Addiction and drug abuse can be many things: a coping tool, a trauma response, an unfortunate genetic predisposition. But common misconceptions of addiction tout it a symptom of weakness, a lack of willpower or a fault of individual character. Because addicted people tend to only talk about their experiences to other addicted people, and quietly, to avoid shame and stigma, or simply because they think it doesn’t concern the untouched, the community as a whole can fail to recognize how common it is. Addiction is ugly, we don’t want to look at it. The strength community, though, is not immune to the disease and many of us, if not most, come from a background marked by substance abuse and self-destructive behavior.
Following another offhanded Instagram poll, I asked a few people (powerlifters, specifically) a few questions a few weeks ago about their experiences with addiction. Some of them you probably know, some of them you probably don’t, but the common thread of addiction, overcoming, perseverance and continued, ongoing struggle is more than likely relatable to us all.
Soft lights went blinding and suddenly, in the middle of the room, at the gym she always went to, on the drugs she always took, Jenna had the irresistible urge to run into the street, out into traffic, so she did.
She’d been fine at the pool just hours earlier, sunning and swimming with Kyle. Drugs and alcohol showed up but that was fine, too, as she drank champagne and took a few bumps in the bathroom to pass the time with more vibrance on the otherwise perfectly normal California Saturday. But now, lying on the scalding pavement in the middle of the street sobbing under the California sun, Kyle slowly, carefully peeling her off the sidewalk back home, Jenna knew she wasn’t fine. She had to stop.
Cocaine was easy to leave. Sure, she missed the chemical burn and drip in her sinuses with a twisted sense of nostalgia only a user can truly appreciate. She’d always felt so close to the people she partied with–side by side, just like the lines they’d chop so cleanly–bonded by the intensity of the rush as the tray and straw passed, going out flying high on the narcotic stimulant and each other’s secrets. But at 25 years old that was over, no more mushrooms, no more cocaine and definitely no revisiting the one-time meth experiment that kept her up for three days straight. The decision was made.
She still had alcohol, anyway. She still has alcohol.
Jenna had her first drink at 15 years old. She’d smiled up at her boyfriend after half a Smirnoff Ice and put it down, “I don’t want to get too drunk.” Two years later she was consumed by alcohol. She’s 33 now, and struggles with it to this day.
It’s nice to have a glass of something bubby when the weather’s nice, or when it isn’t; when the California sun warms your face on a California Saturday, or when it doesn’t; when there’s something on television, or when there isn’t. These days for Jenna it’s sparkling wine or whiskey, just a glass, then two, then the bottle–a bottle a day, perhaps.
Jenna is a 67.5kg powerlifter with a 903 lb total. She started lifting because she was sick of how she felt and looked–a byproduct of her alcohol consumption–and is grateful to the sport for surrounding her with strong, confident women. Jenna recently deadlifted more than 400 lbs, something she never thought she’d be able to do after an injury. The strength sport community has been good to her in recovery, offering patience when she struggles to share, and understanding when she reaches out.
“Most people who truly take it seriously aren’t doing a bunch of drugs and drinking their faces off,” she said. “It takes up a lot of time and energy and is a distraction that you constantly work to get better at.”
Jenna has recently opened up about her problem with drinking to a few close friends and her coach, making difficult admissions, taking hard looks at herself, and being honest about the choices she’s made that prevent her from becoming the woman she wants to be.
At 4 years old George took his first sip of whiskey from the perspiring glass stolen off his perspiring uncle’s low-sitting coffee table.
At 11 years old he first got high at Cascade Park. That park in Elyria coursed with heroin, crack cocaine, cocaine, barbiturates, benzodiazepines and alcohol, and so did George. He was partial to benzos (narcotic anti-anxiety sedative commonly abused by those with other, multi-substance abuse problems) and barbiturates (narcotic sedatives).
By 13 years old, George was addicted and at 22 years old he knew it.
A year later, George overdosed in a public bathroom and a year after that, paramedics snapped his rib in attempt to revive him in the back of a screaming ambulance. Soonafter, George would again overdose and suffer a severe seizure at St. Vincent Medical Center on E. 22nd St.
Yet George doesn’t hate anything about drugs, they did their job. He loved the feeling of not being himself, it was the only time he could relax, the sedatives made it easy.
