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Zach Nelson's PrideFIT journey to finding and accepting himself

I'll never forget the morning of our Hillcrest Dodgeball Tournament, it was an early Saturday morning and my nerves were already raw. It was the first time that I ever pulled together a fundraiser for an organization that I love and I wasn't sure if I did it correctly. We were assured that many would come and we exhausted all of our resources, but you never know what is going to happen until it happens.

This fundraiser was the second time Hillcrest held a dodge ball tournament. My friend Fernan was a part of the original tournament in 2008, and was my partner in crime with setting up this event as well. It was to promote our amazing and new fitness group PrideFIT.

The group, PrideFIT, was started earlier that year by Carlos Salazar, who was inspired to start such a group because of his weight loss journey.

At one point in his life, Carlos had weighed close to 500 lbs and at the time was very close to achieving his own weight-loss goal. I became a part of the group because I was looking for a change in my own lifestyle as well. I've had a lifelong battle with weight issues and I wanted to turn over a new leaf.

My friend Fernan, who is Treasurer for PrideFIT suggested that I come to one of their events and I haven't stopped coming since. I've never met such wonderful guys and girls that attend and lead the organization than I have with PrideFIT. They've all become such great friends to me and I hold them dear to my heart. We've gone on fun hikes together, played tennis, football and so many other activities that I never thought I would be a part of especially in team sports.

Middle and high school years were difficult

A lot of it reminded me of my middle and high school years and how awful a lot of it was for me. I hated PE. I hated being forced into uncomfortable situations. I agree with the many who will tell you that fitness IS important, but at times, the way I was treated and belittled, I wished there was a better way than dealing with what I had to go through on the daily for years.

I remember my first year in middle school and what horror I dealt with being a new kid in school. It was an adjustment because I went to the same elementary school from kindergarten to sixth grade. Though I had bouts with bullying in elementary school, middle school took it to a new level.

I would walk down the halls and boys would slug me as hard as they could in the arm when I was trying to get to my next class. I also remember being slapped as hard as possible in the back of my neck when I wasn't expecting it. To make matters worse, I wore pants in P.E. class, because the shorts were only held by elastic which to more bullying.

The horror of dealing with seventh grade was the worst year I ever experienced in school. It didn't help that puberty was happening at that time.

When I was a kid, I was very thin and was at an average height, but once puberty hit, I started to feel ugly. I began gaining weight and looked like a chunky chipmunk, I thought.

It sounds funny to me now, but at the time, it was horrible. It's also when I started making several ways to diet and trying to lose the weight. I was twelve years old and thought if I lost weight, the students at my school would like me and I would be a part of the world that I wasn't allowed in because I was forty pounds overweight. It seemed futile and I didn't know what else to do with any of it.

There were many times I would lie in bed and cry thinking about how to get out of my misery. I thought about suicide and different ways that I could die. I knew that I could get my hands on prescriptions and take a whole bottle and it would all be over quickly. I would fall asleep and that would be the end of it.

The bullying continued to get worse and I did my best to keep silent for as long as I could. One day, after P.E. class, I went to the locker room to change and within moments I was surrounded by guys taunting me.

"Are you gay?"

"Just tell us!"

"Are you a girl?"

"Look he has boobs!"

I was so embarrassed; I didn't know what to do. The boys were taunting me and touching me. They were even grabbing my chest. I did the best I could to threw on my clothes and got out of there as quickly as possible.

Eventually, I broke down and told my mom what was happening and she notified the school. Thankfully, the school was very helpful and pulled me out of P.E. They had me tell them which students were giving me problems and told them that they may be sued by us for a hate crime.

I definitely had that option, but was so scared at what might happen to me that I hoped that the threat was enough.

Thankfully, it was.

It does get better, PrideFIT can help

It doesn't really end on a happy note because I continued to be verbally insulted the rest of my years in high school, but over time thankfully, it did diminish. It strikes a chord with me every time I read about a teen suicide due to bullying because that kid might have been me.

That kid WAS me.

I know what they were thinking and what they are going through. I do believe that it gets better, but I still don't think that saying is enough. It needs to be better NOW.

