When people ask me about my lifting, their question is typically “How long have you been doing this?” or “Why do you lift?”. My answer is simple. “I started lifting because (like most Americans) I was overweight and things just progressed to get me where I am now.”
But the real answer is deeper than that. The Freshman 15 got me, and when I came home from college, naive to the fact that my metabolism had slowed down and eating what I usually did wasn't helping, I was depressed. I was depressed not just because I was overweight in a culture that demands you be skin and bones with a thigh gap, but also because of the drinking, eating, and other habits that I used to cope with personal issues. My mom died when I was 17 and as a young lady at a turning point in my life I felt the loss hard; the pain and grief cut deep. The shattering of the heart, the anger, the numbness...they all led to a path of darkness.
Gluttony is a sin and one I was drowning in. Lent was approaching and out of habit of my upbringing, I was to give something up. At this point in my life, I was barely a practicing Catholic, just attending service at Christmas, Easter, and Lent, which I could never fully turn away from no matter how much I turned from my morals and values or how angry I was with God. So that Lent I gave up fast food, drinking, and took up bettering myself. I knew I couldn’t cope with feelings of loneliness, anger, jealousy and guilt like I normally did.
I started writing again, something I hadn’t done since my senior year of high school. And once I started writing, I found that I didn’t like the person I had become. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror without seeing all the self-inflicted scars of my choices. Forty days of dealing with emotions that I had buried deep in a shattered heart and soul is extremely hard to bear.
I went away to school because I thought it was what was expected of me. I am naturally a home body so leaving my family, my comfort zone, a year after my mom died when I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to do or what I was doing, was terrifying. I understand this is how most people feel but to me it was extremely overwhelming. So I pretended. I pretended for years. There were times when I would break and just want to come home, but I didn’t want to be weak. I wanted to be strong and prove to myself that I was better than what my mental state was allowing me to be.
Eventually it led to some bad decisions—cutting, drinking a lot, and staying in a terrible relationship that I fooled myself into thinking was great love. But after those 40 days, I felt relief because I had succeeded in pinpointing what my demons really were, even if within the next year I failed to really deal with them.
And then, I took up running and weight training again. This is something that I loved as a teenager. The long runs around town, the Ridge at the Indiana Dunes National lakeshore, out and backs, 400 intervals, and the bond I had with the girls I ran with that helped me through one of the toughest years of my life. So I took a pair of Brooks out to the beach and ran. I made it about 15 minutes and wanted to stop but I refused to let my mind get the better of me. Mind over matter. In time I was running 5K’s, I started eating healthily on a regular basis, and doing strength training. I found something that I loved again. Something that kept me sane—the open trails or roads helped me clear my head and work through all the doubts.
I became happy with myself once again, at least on the surface. I was physically healthier and yes, that meant my mental state was better. This prepared me to deal with an even deeper problem: dealing with the loss of my mother, or rather not dealing with it at all. I refused to deal with it. I put a pin in it and pretended. I would do this with everything—school, life choices, relationships, friendships—until everything eventually became too overwhelming because I was so broken inside. I could now see the brokenness that was hiding behind all the fat and bad choices and I wanted to be better, to win the internal war that was raging in my soul.
The next Lent I decided to go to church every Sunday. This led me down a path of finally coming to terms with the death of my mother. It didn’t happen overnight and there were many times when I would take one step forward and three steps back. I had to come to terms with five years of choices that took me away from who I was.
As a Catholic, I believe in confessing my sins and doing penance for them. That first confession when I ripped the band-aid off my soul was terrifying. I was taking ownership for every choice I made. I was sorry, for I knew that every wrong choice pushed me further away from being happy. There is a term used by the venerable archbishop Fulton Sheen that he names “black grace” that describes the soul’s longing for God the further it moves away from Him. Well, black grace had invaded my soul. Every person that I hurt, every jealous, lustful, or other immoral deed or thought I had—the urge to run away and hide those things deep down within me was such a strong feeling that I wanted to puke. I was sweating, trembling, and crying. I knew I had to do it for myself, for my sanity, for my soul. These were my choices and the stains on my soul that I had to deal with.
Sometimes I still feel like I’m doing penance for my past choices, that I haven’t become better, but I feed those thoughts with prayers. I pray and let it go. I beat back sin and self-doubt with prayers and dumbbells.
Once I felt at peace within, I was able to become better in every aspect of my life. My spiritual journey towards practicing the Catholic faith again was a long one, but my spiritual life became interwoven with my physical fitness and I could not have had one without the other. Running gave way to power-lifting and I fell in love with the process and the discipline that it takes. The discipline it takes to stick to a plan, to get to the gym every day mirrors my discipline to pray the rosary every day.
When work is overwhelming, and I feel like the tiny humans are winning (I teach preschool), when the what if’s plague my brain and stress hits, I hit the weights and beads. I pray and lift. Overthinking can ruin the mind and soul. In the gym I feed on my fears, on my self-doubts, on heartbreak, stress; I harness those feelings and then leave them all on that bar. When my mind won’t shut off and I can’t get a clear mind to pray, I lift. Once I empty my mind and exhaust the self-doubt, then I am ready to just listen and pray.
Now every time the unsettling whispers of doubt try to wage war, I look to the cross and the barbell.