Meet Yonas of Walk with Yoyo!

My therapist once said to me, “Yonas, you have suffered great trauma in your life, and until you acknowledge that, moving forward will be nearly impossible.” Trauma. What does trauma really mean? It’s not as if I have a wound from a serious injury. I looked up the definition and it’s described as a “disordered psychic or behavioural state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.”

Wow, that is a mouthful.

Instantly, I rejected the notion that I had severe mental or emotional stress. “I am not crazy” was my first thought. “I don’t have mental issues.”

It is interesting how triggering the word “mental” is. At that moment, I would have rather suffered a physical injury than be labelled as having mental issues.

Years later, I would think about what the therapist said and it still bothered me. Was there something inherently wrong with me mentally? I couldn’t even think of what was so traumatic about my life experiences. But I couldn’t really dig deep into those gloomy feelings because I was going to be a dad soon.

A month before my daughter was born, I woke up and for the first time in months decided to check my weight. 277 lbs. I was distraught. Even though I knew my weight was climbing I thought I gained about 20 lbs but not 50 lbs. I was always on the chubbier side--actually, I am going to be honest--I was fat. I regularly fluctuated in weight. Lose 40 lbs, gain 50, lose 50, gain 30, and so on.

I always wanted to be a dad. That was my dream, to have a house full of kids filled with love and joy. This was going to be the best thing that has ever happened to me. But something changed in me that day when I saw the number on the scale. I felt rage and anger. My mind raced, “How am I going to be a great father if I can’t even control my own weight? What kind of an example will I be if they see a fat slob who is too tired to play with them?” If I am not going to do it for myself then I need to do it for my daughter. So, that morning I put on my shoes and went on a 20 min walk with my dog.

Every day, twice a day, rain or shine, I walked.

What started as 20 minute walks turned into 2-hour walks. I would listen to music or podcasts and something strange started happening. More and more, during my walks, I would have my music or podcast playing, but my brain would start drifting to my childhood. My 2-hour walks would be consumed with different stories and exhat I had hidden away deep in my mind.

I was born in Khartoum, Sudan in east Africa on June 30 1982. My parents had just left the war-torn country of Eritrea with a dream to have a family, to have a chance at life. But where we ended up was in the slums of Sudan. My parents found an opportunity in Saudi Arabia but left me behind in Sudan until they could come back to get me. I remember waking up one morning and my mom was just gone. She knew it would be hard to say goodbye to me, but I wished she did. She just left me. All I had left of her was a blanket wrap she put me to bed in that smelled like her. I remember crying for her not knowing where she was and I wouldn’t let anyone touch her wrap. That wrap and the smell of her on it was the only thing I had of her and would drag it around with me 24 hours a day. I didn’t know when or if I would ever see her again.

About a year later, a man arrived at the home I was staying at. As he approached to pick me up and hug me I realized who he is--my dad.

As my dad was sitting and resting, he gave me his watch to play with and I hid it. When he asked why I told him, “If you don’t have your watch you can’t leave again.” My dad laughed and hugged me and said “No Yonas, I am not leaving you. I came to bring you home with me and mommy.” I didn’t even understand where home or where my mom was, but I wanted to be there.

Now, at nearly three years old, my dad packed up our things and we made our way to the airport. A young kid from the slums was on his way onto a jumbo jet for the first time. The experience scared me so much that I peed myself. I didn’t know what a plane was or where I was going, all I knew was that I was with my dad and going to my mom.

We landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia a few hours later. Everything was strange for me. It was so different compared to what I grew up around. We arrived in front of this huge house and when we went inside a woman stood before me and asked me softly with worry in her voice, “Do you know who I am?” and I answered “Alganesh.” It was my mom and the relief in her face when she knew her baby didn’t forget her was priceless.

Over the next few months, I had a hard time adjusting. The first thing that turned negative was my relationship with food. I couldn’t eat at all. My poor parents didn’t have the resources to figure out why their 3-year-old stopped eating. There was no internet or books they could read at the time. The only thing they knew was “our son has to eat.” So, they would force me to eat. When he got home from work at 10 p.m. and found out I hadn’t eaten all day, my dad would wake me up to force me to eat.

My father was a driver and my mother was a maid working for a member of the Saudi Royal Family. If they had the resources to take me to a child psychologist, I know exactly what they would have told my parents. “Alganesh, Yohanes, your son has suffered great trauma in his life, and until you acknowledge that, moving forward will be nearly impossible.”

