Change Your Way Of Thinking...
CHANGE YOUR WAY OF THINKING...
“I don’t remember closing or locking my office door,” Michael said to me. “And I don’t remember turning off all the lights or pulling down the blinds. But I do remember putting the barrel of the pistol against the middle of my forehead. I do remember the way the trigger felt beneath my finger.”
“What kept you from pulling it?” I asked.
“All I could think about was my family,” he said quietly, his voice beginning to crack. He closed his eyes as if he were reliving that moment. “My little boy and my wife and how much it would hurt them. I just couldn’t do it.”
“You made the right decision Michael,” I answered. “I am proud of you.”
“Don’t be,” he answered. “I am simply killing myself a much slower way. I am still hurting Madeleine and little Michael. I should have pulled the trigger and got this over with.”
Maybe some of you know who I am talking about...most however will not have a clue. The Michael I am writing about today is Michael Hebranko. He holds two records in the world. He was at one time one of the world’s most obese men, the tenth heaviest...ever! But he holds the record alone for the most weight loss of any human being...ever.
But those records and those titles do not define who Michael Hebranko really was. I did not know him well, I will admit, but I did know him well enough to look past the obesity and what he looked like on the outside and peer deep enough into his heart to truly understand his pain...and the pain was truly ungodly!
Michael was the cousin of my children’s mother...my ex-wife from many, many years ago. He was a legend in the small Polish family into which I married.
At the time, he lived in Brooklyn. I had not met him yet...but as I said, his reputation preceded him. My in-laws spoke of him often, referring to him as “the pony”. When I asked why they called him that, they said it was because he was the son of “the horse.” I will explain in a moment.
Michael had an extreme eating disorder, beyond anything you can imagine. When he was at his heaviest, it was all in a day’s eating to polish off as many as two 20 pound bags of fried pork chops...with two pounds of bacon and three dozen eggs...all at one sitting. One sitting could last for hours!
Just one of his meals was more than 13,000 calories...it could feed a normal and healthy man for a week or more.
Michael fought a disease...one that eventually beat him and took his life as its trophy. And he was right...Madeleine and little Michael were devastated.
The first time I met him was at his mother’s funeral in the early 1980’s. She was the one they called “the horse”. She had the same disease as Michael. She too was addicted to food. It too killed her.
There is a story that was told of how Michael’s mother, grieving her abandonment by her husband when Michael was just a little boy, would wake him up in the middle of the night. Together they would sit in her kitchen in Red Hook Brooklyn and eat four pounds of spaghetti and four dozen meatballs with several loaves of Italian bread. If they had any room left, she would break out the kielbasa and they would devour three to four pounds of it.
Michael’s mother, selfishly and unwittingly, infected her loving and loyal little boy with her own lethal disease.
The funeral was a circus. Michael’s mother was buried in a custom-built casket. A standard casket could not be used because of her size. There were no pallbearers. Instead a motorized industrial scissor lift was used. She was placed into the ground with a back hoe. I am not exaggerating!
At the viewing, a couch was brought in for Michael. He was too big for the chairs. He was forced to drive his own car to the cemetery because he could not fit into the limousines. He had a custom built Cadillac, a gift from his boss for exceptional sales revenues.
You see, despite his size, Michael sold pharmaceuticals...a lot of them! As a bonus his boss had the Cadillac refitted with extra heavy duty suspension, reinforced seats and over sized doors.
We all went back to Michael’s house after the burial. He and his wife Madeleine had a catered meal of chicken breast, Polish sausage, golumpki, mashed potatoes and corn for each of us. He ate four of them himself.
Then I watched him open two canned hams. He sliced them and ate them as sandwiches using an entire loaf of bread and a jar each of mustard and mayonnaise. He washed all this down with at least six liters of Coca Cola.
To say the least, I was stunned. Michael broke into a full sweat just walking from the dining room, fifteen feet away into the kitchen. I had no idea what to think of him...what to say to him, or how to act around him.
But over time, I got to know him. I spoke with him a half dozen more times before I divorced his cousin and my contact with him was required to end...
He asked a friend in his neighborhood where he might be able to buy a pistol...
“Why do you need a gun Michael?” the friend asked.
"There is a prowler in our neighborhood,” Michael answered, knowing full well he was lying to his friend. “Madeleine is frightened and I’d feel better if we had one in the house.”
“I have one you can have,” the friend answered. “I’ll bring it over sometime this week.”
“No!” Michael blurted out. “Madelaine doesn’t know I am want one.”
The friend brought the .38 caliber pistol to Michael’s office...
“When he left, I shut the door and the blinds,” Michael told me, beginning a very difficult story for him to tell. “I looked at the gun, trying to find the will and courage to shoot myself. But I couldn’t. Instead I put the gun in a drawer of my desk. Then I collapsed in tears."
Unable or unwilling to end his life, Michael’s misery continued. He would eat up to four meatball subs or turkey sandwiches for lunch at work. Then he'd stop and secretly eat six Big Mac's on the way home.
Michael insisted he be the one who cooked at home, wanting to save Madelaine from being complicit in his obesity. But the meals he would prepare for himself and his small family were enormous. He was selfishly but unwittingly infecting his wife and young boy with his own disease...
“My wife begged me to stop eating 100,000 times," he told me. “It wasn’t until I became obsessed with my own suicide that I understood why. That is when I knew there was no hope for me. I gave up.”
It was shortly after that when an angel by the name of Richard Simmons came into Michael’s life. It is a long story how Richard got involved, but if you know anything about Richard Simmons you would know that once he’d found out about someone suffering from obesity like Michael was...well, Richard could not help but get involved.
