URBANA – There was a time when Suzi Walthall couldn't go anywhere without feeling everyone was staring at her.
When she feared strangers were ridiculing her so much that she dreaded every time she had to leave the house.
When she couldn't stop eating three-plate lunches and double-burger dinners, even when her weight passed 400 pounds.
Please, God, she began to pray last year, give me the strength to do what is necessary.
Strength arrived on a morning in June, when Walthall woke up with a feeling her life was about to change if she'd just take the first step.
She got out of bed and went for a walk.
The Urbana woman made it less than a half-mile on her first walk and came home exhausted and determined to go farther the next day.
"I had the feeling it was the start of something great," she recalls.
Some 11 months later, Walthall has lost 184 pounds and can hardly wait to make it an even 200.
How has she done it? Through sheer determination, a strong faith, family support, lots of exercise and diet tips she picked up on the Internet.
Walthall grew up enjoying swimming, bike riding and good home-cooked meals, she says.
Binge drinking in high school left her a bit overweight when she graduated, but the big weight gains started after she went to college.
Depression helped add some of the pounds, especially after a close friend was killed in an accident. Pregnancy added another 100 pounds, pushing her weight past 300 when she had her daughter at age 28.
Over the next decade, Walthall picked up more than 100 additional pounds and believes her top weight hit 460 in 2006. But it wasn't easy knowing how much she weighed most of the time, when the scales don't go up that high.
What she did know was a growing misery: She couldn't fit into the largest plus-size women's clothing and had to buy big men's sizes. She developed some obesity-related health issues – high cholesterol, high blood pressure and sleep apnea – and became more reluctant every day about venturing out in public.
"I hated the way people looked at me," she recalls.
And the mean people didn't confine themselves to just looking. Walthall remembers one time at a store when she tried to question an error in her receipt and the cashier told her, "Lose weight, you fat cow."
Walthall's dad, Lou Walthall, remembers other cruelties that hurt his daughter, like the time the two of them were trying to have breakfast together at a restaurant and a couple sitting at a nearby table kept staring at her.
She cringed with embarrassment, and Dad got mad, saying loudly enough for those folks to hear: "Boy, some people sure do love to stare, don't they?"
Suzi Walthall says everything started to change for her in January 2008, when she underwent a strong conversion to Christianity and began seeing her eating habits in a whole new light. She was guilty of gluttony, she realized, and that's a sin.
"I prayed about it," she recalls. "I told God I wanted the motivation and strength to do what was necessary."
Walthall says one of the first obstacles she had to overcome when she started walking was the fear that people would laugh at her.
"Every car that would go by, I'd just cringe. I thought every person going by would be looking at me," she said.
But in just a few days, she was walking a mile a day, and within six weeks she was managing 4 miles a day.
With the support of her family, she quit her job at a Jackson Hewitt Tax Service office and set out to make weight loss her full-time job. Her next step was to join Truly Fit, a gym in southeast Urbana where the owners helped her add strength and cardiovascular workouts to her routine and gave her support that helped keep her coming back, she said.
This past February, she also began working with a personal trainer.
Meanwhile, she trained herself to eat in a whole new way and resolved to make it a lifelong habit.
Breakfast is now plain oatmeal with raisins or strawberries, or some cooked egg whites with wheat toast, she says. Lunch – once a few platefuls at a Chinese buffet – is now a small chicken breast and vegetables. Dinner is more vegetables and a light sandwich. Snacks are some almonds or fruit. Occasionally, Walthall says, she gives in to small cravings, then gets right back on her diet.
"I have to admit," she says, "I don't have a desire to eat a lot."
Walthall's trainer, Bronston Austin, says he spotted Walthall working out at the gym alone and began slipping her some tips here and there. He knew he could help her even more, he said, and soon found her to be one of the best clients he has ever had.
"She really wants this," he said. "That's the biggest thing. She wants to do this with all her might."
Austin says he has seen more change in Walthall than the paring down of her body. She has gained confidence, he says. She even approaches other people at the gym now, and offers them help and support.
Lou Walthall says he's proud of his daughter's determination and the faithful way she has stuck with her diet and exercise.
"These people who have the (weight-loss) surgery, that's fine," he says. "We wouldn't have had the money to do it that way, but more power to them. But I think this is one way, and I think because she is so daily persistent with it, it works."
Suzi Walthall says she wants to get her weight down to about 170, but Austin believes she probably won't stop there. Experience tells him someone who loses that much weight and works that hard will want to continue improving, he says.
For now, Walthall says she's just happy to go places without being stared at. She's happy that her health is better, and that she's showing her daughter a more healthful way to eat.
She's also happy to share her experience with other people suffering from obesity, because she thinks it's important for them to know it's not hopeless for those who want change badly enough.
"If you can move around, even if you have to start small, it can happen," she says.
Walthall wanted to lose the first 200 pounds in a year, and doesn't know if she'll get there by June 14. But even if she doesn't, she's satisfied with how much she has accomplished so far.
"I don't think any of this would have been possible without God," she says.