I think that's why PrideFIT and the friends that are a part of it mean so much to me. We've all been bullied, overweight, uncoordinated but we band together to send out positivity into our very own community, who can be just as brutal to our own as I often experienced in my years in school. I love that we are accepting of everyone, gay or straight, black or white. It's really the first time in my 31 years that I felt included and a part of a community.

Diets, diets, and more diets

Bullying and judgment didn't end after high school. Yeah, I didn't feel that I was judged by my sexual orientation as much but I definitely felt judged about my weight in and out of the community.

I've definitely gone 'round and 'round on the hamster wheel known as the world of dieting. I remember being a big advocate for Dexatrim, Metabolife and laxatives in my late teens and early twenties. I did lose some weight, but it was never enough to me. I used to make myself throw up, but that didn't really stick with me thankfully. It hurt too much!

Finally, I figured I needed some stability and a way to really lose the weight I had gained in my early twenties. When I weighed in at my first time at Weight Watchers, I weighed 316 lbs at 21 and I was shocked. Up until then, I often stayed away from the scales or when I did weigh myself, made sure I starved myself the rest of the day as if starving for a day would change anything. It actually made it worse because I would binge the next day.

I had and still have at times very poor eating habits. I would eat out every night, didn't drink enough water or eat enough vegetables. I definitely didn't do the latter two in my early twenties, but I started the Weight Watchers eating plan and STILL didn't do it properly. I made it down to 216lbs within 8 months or so.

Low point

I lost over 100 lbs in 8 months by starving myself and not eating properly. I also worked out like a bandit. I utilized my 24 hour fitness gym membership and ran those treadmills for hours. I had a desperate need to be thin because then people would love me and pay attention to me. Eventually, I ran myself into a hole. I'm surprised I was never rushed to a hospital or was treated for an eating disorder. I think depression ended up catching up with me and I was back to my old ways.

It took a few years, but by the time I was in my late twenties, my weight had caught back up to me, but this time I wasn't 316 lbs ... I was 340 lbs. I was laid off from my job, depressed at home and was 150+ lbs overweight.

I never felt so low.

I had no job to go to so I would lay in bed and think about how worthless I had become. I was twenty eight years old, disgusting and broke. I hated myself. Once again, I thought about suicide and how much better off I would be. This time, these thoughts were only in passing and I would immediately snap myself out of it. However, the hate for myself and depression was still there.

I don't really remember the clarity of what happened, but eventually, I picked myself up, started working out and started back on my road to recovery. I found a job that I was happy in and at times, felt validated. It took its time, but I started to have a clearer vision on how I want to live the rest of my life. It was still fuzzy, but I felt I was getting closer.

A long-term relationship with food

I'm not sure when my relationship with food started. I think, with most, it starts out to eat because you're happy and you're enjoying yourself. It turned for the worst when I started to eat out of sadness, guilt or escape. At a very young age, I learned that food makes me feel better, but too much of it will make me fat.

I love my family so much, but we've all had a love/hate relationship with food. My grandma, whom I lived with, was and at times is an emotional eater. She had a rough marriage and used food to escape as well. She eventually gained over 100 lbs. I think the fear of being without food stemmed from my grandfather being an alcoholic, would drink away their grocery money, and leaving her to figure out ways to feed her four hungry children.

Once my grandfather was out of the picture and my grandma was independent, it led to her overstocking our fridge with every type of food you can imagine. It was great to have food, but it also enabled us to overeat whenever we wanted. I imagine we overate every single day.

My family used food as a way to escape, but we all weren't limited to only food. My family members had turned to drugs and alcohol as well. Some had fallen into my grandfather's pattern of using drugs and alcohol as a cope to get away from their realities even when it pushed others away or hurt us when they didn't mean to.

One of my grandfather's children WAS my grandfather's drug dealer!

It's amazing to me to see and hear what was going on during mine and my cousins’ formative years. If anything, I think it definitely helped us with staying drug free. However, it did not help me with eating my sorrows or pain away with my own depressions, traumas and maybe my own upbringing.

A rough childhood

I grew up in El Cajon, Calif. and spent most of my years living there. I was a product of a teenage pregnancy, my mom was 17 and my father was 15 years when I came into the world in 1982. My family briefly lived in Idaho for a while and when my family decided to move back to California, they had someone extra: me in the womb.

