Johann Becker has become an active and inspirational member of the Sleekgeek community. He shared his story at our dinner in Johannesburg in April 2016 and everyone loved it. Today he is candidly sharing in his own words all the details of his journey which shows there are many paths to happiness on this journey.
It was a sunny and warm morning in Senekal in the heart of the Orange Free State. It was Friday 15 October 1971 at 08h00 when I came into this world with my mom delivering me through a caesarean procedure. In this little town, I was the only baby born on that day. I was taken away immediately and placed into an incubator, without the doctor even showing me to my mom. My mom was sedated and wheeled back to the ward. Through her drug induced state, my mom could hear me crying the whole night, but was unable to get up to come and soothe me. The next morning the doctor did his rounds at around 09h00, by which time my mom was in a state of utter despair and through tears rolling down her cheeks she screamed that she wanted to see her son. Eventually, 26 hours after my birth, my mom held me for the first time. It was the first time where I experienced a loving touch and warmth from another human being; my mom. (This story was shared with me by my mom in my thirties when I was searching for answers to determine the cause of a lot of emotional issues I had.)
Why am I telling you this chapter of my life?
This was my first encounter with abandonment and a feeling of rejection; something that would haunt me for the biggest part of my adult life and on a subconscious level created many false beliefs. Subconsciously it paved the way to emotional over-eating, depression, bi-polar type 1, obesity, unhealthy habits (which included drug and alcohol abuse) and four suicide attempts. You see, I always felt that nobody saw me and nobody wanted me; I felt invisible and rejected by everyone. In an effort to be seen, I started to believe that I had to make myself large. Food became my friend. Food didn’t judge me, food didn’t reject me; food never let me down. Being born into a typical Afrikaans family that enjoyed eating well and encouraged boys to be big and strong, my love for rich, fatty and sugary foods began, and having seconds was a sign of appreciation and was never frowned upon.
I was always bigger than most of my friends and was always the boy nobody wanted to play with because he was fat and couldn’t run or keep up. I kept turning to my best friend for comfort. My love for food was fuelled further by my interest in cooking and helping my mom and grand-mother in the kitchen whenever I could; always willing and able to lick the bowl of cake batter or icing sugar clean. I suppose in an effort to gain more approval from my parents, I started to cook suppers and make snacks for when my parents entertained. Through the recognition and approval of everyone that tasted my food, I felt acceptance and love and it became a passion, which eventually led me to make it my career choice. Since I spend so much time in the kitchen and searching for that ultimate signature recipe to impress and wow everyone, sport and physical activity was never high on my agenda. As a matter of fact, when my dad tried to get me to join the wrestling or rugby club I would fake injuries just to not go back.
My weight kept increasing and by the time I reached Matric in 1989, I was a whopping 85kg (on a 1, 68m frame). When I left home after completing my Diploma in Foodservice Management, I continued to eat the way I was taught…lots of quick and easy meals, highly processed and refined carbohydrates, loads of sugar and litres of coke, take away meals every weekend, all weekend (pizza, fried chicken, burgers and don’t forget the fries!)…and the weight kept piling on. In 1995, I decided that I wanted to lose weight, as the happy-go-lucky fat guy image didn’t do it for me anymore. I heard about an appetite suppressant pill called “Nobese”. At the time these pills weren’t as strictly controlled as today and you could get it over the counter from any pharmacy. I bought my first pack and a vicious and dangerous cycle was set into motion. After a week of having no real appetite or hardly any food, the weight started to come down. I was over the moon with the results, and coupled with the side effects from the pills, was in a state of euphoria. I joined a gym and started step classes. By week three, I was taking between 8 and 10 pills a day and did two step classes a day. The weight kept dropping and dropping. One Saturday morning I got out of a hot bath and the next thing I remembered was waking up cold and shivering on the floor an hour later.
Quick fixes and destruction
It then dawned on me that the only food I had the entire week, was an apple on the Tuesday. (By this time I was popping up to 16 pills a day, and I went from pharmacy to pharmacy to stock up on these pills, without raising suspicion that I might actually be an addict). Something inside me told me that this is a potentially lethal path and I need to stop. The following week, I started eating normal again and didn’t pop any more pills. My emotional state was in a complete turmoil, with extreme mood swings. I became very depressed and as a result my work started to suffer and I almost lost my job. Fortunately I had a caring and understanding boss that suggested I go and see a doctor, which I did. He prescribed me anti-depressants with a common side-effect: weight gain. Within a month, I gained the 20kg I lost the three months prior and for good measure, gained a further 5kg. Feeling so utterly unhappy with myself, I once again turned back to my old and trusted friend: Food.