2100 Lakeside–both the name and address of a homeless men’s shelter in the least desirable part of downtown Cleveland–stands tall over the industrial, lake-facing streetscape. The wind always whips and the line of destitute men with their heads down lean into it under patched overcoats and layers of collected clothes, snaking down the sidewalk from the front door. George lived in the E-Dorm (overflow) at 2100. He’d been sitting there, broken, for quite some time–years–when someone sat down beside him and listened to him and was kind. He loved that feeling, too. Gary Stewart and Richie Bartow worked at the shelter helping broken men see themselves as people who should live, and George was no exception. Gary and Richie taught him to care, that he has value and that the world needs him, concepts difficult for addicted, broken children in grown men’s bodies sitting on the edges of beds in wind-whipped homeless shelters. Eventually, George checked into Y-haven on 61st and Woodland. By 25 years old, 12 addicted years later, he was finally sober.
At 35 years old, George is now a second degree black belt in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, and has been ranked in both BJJ and shootfighting. He’s a personal trainer working tirelessly to build strength and confidence in others. His young son Jack has the same bright eyes and blonde hair as him.
Addiction taught me I have value. It taught me I have control, but that alcohol took that away. I’m 56, there is a lot I want to do yet, so I took that control back after giving my power to everyone and everything but myself for so many years. Lifting gives me control in a world that often seems out of my control.
Campfire sticks crackled and smoldered next to aging hotdog buns on a rotting picnic table. Under the low forest canopy, wide night sky and loosely watchful eye of his uncle, 11-year-old Stephen was for the first time drunk. Like I was seeing life in color for the first time. It was fun, he finally fit in.
The last time Stephen got high was April 1, 2014. He was 24 years old, on his way to rehab, the colors didn’t come anymore, it wasn’t fun. Stephen was shooting what had to only to shield himself from the violent illness that accompanies heroin withdrawal. He was finally exhausted, five years spent obsessively, compulsively either getting high or trying to.
Stephen played linebacker on his college football team and shot heroin every day until he quit the football team and went home. The night before April 1, Stephen was thrown from his own truck, dumped in a parking lot after overdosing in the front seat. He survived, woke up on the pavement, called the friend who’d left him there to come back so they could, together, get more drugs.
He called a rehab the next day.
Now, with the better part of a decade of sobriety under his belt, Stephen is a powerlifting coach, a gym owner and a high school football coach. He knew he was made for more than the life he’d created for himself in his addiction and he was right. Stephen urges people–students, athletes, clients, addicts–listen to the people trying to help you. It worked for him.
*name has been changed to protect anonymity
(Chris started using at 17 and continued to do so through his mid-20s. Oxycodone, XTC, Molly, mushrooms, alcohol.)
I was trying to get over someone and just wanted to be around people that partied hard. I was at a girlfriends house at the time and she had just gotten a couple bottles of “nerve pills” and oxy’s (oxycodone). I thought I was having a lot of fun but I was making myself look bad. I was purposely throwing my life away as I thought I wasn’t going to ever be an equal to my mom or someone that should be admired or looked up to. But I felt amazing, it was something I never thought I could feel naturally–it still isn’t–but I know something that feels that good isn’t good for you.
I wish I had the broken full-body mirror I smashed, ripped off the wall, and threw across the living room. If I could go back in time and talk to myself maybe I wouldn’t have felt that all of my friends’ help was empty. I just wanted to be loved. I was abused a lot as a kid and teenager, then being lied to and cheated on in relationships when I fell in love and was made fun of by my step dad for saying that I was “whipped.”
My mother was more worried about her image than my mental health. She is a woman of high stature and a few college degrees who scoffs at my weaknesses. She always just told me, “Oh well,” or, “Get over it.”
I was constantly called a loser and a nobody by my step dad as a child. It’s sad to think that at 10 years old I was already writing suicide notes and letters to God about if my parents loved me. Over a decade of abuse, a teenage breakup, the let down that I was to my mother who told me all of her coworkers talked about their children’s achievements and she had nothing to say about me, I still feel like a nobody though I’ve achieved so much, because as a kid I was successful on so many levels in sports and art, but was a disappointment. Nothing ever felt good enough.
I woke up one day after puking, I was a bother to my friends that were trying to be there for me and keep me together. I hated that, I hated that I needed, I hated that I needed people, I didn’t like myself, I wanted to stop.
I had heart pains from having a seizure, I was underweight, constantly puking, I didn’t have any money, I dropped from college, I used to have dreams of being strong and having an engineering/tool maker job and I threw it away over being upset and letting things get to me. When I was well put together and successful on different levels it felt like it wasn’t enough for my parents and that in the decade of growing from a little kid to a young adult I had a lot of bad memories of being abused on different levels and having my mom ignore it all in fear that she would lose her relationship–a relationship she “needed” for financial stability. I needed to let it all go, and then I woke up.