Richard did not care what Michael looked like. He did not care how he’d come to be like he was. All Richard cared about was changing the way Michael thought. Richard knew that nothing was going to change for Michael until his thinking did.
In one afternoon’s mail, I received a short note from Michael. I could not help but feel the positive energy his words exuded. He told me what Richard was doing for him. For one reason or another I forgot about writing back or calling. To this day I regret my rudeness.
But I did follow Michael’s progress with Richard as his coach and mentor. It was incredible. But what was even more incredible was that Michael’s insurance company refused to pay for a huge amount of his hospitalization and rehab. The costs came to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Michael had ballooned to 1120 pounds since I’d seen him last and had not been out of his bed or his bedroom for more than a year. He suffered a heart attack and had to be removed from his home in an incredibly embarrassing way.
The fire department came to his home in Brooklyn with chain saws. They literally cut his second floor bedroom wall wide open...large enough for the boom of a Con Ed crane to reach in and pick up his bed. It was impossible to carry him down the stairs.
With neighbors and news camera crews witnessing his humiliation, that is how Michael was removed from his own home. The crane lowered him into the bed of a utility truck and he was whisked away to the hospital.
The photographs of that horrible day were plastered across all the New York newspapers and on the evening news. Michael had become a spectacle and he nearly did not survive.
Richard was sitting beside him one day in the hospital...
“How badly do you want to live Michael?” Richard asked.
That question sent Michael into an explosion of tears that did not stop for nearly an hour. Richard had his answer. They made a deal...
“I promise not to quit if you don’t,” he told Michael. “I will help you as long as you help yourself.”
When Michael agreed, Richard began to personally pay for everything the insurance company would not...literally hundreds of thousands of dollars!
Michael's incredible quarter century of binge eating and crash dieting had come to an end and his first steps to recovery began at the very moment when all hope seemed lost...that is when Richard Simmons appeared. He was talking about changing the way we think.
"I had everything," Michael told him. "A gorgeous wife, a successful career at a pharmaceutical company and a lovely ten year old boy. But I am 1120 pounds now. I cannot walk up stairs. I can hardly breathe because of the weight on my stomach.
The doctors told me that if I would lose my balance and fall, I will break every bone in my body from my hips down...just by my sheer weight. I know all this but I just can’t stop eating.”
Richard took over and Michael had several surgeries. He was put on a supervised 1200 calorie a day diet of nothing but protein and vegetables. Each and every day, Richard worked on keeping Michael's thoughts positive. It was a full time job.
Incredibly, in just eighteen months, Michael lost nearly half a ton of fat...a staggering 924 pounds, taking him down to a trim 196 pounds.
He felt incredible. For the first time in his life he could buy a normal three-piece suit instead of a specially-tailored XXXXXL. He accompanied Richard Simmons on a cross country tour, talking about his journey and giving talks and motivational speeches. He had his teeth capped and his hair fashioned. He wore expensive clothes and shoes. He was a celebrity now.
But his record-breaking weight loss didn’t last long. The day after he was crowned ‘Highest Recorded Weight Loss’ in the Guinness Book of Records, Michael made a fatal mistake. He allowed his thinking to change again...back to the Old Michael! He allowed his disease to gain a voice and power over him. He let down his guard.
“I thought I could take a day off from it all,” he confessed to Richard. "I ate four hotdogs and French fries smothered with cheese. Once I'd tasted forbidden food again, that was it! I was done.”
And he was done. He would never be able to get back to that point where he was able to change the way he thought about himself, food, his family and life. He began once again eating in secret. Over the next six years he ate his way straight back to 1120 pounds.
Michael was put back in the hospital. This time, too embarrassed to face him, he refused to see Richard Simmons. He spent 205 straight days in the hospital. He underwent more surgeries and was placed on a liquid diet, sometimes having to be restrained.
But when the doctors determined his organs were failing and he would not survive, they allowed him to go home to be with his loving wife Madeleine.
"They let me go home for Christmas because they knew it would be my last,” he said. “I needed the constant help of a nurse throughout the day and my wife in the evening."
Madeleine, now 58 and a cancer survivor, had to become the sole bread-winner for the family. She worked twelve hour days in an office and came home to care for her husband.
“He’s lost the weight before so I have to believe he can do it again," Madeleine said to a reporter from the New York Daily News. “But look at me! I am 225 pounds. It is all I can do to help myself. If he doesn’t lose this weight, neither of us will survive."
But he didn’t lose it and he did not survive.
I had been long divorced by the time I heard of Michael’s death in 2013. But his meteoric rise to fame and his tumultuous tumble back into his personal hell is well documented. There have been a half-dozen movies and documentaries made, all telling his morose story.
“I want everyone to know that obesity is a disease,” he told a reporter the week before he died. “Get help straight away. But if you’ve got this disease, you must first start fighting it in your head. Changing the way you think is the first step. You don’t want to end up like me.”
I told you this story today because Michael Hebranko holds a fond yet tragic place in my memories. His was a truly tormented life. Why it had to be that way I will never know. But why I had to witness it is something for which I will be forever grateful.
Michael was one of the first to teach me the power of positive thinking. While he was able to hold on to it, his positive thoughts were rocketing him to a cure. But he also taught me how hard it is to maintain that way of thinking...to change years and decades and a lifetime of thinking otherwise.
I have friends today who are suffering from cancer, financial problems or the collapse of their relationships. If only I could make them see the first step to their recovery is to change the way they think. And then I would tell them the second and the third and the fourth and every step after that is to continue taking the first step over.