April 10th, 2017
“Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them knows that it changes you. A piece of you dies with them. I held my little sister's hand after I took her off life support. Words cannot describe the amount of heartache and pain as I watched her vital signs slowly dwindle.”
In my search for people who had transformed their lives, I met Heather. Known as @heathercrock on Instagram, her following of 58,000 check in for daily diet and exercise motivation. Extremely focused and consistent, Heather has lost 82 pounds.
While her health transformation is an impressive feat, that’s not what drew me to her: It was how she managed this lifestyle evolution amid the deaths of her mother, followed by her little sister. How did this girl manage to take the punches while simultaneously improving herself, her health and her outlook on life?
I soon found out that Heather wasn’t just made of stronger stuff; she was literally conditioned to withstand unimaginable pain.
“We were a happy, religious, normal suburban family. My Mom was a nurse, and Dad an engineer. [We took] Yearly trips to Disneyland. Then my Mom had back surgery. One surgery and she was hooked. I didn’t even recognize her anymore.”
Heather and I talk about narcotics, the extremely high addiction rate surrounding them, and even my own brief period of abuse. “I stole them from family members, faked injuries … it turned me into someone I wasn’t,” I tell her. I was very fortunate to have received counseling early enough that I could stop.
“She wasn’t herself either. Her addiction took over, and she would do anything to get the drugs. Things her true self wasn’t capable of,” Heather told me. “She had me undergo unnecessary surgery just so she could get the pain meds.”
“Your Mom put you through surgery you didn’t need?” I confirm.
“Several. She had them operate on each of my knees, and we even went to Mexico,” She says. “Anything to get the drugs. That’s what addiction does to people.”
There is no self-pity or even sadness in her voice. She is strong and steady. Factual. I realize this has been her entire life.
“And you recovered without any medication,” I say, disbelieving.
“Yep.” Heather nods.
I instantly understand what gives this girl her determination and grit; she grew up pushing through the pain. Her self-confidence comes from personal knowledge and the ability to withstand anything.
“I obviously didn’t have the best home situation, and I turned to food for comfort,” She tells me. “For that split second I would forget everything and just indulge. Bored, mind-numbing eating. But that euphoria quickly faded and then would come the overwhelming feeling of guilt.
“I spent many nights crying, even into adulthood, from being teased or ridiculed for my weight. Growing up chubby, I was bullied a lot. I was always picked last for kickball or told I would ‘make uneven teams’ so I couldn’t play. I was also unbearably shy. But I eventually came out of my shell and found some relief by being the ‘fat, funny kid.’”
Her mother’s dependence on narcotics wreaked havoc through Heather’s childhood. Surgeries and drug trips to Mexico aside, the substance abuse eventually split her parents apart. After their divorce, Heather took on the caretaker role by raising her two younger sisters. While opiate addiction continued to plague her mother, Heather worked and provided for her siblings until she was 17.
“And what happened when you were 17?”
“My Mom threw me out,” she tells me.
I’m in shock. “What did you do?”
Heather’s answer speaks volumes. “I did packets so I could graduate high school early. I was still 17 when I started my nursing degree.”
What happens when Heather gets knocked down? In short, she gets back up and annihilates whatever was foolish enough to get in her way.
To my complete amazement, despite the constant presence of drugs in her home, she tells me she never experimented with them.
“I saw what it did to my Mom. She was a wonderful, loving mother. After the surgery, she was somebody else. The mother I knew was gone. In the end, the pain meds took everything from her. I didn’t want that life.”
“On your Instagram account, you talk about how you also lost 100 pounds at 17. But, ‘the unhealthy way.’ What does that mean exactly?”
Heather sighs, and I think I know what it means.
“My life was crazy. Focusing on the scale and food intake was an easy way to be in control.”
“To seem in control,” I correct her. I’m familiar with this addiction as well.
“Right,” she nods. “I got pretty obsessive about it. But I recognized it as another addiction, so I decided to take care of it and got myself a counselor.”
Again, I’m dumbfounded, and Heather seemed to understand my surprise.
“I just knew addiction really well,” said Heather. “I’d seen it. I recognized it. It destroyed my family, and I knew it was the last thing I wanted in my life. It wasn’t easy, but yeah I got a counselor and got the help I needed. I don’t want to be dependent on anything, ever.”
Continuing, she tells me, “Being honest with yourself is something that takes conscious and constant practice. We have to continually ask ourselves why. Why do I want this? Why do I care? Why is this important? To me, knowing our triggers and why we do or want certain things is the key to being grounded, staying present and making wise choices so we can be happy.”
The conversation turns to Heather’s subsequent weight gain.
“Well, I didn’t know anything about real health or nutrition; I originally lost the weight in the most basic and unhealthy way. Then I stayed pretty active, which kept most of it off over the next 10 years. But then I shattered my ankle in 2013. The injury threw me off my game, and I began eating mindlessly. By December 2014 I had gained over 80 pounds. That’s also when my world spun out of control.”
Heather was working full-time as an ER nurse, going to grad school full-time and doing clinical rotations in her pursuit of becoming a nurse practitioner. On Instagram, Heather recounts getting the call that changed her life:
I was running around the ER with arms full of medications, my feet hurt from not sitting in over 9 hours, my bladder full and realizing I hadn't gone since before I clocked in, a call from triage telling me I'm getting a STEMI (heart attack) coming back to the open room that they are rapidly cleaning from the patient I just discharged 30 seconds before, holding my culture bottles from the septic workup I just drew blood on from a really hard IV stick, remembering I promised a warm blanket and juice to one of my patients, my call light going off for more pain meds, and my phone rings for the tenth time. I finally called my dad back from the nurses’ station and gruffly asked “What do you want? You called me 10 times and I'm busy at work and no time to look at my phone.” He said, “Heather can you sit down for a moment?” My arms full of medications and IV tubing I slowly asked, “Why?” He then replied ... “Your mother has died.” I don't remember anything else he said after that. I do remember dropping to my knees and it seemed as though everything around me stopped.
