It’s hard to explain, but once that fog of solitude and loneliness was lifted, I thought, “I’m not going to live like this the rest of my life.” I wanted to go back to the gym.
When I arrive at the Franklin Wheelhouse, Heather Williams is outside pruning a large flower pot artfully filled with Scotch broom, miniature boxwood, and a few annuals. She’s in her workout clothes, hair in a casual ponytail. When she waves and smiles at me from ear to ear, I’m struck by how happy and relaxed she appears.
What brought you to this area, Heather?
My hometown is only two hours away. I lived there until I was about thirty, then took a job at the Navy hospital in Florida for three years. I decided I wanted to be closer to my own kind of people. [She lets out a signature short burst of laughter.] I love it here. I’ve been here about nine years. It’s as big as I want — a small town, but you can be in the big city anytime. And, it’s a day trip to go back and visit my dad.
Tell me about your family?
My brother and dad both still live in Hazel, Kentucky. I’m a daddy’s girl. A few years ago, my brother lost 200 pounds—he’d gotten to over 400 pounds. I don’t pray for a whole lot, but there are two things I pray for: I prayed, prayed, prayed for him lose weight and get healthy, and for my dad to stop smoking.
It was inspiring to me. It hurt him to walk. To simply live. It was also good for his kids to see their dad care enough about himself and his health to make a change.
What’s your fitness journey?
I never had to lose that kind of weight. I was kind of a chunky kid. Always had a body image issue – I thought I was fat. [She shakes her head and smiles.] In middle school, I decided I wasn’t going to be a fat kid anymore. Back then, we didn’t know much about nutrition. I think I pulled a diet out of McCalls’ magazine…like one half of a hamburger patty for supper and one half of an apple for lunch. I dropped a lot of weight. I don’t think I developed anorexia—it wasn’t diagnosed anyway. But, the diet infuriated my parents because I wasn’t eating, and I was losing weight. Being a teenager—and a fairly rebellious one—I saw how much it infuriated my parents, so I wanted to eat less and exercise more. By the time I entered 8th grade, I was less than 90 pounds.
Yes, and I didn’t look well. I developed a really unhealthy relationship with food. So, my mom dragged me to the doctor—who was a country doctor. “Look,” he said, “You’re gonna start eating or I’m going put you in the hospital.” And that’s all the therapy it took. Since it wasn’t my choice anymore, I could start eating again. I thought, “Thank God somebody gave me permission to eat again, because I love food.” I gained the weight back and didn’t have any health problems.
Now, I’m more focused on being healthy. Ever since then, I’ve worked out….gone to aerobics classes with my friends and never had to watch what I ate until my I turned 40. As long my clothes reasonably fit in an age-appropriate manner, then I’m okay.
That sounds like a healthy attitude. What is Franklin Wheelhouse to you now?
It’s really a big part of my life. It’s my social outlet since I work from home. It’s where I go on class days. The women that come here…they’re my circle of friends. Even though we don’t do anything outside of exercise, the relationships are really strong. We’ve all chosen the same thing. It’s cool because everyone who comes here—teachers, stay-at-home moms, business professionals—we’re here with no make-up or pretense because we’re here to work out. I’ve made friends with people I wouldn’t have normally. [She pauses for a moment, and then, laughs.] We’re like bees: we come in and buzz around and make jokes, then we go back to our world. It’s a big part of my life, and I look forward coming in.
Have you overcome something on your fitness journey?
Several years ago I started getting anxiety and having panic attacks. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had panic attacks, it’s a misery beyond misery. It’s embarrassing. You think it’s all in your head. There’s no test for it. It’s not quantifiable, and it’s really scary. You realize what they are, but I was embarrassed for anyone to know. I withdrew, because, I was afraid. So, I didn’t go anywhere, because I didn’t know if I’d have an attack. Eventually, it was—the progression of the disease, if you don’t do something about it, you can end up agoraphobic. Your brain wants to keep you safe: if I have an attack at O’Charley’s, then I don’t want to go back. Well, the list can grow long for where you can’t go. One evening, I had an anxiety attack…and I had a Bell’s Palsy attack…I was carrying a lot of stuff.
