If I can give other people this passion and just this happiness and guidance, if I can give it to one person, if I can change one person’s life, my life is complete. I've succeeded. If I can do more, then let’s do it. ... Money is going to come and go, but you end up leaving life with what you did and who you were, not what you had. —Zakary Swendsen
Stunned, Zakary Swendsen walked out of the doctor's office with his mother.
The 18-year-old was overcome with feelings of fear and discouragement, but he also had a spark of hope and motivation.
Swendsen, who weighed 450 pounds, had just experienced a reality check. His doctor told him if he didn't lose weight soon, he would die of a heart attack before his 21st birthday.
"It was a big eye-opener," Swendsen said. "It really helped me put reality into perspective, like, 'You really are overweight.' "
Since then, Swendsen, now 21, has turned his addiction to food into a passion for fitness and his once hopeless outlook on life into a greater drive to help others. With his family's support and help from God, he has shed 260 pounds and gained more muscle than he's ever had in his life.
And most of all, he said, he has experienced a mental change of attitude that has made him a new person altogether.
A lifelong battle
Swendsen, a native of Springville, Utah, said his battle with his body began at age 8 when he started gaining extra weight.
He was made fun of at school and began struggling with a negative self-image. He coped by turning to food for comfort.
"He was a sweetheart, but he was a very sad boy because he didn't like being the chubby boy in school," said his mom, Michelle Swendsen Elwell. "He was teased, made fun of for being big. He was a happy, active boy, but he just loved food. It comforted him."
She said she would try to encourage him to play sports and take him swimming and hiking, but his feet and knees often hurt and it was hard for him to be active. He didn't feel comfortable being involved in sports and would sneak food when he was feeling sad.
"It was just always there and so easy," Swendsen said. "If I was sad or depressed, I'd go eat."
Things only escalated in high school. On the outside, Swendsen was doing great. He was on student council at Springville High and was involved with the football team, though he could only be the water boy. He was the chubby kid that everybody loved, and he walked the halls surrounded by friends.
But he said his happy face was just a mask hiding how much he was really struggling. The fat jokes persisted, and his self-confidence was nonexistent.
"Not being able to (play) on the football team in high school because I was overweight is when I really started to realize, 'You aren't going to be able to do anything,' " Swendsen said. " 'You're going to be those guys that are on the TV that's like world's biggest person because you can't get out of your bed.' "
By the time he graduated, he was in a severe downward spiral of addictive eating and depression. He said once he realized the severity of his situation, his thoughts got more and more desperate and he tried to take his own life.
Swendsen then spent two weeks at an in-patient facility being treated for his suicidal thoughts. He said this really alerted him to where he was in life and caused him to re-evaluate where he was going. He was referred to doctors to assess the state of his physical well-being, and they told him the fateful news. "That really did kind of open my eyes again, to 'You need to change,' " Swendsen said.
Time to change
The doctor talked to Swendsen and his mom about several options, including lap-band or gastric-sleeve surgery. They decided on gastric-bypass surgery, the most extreme form of weight-loss surgery, because Swendsen said he wanted something that was going to really force him to change.
The expensive surgery seemed out of the question for Swendsen's single mother to pay for, but she never doubted that she would find a way, and she sacrificed everything she could to make it happen.
"My family ended up really taking a hit financially to sacrifice their financial well-being for my physical well-being," he said. "(My mom) literally fought for my life. I not only owe my life to myself, but I owe it to the doctors and to my family for sacrificing their time and their willingness to just really help me. I owe it to them to just keep pushing forward."
His mom said it was a miracle to get someone as young as her son approved for the surgery and to get the insurance to cover some of it. Although it was hard and she doesn't know when they will recover financially, she said she would do it over and over again.
"It's just a mother thing," Elwell said. "You would do anything for your children. Especially being a single mom, my kids are my whole world. I just poured my heart out to being the best mother, the best encourager."
His grandparents were a huge help financially as well.
"They literally put my life back in my hands and said, 'Now this is what we did for you. If you fail, you fail on yourself. We'll still love you for who you are, but we'll be sad that you let it go,' " Swendsen said.
Once he had the opportunity to change in his grasp and his support team behind him, Swendsen said, motivation and hope began to overpower his doubts and fear. He had gastric-bypass surgery in April 2012 — it was a day that he will never forget.
