Oh, how excited I am to introduce you to Kaela. From the moment I met Kaela, I've always felt connected to her; we have a lot in common. She’s such a positive and strong energy to be around. Nothing about her is forced, she's completely authentic. When I first read her story, I was border-line sobbing and asked to talk to her about it in person... I wish I had recorded our conversation over our coffees (this girl can drink A LOT of coffee #goals) because she has such an incredible spirit and hearing her speak about her journey is something beyond inspiring and powerful. Here it is!
My fitness journey, just like everyone else’s, began when I was young. Both of my parents are, and always have been, extremely fit. My mother was an amateur bodybuilder for most of my childhood and my dad can crank out a thousand pull-ups like it’s nothing. Not to mention, they are both very coordinated and skilled athletes. Somehow in the shuffle of genetics, this athleticism and coordination were lost to me.
I always sort of felt like an outlier or like the stork had messed up and dropped me off on the wrong doorstep. My parents told me later that when my mom was pregnant, they had a joke that their baby would turn out to be a flutist or a painter and how HILARIOUS that would be. Well, I am an actress. An ACTRESS. So haha mom and dad...I guess. I just wasn't built like them. I couldn't eat whatever I wanted and go run it off. Nor did I want to. P.E. was actual hell for me. I hated every moment of it. No one likes to do things that they're bad at. I wanted to read books and watch movies and write small plays and perform them.
This made it so that, at the age of 7, when my parents split and I turned to food as my comfort, it would take me years (decades if we’re being realistic) to recover.
My mother is a brave, strong and amazingly nurturing woman. But as a single mom dealing with a child in distress, she made some crucial missteps that lead to me abusing junk food and television to an unhealthy extent. I was upset, and my mother allowed me to eat whatever I wanted to in order to help me find a little joy in a very dark situation. I remember once when my parents were actually still together technically, my dad had been gone for days on a business trip that he had no intention of coming back from anytime soon; my mom went to take a shower. We had just watched Robin Hood and eaten an entire stuffed crust pizza. I crawled up onto the counter and got the large jar of JIF off of the top shelf. I took a spoon out of the cutlery drawer and I ate the entire thing. I was 7. I was sad and I needed to fill a void. I knew my mother wouldn't approve so I did it in secret. She caught me and didn't really punish me. But none the less, I was ashamed. This didn't stop me from pulling more and more stunts like this as my parents' separation became more permanent. It was a lot easier to get away with when I was being shuffled from house to house every other week. At this point, I didn't realize what I was doing was wrong. I just wanted to feel good and food made me feel full and complete.
My dad married later and all three of my parental figures decided that it was best for my health to send me to a fat camp in rural Florida. All this place was missing was Ben Stiller in a unitard. We slept in old dorms on a college campus. They marched us out every morning before breakfast into the tiled hallway for a daily weigh in. We stepped on the scale in front of all of the other campers and they read the numbers out loud. I was the youngest camper by 2 or 3 years and by far the smallest, so this wasn't as humiliating for me as for some. It always ended in tears. And bullying. You would think that in a place where we all had the same problems and the same goal, that we would be nice to each other, that we would encourage and offer kindness. But we didn’t. The largest campers were bullied relentlessly. It was almost as if this was a chance to finally be the "skinny" girl or the "hot" girl. So the least portly campers bullied the heaviest campers and made them cry. It was almost encouraged.—sort of a way to shame us into losing weight. They would take us on outings outside of camp. One I remember very vividly was a trip to the movies. They reserved the entire theater for us. They covered the snack bar menu and glass cases with black trash bags so that we wouldn't be tempted. We were allowed to have the diet soda though. This movie going experience was about a week before my breaking point. I was sad and lonely. I was 9 years old for God's sake. I didn't know how to take this extreme Biggest Loser style weight loss regimen. It was hell and I called my mother sobbing every night.
After two weeks of this, she did what any concerned mother would do and picked me up a week early. We hit the very first drive-through we saw and never looked back.
By middle school, I was being bullied regularly about my weight. So much so, that it finally started to affect me emotionally. As always, sadly, it started with a boy. I had a HUGE crush on a boy in my class. He was actually my friend and remained my friend up into our college years. I liked him so much. We got along, we laughed together and had things to talk about. But he didn't like me. I called him to ask him out and after a few moments of stunned silence, he said he would "get back to me". I'm still waiting on that call. Now, I have actually no idea if this had to do with my weight (and I never asked) but after a few months of being bullied at lunch and PE about how big my shorts were or how I had back rolls, I thought it HAD to be. If I could just be skinny, he would like me. All the other skinny girls had boyfriends. So I would be a skinny girl.
