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Alec Syme

A lot of guys suffer midlife crises by the time they turn 50, sometimes after a glance in the mirror reveals a few gray hairs or a surprisingly expanded waistline. I was forced to face up to my imminent demise while lying in a hospital bed on my 50th birthday in July 2015. Shaky and dizzy, not thinking clearly, I had driven myself to the emergency room.

It took only about an hour to discover that my blood-sugar levels were at an astronomical 502 — the average is under 100 — and my A1C (the percentage of hemoglobin coated in sugar) was 11.5, when it should have been below 7. The diagnosis: type 2 diabetes.

That wasn’t all, though. I also had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a fatty liver from drinking too much alcohol.

My marching orders were clear: Take these pills, inject this insulin, count your carbs. They sent me on my way with several prescriptions in hand. This was my life now.

Time to Assess

I now know that my diet and lifestyle were causing my wrecked mood and foggy brain, but at the time I thought how I felt was normal. The day I returned home from the hospital, not even my fat clothes fit. At 6 feet tall, I weighed 245 pounds, and I wasn’t carrying it well.

In the past, I had tried to overhaul my eating habits or get to the gym, but nothing ever stuck. My diet was carb heavy: I could polish off a whole pepperoni pizza and chase it down with six vodka tonics. I subscribed to the idea that if a little made me feel good, a lot would be even better. Nearly every night, instead of getting a little buzzed, I’d get ripped. I was probably drinking 2,000 calories per day.

And I always hated working out. I’m an artist, an introvert — that is to say, never physical. I own my own animation and digital-imaging company and had been attached to my computer and studio for years.

I started taking the pills, but one thing wasn’t changing — the drinking. I had to re-evaluate my life: How far gone was I? I imagined my wife and children sitting beside my deathbed as my liver shut down. I knew my body couldn’t take much more of this.

So in September 2015, I enrolled in an outpatient treatment program. I often joked that we were just a bunch of strangers sitting around talking about how stupid we were, but the program worked beautifully.

Compared with many of these guys, I was lucky. I didn’t have one of those terrifying, rock-bottom moments that sends you to treatment. But I could see the train wreck approaching — and I knew it wasn’t far off. Attending a support group three days a week was enough to scare me straight, and I eagerly absorbed what the members had to say. I was done drinking.

Many of them said that exercise had been a key to their recovery. I had always written that off in the past, but the wisdom I gained from this group had helped me turn a corner with my drinking, and after about five months of sobriety, my mind was opening up to all sorts of possibilities. I decided it was time to take more of their other suggestions to heart.

Lifting the Fog

With my wife’s encouragement, I began working with a personal trainer at a local gym in February 2016. It took a few months to hit my stride, though — if my trainer couldn’t make a session, I viewed it as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

My trainer also made some nutrition suggestions — a protein shake, a dinner of chicken or fish with rice — and the pounds quickly began melting away. My energy level was soaring. The weight loss made me feel better, of course, but it was also the catalyst I needed to realize that working out and eating right were lifting my fog, sharpening my thoughts, fueling me.

I suddenly understood that I should be going to the gym for me, not because I had a training appointment. And because exercise was having such a positive effect on the rest of my life, I actually liked going for me.

By March I was exercising regularly and losing more weight. I had been sober for about seven months. Meanwhile, my test results at the doctor’s office were rapidly improving. My blood pressure was coming down, as was my A1C.

At the time, I was managing about six prescriptions. I asked my doctor if I might be able to do away with the drugs if I maintained my nutrition and fitness regimen. She told me it was a definite possibility.

I was astounded. Working out and eating right could help me get off all these pills and injections? I absolutely wanted to go this route. I increased my gym visits to five days a week, and then seven. I kept in touch with my doctor through the clinic’s Web portal, and we continued testing my levels to make sure I was in the right zone. Each time I’d pass a milestone, I’d get the OK to wean myself from another drug.

That June, almost a year after I spent my birthday in the hospital, I decided to check out the Life Time Fitness near my strip-mall gym. I was intrigued by the opportunity to swim and wondered what other options might be available. I signed up that day, and it’s where I’ve begun almost every day since.

Training for Real Life

If you’d told me two years ago that I’d be able to lose 60 pounds and ditch all the pills I took home with me after that awful hospital birthday, I would’ve thought you were ridiculously optimistic — or maybe crazy. But once I came to terms with my drinking, I made small changes to my routine and stuck to them long enough to turn them into good habits. Over time, those little adjustments shaped one huge transformation.

I’ve been immersed in my new lifestyle for more than 18 months. It’s not a long time in terms of recovery or weight loss, but I’m a completely different person. I wake up happy and energized. My confidence has soared, both personally and professionally.

Best of all, I’m a more present and engaged dad. I used to avoid participating in any of the fun stuff, but on a recent outing with my family I out-scrambled my kids among the hills, rocks, and trees. When I remarked to my wife about my ability to keep up, she reminded me that I’d been training for my real life for the past year.

It would have been really easy to just accept that I was 50 and felt crappy and that was the way it was going to be. But I got a second chance, and I’m going to make the most of it.

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