I am the least likely person to enter a bodybuilding competition. If you know me, you’d understand why I’d be more at ease speaking to a large crowd of hecklers than stand on stage wearing posing shorts and nothing else. I can handle the shorts part but the thought of parading without a shirt in front of people sends me into a panic. Not to mention that I will be critiqued and judged by experts, something I felt uniquely qualified to do so all by myself. Until now.

I have suffered from body shaming for most of my life. The taunting started when I was thirteen. Before that my body had been side-lined from a bout of rheumatic fever that left my heart scarred at the age of 10. As a result of that now ancient illness that has all but been eradicated, I was given a pass to skip gym class or any physical school activity. I wasn’t a jock or aspired to be one so I milked this medical excuse for all it was worth.

I came to love the great indoors. I just wasn’t thrilled with the weight gain that ensued by being sedentary. As high school approached, I vowed to change and start anew. My mind made up, I proclaimed I was only eating healthy foods moving forward.

I still vividly remember that anxious look my mother gave me when I asked for a “measured cup of rice” along with lean cuts of meat for that first dinner intended for my new life. Little did I know that this would be the inauspicious beginnings of a lifelong eating disorder. And while there are many aspects to developing an eating disorder that include genetics and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, the start of one is always insidious and forever remains that way if left untreated.

My dad, who had been especially vocal about my weight gain, noticed the immediate changes. His approving reaction was the seal I needed to validate my newfound control. But rather than feel good about his comments, my mind said: “You just wait and see what I’m gonna do.” And that’s when the internal taunts started, 24-7.

The bully: an inner drill sergeant whose voice got louder and more harsh each time I approached a mirror. This tough-love dude told me daily that no matter how much I exercised, and I did 300 sit-ups with every commercial break on tv, that I would never be fit. That my body would never be good enough unless I played by the exacting rules and standards of calorie counting. Except the rules kept changing as my body changed. Each set of rules came with different exercise standards or disordered eating habits. For example, I would only eat items in even numbers: two pieces of chicken, two small potatoes and four carrots. Rice, the daily staple at home, now represented chaos since I couldn’t count the grains.

Yet the madness worked. If I needed to lose twenty pounds of “baby fat” at the time by just being active, I wound up losing a whopping seventy-five pounds by starving myself. I didn’t just become skinny cool to impress my peers or dad, I was now cadaverous. Way to go, I told myself. Look who’s laughing now.

In full command of my destiny, I did then what many boys still do today: I gained enough weight to make my body look healthy. I managed not to look wasted and ate enough to keep the light headedness at bay. I soldiered on. My rationale: I had plenty of self-control and discipline already, so who needs treatment? I had it all figured out.

I kept this healthy façade for years but the inner body shaming never went away. The daily taunts as I dressed and undressed made me feel unworthy despite the rigid diet plans I would subject my body.

It’s now taken me 45 years to realize that all the self-control I prided myself on was a control based on fear. Duh, you say. But being in control and on “constant vigilance” made me feel as if I was the only one who was prepared and fearless of come what may. All the “right foods” I trained myself to eat, the vegetarian diet I learned to love for twenty years, the long-distance running that took a toll on my ankles and the many years of intermittent fasting further estranged me from my body and kept me in a constant state of fear of an anticipated weight gain that never occured. I was stuck in the past.

Last year when I turned 60, my body—and especially my heart—started calling me back to myself. To slow down and take notice of my present movements, my repeated thought patterns (“I’ve gotta lose weight!”) and my constant need for control and mental engagement. To learn to truly relax and not pretend to be “chill” when I wasn’t, to breathe deeply and feel (novel!) into those places where a constant tension lived in me but I didn’t know it existed.

My heart’s inspiration came not from a men’s fitness story or a YouTube video on body transformation but rather from my friend Brian, someone who seemingly embodies and mirrors everything I am and everything I am not. Watching him lift weights, for example, I saw a natural love and innate instinct in him that allowed him to harness and push his body against heavy weights and machinery. Even the two-wheel variety for he loves riding motorcycles. Watching his ease of movement and flow, and not the deliberate and calculated aspects I had adopted, brought an inner awareness and awakened a mind-muscle and mind-heart connection I never knew about. This was new and exhilarating and scary all at once. But it wasn’t for me. If I’m not the in control guy then who the hell am I?!

Painfully and through much inner work that still includes yoga and meditation, I came to learn and understand that my trusted patterns of success no longer served me. That in order to heal and become whole I now needed to expose the truth about myself and my self-imposed and now seemingly irrational rigidity. Instead of continuing to feel a sense of despair about my body, I decided to challenge it and push its limits in ways I never thought possible. Thanks to personal trainers and bodybuilders who have coached me and enabled me to learn foundational movements I thought were impossible for me to grasp, I have developed a passion and full-fledged respect for weightlifting. I especially love the resistance and push/pull intensity that comes with weightlifting. It liberates my body and puts me in a state where the obstacle to lift the heavy weight is the way.

Today, I am beginning to see and feel the newfound fruits of my labor: a level of muscularity, inner confidence and body functionality that has eluded me all this time; yet wouldn’t be possible without a macronutrient meal plan full of carbohydrates I swore I’d never eat again.

Along the way and in the last year I have inked my body with meaningful tattoos I was too fearful to get. I have grown a beard. I am growing up.

But a key part of growing up and an area I still struggle with is forgiveness, especially for all my misperceptions. “Forgiveness corrects the misperception that we are separate from each other, and allows us to experience a sense of unity and at-one-ment with each other.” I had read that line in “Love Is Letting Go of Fear,” by Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D., dozens of times and it never resonated until now: that in order to be whole and free, we need to forgive others and to forgive ourselves.

This October, when I step on that bodybuilding competition stage, I will not only honor my best friend Brian, but I will also hope to serve as a testament to my two teenage daughters to always love and accept their bodies. Most of all, I will proudly display my unabashed and unconditional love for myself and showcase the body I have regained through my heart’s renewed love and forgiveness. On that stage I will proclaim once and for all, to all who will judge me that day, that my mind no longer serves as the control center of my heart but rather as the gym where I grow my reality.

I may just be, after all, free.