I never did meet my father. He was very young when I was born, but once he grew up didn't give me the time of day. I spoke to him here and there on the phone and there would be promises of him coming out, but he never did. I kept in contact with his mother for a few years and found out that my father hardly made contact with me because his wife at the time was so jealous that she kept him away from me. Jealous of what? I never knew the man!

Eventually, he tried reaching out to me when I was 26 years old in the form of a Christmas card asking me to forgive him. I was familiar with his handwriting and knew that he had not written the card. His current wife did. The man didn't even have the decency to write me himself? I wrote him back and told him that while I thank him for the card that I have my own life and to leave it at that. I never heard from him again and I am okay with that. I have a father. I have a dad and he has been wonderful to me all of these years. It was rough at times when I was younger, but I think he's an amazing man and father. I am truly blessed.

My mom met the man that would eventually be my dad when I was five years old and it wasn't long until she moved out to live with him. I stayed behind. I'm not really clear to this day why it happened the way it did, but it's something that affected me for many years.

My grandma told me that I had an option to go or stay, but I want to know what child wouldn't choose the option to stay where he's always known? I didn't really buy that answer and if it is the right answer, I don't like it.

My mom definitely made efforts with me and spent time with me daily, but my grandma practically raised me and I lived with her well into my adulthood. My mom was there just about every day when I came home from school around 3, but would leave around 5 when my dad came home and they would leave me to go back to their place or wherever they were going.

It hurt at times because I had plenty of other friends that had their parents with them at all times and I felt like I only had visitation rights to mine. I would ask her to stay and it was rare if she would. Sometimes it felt like I was more of an obligation than she really wanted to see me or be with me. I could be wrong, but my Mom is very hard to read. It can also stem from the fact that she had me so young, but I don't know.

Even after all these years, I feel our drift getting further and further away from each other and it's a huge disconnect that I don't really know how to approach. At times, I felt like I was the kid who had no parents because my biological father didn't care about me and I didn't feel my mom had much interest in what was going on with my life. I do love her though. I know she did and does the best she can.

It would feel nice to have a closer relationship with her though. I'd love for her to ask what I'm going through, what guys I'm dating and how PrideFIT is. When I try to tell her, I almost feel a slight dismissal and often times doesn't seem very interested. I feel positive that we will be okay though, but we have to find a way for us to get there. Relationships are a work in progress always.

Grandma is a hero

As for my grandma, what's there not to say about her? She is probably my best friend in the whole world. She has always been my champion and I tell her everything - I'm sure more than she wants to hear at times! She listens to me and has interest. I love that about her. I think we are partners in crime with our support of each other. She attends PrideFIT events and loves every board member. She refers to them as her grandkids and they refer to her as grandma. I think that's truly wonderful. She, being a victim of poor diet and lifestyle herself, joined me at Weight Watchers two years ago and lost over 100 lbs. She is definitely an inspiration. I'm thankful because she's healthier and that's a pretty good chance this will keep her around much longer. I applaud her. She is a true survivor.

I finally came back to Weight Watchers and vowed to do it right this time. I figured at 30, I need to get this and I've been working steadily at it. I'm still not perfect, but I go to a meeting once a week. My own struggles with diet and exercise continue, but I still work at it every single day. I went from 340 to 270 lbs and I’m still working at it. It's not to say that I’m the perfect person and everything works out for me. I still struggle every single day. I struggle to make myself exercise. I struggle to make sure I eat vegetables and fruits every day. I struggle to make healthy life decisions. No one is cured. We take it day by day, meal by meal and exercise by exercise.

PrideFIT helps me with this as well because it's so fun and we get a great workout, too!

Dodgeball was a success!

I am honored to serve on PrideFIT’s board of directors. I know this will only take me further in life in everything I want to achieve. When I look back on my life and my trials, I know that it leads me up to here preparing for the Dodgeball Tournament, the biggest event I've ever thrown. I felt myself starting to exhale the more people came to sign up. The familiar faces and the new faces I saw that day.

We had two special organizations attend: Stonewall Citizens' Patrol and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and they beat us to a pulp! Although PrideFIT’s team came in last place at the event, it was okay because it was so fun watching everyone have fun.

I think we were all winners.

Learn more about PrideFIT HERE.