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PERSISTING IN THE FACE OF FEAR

“The darkest hour only has sixty minutes.” –Morris Mandel

Growing up, my entire family was morbidly obese. Eating in the South meant everything was homemade, loaded with butter, battered and deep fried. I was always told that I needed to “fatten up”, and I was given second and third helpings of food at dinner every night. My family didn’t know any better; they associated food with love. Food is the centerpiece of so many great, intimate, human interactions. However, when it begins to take over your life, and you numb your feelings with Doritos and cream cheese until you feel sick- it gets to be a problem.

I grew up in the era of thigh gaps. By the time that I was eight, I was morbidly obese. I would spend all summer in the Virginia sun, covered in jeans and a hoodie. Just the thought of going to the beach made me want to curl up into a ball and die. I walked with my head down and I dragged my feet when I walked; the backs of the soles of my shoes would wear out so fast, you could follow the burnt rubber trail and find me curled up in a corner, with my nose buried in a notepad or a book. I was a socially awkward child (hello, that part hasn’t left) and I never did anything competitive because the thought of failing in public was mortifying.

When I was eight years old, I stopped eating. I lost about twenty pounds, and nobody around me even seemed to notice. I was starting to get so hungry from depriving myself, I began to binge. Immediately following the binges, I always felt bloated and depressed. I began the cycle of binging and purging, and Bulimia was a demon that didn’t leave my side for over a decade. I remember vomiting water when I was nine years old, because I felt that it was taking up too much space in my stomach.

Throughout my adolescent and young adult life, other people always felt entitled to give me their opinions about my body. One of the most memorable events in my life happened when I was ten: a boy came up and grabbed my stomach at the bus stop. He laughed and said, “You hide it well, slug belly.” When I was twelve, a boy asked if I was wearing a pad, and said that if I wasn’t on my period, I had a “fat pussy.” When I was thirteen and walking down the street, someone yelled out of their car, “That’s a huge bitch!”

You get the point.

Throughout my life, I was made to feel that I was at the mercy of society’s opinion of me. If I wanted to be a successful woman, I’d first have to be desirable.

When I was nine, I began to smoke marijuana. When I was eleven, I had my first drink. When I was twelve, I was smoking methamphetamine and hopping trains on the west coast. For the next thirteen years of my life, I was predominantly blacked out. I would take uppers, downers, hallucinogens, cold medicine- whatever would silence that nagging fucking voice inside of me that I wasn’t good enough. When I was on drugs, it didn’t matter what I looked like. People liked me, because people liked drugs. I always had them, and I always wanted to do them. I didn’t have to sit at home eating to get rid of that aching feeling- I could just snort a line and feel like a superhero instead.

My weight fluctuated often on drugs- depending on if I was using amphetamines or opiates. The thinnest that I became was 114 pounds. 

In retrospect, on my 5’6, naturally muscular frame, this was extremely unhealthy. However, men commented on my appearance often in public, asking me questions like “How’d you fit in them jeans?” I conveyed the persona that I was confident, but I was terrified to be in my own body. For this reason, I didn’t form an intimate relationship with anyone until I was eighteen years old.

When I was thirteen, I found a gym that was free for me to go to. I would do cardio, and use the weighted machines- low weights and high reps. I would go to the gym early in the day, and at night I would go out and get fucked up. When I was fifteen, I joined my first Bally’s Fitness. I was running on a treadmill when I saw her: the first female bodybuilder I’d ever seen. She was sitting in the weight room, seemingly so comfortable in her own body, eating a handful of almonds. The front of the gym was littered with trophies that belonged to her. I didn’t know then that this would be the catalyst for my future.

For the next eight years, I stayed on the weighted machines, and did more cardio. My bulimia had progressed from purging by vomit, to purging with both exercise and vomit. I would exercise all day, and eat all night. I was also still heavily addicted to opiates and amphetamines, and I would go to the gym when I was high.

When I turned 21, I began to express interest in lifting weights. At this time, almost ten years ago, I never saw a woman in the free weight section. I asked a friend to help teach me some basic lifts, and I was hooked. I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and completely immersed myself in bodybuilding culture. I managed a gym, and I worked at a supplement store. I felt the pressure to compete, and I began a competition prep. About two months in, my grandmother passed away. After her death, I realized that being a competitive bodybuilder was not truly what I wanted to do. To me, it felt vain and empty. It fed my demons. It encouraged unhealthy eating practices (even if I was eating enough, I was constantly obsessing about food), and I had extreme body dysmorphia.

About two years into bodybuilding, I had some muscular development, but hardly enough to be considered “manly.” Still, people always felt that it was their right to comment on my body shape. People began to spread rumors that I was a man, or I was on steroids. Facebook pages attacked me and memes were made about me.

