RED ALERT! RED ALERT ! This entry is going to be long and will touch various mental health issues, even though it is all about positivity. Bear with me because I need to get this out of my chest.
Out of all the things I fell in love with in my life (Formula 1, football, heavy metal, the New York Yankees, the colour purple to name a few), there is one thing that I never, ever, not even remotely expected to become so passionate about: bodybuilding.
I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help thinking about how ridiculous it sounds me saying it since:
- I spent a lifetime shouting to the world my loathe for any physical activity and how unable I am to do anything sport-related;
- I have always looked like “a stick with clothes” due to my hyper-metabolism and (medically certified) lack of hunger;
- I have always had issues with food, exacerbated during my post-natal depression to the point I was barely eating;
- I still have major panic attacks just thinking about medicines and supplements, let alone if/when I (have to) take them;
- I hated myself to bits and I never possessed any self-confidence whatsoever so much that I never owned a mirror till recently;
As I wrote in my previous entries, I have always been quite sporty in my teens (whether by my own choice or pushed by my parents).
I played various sports in my life (although I have rarely enjoyed any of them), but me and any physical activity have never been quite a good pair: I have always being famous for being clumsy, lacking coordination, lacking self-esteem, and, most importantly, not believing in myself enough to think “if I really put an effort into it, maybe I will actually get better at this”.
My brain was constantly stuck on “I can’t do it” mode before even starting, and of course, this belief got more and more reinforced every time I’d start playing something and – surprise surprise – I’d discovered I was not good at it.
Whether I was truly shit or not though I can’t tell, but I bet that if I were less “I’m hopelessly shit” and I’d put some real effort, maybe I would not recall my “sporty years” in embarrassment. But hey, it has always been easier, mentally and physically, to just say “naaaa, not for me, I’m too shit, fuck it, I rather stay in bed”, so I never really bothered changing.
My gym-journey has been well documented in the past, but what I was not expecting was that “being fit” became quite quickly not enough for me: once I curbed my self-inflicted negativity and I found it easy to do workouts and be committed, I became eager to push myself more. After I put the surgery ordeal behind my back (and what a hell of a ride that has been!), I began craving something more that just a bit of training here and there: I needed another stimulating and empowering challenge to really push myself beyond my limits. I felt ready, I got bored of being “a recovery patient” mentally and physically, I needed a proper new adventure – and boy oh boy, didn’t I found exactly what I was wishing for.
The very first step in this new journey has been joining a new gym and enroll in a membership contract: believe me, this in itself was a challenge for me. Not sure I said it already, but I have never been able to enrol in a gym membership and actually go for the whole length of the contract; I think my record has been three months at best, then I just kept paying the fee without going, feeling stupid for yet again another failure in my life. However, if I really were serious about this, I had to prove to myself that I was not that person with the looser and “pity hungry” mentality. Four months on and I’m still going strong (yey!).
On the day I signed my new membership, I asked the gym manager to find me the most badass personal trainer he could think of, one that was an expert in body transformation and bodybuilding, that would turn me from “skinny, post-surgery extremely weak and out of shape” into “bad bitch muscly super woman with JLO ass”.
You know when they say, “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it”? That is exactly what happened to me.
The day Margarita, my now PT, texted me, I freaked out: I put so much expectations into this moment that I was desperate to make sure “she was the one”. When I met her, I literally bombarded her with all the “this is my goal, this is what I want to do, this is what I hate, this are my issues etc…” speech: I wanted to make sure she understood where I came from and where I wanted to go, because I was ready to commit like I’ve never done it before and I was in no mood to waste time with the wrong PT – been there, done that for years and years (though it is also fair to say I have never been truly interested in working hard anyway).
Margarita is everything I ever wanted in a PT and even more. She revolutionised my life from the get-go, so much that I feel my life (and my body) can be described as “Before Margarita” and “After Margarita”. No joking. Her training sessions are truly of another level – I spend the hours before I see her marinating in a mixture of anxiety, fear, excitement and anticipation of what new torture she has planned for me.
I have never been pushed so hard in my life, hand on heart.
It’s not just the physical strain of what she makes me do, though sometimes I feel “this is it, another squat and it’s paralysis from the waist down”: the best part of our training session is that she is massively helping me curbing my mental “oh no I can’t do this”, and even if I have a good moan here and then (ok, all the bloody time!) and I start “begging for mercy”, she doesn’t give in (no way Jose!) and keeps me going no matter what – and rightly so, as I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I never experienced being physically unable to sit without feeling like my ass is on a barbecue on fire. Best of it is, I can already see big results!
I am loving this so much that, in the space of a month, I went from “Margarita please make me have a Jlo booty” to “I want to do fitness competitions just like you!”.
Ms shyness and clumsiness, ex hyper-skinny, 10+ years of experience in slouch sitting at the office, who can’t hold a pose not even if her life depended on it. How about this for a personal challenge!
I am not allowing myself to think “will I do it?” though: the only thought that is authorised to linger in my brain is “how far I am from actually doing it”. Oh, yes, and try not to drive Margarita crazy if I can with my moaning!
Aside from the physical aspects, the real love for bodybuilding is due to its impact on my mental health.
For me, it’s more than just simply “lifting weights, growing muscles and transforming my body”: it is most and foremost an excruciating mental training like I’ve never experienced before. It is scary and at the same time empowering. Turns out, the weight-lifting part is it actually “the easiest one”! Forget the physical strain: that is a piece of cake compared to the mental weight lifting bodybuilding puts me through every single day without a break, without a safety net, without any remote possibility to avoid it – the price would be giving up on my goals, and I already gave up way too many times on my life.
