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Life Lessons

Lost And Found At The Weight Machines

Art of a person seen from behind wearing a hoodie and shorts, with tattoos on their legs, in the process of lifting a barbell
Art: A. Andrews

When I started lifting, I hoped to save myself from my body. 

It makes me cringe to admit it. Intellectually, I know there is nothing universally less useful than an ableist and recycled overcoming disability narrative. But unfortunately, the hard truth about having a body is that sometimes we inherit the projections the world places on it—regardless of our known certainty of our worth—especially when those projections are critical. I certainly do, anyway.

Growing up with a neural tube defect, I absorbed the worst things the world had to say about me and my worth before I was ever taught to dismantle them with my own agency. My road to disability justice and self acceptance has been a series of unlearning, more than anything else. And just when I thought I’d hacked it, my body changed again. With additional loss of function, the stability I’d built in myself wavered too. Months of hospitalization. In-patient rehabilitation. Years of physical and occupational therapy. Paraplegia brought about an entirely new way of living, and I’d never been great at change.

For a long time, I resented my body. I resented myself.

I’d grown up with a love of all things sports and a confidence in myself that many around me found delusional. In between each and every tedious medical event, I played. I tried out for teams any time I was healthy enough, and I gleamed with pride just to dress for my spot on the bench. It had never mattered to me that I wasn’t like others; I was always going to try. I was oblivious to all the ways the world wasn’t fit for me. I made myself fit the world.

But somewhere in the stress of more change, I lost that determination. I grew egregiously aware of myself in each and every space I entered, suddenly absorbing every stare, every comment. My mind flooded with feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and debilitating self doubt. I couldn’t bring myself to care about sports or exercise or any of the things I’d loved so much. All I felt was disappointment.

For me, living with disability feels like an act of survival, and sometimes survival feels like loss. Buried in a grief I’d struggled to process, I grew deeply afraid of wanting things in my life, and in my vigilance, I became unbearably still.

I found lifting appealing for the same reasons I assume anyone else would: I wanted to get strong. I wanted to feel strong. I was attracted to the adaptability and the you against you mantra. There was no predetermined challenge to complete, no single way to access or approach it, no gold standard for a categorically good or bad performance. The rules are simple: show up, find a routine that works for you and move as much weight as you fucking can … safely.

I finally walked through the doors of the Best Gym in Town™ after several failed attempts at promising myself that I would. Starting, I found, was the hardest part. There are a number of tinier decisions that go into initiating anything big and new: acknowledging that you can, considering what you want, and committing to the idea that you deserve whatever that is. These things take time! And time … is annoying!  It’s a meandering process, allowing yourself to be visible in a place largely considered to be made for—well, not you.

For me, the push to get there came down to fatigue. I’d spent years making myself so small, and it hadn’t provided any safety or comfort. I needed to do something for myself. And lifting, beyond any physical challenge, asks us to face who we are and push ourselves to our limits when that proves difficult. I wanted that. I needed to feel myself try again.

So much about the gym seems designed to intimidate. With the push of a door, you are immersed in a world of clanking metal weights, adrenaline-fueled music, and athletes built like battleships maneuvering through a sea of benches, racks, and exercise equipment. There are mirrored walls, eyes throughout. The room pulses with a heartbeat of its own.

One, two, three, four ... Warmups, reps, sets, rests.

The first few weeks were categorically brutal. The sweat, the tears, the exhaustion. I worked out in isolation—silently anxious of the ways I stood out in the space. I forced movement, and I struggled through seemingly basic routines. When I felt resistant, I bullied myself into the habit while continuing to sleep like shit, eat like shit, and feel … like shit.

I ached trying to stretch my small body to fit machines that wanted to ignore me. I climbed oversized equipment to avoid asking for help or suggestions for alternative lifts. I strained trying to reach for weights too high or low for me to set up alone. I was a gym clown amid a cast of serious, seasoned performers. I couldn’t just intuit how to correctly exist here.

Eventually, I let up. Gym faces became familiar. Equipment proved more adaptable than I’d thought. I observed more seasoned gym rats tweaking and rigging machines with grips, handles, and pads. I even grew comfortable with asking questions about more ominous equipment, helpful stretches, or joint supports. Fellow lifters began taking notice and offering comments of support on my progress and form. 

I don’t know when my moment was, only that there was one. It suddenly hit that it wasn’t enough to push through discomfort—to contort my body to the mold of another’s. Like everyone else showing up, I had to work from my own baseline. My own body. I had to spend time on and with myself free of comparison to anyone else. Our strength is immeasurable. Our strength is our own. In the years I’d spent wanting to change my body, what I’d needed was to care for the one I had.

My lifts became therapy. The gym became home.

I immersed myself in online forums and communities of disabled lifters around the world, piecing together various tips and tricks for better gym access. I sought help and advice from bigger guys in the gym for racking and unracking (and found all the ways that so many of my gym hang-ups were common for people all across the ability spectrum). I developed routines that made sense for my baseline. I slowed down. I took breaths! I took breaks! I took baths!

I ate! So! Much! Food!

The gym is now a place for me to come face to face with my dissociation, my coping mechanisms. It's also become a place to safely push myself against all of that pressure I’ve placed on myself, and all of the pressures others have placed on me. I’ve grown more confident and capable as I’ve spent time with and on my body as it is. I’ve found myself more and more able to shed the proverbial weight of wishing it were something else, and more and more proud of the strength and qualities that inherently exist within me.

The Best Gym in Town™ has not helped me to overcome my disability. It has not cured me of any aches or pains. It has not opened any possibilities for new health outcomes. And it certainly hasn’t shielded me from human stares, or social commentary. It’s done something so much bigger: It’s offered me long-avoided time with myself, and a new relationship with my body and the strength I have in it.

Next month marks two years since I started, and the sheer brutality of the early weeks feels like a distant memory. I’m benching my steadily increasing body weight! I’m not struggling to take the garbage out! I’m doing fucking CARDIO! I don’t even skip leg day!

…Usually, anyway.

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