I’ve been saying I was going to make this post forever, and since I’m on vacation I figured I would go ahead and bite the bullet.
This year, as some of you might remember, I had myself a nice concussion. After that, I had trouble controlling my depression/anxiety/PTSD. My therapist has suggested the fall “shook something loose” in my head, although I’m pretty sure she’s joking. Anyways, I was presented with a choice: go to the doctor and start testing medication, or try some alternative methods.
I settled on starting some exercise, and below you can find out a little bit about that journey if you’re interested.
My mental illnesses usually flow like tides.
I have a spectrum that sways back and forth depending on which one of my illnesses is taking the lead at any given time. With depression, I’ll get sadder and slower, and my self-care usually requires days of doing nothing, sleeping more. With anxiety, I feel like the emotional pain is sharper, but my mind is moving faster. I fall into endless productivity pits, where I can complete inhuman amounts of work (you all wonder why I can write so fast, well this is the true reason). I have extremely productive and active days, followed by a couple of hours at night where I experience intense sadness. The moment I stop working, I feel as though everything stops around me and I am trapped in a sea of wrong, left to sit there and reflect on all my (perceived) shortcomings. My PTSD comes into play by complicating either one of these. I always assume that things are my fault, I will find a way to make it my fault if it isn’t obviously so, and I doubt my own thoughts and experiences. This can make it difficult to cope with the standard issues of having mental illness, though not impossible. I had been coping with it fairly well until the concussion.
As I said, my mental illnesses were like the tides. I would spend a few months camped out in anxiety land, then drop off into depression as I recovered from the strenuous workloads. It was not always the healthiest coping paths, but it worked for me, and overall, I was happy. I think. This is perhaps less true the more I reflect on it, but it was a functioning system, at the very least.
In any case, the tides were interrupted by the concussion. There was no longer a pattern. Instead of three months with anxiety and one month with depression, it would switch every few days. I felt like a yo-yo strung along barbed wire, flinging up and down and getting shredded all along the way. It wasn’t sustainable, and I knew it. I was rapidly approaching a precipice, and I wanted to have some options while I still had my feet on the ground before all I could see in front of me was the empty sky as I fell.
I first decided to start exploring weightlifting on a Friday. I was on the commute home from work and I was stressed. Stressed to the point where I had tears burning at the edges of my eyes. My nerves were shot from all the anxiety, I could feel the empty despair of depression rolling through my chest like a storm. I knew that I was out of time to think about the changes, and I had to start acting.
My commute home is about an hour. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I had a plan. I had a journal tucked in my bookshelf, and I pulled it out the minute I got in. I wrote down a list of exercises I could do with the little 10lb dumbbells that I had in my room. I took a picture of myself for posterity because I’d been told that if I didn’t do that I would regret it later. I hadn’t planned on caring about the weight loss and the physical changes of it all. I was doing this for mental health, after all.
Then…I picked up the weights and started lifting.
In weightlifting, there are sets and there are reps. A rep, or repetition, is a single movement or lift. If you pick up the dumbbell in your hand and curl your arm to lift it, then extend your arm to put the dumbbell back down, that’s a rep. A set is a collection of reps. I explain all this so that it makes it easier to follow the rest of this story, because I’ll be mentioning sets and reps, and I wanted us to all be on the same page.
My first session, I did 15 different types of lifts, and I did 3 sets of 5 reps. I used the 10lb dumbbells for all of them, and I was absolutely wiped out at the end of it. Everything ached, I felt like I was shaking, all the inches of muscles that I had were vibrating with the exertion. I crashed backwards onto my bed and stared at the ceiling, listening to my heart, and my face broke out in a smile so wide and so bright I can’t be certain that it didn’t light up the room. I felt accomplished and alive for the first time since my concussion, and I started to cry. Not because of depression or anxiety, not because of any kind of sadness, but because I felt good. I felt like all my mental illness had been put back in their corrals, placidly staying where they were supposed to so that I could be myself.
In the beginning, I was only doing lifting. I didn’t try to add in any kind of cardio, it was all about pickup up weights. I noticed benefits almost immediately. I was sleeping better, I had more energy during the day.
It took three and a half weeks before I was wondering if I was shrinking at all. Three and a half weeks before I was wondering if I was losing weight. I hadn’t touched the scale because I was worried about making that my focus. I have been anorexic in the past, and attempts to do any kind of dieting or calorie counting or weighing in the past had, ultimately, led to starvation attempts. I didn’t want this to be about that. I wanted to be doing this to make myself stronger, to be the best version of myself. It wasn’t about the weight, but three weeks in…I was getting curious.
I knew that my weight back in April had been 280, on the dot. I hopped on the scale on 05/15, and discovered that I now weighed 273. Not a huge drop, but there was a drop. Still, I looked in the mirror and saw changes.
I bought a tape measure, and I took my measurements. I was a bit miffed that I hadn’t done it at the beginning, but I was glad I was doing it before changes became massive. Now, I measured just about every place on my body that I could think of. Bust, bra band, waist, stomach, hips, thigh, calf, and bicep. I won’t list all my measurements here, but for progress’ sake I will tell you my initial stomach circumference. It was 56 inches. Now, I’m not going to sit here and lament how bad it was. It’s a measurement, a number. It represents a size, and I make no judgments on that size. I was capable of believing myself beautiful at that size, and I do NOT want to imply that my previous size was in any way some evil that I was vanquishing.
For me, it was a size that made me unhappy, but that’s because it wasn’t really me. I was not myself at that size. I initially gained all my weight the first year of an abusive relationship, so this weight was a suit of armor that I had been wearing for years, even after my abuser was gone from my life. It wasn’t until I started dropping it that I realized that, because gradually, bit by bit, I was recognizing the girl in the mirror. The fatter me, that girl was fine. She was lovely. But she wasn’t me, she was an illusion. An illusion that I built in the hopes that an abuser would leave me alone.
