I never thought fitness would be such a huge part of my life. I hated P.E in school, I have zero hand eye coordination, I wasn’t built like an athlete and in typical grammar school style I was always put in the “rubbish” team so I have literally never won a game of netball in my life. I associated sports with humiliation and discomfort, something to be endured not enjoyed and thought that was the end of that.
It was a good four years later, tipped off that I could get a discounted gym membership through work and after buying the cheapest all black gym kit I could get (assuming it would only get used once and thrown into the back of my wardrobe in shame), I took the plunge and signed up. I went for my induction with an intimidatingly ripped adonis who talked about macros (which I thought was a kind of fish for the first 3 months!) for an hour and had such enormous calf muscles that I went home and googled what on earth one does to achieve this effect out of pure scientific curiosity. Once he had shown me the ropes, I was free to roam. I started with cardio and at first I was out of breath in the first few minutes but eventually I was rowing 2 km in under 5 minutes and needed something more.
I made new friends at the gym, sporty friends who were now talking to me and giving advice so somehow along the way I found myself trying free weights for the first time, fully expecting to hate it. To my surprise I loved it, it was like a switch had gone off in my brain and suddenly I was training for at least an hour, six or seven times a week. The feeling of achievement lifting something heavier than I could the week before, the satisfying exhaustion after a training session, the noticeable change in my body, all had me hooked. Before long I was deadlifting more than my own bodyweight and benching 60kg, there wasn’t a class I hadn’t tried, I was hanging out with powerlifters and bodybuilders, I became close friends with personal trainers and instructors all knew me by name and even talked gym outside of training hours.
It became an integral part of my identity, now colleagues were asking me for advice on fitness and meals! I was substituting protein and thermo detonators for meals and more than once I was offered (but politely declined) illegal substances to fast track my progress for bikini competitions I had no plans to enter, although I took it as a huge compliment that people thought I might.
I would feel huge amounts of guilt if I skipped a session and would train twice as long the next day to make up for it, it got to the point where if I wasn’t completely exhausted and struggling to walk to my car I wouldn’t leave the gym and was often the last to leave at 11pm only to be in there before work at 7am the next morning. If I worked so hard I puked – even better! I started eating only lettuce and lean meat, if I was invited to a meal out I would train extra hard the whole week before, and usually the week after too, just to be sure to burn it off and that was if I didn’t just avoid social activities altogether in favour of training.
When my clothes became too big and I could buy smaller ones I was ecstatic, I was getting so many compliments that “before” me never dreamed of getting and my gym wear went from unassuming all black to proper fitness brands in every colour of the rainbow, usually all at the same time. I felt like I was almost at my peak and if I could only lift heavier, row faster, push harder then all the pain, insomnia, diminished social life and restricted eating would be worth it.
At this time, there was a lot going on in my personal life that felt out of my control, and though I couldn’t make the connection at the time, I was using the gym as an outlet and a method of controlling myself since I couldn’t control anything else. Every time I felt bad I would train harder, push myself so that I was too burnt out to think and therefore didn’t have to acknowledge or deal with my feelings and it was working. I chased increasingly elusive endorphin highs and felt their bottomless lows on days I couldn’t get there.
It had started out as a constructive hobby but had turned into what I later learned is a genuine addiction (exercise addiction is a real condition and there is a heap of resources online to access if you want to learn more) and as with all addictions it was a distraction from the real problems in my life, for which the best metaphor was probably me running a personal best 5k on a treadmill until I nearly passed out, but not having actually gotten anywhere.
Then in December 2016, after completing a particularly gruelling HIIT class, I was driving home and out of nowhere there was a flash of light, a loud crunch and intense pain. A car had lost control on the other side of the road and smashed into mine and both the car and my body were a wreck.
I honestly don’t remember a lot of that night but the bits I remember still have me in a panic so what I’ll say is the car was a write off and I had whiplash to my neck and spine, a broken collarbone, a shoulder impingement and a twisted pelvis. As someone who lives with Fibromyalgia, any trauma can be exacerbated, and physical injuries made much worse for much longer than someone without the condition. Essentially, I was a mess.