Heather’s mother passed away over Christmas break. But with her usual determination and stamina, not only did Heather finish the semester and take her finals, but she also took guardianship of her 11-year-old brother.
“The loss really devastated me,” Heather tells me. “My sisters and I visited her in the funeral home to get her ready for the viewing. We put on her makeup and spent that last little time with her. I don’t know how to explain it, but in that moment I truly felt her with me. I felt her peace at being free of her addiction, and I knew she loved me and was proud of me. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, so it was a very special moment for me.”
Heather tells me that losing her mother was one of the motivation factors in changing her health and her life.
“I was over 260 pounds when my Mom died. I was a size 26, 2XL, and in denial. Being a nurse, I felt like a hypocrite; telling people to be healthy and I was morbidly obese.”
Heather purchased a meal plan recommended by a friend, but quickly understood its main components and began adjusting it to make it her own.
“I started eating right on February 1, 2015. I didn’t work out for the first three months; the most important part of weight loss (and overall health) is diet. I focused on what I ate and didn’t worry about exercise. Six meals a day, high protein, low carb, no sugar, high in green veggies and over 150 ounces of water a day. I eat every three hours to keep my metabolism going.”
“One night I went to the gym really late so no one was there and sat on the bike. I listened to good music and played Candy Crush. Before I knew it, 30 minutes had gone by and I got up and left. I did the same the next day. I did not go out and run three miles and lift a million weights and eat kale and green smoothies from the get-go. I still don’t because I don’t like that stuff. It’s not my kind of lifestyle. That would not be a forever change for me, and I want to do what works long term. Live a way I actually like. So I modified. I adapted.”
Over the next year, with consistent diet and exercise, Heather lost 80 lbs. On Instagram, she emphasizes how much of weight loss is mental.
You have to decide not to compare yourself to others. To be happy where you are instead of waiting for a number on the scale to give you permission. You have to decide you want a lifestyle change. I NEVER want to feel like I'm ALWAYS on a diet. Yuck. Take the stairs. Park in the last stall. Dance at home with your kids. Burn more calories than you take in.
Not only did Heather’s health improve, but so did her outlook on life. “I healed a lot of hurts and started loving myself more. That wasn’t because of weight loss; it was because I was believing in myself and taking care of myself. Those things have to happen in order to have a real lifestyle change.”
“How did you avoid falling back into old eating disorder habits?” I ask.
“I had to identify what triggered those behaviors. I also have to keep myself in check and make sure I’m doing things for health instead of feeling in control. It takes constant practice and awareness.”
Heather tells me how she met her husband, Jason, and got engaged. She was published in SELF magazine, graduated with her Master’s degree and was getting ready to take her Family Nurse Practitioner boards.
“I was really happy and just soaking it all in.”
Heather’s little sister Ashlyn had a harder time picking herself back up after the loss of their mother.
“When my mother died she fell deeper into the depths of despair and sorrow. She was only 13 when she tried heroin for the first time and never looked back. Because of the heroin use she had to get an artificial heart valve and pacemaker put in. It was during those hospital visits we agreed I would become her Power of Attorney. She told me that if anything ever happened to her not to leave her on a ventilator; to just let her go.”
Only a year and a half after losing her mother, addiction again stepped in and devastated Heather’s family.
“I was told I needed to rush to the Shock/Trauma ICU because Ashlyn was in grave condition. I was living my worst nightmare. And I knew. I knew from the moment I saw her. She was septic. She had no fighting chance.”
“And she had just given you Power of Attorney,” I whispered. I tried not to imagine one of my own sisters on life support and having to be the one to make that devastating call.
“As a nurse I have watched families make the decision to take their family member off of life support; it’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to witness. I never imagined I’d have to make that decision for my 26-year-old sister. But I knew what she wanted; we had just talked about it, but I didn’t want to have to do it. I slid to the floor outside of her room and just sobbed.”
Heather pauses and we sit briefly in silence, tears running down our faces.
“I walked into her room and went over and squeezed her hand. She faintly squeezed back. I held her hand as they extubated her and watched her vital signs drop. I kissed her forehead and told her not to be scared. That I wasn't going anywhere, and I would hold her hand the whole time. I told her that we would take care of her daughter. I watched my little sister take her last breath. A flood of memories passed over me from the moment she came home as a newborn baby to the times when she would steal my favorite Care Bear out of my room just to sleep with at night.
“When it was time to say goodbye, they handed me her belongings. She had been wearing the sweater I’d given her a few weeks before, when I’d told her I was getting married. We’d cried for hours together about her plans to get better and how she would be at my wedding. Now she was gone.”
“No one chooses addiction,” Heather tells me. “And they will NOT be remembered as addicts, but as wonderful women who died fighting for their lives.”
Once again, Heather met devastation with determination. Less than 48 hours after losing her sister, Heather sat for her Family Nurse Practitioner boards and passed. “I cried during the whole test,” she told me.
A few weeks later Heather married Jason and became a “bonus mom” to his two boys. Now, six months later, she says she’s happier than she’s ever been. However, she only recognizes and appreciates it because she’s overcome the saddest times of her life.
“We all go through stuff,” states Heather. “Sometimes horrible stuff. Sometimes it seems like it's impossible to feel normal or happiness in those hard times. One word of advice: Never give up. Always keep going. Hold your head up high. Even if it requires you do it with tears in your eyes.”