Through most of my adult life, this pattern continued. A new “miracle pill” for weight-loss would come on the market and I would buy it. Another diet would cause hype and I would try it. Name the diet, name the pill or potion and I have probably tried it. I would lose some weight, only to gain it back with interest once I stopped using the pills or diet and revert to my old eating habits.
By the time I reached my mid-thirties, I made peace with the belief that I would always be overweight. Since almost everyone in our family battled the bulge, I believed that genetics also dictated that I have a lot of odds against me. I thought to myself that if I can’t beat this, I might as well stop struggling and accept what is and merely go through life, trying to enjoy it best I can; even if it meant death by heart attack or stroke; at least I would be able to say that I lived and ate well.
In my personal life I experienced four abusive relationships; one was physical, one was emotional, one was financially and the fourth was physical, emotional and financial. This strengthened the belief that I had that no-one wants me and no-one can ever love me, except food. After a physical attack or an emotional beating, I would get in my car and drive to the nearest take-away shop and just binge. I would eat and eat until I felt better. I would eat so much sweet stuff and get on such a sugar high, that my world became bearable and easier and I just accepted the false belief that I would always remain the unwanted, unloved and overweight guy and that I deserved to be punished and abused because I was a weak person, a failure and would not amount to anything more in life.
After the fourth, most abusive relationship of my life, I started to look for answers. I realised that I was one sad and broken person. I attended several workshops on how to improve self-esteem, how to heal the past, how to heal my life and countless other workshops and seminars. This was where I was first introduced to the works of Louise Hay, which would later have a profound impact on my journey towards loving and accepting myself and subsequent weight loss. At the time, most of these workshops did not seem to change me at all. I would try and take in as much as I can and I tried to apply it, but it felt like I was stuck. Something was preventing me from breaking the chains of my past and my false beliefs. Time and time again my depression would return and I would once again turn to food for comfort. This caused me to gain more weight and made me even more depressed. I was like a little hamster running on a wheel going nowhere.
In 2008, about three years after my previous break-up, I got involved in a very toxic relationship. I didn’t realize it at first, because I was so blinded by what I thought was the love of my life; finally I received the love and affection I so craved. After three months it fizzled out and the painful break-up left me with no other option than trying to commit suicide. This was actually the third time in my life that I tried to commit suicide. I swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and downed it with whiskey. In my stupor I also reached for a Stanley knife and slashed my wrists, before falling into a deep sleep. I woke the next morning with blood everywhere. I then realized that I needed help. I spoke to a close friend who recommended a good psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with severe burn-out, clinical depression and Bi-Polar Type 1. After my first consult with her, she immediately had me admitted to a rehab facility for three weeks. I learned a whole lot of new techniques and slowly started to put my life back together. I was also placed on a cocktail of very potent anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medicine; all with a common side-effect: weight gain. And so the cycle started again. Eight months later, I was admitted to the hospital again for sleep therapy after another severe bi-polar episode accompanied by self- mutilation. My medication and dosages were adjusted and I was in a constant daze, merely existing from day to day. I had to take pills in the morning to wake me up, pills to just get me through the day and pills at night to make me sleep.
A turning point
Shortly after this I met someone incredibly wise, loving and caring and we started a serious relationship. In this time I managed to get my emotions under control and my partner was very understanding, supporting and never judged me. I became more calm and rational about life, but my weight kept going up. I was in a comfort zone and felt that I didn’t need to do anything more to improve my health or weight, since I found “the one”. One night in November 2014, my partner looked at me and said, “You know, you’re really getting very big and your ‘boep’ is in the way”. It felt like someone drove a knife through my heart. How could someone you love so deeply, be so cruel and insensitive? All the false beliefs I had about nobody wanting to love me or be with me, was confirmed in that moment, and my ego kept screaming “You see! I told you so!”