The more I dig deep into my fears and face them, the better the results are at the gym, the stronger I am to challenge what happens in my head. As hard as it is at times, especially when I’m one panic attack after the other, I know that once I will be out of that (and notice the “once” rather then “if”), I will be rewarded ten times fold.
Let me give you some examples.
I have always been extra-skinny and underweight, “blessed” with a high metabolism and a medically certified extreme low appetite. In my head, I was eating LOADS OMG SO MUCH FOOD. I had my protein shake, my big portion of pasta, how on earth I can’t get any weight on and grow big, my body must be faulty for sure. Margarita, with the help of MyFitnessPal, quickly made me realise how my diet was not “omg I’m eating like crazy”, but more likely “how on earth have I survived just on that”. I will never forget the first day I recorded my food diary, thinking “I bet I had bazillion of calories”, only to realise I was a thousand calories under my intake goal. I felt absolutely shocked.
Like Alanis Morrissette used to sing, “isn’t it ironic” that I am now “happily” resorting to force feed myself, plan my meals, think about food and how to get all my macros etc every single day of my life, when not only I have always been known for eating very small portions, but also few years ago, in the worst part of my post-natal depression, I couldn’t eat more than a spoonful of plain rice or pasta, frightened and tortured by panic attacks if I attempted to eat anything else? And this, my friends, is trauma number 1 that bodybuilding is making me face (and overcome).
You see, once I started living alone and being the master of my own universe, the first thing that I absolutely loved has been the ability to eat as much (or as little) as I wanted without having to endure a meltdown at the dinner table, with my mum yelling at me for not eating, telling me I was anorexic and therefore ending up hospitalised and dying. At time she’d stuff me with hunger-enhancing medicines too – the thought of which gave me nightmares for years. It is not fun staring at the plate full of food in front of you and feeling like you’d rather be whipped than put any of that in your mouth, and yet you got to force it down somehow because your parents are yelling at you.
No matter how hard I wished, hunger never blessed me with its magnificient presence, and I spent a lifetime being mocked by my parents, their friends and everyone for being too skinny / eating like a bird / not eating / being too think / looking like a skeleton and so on.
I know most people would think I’ve been very lucky to have “my condition” and never to worry about gaining weight, but believe me, having to eat when you don’t want to it is just as hard and mentally challenging as the opposite, especially if you lack the hunger in the first place.
Of course, as soon as I got out of this hell, I enjoyed (not) eating without that pressure and scrutiny – and I actually started loving food.
Well, that freedom of “not eating” is now gone, and the one who took it away it’s me. Mercilessly.
It has not been easy.
I kid you not, there has been times during the first weeks where, chucking down food whilst holding back tears, I wished I could have had a shot of that medicine my mother gave me to help me cope. I went back to that very horrid place of being yelled at, only this time I didn’t have “my parents to blame”: it was me, I was inflicting this to myself willingly and, no matter how hard it felt, I had to keep going for my own good.
A month or so later, I’m more adjusted and, even though it is still a struggle at times (my cheat days are those where I skip few snacks and potentially even lunch), I shifted my mindset from “oh no, torture again” to “it is what it is”: I pile food in front of me whether I like it or not, I have my alarms set to remind me to eat, and it doesn’t matter if I am hungry or not (more likely not), the food gets eaten.
The other shock horror, panic attack inducing, mega mentally hard thing I am doing is taking all the supplements I need whether I crap myself in fear or not. I wrote about my phobia for medicines in the past, and this is linked to that. It doesn’t matter if it’s natural, 100% guaranteed that nothing bad will happen, billions of doctors swearing by it, you name it: my brain is not wired just like that. If it’s something I never had before, if it’s a pill, a powder, whatever, it’s panic attack. Anxiety builds up as soon as I start thinking that I have to take them, and when the moment comes…. you know the drill.
Oh, when couple of weeks ago I decided to treat myself to creatine to give me a bit of edge and allow myself to push more!
Four days solid of never-ending panic attacks.
On one hand, my brain was spinning at the speed of light.
On the other, I was doing my best to try and pull the fucking handbrake and not let shit hit the fan. Gosh, I felt I was surely on the brink of a proper mental breakdown. However, I didn’t give in. I didn’t allow myself to let my fears take my goal away from me. I imposed myself to go through the storm, head held up high, no matter what scary outcome my brain was desperate to make me believe in. You cannot imagine the pure joy, a week or so later, to be able to say “I’ve done it” and to see the actual benefit at the gym. Yes, I know, I could have just said “I could do without it, it’s not important anyway”, but creating excuses to avoid things won’t get me that far, whether for bodybuilding or anything else. Keep pushing problems away don’t make them magically disappear, you just hide them in a corner, but they are still there – and growing. It’s like video games: you can’t get to the next level if you don’t beat the monster at the end of the lever you are in first.
I am sure than, in due course, I will find many other “mental monsters” that bodybuilding will make me fare – especially when the time will come to work towards my very first competition (though I think it’s going to take me at least a year, since my shoulder is still not trainable). I know I’m on the right path, even if it’s quite the hard way up: like one of my favourite Italian journalists, Tiziano Terzani, wrote in a book called “La fine e’ il mio inizio” (the end is my beginning): “The rule, in my opinion, is: when you are at a crossroad and you find a road that goes uphill and one that goes downhill, chose the one that goes uphill: it’s easier to go downhill, but you’ll find yourself in a hole. There is more hope going uphill. It is tough, it is a different way of looking at things, it’s a challenge, it keeps you alert”. For once in my life, I’m eager to see what’s at the top of this hill, rather than being miserable down in the valley telling myself “I’m too (insert insult of your choice) to hike my way up”.