I’ve been receiving e-mails at work all week alerting me to the fact that it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. What better time to talk about some of the mental health aspects of extreme weight loss? The link between mind and body on my journey from fat to fit has been something that I’ve thought about a lot. It seems to me that a lot is said about the diet and exercise aspects of weight loss, but not enough is said about how to support your emotional well-being in the process. A simple prescription to eat less neglects the fact that it’s no easy feat to shift your entire worldview without going crazy.
Now, if there is anyone who needs Mental Health Awareness Training, it was my sullen 15-year-old self. I had a close family member who suffered from debilitating depression and addictions issues – to the point where we spent one Christmas in the psych ward of the local hospital after a failed suicide attempt. There were a lot of things that sucked at that point in my life but I used to wonder, “If everyone else is faking their way through life, why can’t you just toughen up and pretend to be normal?”. Needless to say, my approach to curing insanity didn’t fix anything.
Less than a decade later, when I was faced with unemployment and my own bout of depression, I still had no answers. After graduating from university, I went through about 6 months of not leaving my apartment except to walk to the nearby grocery store. I rarely saw my friends, and when I did I had nothing to say. I dreaded anything except for the 16 hours a day I spent in bed, trying to avoid the world and eating a lot of take-out. I felt like I was totally powerless over my own life. I was simply floating along, a victim to all of the circumstances of my own existence. It isn’t exactly a secret that much of my desire to improve my life comes from the slow realization that I’m lucky that I didn’t kill myself during that period. Now that I’ve made it through, I might as well try and make the most of what I’ve got left in my life. So my initial foray into fitness, zumba, was very much a conscious effort to add some enjoyment to my life.
But some of the philosophy that I harbored in my teenage years still lingers, and in a sense I never really dealt with my mental health issues in the traditional way. I certainly realized that dealing with depression was not a matter of just tightening my bootstraps. But even when I couldn’t just snap out of my haze, I was hesitant to go to therapy or take medication. I believe that I am the only person who can control my mental health, and I think that’s largely related to the fact that I live most of my life inside my head. I’m an ideas man. I sometimes give the impression of being dull or boring because I’m fairly quiet and introverted. It just so happens that I’m so wrapped up in the world of thoughts whizzing around the inside my head. Most of the ideas that flitter across my brain will never come to fruition in reality, they belong only to me and can never be communicated beyond the boundaries of my body. So, it’s a big problem when those thoughts get out of whack and I start contemplating suicide.
Now, it’s well established that regular physical activity can help improve overall mental health, but I think there’s more at play when you start trying to shed all of your excess fat. You spend your whole life being morbidly obese and then you start cleaning up your diet and realize it’s kind of easy, and you start exercising and maybe even enjoy it. All of sudden you’re left asking yourself, “Well fuck, why wasn’t I doing this all along?” So you’re beating yourself up a little bit, and then the scale stops moving and you feel hopeless: maybe porn-star hotness is not so obtainable and you’ll just stay fat forever. And lo, you’ve been sucked right back into the void of dark thoughts that you were trying to claw your way out of when you first forced yourself to hit the gym.
So how do I find my clean, well-lighted place? I force myself to do to yoga, for one thing – and just like a shrink is not for me, I know that yoga is not for everyone, either. I like to joke that stretching doesn’t build strength so that I can slack off on my mobility work, and I’ve been known to say that yoga is too low impact to be considered “fitness”. Yet I know that the few hours that I spend at yoga contribute to my overall physical and mental health. My mind and body are the only home I’ll have for life, and when I start to hoard all of the thoughts inside of my head, yoga forces me to do some spring cleaning.
No, I can’t say that yoga is some sort of cure-all for my crazy. Therapy or anti-depressants or electro-shock therapy might be more effective solutions, but if that’s the case then I’m probably out of luck. But I feel like I’ve laid a pretty good foundation without those things, and I no longer feel like my life is something beyond my control. Instead, taking charge of my health was one of the cornerstones in taking control of my entire life. Figuring out that eating is a physical need and not an emotional one was a huge revelation. Instead I’ve found other ways nourish my soul: yoga is one of them, and when I say that lifting has improved my capacity for physical and mental strength, I mean exactly that. Lifting can be lonely. You step under the bar alone, and then you have to confront both success and defeat on your own. Sometimes you need a little luck to get ahead and some days you’re off your game, but consistency and hard work will get you pretty far in the face of any obstacle; that’s as true in the weighroom as it in life.
And sometimes, when the world is weighing heavy on your mind, you just need to deadlift until you can’t think anymore.