We really need people…[She nods.] I didn’t know if I was having a stroke. The whole left side of my face was numb and paralyzed.
I would have freaked out.
I did. I thought, “You’ve gone around the bend.” I decided I wasn’t going to the doctor. I can’t believe that now. I was driven to the doctor. This was quantifiable, so I went. When you have BP, your eye doesn’t shut. I went to the doctor—and God bless her—she was so kind. In the process of her asking about the physical things, I finally just blurted it out. She said, “It sounds like you’re having a panic attack.” She asked a few questions, and I was amazed: this happened to someone else. She laid out a plan. “What are you doing for yourself? For fun?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “That’s one of the first things we’re going to do.”
It’s hard to explain, but once that fog of solitude and loneliness was lifted, I thought, “I’m not going to live like this the rest of my life.” I wanted to go back to the gym. My face still had some paralysis, so I was embarrassed. When I went to the gym, I didn’t know anyone. I thought, “This is safe. I won’t have to speak or smile because that’s when it’s noticeable.” I’d gotten so de-conditioned after six months of not working out. I could only walk on the treadmill, but every day I made myself do something…mostly, just solitary.
There was a lady who would talk to me, and — she was so kind. She acted like she didn’t notice my face. I was so grateful for her…that’s one of the things I try to do, because I know how it feels. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they’re not fit enough to work out. You have to start somewhere. My brother started with a quarter mile, and it was a major change in his life. After I started at the gym…after I got over these things, I started making friends. I love the physical exertion. Now, people say, “You’re so happy.” It’s true. I remember how dark those months were. One day—once I got out of that—I got up to go to the gym, and I realized I wasn’t feeling that again. I was so happy.
I still have a panic attack once or twice a year, but I know what to do now. It feels like you’re going to die, but once I shared with people, I was amazed at how many other people had experienced it. Speaking it makes you feel less ostracized. I don’t mind telling anybody what I went through if it will help. Once you tell someone, it’s a relief beyond imagination.
When you have a bad body image, you go overboard to conceal it. You don’t want to commit to an exercise program, because you’d have to admit to the truth. I truly believe that exercising and eating well will help keep me sane. [Laughs.] I really do.
How has Kelly factored into your journey?
One of the things I love best about her is she is an awesome listener. When she asks you what’s going on in your life, she really listens. I don’t think she realizes what a rare quality that is. She’s adventurous in everything she does. She makes it [fitness] fun. Kelly has a way of pushing us when we would not push ourselves.
The programs she puts together progress us as we go along. Somehow, she has cultivated this atmosphere that’s not judgmental. Just people who want to lose weight, connect or be a better version of themselves. They all come here because of her. She wouldn’t admit that. I always tease her because she makes people cry. She’s like Oprah. It’s because she’s honest with people. They cry because she listens to them, and she may be the only person who’s listened to them in a long time.
Trainer Thoughts: Kelly Kanski
It’s such a privilege to hear Heather’s story. Not all of us come to exercise for weight loss. There may be a need for connection, self-improvement, emotional healing, or even sanity! Our small group trainings have become a ground zero for transformation. We’re all striving to find our best selves. My clients often hear me say, “I don’t care if you need to stand in the back corner of the room and march in place. You’re here, and sometimes, that’s enough.” There is no judgement, no competition and no condemnation. Come as you are, leave your fancy Spanx at home and bring your baggy sweat pants. And yes, all the physical benefits still happen. You will get stronger, but more than that, you will be empowered. We have pressures from all sides telling us we’re never good enough. Health and fitness should not feel like a punishment or obligation. My passion is to give clients a launch pad for really living! So that’s what we do. We roll up our sleeves, we move, we connect and somehow…we realize our own potential and our greatness.
I am so thankful Heather decided to connect. She is, in fact, the brightest smile in the room and frequently bursts out with the most infectious laugh. I am reminded how important her first link was to a random lady as she walked alone on a treadmill. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
“Never be afraid of being a broken thing. Unless a seed breaks, there is no life.”
“…So, when you’re hit by the breaking waves, break deep.”