In a split second I went from being able to bench my own bodyweight to needing help to get to the toilet, at 23 years old my mum was having to bathe me, clothe me and feed me. As you might expect, my mental heath took as much of a battering as my physical health.
I spent months wrestling with the fact that my brain wanted to be in the gym but my body was unable to manage even making myself a cup of tea and any movement was severely painful and tiring. I made slow, tentative steps towards recovery but would become easily frustrated and tearful thinking about how much muscle I was losing, how I was told by a shoulder surgeon that my arm would never be the way it was before and the best I could hope for was 80% rotation.
But with each small achievement there was appreciation, the week I made my own bed I cried happy and sad tears and realised I was grieving my old self and that it was ok to do so because she was gone and in her place was someone who needed a lot of looking after and whom I felt I didn’t recognise.
I was forced to sit still to deal with what I had been running from and re-evaluate why I wanted to exercise, once I did that I could start to build myself up again. I am healthier, stronger and more flexible physically, but more importantly mentally. I truly believe in the healing power of being active, but the piece I had been missing was the correct motivation and the ability to cope with change.
I had created such a rigid set of rules and structure for myself I that I was missing out on life and making myself miserable – I would go out with my friends when I fitted a smaller size outfit, I would go for a meal once I’d burned 5000 extra calories, I would feel happier when I could lift another 30kg, all the ifs and when’s instead of allowing myself to feel happy how I was. I was putting conditions on loving myself, when I had the capacity to love others unconditionally, I would never put those restrictions on anyone else so why was I doing it to myself?
When the crash happened and I couldn’t meet any of those conditions and world didn’t end I had to change my way of thinking. It gave me time to address that I was unhappy and to change the things that were making me feel this way.
Fast forward three years and I am now very active again but in a lot of different ways, I do train with weights (in moderation) and I also do aerial hoop, aerial silks and pole fitness. I even ended up on the stage, not as a bodybuilder but as an aerialist and have done three annual showcases where I performed solo acts on the hoop and group performances chair dancing.
I am now grateful for everything my body can do, and I don’t punish it for what it can’t. I eat to fuel my body and give it what it needs, but I also won’t stop myself from enjoying ice cream or other things I would previously considered swear words. I am not the same size or shape as before but I am rebuilding myself the right way, with a strong foundation, and if I do get there again it will have been through a process of being kind to myself, not thrashing myself relentlessly in pursuit of the illusion of “perfect”.
The time away from my previous destructive behaviours has given me the opportunities to deal with the reasons I was unhappy and now that I have, I use exercise as a celebration of myself and not a penance, I will never be unkind to myself again. I fully accept that there are some things I probably will never manage to achieve physically and that’s ok now. I am grateful for every single second I get to move my body, and for the sense of excitement and happiness I get from it. It is no longer an addiction but a time of enjoyment and mindfulness where I listen very closely to what my body tells me, including if I need to stop – which previously would have been out of the question.
One of the biggest changes I made when I did come back to exercise as part of my recovery was that I gave equal weight to stretching and flexibility as I did to strength and cardio training. I found during those times that it was ok to let my mind wander, because now I wasn’t scared of what I would dig up. I also actively practice meditation when I can and I’m loving it, my mood and sleep have improved tenfold and things that would have sent me spiralling are now manageable and can be tackled without feeling overwhelmed.
One of my favourite phrases used a lot in Circus arts and in yoga is “I bend so I don’t break” and it couldn’t be more true, I am so much more comfortable with change and adjusting to meet it than I was prior to the accident and in a way I am grateful for what it has done for me (side bonus I can also do the splits front and middle, 10 year old me would be very proud!).
I think the moral of my (very long, sorry!) tale is to enjoy your life, not attach conditions to that enjoyment and remember to be kind to yourself. It took a car crash to save my life and I don’t plan on squandering it.
Written by Naomi Roots, Leadership Development Manager
Midlands Leadership and Lifelong Learning