This was shortly after the death of my grandmother, and I fell into an even deeper depression. I stopped eating, I started doing even more pills, and I lifted once or twice a week. I dropped from 160 pounds to 130 pounds pretty rapidly. To the blind eye, I may have looked healthy, but in my mind, I was anything but.

One day in December 2016, I took my normal dosage of drugs, which at the time was around twenty 50mg tramadol throughout the day, marijuana and a fat burner. It was then that I experienced my first panic attack, and it never went away. I began to have debilitating panic attacks. I developed depersonalization/derealization disorder, and accompanying this was a multitude of phobias. Overnight, I couldn’t leave my house, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t even shower alone. I didn’t recognize my own hands, my own reflection, my own voice. The world seemed to be two-dimensional. Multiple times spent in correctional and rehabilitation facilities could not pull me from the drugs, but this did. I stopped using all drugs immediately. I stopped smoking cigarettes and marijuana on the same day. The doctors were trying to put me on anti-depressants, and I refused. I lived my life in complete terror for six months, thinking every single second of every single day that I was going to die. It was strange that I had such a fear of death, since I contemplated suicide often. However, the human spirit is strong, and my longing for death was nowhere near as strong as my conviction to live.

I began to look at my life, and the things that I was unhappy with. I was unhappy in my relationship. I was unhappy with where I lived. I was unhappy with how directionless my life had become. I was breathing, but I wasn’t alive. And so, I began to change it. I left my abusive relationship. I moved from New York to Virginia. I didn’t even have a penny to my name. I sold all of my weightlifting equipment to finance the move. It was do or die. Instead of medication, I decided on desensitization. To give one example, as I said before, I had developed a phobia of driving. I purposely got a job that was an hour drive, so that every single day, I had to drive the distance. Today, I can drive with minimal anxiety. I did this, over and over again, every single day, with every single thing that I feared.

In Virginia, I was able to take time to learn how to love myself again. I took walks every morning, and I read books. I found my love for the gym again, although being in such crowded areas usually left me in a state of panic, and I’d often have to leave. I just kept going back, over and over again, until I didn’t fear humans anymore. I began to take care of my mind as well, removing all of the negative, energy-sucking humans from my life, and I spent almost all of my time alone. I deleted all of my social media accounts, so I could no longer compare myself to other women’s “highlight reels.”

One day, I decided to see if I could squat 225. I had been lifting for close to six years at this point, but I never tried to go heavy. I was still too afraid to fail in public. That day, I squatted 225, ten times. 

This moment began my journey into powerlifting.

For the next year, I did what is called “powerbuilding.” I did mainly bodybuilding exercises for a hypertrophy response, with really heavy weights. I started to eat. I wanted to get bigger. I wanted to get stronger. I reactivated my Instagram account, and I would only post photos or videos- I didn’t look at anything that anyone else posted. People still persisted in commenting things on my photos, like, “roid monkey” or “clitdick”, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought about my body, or what they thought about me at all.

I decided to do my first powerlifting meet in March of 2017. I didn’t have a coach, I didn’t do a weight cut, and I ate so anxiously for the entire week leading up to the meet that I gained ten pounds and moved up a weight class. I wanted so badly to back out, but I knew that I had to do the thing that I feared the most. At my first competition, I went 9/9, with a 335 backsquat, a 198 bench, and a 352 deadlift, at 175 bodyweight.

The most pivotal moment about the experience was that fear was exposed to me for the liar that it is. The entire month leading up to the competition, I was in a state of panic. I thought I was surely going to black out. I was going to have a seizure (yes, anxiety tells you these things, and they are very real, although illogical). However, the moment that I stepped on the platform, I found a still calm wash over me. Every single time I step on the platform, I feel that same exact calm precision. Nothing in the room exists, except myself and the weight, and my anxiety and depression is the furthest thing from my mind.

Three days ago, I competed in my third competition. I completed a 352 backsquat, a 204 bench, and a 408 deadlift, at 160.8 bodyweight. This competition made one full year of competitive powerlifting for me, ranked me at an Elite total, and qualified me for the USPA Nationals in Las Vegas in July.

Although those would seem like the greatest achievements, they aren’t. Powerlifting has saved my life in many ways, but mostly, it has forced me to face my fears head on. It has allowed me to become comfortable in a body with more cushion, because it is more capable of workload. For the last six months, I have maintained my bodyweight at 160 pounds, and I am, for the first time in my life, no longer at war with food, and completely comfortable in my own skin.

Today, I am not afraid to be open, or to be vulnerable. I am not afraid to be judged.

I am not ashamed of the choices that I have made.

 I wear each scar of mine like a badge of honor, as they have all molded me into who I have grown to become, 

and all that I am continuing to become.

Persisting in the face of fear-

 

This is my Ritual.

-Victoria Long   [ @ICKII__VICKII ]