With a severely bruised ego and broken heart, my thoughts once again turned to suicide and food. But in a brief moment, something within me stirred and jolted me back from descending into the dark abyss I wanted to plunge into. I stood in front of the mirror and took a long and hard look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw at all. I was morbidly obese, at an all-time high of 115kg, with a BMI of over 40 and body fat percentage of 43%. I saw the most unhappiest and lonely person ever looking back at me. In that moment I thought that suicide is now my only option. But as if struck by lightning, I felt this immense peace and calm come over me. Suddenly I was flooded with an incredible sensation of warmth and love, and a question popped into my head: “Why are you asking the wrong questions and look for answers in the wrong places?” This question made me think about the questions I was asking. Why did I ask the wrong questions? What should I be asking? Where should I be looking? I pondered these questions for an entire week, and at the end of that week I looked myself in the eyes and with so much desperation and frustration I screamed “Help me! Show me!”
(The next part of my story I haven’t shared with many people in public, mainly because it is such a deeply personal experience and also because of a lot of misperceptions and criticism around the subject. Many people think it is too drastic, cheating and even abnormal. In the end, it is my journey and my experience, and it is something that worked for me and changed my entire life.)
I started researching frantically about weight loss methods and strategies. I avoided the sites that advertised pills and potions and miracle cures, because I knew from experience they did not work. I entered “sustainable weight loss” into the search engine and came across many sites with different opinions and methods. It also brought me to a site that dealt with bariatric surgery (also known as gastric bypass surgery). The site fascinated me and I read the pages from start to finish; I watched all the video clips, the transformation stories. For more than a week I researched this topic further and studied medical research and papers on the pros and cons of these procedures, the success rates, the sustainability of it and the long term effect and prognosis. I started wondering if this was a possible solution? But I was scared. I have heard so many stories of botched surgeries and tales of people who could never lead a normal life afterwards. I read stories of patients never being able to eat solid food again and spend more time in the hospital than in real life. I was in two-minds, but something kept urging me to do more research. One Saturday morning, I was having my coffee and watched “Bonitas House Call”, and the episode was the first of a three part series on bariatric surgery. I was totally mesmerised. While watching the episode (and subsequent follow ups), I felt an urge to contact the centre that was featured and just try and find out more. I received amazing literature from the Centre of Excellence on the whole procedure, what to expect before and after the surgery and most importantly, how to make lifestyle changes that were permanent. Mid-January 2015, I made an appointment, with a bit of reluctance, and thought “What the heck? I’ve literally tried everything else. What have I got to lose, apart from 45kg?”
9 February 2015 would be the day that my life changed forever. I had my appointment and saw the endocrinologist (which heads up the centre), a dietitian and a psychologist. I was screened and assessed through an intense process. I had to go for a series of blood tests that tested literally everything. 15 vials of blood later, a sonar scan of my intestines (which showed a gall stone the size of a golf ball), a gastroscopy and a body scan that measures body fat, muscle and bone weight, I headed back to the centre two weeks later. The results were like something from a Nostradamus prophecy! My BMI was over 40, Body Fat percentage was at 43%, my cholesterol was at 8.3, my blood pressure was at 155/100 (by this time I was already on chronic medicine for blood pressure and cholesterol for more than a year and I was told that if I continued this lifestyle, I will probably not live to see 50). A week later, I received notification that my medical aid would pay and had approved 80% of the cost of the procedure.
As part of the whole process, you need to follow a prescribed diet by the dietitian and you have to lose at least 10% of weight in the six weeks prior to the surgery. The reason is two-fold: To see how committed and dedicated you are to follow an eating plan, and to help you make better food choices that will become a lifestyle after the surgery. This was an absolute eye opener and looking back, it was the best help I could have ever asked for. I learned how to choose foods that are healthy and how to read food labels. I was taught how to put together a meal plan (eating 3 meals and 3 snacks a day), and how to portion my food and food groups using the size of my hand. I started to journal everything that went into my mouth; even the exact time I ate the food. I followed the advice of the dietitian to the letter and within 4 weeks managed to lose 12kg. I noticed that my energy levels returned and I could focus better at work. In general I just felt better.
