I’m standing in a dark room with sweat pouring off my face, slightly breathless, endorphins coursing around my body. In the window next to me I catch my reflection; hair falling over my eyes, dumbbells raised, a focused expression that says, “I’m fucking doing this”. I’m in a room with two other people: the trainer, and a young woman who’s taking this High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class along with me. I feel in control, strong, confident, and like I belong. I’ve been doing this class for about a year and I’ve never been fitter or in better shape. I’m running the Sheffield half-marathon in April 2017 and it doesn’t scare me at all. I know I’ll be fit enough to do it.
I am a different person to who I once was. I have changed irrevocably.
I wanted to write this to prove that it’s possible to force your life into reverse, change direction and become completely renewed. I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it.
I wanted to highlight one instance that would stand as a good comparator to the above scene, to show how different things used to be for me. But when I sat and thought about it, there wasn’t one single occasion that sprang to mind but instead a feeling, a sense of shame – and it’s this that equates to the polar opposite of how I felt in the gym this morning.
It is a slow, creeping cloak of fear that envelops me. It originates in the pit of my stomach, and it spreads up into my heart and all through my limbs. I can feel it in my eyes; it renders me incapable of looking directly at anyone. It’s as though I am walking in a quagmire and my legs are leaden, heavy with dread. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want there to be another day. My head hangs heavy with shame. I feel unworthy. I think everyone hates me. I hate me. I have a secret – I turn into a monster when I drink alcohol. There’s a person hiding inside me, a bad person who does terrible things, and I can’t stop her escaping when I’m drunk. And I can’t seem to stop getting drunk. Even though I try.
Days will pass and the fear will dissipate slightly but the self-hatred never leaves me. It festers deep inside and it keeps me in my place, somewhere dark where the ceiling is low and the walls are closing in; a place for people who are undeserving, a place where people never grow.
When I was younger, I thought people who were heavily into fitness were a bit vacuous, with brains in their biceps. But nowadays, I am so convinced that being fit and healthy physically means that we are mentally well too. It’s not just the act of pumping iron or running that boosts our emotional wellbeing: it’s engaging with people who don’t get out of their heads every day, who value their bodies; it’s the knowledge that you are strong and capable of conquering challenges; it’s living, day after day, without ever getting drunk; it’s the memories of that person you became when drunk fading into the distant recesses of the mind; it’s replacing fear with hope; it’s learning to like yourself again through the process of development and personal growth; it is the removal of toxins from the body.
Now that I prioritise my mental and physical wellness, I feel alive every day. I like myself. I maintain eye contact with other people when I’m speaking with them. I never think I am undeserving or less than anyone else.
At 41, I like myself. Genuinely, six years ago, I never would have believed I’d ever have been able to utter those words and mean them. But liking yourself is something we all deserve to feel. And it isn’t out of anyone’s reach.