I stopped eating. I started running the high school bleachers every night and weighing myself every day. By 13 I weighed 98 pounds and wore a size 00. I had stopped getting my period and the doctor told me I was in danger of never having children and verging on kidney failure. This spoke to me somehow and I started eating again. I gradually worked my way back up to a healthy weight and by the end of high school, I was right back up to overweight.
My passion at that time was theatre. I auditioned all over the country and was finally accepted to the University of Miami’s theatre conservatory. They only accepted 3 of us in the Bachelor of Music program and 12 in the BFA. It was a really big moment for me that was almost ruined by our lack of finances. UF had offered me a free ride and my dad told me that there was no way we could afford a private university like Miami. But I had gotten straight A's since 2nd grade. I was 3rd in my class and had the highest combined SAT score and GPA at my high school. So when the financial aid report came in... I got $30,000 a year in scholarships. I'll never forget that phone call. My dad said, "Kaela, I honestly didn't think you would do it." Well, I did Pat!
During my first year, my most respected professor told me that I was one of the best actors in my class but that I would never work if I didn’t lose some weight. I was crushed. I dropped 20 pounds over three months. I was back to over exercising. I spent hours on the track in the UM gym and I only ate vegetables and fruit from the dining hall. I remember sitting down at dinner to a huge plate of orange slices. Only orange slices. One of my classmates told me "you can't eat that and have no protein, it's terrible for you". I flipped out and told him, "you don't know my life!” That was the first and the last time one of my peers tried to help me. I had lost weight before like this and I could do it again. It was easier this time. There were no parents to watch me. I could skip as many meals as I wanted to. I could work out as many times a day as I wanted to. And I was getting positive reinforcement not only from the members of my theatre conservatory, who were all just as concerned with looks as I was but from my teachers and my family. They thought I had finally figured it out. Truth be told, so did I. I thought, "I can just be hungry all the time, it's not that bad." Well, it was that bad.
That was unsustainable and eventually, I yo-yoed right back up and gained back the 20 pounds I’d lost plus 20 more for good measure. This sent me into a spiral of depression and alcohol abuse.
I’ve always had an addictive personality and around this time I developed an addiction to alcohol. This heavy alcohol use lead me to some heavy drug use and a rather tumultuous and destructive relationship with a drug dealer. I hit rock bottom. I was very thin.—thinner than I’d been during my first diet phase two years prior. We would stay up for days on MDMA. We didn't eat because we didn't need to. These drugs take away your appetite. It was a convenient side effect for me. I really didn't have to pay attention to food because I didn't care about it. I exercised sporadically, mostly cardio and a few crunches here and there. At this time I was eating a big meal once every three or four days like a snake. We would go on a binge for a few days, not sleeping or eating and then finally crash for a good 12-hour coma. When we came up from these comas, we would be starving. We took a trip to visit my mom after an all-night party during spring break. We drove straight through from Miami to Tampa on no sleep and a lot of substances. I was wearing ripped up jean shorts that were falling off of my hips and a dirty tank top. I remember my mom telling me how thin I was looking. At the time I took it as a compliment and I told her I'd been really trying to stick to my diet. I felt proud of my strung out bone-thin body. Looking back, I think she was concerned.
A few months later, as tends to happen to drug dealers, my boyfriend was arrested. When that happened I stopped exercising all together, took to binge drinking daily and abusing my true drug of choice: food. I gained 50 pounds. This was my senior year and somehow I managed to graduate. My best friend and I made a plan to move to NYC in September of 2013. The day I moved I weighed 185 pounds. I was miserable and lonely and unhealthy. I pounded two whiskey sours at the airport bar and headed straight out to do some more drinking as soon and I set my suitcase down in NYC.
Something about New York woke me up. It wasn't just a slap in the face moment of "I'm going to change now" but being away from the city where I'd been through so much trauma sort of lifted a bit of the fog. I had to make a living and find an apartment and some stability. This made my sleep patterns more regular and I had some food in the fridge and a gym around the corner. I had a schedule and an obligation to take care of myself.
