“Jessica, look this way! Smile into the camera. Let me see that victory pose!”
There I was, standing in front of flashing cameras in a Los Angeles photo studio, posing for Woman’s Day magazine’s February 2016 issue featuring one-hundred-pound weight loss success stories. I was finally a success story.
It was the fall of 2015, more than three years after that life-changing high blood pressure diagnosis. Years of therapy, exercise, and prayer paved the way for the moment of a lifetime—sharing my journey on a national platform. How many people would read my story and be inspired to save their own lives, too? After such a steep climb, that moment in front of the cameras felt like I reached the mountaintop. So, I raised my arms high, flexed my biceps and a big smile, and gave the photographer that victory pose. With each flash of the camera, I recalled the milestones along my road to losing a hundred pounds.
I took baby steps after that high blood pressure diagnosis, especially when it came to exercise. Changing my relationship with food was heavy lifting on its own, and I was far from my days as the high school dance team captain. I had to be patient with my body, so I started by walking a few miles, a few times a week at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach. As its name would suggest, it’s a big mountain made from an old trash dump, but it became a treasure to me, and a metaphor for my journey.
That big, beautiful mountain—surrounded by lakes, playgrounds, skate parks, and a winding walking trail—is a source of joy for people far and wide. You’ll often see families flying kites, runners training for their next big race, people meditating, or lovebirds creating new memories. All at a place built on a pile of trash. Items discarded and devalued became the foundation for a place that inspires magical moments.
Mount Trashmore reminded me that we can take the piles of pain, regret, and sorrow in our lives—the ugly stuff we’d rather throw away—and use it all as the foundation for something beautiful. Our trash can become a treasure when we change our perspective.
As the weeks and months went by, my walking pace got better and faster. I was losing roughly four to six pounds a month, give or take some overeating relapses along the way. Despite my imperfect path, the stabbing pain in my back from all the pressure of the weight lifted.
Eight months into my journey, by the spring of 2013, my blood pressure was so good my doctor released me from taking medication. My doctor was confident that if I maintained my lifestyle changes, I could also maintain a healthy blood pressure. I could have done a backflip in her office that day!
My next big goal—getting below 220 pounds. I built up the courage to add some group classes and strength training into my routine. I even started working with my first personal trainer, Stephen, at Onelife Fitness in Norfolk. His routines challenged me physically, but he believed in me, too. From tire flips to rope slams and timed stair climbs, I pushed myself more than I ever thought I could. His guidance helped me reach that 220-pound milestone.
Next, I set my sights on a goal I fantasized over for years—getting to “Onederland”—reaching 199 pounds. I hadn’t seen anything close to that number since my junior year in high school. The idea of reaching it lit a fire within me. I became laser focused, hitting the gym four or five days a week. I logged every meal and workout into the MyFitnessPal app on my phone to keep me on track.
And then, on a Sunday afternoon, I arrived at “Onederland.” It was November 10, 2013. I just happened to be at my best friend Ariane’s house for dinner. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands when I saw her scale on the floor. I weighed myself daily back then, and I knew I was close to my goal. I thought, what the hell, let’s see how we’re doing today. I couldn’t believe my eyes when 199 flashed on the scale.
I screamed so loudly my friend came running in, worried something was wrong. I fell into her arms and cried like a baby. I called my mom, and we cried together, too. I needed to talk to God in that moment, so I jumped into my car and headed straight for Mount Trashmore. I climbed the mountain that day thinking of all the steps I took to get to “Onederland.” I wrote God this letter.
November 10, 2013
The goal I’d been praying and dreaming of for more than ten years became a reality. Through hard work, prayer, and good choices, today I reached my goal of 199 pounds. Just a few years ago, reaching this goal seemed like a fantasy, something I could only accomplish in my dreams when I closed my eyes at night. Today, I am wide awake and at my goal of 199 pounds. Me and Mama’s new saying is so true—it will work out if you work at it. When I weighed 260 pounds and was at my lowest point and so incredibly unhappy, I would say, “If I could just get to 199 pounds, I could be comfortable in my own skin.” What I have discovered along this journey is that you shouldn’t wait to be happy. Your dreams will inevitably come true as long as you keep working at them, so enjoy and embrace the journey. As I sit here at the top of Mount Trashmore, I see beauty all around me. And I now know the immense beauty, strength, and courage that’s inside of me, too.
God, I thank you for this moment. I thank you for the courage and wisdom to fully appreciate it and accept it. There are more goals I want to achieve with my health and fitness, and I know that it’s all possible. I feel your love and pride all around me right now. I feel your presence too. And I feel my dad’s love and pride. I am grateful that I have learned from his passing not to take my life for granted.
God, I pray for continued motivation, peace, and success moving forward. And I promise to share what I’ve learned.
God, I thank you for this day, and every single day, moment, and experience that led to this one.
I was on such a high after hitting 199 that I bulldozed my way to the next goal. This time, I had my sights set on 176. Here’s why. Back in 2008, I had to get my driver’s license renewed. I was embarrassed to share my actual weight with the DMV agent. I weighed close to 230 pounds at the time, so I lied and said I weighed 176. For some reason, 176 sounded like a weight I wouldn’t be ashamed of, and I promised myself I would reach it someday.
By the summer of 2014, eight months after I entered “Onederland,” 176 flashed on the scale. I smiled and thought of that embarrassed girl who lied all those years ago. I did this for you, I thought. I did this for us. The joy of that moment reminded me of the power of our words. We can speak wellness into existence—no matter how long it takes.
