This is my story.

As hard as this story is to write at parts, it sets me free.

There are a lot of versions of how this story can go.

I can take you all the way back to the moment in Chevy Chase, Maryland in 2000 to my grandfather’s room watching TV where all of this began. I can tell you about my struggles throughout my childhood with being slightly overweight, having to suffer through countless bad experiences, and never feeling like I really belonged anywhere.

I can tell you about those first moments during my young years where I felt like something was off in me and that I couldn’t really figure out why I tried to soothe that “missing” spot in my heart with food.

I can tell you about being laughed at, abandoned, betrayed, outcasted, cheated on, lied to, manipulated, heartbroken and torn to pieces throughout my entire life.

I can tell you stories about the scars I wear that would bring out pains in me you would never believe.

But as I’m sitting here today, a few days after accomplishing a lifelong vision I’ve had for myself since that moment, being 11 years old, I know that I have to tell you a very different type of story.

Truth is, I’ve sat down to write this out a few times and really didn’t feel comfortable with how it was coming out. But now, I know what feels right. Now, I can tell you the story of my life.

In 2010, I fell.

When I mean fell, I really mean fell. I fell straight to the bottom and when I hit it…I cracked.

I lost myself. I broke down. I felt like I was drowning.

It was the combination of years and years of denial, stress, running from my problems, losing the one thing that was keeping me held together (baseball) and a horribly timed lit match that started a fire that would not end until everything was burned straight to the ground. And when that fire raged, I was consumed in all of it. For the first time in my life, I had laid down flat on my back, having given up completely, and wondered to myself what the point was anymore.

There are scars that I will carry with me for the rest of my life reminding me of that day and the week prior where everything turned to ash. I remember that time in my life very clearly, and as painful as it was I could see one positive that could come out of having everything burned to the ground.

I got to start over completely.

I came out of that black pit without a clue what to do with myself. All I honestly had back then was the gym, a budding love for writing called The Better Man Project and a vision that had been sitting in the back of my mind since I was 11 years old. A vision for myself that I had tried time and again and failed endlessly…one that kept calling me to keep trying.

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!” – Rocky Balboa

The gym has never been just a place for me to lift. The gym has been a metaphor for my entire life over the past 7 years. There was nothing else in my life where I could put in a specific amount of effort and get out a measurable amount of results. In there, I could have some sense of control. In there, I knew that my efforts could be seen quickly. I needed that momentum. I needed something to help carry me forward. As I grew older and spent more time lifting weights, it became less and less about my body and more about my mind. I realized my mind was completely out of control, undisciplined, and an absolute mess. In fact, I was an absolute mess.

I did things that were horrible for me, I broke relationships, and I continued to break myself as I was controlled by one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with in my entire life.

This, is probably me at my most vulnerable right now.

For the past 7 years, I had been battling with a severe eating disorder exacerbated by a total storm of bad situations happening in my life, a couple of surgeries, but most of all…an addiction to trying to fill a very dark and painful place in my heart. I created the perfect storm for myself in always feeling deficient – both personally and where I was in my life – trying and failing miserably at big goals because of a lack of integrity, suffering after my failures, stuffing myself with horrible food, either ridding myself of all of it or suffering through keeping it inside, and then feeling absolutely ashamed, humiliated, and depressed because of going through the cycle one more time.

This didn’t happen a few times, it happened hundreds of times. Sometimes, when it got really bad…5 to 6 days in a row.

I lost count of how many times I found myself curled up in the shower with the lights off crying because I felt like I had been trapped in a prison.

It was a prison that was surrounded with food, but most of all, it was a prison of feeling like I really meant nothing in this world. I felt like I meant nothing. I never felt like I had anything to be proud of.

When I was in LA, I found myself at my worst.