I started eating healthier and I googled “dumbbell workouts for women”. I started this little dumbbell circuit twice a week in addition to my regular 45 minutes on the elliptical. I started to see some results. I was still drinking heavily though and on October 22nd 2013, I decided to pregame a children’s play that two of my best friends were in. I got so drunk that I passed out at the table at lunch afterward. Later in the night, after a lot more embarrassing things were said and done that I'll leave to the imagination; I fell and hit my face on a curb by the bus station. When I woke up the next day, I was missing one of my front teeth. I haven’t had a drink since.
That day I bought some gym programs from an Instagram trainer. I started training my body in sections and did my first carb cycle. I was working part-time as a nanny I needed another job. I saw a posting on Craig’s list for a Club Coordinator at Flywheel Sports. I’d never taken a cycling class in my life. The very idea of it made me laugh. I wasn’t a spin biddy. But I got the job and it changed my life. This was the first time that I was around people who didn't know about my past. They didn't know how heavy I had been or that I was a bad drunk and a worse drug addict. They didn't know that I was the fat, funny girl. They just saw that I was me as I was in that moment; a medium sized semi put together theatre major with a day job. It was a chance to reinvent myself. And that's exactly what I did. I don't think at the time I thought, "oh, I want to reinvent myself." I was just given the opportunity. Everyone at Flywheel was open to me and kind. I made friends in those first few months that I have now and will have for life.
I started cycling a few times a week. But the community is what really made the difference. I was working with people who lived and breathed fitness, and not just cycling. I learned about bodybuilding, CrossFit, calisthenics, yoga, running, and a myriad of other fitness activities. I learned about flexible dieting and the idea that we can all have the body we have always wanted. No one laughed at me when I said I lifted weights or wanted six-pack abs. I traded my addiction to alcohol and drugs for caffeine and the gym. All of the sudden I had a purpose, I had goals. My body was changing and I was gaining confidence and knowledge. I was starting to see similarities between myself and my heavily muscled mother. Maybe those genetics were there all along.
My day job at Flywheel has turned into a passion. It’s my career now. I want to be around positivity and change. But most of all I want to be around a group of people who believe that what we want is possible. I lost 45 pounds in my first 2 years in New York. And those pounds have stayed lost. I no longer associate food with shame and I understand that one cookie isn't going to ruin all of my progress. That being said, I still struggle with all of the same issues that I struggled with when I was 9... and 12...and 21...
There are days when I wake up and hate my body. When I look in the mirror and I still see that fat little girl. I am an obsessive and addictive person. So now I am obsessed with fitness. If I miss a workout or eat badly on a day that I not supposed to, I beat the shit out of myself. I think that it's all my fault and if I could just have some more control or a little more willpower or strength that I would be where I want to be. The fitness industry is extremely supportive and inspiring but it's also discouraging and depressing. I'm surrounded by the fittest people in one of the largest cities in the world every day. It's impossible not to compare myself to these women. They are the ideal. And sometimes I just want to be "normal." I want to be able to buy a pack of Oreos or a jar of peanut butter without eating the entire thing. So I try it. And I fail. I might put the box away for a while, but late at night, when everyone else is asleep, I finish them. So it's not just a button I pushed and became "fit". But small steps and small victories keep me going. Last night, I only ate half of a box of Girl Scout cookies. Not the whole thing. And this morning I moved on and kept my normal routine of healthy meals and working out.
I believe in myself. There are still times when I want to have a drink. I’m only a human. Life is hard. But on those days, I put in my headphones and lift some heavy shit or I get on a bike. I have an outlet for my emotions and all of the trials that life brings. And it's a healthy outlet. I am an obsessive person and that's not changing, but at least I'm obsessed with something healthy. Maybe I can be addicted to something positive.
I’m not where I want to be. I don’t have a six-pack or quad separation. But I will, because I can because I have the power to be what I want to be. That’s what fitness has given me. It’s given me the confidence to go for what I want and to do it in a healthy and consistent way.
For me, Ultimate Self is mostly about the "self". Ultimate Self is being the best version of you that you can be. Not the best version of anyone else. For me, it's waking up and liking myself and being consistent in habits that make me feel good. I had and have a lot of bad habits, being my Ultimate Self is pursuing the good habits as much as I can and leaving the bad ones further and further in the distance. I also think it means letting go and being able to live in the moment as myself. I'm an over-thinker and I find it very difficult not to think about goals and tasks and pressures all the time. But when I'm really in the moment, I can be the Kaela I like. I can be stable. I can be strong for my friends and my family and for myself without collapsing into self-doubt and criticism. And all of that gives me the power to bring the changes that I want and keep the things I don't want to change.