A Real "Silver Linings Playbook"

This past September, my younger brother Kevin gave a modified, generic greeting card to my wife Rachel and I, that, in conclusion, read: “you saved my life.”  I hugged him and reminded him of how far he had come through his hard work.  Then, when Rachel and I went up to bed, in the quiet of our bedroom, we acknowledged how stunned we were.

Kevin had come to live with us at West Point, New York, where I teach a course at the United States Military Academy on military strategy to cadets, in order to lose enough weight to join the U.S. Army.  In mid-June I weighed him in at 222; the Army standard for his height is 189 pounds.  Kevin arrived just before Independence Day weekend and set to work.  Three workouts a day (the vast majority being non-impact aerobic exercise) with some running mixed in to keep things interesting.  Small, light meals and dinner was always at the table to encourage discussion and fellowship.  Oh, an a little boxed wine to keep the spirits up (good for the environment and good for the soul).

 By the end of August he reached and exceeded his goal, measuring 183 pounds on the Army recruiter’s scale.   His military aptitude score was very high, and he signed up to be a medic.  One problem: the current drawdown meant that he would have to wait to “ship” until the end of January 2013.  So he transferred his Army paperwork back to Minnesota, gave Rachel and I the beautiful card, and moved back in with my parents to wait out the next five months.  But that doesn’t tell you the real story.  For that, I have to go back farther.

