The free weights were in back of the gym, which meant I had to walk a gauntlet of giant, muscular men all grunting and yelling and slamming weights to reach the empty squat racks. Thankfully they were all empty or I might’ve walked out, unwilling to wait, unwilling to loiter near the intimidating men. I struggled to move the 45-pound bar to a height that could work for me, panicking momentarily when it felt so heavy being hefted by my scrawny noodle arms, but after stepping into the rack you can’t leave without squatting; that would be ridiculous. I stepped under the bar, and the moment my hands gripped the knurling, the knurling gripped my traps — there was nothing but me and the iron. I took a deep breath and I squatted. I stood back up without falling over and I grinned.
I started lifting in May of 2013. I was 23, just starting a pre-med post-bac program that was going to lead to medical school. I had quit my job as a preschool teacher, where I’d spent the past seven months overeating out of anxiety and boredom because there’s not much else you can do when you’re watching two-year-olds all day. When none of my clothes fit comfortably I decided to change my body instead of buying new ones, because I loathe shopping for clothes.
Running-loathing millennial that I am, I started to Google. Somehow I found this Nerd Fitness post about a powerlifter named Staci. The idea you could change your body composition without running was news to me, and Staci was close enough to my height and weight that her progress seemed attainable. So I kept reading. I bought Starting Strength. I watched form videos until I realized all I was really doing was procrastinating.
Starting Strength is (on the internet) the Beginner’s Bible for powerlifting. I’ve since gotten different advice and cues from other programs and more importantly from my coach, but it was an excellent starting resource for someone with social anxiety who didn’t have anyone to ask at the time. The most important thing I took from it was the importance of checking your ego at the door. Start with “just the bar.” Add weight every week; keep progressing until you can’t.
That’s what kept me going back three times a week: “I want to see if I’m stronger!” Weight loss stopped being the goal almost immediately, but I kept lifting and started eating a ton of protein and dropped 15 pounds in 12 weeks. The lifting cleared my mind and helped me stay organized, both new experiences for me and my ADHD-affected mind.
I met a boy, and at the same time I was dumped by my best friend. Outside the gym my mind would race — I’d be full of anxiety, anger, betrayal — but in the gym, with the iron in my hands, there wasn’t space for that. I coped. I managed. I fell in love with the boy. The boy loved me, too. He understood me. I’ve mostly had the same friends since I was seven and never felt I needed new ones — I never felt comfortable or understood by new ones — yet both of us were immediately comfortable with each other. I was already happy when I met him, but sharing my joy with a partner was a new experience. It was easy. We liked easy. It seems silly to say that we fell in love immediately, but we did.
Then I was in a car crash and I couldn’t lift. The entire left side of my body hurt. My wrists hurt. My hip would hurt if I squatted past parallel. The doctor said I needed to take time off and heal, but it took eight months — eight months off can wreck your confidence and all your gains. Starting over is often more difficult than starting.
I did it, though, and when I achieved a 180-pound deadlift I decided I needed a coach because I was worried about injuring myself. I had found a coach who specialized in training women on Instagram and decided to meet her. She asked what my max squat was, and I told her: “135 pounds.” She said, “I think you’re stronger than that.”
I was. It surprised me. December 2014, when I met my coach, is when I tell people I became a powerlifter.
The early months of 2015 were hard. I started a new job, two people very dear to me died, the boy and I moved in together, and he was informed he’d be out of a job soon. My grief was overwhelming and my partner was ill-equipped to handle it in the midst of his own crisis.
At first I kept lifting, preparing for a meet in June. I would lift and I would cry and I would fail a lift and I would cry and I would hit a personal record and I would cry. When you have a coping mechanism that works well enough, sometimes it can stop you from getting the help you need. We needed help. Neither of us sought it; neither of us had enough clarity to see that the other desperately needed it.
My partner and I used to talk about the future. Six months earlier we had talked about getting married one day; talked about building a life together with excitement, not panic. The uncertainty with his job was causing him stress, and he took it out on me. He blamed me for keeping him from his friends. I retreated, hoping if we could just get through his job stress, we could figure out how to go on. We signed another lease anyway. I wasn’t lifting anymore.
I am loud. I am muscular. I am queer. I am passionate. I spent months trying to be less, trying to be enough for him while also not being “too much.” I cooked dinner for him, hoping that would remove a stressor from his life. I socialized with other people more often, and tried to encouraged him to do the same. He wouldn’t, and it was still my fault, somehow. Somehow my existence made him feel like he couldn’t do anything. I did my best to stay out of his way, hoping he would see how hard I was trying.
I wasn’t happy. So late in the year, in November, I started lifting again, in part because it kept me out of our house. I’d lost the gains I made before, and I was frustrated by having to start over again. But I was trying to love my body again, love its strength, even though my partner had rejected it time and time again. Lifting made me strong. Lifting made me care less.
By December I couldn’t do it anymore. He was giving me nothing. We broke up and I broke down. I was grieving — not the breakup, but the betrayal, the time lost, the manipulation. The promises never explicitly given, so no one could accuse him of breaking them. The feeling that despite trying to find someone unlike my father, I ended up with a partner with exactly the same fucking issues I’ve been battling my whole life.
Two days after we break up, I go to the gym, dragged there by a friend under pretense: “I want to learn to lift, come with me!” I pull 235 pounds, the most I’ve pulled in six months, and I cry. It’s the first time I feel like maybe I’m going to be okay.
Healing is not immediate. The physical and the emotional pain, they both heal a bit, and then something scrapes the scab off and you bleed again. Planning my next workout is my version of “one day at a time.” It keeps me from walking into traffic. I see my lifting progress and cling to that physical manifestation of my strength, because often I can’t find anything emotionally or mentally.
It never gets easier, you just get stronger.
When I lift, there’s no room for anything else. Midfoot under the bar, feet shoulder width apart, grab the bar, shoulder blades in back pockets, take the slack out, DEEP BREATH, pull back through the heels. Powerlifting is as mental as it is physical. There’s no space for wanting to die.
Soon I’m training for a meet again. My coach, Katie, is planning my lifts. She has all of us check our one-rep maximums a couple weeks before the meet, so I’m testing my deadlift. I’ve already squatted 225 pounds this week, which matched a lifetime personal record, so I’m feeling confident in the way that only moving heavy shit can make me feel.
I want a lifetime deadlift personal record, so I look at one of the other coaches and tell him I want to try 260. He counters with 255 and I accept, because that’s still 5 pounds more than I’ve ever lifted. I pull, I get stuck at my knees, but I pull through. Grinding through a lift is more rewarding than when they come easy. Not quitting when things get hard is new to me.
I just laugh at the top, and it’s pure joy.
Now it’s June. I’m still seeing a doctor for my anxiety and depression, but I don’t want to die anymore. I lift three to five times a week because it brings me joy, and because endorphins are one hell of a drug. I stepped on the powerlifting platform in April during a competition and a judge said, “I love how you come up smiling, just happy to lift.”
I do love lifting. I love it with a strength and dedication I didn’t know I was capable of. I love how much of what I learn in training is applicable to real life. The only deadlift advice I can ever remember is “it is always hard.” You add weight slowly, but progress in some way every session. Eventually you plateau and you need to do something different, more in line with your goals. This is growth. This is progress. This is not failure.