The surgery cut his stomach capacity to 8 ounces, literally forcing him to eat less. He was put on a liquid diet for months following the surgery.
He said the first year was the hardest. After all the money and sacrifice, he wasn't seeing clear results. Although he would drastically lose 20 pounds one month, the next month he wouldn't lose any weight.
"(I was) petrified," he said. "It was a mental roller coaster. Literally, I would get scared, be motivated, get scared, be motivated, and it did scare me because if I overate it would put me to my knees and make me cry. ... There was so much pain. I would ask myself every day almost that first full year, 'Can I do this?' "
After he was able to eat solids again, he started to hit the gym. One of his good friends was the manager of a gym and helped Swendsen sign up for a membership.
Swendsen said he realized that he would have to not only change his entire lifestyle but also start to enjoy going to the gym — a place that he had always avoided before. He said the first workout was difficult and hurt every mental and muscle fiber in his body. He kept asking himself, 'Why do I do this to myself? Can I do this?' "
New body, new mind
Swendsen never stopped. He said he has lost 220 pounds of fat, gained 40 pounds of muscle and cut half an hour off his mile time, which used to be 38 minutes. He has developed a passion for fitness and is training to be a competitive bodybuilder, something his overweight self wouldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams.
And most importantly, he is beginning to love himself, he said.
“My mom always reassured me, like, ‘This is who you are. Love it. Express it. Love yourself,' " Swendsen said. "She always told me I was beautiful, always told me I was a good-looking kid, but deep down inside I never believed her. Everybody would always say, 'You’re an amazing kid, you’re a big kid, you’re going to go far.' But I was like, ‘I don’t see it.’ And I’m starting to realize, how did these people see this before I could?”
"Our conversations are more positive (now)," Elwell said. "The outside world sees him positive and looking good. He likes it, he'll flex for me all the time and his smile just melts my heart. Mothers will understand, just to see your child happy."
Swendsen said all his personal success has given him a greater desire to help others. In addition to competing in bodybuilding, he wants to go to school and study sports psychology and become a trainer. Once he makes enough money to be stable and support his future family, his goal is to open a nonprofit gym for troubled youths, and he wants to share his story to motivate others that anything is possible.
“If I can give other people this passion and just this happiness and guidance, if I can give it to one person, if I can change one person’s life, my life is complete. I've succeeded,” he said. “If I can do more, then let’s do it. ... Money is going to come and go, but you end up leaving life with what you did and who you were, not what you had."
He said in addition to his family’s support, God has played an integral part in his transformation.
“We all owe our lives to God, but I literally owe my life to God because I’ve tried to take it so many times,” he said. “And for him to not let me take my life and be like, ‘No, I don’t want you up here. I want you down there because you have a higher purpose,’ he has blessed me so much with this passion and this gift (of fitness).”
Swendsen said he sought out the missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints himself and was baptized at age 13, but he and his family are not active in any denomination. He described himself as “openly religious” and said prayer and spirituality are still huge parts of his life.
“People think I’m crazy at the gym sometimes, like I’ll just sit there and just talk to myself, but I’m talking to (God),” he said. “Like, ‘Please help me get these negative thoughts out of my head, please help me.’ ”
Although his entire life has changed, he still has some of the same struggles that he's always had. He still loves food and turns to it when he's upset, but he knows how to control it and knows which workouts to do to offset a big meal. And he still gets discouraged with negative thoughts, but he’s learning how to overcome them — something he has learned from his ever-positive mother.
“I definitely get discouraged if I don’t hit my goal that week,” he said. “But I’ve learned mentally to take that negativity and flip it and say, ‘What can I do better?’ Instead of dwelling on what you didn’t do, dwell on what you can do. It’s not worth the time to focus on the negative.”
Swendsen said the only thing preventing him from competing in bodybuilding is the extra skin left on his chest and legs from his days of being overweight — something that will have to be removed by a plastic surgeon.
He said although it’s hard to have a reminder of his old days hanging onto his body, God has granted him the humility to realize that “looks aren’t everything” and to keep moving forward in his journey.
“Physically, mentally, everything (has changed),” he said. “It’s like a caterpillar in a cocoon. I’m getting ready to break out of my shell. Things are all finally just kind of coming together, like loving myself, loving others. I’m starting to realize my spirit is worth living for. I’m worth living for. Life is worth fighting for. We are given this life as a gift; why would you reject it?”
Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: [email protected]