Monday, March 3, 2014

New Soul

To Benny, Bruce, Cameron, Rich, Ray, Rob, Ro and Felipe, and to anyone who thinks they can never be athletic.

I weighed two hundred pounds by the time I was in sixth grade, and three hundred by the time I was in eleventh. Between the ages of five and eighteen, gym class was my hell and the jocks were the demons.


I lost one hundred fifteen pounds at the age of seventeen.Then, from 1988 to 2014, I rode the weight roller-coaster. I'd gradually gain forty pounds and lose thirty, gain fifty and lose forty. I always told myself I was getting it under control, yet my weight trended upward.

By the time I hit my forties I was about eighty pounds overweight. I launched into one final, heroic skirmish with my eating, and again I lost most of the weight. But again, I faltered and stumbed. Again I told myself I was getting it back under control. Who knows how many years I would have kept telling myself that.

On January 27, 2011 I slashed my knee open on a broken television screen buried under the snow. I spent two nights in the hospital on IV antibiotics, and that kicked off three months of binging during which I gained back thirty of those seventy pounds I'd fought tooth and nail to lose.

By the spring of 2011 I no longer believed my own bullshit; I'd lied to myself one too many times. So I got help. I got clean from the food on May 1. On October 1 I hit my goal weight. I've been within five pounds of that weight for two years and ten months.

When I talk about those two years and ten months, you may not understand what the hell any of it has to do with anything. That's par for the course. If you spend any time listening to food addicts like me you'll hear a bunch of nonsense, starting with the term "food addict". Believe me, we get it. That's why we tend not to talk about it. We know that those who've not been through it won't understand.

Absurd as it sounds, the story of addiction is not about the substance. It's about what we've used the substance to escape from. So if you talk to an addict who knows you well, or who has lousy boundaries, you'll hear a lot of talk about the emotional and spiritual progress they've made since they got clean. It probably won't make sense, any more than the stories I'm about to tell.

In February of 2012 I was sitting in my favorite cafe listening to some acquaintances talk about the upcoming Super Bowl. I started to chime in, making a point to let everyone in the room know that I didn't know when the Super Bowl was happening or who was playing. Then I heard the words coming out of my mouth, and stopped.

Ever since junior high school I'd been advertising to everyone in the room that I was a freak who didn't know about their silly little games, and didn't want to know. And for the first time I saw how this reaction came from those days spent steeping in humiliation and dread. But I wasn't that fat kid any more, and I didn't have gym class that afternoon. I didn't need to act like that any more.

During the following months I altered my behavior. I even went so far as to watch a Jets game with a friend to make it more difficult for me to say I knew nothing about football. I was challenging myself to let go of my exceptionalism and become less of an intentional freak. Of course, the universe was listening. And the universe has a sense of humor. I was about to get a hell of a lot more of a challenge than I'd bargained for.

In August I went to work at Ellington, and nearly lost my mind. I spent the first six weeks or so grinding my teeth and trying not to scream as everyone around me talked about weight lifting and sports all day, every day. In my head, I was transported back to high school. I was a fat freak who would never be anything more than a fat freak.

Of all the people there, I liked Benny and Bruce the least, because they never shut up about weight lifting. Hard as I'd worked to change my reaction to jocks, it was impossible for me not to dislike them. But within a few weeks, that started to change. They saw how assiduous I was about my food, and got curious. I was touched by their efforts to relate to me. Within a few months, I came to like them the most.

During the months leading up to February 2013, the Ellington crew had been petitioning me to join them at CrossFit. I was 100% sure that I never would. After all, if listening to them talk about CrossFit had made me want to scream, going to CrossFit would drive me completely insane.

I was closest to Benny, and he'd been trying the hardest to bring me around. So I shared a bit of my history with him to let him know why I kept saying no. But I had a secondary motive. Aside from that part of me that was sure I could never set foot in CrossFit, there was a small part that suspected I'd made just enough progress to be ready to take that terrifying leap. Part of me wanted to be pushed.

Well, I got that push. I suspect Benny rallied the rest of the crew, because they redoubled their efforts to get me to join. And since I could go for free in February, I had no excuse not to give it a try. On February 26, I got up at 5:00 AM, got on a train and got a ride with Benny from the station to the gym.

It's hard to describe that first day because everything I say sounds like hyperbole. I walked into that room and saw... a bunch of guys and some weights. And that was all. In all the rest of that volume, there was nothing but empty air. It wasn't a hell, and there were no demons. All the shit I was trying to bring into that room was my own baggage. And it was a lot heavier than the weights.

So my first days in CrossFit were as hellish as I expected, but not for the reasons I expected. The only way I could have been less comfortable was if I'd been in physical pain and danger, but I could see that there was no justification for that discomfort. It was all on me.

Contrary to my expectations, no one was acting like a dick-swinging alpha male. No one was laughing at me. Everyone was helpful and supportive. But even more striking was the way the guys interacted with each other, which bore no resemblance to the thirty-year-old images in my head of how jocks interact. They weren't putting each other down. They were lifting each other up.

I have a memory from those early days, the vividness of which is telling. Felipe was directing or correcting me, and he said "...I know you think I'm a douchebag..." and I thought "Is he joking, or does he really think that I think that? Is that the way he sees me?" It wouldn't have surprised me. I was so damned uncomfortable, I have no idea what I looked like from outside my own head.