I was on fire after hitting 176, and I assumed losing another nine pounds to reach 167 – one hundred pounds below my heaviest recorded weight – would be a breeze. I thought it would take me a few months, but my body plateaued. I was doing everything right, but the scale wouldn’t budge. I now know bodies do that sometimes, but boy did I see it as a personal failure. I dipped back into bad habits every now and then to soothe my disappointment—but I damn sure didn’t give up.
I shifted my focus to try something different, and began working out with my friend and personal trainer, Ken Williams. We focused on building strength and muscle. I worked my way up to bicep curls and chest presses with thirty-five-pound weights. Building muscle didn’t help the number on the scale decrease any faster, but my confidence and health were soaring to new heights. I felt strong. I was strong. And I was burning fat, too, even if the scale didn’t reflect the progress. I reflected on the beginning of this journey, when the only numbers I cared about were on a blood pressure monitor. I reset my gaze on building a better me, regardless of what the scale read. As the saying goes, a watched pot never boils.
I used my period of refocus to help others take action for their health by volunteering with the Hampton Roads branch of the American Heart Association. They invited me to speak to groups all over our region to share my journey and my dad’s cautionary tale. Many people, especially parents and grandparents, said they were inspired to make better decisions.
Little did I know that Teri, my new friend and marketing director of the local American Heart Association at the time, was so touched by my story that she submitted it to Woman’s Day. Their writers were looking for women who started their weight loss journeys by walking. Teri thought I would be a perfect fit, and she sent them my information. I had no idea until a writer from the magazine reached out. My dream was about to come true.
“Your testimony is a seed for someone else’s miracle.”- Stephanie Ike
The writer interviewed me over the phone. I was excited and nervous. I really wanted to get this right, because I knew my story had the power to save someone’s life. I was transparent about my journey—the ups, downs, and difficult decisions to press forward. We really focused on why I chose walking to start my journey and how such a simple beginning helped me improve my blood pressure and lose so much weight. It bothered me a little that I couldn’t wave the “I lost one hundred pounds” flag during that interview, but I refused to let it dampen my spirit. If a national publication thought I was inspiring enough at ninety-seven pounds lost, then I’d done a pretty good job.
A few days after the interview, another mind-blowing message from Woman’s Day. They were flying me and two other women with similar success stories to Los Angeles for a photo shoot! I got the email while I was on the anchor desk, and I nearly blurted out some expletives in excitement. A photo shoot? In Los Angeles? For a national magazine? Holy shish kebab! Mama, we made it!
I kept pinching myself on the flight to Los Angeles. God, was this really happening? Is my dream coming true? Is this real? Yes, it was, all because I decided not to live in the shadows of that high blood pressure diagnosis nearly four years earlier.
Following the flight, I was whisked away to a fancy hotel, the kind you see in the movies when someone has arrived. Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman minus Richard Gere and her character’s job.
I barely slept that night. I popped out of bed early the next morning before the photo shoot to get in a workout. I walked to the rooftop patio of the hotel as the sun came up to spend some time with God. My dad’s spirit was with me, too.
A team of photographers, makeup artists, and stylists greeted the three of us as we walked in. It was like the scene of movie when the underdog finally gets the makeover—surreal!
Each of us took turns taking pictures separately. Kirsten Helle moved with so much confidence in front of the camera. Her journey had been featured in several other magazines, so this wasn’t her first rodeo. I watched how effortlessly she flashed her smile and threw poses at the camera.
When it was my turn, I started with a big smile and my hands on the hips. It was my go-to pose, but the photographer needed more.
“Let me see that smile! Think about everything you’ve been through to get here!”
I had been through so much to get to this moment. The binge-eating episode in my apartment in college. Eating family-sized meals alone in my car. The anxiety attack on live television I thought would end my career. But here I was, standing tall, healthy, and happy. I took a deep breath—inhaling gratitude, exhaling anxiety—and put on a show. I was moving and grooving to the music, striking pose after pose. I let myself have fun. This was a celebration! I was on a supernatural high. It’s one thing to believe you can accomplish your wildest dreams, but actually seeing it happen is indescribable. By the end of the photo shoot, the writers told us the issue featuring our journeys would hit newsstands in a few months.
A few weeks after we left Los Angeles, I rolled out of bed at 3 a.m. to get ready for work. I ran through my usual routine—said my prayers, wiped my eyes, and stumbled onto the scale.
The numbers “1-6-7” flickered.
I got off. Got back on.
I couldn’t believe it. Those three numbers meant I was down one hundred pounds from my highest recorded weight. One. Hundred. Pounds. Tears of joy streamed down my face. I ran into the bedroom to wake Sean, my fiancé at that point in our relationship. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The pride in his eyes confirmed it was real. I lost one hundred pounds!
It took me nearly four years after my high blood pressure diagnosis to get to that 167 milestone. It was a goal that lived only in my dreams—until that moment. I emailed the writers at Woman’s Day to share the big news. I didn’t know if would make it in their story, but I knew they’d be happy for me.
Three months later, in January of 2016, I got a call from Kirsten. She lived in Seattle where some of the issues made it on the stands early.
“Jessica, we’re on the cover!”
I screamed! “The cover?!”
When we did the photo shoot and the interviews, they only told us that we’d be featured in the magazine, but they put us on the cover! There it was, for the entire world to see, “We walked off 100+ pounds!”