The First Stay

In the late spring of 2008, while home on a break from the Army, I had a brief conversation with Kevin about his life and where it was headed.  He was a security guard at a hospital, and, without a college degree, the job wouldn’t provide much in the way of financial security.  More importantly, I could only guess what he weighed (it turned out to be 345 pounds); all I knew was that he was severely obese, and he needed help.  I’m a pretty committed distance runner and felt compelled to do what I could.  So I offered him the opportunity to come and live with me at my next assignment (in the D.C. area) and forgo work in order to focus on exercise and lose weight.  He accepted.  Over the course of the next year, I met and married my wife Rachel, who happened to be an excellent chef, retired ballerina (Principal with the San Francisco Ballet) and aspiring yoga instructor.  Thankfully she was all right with Kevin coming to live with us as we moved into our first home together.
Kevin arrived at the beginning of October 2009 to our place in Arlington, Virginia.  It was difficult at first.  We had a little basement apartment with a tiny built-in twin bed that, I swear, Kevin extended over like an oversized manhole cover.  The shower was too small for me and I can only imagine how he did it.  At one point I noticed his toenails were unruly – he hadn’t trimmed them in a long time because he hadn’t noticed and, besides, it was very hard to get down that low.  However, three blocks away there was an amazing new gym and he set to work.  Kevin went to spin classes.  He spent hours and hours on treadmills and elliptical machines.  It worked.  By the time our wedding rolled around (Rachel and I had been to a local Justice the year prior; this was our true wedding) in May 2010, Kevin weighed 225 pounds.  It was a miracle.  Everyone at the wedding was stunned by how great he looked, how happy he was, how much he talked.  In fact, he gave an excellent toast that surprised everyone because he used to be so quiet.
Kevin went back to Minnesota to stay with my parents and start a new life.  He talked about joining the Air Force.  My other brother Rob has made a nice career in the Army Reserve as a non-commissioned officer in a bridge building unit.  In fact, he met his wife Connie there.  Due to age restriction (or so we thought), Kevin had to start in the Air Force by May 2011.  So he had a dream and a deadline.
Not so well in Minnesota
But things didn’t start up as they had in Arlington.  The environment was harder for him to be successful.  My parent’s divergent schedules (Mom works early; Dad comes home late) made it difficult to plan dinners.  He started to slide.  Meanwhile, Rachel and I had moved on to an Army graduate school program in Wellington, New Zealand (Victoria University) in order for me to earn a Master’s degree.  We talked with Kevin occasionally and generally didn’t get a great feeling about how things were going.  But Rachel (and I, to a significantly lesser extent!) was pregnant and in a new country far away from home – we really didn’t have time to monitor how he was doing.
Things came to a head when there was a major argument between my parents and Kevin in the winter of 2010-2011.  They found wrappers; they accused him of eating junk food and smoking.  Both were true.  When I asked Kevin to show me the scale on video chat – it read a depressing 255 pounds.  Rachel and I were devastated.  More than that, actually, we were angry.  We felt as though we had given up quite a bit in the first year of our marriage and it had been wasted.  Even more pressing, at this point we thought that one had to join the Air Force by their 27th birthday, meaning that Kevin had to drop 66 pounds in the coming months just to get in the door to see an Air Force recruiter.  It didn’t look good.
In Wellington, Rachel and I had what was one of the most difficult discussions of our marriage.  I told her that I was terrified that he wouldn’t make it because I just didn’t see the changes at my parent’s house that were necessary for him to get down to the Air Force standard.  For Kevin, this seemed his best shot at a real, solid career in life and he absolutely needed to make it.  So I asked Rachel if he could come and stay with us for two more months to make a push to get down.  She was hesitant – if he came, he would be with us in our small, two bedroom, one bathroom home – for the seventh and eighth months of her pregnancy.  After some hard words, we agreed that this was worth the sacrifice, and called and offered Kevin the opportunity to come stay with us.  He wasn’t sure and thought it was too much, but eventually consented and arrived at the beginning of March 2011.
To New Zealand
If one were to ask Kevin what he did in Wellington for those 58 days, he would reply, accurately, “I walked.”  We had no car and getting to and from his daily stops was done entirely with shoe leather.  It was about a mile to get to the gym and a bit farther to get to the Hot Yoga New Zealand studio.  Generally speaking, aside from an occasional run, he would go to the gym twice per day and a hot yoga class once in the late afternoon.  He met with a trainer; a friend and ex-pat from South Carolina named Kathy Ramirez.  And he would walk back and forth between each session.  On Sundays he and I would go to a local park to take a diagnostic physical fitness test (pushups, situps, and two mile run) to gauge progress.  Lastly, he didn’t starve himself by any means (and really got to enjoy Rachel’s New Zealand salmon dinners), but stuck to several small snacks and meals to get through the long hard workdays.
It worked.  He started to shed weight and the progress came.  But it came at a cost.  Our home was just too small and over time it wore on both Rachel and I.  We needed some space as the most special event in our lives was fast approaching.  So for the final three weeks I checked Kevin into a local hostel.  It was clean enough and close to where we lived, and, not prohibitively expensive.  Kevin suspected there was something wrong and asked if he was being a bother – we told him there wasn’t, that we just wanted him to get more of a sense of autonomy and that he could do this somewhere other than under our roof.  There was a grocery store next to the hostel and he could acquire and prepare his own meals and could still come over for dinner.  Thankfully, he seemed happy with the change and the weight kept going down.  Crisis averted.
Finally, with a couple weeks to go, Kevin said that he was interested in running a half marathon.  Capitalizing on his initiative and knowing that there weren’t any scheduled in Wellington for some time, I told him that we could set up our own for him around the city’s beautiful harbor.  We marked it on the map for two days before he was set to go home.  We planned on it being our final step, and it was an enormous success.  Kevin set a personal record (2:12) and we instantly recorded a weight post-race: 84.65kg in metric – about 187 pounds!  So, at the beginning of May 2011, a few weeks before his birthday, Kevin was under the standard!  He had lost over 65 pounds in 58 days and could now approach the Air Force recruiter!