What Felipe couldn't know is that I had been expecting him to be a douchebag. I was a fucking Geiger counter of douchebaggery, sensitized to the most infinitesimal amounts of gym class radiation. If he'd acted according to my expectations, even a little, I would've been gone. But he hadn't. Neither had anyone else. They hadn't given me an excuse to leave.

So I stayed. And I quickly got a second unpleasant surprise. I could do only a preposterously small fraction of what those guys could do. I'd always thought of myself as a big, strong man, but compared to them, I was a baby. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. For the first few months of CrossFit, I had the mantra "...weakest and slowest... weakest and slowest..." running through my head nonstop.

During those first months, I came to see the depths of my own prejudice against athletic people. Cameron, one of the most accomplished athletes in the group, is a touchingly considerate young man who's polite to a fault. Ro, who is the physical embodiment of everything I demonized for thirty years, is one of the most soft-spoken, kindest guys I know. Everywhere I looked, I was faced with the maddening realization that "...Oh. I'm the asshole."

But I stayed. I'm stubborn like that because I know that progressespecially the kind of spiritual development in which I was engagedtakes time. And again, I have no idea what I looked like during that time. To me, it felt lonely. I had no way to relate to anyone, and no one was trying to relate to me. But for all I know, I just seemed like a miserable, unapproachable asshole.

There was another formative moment during those early days. One morning I was watching Ray do a clean, and suddenly I saw not only complexity, but beauty, in the form. That was a new experience for me. Up until that day, I'd been too full of anger, resentment and fear to see anything positive in athleticism.

The moment I saw that there was math and music in those motions, I became open to the possibility of taking pleasure in my own athleticism, and of loving my body. I'd never loved my body before; I'd never allowed myself to. I'd spent most of my life hating my body, and living in my head.

So, after six months or so, I was no longer miserable most of the time. Moments of real joy came more frequently, as I discovered I could do things I could never do before. I went from barely being able to control a 35 lb. kettle bell to confidently swinging a 53, and eventually to doing 70 lb. American swings. Boy, there were few moments of pleasure like that day when I picked up a 53 lb. kettle bell and had to check the weight because it felt like a toy.

On August 8th I had one of the most deliriously cathartic moments of my life when I climbed a rope to the ceiling for the first time. On January 9ththree hundred seventeen days after I walked into CrossFit for the first timeI did my first string of two consecutive double-unders. A few weeks after that, I noticed that I was getting a lot stronger at handstands. Now it feels like I'm close to being able to do actual handstand pushups, and my double-unders are getting better each time I do them.

One year ago, I was in the best shape of my life up until that point. But now I'm leagues ahead of that in terms of strength, stamina and flexibility. Even more stunning, though, is the fact that I want to be in that room. The part of me that looks around at what others are lifting, sneers at me, and calls me weak and pathetic is still there, but these days it's not as loud as the voice of pride in my accomplishments. I've worked like hell and I've earned that voice. I no longer feel like an outsider. It feels glorious

Of course, it's come at a cost. The frequency with which I've injured myself has become something of a joke among my friends. But only one of those injuriesa box-jump scar that needed three stitches and then got infected a week lateroccurred in CrossFit. The rest resulted from my overdoing it while trail-clearing and running.

But here's the thing about that cost; not only was it more than worth it, but in retrospect, it was inevitable. During the last year, I've learned to relate to my body in a way that is new to me: a way that most of my peers learned during childhood. It's natural that I had to learn my limits by exceeding themto learn how to respond to injury by getting injured. And not for nothin', look where I am now. I'd gladly suffer worse injury than I did for the fitness I've achieved.

I suspect you think this is all nonsense or, at the very least, that I'm making a big deal out of nothing. But see, that's just the thing. To you, it is nothing, and that makes all the sense in the world. But from my point of view, it's everything. I find the most remarkable experiences in life to be those instances when a person changes me simply by virtue of being themselves. Without ever intending it or knowing you were doing it, that's what you did for me, simply by being the decent people I never expected you to be.

Have you ever heard the proverb "Learn a new language, get a new soul?" One year ago, I wouldn't have imagined it could apply to athleticism. But that's exactly what being in CrossFit with you has done for me. I've let go of prejudices that I was clutching so tightly to my chest that I couldn't even see them, and I've accepted that I might call myself an athlete without mockery or even irony. I've got a new soul. Thank you.


FoodBevTechGuy said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I find it personally inspiring, because I have gone through a completely parallel experience as you during childhood, and am trying to get over the hangups in my head as well.

Benny Nieves said...

Am very proud of you brother!

eves said...

I had almost the opposite problem in public schools as I was always skinny. I hated gym as I was never picked for a team. I put myself on a pound increasing diet that included counting the calories spoonful's of peanut butter that I gobbled! I eventually liked myself in high school as I actually had a boyfriend by the time I was 16! I was OK from then on. Proud of you Hugh for both what you've accomplished in health and in written words to inspire others!

Raymond Ferranti said...

Dont stop Hugh! I'll never forget the day you made it up that rope. I was inspired! Train for life and you will find balance.