As a teenager, Greg Stokes says, he would wake up with his stomach in knots every school morning as he tried to figure out ways to avoid his tormentors for that day.
It was just another school day for most teenagers, but for him it was another dreaded day on the battlefield. School wasn’t a place where Greg felt safe. It was a war zone, a place where he was constantly being pummeled with insults, ridiculed and called names by fellow classmates as well as a few teachers, he said.
It was where he was pinched, poked, kicked, grabbed, humiliated and rejected. Greg, who was also nicknamed “the freight train,” was a target for bullies.
Some believed he deserved it because he was obese. His self-esteem had gotten so low that he began believing he deserved it, too.
He never told his parents about the abuse. Greg hated to look at himself in the mirror but he made himself, he said. It was part of his morning ritual. Looking at his reflection with disgust, he sometimes took the masking tape that he stole from his father’s shop and began taping up all the rolls, lumps and bulges, hoping maybe, just maybe, that this time it would make him look a little less fat.
Stokes, 52, lives in Belmont. To look at him now, you would never know that he had ever been overweight, let alone obese.
But he has the photographs and emotional scars to prove it. He overcame obesity at the age of 18 by losing 170 pounds, and he has worked hard to keep it off for 34 years. He says he’s grateful that he acquired the perseverance to overcome such a debilitating condition, but there are many kids today who suffer with the same issues, and he wants to help.
So he wrote a book about his experience to reach out to all those who are downcast from obesity to let them know he understands their pain and that there is hope. But just as importantly, he wants to educate the parents and public about the torment these kids experience daily because there is a very real possibility that they are doing just what he did – suffering in silence, medicating the pain with food, and hiding it all with a smile.
Stokes grew up in Ozark, Ala. He was the youngest of three boys in a loving and close-knit family. His mother’s world revolved around her family and especially her sons. But even with that type of motherly attentiveness, she was completely unaware of her son’s suffering until many years later, when she received a letter from Greg. The letter began, “Mother did you know.....” and it was a crippling blow.
Eventually, those letters, along with his mother’s responses, became the book “Mother Did You Know,” published in 2012. The book deals with the emotions, feelings and situations that he experienced as an obese child from the age of about 9 until he was 18, when he began the arduous process of losing the weight. He shows readers a world of emotional pain and loneliness and develops a heartbreaking sympathy for his mother as these hidden truths are revealed to her for the first time.
“I wrote the book to let parents know what their kids could possibly be going through,” Stokes said, “as an ice-breaker so that it can help them start a conversation with their children.”
He said that the book is meant to be read together and that he inserted topic points at the end of each letter to help the parent and child engage in conversation.
“Parents need to know that it’s not all about food choices but also conversation choices,” he said. “This is what your overweight child wants to tell you but doesn’t know how.”
According to information from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of childhood obesity in America has tripled since the 1980s and is now an epidemic, affecting nearly 18 percent of the population, or almost 13 million children and adolescents. The CDC says that today’s youth will potentially be the first generation to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents. North Carolina ranks fifth worst in the United States for childhood obesity.
Stokes believes that if he overcame obesity, he can help others do the same. But it takes vigilance, determination, focus and hard work. Stokes’ workout regime consists of running 5 miles a day, sometimes twice a day, 600 chin-ups a week, circuit training and weight training.
When he graduated high school, he weighed 340 pounds. Today, he weighs 170 pounds.
“I used to live to eat. I had to get to the place where I ate to live and looked at food as simply being my fuel,” he said.
He hopes that his book will play a small part in the movement to stamp out childhood obesity in the United States. “I don’t want to sell a million copies, but I do want to change a million lives.” he said.