Looking up at St Thomas’s Church, I took a deep, steadying breath, trying to calm my turbulent thoughts. When I’d last stood in the same spot, 12 months ago, I’d been at the funeral of my mum, Catherine. By chance the church hall was also where the local Slimming World group met each week – the same group Mum and I had once attended together. Now, with mixed emotions, I steeled myself to go in and carry on with my weight loss journey, just like I knew she would have wanted.
‘I’m going to do this for you, Mum,’ I thought, as I walked nervously through the doors. There was no doubt in my mind that this would be a new beginning for me, but I couldn’t help worrying that the other members might judge me for going off track in the year since I’d last been to group. My fears soon melted away as my Consultant, Lisa, came over to me with a warm, welcoming smile. Surrounded by familiar faces, and feeling like everyone was on my side, I knew I was back where I needed to be. Maybe I could finally put the past behind me and fix my difficult relationship with food.
I’d never been able to tell anyone about the day that my troubles started – a day in 2004 just before my 13th birthday. I’d headed out to the park on my bike with some friends. One by one they returned home, but I was enjoying myself so I stayed out a little longer, oblivious to the time. I didn’t notice the three men surrounding me until it was too late, and in a harrowing attack I was physically and sexually assaulted. Afterwards, the 12-year-old me simply couldn’t process what they had done, and I returned home feeling as though I was somehow to blame. I felt that ashamed I didn’t tell anyone – not even Mum and Dad – so nobody was able to help me understand that it wasn’t my fault. Instead, eating lots of chocolate bars and bags of crisps became my way of coping with the trauma.
Looking back, I think my eating was as self-destructive as it was comforting – as if I was punishing myself for what had happened to me.
Each chocolate bar made me feel better and worse at the same time. And although I knew my sudden weight gain was down to my changed eating habits, I felt powerless to stop myself. I didn’t go out riding my bike any more – instead, I’d stay indoors and play computer games or watch TV. After two years, my health also began to suffer. The conditions I’d had since birth – epilepsy and tachycardia, which is an abnormally rapid heartbeat – started getting worse. Even walking would make me out of breath, and Mum was becoming increasingly worried.
A change of lifestyle
In early 2006, when I was 14 years old and weighed around 22st, Mum started mentioning the Slimming World group at our local church hall. My grown-up sister Tammy had lost weight there, and Mum was convinced that group could work for me, too. I was already finding it difficult to enjoy the kind of things most teenagers wouldn’t think twice about – I’d been avoiding trips to the cinema because I couldn’t fit into the seats any more, and shopping for clothes with my friends was something I wouldn’t even contemplate. Still, I stubbornly refused to go along, so she tried a different tactic.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ Mum said, putting on her jacket and heading for the door. It was something she did quite often just to get me out in the fresh air, but that night she was particularly insistent, standing by the door and looking at me expectantly. I pulled on my coat and followed her dutifully, wondering what she was up to. ‘I’ve been thinking we should do this more often,’ she said. ‘It’s nice for us to get the chance to chat and be active together, isn’t it?’ I was instantly suspicious. ‘We chat all the time. Where are we going, exactly?’ One more street and across the road, and it suddenly became clear as the church steeple rose into view. ‘I know what you’re doing!’ I said, stopping dead. Mum smiled and sighed. ‘Let’s just give it a try. I’m going to join as well, so you won’t be on your own.’ Realising I’d been had, all I could do was follow Mum through the doors and into group.
As the weeks went by, encouraged by the inspiring atmosphere in group, I began to realise there was another lifestyle for me. Mum and Tammy were a constant support as I got to grips with Free2Go, Slimming World’s plan for 11 to 15-year olds, where the emphasis was on enjoying healthy, filling meals, gradually reducing sugary and fatty foods, and being more active. I began to see food in a whole new way, and became interested in cooking. Slimming World lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese were my staples, and I found I could easily turn down the chocolate bars and crisps now that I was filling up on healthy meals. I lost almost 7st in the space of 18 months, and felt much better about myself. Mum was thrilled when I started going out more with my friends, enjoying my teens in a way I hadn’t been able to before.
As good things began to come into my life, my confidence and energy levels grew. I started to feel as if anything was possible.
Then, at the beginning of 2008, Mum developed some worrying symptoms and was referred for tests in Cardiff. When we learnt it was cancer I buried my fears and tried to stay strong for my eight-year-old sister, Sophie. Throughout Mum’s treatment I continued to focus on Slimming World, knowing how my much my health meant to her.
I was at group when I got the call to go home urgently. Mum’s health had been deteriorating and I’d known this day would come, but it seemed much too soon. Mum died in hospital surrounded by her family, all of us wondering how we would survive without her. I took it upon myself to look after Sophie and try to stop her world falling apart. While I was concentrating on the rest of the family, I had no room left to take care of myself. I stopped going to group and slipped into my old habit of using food to comfort myself.
