a piece of my story.

This past weekend, the Louis V. Hencken chapter of NRHH held its Spring Leadership Conference. During the third program session on Saturday, I facilitated a program called “Find Your Voice, Write Your Story.” Inspired by notions already discussed in this young weblog, the presentation essentially revolved around the idea that a leader must know her or his voice before writing a story. Baxter-Magolda’s Theory of Self-Authorship provided the framework, and I used the “i am” activity from the previous post. Something, however, seemed to be missing. The morning of the conference, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to include an influential piece of my story (and influence on my voice): my weight journey. The following slide helped illustrate that moment:


When the time came to share the story, I found myself feeling the side effects of vulnerability — clammy hands, shaky voice, pumping heart — but I pressed onward and shared as bravely as I could. Afterwards, after revealing the photo on the right of the slide, the students in the room applauded my progress. In the moments that followed, the students in the room opened their hearts with tremendous courage and shared pieces of their story that greatly impacted the message of the presentation. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my graduate journey to date.

Today, during some reflection on the program, I decided to share that slide of the presentation. The response has been tremendously kind and supportive, reminding me to be grateful that I was ever able to take this step. As such, I am yet again setting out to write and share this piece of my story. I hope that I can do it justice.

My weight loss story begins with a pair of busted prom pants. As a Junior in high school, I had reached the ever-important milestone of going to prom. In the weeks prior, as part of the whole ordeal, it was my task to get measured for a tux. At that time in my life, I was a relatively joyful and light-spirited teenage male. I also weighed in around 250 pounds, a reality I fought fiercely to keep secret from friends, family, and – most of all – myself. The prospect of having to be measured, sharing the dimensions of a body I was ashamed of, tied my guts into knots. After some determined self-talk, I mustered the courage to go, and I did my best to feign non-concern throughout the whole process. That is, until the lady measuring me asked for my weight. After some stammering, I lied: “200 pounds.”

Fast forward to the Friday of Junior Prom: At the final bell for the day, my friends and I took off for our vehicles in the parking lot, and I swung by the tux rental to pick up my evening’s attire. Hustling home, I jumped into the shower, shaving the stubble above my lip and washing my hair with great care. As I pulled on the pieces of my tuxedo, however, I hit a snag: the pants were too tight.

For me, the emotions of that realization still ring familiar: heart sinking, neck tingling with shame, face flushing with humiliation, eyes wetting with frustration. In the moments following, I battled with the clasps of those tuxedo pants, fighting desperately to get them to close. Then, in a moment that shocked and mortified me, one of the clasps broke loose and fell to the tile with a small clink. Horrified, embarrassed, and ashamed, I sunk into a seated position and felt anger and hatred, first for my situation and then for myself.

Never again, I told myself. Never again would I let my body cast a shadow on what were meant to be the happy moments of my life.

* * * 

On the night of my first run, I boarded a treadmill and immediately felt my heart speed up in fear. My mind raced with doubtful voices: What if you can’t? What if people are watching you? What if it’s loud while you run? What if you don’t keep up with it? What if you can’t lose weight anyway? I put in my iPod headphones, picked a song, and drowned it out.

Dirty Little Secrets, by the All-American Rejects. Lasting a few seconds over four minutes. High rhythm and immensely popular at that time. In taking the leap to run, I had negotiated with myself to run for only a single song. As soon as my feet picked up into a run, I started and a loud guitar riff echoed into my ears and summoned me to motion.

For the first thirty steps or so, my body moved with clumsy newness, as if to say what is this? By the time the first chorus rang into my eardrums, my breath was short and my sides were wrenching in protest. Stop, my body seemed to be yelling. I remember looking down at the red button on the treadmill, considering it for a moment.

“No,” I said aloud. At least it feels like I said it aloud. My breakthrough moment.

At the conclusion of “Dirty Little Secret,” there is a long, drawn-out sound effect of the music dying out. I remember staring furiously at my iPod, begging it to just conclude the song. When the next song chimed on, I hit the red button, sitting down on the treadmill and cradling my sweaty forehead in my hands. Heaving breaths. Heart pumping wildly. Am I going to die? 

But I didn’t die. Instead, I figured out that I could do it. 

* * *

In the months that followed, there were many more obstacles broken down. I moved from running one song, to two songs, to eight. Soon, I was capable of running for thirty minutes at a time and I felt bagginess in my old clothes. In the spring of 2008, I attended my Senior Prom in a tuxedo that fit me and in a very different self: Joyful, carefree, confident, happy. As I moved to college, meeting new friends as a skinnier Michael, I committed to keeping myself in shape. Never again, I told myself. Sometimes I still tell myself.

There have been other milestones: Half-marathons completed, runs in New York City and Indianapolis, the running of 1,000 miles in 2013. I have been unbelievably fortunate to reach these, and my heart still wrenches in gratefulness once in a while. I can acknowledge that I am a runner on my social media without worry that others will laugh. My sense of self, it seems, has come a long way.

I refer to my weight journey as a journey because it continues to hold an important presence in my life. Coming into graduate school, a world that asks me to passionately divide my time between coursework, co-supervising a residence hall, advising student leaders, completing a graduate thesis, and embracing internship and committee opportunities, I have had a greater challenge than ever to find space for running in my life. Often my runs take place in the early hours of the morning or the late hours of the night, in times where those other aspects of life don’t usually reach. For my happiness, for my confidence, running has to be non-negotiable. Scheduled.

As a Student Affairs graduate student, I sometimes find myself analyzing this piece of my story through the lens of Baxter-Magolda’s Theory of Self-Authorship. For so many years of my life, my happiness was policed by adherence to the “following formulas” stage: I ate what I wanted, avoided the embarrassment of physical activity, and tried not to acknowledge the vulnerability of my shame. The busted prom pants, and all similar moments of pain preceding that one, serve as my “crossroads,” the moments that showed me I needed to make a change. Then, hands shaky and heart uncertain, I stumbled into “becoming the author of my own life.” As the years have gone on, and as I’ve moved through other crossroads, I’ve developed the “internal foundation” I needed. It makes complete sense, then, that this is the student development theory I most readily apply in my work with students. How can I empower you to write your story?

Enough years have passed that I sometimes forget what it felt like to be that boy, trapped in the bathroom with a pair of busted prom pants in front of my tear-stained eyes. In the quiet moments, however, when I reflect upon the journey behind me, I sometimes feel the urge to reach out to him (17-year-old me) and offer him hope, compassion, and forgiveness. To let him know he’s greater than the sum of his story, that his heart will be seen, that he won’t be trapped there forever. In those moments, I often grin and shake my head, realizing that I am not talking to him at all. I am, in fact, talking to me.

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