He dropped the weight by finding faith.
by Justin Willoughby — Posted on Jul 9, 2010
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.
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.
“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.
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.
But I didn’t give up. I kept working out at home with my trainer and I began to eat healthy, following the plan the nutritionist set up.
When I felt I couldn’t go on, I read the sermons and newsletters my parents brought home from their church. My mom’s friend Marge gave me pep talks. I lost 200 pounds in just over 12 months.
Now I had bigger steps to take, into that new church. I should have been excited about all the progress I’d made. I hadn’t even had a panic attack in a while. But memories of those attacks and the shame I still felt about my weight dogged me.
Marge was sure this church would be right for me. “The people there know God doesn’t care what you look like,” she said. “He cares who you are inside.” I reached out and opened the doors, hoping she was right.
I walked inside the church. Is that the minister? I wondered, staring at the man in the front of the room, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Everyone was dressed casually. Maybe that was the kind of thing Marge was talking about. A few people slid over to make room for me. No stares, no shaking heads. “Glad to see a new face,” one of the guys said.
The service started. A band with electric guitars, drums and singers broke into a song praising God. Everyone around me stood, raised their hands and danced, clapping with the rhythm. I stood up too. Me, dance? Yeah, right. I couldn’t help but tap my foot to the beat though. Soon I was swaying and clapping with everyone else. This was different…and I liked it. It was freeing to just let go and express myself.
The minister came up to me afterward. “I’m Pastor Mike,” he said.
I told him how much I liked the service. “I haven’t gone to church in a while,” I confessed sheepishly. “But I’ve been asking God to help me through my workouts.” I told him about that night in the hospital, how much weight I’d lost since then. “I still have a long way to go."
“You know, Justin,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “someone like you could really inspire others. If people see how hard you’re working, they might be inspired to work on themselves."
Wow, could I do that? I thought I was just doing this for me. “Why don’t you check out our youth group?” Pastor Mike suggested. But how would the kids treat me? It took a few months before I gathered up the courage to go.
“Hello?” I said, tentatively walking into the meeting room. It was just the kind of situation that would give me panic attacks: A dozen kids were hanging out, and they all stopped what they were doing to turn and look at me.
“Justin, we’re so glad that you’re here,” Pastor Mike said. Everyone was so friendly that I finally quit worrying about having a panic attack. Then Pastor Mike encouraged me to tell everyone about myself.
“You actually lost two hundred pounds?” one girl exclaimed. “I have trouble losing five!”
I went to youth group every week and discovered a lot of the kids had the same goofy sense of humor I had.
We got together outside of church too. We went bowling, chilled out at each other’s houses. Swapped our favorite CDs. Talked online for hours. I could be more than just a fat kid to them. I could be me. It was like God was telling me, Time to venture out further, Justin.
I started jogging around the Walmart and working out at the Y. I lost weight so fast, people noticed. My story spread around town. An editor at a teen magazine heard about me and requested an interview. Me, in a national magazine?
Remembering what Pastor Mike had said, I jumped at the chance to share my story. My biggest problem now, I told the editor, was that I needed surgery to remove my excess skin. Soon after the story was published, I got a call from a surgeon in New Jersey who’d heard about it. “Your story is so inspiring,” he said. “I want to donate my services."
Today I’m down to 230 pounds. I work at the Y, supervising kids’ activities, getting them into exercise. I’m taking classes to be a personal trainer. I have a website aimed at encouraging other people with weight problems. I even have my own rap group—named Panic Attack. And a few months ago I married Tonya, a friend from church who always encouraged me.
I’m not done losing weight, and I’m not done sharing my story, and my faith, with others. I may weigh a quarter of what I once did, but in all the ways that matter, I feel so much bigger.