By now, I’d left school and was working at a Cardiff call centre, which was close to a huge range of takeaways. I made full use of them all, especially the Chinese restaurant below the office, and my weight began to rise again. I felt lost without Mum and I so missed her guidance – how she had always found a way to help me, even when I didn’t want to help myself. A year after Mum died, I went shopping for a new pair of trousers with my friend Tasha from work. As none of the high street chains went up to my size, I had to be measured for clothes at a shop that catered for bigger gentlemen. In my head, I still had a 34-inch waist – and when I was told it was actually 52 inches, I couldn’t fight back the tears. The poor shop assistant was so shocked by my reaction we were given glasses of Champagne on the house!
Tasha and I had laughed about the free bubbly afterwards, but in the back of my mind I had a nagging thought: ‘What would Mum say if she could see me now?’ I knew the answer – she’d be sad for me; sad that I was bigger now than I’d ever been before at just shy of 27st. With that thought in mind, I went back to St Thomas’s Church hall. I walked into the bustling group and the first thing I saw was Lisa making her way over to greet me. ‘It’s great to have you back with us,’ she said. ‘Your mum would be so proud of you.’ That meant a lot to me. ‘That’s one of the reasons I’ve come back,’ I said. ‘To do it for her.’ Later, in IMAGE Therapy, we talked about Mum, and I couldn’t believe how much it helped me to be able to share the way I’d been feeling since her death. ‘She got me here in the first place and I know she’d want to see me succeed,’ I told my group. ‘And I’m going to get to target – just watch!’ Yes, I had a long way to go even to get back to the 22st I’d been the first time I joined, but I knew Mum would be with me in spirit, willing me on.
As I got back into Food Optimising, I was soon enjoying cooking my own meals again, and gaining confidence in the kitchen I started to set myself challenges with specific ingredients. ‘What can I make with chicken and pineapple?’ I’d ask myself, finding recipes to match and discovering new favourites in the process, such as a slow-cooked sweet and sour chicken. I also gave myself themed weeks to keep things interesting. So, one week I’d cook Moroccan-inspired dishes, another Chinese meals, and the next Italian. I knew the workday takeaways had to be replaced with healthier meals if I was going to get the losses I wanted, so I’d take my own lunch to work – something I’d really look forward to like a lean bacon and egg sandwich.
The other thing I knew I needed to tackle was dipping into the chocolate, biscuits, cake and crisps that were constantly being passed around the call centre. I even suggested to the management that all food should be banned from desks – and you can imagine how that went down with my colleagues! It made me realise, though, that while I couldn’t make temptation go away, I could work on my own mindset, and with practice I found I was able to say no to those high Syn foods. To make it easier to stick to my guns, I made sure I always had an on-plan snack handy, such as fresh fruit or a 16g pack of Quavers for 4½ Syns.
As the pounds dropped off, my tachycardia improved, and I started to feel less breathless going about my day. That gave me the confidence to support my weight loss with some Body Magic, and I started walking regularly. By the time I reached my target weight of 13st, I felt like a very different man.
I wish Mum could have seen me, stepping off the scales nearly 14st lighter!
Now feeling like anything was possible, I set myself some physical challenges to raise money for Cancer Research in Mum’s memory. I climbed the 886-metre Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons National Park, did a 16-mile walk from Newport to Chepstow and went cave diving in Turkey in ice-cold water.
A breakthrough moment
Life at target wasn’t all smooth, though. I started to drift away from group, and didn’t notice my weight creeping up again. In time, I realised the habits that got me to my dream weight hadn’t become a way of life. I knew what I had to do. I went to group weekly, always staying for IMAGE Therapy, and I soon got back to 13st. I fell back in love with making healthy meals, which meant keeping the weight off was actually fun! Then I met someone special, Carl, and in time we became a couple and got engaged. Carl wasn’t the only good thing to come into my life. Last year, I was thrilled to be voted my group’s Man of the Year, and couldn’t believe it when I was selected from all the winners across the country as one of the 43 men invited to Slimming World’s head office for the final stages of the competition. It was a great day and I met some wonderful people. Then something unexpected happened – as I was telling my weight loss story in front of the other guys, I decided to talk about the sexual assault I’d suffered when I was 12.
They sat and listened as I unburdened myself of the secret I’d held on to for so many years. It dawned on me that it was the support and help I’d found at Slimming World that had put me in this place where I felt that I could speak about it for the very first time. As a result, I’ve started counselling, and it’s put me on the path to feeling so much happier. I still desperately miss Mum. And I hope if she can see me now, she’s proud of the way I’ve striven to become a better, healthier, happier man – and this time I’m not going back. I know if it hadn’t been for her love, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Thank you, Mum – you gave me my life back.
Andrew’s day on a plate
Breakfast: Nothing first thing, then several rounds of white toast with butter mid-morning
Lunch: Chinese takeaway with chips, or a pizza
Dinner: Fried turkey drummers, chips and ice cream
Snacks: Chocolate bars, packets of crisps and doughnuts
Breakfast: Slimming World eggs Benedict on wholemeal toast
Lunch: Jacket potato with home-made spicy chilli
Snacks: Fresh berries and melon, a Slimming World Hi-fi bar and a packet of low Syn crisps