Looking Forward, Looking Back

As they age, most people wistfully look back at pictures from their younger days and long to look as they once did. Inevitably as we grow older, we put on weight, we lose our hair or go gray, we gain wrinkles and creases, all the while wishing we could look a little bit more like we used. Most of us, men and women alike, probably look back at things like our wedding photos or pictures of us in our 20s and admire how we looked. For me personally, though, I'm the complete opposite of that mindset...as much as I love my wife and have been blessed to have been married to her, the only reason I like looking at our wedding pictures is because she was as beautiful then as she is now and it reminds me that I made one of the best decisions of my life in marrying her. When it comes to me, I prefer to not see myself back then at all. I was 22 when we got married and it must seem strange to many of you, but I absolutely cringe when I look at myself in our wedding photos. In fact, I'm at the point where I can't really bear to look at any pictures of myself between the ages of 20 and 30. For me, that decade was marked by my becoming really overweight and out of shape. Most of it was my own fault as I stopped exercising and eating right, partially caused by the time consuming and stressful nature of being a PhD student and postdoc. I got lazy and stopped taking care of myself, and I figured that since I am tall (6'5") and have a large frame, I just carried it differently than other people. I had been slimmer and very active in my teens and early 20s, playing many different sports and running avidly, so I figured I could go back to doing at some point in the future.

It didn't really hit me until I turned 30 and it began to affect my health. My annual physical that year was not so good, with my blood work showing high cholesterol and the beginnings of diabetes. I also had high blood pressure and constantly sore knees and back. The final straw for me was when my doctor at the time gently suggested that maybe I should consider weight loss surgery. For whatever reason, that was the kick in the ass I needed and over the next year, with the help of a free iPhone app for tracking my calories and improving my habits, I took up running again after a decade and managed to lose over 100 lbs. I'm proud to say that even now at 5 years later, I've kept it off. In fact, my new doctor, who has only known me since we moved here this past year, commended me on how excellent my health is when I had my annual physical last week, something for which I was justifiably proud. 

However, I've never been able to reconcile the contentment I feel with being healthier and in better shape now than I have been since I was 18 or 19 with feeling so ashamed to look at pictures from my 20s. So many wonderful moments, from getting married, the birth of all four of my children, graduating with my PhD, and fun times and vacations with family and friends...all are preserved in images that are painful for me to look at because of how awful I looked and felt back then. The fact that this prevents me from reminiscing and enjoying those memories is doubly sad and does nothing but exacerbate those emotions in me. I've always been self-critical and self-conscious, but there is basically an entire decade of my life, which at the moment is almost 1/3 of my existence, which I can't bear to literally look back on because of this. When most people my age are looking back on those years with fondness and wishing they looked like that now, apart from the fuller head of hair I had back then I'm the complete opposite. I'm not sure if I'll ever get over how much I wasted my 20s being so unhealthy and out of shape, but for the sake of so many of the good things that happened in my life during those years, I've got to try and at least make enough peace so that it's not too painful to look back. The one good thing, though, is that all of those photographs have been excellent motivation for me to keep living a healthier life. Any random day when I feel too tired to run or decide that eating right is too much of a hassle, I just pull out one of those pictures to remind myself where I was five years ago and where I am now...it keeps me going and gets me back on track because I will never allow myself to go back to that ever again. Having just written that, it's occurred to me that perhaps that is the silver lining in all of this; those photographs can serve as a cautionary tale and continue to motivate me to live as I am now out of fear for how I was then.