To What Lengths People Go

Getting the proper medical and health care that I need has been a struggle since I first got sick in 2010. I was lucky then to have a support team who helped me, even from afar, navigate the mysterious landscape that is MECFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome). And as I got sicker many people stepped up to help when I needed it most. But time fades all. 

There is only so long, and to a certain point, that people can help, no matter how much they love you or care about your well-being. People burn out. They run out of time and money and mental bandwidth to lend to even the most beloved person in their life. 

The unfortunate reality for myself, is that I’ve been sick long enough that people have stopped helping and it shows. I’m sure they still care, but a detached version that allows  them to still sleep at night while I remain awake at 3 AM writing a cathartic blog post. Ahem. Who me? Sigh

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel entitled to anyone’s help, but I certainly feel discouraged when I need things that can’t be accomplished by my own doing or that of someone I know. I’m talking about things I need, not far-fetched wants. 

This is the problem and I don’t fault anyone. It is a fucked up situation, and a helpless one for me. 

The people I depend on most are overworked and overstressed and deserve to relax and not have to cater to the needs of someone as sick as me. But when they don’t my needs remain unfulfilled. It is a paradox and a reminder to me that this is my fight, at the end of the day I’m in it alone. And I have never felt more alone than this very moment. 

Then there are the people who think they help, but don’t. Or the people whom I ask for help, but politely pass the proverbial baton to someone else, or to the universe, or to some old father figure in the sky of whom I don’t believe in. But what irks me most is when I ask for what I need — medical care (the AHCA isn’t going to help — I need Medicaid, sorry folks!) and caregiving (not a Ferrari or a mansion) — and then I am made to feel guilty because I asked. It’s not my fault that I need help. Trust me, I am the last person to want help and perhaps it’s a lesson for me to have to ask. But I still dread it, 

So this is all to say one thing: I’m over this shit. I’m so tired of hoping someone or something is going to come along and make my situation better. And the hardest part is I know it is a manageable situation. All I need is a kind and intuitive caregiver for six hours a day. And I need a nurse. And a doctor. And a “vampire” to draw my blood. And a cute woman to snuggle with me at night. And some good books to read. And a new a episode of This American Life every day. And unlimited kombucha and Cliff bars. Sounds like a party, right?

Okay, vent session over. Thanks for reading. Hopefully things get better for me and the people I love. But even if they don’t, just know that I appreciate that you read my blog. Oh, and please check out my latest essay for Mic. 

Gym Tales: The Guy In The Wheelchair 

“Excuse me?” a soft voice says coming from behind me. 

I slowly turn to face a woman wearing matching workout attire and a disgusted look on her face. 

“It seems the gentleman in the motorized wheelchair, um, well, it looks like he’s . . . he’s tracking feces all over the gym,” the well-mannered woman says as I try to rouse myself from a daydream. 

“Uh. I’m sorry, say that again.”

“The guy in the wheelchair?”

“Yeah?”

“He’s traipsing his own feces everywhere.”

I will never forget that interaction. It took awhile for the thought of someone smearing his own bodily waste on the floor to register with me. After all, dealing with human feces was not, as I understood it, in my job description. Besides, how could a man, albeit an incontinent man in a wheelchair who was unable to walk, leave tracks of feces everywhere? My first thought was he would have had to, well, hold on, hold on . . . let me give you the backstory first. 

Before I was a trainer I worked the front desk at a very large chain of gyms whose name just so happens to correlate with the number of hours in a day. Okay, all right, I’ll just say it, I worked the front desk at 24 Hour Fitness (they can’t sue me if I have no money, right?). The building I worked in was an old mill with original brick work and exposed steel beams. It was a joy to look at. The job, however, was not a joy. 

Before we get to the meat of this story, I want to mention how odd it was to work for a company whose name suggested it was open 24 hours a day when, in fact, it closed twice a week. In other words, one would think the gym never closed, but it did every weekend evening at ten o’clock, which made my job exhausting. 

Not only did I have to clean the entire gym, re-rack all the weights, and lock up before closing, I regularly had to explain to disgruntled members why our operating hours directly contradicted the company’s name. I would unenthusiastically say, “Yes sir, I know what the name says. No, I don’t know why we close early on weekends. I don’t make the schedule.” 

While working for the company, it would offer ridiculously cheap memberships on a promotional basis. This would attract people who couldn’t normally afford a gym membership, like homeless people. These individuals would strategically use the facilities to shower, stay warm, and store their belongings. A smart move in my opinion, but they too were outraged when alas they found out the gym closed, leaving them with no place to go. One such individual of special note was an octogenarian who, as far as I knew, lived in his wheelchair. He was almost always accompanied by his son, who didn’t seem to be very nurturing. The son was a middle-aged man who appeared to not bathe often, had matted hair, and always presented the demeanor of a meth addict. The father, on the other hand, was unable to speak, so I didn’t know much about him except, well, that he had horrible aim when defecating. For that reason I grew accustomed to calling him “the poop bandit.” Let me tell you why . . . . 

As a front desk employee I got paid minimum wage, which at the time was $8 an hour. I was a college student; fine, a low wage is to be expected, but damn did the company get its money’s worth. Let’s see, first there was no sitting allowed — none whatsoever. And management made this clear by not providing a chair for front desk employees. But still, even leaning or sitting on the cylindrical desk was forbidden. Every time I even thought about sitting down, a posture Nazi came out from his lair in the sauna to repeatedly beat me with one of those elastic exercise bands. I’m kidding, but really, I did get yelled at a lot. 