35 years later, reliving this moment on one of my walks is when it finally clicked. I have to be honest with myself and admit that I have been through some traumatic experiences that affected me mentally and emotionally. In order for me to figure out why I keep sabotaging myself, I have to understand who I am and how the experiences in my life have shaped me, good or bad. I had to acknowledge it.

Now, fast forward to 1990 and the Gulf War has begun, I was 8-years-old about to board a plane with my mom, 3-year-old sister, and my 8-month-old brother to find freedom in a place called Canada. I didn’t know anything about Canada but I knew in order to achieve freedom we had to get there. My dad was not coming with us. Since I was the only one, besides him, who was able to speak and read in English, he sat me down and explained that I was the man now. I had to make sure that our family reached our final destination and he would join us soon.

I was honoured to be given this very important task. My family needed me and depended on me to arrive at freedom. I listened intently to all the instructions I was told and assured my dad we were going to make it. We said goodbye to our dad, not knowing at the time that we wouldn’t be reunited in Canada for another 10 years.

The journey was a long one but we made it and found freedom in Canada, but we were not whole. By not having my dad, there was always this void in my life. As the oldest child, there was a lot of pressure put on me while in Canada. I wasn’t a kid anymore, I was the man of the house and someone for my mom to lean on. She was also going through her own struggles, something I wouldn’t really understand until my late 30’s.

I was always considered mature for my age. I think from the moment my parents left Sudan I was taken out of childhood and thrust into the real world. I had to be the mature older son whose example would lead my siblings to success. I took this as a sense of pride growing up but not realizing the great mental and emotional stress that was put on me. I didn’t acknowledge these feelings until they came up during my walks. I realized that the way I would handle that stress was by overeating. I would begin to binge eat but I didn’t realize at the time that I wasn’t doing it because I was hungry or just enjoyed the food so much, I was trying to feel a sense of happiness. Even if it was for 10 minutes, I was happy and could forget about my problems during those 10 minutes I was wolfing down my food. But once the food was gone the issues were still there, to add to that, I would be left feeling guilty and hating myself. I would eat more and more to avoid facing those issues and end up hating myself more and more. Nobody could make me feel worse about myself than I could. My brain was filled with negative thoughts about my body. Shopping for clothes was a nightmare. I truly disliked myself while hiding behind a shield of fake self-confidence. I hated myself. But why? I was always a caring empathetic person when it came to other people, but not to myself. Why? Walking would help me tackle those questions.

Over the next 3.5 years, 2000 hours, 21 million steps I had to reintroduce myself to me. With each traumatic experience I unpacked, the lighter I felt, literally and figuratively. I began to really enjoy myself and love me for me. What started off as something for my daughter ended up being for me. If I did not take care of myself, I couldn’t take care of my children. I wanted to be a great example of self-love for my kids.

My parents loved me immensely, they would have cut off a body part for me. I don’t blame them at all for not realizing I was going through trauma. They were two young kids themselves from a farming village in a developing country. They didn’t have the resources. But I do, and I needed to be better for my kids.

Walking helped me lose 120 lbs over 3.5 years. But that isn’t even the best thing walking helped me achieve.

Walking helped me find myself. Walking helped me heal. Walking helped me love myself. Losing weight was a by-product of feeling that I deserved to love myself. I truly believe that when you stand up and say “I love myself and I deserve more” there is nothing that can stand in your way.

I am living my dream life by learning to love myself. That day on the scale broke me and it could have taken me on a worse spiral health-wise. But I knew I was better than that. I made it my goal to figure out who I was. Who is the real Yonas? I think it is time everyone finds out who they really are.

To my old self, I am sorry I didn’t have your back. I am sorry I didn’t see your sparkle. You deserved patience. You deserved compassion. You deserved a friend. You deserved the world. I am sorry I didn’t have your back. I have it now.

Not walking isn’t even an option anymore. I love my daily walks. It is a chance for me to clear my head and stay centred.Walking is a personal trainer for my brain. Every time I come back from a walk, I come back happier, lighter, calmer. For all that are struggling and able-bodied, I would recommend putting on your shoes and just going for a 20 min walk. I call walking the gateway exercise. More often than not, the more you do it, the more your confidence grows, the more you will want to try other forms of exercise. Those 20 minutes of solace by yourself will do wonders for your mental health.

I want everyone to know that loving yourself is not reserved for the fit. We all deserve to love ourselves. The first step in this journey is to take that first step.

I am here to help anyone that wants it. You can contact me on my Instagram walkwithyoyo all one word. Let’s take back our lives and live it to the fullest, we all deserve to love ourselves, once you realize that nothing can stop you.

Thank You.

-Yonas