On May 29th I measured again, and my stomach was now 53 inches around. I was pretty astounded. Three inches in a week didn’t seem feasible, but I had checked the numbers. Math doesn’t lie. I wasn’t going crazy when I looked in the mirror, I really was shrinking.
Now, by this point I had added in cardio. I was running in place in my room, because I didn’t have the confidence to exercise outside, where people could see me. It wasn’t even that I had bad experiences, but my anxiety told me that I wasn’t GOOD at exercising, and because of that I felt like I had to hide it until it was good enough for the light of day.
On June 2nd, I finally needed heavier weights. The 10 lbs weren’t enough anymore, so I upgraded to 15 lbs. This is, if you’ve never lifted before, a low amount. 15 lbs is like, recovery from injury levels of small. I was a puny, noodly-armed weakling when I started. But, it was 5 lbs heavier than I was lifting before. I was so proud of myself.
After that, I started doing a lot more research about lifting. I had been learning and tweaking things throughout, and as I learned I got better. I learned the different types of sessions I could have, the different ways you could grow your muscles, the myths and truths about “bulking up” (spoiler alert: you have to try really fucking hard to bulk, you aren’t going to do it by accident, please stop lifting 5 lb weights and never going heavier because you’re afraid of watermelon biceps, because you would have to chew protein powder like bubblegum and launch steroids up your ass until the veins in your eyes touch the ceiling before you look like Hulk Hogan).
I started figuring out how my body responded to lifting, and how it responded to progression, or gradual increases of the weight that I was lifting.
I bought a barbell and some plates, and started lifting much heavier, much faster than I intended. By June 28th, I was doing all my lifts at 40 lbs, and my strength was growing faster than I could purchase weights to match it. I started doing yoga, as well, which was an exciting experience. I have a love/hate relationship with yoga. I hate the breathing and the dumb positions, I willfully listen to loud prog rock while I do it because I want to rebel against the soft, babbling brook Enya that is more common. I like to tell people that my favorite pose is “corpse pose” because all you do is lay down on the floor. Still, after you finish a session of yoga, your muscles will feel like they’ve been soaked in golden, fizzy champagne, and that’s a high that is worth putting up with feeling like a fumbling pretzel for 15 minutes.
My stomach was now 50 inches around.
In early July I joined a gym. This was an interesting experience for me. This meant that I was going to have to do my thing in front of people, out in the open. Whether I was good or bad, I was emerging into the “light of day”, because I couldn’t afford to buy new weights to match my growth. I was nervous as hell the first few times that I went, but…it wasn’t that bad. Most of the time, nobody at the gym gives a flying fuck about anybody else there. In fact, I started my very favorite game after my second visit. I called it “Manhood Booster”.
You see, a funny thing happens when a fat girl walks into the back of the gym and starts picking up weights. I would get side-eye. Not in an aggressive way. It was more in the “yeah, good for her” kind of way. Like a subtle, quiet kind of encouragement. It was a mild, socially acceptable form of a high five. Actually giving me a high five would be invasive, so instead they look, nod their heads microscopically in approval, then return to their own workout.
Except with some of them, they also check out the weight that I’m lifting, and this provoked an interesting reaction. Most of the time, for most men, they would look at what I was lifting and not only approve, but then stare dejectedly at their own weights. You see, by the time I was hitting the gym, I was lifting heavier than your average joe. I didn’t know this, and was surprised to find it true, but after seeing what most people lifted at the weight I found that I was ahead of most of them.
I started giving myself points for every time this happened and it resulted in the guy going back and picking up a heavier weight. Boosting their manhood, as it were. Now, if you’re serious about lifting, DON’T do this. You should progress at your OWN pace, and trying to lift heavier than you can before you’re ready will result in injuries that could lay you out of commission for weeks.
I’ve had some ups and downs since then, but I’ve kept up with it. I’ve kept making progress.
Currently, the lowest weight that I lift is 70 lbs, and the heaviest on one of my exercises is 250 lbs. My stomach is 47 inches around. I have gone from pants size 26 to a size 18, shirt size 2XL to M. I’m stronger, faster, capable of more. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I wanted to drop the weight, because the weight wasn’t me. It was, as I said above, a suit of armor. I don’t want to wear the armor anymore. I want to be myself, the best, strongest version of myself that I can be, and part of that is losing the last of the weight.
I’m making good progress, but I have a little way left to go. I don’t know how long it will take to get there, but I’m going to keep up with the fitness until I do.
I wish that I could say it’s all happiness and rainbows, but I’m sure you can all guess that mental illness doesn’t always work that way. Part of the reason that I’m writing this post right now is to force myself to review all my progress, to remind myself how far I’ve come. After a recent death in my family, I’ve developed body dysmorphia, and so now when I look in the mirror I see the girl that I was back in April.
I’ve got a therapist now, and we’re working on it, but I wanted to share my story. I wanted to show off my progress and remind myself to be proud of it. I think it worked, too. I realize now, looking back at the beginning, that I’m so much stronger than I used to be. I’m going to take up hiking, which has been something I’ve wanted to start again since I was a little kid. It was always out of reach because of my fitness level, but it occurred to me this weekend that I’ve reached that level. I can walk for miles at a time, I can lift heavy things, I can push through hours of strenuous activity before I need a break.
All this in a few months.
Going forward, I think I’m going to share my progress more often. Talk about how far I’ve come, where I plan to go. I’ll probably make a nice post after each hike that I go on, full of pictures of the great Pacific Northwest. I think it’s good to share my experiences. I think it’s good to share.
After all, sharing our stories is how we really grow. The journey is the gift, but when you reach the end of it…it’s the story that keeps on giving.