My worst night I was so drunk and shaking, repeating that I needed meth and speed, crying in someone’s arms and having people around me, strangers at this bar, telling me I don’t need those things, that I’ll be ok. I realized I’d become the person I never wanted to be. The person at a rave that is so messed up that they walk around like a tweaking zombie and glue themselves to the DJ’s subwoofers and can’t stop looking at the lights/projector screens in fear that if I stop I’ll freak. I needed constant stimulation while at the peak of my high as my heart raced. If I got angry I would probably accelerate my heart more and die.
I had to call my mom from the psych ward to tell her where I was and I told the nurse by the phone that she’s just going to yell at me. She could hear my mother yell at me as I put the phone face down on the desk as I let her hang-up the phone while my mother was still screaming, the look on the nurses face was the only real sign of sympathy I’ve ever felt and it’s a moment I won’t forget, and as she hung up the phone she said that she was sorry.
I got a text from my mom wanting to kill herself after thinking about all of the times she ignored the abuse and my plea for help when it was obvious I was falling apart, that she’s not a good mom. I felt miserable because the suffering ended years ago but yet I still remember it all, though now they both apologize for it.
I went to the hospital twice, it wasn’t a good feeling being at your lowest and then going to a psych ward. I spent a weekend behind two steel doors and my window had a metal screen and is also barred but it didn’t stop there. It took a lot of self reflecting and losing friends in order to make myself grow.
I couldn’t be around people who weren’t trying to live a proactive lifestyle and keep busy. I can’t stop working on myself as if I get bored I become sad or depressed and still close the door to all of my friends and I’ll sit in my garage or at the table of my house and drink until I’ve had enough. It took years trying to phase myself out of it all and to learn self control.
It fucking sucks, you’ll shake, tell yourself that you need it and maybe find yourself balled up on the floor if you don’t have it, but you’ll only get better if you can tell yourself to stop and repeat it and listen it. My addiction helped me realize that I can do a lot on my own and that it takes a lot more strength to build yourself from being in that hole as you have to climb to the surface then still climb that ladder with tired, shaky arms.
Most curious 11-year-old boys climb backyard trees, explore dusty attics and ask their mothers too many questions. Eleven-year-old Garrett tried cocaine. His body hated it, leaving him vomiting with diarrhea for days after, but by 13 he was using marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs regularly, and was addicted within the year. In his short but intense three-year careen through physical addiction, he dabbled with marijuana, injecting and snorting cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, most prescription drugs, most psychedelics, MDMA in multiple forms, PCP once, salvia, GHB (yes, the date rape drug), any opiate/oid, and just about any other drug put in front of him (except methamphetamine).
Garrett grew up in a hectic household with double-digit siblings. His family was poor, riddled with drugs, alcohol, tabacco and premarital sex and from immediate to extended, most of them struggle with addiction. Heroin, Xanax and Percocet were Garrett’s favorites; they numbed his traumas and satisfied the fascination he’d always had with inebriation. On weekdays he’d wake up and put a Percocet or Xanax up his nose, then again in the middle school bathroom at lunch. Afternoons were reserved for smoking weed and taking whatever his dealer had once he made it to her house. Weekends were for heroin, when he didn’t have to worry about maintaining functionality through a school day. For Garrett, drug and alcohol abuse was and still is a comfort-seeking behavior that allowed him to feel more confident in himself and his abilities, less anxious about his day to day life.
But then he overdosed in the shower and nearly died. Then his younger sister had to carry him inside and bathe him after a seizure he doesn’t remember in the backyard. Eventually he hated looking at his own thin, yellow body in the mirror. He loved everything about drugs, but that they’d destroy his life–something he still has to frequently remind himself of, however precariously balancing a productive existence with a compulsion for inebriation.
Garrett remains intimately familiar with the destructive consequences of his tendency to overdo. His addictive nature has reared is obsessive head in nearly every aspect possible: sex, drug and alcohol use both past and current, outrageous PED cycles to supplement reckless exercise and overtraining, even a neurotic oral fixation. He misses the feeling of apathetic bliss he could only reach through shooting heroin. But he’s not killing himself anymore; sobriety from heroin may be boring, he may hate it, but he’s not killing himself.
At 23, Garret is a well-known powerlifter and coach. He’s gone on to achieve the number 16 all-time total at 198 and at one point top 10. The reputation he’s built for himself and the mark he’s made in the sport is significant and undeniable while at the same time curiously undefinable, similar to the relationships and personal connections he’s cultivated along the way. But most importantly he’s still here, and he’s not killing himself anymore.
Nicole started drinking with her dad at 17. He was an alcoholic—verbally and physically abusive to her and their family members—and she’d been in a car accident.
