GARDINER — Thomas Towle III doesn’t really know for sure how much he weighed. He never found a scale that could measure his mass, so his doctor suggested trying to find a business that had an industrial scale capable of weighing machines or material. If he had done that, Towle figures he would have tipped the scales at around 800 pounds.

“We couldn’t even find out exactly how much I did weigh, how bad it was really,” Towle said. “Standing up was almost impossible sometimes.”

The number remains a mystery, but the impact of being saddled with the mass equivalent of three extra men was painfully clear. Towle saw it in the looks of loathing cast his way every time he was able to venture out in public and the fear he saw in his parents’ eyes. His doctor gave Towle, who had yet to reach his 20s, just a year to live if something didn’t change.

“He was at death’s door,” said his mother, Carol Towle. “It was heartbreaking. I’d watch him crawl around on his knees because he couldn’t walk. The worst part, for me, was I couldn’t do anything for him. As much as I would preach to him, he had to want to do it for himself. The more I harped at him, the more he’d eat.”

From that starting point, beginning literally on his hands and knees, Towle resolved to get his life back. That moment came more than 500 pounds ago during what Towle describes as another life.

“I’ll always be addicted to food, but it’s what I choose to do with it that is going to determine the rest of my life,” Towle said. “What I choose to do with it is win every day. I choose to be a winner. I have something to live for and something to succeed for. It’s not worth going back.”

Towle, 35, has hit another roadblock in his odyssey back to an ordinary life: the folds of skin that not only threaten his health, but force him to wear compression garments every day to maintain any semblance of stability and shape. He needs reconstructive surgeries to remove the excess skin from his chest, abdomen and legs that will total close to $30,000. He is confident his insurance company will pay for at least a portion of the bill, but Towle knows he will be on the hook for thousands more. He is reaching out to the public for help. He is finding people are eager to respond.

“I need them,” Towle said of the procedures. “They’re the next step in me finishing this journey.”

EARLY TROUBLE

Towle’s only memory of having an average weight, at least until the last few years, was when he was in elementary school. Even when he was a baby, his mother and father, Thomas Towle Jr., struggled to keep their son’s weight in check. Carol Towle said they lived with her husband’s grandparents right after their son was born. They had to work, so the grandmother often took care of the young Thomas Towle III.

“She was a firm believer in feeding him whatever he wanted,” Carol Towle said. “If he wanted 10 eggs for breakfast, he got 10 eggs for breakfast. It was a bad situation all around, but we didn’t have a choice.”

Their son began to add weight at an alarming rate. Carol Towle said he weighed about 150 pounds when he was just 4 years old. She put him on a strict diet when the family moved into their own place.

“When he started kindergarten in Brunswick, he looked like a normal little boy,” Carol Towle said. “By the time he got to fourth grade, he started putting it back on. Food was his friend. It was what made him feel good.”

The toll of carrying that weight grew greater, both emotionally and physically. Several times a vein pushed to the surface in Towle’s leg would burst if scratched or bumped. His parents would rush Towle to the hospital. Carol Towle said her son’s blood pressure would sometimes spike so high that emergency room physicians warned her that he could die.

“I almost lost him several times just from asthma,” she said. “He couldn’t breathe. He was just so big.”

The weight put so much pressure on his feet, ankles and knees that walking became almost impossible. A quick trip to the grocery store would mean a complete rest the next day and popping pain pills in hopes of quieting his screaming joints.

‘A VERY DARK TIME’

The weight forced him into deeper isolation until he finally dropped out of high school. Going to school was too difficult and seeing the other students was too embarrassing, he said.

“I did an amazing job, I think, of putting a great face on, letting no one know how much being that heavy bothered me,” he said. “I made jokes at myself to survive. If someone was making fun of me, I made fun of myself harder. That way your jokes didn’t hurt me, or at least you thought they didn’t hurt me. Inside, it was a totally different story. It crushed me inside.”

The comments his parents heard still cause them to shake their heads in a mixture of anger and wonder. The wounds were as likely to come from adults as they were from children.

“It’s unbelievable how cruel people can be,” his mother said. “Most people that are obese don’t want to be that way. It’s like being addicted to a drug. You need your cocaine fix or whatever. These people need their food fix.”

And not all the prejudice and judgment was aimed at their son. His parents said people wondered how they could let it happen.

“It was a very dark time,” his mother said.

That darkness began to lift in the late 1990s when that doctor gave her son a year to live.

“He asked me how important living was,” Towle said. “It resonated. I decided to do something, but I didn’t know what.”