The stresses from overworking myself, financial issues, personal issues, feeling the iron grip of this personally destructive cycle and watching dreams literally slip away from me day after day put me into a tailspin. I had no support network to help me through this and found myself heading back to that all too familiar bottom once again. I was gaining weight. Really gaining weight. And before long I found myself at almost 220lbs 18% body fat feeling about as bad about myself as I possibly could. I’ve never been under more stress in my life and I started to feel the pressure and weight of everything in my life starting to crush me.

Probably one of the most humiliating days of my life was the day I tried to fit into my suit, the suit I absolutely love, to go to an interview and I could barely squeeze into it. I remember coming home from that interview feeling awful and crawling into bed, covering my entire body with my sheets and sleeping through the rest of the day.

Eventually, I knew it was time to come home from LA, so I packed up everything I had and made my way back home to the Bay Area. I never really told anyone what that drive home was like…but I was in hysterics. For hours I lost it. I continued to lose it until there was nothing left to cry out. I was torn apart inside because I felt like I had failed. I felt like I was a failure. In my eyes, I was a failure.

In those moments after I came home, I looked at myself in the mirror and just shook my head. “What in the world have you done to yourself? You’ve destroyed your body with food, you look so tired because you haven’t slept in months and you let your dreams fall apart because you failed? What happened to you?”

Those honest conversations you have with yourself can be pretty difficult, and I can tell you for a fact that this was one of the hardest and yet most liberating personal conversations I had ever had. I knew that I had one attempt in me left to see this all the way through – one last shot – and that I had to give it everything or nothing. I knew that this was my last shot to become the man I had always knew I could be.

So out came the ultimatum.

100 days. 100 days you will eat clean. You’ve never even been close to achieving this but this is what it’s going to take. Part of it was about losing weight, but then again, most of it was about trying to develop my mind into a place where I could actually follow through with what I said I was going to do, to take care of myself, to establish positive habits and start to nurture my life instead of destroy it.

100 days later I crossed the finish line, in tears, having finally taken control of my eating issues and having dropped 30lbs.

Whispers. Whispers.

“You were meant for more than this. You’re not done yet.”

There was some sort of momentum. There was enough to keep going.

Soon after this victory, I found a trainer at Gold’s Gym who I knew could help me. I knew that he could lead me to the place I always wanted to go. I knew he could guide me through the land of the unknown to a place I had only dreamed of for years and years.

“So what are your goals?”

‘I want you to help me develop the strongest mind possible, create positive eating habits, and help me break a cycle that has been controlling my life for almost a decade now. Of course I want to get into shape, but that comes second to helping me develop a strong mind.”

I remember writing him an email later that evening I had met with him at the gym titled “What This All Means To Me” basically putting it all on the line – the full details of what I was battling through – and knew that I had someone who was invested into seeing me succeed.

“Let’s go.”

I spent the next 3 months of my life pushing myself beyond my limits, taking my life in a direction I never thought possible, struggling with erasing old bad habits and falling into a lifestyle that I had never been in before. But I could feel it happening – as much as I was struggling I could feel myself getting stronger. Sure, I was dropping weight which made me feel better about myself, but to have this feeling of breaking free from something that had been destroying my life for years.

Pain started dripping out from me in those workouts. Physical pain yes, but deep emotional pains that had been stuffed down for years. Confidence started coming back, self-respect, and the ability to take care of myself and being able to really believe in what I was capable of. These things all started to bud in me because of finally making another full fledged commitment to achieve something I’ve never seen or experienced before.

The day of my first shoot came in late February and as excited as I was to be in that moment, having dropped down from 218 lbs. and 18% body fat to 179 at 2.4% body fat I knew that the moment I was in wasn’t “it.” I was incredibly excited about the moment, but I knew I was just simply close to what I had envisioned. It wasn’t what I had seen for myself when I was 11. It was a huge step, but I knew I was going to have to come back to the drawing board as soon as I was finished with where I was at.

When I was done with that shoot, my trainer and I had another discussion.

‘We’re not done yet. That was close, but it wasn’t it. I want to do everything possible to make it happen this time.’

“Let’s go.”