Next, I had to clean the bathroom every hour, on the hour. As someone who frequented the gym I appreciated this amount of cleanliness. That said, how ’bout paying a guy more than minimum wage to clean up poop? Ah, now we’re getting to the good part. 

So every hour I would walk into the guys’ bathroom, making my way through a crowd of naked bodies with greasy overgrown hair, then an overwhelming conglomeration of a dozen different cheap colognes. I would then proceed to wipe down every surface, encountering more body hair and debris. But my favorite part was trying not to retch every time I had to wipe up a mysterious bodily fluid. Saliva was a pretty regular occurrence, but every once and awhile I’d find a bulbous glob of congealed yellow, green, or worse, off-white fluid that made me want to not only quit my job, but burn down the entire building. 

On one particular day I was attempting to sleep standing up, which is almost possible when you hate your job as much as I did. So I was rocking and swaying, then the nice lady mentioned earlier taps me on the shoulder. 

She tells me an elderly member of the gym used one of the toilets, or tried to, and instead stepped in his own poop. Oblivious to the mess, he mounted his motorized cart and somehow managed to run over more feces leaving brown tire marks all over the gym. 

As you might imagine I was thrilled at the news, and my first task was to find the incontinent man. One might think this would be easy considering he literally left tracks everywhere he went, but I couldn’t find him anywhere, and by the time I got back to the front desk, sure enough, there were brown tire marks leading right out the front entrance. No joke! 

So there I was with a gym full of poop and nobody to blame. What did I do? I geared up with every protective layer I could find, no hazmat suits unfortunately. Then I got to work scrubbing the bathroom clean. The one bright spot was I got to pass on the task of cleaning the rest of the gym to the night custodian who, when he showed up for work, looked like he just ate an apple full of maggots, or well, someone asked him to clean up human feces. 

Gym Tales: An Introduction 

I can still feel the cold metal between my hands. I can smell the sweaty clothes in my gym bag and see particles of lifting chalk sprinkling through the air. The taste of artificially flavored pre-workout supplement lingers in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a lovely female figure gliding oh-so gracefully on the treadmill. Through the other eye I see a balding, mustachioed man air drumming to his favorite classic rock ballad and another man of comparable age complaining about some “young punk” who didn’t re-rack his weights after using the bench press. Believe it or not these are my people. They are family — both irritating and comforting. They are the older brother who leaves a slice of half-eaten pizza in your bed after watching TV. They are the little sister who won’t stop kicking the back of your seat on a road trip. But they are also the loving mother who stays with you in the hospital when you’re sick and the distant cousin who rekindles your bond after years apart. Even the self-consumed “meathead” grunting under the squat rack makes the gym feel like home — a symbiotic collective of agonists and antagonists. The community that is the gym has, at one time or another, been my salvation from the trauma and struggle of life. 

Like most humans, I’m capable of loving both people and things. And because people aren’t things and things aren’t people, I tend to love them in different ways. Not necessarily with more or less fervor, well maybe, but differently — I obviously love my mom more than I love a set of dumbbells. But damn, I do love a good set of dumbbells. 

I’ve loved often in my life and my point is this: I’ve felt such strong connections to both people and things I couldn’t have possibly expected anything more from love. I’ve experienced kindness and care from people I never would have expected to come to my aid. And similarly, I’ve become so attached to inanimate objects it’s made me roll my eyes. 

Of all that, of all the love I’ve felt for people and things, I’m almost ashamed to say it is the latter that has given me joy and a purpose of which no person has bestowed upon me. It is a certain satisfaction and an even more certain attachment, and I get it from exercise. It is a magnificent fusion of passion, achievement, and countless other feelings brought together like a wonder drug with endlessly addictive properties. 

Why do people run ultra-marathons, or do obstacle courses through barbed wire and blazing fire, or swim long distance in frigid water? It’s not for their health. Although some people may say otherwise, speaking from experience I know most people test their bodies in such ways not because it’ll make them live longer, but because, well, they enjoy it. Of course they do, that’s why they are willing to risk their health. It’s why I was willing to risk mine, although I never thought the risk was so great. 

And sure running two dozen or more miles in a day is better for you than eating donuts and sitting on the couch, but extreme exercise has its health risks as well. I am perhaps the best example of the dangerous effects of overtraining. 

At the peak of my bodybuilding obsession I was spending more time at the gym each week than some people do in their entire life (the latter is an entirely different problem). I remember having a conversation with a much older and wiser friend about my lifestyle. It wasn’t exactly an intervention, but in hindsight it was definitely a hint. He made a point of making sure I knew exactly how much I was exercising — the equivalent of a full-time job. Not to mention I was going to school and had a part-time job. So really I had three jobs. 

The exhausting pace of my life may or may not have directly contributed to the decline of my health over the last few years, but it certainly didn’t help. Still, if given a mulligan I would live my life similarly, if not exactly the same. Even if my excessive exercising had killed me, I would gladly relive that death over and over because some things — the things that make us feel alive — are totally worth dying for. 

There are many moments from my former life as a bodybuilder and fitness fanatic that now stick with me in my sick and sedentary state. Most nearly consume me with a nostalgia so intense it actually feels like my body is in another time and place. Right now that past time and place is where I’d rather dwell. 

So this is to be my Gym Tales series, telling some of my favorite stories from working out, there are plenty — some comical, some nostalgic, some gross and painful, but all entertaining. So stay tuned …

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