Have this margarita, it’ll calm your nerves.
It was fun, she was happy, her emotional pain, too, dulled, numbed. She calmed her nerves often after that. Never every day, but even after her father died of suicide their ritual persisted in her and she found herself unable to control the amount or the extent to which she’d get drunk. Nursing school, you know? Thanksgiving, what a stress! But eventually the fun and happy numbness always turned into hyper-emotional crying, blacking out, physical, emotional and mental anguish. Nicole can’t drink without going overboard. Coming from a turbulent childhood in a relatively unstable household–her brother died when she was 10 years old and her father was both verbally and physically abusive to both her and her mother–Nicole had all too many reasons to “calm her nerves.” She still does. Nursing school was one. Emotional exhaustion from her people-pleasing nature another. It was a holiday, another.
At 30 years old, 13 years after her first drink, Nicole got a DUI.
I think I have a problem. I have to stop.
Deciding to stop drinking is typically a combination of making a firm decision and great deal of somewhat faltering hope that you’ll stick to it. Gaining sobriety can also be experienced as a loss both emotional (the loss of the comfort of alcohol) and physical (the loss of her husband when he felt the laser focus her sobriety required meant less for him. He called her a fuddy duddy for not wanting to black out with him every weekend). Nicole uses exercise and training to occupy her from her addiction; to keep her from becoming her father. Her beginnings as a CrossFit coach taught her to love lifting, and Caitlyn Trout taught her the potential and power of women in sport.
I want to be like that someday.
Nicole has gone on to participate competitively in both bodybuilding and powerlifting. She won first in her class and 2nd overall at her first bodybuilding show, and second place in her second bodybuilding show. She’s competed in three powerlifting meets and won first in her weight class every single time.
It had been six months since her last drink when Nicole blacked out on Thanksgiving. Her 8-year-old son couldn’t wake her up. She’s not had another drink since, and remains hopeful.
Alcohol, heroin, meth, coke, crack, benzo’s, all types of pain pills, x, molly, ketamine, ummm I’m sure there are more. I did absolutely anything I could get my hands on, but I loved heroin.
I started using when I was 12, addicted by 16 and used daily by 18. I remember the first time I tried everything, vividly. I did it because the people around me were doing it and it made me feel good. At first it helped me feel more comfortable in my own skin. At the end it was just the empty numb void, the only escape I had from the hell I created. I’d get so sick, it cost me so much, so many consequences. But by the time I realized I had a problem I didn’t care anymore.
I got SO sick the first time I got drunk. I was puking all over myself. My friend had to throw me in a shower until I could stop vomiting enough for her to take me home. I remember the feeling I had sitting in the back of her car on the ride home. That feeling of release, I finally figured out how to feel ok with myself, I could finally relax and not worry so much about fitting in and what others thought about me. I remember my first time doing heroin. I honestly didn’t even like it. It wasn’t like my first drunk. But I kept doing it because my boyfriend was and it was cheaper than the pain pills I wanted.
[My use] progressed over the years from just on the weekends in high school to as much and as often as i could manage at the end. The last few days of my using I was awake for 9 days. Every second of those 9 days was completely dedicated to getting my next hit. My main focus was heroin but a shot of meth would hold me over and keep me well enough to do whatever I had to do to get a little bit of heroin.
The last time I got high I was in the county jail. I didn’t really even get that high, but I remember feeling disappointed in myself and super paranoid we were all going to get caught. I miss when it was fun. Partying in college was a good time. But there was no fun at the end of my using and I know that’s exactly where I would be if I picked up again.
I would say prison was my rock bottom but it really wasn’t. Prison saved my life, it was the beginning of my new life. There are so many terrible things I could say were my rock bottom. There is a saying in AA that there is really no such thing as a true rock bottom, you can always keep digging and it can (and will) always get worse. So I’ll tell you probably the most degrading experience. I think it was maybe two days before I was arrested. I was so sick, I hadn’t had anything in hours. I called my dope boy and asked him to come to this trap house I was staying at. I knew I would have to have sex with him to get anything because I had no money. I remember all the details like it just happened yesterday. I remember staring up at the cobwebs in the corner of the cracked ceiling that was caving in. I remember the smell of diesel oil from the dirty mattress someone had pulled out of the bed of an old truck for me to sleep on; The feeling of his heavy, sweaty body on top of me. I remember him getting mad because my body was so rigid from the body cramps of dope sickness. But most of all I remember the complete disgust I felt about myself. I was doing this for maybe $40 worth of heroin that I would do in one shot. That one shot would just barely get me well, it wouldn’t even get me high. At that moment it hit me how low I had really gotten, which was strange because that was not the first time I had been in that same exact situation. But for some reason I remember having a moment of clarity that day.