So, what did the new eating plan look like? For starters, I had to start eating more frequently and more real food. The day will start off with some cooked oats or All Bran Flakes with low fat milk, some scrambled eggs and a banana. At around 10h00, I would eat a handful of biltong or almonds. Lunch would consist of a grilled chicken breast (sometimes tuna) with either two steamed vegetables (mostly broccoli and spinach) or a mixed salad. At around 15h00 I would have a 175ml yoghurt with and apple. Dinner would consist of a lean protein (ostrich steak, chicken breast or fish) with a serving of brown rice and a vegetable or salad. Just before bed, I would take a protein shake. When I first saw the diet, I thought that I will never be able to eat so much, since I was so used to only have a meal at night. I cannot believe that I survived on coffee and toasted sandwiches for most of my life. Don’t ever eat the world’s worst breakfast: no breakfast. At first it was a bit challenging, but after a week, I started to get used to eating every 2 or 3 hours, and I noticed that my metabolism started to get going. The dietitian told me that as strange as it may sound, if you want to lose weight, you need to eat more. My portion sizes are measured using my hand. The protein part consists of about 50% of the meal, or the size and thickness of your palm, the carbohydrate (rice, potato, etc.) is about 25% of the plate (or the size of half a fist) while the remaining 25% is the vegetables or salad. I have maintained this way of eating to this very day.
Probably the biggest thing I learned was how to read food labels. It always seemed so technical and confusing and I never really knew what was good or not so healthy. Luckily, my dietitian made it very simple, and to this day I read food labels. If there is more than 7g sugar per 100g, I ditch it; more than 3g fat per 100g, it doesn’t get into the basket. When looking at the ingredients, if sugar (or whatever other name they use) appears within the first 5 on the list, it stays in the shop. I started to learn which brands to buy. This made my grocery shopping so much easier, as I did not have to spend hours reading food labels.
Another big aspect of this process is the mandatory sessions with the psychologist. I was briefed on what to expect, but also to look deeper at my relationship with food. These sessions would lead to incredible insights into so many emotional issues and false beliefs I carried around for such a long time. As with most sessions with a psychologist, clarity only started to set in a day or so after the sessions. I experienced so many “a-ha” moments, I lost count. I noticed that as I started to drop emotional baggage and change my beliefs, my weight started to drop as well.
14 April 2015 was the day of my surgery. I had the bariatric surgery procedure known as the “Roux and Y” gastric by-pass. (Refer to the diagram to see what this procedure involves.)
Basically what happens is that you have a smaller stomach (which means you cannot eat as much as you used to: a meal would typically fit onto a side plate) and because of the large part of the duodenum that is by-passed, you absorb a lot less calories from food. The surgery was done by a specialist surgeon that has performed over 1,200 surgeries in the past 3 years. The actual surgery was quick and almost painless through laparoscopes. I hardly had the need for any pain medication and less than 4 hours after the surgery, I was made to get up and walk around the ward. I had no pain at all and just felt some minor discomfort. Two days later, I was discharged from the hospital and within two weeks I was back at work. By this time I was able to eat soft, mashed foods again. 4 weeks after the surgery I could start with solid foods again and six weeks after the surgery I could eat “normal” food again. This whole experience was so incredible and I was basically taught how to eat all over again. I always tell people that I was given a second chance at getting it right.
Three months later I had to go back to the centre for my post-surgery checks, which included the dietitian, the psychologist and the general practitioner. I once again had to do a whole battery of blood tests as well. Another gastroscopy was performed to determine if the wound was healing properly and to ensure there are no complications. By this time, I lost a total of 25kg. The results from my blood tests were mind blowing. My cholesterol came down to 2.1, my blood pressure was at 110/65, sugar was normal, protein, vitamin and mineral levels were all in the normal range; all of this without any chronic medication (which was stopped two weeks before the surgery). I took my diet diary with me when I saw the dietitian, and she could see that I managed to fully integrate everything she taught me and that healthy eating was now a lifestyle. I was also cleared to start weight training and more strenuous types of exercise. This is another crucial element to success in this process.
A new life
In April 2016 I had to go for my “surgiversary”, which again entailed a visit to the dietitian, psychologist and GP, as well as the blood work. By this time, I managed to lose a total of 40kg. Again all my blood work came back with everything within normal ranges. My fitness levels also increased tremendously thanks to a daily exercise routine that included weight training and cardio. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels remained the same as it was with my three months post-surgery visit.
Today I’m weighing 72kg (that is a total of 43kg lost), my t-shirt size dropped from a 3XL to a medium, pants from a size 40 to a 28, shirts from a size 48 to a 30. I am in the best state of health of my entire life both physically and emotionally. I eat six meals a day and do weight training 5 days a week and cardio training every alternate day.