So we went at it again. This time, we went at my weak areas harder than before. I honestly don’t even understand what happened with my body because all of the sudden it began to change. Ironically enough, it started to change right when I had one of the most transformational life coaching graduate sessions of the year. My life started to take a turn for the better when I was actually offered a new way of looking at things.

The War Painter

The War Painter is someone who goes into battlegrounds and paints scenes and images in the heat of battle. If you’ve ever seen some of these paintings, while there is great darkness in the painting itself, they are almost beautiful and “light” in a way. I was given this story because at my roots I am an incredibly loving and happy person but I was living in such a dark and painful world I didn’t know how to process all of it. I had nothing to creatively express what was really going on inside and make use of all that I was feeling deeply. It’s not that writing wasn’t a way of doing that, but I didn’t truly see it that manner. However once I realized that I could accept both light and darkness in my life as both true at the same time, my expressions changed. My life started to transform. My pain became something I could create light with and that seeped into all other areas of my life. I used this pain in the gym, I used it in my writing, my work, and whenever something poured in I let myself feel it for once.

I stopped running from it.

I started running to it.

Months and months of this went by. The strange thing was, the more I dove into places that hurt and connected with how I was really feeling about things, the more free I felt. I felt free from things that had been plaguing me for years and years and everything got lighter.

This doesn’t mean the challenges ended. I guess were getting to that part.

They say that the demons come out to play right before you are going to break new ground. For every level there’s another devil. As I arrived closer and closer to my most recent photo shoot, the moment where I actually knew it was going to be “it”… they all came out to play in full force.  They threw everything they could at me to knock me off my course and to prevent me from achieving a lifelong dream. Physically, my body was completely drained because of severe calorie cutting and towards the end water manipulation to get into my best shape. I couldn’t sleep because my mind kept racing and my heart kept on aching. My spirit however, as hard as all of the things that were coming at me were to deal with, remained up because it knew that everything in my life was about to change. I knew that despite all of the things that felt like they were either trying to attack me or falling away would eventually pass and I would stand in that moment finally having actually done it.

The night before my shoot I sat upstairs in my bed and posted a video talking as much as I was capable of about the experience I was going through. In truth, while that prep week was incredibly difficult, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of people who reached out to support me. I spent the majority of my life because of being outcasted during my childhood a bit wary of other people, but throughout this entire year incredible people have entered my life offering their love and support. Never before have I felt so held than what occurred one week before my photo shoot as people from all over were calling me, texting me, stopping by my house to cheer me on and make sure I was doing alright. I’ve never felt that loved before. I’ve never felt that sense of family and community until that week.

As I could feel some things in my life starting to fall away I also felt something growing beneath me that I knew would take care of me for a lifetime.

A net.

A net of support that would catch me no matter what was going on in my life.

I let that net support me and gave up my story of The Lone Wolf and watched myself enter into a moment where a lifetime vision and reality merged. I’m not sure how many people out there have felt this type of moment, but it was one of the most intense and yet peaceful moments I’ve ever had. As much as I had suffered through this time period, I also knew deep down that if I needed anything my network would support me. That’s a very different feeling than wondering if you fell hard again if you would reach all the way to the bottom. I never wanted to have that feeling again.

I didn’t.

Dreams and reality merged.

I don’t think I can accurately explain to you the feeling of being in that moment. I had been dreaming of that moment my entire life and didn’t really understand what was happening when I was in it. It was only after seeing some of the pictures that I even began to start comprehending what had just happened. I had freed myself from a debilitating addiction, I had lived up to what I was capable of, I competed with my potential and found myself having flashback after flashback of moments where I had dreamed of being in this moment years ago.

The true realization of this actually having happened to me hit me the next morning when I was looking through the photos again and said, “That’s me.” I never thought I would ever say that. I never thought I would ever see that moment happen. And yet, at the same time, there was that little fire within me that always knew it was possible.

Tears of joy.

This story isn’t about fitness.

