[Editor’s note: This is the first of many guest pieces we will be bringing you over the next several weeks. Our guest writers range from fitness enthusiasts to elite athletes to the people who live with elite athletes, and will present a wide range of views that address (but don’t necessarily agree with) the ideas in our Manifesto. We hope you enjoy their work as much as we’ve enjoyed it.
First is Heather, a woman for whom strength training plays a major role in her support network.]
I’ve only cried once in the gym. I’d just finished a squat set and my boyfriend said to me “Those [bar marks] are the only kind of red marks you’ll have from now on.”
What were the ‘other’ kinds of red marks? Cuts. Since the night of my sixteenth birthday I’d abused keys, pencil sharpener blades, kitchen knives, scissors, the corners of brick walls, and my own nails and teeth to use pain as a coping mechanism for my mental health problems. My arms and thighs are a mess of criss-crossed scar tissue. Funnily enough, I’ve now been ‘clean’ from self-harm for about as long as I’ve been lifting weights.
Now, I’m not saying that barbells are a magical cure for mental illnesses (wouldn’t it be awesome if they were, though?!). It’s taken me years to get as healthy as I am, but lifting weights has certainly made a huge impact on my recovery.
Pressure to be Perfect
My mental health problems actually started before I turned sixteen, when I started deliberately restricting my food intake. I guess this was a reaction to a combination of things, both at home and at school. I was fifteen, and as a high achiever the pressure was being piled on to get about three hundred and forty seven GCSEs at A* grade. That made going to school even worse than it was already: every day, I picked out my clothes and makeup and brushed my hair while asking myself “What’s least likely to get me bullied?”
At home, my parents’ marriage was beginning to crack, and my father was reaching breaking point with undiagnosed type I diabetes (hrmm, guess why food was what I chose to be my enemy?). When my periods stopped due to malnutrition, I went to see a doctor whose advice was basically – “Yeah, you should be eating stuff.” Helpful.
By the time I turned sixteen and began to self-harm, I was eating just enough to study properly. I got my diagnosis of depression with mild anxiety when I was seventeen, and that day I was prescribed anti-depressant meds.
A lot of people find it hard to understand is that depression isn’t your glass being half-empty rather than half-full. It’s more like your glass is shattered, your hands are dripping with blood from trying not to drop the shards of glass, and you’re choking and drowning in the water while everybody around you points out that you have enough glass for a cup and enough water to fill it, so what’s your problem?
Each day was like being followed around by a bad best friend who whispered criticisms in your ear every minute. I couldn’t see how I could be enough to justify the time, space, money and food needed to keep me alive.
I self-harmed continuously for three years, giving less of a shit about how deep I cut every time. I started keeping a small razor blade in my purse so I could cut myself in the bathrooms between classes, and once some of my friends were seventeen I convinced them to buy me small bottles of vodka to hide in my room for the evenings when that was the poison I fancied.
Before I turned nineteen, I’d been to A&E twice related to mental health incidents: the first time, I went to a pub alone, drank wine alone, and cut my arms pretty badly in the bathroom; the second time, I attempted suicide by ingestion of bleach. I’d had two previous almost-attempts, where I stopped by a major road (cars have to be going over 40mph to have a decent chance of killing you. Yes, my depressed brain keeps that bit of information.) or a motorway bridge and stood sobbing into the wind, on the edge of wanting to leave, until someone came and talked me down.
Trading Steel for Iron
Even starting lifting was something I had to argue with my mental health about. A weights room full of men who are all strong enough to a) do whatever they want to me, and b) judge how little I’m lifting, was terrifying. After about a month of only going when my boyfriend could come with me and look after me, I started to brave little sessions on my own, following the training plan he’d set out.
I needed those plans: with anxiety, even the stress of choosing to lift 45kg or 47.5kg could be enough to make me give up on my workout. Every time I trained and survived, I could slowly reassure myself that the guys lifting were not going to judge me, or tell me off, or hurt me.
Then I started realising, hey, I’m kind of good at this. Understanding the differences sexual dimorphism, experience, and size make to strength helped me be proud of lifting weights that, yeah, were less than some of the guys were lifting, but were pretty impressive for a female who weighs less than most guys’ warm up bench press.
More importantly than that, I was enjoying it. Having done sports all my life, I needed regular exercise to burn up all my energy to stop me getting fidgety and bored. Where cutting used to be my way of expressing frustration and stress and pain in a physical release, now I could put myself under a bar and do it in a productive way.
Strength training is really, really rewarding: not only is it a really instinctive thing to do, as you get a biological feel-good from lifting and feel more confident as a physically strong person, it’s also so easy to consciously see that you’re doing well. An improvement from 50kg to 55kg is an improvement, and my self-critical brain can’t argue with that.
Fuel for the Fire
I’ve also rebuilt my relationship with food. Now I look forward to my huge home-cooked meals with mountains of chips. I have my weight training and fabulous chef/boyfriend/personal trainer hybrid to thank for that. Food isn’t my enemy– front squats are. Food will not make me undesirable. I am not disgusting for eating chips, and eating lasagne does not have any relation to my self-worth.
Food is the fuel that means I can move weights around like most people my size can’t, and keep getting stronger. Food means I can grow beautiful muscles and keep concentrating throughout the day. And the body dysmorphia that came with my “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified”? Fuck it. Oh, are my thighs bigger than someone else’s? My thighs are big because they’re made of the muscle that lets me lift and run and jump, and that’s something I’ve learned to love and respect.
A Tactic, Not a Strategy
Again, barbells are not the magical cure for mental health problems. Years of help from doctors and nurses and counsellors and group therapy and private therapy and medication, and friends and boyfriends and their parents, has managed to build me back up to a functioning human being.
If you let them, people will surprise you with how much they want to help you: a maths teacher once ended a class early and ask all the other students to leave because he’d noticed me crying; a dessert delivery company once drew smiley faces all over my ice cream cartons and wrote “hope this helps!” because I’d written on the order request “emergency ice cream to deal with emotional trauma. pls help. me=v.sad”.
And me. I helped me. Ultimately, recovering is your own decision, and I am pretty damn proud that I am managing to mend myself, when my own brain tells me that my life isn’t worth living. My depression and anxiety have not gone away, I’ve learnt how to handle them – and I’m getting strong as hell along the way.