During this journey, I learned some amazing truths, and a lot came through the works of Louise Hay. In particular her books “How to love yourself” and “You can heal your life”. The lessons that really stood out for me, and had the biggest impact were the following:
- Learning how to love myself-even the parts I didn’t like. I realised that instead of judging and criticising myself, loving, accepting and looking at myself with compassion, started to change me. No longer did I say “I need to lose weight”. This became “I need to love myself”. Instead of saying “I cannot eat that because it will make me fat”, I started to say “I make healthy food choices.”
- Thoughts can be changed. This was a big one for me. I started to challenge beliefs I held on to for so long. “No-one loves me” became “I really, really, really love you”; “I will always be fat” became “I’m growing healthier and healthier each day”. I’m very mindful when I think, because I realised “What you think about, you bring about”. Instead of saying “Weight loss is a struggle”, it turned to “Weight loss is a challenge and a challenge changes me for the better”.
- I saw an analogy on life that had a profound impact and caused a lot of pieces of the puzzle to fall into place: Think of an egg. When an egg is destroyed by an outside force, life ends. But when an egg is broken from the inside, life begins. I realised that to succeed, it needs to start from within myself. No-one can bring about a change, except you. No pill, no person, no miracle medical procedure can bring about a change if it is not driven from deep within yourself. Whenever I feel like losing hope or just falling back, I ask myself “How badly do you want to have optimal health and the best life imaginable? What are you prepared to commit to? What changes are you prepared to make?”
- “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.
- “If you want what you never had before, you need to do things you’ve never done before”.
- “The definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again, in the same manner and expecting a different result or outcome.”
While many people might say that gastric by-pass is a “quick fix”, I want to tell you from personal experience it is everything but a quick fix. Yes, it is a tool that will greatly help you in achieving weight loss, but you still need to put in the effort to ensure you eat correctly and “clean” and do regular exercise. You cannot simply go back to the way things were. The maintaining of your weight and muscle growth doesn’t happen by itself; you have to work at it every day. This procedure is a huge commitment and takes all of your dedication. Not adhering to the advice from the dietitian and doctor afterwards, can result in you simply gaining all the weight back, even lead to serious medical complications. Consuming foods high in sugar and fat causes some serious problems like “dumping syndrome”, cramps, nausea and a very upset tummy. You absolutely have to realize that this is for life. Fortunately for me, I had an amazing bariatric team that guided me through this entire process, and continues to monitor my progress on a regular basis. With their help, I could easily make the commitment for life and the transition to a healthier lifestyle.
Today, almost 1 year and 6 months later, I am in the best possible state of health and well-being of my entire life; physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I have been off anti-depressants and anti-psychotics for over two years; off chronic medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol for over a year now. I’ve come to realise that adopting a healthy and mindful lifestyle, sticking to healthy habits when it comes to eating and exercising, truly is the greatest thing you could ever do for yourself. For me, eating clean and training hard has become such a part of my everyday life, that I don’t even think of it as diet or exercise regime anymore; it became as normal as breathing. No longer do I need to worry or think about what food to buy; I instinctively know which are better choices. I’m no longer a slave to unhealthy food and unhealthy habits. I know what works for me and with my body. I no longer just eat away mindlessly and I am more in tune with my body than ever before. Whenever I feel hungry outside of my normal eating routine, I stop and ask myself “Are you hungry or are you bored?” Whenever I have a doubt about what to buy to eat, I simply say to myself “I make healthy food choices” and I am automatically drawn to healthier options. Even my “cheat meals” is just a variation of a healthy meal.
Another huge help and support on this journey, has been the Sleek Geek Facebook page. It has become a part of my daily routine, and every day I see and read so many posts of people transforming themselves, adopting healthier lifestyles. The support and encouragement is phenomenal and I am constantly inspired to keep going. Thank you Elan Lohmann for having the vision to create this group, and your encouragement for me to share my story. You have no idea of just how many people you touch and how many people take a step towards a healthier version of themselves through Sleek Geek.
What a journey! I’ve come such a long way…and I will do this again in a heartbeat.
My journey is not over and I have not arrived yet. I’m merely getting to the good, fun and more challenging part of this journey, and I am filled with optimism, gratitude and humility going forward and I cannot wait to keep posting and give so many other hope and inspiration to take accountability for their life and health and make that healthy change that ultimately becomes a permanent, sustainable lifestyle.
Sleek Geek for Life! Inspire Like Wildfire! Eat clean and train dirty!