Everyone's version of "rock bottom" is different, but in James' case, it was seriously low. He had barely moved in years, had abused himself with drugs and alcohol for over a decade, and was besieged by a number of terrifying physical symptoms. Death was a real possibility—both he and the medical professionals tending to him knew it.
He very easily could have given up. But when the odds seemed most against him, he made the decision to change. Read his inspiring story and ask yourself: What would you do?
This is James' story.
Tell us about your lowest moment
In July 2014, I landed in the hospital after I started having severe abdominal pains and vomiting blood. My resting heart rate was rarely below 100, I weighed 267 pounds, and my cholesterol was 21 mmol/L when it should have been less than 5.
Ravaged by 15 years of alcoholism and drug addiction, my body was pushing back. I would run out of breath just walking across the room. Hell, I basically didn't leave my bed except to go to the bathroom, which was itself a huge challenge. I was broken physically, mentally and spiritually.
But lying in my hospital bed that first night, I realized that I didn't want to die, no matter how bad a person I thought I was. I decided in that moment to quit drugs and get fit.
It was strange, really; I had come to a place many times where I'd resolved to quit. I made grand promises to myself—and really believed them. But after each try, I would fail. This time, though, facing the prospect of death forced me to be honest with myself.
How did you work life changes into your recovery?
After two rough days of detox, I could finally face food again. And for the first time, I entered everything I ate into a fitness app and began tracking my food choices. I left the hospital a few days later, almost completely detoxed from alcohol. I was still suffering some occasional sweats and shakes, but just being mindful of what I ate in those early hospital days had me feeling better.
I had set a goal of 15 percent body fat long before being hospitalized, and I was itching to start running or join a gym or do anything to reach that goal. But when I was released, my doctors gave me strict instructions to take it slowly. I followed their advice and walked just a mile a day for the first week. I ramped it up the second week. By the end of the month, I was doing about 5 miles a day. I even hiked up a local landmark without stopping, something I could never have done five years earlier when I first tried to get sober. After six weeks, I had already lost about 22 pounds; after two months, I walked 21 miles in a benefit event.
Walking can be powerful stuff. When did you work in some resistance training?
A few months after leaving the hospital, I joined a gym and started using a 5x5 strength program, tracking the exercises on my phone. I started by focusing on squats, deadlifts, bench presses, barbell rows, and overhead presses. After running my program for about 6 months, my weight dipped below 220 pounds for the first time in more than 10 years.
For the next six months, I ran a variation of 5x5 by adding some accessory lifts. At about this time, I began to notice that my weight loss was slowing down. I briefly plateaued at 214 pounds, then again at 176 pounds. This was a challenge, because I was so used to shedding weight fast.
It shook my confidence, and I made sloppy food choices for a few days. But I never stopped training, and before long, I was back on the saddle. And I discovered that at times I don't lose weight, I seem to gain muscle. But it's not always linear; progress can come in waves.
How has your approach changed over time?
These days, I don't monitor the scale so closely. I use it as a rough guide, and I depend on the mirror and photos to tell me more. I'm aiming for 10 percent or less body fat now, and having lost so much weight, I'm waiting to see how loose my skin will get. I run a workout I've slowly developed and tweaked for myself over the last four months. It's a heavy upper/lower protocol focused on strength and hypertrophy, and it works for me so far. My strength and mass are up, and my body fat has remained around the same.
What is a typical day of meals like for you?
My diet is simple: 500 calories below maintenance using whole, unprocessed foods. I make up a few simple meals in advance in a slow cooker. Then I portion them up and freeze them.
You were in a very dark place. How are you doing today?
My life and my health are infinitely better. My resting heart rate is in the mid-40s, my cholesterol was below 3 on the last check, my cardio health has improved dramatically, all my blood levels have returned to safe ranges, and I'm stronger and faster than I've ever been.
My work in the weight room reminds me that the more I put into something, the more I get out. Every day, I push myself to the absolute limit in the weight room, because when I do, whatever comes at me later in the day seems easier to manage.
I think I've fundamentally changed as a person. Now I can put my hand on my heart and truthfully say I'm trying every day to be a better man. I'm eternally grateful to all those who helped me, and I'm glad to be able to give something back. I've found help from a local addiction service and have become a part of a fellowship community. I try to treat everybody the best I can, not judge, be honest, and remember where I came from. My anxiety is down and self-confidence and self-awareness are up.
What aspect of the fitness journey did you find most challenging?
My biggest challenge is that I've suffered insecurity and self-doubt. But as I've lost weight and gained physical strength, I've become more honest with myself and allowed the real me to flourish. I'm not sure if I'll ever get to a place of truly loving myself. But I'm able to accept and respect who I am now, and from where I started, that feels absolutely liberating.
I lost my mother in February. She was the one person in my life who stuck by me no matter what. She gave me something to live for, and our bond gave me the strongest sense of love I've had in my life. I was able to get sober and make her proud before she died, and I'll be eternally grateful for that.
I take great comfort from her words: "I am moving on knowing my son is going to be OK." I was able to care for her in the last months, and that remains the greatest honor of my life.
What advice would you offer to someone facing extreme challenges like you were?
The great English bodybuilder Dorian Yates once said, "It's all about consistency, like building a house. Every day, I'm putting another brick on my wall." On days when I don't want to get up at 5 a.m. and hit the gym, Yates' words get me in there.
Of course, there have been times when I've wobbled. The early days of sobriety can be a minefield of emotions and feelings I haven't felt in years. It's like having to grow up and experience things for the first time all over again. In the throes of all that, I used to think of that iconic picture of Arnold standing with his arms spread wide and the word "conquer" printed across the image.
I truly believe that we are limited only by our own minds. When you realize that we're each an incredibly evolved, finely tuned marvel of nature, you're able to accomplish absolutely anything you desire. My mum was right: I can achieve anything I put my mind to.
You are a regular on the Bodybuilding.com forum. Did the community play a role in your transformation?
Back when I was in the throes of addiction, I got a lot of emotional support from the forums. There are some absolutely wonderful people on that forum, each full of good, solid advice.
I believe you can never know too much, so I also read a lot of the articles. The research I found on Bodybuilding.com helped me get to where I am today. Bodybuilding.com provided great personal motivation for me. I always wanted to get fit, but my addiction didn't allow me room to pursue it.
I used to look at the transformations of the week and tell myself that one day I'd be there myself. Truthfully, I never believed it was possible. But I kept it in my mind as a life goal, and the fact that I have made some major transformations fills me with an enormous amount of pride.
Where do you plan to take your fitness in the future?
I want to continue to shed as much fat as possible. A total body fat of 8 percent would be wonderful. My goal is to have walk-around visible abs while still being relatively big—big chest, big arms, big strong back—and continue to build my legs. I want to be as jacked as humanly possible without PEDs, while being shredded and maintaining a good fitness level. I'll continue to improve myself—spiritually, physically, mentally—and conquer any challenge.
Recently I secured a paid permanent position with the addiction service that changed my life. The opportunity to help others walk the path I have fills me with a sense of duty and honor that's hard to put into words.
Life is such a beautiful gift. Embrace it—the good and the bad, because it's all part of a journey that's a privilege to experience.