Marla Pachler has always been heavy.
Even at 75 pounds, when the teenager’s protruding collarbone was hidden by her turtleneck sweaters and her ribs looked more like skeletal remains, Marla was disgustingly overweight. She refused to look in the mirror, and wore baggy clothes to hide a hugeness that only she could see. Everyone else saw a teenager struggling with anorexia, an eating disorder that causes a person to restrict their diet due to a distorted self-perception and irrational fear of gaining weight.
No matter what Marla did or did not eat, she was never satisfied with the number on the scale.
“It started in high school,” Marla, now 31 years of age, explained. “I thought I was heavy at 110 pounds. In my mind, I was heavy, so I started counting calories.”
It was a numbers game she would never win. At the age of 16, Marla was a loaded revolver playing Russian roulette with her health.
“That’s when things started to happen to me,” Marla remembered. “Random shakes. I would drop things. I told my mom about it; she’s a nurse. But she never saw it. While playing soccer, I would just fall down sometimes. Then one day, my mom walked into the bathroom while I was brushing my teeth and I had a full blown seizure.”
Marla started shaking uncontrollably, and fell to the bathroom floor. After years of being diagnosed with low blood sugar and poor diet, doctors gave Marla an EEG to evoke a seizure in hopes of being able to pinpoint the issue.
“I had a full blown seizure and bit my tongue,” Marla explained. “It felt like I was getting electrocuted. Every muscle in my body was being pulled and yanked as hard as possible. When I woke up, I didn’t know who my parents were for at least five minutes. My dad to this day says that was the scariest moment of his life.”
Right away, doctors knew exactly what they were dealing with – juvenile epilepsy – a condition she will have for the rest of her life. Life is hard for any teen, but for Marla, reasons to die suddenly seemed to outweigh her reasons to live.
“I tried to commit suicide at least five times between the ages of 17 and 20,” she said. “Fortunately, I’m terrible at it.”
Depressed and suicidal, the weight continued to fall off of Marla’s already thin frame.
“When I went to college, I just stopped eating,” she said. “I didn’t like how I looked. I didn’t think any guy would ever want to be with me. It was a downward spiral. Then one night, I woke up and couldn’t breathe. I called my mom and my parents immediately picked me up and brought me home.”
Marla was again taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with yet another condition – an eating disorder.
“The doctor told me I wasn’t going to live if I didn’t fix it,” Marla said when they recorded her weight at 75 pounds at the age of 18. “I remember him saying, ‘If you don’t fix this in the next couple of months, you’re going to die.’ My bones were already destroyed.”
With a stubbornness to live for at least her family’s sake, Marla enrolled in culinary school, where she would be forced to face her unnatural fear of food.
“I guess I like to make things hard on myself,” she said. “So that was my punishment for three years. I slowly ate. I don’t know how I got through it. Chefs are always telling you to taste it, to add more salt, more chocolate. So I kept eating.”
Marla also made a deal with her supportive family, who wanted to see her reach her 100-pound goal. Marla always wanted a tattoo, and her loved ones promised to make it a family affair if she ate her way back to good health.
“I wanted to do it for my family, but they also told me that if I hit 100 pounds, they would all go get a tattoo with me,” she laughed. “It took some time but I finally hit 100 pounds when I was 23 years old. My mom, dad, sister and my grandparents all went to get tattoos even though none of us had one before, and my grandfather told me, ‘Whatever you get, I’ll get.’ I got a dolphin because it is a beautiful, brave animal and I was hoping it would give me strength. So my strong, amazing grandfather got a dolphin, too, on his leg. It looked hilarious on him. It was definitely a day to remember.”
The problem with an eating disorder, however, is that it never really goes away. At the age of 24, Marla’s celebration of her healthy weight was short-lived, as horrible headaches forced her to return to the hospital. There, doctors found a cyst on her brain.
“So I had to have brain surgery,” she said. “It was scary because a lot of people came in and out of my life when they found out I had epilepsy. When I found out I needed brain surgery, someone I was dating walked out of my life. Nothing could go right.”
Doctors removed the mass, but not all of it; they simply made room for it to grow again.
“Luckily, it was benign, but I’ll always have it,” she continued. “They can remove it but they can’t stop it from growing back, so they made space for it to grow. Unfortunately, four years later, it grew back and I had to do the brain surgery again.”
That wasn’t her only struggle at the time, as weight loss continued to creep back into her life during each of her painful recoveries from surgery. Her grandfather, who also happened to be her number one fan, passed away. Then her father was diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer.
“After all of that, I needed to find me and gain strength somehow,” she explained. “Watching my mom take care of both of us, and watching my dad fight for his life, gave me strength to fight, as well.”
Looking for a change in scenery to aid with her soul-searching, Marla hopped into her car on her 30th birthday and left her hometown in New Jersey for greener pastures – ending up in the snowy mountains of Colorado. Marla was also hoping to find a new source of strength, and immediately found it the day she walked into a “box” known as CrossFit Broadway.
“I joined CrossFit because I wanted to try something new for my health issues and self-esteem issues,” she said. “I met with the owner, Jason, who gave me one-on-one classes to learn the basics. I fell in love with it. I’m a very impatient person and found CrossFit so frustrating because I wanted to get everything the first day. I started three days a week, but now I go seven days a week. I attend classes and one-on-one sessions. I’m literally obsessed with it.”
The irony is that Marla’s obsession with dropping weight suddenly turned into daily goals of picking up more off the floor. Muscle weighs more than fat, so it takes a “heavier” person to lift up a loaded barbell. Marla suddenly wants to be heavy.
“Doing CrossFit, I worry when I lose weight because I’m more interested in muscle now,” she smiled. “I want more muscle so I can lift more. Now I eat every two or three hours and follow the Paleo diet because that also helps control my epilepsy. The anorexia, and the self-esteem issues, are still in the back of my mind, so it’s a constant battle. But CrossFit has made me stronger. It’s made me believe, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can get through anything.'”
“I want to weigh 110 pounds,” Marla said, adding that she wants to improve on her 170-pound back squat; her 125-pound power clean; and her 185-pound deadlift.
It’s a numbers game she still may never win, but it’s no longer about winning; it’s about living life to the fullest.
“Ninety-nine percent of everything you do in CrossFit is mental,” she summed up. “I love it. That’s why I keep going back. CrossFit Broadway, along with the amazing support of my family, my amazing sister and my close friends, saved me. They all make me want to fight and ‘compete every day’ to live.”
When Marla has a hard day, she visits her box and picks up something heavy.
“By the time I leave, I feel good. I feel strong. I feel like I can finally do this,” she said. She hopes that by sharing her story, others will realize that no matter what happens in life, it’s worth living.
“I just wish people realized how short life is and how fast it goes by,” Marla summed up. “I’ve learned that you need to embrace it and embrace the people who are really there for you. I don’t regret what I went through because it made me who I am today. I’m a fighter and I am strong.”
In Marla’s mind, strong is the new skinny – and no matter what life throws at her, Marla is strong enough to face it. Always has been. Always will be.
“Fight,” she said. “Compete for it, every day. You’re worth it.”