"I Lost 600 Pounds"

One of the most motivational stories you'll read about losing weight and finding faith

By Justin Willoughby, Bradford, Pennsylvania

As appeared in

I walked toward the front doors of the church that Sunday morning, my legs shaking.

And not only because of my weight, which was still close to 600 pounds even after all the work I’d done. I was nervous. The last time I had gone to church, I felt the stares of other people more than I’d felt anything from the service.

But my mom’s friend Marge had insisted that this new church, Open Arms Community, was different. I got to the door and took a deep breath. In the past year, God had helped me inch closer and closer to showing the world who I was, the Justin hidden under all that weight: funny, caring, easy to like.

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You see the real me, Lord, I prayed. Please let these people see me too.

I could never have imagined being here a year ago. Back then I couldn’t take two steps without gasping for breath, much less walk into a church. I was 16 years old and just found out I weighed 799 pounds.

I lay in a hospital bed, listening to it groan every time I shifted, feeling my left arm pulse with the IV the nurse had struggled to insert. I tried to sleep, tried to forget the terrible sadness I saw on my mother’s face when I was weighed on the bed scale and the doctor said, “Justin, at this rate, you won’t live another year."

I was always hefty, the biggest kid in my class ever since kindergarten. Freshman year of high school, I was lying in bed one night when my heart start­ed pounding so hard I thought it would jump from my chest. Sweat poured down my forehead. I couldn’t breathe. I ran to my parents’ room, frightened. They rushed me to the emergency room.

“You had a panic attack,” the doctor said. Even a little stress could trigger one. Soon they were happening almost every day.

Only one thing seemed to calm the panic: eating. I would wolf down chips, ice cream, whatever, and feel myself relax. I put on weight, fast. My parents cut my dinner portions, hid the junk food. That didn’t stop me. I even dug out a box of cookies they’d hid under their bed. They quit buying snacks altogether, but then I just made myself a sandwich…or three.

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“You’re eating way too much,” my dad warned. “You want to try my diet shake?” my mom offered.

“I’m your son!” I yelled. “Don’t call me fat!”

But I knew how fat I was getting. Fat enough that I never looked in the mirror or stepped on a scale anymore. Still, food made me feel good in a way nothing else did. Friends? The panic attacks pretty much killed my social life. Church? “Come with us,” my mom said. “It’ll do you good."

But I felt people’s eyes bore into me, judging me. School? The attacks sent me to the nurse so often I fell behind in my classes. Finally, my parents agreed to homeschool me. I stopped leaving the house. But even I was shocked when my parents finally forced me to see the doctor, and he sent me straight to a hospital in Pittsburgh.

That night, I lay in my hospital bed, staring at the ceiling. The ceiling was black, empty, kind of how I felt. Could my life ever mean anything?

I turned my head and, in the dim light, I spotted the Bible I’d brought with me. My parents always turned to God when things got to be too much. I wasn’t sure that he’d care about someone like me, but I was desperate.

I slowly brought my arms together, careful not to tug out the IV, and joined my hands. “God, I’m putting my life in your hands,” I said. “Save me.” A strange peace settled over me. I closed my eyes and fell into a soothing sleep.

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I went home with doctor’s orders to see a nutritionist and a personal trainer. Good thing the trainer made house calls. “We’ll start simple,” he said at our first session. “Stand up. Walk from your living room to the bedroom.” Walk? Wobbled was more like it. My heart drummed. My breath got short. I needed a snack. A rest. No! Instead I looked straight ahead, picturing God standing in front of me, urging me forward. You can do this. Step by wobbly step, I made it.

I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I walked to the bathroom one day and crack! My foot went through the wooden floor. I felt an overwhelming shame.

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