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My Heroes: Alissa Combs
“My Heroes” is a blog series dedicated to those people who have enlightened and inspired me over the years during my own struggle to maintain a life dedicated to health and fitness. This week I am pleased to offer you my first installment in this series “Alissa Combs”. Thank you Alissa for your valuable time and energy in this project.
Alissa Combs is a busy person. She is a Girl Scout Troop Leader, a full-time employee, a wife and mother, and the President of the local Chamber of Commerce. Many who know her will agree that she is the personification of reliability and follow-through. It’s also no secret that Alissa is committed to a lifestyle dedicated to health and fitness.
I have known Alissa for almost two years. She was one of my very first students when I was teaching Zumba® classes and I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed by me for this project because she is such an inspiration to me. Her story is shared by many who enjoy physical activity, but those who struggle with a sedentary lifestyle may also discover a common ground.
It’s easy to assume that Alissa has an easy life. She is petite, fit, intelligent, a great communicator, and well-organized. For those of us who are obese, out or shape, or struggling with various aspects of our lives it may seem impossible to relate with someone like Alissa, but her story is not so different from our own and I would like to suggest that it is through our similarities, not our differences, that we can all support each other in our personal journey to a healthier lifestyle.
I sat down with Alissa after a Zumba® class one day and started the interview by telling her how inspired I was by her level of involvement in organizations like Girl Scouts, when she informed me that she was taking on yet another volunteer position. I blinked, speechless, because I could not imagine how she could manage to add another thing to her busy schedule. Alissa then explained to me that her 23 year old daughter has a bipolar disorder and that she and her family had been struggling alone for years until recently. Through a series of unexpected events Alissa discovered the Pender Alliance for Teen Health. PATH’s vision is to bring more resources for mental & physical health to the teens of Pender County.
Alissa reflects, “If I was not introduced to NAMI and their Family to Family Connection program I probably would not have been so eager to join the board at PATH. The NAMI class has opened my eyes to the huge lack of resources for the mentally ill and working with PATH is only a tiny contribution I can make towards increasing those resources.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. For more information please visit their website at www.nami.org.
Alissa explained to me that for a long time she didn’t want anybody to know about her daughter’s condition, however, now she feels that she is ready to not just talk about mental illness, but to be an open advocate for organizations like NAMI. Alissa shared with me several heart wrenching stories about some of the issues she has faced over the years as the parent of a child with a mental illness.
While I could sense her strength and determination, I also felt that Alissa’s feelings of fear, concern, uncertainty, isolation and worry were tangible as she spoke about her family. They were also oddly familiar as I began to linger on my own problems. I couldn’t help but wonder how she managed to be so successfully committed to her own health and fitness all of these years that she was going through such difficult times. Usually when I have a bad day one of the first things to get sacrificed is a workout routine or my commitment to eating healthy. So I asked Alissa if that was the only obstacle that she faced to maintaining a healthy lifestyle or was there more, and if so how did she overcome these things?
Her answer stunned me, because even with the burden of raising a mentally ill child, the biggest obstacle she faced came from the very people who inspire her to be healthy in the first place: her friends and family. Often while at special family get-togethers someone would make jokes about her healthy eating habits, making remarks in a derogatory manner such as “are you going to let your kids eat that?” or when a situation got heated at home it may be pointed out to her that she is at fault for making time every day to go to the gym. What also stunned me about Alissa’s experience is how similar her story is to so many others. It appears that no one is immune to the criticism of others when it comes to how we eat or what we do with our time, not even when we are already fit and active.
I asked her, “How do you overcome that? How do you stay committed to going to the gym and to eating healthy when you don’t have support?” Her answer was very simple, “Well, I don’t mean to sound petty, but I look around me. I witness health issues in others that they should not have until they are much older. I overcome by looking around and seeing how unhealthy everyone looks.”
I thought about what Alissa said and realized that she was right. While none of us wants to make that type of judgment, the simple fact remains that we should take into consideration the state of those who are not supportive of our health and fitness goals. I remembered a time when my parents warned me against wasting my money on fresh fruits and vegetables. I started to let it get to me, but the one thing that kept me on a path toward eating better was to face the fact that my parents really struggled with making healthy food choices, and that perhaps it was not wise to let their opinions influence my habits. It can be really hard to take this view, especially with people who we care about, but understanding someones limitation for supporting us is not the same as abandoning them or not loving them. It’s just an acknowledgment that all of us have limitations of some sort.
Next I asked Alissa, “What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make changes in their sedentary lifestyle?”
She lamented that she often tried to get others to work out more or to eat better, but that it usually didn’t work. “I will admit that I sometimes say things that people usually don’t want to hear like, ‘You’ve got kids. Don’t you want to be healthy so you can play with your grandchildren someday?’”
I smiled because I suspected that I knew what types of reactions she received, so I asked, “Ok, let’s pretend that someone was actually going to listen to you and take your advice. What would you say to them, then?”
Alissa thought for a moment and said, “Set boundaries for yourself and your family. Take care of yourself now so you can enjoy it when you are older. The hardest part is getting into the routine. It’s like everything else. You get up, you make breakfast, you go to work, you go to the gym. Just get over that little hump of starting something new and once you do you don’t really think about it anymore.”
I knew from a previous conversation that Alissa had been physically active most of her life. When she joined the gym where she currently holds a membership she was not looking for weight loss. She was concerned about her blood pressure and wanted to make sure she stayed healthy. It wasn’t until two years ago, however, that Alissa discovered my Zumba® class.
When I was teaching evening Zumba® classes Alissa was always one of my biggest supporters. She was the type of student who was constantly bringing friends to class and would call me if there were traffic problems, so that I would not be late for class. She was welcoming to new students and was quick to spread the word around to anyone and everyone she knew about various Zumba events in our area. She is every Zumba instructor’s dream student.
I had my own reasons for why I loved teaching Zumba® classes so much but I wanted to hear hers, “Alissa, why Zumba®? You have been exercising all of your life and take a wide range of fitness classes. Is Zumba special? If so, why.”
We had been talking for over an hour at this point, exchanging stories and sharing ideas, and for the first time during the interview, Alissa was at a loss for words. She smiled and said haltingly “It is special…” Her eyes searched around as she grasped for the right words, “I first thought that I couldn’t do it… I kept thinking ‘What do all the others think of me, I can’t shake my hips’” she said while laughing. And then with a hint of calm she finally decided on, “It lets me be free… I can’t explain it…I just get lost inside.”
I then smiled too, because I understood her reaction to my question. I understood her awkward reflection of this mysterious Zumba® fitness phenomenon and I was remembering how much Alissa struggled in the beginning, but now she moves like a wild woman. I was also smiling because I remembered how insecure I was as an instructor those first few months. I had no idea about the types of issues that Alissa was dealing with at home. Alissa carries a lot on her shoulders and it means a lot to me that I could play at least some part in an activity that brought her a sense of freedom.
We all struggle. We all have obstacles to overcome. My hope in sharing Alissa’s story, and all the stories to follow, is to show how the successful people managed to overcome the things that can keep most of us from the lifestyle we say we want for ourselves. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a journey, rather than a means to an end, and together I think that journey is going to be a whole lot more fun.