The People's Hero
When I was little I often struggled to fit in. I often craved to feel like I belonged in with the "Group, " the cool club… the "Elite." Often I would be shunned for not being one of them. I was different, some may even say unique. My Pop would often remind me "Stop trying to fit in, you were born to stand out."
I'm not a Yogi, I'm not a DDPYogi, I'm Jesse Ruggiere, the man that faced a life time of adversity in 30 years. I had tumor operations, got hit by a car, flat lined, shattered my tib fib, heard that I'd never walk again, thyroid cancer, and cardiac ablation. Maybe, it was just all a reminder…. "Stop trying to fit in, you were born to stand out."
When I was 12, after the car accident, I was at St.Charles Rehabilitation Center. The doctors told me I was going to be in there for six months to one year, and they gave me a plan for rehab that would make that time frame "Possible" (as they would make the quotation marks with their fingers when they talked to me). To which I would tell them over and over again, "I'll be out in three months." I did their rehab exercises in my hospital room bath room behind a locked door outside of the hour and half day in the rehab room. I was progressing ahead of their imposed schedule, and no one knew what I was doing. The doctors tried to tell my Dad: "Mr. Ruggiere, what your son is doing is not possible, with the extent of his injuries we fear he is moving too quickly." Dad replied: "You need to understand something about my son Jesse. You looked him in his eyes you told him how this was going to happen, you told him what was possible before you even met him. He is now going to show you what is possible through hard work. You started this, doctors. Now my son is the rebel with a cause, and he is going to finish it."
I was discharged from rehab in three months and some change. You can read about that story in my book "Finding Life." While it often hurt that the world had given up on me, I was in a sense at peace with it. My parents always believed in me. However, make no mistake. All those medical problems I experienced did some damage on my body, also on my mind. I was stuck in a state of physical pain, as well as depression.
Depression…. that ultimate wonder blizzard where visibility is at a bare minimum. You can’t see anything in front of your face, you just feel numb from the cold. That's how I existed for approximately 22 years of life after my car accident. Then thyroid cancer would strike, I'd feel something for a few months. I'd fight the cancer, do what I cout to get better, then go back to unhealthy living and drinking liquor to drown the depression from the prior crappy life reruns of tumors, or the car accident, that would play in a never ending loop in my head.
Then came the cardiac arrythmia, which I ignored for months. My addiction to energy drinks to combat the insomnia from not sleeping was not helping situation. Till that fateful day, when I was walking across the street at work to get a coke. Suddenly I felt my heart clench up in my chest, and start beating at a rate which made me feel as though it would explode. I rushed across the street to the office, and had my brother call an ambulance.
Thirty six hours in the Emergency Room, thirty six hours of doctors telling me possible problems I had. My brother keeping my company constantly reminding me: " All you been through, this is nothing." My Dad coming in the lobby looking in tears in his eyes, thinking this was it. His invincible son had finally met his match.
I thought alot in thirty six hours, and I promised myself that if I got out of the hospital alive I was going to be healthy. I kept saying to myself "You are going to get out of here, you are going to become healthy, you are going to live a new life. You have a nephew, with another one on the way, time to grow the F up Jesse and become a role model." It was all I thought about, all I obsessed over at Jamaica Hospital…. staying on this earth longer, so I could become a role model uncle for my nephews.
You can ask people close to me, I tend to obsess over goals. I eat sleep breathe my goals. It started at St. Charles Rehabilitation when they told me I would never walk again. I told them I would, and it became my only focus until I walked again. It continued in Jamaica Hospital, becoming healthy would be my only goal, my mission, my purpose. As I the doctors told me about my arrhythmia, they also told me that I needed to give up drinking and eating bad, or I would die by the time I was fifty. "I'm never going to drink again," I replied. "We have heard that before," the doctors all said, in perfect harmony. "You never heard it from me" I said, with a rebellious energy.
A month later, booze free, I had the arrhythmia taken care of. Two days later, after surgery, on a Baltimore baseball trip that my friend Dr. Mac would give me a lecture at a bar in Atlantic City at 2:30 in the morning. (Side note, I was drinking water with a twist of lime.) "You need to exercise, Jesse, your body has been through an insane amount of damage. Your heart needs to figure out how to work right again. I'm amazed, by your strength. Two days out of heart surgery, I thought this trip was going to be cancelled, and here we are," Mac told me. I shrugged my shoulders. "I'm a Ruggiere..." I responded back.
My Dad had raised me with a Champion’s work ethic. If you are breathing, you are fighting. No questions asked. "The world's going to keep spinning, you have work to do. If you do not show up just because you are in pain, other people who count on you will not be able to get their day done." I carry that lesson with me daily. I often teach it by example to the people around me.
A year after heart surgery, I discovered DDPYOGA. It was my speed, all rock and roll. "Minimal impact, zero negative impact on the joints, cardio fat burning workout." They taught me to say that in DDP School. I struggled through the first couple of weeks, often drenched in sweat, cursing at my little DVD player. However, my body that was in pain most of its life started to feel better. So I continued onward and forward. After a year, I jumped into Level 1 Certification and 10 months later I was teaching. I tried like hell to get my Dad to embrace the healthy living lifestyle. I told him about the weight I dropped, my body being pain free. I preached it till I was blue in the face. Nothing worked, so I continued on with his support as Dad watched from the sidelines.
