Today, May 12th, is International M.E. Awareness day. There’s nothing I can say about this horrible disease that I haven’t said already on this blog. But I can share another part of my journey and battle with the disease with you.
It’s bewildering to think I used to get up every day and lift hundreds of pounds, thousands if you count the cumulative amount of weight I lifted each workout.
Every morning I ate some weird hippie cereal, drank some weird hippie drink, then got on my not-so-hippie bike and rode to the gym. There, if it was leg day, I would do some foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and then get to lifting. Deadlifts were my favorite exercise, probably because it was the exercise of which I could lift the most weight. My max was 425 pounds more than twice my body weight at the time.
It was thrilling to lift that much weight, but also painful. The symbiotic mixture of pleasure and pain reminded me of the feeling of having a tattoo needled on my skin. It was a wonderful pain, the kind of pain that made you forget about what you thought was pleasure; pain was the best pleasure.
When you can’t tell the difference between your own pleasure and your pain then you’re an addict.
The enjoyment I got from the pain of lifting heavy weight may have actually been at the core of my addiction. I was addicted to exercise and I couldn’t stop doing what some people never do in their entire life — lift heavy weight.
I was a competitive bodybuilder, but even that — the thrill and vanity of sculpting my body, then posing on stage in front of hundreds of people — was not my addiction. Rather, I was addicted to the process of striving for something I could never obtain — perfection. I always used to say, “Working out is the most important thing to me,” which was true. Sure, there were people more important to me, but people aren’t things and working out was the single thing I cared most about.
Exercise still has a special place in my heart; it will always be a big part of me, regardless of my physical condition. The fact that I still feel that way after such a long absence is a reflection of how much fitness has done for me.
I remember a conversation I had with my friend, Keith, who mentored me in bodybuilding while I was in college. One day he explained how my workout routine — a meticulous four-hour daily gauntlet of grueling lifts — may have actually been counterproductive to building the ideal bodybuilding physique, one made of lots of muscle and minimal fat. I thought about what he said — something I had considered myself prior to the conversation — and knew he was right. Excessive exercise is actually counterproductive to the ideal bodybuilding physique because you end up burning muscle, or at the very least not optimizing muscle gains. But I didn’t care. And that’s when I knew I was addicted. Like an alcoholic not caring if his drinking adversely impacted his career or family or anything else, I didn’t care that my dependence on exercise to cope with the stress and monotony of life, or the trauma from the fatal car accident I was in, took away from my family time or schooling or work or even my bodybuilding and modeling aspirations — the main reason I worked out so much. It was quite the anomaly.
Even as I got sick and my health began to deteriorate, I refused to give up exercise. I remember going to the gym in a haze of sickness — weak and disoriented — trying to lift heavy weights and failing miserably. It was like someone just zapped away my strength. Poof. I literally lost half my lifting ability overnight. In my feeble attempts at lifting in the weeks following the initial onset of my illness, I could barely deadlift half my max. Soon I lost my ability to lift any weight at all.
During a brief improvement in my health a couple years later, I tried to lift again. But I was dismayed to find I could barely lift a 25 pound kettlebell. The many months of resting had depleted the thing I had tried so hard to conserve — my strength.
Shedding a bit of my stubbornness, I tried yoga and other forms of exercise that were not as harsh on my body. But I still rode my not-so-hippie bike on good days and a couple times I even tried to train a few clients through video chat.
Those virtual training sessions were the hardest on my body, but also my psyche. I felt out of place, like a phony, telling someone to exercise and eat healthy when doing so had made me sick, or at the very least had a null effect on my ailing health. I couldn’t train myself, why the hell was I trying to train someone else?
Because I loved it! If I couldn’t treat myself to the beautiful pleasure/pain I could bestow the feeling upon someone else. But alas I couldn’t even do that. Not for long, anyway.
After my second virtual training session and consequential inability to care for myself, I realized I had to stop. No matter how much I loved it, and how blissful it was to exercise for a few minutes, spending days in bed and having people bring me food because I couldn’t take care of myself felt selfish.
Now, seven years after my last heavy lift, the only reason I have kicked my addiction to exercise is because I physically can’t do it. These days I can barely lift simple items like my phone or a magazine. But as depressing as the comparison is, I find it sort of motivating — a challenge to conquer, however insurmountable.
I may be physically weak but I’m getting stronger and as much as I miss lifting heavy weight, there is something inspiring about starting from scratch and working my way back up.
So now here I am, shuffling my body to the edge of my bed, dangling my feet to the ground, and shakily planting them there.
Then there’s this walker — an instrument of my rehabilitation — of which I grip the bars in an almost identical way as I used to grip the bar before doing deadlifts. I may have even done the same “pre-game” ritual of shaking my shoulders to ready them for the weight they were about to lift. The real difference was, however, that as I lifted my upper body to a standing position there was no weight attached to me, no 400 pounds of artificiality, just 165 pounds of meat and bones. And I must say, it was the most satisfying lift of my life.
I wasn’t expecting to use a walker for fifty years, sure, but hey, it’s good practice. I suppose. But I must also say, this lifting of my body to the standing position was painful. And not the enjoyable pain I described earlier. This pain was evil, unadulterated pain. It was the my-body-doesn’t-just-hate-me-my-body-is-going-to-kill-me pain. I hadn’t put any weight, let alone 165 pounds (or however much I weigh) on my hip, knee or ankle joints in more than two years. So naturally those joints were pretty unhappy, even as I popped Advil in my mouth like jelly beans.
The irony of once being addicted to exercise and now finding myself rehabilitating my body is not lost on me. I hope nobody takes offense to me saying so, but I am very much an addict in rehab. And while it is by no means a conventional addiction or rehab, I am here nonetheless — hoping to recover.
Thanks for reading and subscribing to my blog. Please take a few seconds to mention M.E. Awareness day on social media or to someone you talk to in person. It would mean a lot to all of us fighting this awful disease.
And for those of you with the disease or close ties to it, please check out the tele-support group I just learned about. I haven’t been well enough to participate but I hear it great and hosted by the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, here’s the info:
It takes place every Saturday at 8pm EST.
Dial-In Number: (712) 770-4700
Enter your Access Code: 915110 followed by # sign.