Well maybe part of it is about fitness. But this story is about something much deeper than what you can do with your body. This story is about never giving up. Through anything – the worst of it all – if you continue to try and keep your heart out in the game of life things can start to happen for you. But you have to try. You can come from the blackest of pits and still be a light for yourself and for others. When I started this journey, I was absolutely nobody. No one knew of me, no one followed me, no one knew what was inside of me, no one could have looked at me and said I was going to be anything. I had no blog, no audience, nothing. I was a depressed, anxious, cracked to pieces young man who didn’t know which way was up or how to put himself back together again.

I didn’t try to do it all at once. I remember day 1 of starting all of this my goal was to smile that day.

Let me repeat that.

My goal was to smile.

That’s where I began. And that day, I did smile. I found a little something within myself to be proud of and I let myself be proud of it. Thousands of days later, failure after failure, little victory after victory and a set of dreams that I never allowed to die in my hands started to come true and I grew.

I grew into a man, not a scared little boy.

I grew into someone who had self-respect, who intuitively knew what was right and wrong, who could walk with integrity, embrace his darkness, build the foundations of his life with character instead of things, and who could love his heart out despite knowing that it may not work out.

I grew into someone who trusted himself, who allowed himself to be loved and adored by the people around him, who could reach out to others and take care of them without expecting anything in return, who could always walk tall because he didn’t live in a land of regret, and who knew how to take care of himself when those heavy times came.

Yes, this story has a fitness aspect to it, but it wasn’t about the body. It was about me growing into a man whose body was a manifestation of his spirit. I am much more than my body. I am much more than the fitness goals that I have had throughout the years. I am actually becoming me, and for the first time in my life I don’t feel deficient. I don’t feel like I need someone there to make me whole. For the first time in my life I feel that what I have to offer this world is something special and don’t have to try to emulate someone else to be loved.

There are a lot of firsts in this story.

8 months ago my mentor coach looked me directly in the eyes and said, “What if heartbreak was your greatest healer? Would you be willing to find out?” I was terrified. I had felt heartbreak multiple times throughout my life but it always destroyed me when it happened. It broke me down to pieces and I didn’t know how to pick anything back up again. To be honest, my heart has been broken over the past couple of weeks and I’ve been in a lot of pain. But at the same time, I have never felt more joy in my life in having stepped into something completely new. It’s amazing how both of those could exist at the same time as true. I remember what my coach had told me after he challenged me to think about this concept for the year…that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t being broken down but being broken open.

As those heartbreaks have come throughout this year, I have ended up realizing that having the walls covering my heart being broken down and wide open has allowed for the light to pour out.

Yes, there are times of darkness and severe amounts of pain that seep out of me. But I let them do just that. I let them come out of me and I don’t try to hide them from anyone or anything. I feel them. I feel them down to their roots and understand exactly what those pains mean to me. And now, since I know what to do with them, I allow myself to heal and paint the wonderful white canvas of my life with those colors that drip out of the places where I feel those pains. I paint my life with the colors of joy and colors of sorrow. Even though I suffer, I continue to love deeply. Even though I hurt, I continue to put my heart on the line.

The journey never really ends. You never stop learning. Even though I’ve accomplished a lifelong dream, I have more that is in this heart of mine that wants to come out. As I am broken open more and more, I am in a place to step in front of the next dream saying, “I can. I will.” I’m also at a point where I can step into this moment, this one right now, and be exactly who I am.

Great love and great achievement require great risk. You can spend your entire life hiding from doing what your heart is calling you to do or you can go out their on the field of life and give it your best shot. Of course you are going to take some hits. Of course you are going to fall down very very hard. But that’s part of really living. That means you are living.

Sure it may not work out. But what if it does? Wouldn’t that be the greatest adventure ever? Never again will I live an un-lived life. And I know, moving forward from this moment on, that I have to show up as myself no matter what and be exactly who I am.

And as Hagrid once said in Harry Potter, “What’s coming will come and we will meet it when it does.”

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Evan Sanders
The Better Man Project