I ran the Half Tough Mudder, five miles 10 obstacles, three years ago when my friend asked me to do it with his team. I did not train properly, I felt like I was the weak link. I walked across the finish line huffing and puffing. I was in tears, not because of the accomplishment but because I felt like a failure. I promised myself I would never slow down my team again. So that following December, I signed up for the Full Tough Mudder… ten miles, twenty obstacles. I trained for 13 weeks in the spring, from May 1st till race day. When I was not on the Yoga Mat, I was on the road. I invited everyone I loved to attend the event. The guest of honor was my Dad… my mentor growing up, I stressed the importance of him being there. I wanted him to finally have a story to share with the world that did not involve me beating death.
I remember it like it was yesterday, running the course with my friends. Getting past electroshock therapy, learning that it was the last quarter mile to the finish line. Screaming to my friends "This is it, finish strong!" I ran like the wind down that bridge, I ran like there was "no tomorrow" as they told me at the start line. I ran and I saw my Dad sitting on the rail. "Here he comes!", he screamed to my family down below. I succeeded in my mission…. I trained hard and gave my Dad a story to share with the world. Little did I know, it was going to be alot more than that.
While I was on the course, my Dad was talking with my family about how he was getting inspired to run a Tough Mudder. According to my friend Cat, he said it several times that day. I really did not think anything of it. I thought it was just a spur of the moment thing. He had mentioned it in the car a few days later. "You know you gotta train for it?" I said. "Well, how much?" he asked. "Pop, if you want to train with me it's going to be more training then you can imagine," I said to him.
It was not brought up again until February, after we had lost someone very close to us through a bout with brain cancer. My Dad was a bit lost there, having lived with depression for a very long time. I knew my Dad needed a little help getting out of it, so I purchased two tickets for the Half Tough Mudder, five miles ten obstacles, out at Old Bethpage for that coming July. (I was already signed up for the full Mudder the day before.) I printed the tickets out on the office computer, I handed one to him with a contract I wrote up. The contract contained had specific guide lines. I listed what he was allowed to eat (and not eat) during training season. No liquor or soda for thirteen weeks, also the time we had to wake up every morning to train. Breaching the contract would result in a thousand dollar donation to a charity of my choice. He signed the contract. "5 AM tomorrow morning, pal" I said to him.
Sure enough, 5 AM he came hobbling down the stairs, and he lasted 3 minutes in a DDPYOGA session. While I was showering for work, I felt a little upset. I expected to come out of the shower and see a check made out to my charity on the dresser. I was pretty sure this experiment was done. I got out of the shower, there was no check. "Maybe he did not have a pen?" I thought to myself. He came down the stairs dressed for work. "Great workout, do it again tomorrow? " he said. I have rarely been shocked or surprised in my life, but needless to say this was the biggest surprise of my life.
As we progressed, the training increased, adding on minutes and more phases each session. He started to have less pain his body. I had done alot in this world to inspire and motivate people, but this was turning into my greatest triumph. Don't get me wrong, it came with some speed bumps. My Dad arguing with me cause he was tired, and wanted to sleep in. "That's not what you signed up for old man!" I'd yell at him 5 in the morning, as I ripped the blanket off him. Then he'd come down stairs. "Be mad at me all you want Pop, as long as you get your training in I do not care" I'd tell him.
My Dad would cheat on his diet, and his body would revolt on him. "Why am I so sick?" he'd ask me. "Dad, your body detoxed itself when I took you off all those processed foods and crap you ate. So now when you do eat it, your body is going to make you pay for it," I'd tell him. After a while he was tired of getting sick of going off his diet, and that’s when he got with the program.
Once May hit, we were on the road running. I was running four days a week, two of those days with my Dad. Around the third week, my Dad's knee started to swell up. I decided he was not going to run anymore. So I put him on a bike while I ran behind him. He would often voice his concern over not having a great time. “Dad, this is not a race of time, it's a team work obstacle course with an emphasis on finishing, so stop worrying about time. You are 66 years of age, crossing the finish line is your success" I'd say to him. Truth of the matter was, we already won before we even started the race. My Dad had lost twenty-two pounds with a yoga mat and eating right. His cholesterol had leveled out, and his blood pressure was normal. Dr. Mac, his doctor, was just amazed by his progress. The Grandpa had rediscovered his health all with a yoga mat, and his crazy trainer/son paving a path for him to follow.
The day would come quickly. I had run the Full Tough Mudder the day before, had fallen and bruised my rib cage, and my knees were bruised and inflamed. I have often preached about how the human body can do alot more than the mind thinks it can. My past had shown me that prior to discovering a yoga mat. Now it was time to show myself once again. So the next day, my father and I took the Half Tough Mudder. My Dad, the man who had raised me, mentored me, guided me through life, was now going to count on me to guide him through the course.
Dad handled it like the champion he has always been. He crawled under barbwire, carried me on his back for 100 feet in the hero carry. He climbed over walls with the assistance of my team and I. It was on the course that I realized that I was just a reflection of my Dad. My Dad had taught me how to handle trauma in life, how to rise above the outside people’s expectations. My Dad had laid the groundwork for me becoming a healer. As we ran over the final bridge to the finish line I said to him “A year ago today, you sat on the rail saying “here he comes”... Today I’m saying here WE come. If that’s not incredible, check your pulse, Pop.”
I have often felt like a failure. Every class I have taught, I left thinking I could have done something different. Or maybe a student asked me a question that I did not have an answer to. Or maybe I fell asleep before I could answer all the emails or messages from people looking for my help. I will never know the feeling of hitting the game winning home run in a Major League baseball game. Or scoring the gaming winning touchdown in an NFL game, but to be honest with you, I no longer care. Because that day I shared with my dad will beat all of that any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
Believe in yourself, and believe in the people you love, and you will never be surprised what you will accomplish.