Empowering exercise – especially strength training – can help us heal old wounds.
Some years ago I was in a perfect storm of transition. I’d just graduated from college. Raised on can-do American ideals, I was shocked to learn that I couldn’t do what I loved (write) and still get what I needed (a living wage and health insurance). So I got a temp job to pay the rent and tried not to worry too much about my health.
Disinclined to wallow in real life, I took the edge off with booze, drugs, food, and any other fasting-acting coping strategies I could get my hands on.
I was slowly killing myself.
A few years later, in the wee-est hours of a morning in March, I realized I didn’t want to die. The next day, I began my recovery in the same town where I was known in many circles as “The Last Chick Standing.”
Sober and single in a falling-down dump of an apartment, I began the odd task of learning how to live in the world. 1 Then, in arguably the weirdest and most vulnerable moment in my adulthood, someone I trusted did something bad. The specifics are inconsequential.
And so began a Very Dark Period.
Suddenly, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a person who’d been hurt. Every time I shifted in my seat at work, or put on a jacket, or poured a cup of coffee, or lit a cigarette, 2 the motion was in some way related to, in response to, or in the context of, what had happened. Every breath I took was a reference to that night.
I was caged. Bars of hurt and embarrassment and anger and fear and sadness pressed in on me with every inhale.
I carried that cage everywhere.
Picking up 3 would have brought me some relief. But if I had picked up, any relief would’ve been brief, and I’d’ve come out of it in still more pain. Such is addiction.
Instead, I took people’s well-meaning suggestions on how to build a life. I went to the gym a few days a week. I tried to make friends. I went to thrift stores. I got a cat. 4
The atmosphere in my head did not improve.
I started with a therapist. At first, I walked into her office, told her the story, and cried. A year of weekly appointments later, I walked into her office, realized I still couldn’t breathe without the bars pressing in on me, and cried. Fifty-two 50-minute hours and I could tell you everything there was to know about the cage I was hauling around, but examination didn’t seem to be helping.
I tried medications. They obliterated my sex drive.
Medication was out.
I dropped the meds and started crushing on a jock. We saw each other at the gym every day. I wanted someone to be proud of me, so I started pushing myself harder and harder in my workouts. Everything – every lift, every movement – was impossible until I did it, and then I owned it. 5
As an addict, I’d always experienced brief relief followed by deep and gripping discomfort. When I lifted weights, there was discomfort, but it was brief and had a purpose. Day by day, lift by lift, I got stronger and more comfortable in my body. Eventually, having an audience didn’t matter – I was doing it for me.
I still remember the first time I loaded weights on the bench press bar. Nothing crazy – just two 10-lb plates. I lay on the bench and pressed the bar off the rack. It felt heavy. I brought it to my chest, and I pushed it back up. I focused on the weight in my hands and the feeling of my shoulder blades pressing into the bench. I focused on the task, on the tension and the challenge. I was there, on that bench, in that moment. Quite naturally, my breath became part of the motion.
Exhale, push it away.
Inhale, bring it in.
Every part of me was focused on that weight – mind, body, and breath. I powered that bar up one more time, slammed it up onto the rack, and let my limbs go limp.
I was sweating. And I was breathing – deep. My chest stretched up and out as I pulled fresh air into every part of my body.
I was free.
I stayed on the bench for a long time, peaceful, and empowered. Today, every choice I make, I make with an eye toward feeling the way I felt in that moment.
I sat up and I looked in the mirror. I saw an independent New Yorker and a self-obsessed asshole, a desperate lover and a wannabe writer, all smirking back at me. All the things I had once been, and now could see I still was.
When it comes to trauma and what follows, talk therapy and medication work for some folks. 6 Being in and pushing my body was necessary for me to get to the other side. Specifically, it was resistance training that brought me back to myself, a self that I was not able to access with therapy and medication alone.
I default to morbid obesity, addiction, and self-harming behaviors of all kinds. Today I’m a personal trainer, in part because I believe exercise can break us free of trauma’s cage when other efforts fail. If therapy and medications don’t seem to be cutting the mustard, it might be a good idea to move. 7
Safely pushing our bodies to the edge of what they can do can help us break free, regardless of what – or who – made us feel trapped.
- As opposed to living in the cycle of addiction and viewing everything outside of that cycle as the alien reality where everyone but me lived. ↩
- Don’t pretend to be surprised that I used to smoke. ↩
- Picking up means returning to a substance we’ve accepted we’re addicted to. ↩
- I don’t even like cats. ↩
- Remember learning how to ride a bike? See that – you can relate. ↩
- Why else would all these insurance companies be paying through the nose for us to avail ourselves of such services? ↩
- Yoga’s lovely, but I’m talking about weights. Heavy ones. Deadlifts. Presses. Nom nom nom. ↩