God (and the law) decided for me [that I was to stop]. I was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. While I was in prison I made the decision to do whatever I had to do to stay sober and never have to go back there. So far so good. I have been to 5 different treatment centers. Multiple visits to a few of them. The only thing that worked for me was getting locked up. I finally surrendered and made the decision to listen and do what people that have stayed sober do. I stopped using at 26 years old. I’m lucky to be alive, being in the recovery community I know a lot of people who have died from addiction. I think at least 8 in the past year.
I started working out in prison. Not really lifting because we didn’t have a lot of equipment in there. But I found that it was a positive way to fill my day. I really enjoyed it. When I got out and I was able to, I got a membership to planet fitness. It was still just a way to fill my time with something productive. I found it to be a good stress relief and a way to help me feel better about myself. Now, I’ve won Miss Ohio Physique, and I am getting stronger and stronger right now. I’ve hit PR’s on all my lifts in the past two months. I get to max my deadlift in two weeks. I’m excited.
The hardest part about being clean is knowing that the work to stay sober never ends. I must continue doing the things I do everyday (pray, AA, help others) or I will surely pick up and end up right back where I was. I still go to meetings, in fact I’m the secretary of my homegroup. I talk to my sponsor on a regular basis and I sponsor. I have a whole morning and bedtime routine of prayer and mediation. But now I have hope for my future. To anyone else struggling: There is a way out. You don’t have to live like that anymore. It gets so much better.
Nicole, Jenna, D, George, T, Maureen, B, Chris, Garrett, Jessica, Courtney, James, C, Alex , M, A, M, K, M, E
What are you grateful to your addiction for?
- Showing that I can be me without and deal with dreams and pain.
- The chance to become the person I should be and let me understand struggle and suffering in their purest form. Both develop character and integrity in my opinion
- It has taught me that I have value. It taught me I have control and booze actually took the control away. I was looking for fun but it made me disrespect my body and my life. I’m 56, there’s a lot I want to do yet, so I had to take that control back. I had given my power to everyone and everything but myself for many years.
- For the ability to be able to help people climb out of that life. Addicts can only really be helped by other addicts.
- That if I ever really want to, I could do just about anything I want to.
- Helping me to become grateful for the things I have in my life today. My addiction made me give away everything, my morals and values, relationships, all material things. Before and during my addiction I was a selfish, self centered, asshole. I felt entitled to everything and had no appreciation for anything in my life. Today I can be grateful that I have a pillow on my bed to use, because there was a time when I literally had nowhere to sleep. I can appreciate my relationships with my family even when they drive me nuts, because there was a time when they wouldn’t speak to me and wanted nothing to do with me. Today I treat my body with respect (for the most part) because there was a time when I completely gave myself away for a little bit of powder. My addiction created the person I am today and I like myself much better now than I did before I went through the hell of it.
- People. I’ve noticed that people feel trust and open up to me with vulnerable subjects. I’m grateful for that
- For teaching me that I can overcome anything and do anything. That when it comes down to it I’ll always put my family first.
- I’m grateful for all that I’ve been through because it made me more empathetic to peoples issues because I’ve been there. I know what misery and hopelessness feels like.
- That it let me go.
- I’ve really learned what a healthy relationship looks like and can be.
Three words to describe yourself as an addict:
- Self sabotaging, depressed, avoiding
- Painless, emotionless and lazy
- Self-centered, worthless, junkie
- Accepting (of my addiction), destructive, and functioning
- Anxious, disconnected and struggling
- Sad, unpredictable, fun
- Scared, sad, suicidal
- Careless, not driven, disconnected
- Depressed, shameful, negative
- Needy, toxic, unhappy
- Lazy, late, slow
- Selfish, disgusting, worthless
- A hurt child
Three words to describe yourself now (not in active addiction):
- goal driven , thankful
- smart planner long term thinker
- hard working, disciplined and serious
- selfless, leader, protector
- hardworking, responsible, kind. It blows my mind that I can describe myself with those words today.
- Active, healthy, clean
- A growing adult
- Happy, in control, self aware
- Strong, intelligent, loving
- Goals, goofy, powerful
- Hopeful, happy, healthy
- Happy, satisfied, fulfilled
To everyone that contributed their stories, thank you. I received so many more responses than the few I detailed here. Your stories touched me, your strength inspires me and you willingness to share, help and be helped by sharing with me and anyone reading is a quality I hope to build more strongly in myself.