s what Twitter is for. I say all of this because somewhere out there is someone just like me who put back all the weight they’ve lost previously, stewing in anger and aus jus. I say this for that person, as their anger may be misdirected, and I just want to let them know that I’m in the same boat and that the frustrations are valid, and as you can identify those frustrations for what they really are, leaving the Shire gets a little easier each time you do it.

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