It's 1993, and I'm in the parking lot of a Gold's Gym with my Dad, dragging my heels all the way to the front door while flipping through one of his muscle mags thinking, "this totally sucks," and with the next breath, "maybe I could be one of those bodybuilding chicks." I'd just emerged from a program for troubled teens and was a few months out from my first stint in an actual rehab center; Dad's last ditch effort to save me from total ruin was to get me into fitness. After all, it had helped lift his mood post-divorce, why wouldn't it help me with mine? 

It didn't.... then. My senior year of high school was marked by hospitalization and homelessness. I spent most of my twenties hooked on pills and booze, in and out of doctor's offices, a walking smokestack of negativity and nicotine who believed, above all things, that I had no worth or future. And so, I acted accordingly until, at age thirty-one, I laced up my sneakers and ran my way into a new life, breath by labored breath, step by leaden step.

Five years later, and my present reality is unrecognizable to the past. I have been free of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, booze and cigarettes since 2009. I have a wonderful marriage, great friends and my fur-kids- a dog and cat. I no longer suffer from all of the immune- and reproductive system issues I used to deal with. I have a successful, fulfilling business with clients who drive me to be a better person. And, I'm on my way to the US in two weeks to compete as a NPC figure athlete following a first place win at the Singapore National Bodybuilding Championships (remember that girl in the parking lot, looking at the muscle mags?)

Look, life could change in an instant and it could all go to pot, but the fortifications built within that have supported all of these awesome things are pretty darn strong now and THAT IS THE REAL DIFFERENCE. "I can't believe you're the same person from high school!" one former classmate messaged me recently. I'm proud to say that I get that a lot now... which brings me to the first thing I did to radically change my life: 

1. I DECIDED THAT I'D HAD ENOUGH. My soul had hit rock bottom and I clearly decided that enough was enough. Change occurs only when you're good and ready, and when you've absolutely had it with your existing state. Period.

2. I PUT MY OWN WELL-BEING ABOVE ALL ELSE, recognizing that without physical, mental, and spiritual health, I would be unable to move forward and build a new future. This is a challenging one for many people to accept- placing one's needs above one's partner, children, colleagues, friends, and work and family life. But, by putting your own well-being before all else, you'll eventually be able to share the best version of yourself with the people you love. In some cases- whether it's addiction, depression, heart disease, cancer or obesity- placing one's own well-being above all else means having the opportunity to LIVE.

3. I ASKED FOR HELP and accepted that I would not be able to heal on my own, enlisting the support of a qualified counselor, a mentor, and a fellowship group. There is no shame in asking for help, especially when the alternative is continuing behaviors that harm oneself and others. 

4. I TEMPORARILY REMOVED MYSELF FROM PLACES AND SITUATIONS THAT WERE TRIGGERS. Since I had committed to quit drinking and smoking, I no longer went to my favorite bar haunts. I changed my route to get to work so I wouldn't pass by the stores where I usually purchased wine and cigarettes. I stopped watching depressing, violent shows and surfing news websites.

5. I ASSESSED MY RELATIONSHIPS AND RELEASED PEOPLE FROM MY LIFE WHO HAD A NEGATIVE IMPACT ON ME. This was an extremely difficult step, as I had collected several toxic friends who I cared deeply about and who I'd relied on and confided in. Even more challenging was severing ties with a member of my family. A significant percentage of individuals struggling with health challenges like obesity, addiction, or mental illness have a history of childhood abuse (emotional, physical or sexual). While we should avoid moving into blame or victimhood, it's critical to talk about it, and to heal from it. 

6. I WORKED DAILY ON FORGIVENESS. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, condoning, tolerating, or excusing. Forgiveness means accepting the past as it is without wishing for it to be otherwise, and lovingly releasing feelings of resentment, which in turn facilitates moving forward-- for both you and the person you're forgiving (and you may find the need to work on forgiving yourself!) 

7. I BEGAN EXERCISING REGULARLY. It started with a shuffle around the block (that was all I could manage after smoking for 15 years). Then, some weightlifting at the gym and a jog, then a run. Yes, it was painful, but I noticed that I usually felt better after doing it and there was something cathartic about sweating out my anger, sadness and frustration. 

8. I KEPT A JOURNAL. Each morning, I'd take twenty minutes to allow myself to write whatever I felt like. At first it was all a jumbled dark cloud, but then the glimmer of a dream or a hope would surface, which pushed me toward asking a very big question, which I'll get to in #10...

9.  I TURNED TO MY HIGHER POWER FOR GUIDANCE. This is an uncomfortable topic for many, especially those who do not believe in a force greater than themselves. I understand this discomfort intimately, since I also began praying again at age 31 as a non-believer. The spiritual road is a very personal one and I have deep respect for people of all faiths. I've included this factor due to the profound impact it has had on my transformational journey.

10. WHAT KIND OF LIFE DID I REALLY WANT? This was a question I asked again and again because I didn't really have a clue. I'd unconsciously chosen a path based on where the river of my life had taken me, which is what so many of us do... with factors ranging from career and kids to where to go for dinner. We go with the flow and sometimes we find ourselves becoming bystanders in our own lives, rather than actually making conscious decisions from the heart. Start from where you already are and move ahead: What kind of life do you really want?

So, there you have it- these are the steps that allowed me to go from a booze-addled, chain-smoking, anxiety-riddled depressive to someone who knows a thing or two about health, strength, and true contentment. Don't get me wrong- I'm still figuring some things out- but every new day is a win for me and I'm eternally grateful for the change.

Are you in the midst of transformation? Are you thinking about making a major change in your life? Is there anything else you would suggest to others on the journey? Leave your thoughts in the comment section- I'd love to hear from you. 

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© Tangram Fitness 2013