It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon at the start of summer. I was an otherwise healthy 26-year-old, and I was lying on the sidewalk, on the phone with an emergency operator who was telling me paramedics would arrive soon. I felt like I was on the verge of death.
Ten minutes earlier, I'd been in the middle of a workout when I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the left side of my chest. My heart went into overdrive as I frantically gathered my things and head to my car. I was lightheaded and just wanted to get home. But it wasn't until I'd run my car into a curb that I realized I was in absolutely no condition to be behind the wheel.
At this point, my left arm was completely numb and breathing seemed to be evading me. I didn't know what was happening, but I did know I was terrified.
After being rushed to the hospital with a resting heart rate of 192 beats per minute (a normal, healthy resting heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute), I learned that my obsession with my body (and trying to make it look perfect) had very dangerous consequences.
For years, I was plagued by insecurities regarding my height and weight. Growing up, I was often one of the shortest guys in class at 5'7. Despite my natural athleticism, I opted out of certain sports for fear of getting hurt by bigger guys.
Even at 25, the most I'd ever weighed was 128 pounds.
I was constantly haunted by the idea that a "real man" had a certain body type, a certain muscle structure, a certain build. And so I tirelessly poured myself into weightlifting and heavy use of supplements in an effort to achieve that "perfect" male form.
Within eight months, I was training for an NPC Men's Physique Competition. Every day, I was consuming well over 400mg of caffeine, taking testosterone boosters and eating around 5,000 calories. I was also working out twice a day, five days a week. I bulked up to 165 pounds with only 7% body fat and was benching close to 285 pounds.
In terms of food, I’d start my day with a four ounce flank steak, six egg whites and a large bowl of cream of rice. My snacks were normally two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and half of an 800-calorie, mass-building protein shake. Lunch consisted of chicken breast or tilapia, steamed broccoli and sweet potatoes. Dinner was pretty much the same.
It was a high-protein, high-carb diet, and most of my pre- and post-workout supplements were full of caffeine, sugars, artificial colors, preservatives and a bunch of other ingredients I still can't pronounce ... excessively so.
But I loved my new body. I looked great and felt even better. After all, I was in the best shape of my life, or so I thought until that day I ended up on my back on a sidewalk waiting for an ambulance to come save my life.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was slowly killing myself.
That day at the hospital, doctors thought I'd experienced a caffeine overdose and sent me home. However, the next four weeks of my life were filled with repeat hospital visits, countless EKGs, blood tests, and nights spent sleeping in my car in the parking lot of the hospital for fear something would happen at home and I wouldn't be able to react quickly enough.
After a month of living in constant fear, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder, and was immediately placed on medication. Over the next two years, I became addicted to the anxiety medication, unable to function without it, and survived an accidental overdose.
Eventually, I realized I had a problem and sought help. I was finally able to find relief through a daily yoga and meditation practice, and became a a green juice fanatic. The bottom line is that I had to undergo a complete lifestyle overhaul to heal.
Despite all these healthy, mindful changes, I still had to constantly remind myself that the way I looked didn't determine my value, nor did the opinions of others. I had to love myself for who I was, no matter what that looked like. Having a great physique only served to mask the real issues that existed deep within, issues I ignored for far too long.
What I thought was giving me confidence — my body — was actually causing me the most pain.
Today I exercise for health, not aesthetic, and I can proudly say that I love my body and my life, flaws and all.
The truth is, body image issues have been a pervasive problem in modern society for years. The standards of beauty we're expected to abide by have ushered in the ever-growing popularity of fad diets, exercise trends and weight-loss supplements. Body shaming is at an all-time high, resulting in thousands of dollars being spent on plastic surgery and body implants. These body modifications may result in new physical features, but they can't do anything to change a negative mindset.
I was fortunate to have gotten out of the ubiquitous cycle of self doubt and limiting beliefs, but not before it almost cost me my life. So let’s not be fooled by the glamorized image of what “healthy” looks like: real health is often jaded by misinterpretations and false advertising.
We need love ourselves unconditionally because no matter what, they'll always be our greatest investment.
Photo courtesy of the author