Kevin went back to Minnesota and signed up with the Air Force in the security forces field (sort of like a military police person).  They put him on a wait list to ship in November 2011 – a six month wait.  It was torturous, and, again, Kevin slowly slid upwards.  Though this time the slide wasn’t nearly so precipitous, when the recruiter called and said he might have an early ship date, Kevin weighted in over the standard and lost his place in line.  Considering how long the line was the Air Force recruiter told him (and later, to me on the phone) that he ought to consider other options.   Kevin was in another holding pattern – purgatory – at Mom and Dad’s house.
Rachel and Grace (our daughter) and I returned from overseas in June 2012 to attend a family reunion in Minnesota and travel to New York to start work.  We found an unsteady peace at home – my parents were unsure how to approach Kevin and Kevin was uncomfortable with being dependent on our parents at his age.  His weight had gone up – 222 pounds when I weighed him.  It was bad.
I talked with Rachel again.  She was going to visit her side of the family with Grace for a few weeks; could Kevin come with me to New York, help me get the house started and give this one more try?  Though more than a few of our family members expressed serious doubts – “how many times are you going to do this?” “maybe this is good enough for him” “is he really trying?” “he just needs to be more disciplined” – Rachel was willing to give it one more go.  Kevin rode with me across country to New York, lost the weight, and gave us the card – which is where the story began.  But there was one last hill to climb.
The Last Spike
For the past five months, Kevin stayed consistently on track.  We bought him a Fitbit; he updated it daily and I was able to remotely track his progress.  Then, inevitably, his digital log got shorter and there were fewer recorded weights. I called and texted to cajole him back into discipline, and, for the most part, it worked.
Then at the beginning of January, within an hour of one of Kevin’s last scheduled visits with his recruiter, he called me.  He was clearly shaken, very upset, and said that he thought he was having a “nervous breakdown.”  I told him to pull over (he was driving) and we had a short conversation.  He said that he’d gained some weight, was over the requirement, and hadn’t eaten in the last day and a half – instead, to keep hunger at bay, he drank copious amounts of water – and was feeling weak.  We talked for a few minutes, which seemed to calm him down, and he agreed it was best to call and ask to meet another day.  He did, went home and ate something, and headed to his favorite place: the gym.
Our Mom, who through all this has been on a roller coaster of emotions, called and announced that she was terrified that he wouldn’t make his weight; that he wouldn’t get to join the armed services for a second time.  I did my best to acknowledge that there was still work to be done, but that she ought to keep positive and look at how far he’s come.  I reminded her that he’s a weight loss savant – this is what he’s great at.  But I was worried.  During the next couple of weeks, until he went in for his final weigh in, I called him several times a day to hear how his workouts went.
A new recruiter, who hadn’t been assigned to Kevin previously, shepherded him through the last 24 hours before he officially signed on.  The Army puts kids in a hotel that night prior, and the recruiter, knowing Kevin’s backstory, spent the afternoon and evening (up until 10pm) working with him in order to ensure that he met the standard.  The next morning, at 4:45am, I spoke with Kevin for the last time via phone.  He said he was under when he went to bed, barely, and that he would call when his official weigh-in was over with.  He said it would likely be about 10am on the east coast when he knew for sure.
I nervously waited in the library.  I tried to read but was mightily distracted.  Starting at 10am, I called him just about every twenty minutes, calling my other brother Rob to find out if he had heard anything either.  We tried to be patient.  Finally, after an eternity, at 11:48am, on 22 January 2013, Kevin sent me the text I will likely never forget: “Im good call u later.”  I was walking back to my office when my phone buzzed, in view of cadets, and nearly started to cry.
Some Conclusions
I’m writing this story because the world needs to know about Kevin.  This is meant to be, however insufficient, a record of the literal and figurative mountain he has moved in the past three years and a half years or so.  He’s lost 45% of his original body weight, and, despite some upswings (one larger, two smaller), he’s fought back to enable himself to join an organization that will provide him support to keep the weight off in the long run.
Aside from that, what didn’t come out in the preceding essay is that he’s a great guy with a great heart.  One of my favorite stories is that when we lived in the D.C. area, Rachel cut her finger very badly while slicing tomatoes, and thought she might even lose it.  Kevin was home on a rest break and so they jumped in the car together, with him behind the wheel.  He realized that in the moment he had forgotten his driver’s license, and ran back into the house while Rachel sat clutching the bleeding hand.  When Kevin climbed back into the driver’s seat, he thrust a cold Fresca into the cup holder, and said, “I know you really like these; I’m sorry I had to run back in.”  Kevin will soon be a medic, and, although the medicine part remains to be seen, his “bedside manor” will never be in doubt.
I also want to emphasize that Rachel and I didn’t make him do any of this; we merely provided the environment: money, food, time, and positive support.  He decided what he wanted to do.  He decided when he needed to work harder or take an afternoon off.  He showed the initiative.  And, at the last minute, when he needed a final push, he did it.  Cold War thinker George Kennan once wrote, “Heroism is endurance for one moment more.”  Kevin, in my book, is a hero.
Another observation is that losing weight is really, really hard.  My empathy for those who are going through this has grown considerably.  I’ve seen what the struggle looks like.  I run long distances, sometimes 50 mile races, and I can say with solemn certainty that losing significant amounts of weight is more difficult than anything that I’ve ever done.  Moreover, with a foot race there is a finish line; an end point.  For my brother, if there ever is a finish line, it won’t be for decades.  To some degree he will be running this race his whole life.
But there is hope.  Committed family members can be helpful.  It starts with a conversation.  Most of all, though, is the will to keep at it – to believe that the weight will come off.  Paraphrasing Bradley Cooper, in Silver Linings Playbook, helps: if you work hard enough, if you stay positive, you just might have a shot at a silver lining.    Kevin did.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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