Depression and Iron: A Love Story

February 28, 2010
Many years ago I picked up a barbell for the first time after watching my brothers do the same. It only weighed between 10 and 20 lbs, but this one instance would lead to many more for years to come and carry me through hardships I could have never anticipated.In my previous writings I have briefly mentioned how I used weightlifting to deal with personal problems and issues that I was facing. This writing will be completely about that, giving this subject the attention it deserves.

I was around the age of thirteen when I began utilizing weights. At this time in my life, I was just wanting to get stronger, any other effect of weightlifting was no acknowledgment of mine. I was by no means devoted, in fact there were many lapses where I didn’t lift weights or even workout at all. This inconsistancy continued for some three years.

By the time I was in high school, I found myself at odds with who I was, what I was doing in life. There were a wide array of issues I was facing, things I was going through and all these things I was going through inside myself were reflected onto my external self.

Everything from insecurity, loneliness, being judged and misunderstood, having no idea about my identity as an individual and battling memories that seemed to be coming from my past to haunt me in the present all forced me down a dark road smothered in depression and anger. Anger that I bottled up inside along with everything else and I became more introverted than I had ever been in my life. I found myself covered in a fog of silence that I would carry with me for years and that I still carry with me now.

All of this stuff was sealed up inside of me and the only way I vented was through words, something I learned way back in grade school, something that became heavily important to me in high school. But words are not enough, there must also be action. The mind needs to vent, but so does the body.

I was never involved in sports during high school, I had absolutely no interest in competition. And when high school was coming to a close and with seemingly no where else to turn, I started picking up that barbell again. This time around it was different though, it became more than just something to do. It had meaning, it had purpose, it had more than some physical reaction, it now also carried a psychological one.

Suddently I found myself enthralled in weightlifting. This wasn’t about bodybuilding, it wasn’t really about looks at all, though I did put on an impressive amount of muscle mass in a very short period, as do many beginners. Sure I loved the way I looked, but even more I loved the way it felt. By this time, it was already about four years after the first time I was suicidal.

Somewhere around 2005 and 2006 I found myself once again in a dark place with suicidal thoughts and even ended up in a psyche ward. After getting out, words and “iron” were the tools I put at my disposal. Anyone who knows what it’s like to battle depression knows how hard it is to stay active, to pull yourself up out of bed and fight your way through the day and all those emotions.

I got myself into a routine of working out almost every night of the week. I didn’t know anything about weightlifting and honestly I didn’t care about form or giving my body ample time to recover. I didn’t care about diet and what foods I should have been eating. All I cared about was how it made me feel. I found myself in an addiction and at that time, an unhealthy one.

I would stay up late, sometimes around midnight and I would weightlift and do a small amout of calisthenics for three and at times four hours, not ending until the early morning hours. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, but I didn’t care about sleep, I only cared about feeling pain. The chemical reaction from weightlifting or any exercise where your muscles are contracted to the point where lactic acid builds up was what I wanted. The pain was my fix and I fell in love with it. It made me feel alive, it was my release, like people who cut themselves.

This behaviour continued for about a year, during which time I developed a hernia. At this point I came to understand what it meant to go through withdraw. I found myself without my release, without a way to vent my frustrations and my anger because I had surgery to repair the hernia and I couldn’t work out for several weeks. This was hard to deal with, but I had no choice. I had to find a way to deal with my frustrations and anger in a way that didn’t involve causing myself pain. I had to learn how to forget and how to let go without hurting myself in the process.

During this ordeal of recovery I fell in love with meditation. Something immensely different than what I had found release in before, but something that equally changed me internally and in some ways externally.

Once I was well enough to return to lifting weights, I knew that I had to take a new approach. I had to do this the right way. During these years of my life, I was also on medications most of the time, trying to find one that would actually help me without serious side-effects. These drugs can change the way you feel and even the way you think. I wasn’t the best person with staying consistant, many times I would just stop taking them, which is dangerous to do because of how potent these drugs are.

One day in 2006 I branded my arm for numerous reasons. Obviously, I was still in a dark place and was still seeking release, but I branded a cross on my right forearm to remind myself where I came from, how far I had come, to remember all the things that I had been through up to that point. A constant reminder of my pain, not that I needed one. I wanted the future me to have something to look at and be reminded that my pain was more than just something in my head, it had physical consequences.

Six months later I had an artist tattoo another cross around the brand. This tattoo was in memory of someone killed in a car accident, but it was also at the time a symbol of how I found freedom through faith. Ironically, a faith that I would later walk away from.

2006 to 2008 was spent in cycles with weightlifting. At times I would be motivated and then lose motivation. Sometimes I would care about gaining muscle mass or to just be stronger and then other times I would care more about just being healthy. I no longer needed the pain of weightlifting to feel alive, so in many ways I no longer needed weightlifting in my life. There were many instances where I would only do calisthenics and do cardio like running. Running for me was often a way to get rid of the negativity I felt, making weights something I no longer needed. Eventually I started developing shin splints and I haven’t really gotten back into a running routine since.

Sometime in 2008 I fell back in love with iron. I began to like the physical results of my hard work and determination. I set myself up with a routine so that I could stay consistant. I sought knowledge so that I could do it the right way and avoid injury. I devoted my time and energy to it, setting aside time on certain nights and refusing to do anything else unless I worked out. I knew that my mind was in a better place and I wanted to make sure that my body was too. For me, being healthy involves the mind, body and soul. Each part needs to be taken care of appropriately.

In many ways I am back to being addicted to the iron again, but this time around I think it is a healthy addiction. It’s important for me to find an outlet for the daily frustrations of life, a positive way to get rid of life’s negativity. Depression isn’t curable, it’s only treatable. It bothers me daily and I need a way to fight back daily. Lifting weights helps me to keep going, it has taught me things about myself and it continues to teach me. I haven’t needed to be on medication since sometime in 2008. I challenge myself each night I weightlift, I challenge my limits and my willingness to achieve a goal.

It’s never easy and there have been a couple times where I didn’t feel like picking up the iron. I had to think about how I feel when I don’t do it, when I feel like crap about myself and then think about how I feel after a good workout which makes me feel good about myself cause I accomplished something. At that point there is no question that I have to push myself and do it no matter how tired I feel.

People who don’t weightlift, who aren’t into bodybuilding or strength training don’t comprehend just how complicated and deep all of this stuff is. It’s not all about physical results, we endure psychological change as well, even if we don’t intend to. In my opinion, it would do everyone some good to do a little strength training. A small amount added to any workout is beneficial when done the right way.

I have fallen in love with iron because it helps me deal with my depression. Without this outlet I would still be wandering blindly through the darkness. Psychologically this is a life and death issue in my opinion, doing nothing can lead me to a bad sate of mind. There are many things that have helped me along the way, from friends to writing, but weightlifting is definitely something that needs to be counted on that list. Exercise is such an important factor in battling depression.

Whatever your fight, I hope you find a way to battle it and I hope you never give up.

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About Kephen

I am a writer who happens to be a pantheist living in the heartland of America. I write about everything that interests me, from Zen Buddhism to depression and mental illness, society and civil rights to the LGBT community and the personal meanderings of my life. To learn more about me just check out my blog.
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