Doctors suggested various diets, such as Weight Watchers, NutriSlim and Jenny Craig. All worked for a time, but never with any lasting success.

MCDONALD’S JOB HELPS

The turning point came when Towle landed a job at McDonald’s. The managers went to great lengths to accommodate him, allowing him to work the takeout window in the back, giving him a stool to sit on and allowing him breaks when he needed them.

“I learned to work at McDonald’s, and I lost weight,” he said. “I was actually getting out of the house. Even though I might not have been standing up and doing exercise, I think the motion, the actual getting out, was a big first step in losing some of that weight.”

His weight continued to fluctuate, but trended downward over the next several years. He lost about 200 pounds through an improved diet and additional exercise. He tried to read his body better, to stop eating when he felt full. Having a job helped change his outlook, even if he had to come home from that job and collapse until it was time to go back. He still weighed close to 600 pounds.

“You learn to look at things differently,” he said. “You look at food differently. You learn to replace the emotional aspects that food brought with other things. Matt and Heather were that other thing for me.”

Towle credits those siblings, now 18 and 16, respectively, with giving him the motivation to change his life for good. In 2010, Towle was with his family at Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco. They asked their older brother to go on a ride with them. He sat down but was too large and was forced to get off. In front of his siblings and everyone else, he got up and walked away.

“It broke my heart,” he said. “I realized I’d never be able to do fun, enjoyable things with them if I didn’t go further than what I had. They gave me encouragement and spark to ignite what was already in me to go the rest of the way.”

‘PURE DETERMINATION’

Towle’s primary care physician had urged him to consider bariatric surgery. In February 2011, he had a checkup and told her he was ready to try.

She referred him to Dr. Jamie Loggins at Central Maine Medical Center’s Central Maine Bariatric Surgery. Over the next several months, Towle went through a battery of tests and evaluations, both psychological and physical, and took classes in nutrition.

Central Maine Bariatric gave Towle final approval for the surgery, and his insurance company, Aetna, agreed to pick up the tab.

“It makes you feel like, OK, I have another shot at this,” Towle said. “I have another tool. Maybe I’m going to beat this.”

In June 2011, Towle underwent gastric bypass surgery during which Loggins used a portion of Towle’s stomach to create a second smaller stomach. The smaller stomach not only holds less food, creating a sensation of being full after eating about a cup’s worth, but it also passes nutrients more quickly, meaning fewer calories are absorbed.

Towle, who had to lose more than 50 pounds to prepare for the surgery, tipped the scale at just over 500 pounds at the time of the procedure. He has since dropped more than 200 pounds.

Dr. Huy Trieu, medical director of MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Bariatric Center, said most people seek help because of serious health problems such as diabetes, sleep apnea and high blood pressure.

“It’s not one of those things where it’s an emergency, but it’s a chronic issue that definitely shortens your life,” he said.

Those who come to the Augusta hospital must undergo what Trieu described as a “pretty extensive educational process” that involves learning about nutrition, exercise and submitting to a psychological evaluation.

Towle said people have a misconception that bariatric surgery makes weight loss easy, as though those who have it are somehow cheating.

Towle said that belief is based on a lack of understanding of the hard work required after the surgery. Towle has had to give up – forever – some of his favorite foods, even healthful ones, because they now make him sick. The condition is known as dumping syndrome. Every patient has different foods their bodies will no longer tolerate. In short, Towle has had to change his relationship with food.

“People think surgery is the easy way out,” Towle said. “Most of us who have had the surgery go through a lot to get to the surgery point, both physically and emotionally. Then afterwards people don’t understand the lifestyle changes that it takes to maintain, the things you have to know going in that you’re going to have to give up. You sacrifice something. Is the sacrifice worth it? Absolutely!”

“Nobody realizes until they go through it themselves,” his father said. “It’s pure determination.”

FROM GED TO DEAN’S LIST

Towle, who now weighs about 270 pounds, continues to lose weight at a slow and sometimes erratic rate, but he is nearing his goal of getting below 250 pounds. He said he’s never had his sights on the 165 pounds that the body mass index says would be perfect.

“All I’ve ever wanted out of all of this is to be as healthy as I can possibly be, and live as normal of a healthy life as I can possibly live, and get to enjoy things that average people can enjoy,” he said. “Things like that still bring a reality check to me. You really have come a long ways.”

He earned a General Educational Development diploma, works full time at Hannaford and takes at least three classes each semester at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he is majoring in business administration and minoring in justice studies. He is a regular on the dean’s list.

More than a decade after being told he had a year to live, Towle now dreams of a future in marketing or working in the corporate offices at Hannaford.