The Strength to Start

I can’t tell you how long I’ve struggled with my weight. My whole life, I think, other than maybe a few years in my late teens and early twenties. Having asthma as a kid didn’t help, partly because it held me back and partly because it was a hell of a good excuse for not trying. I was never sporty, never thought I needed to be in shape. I mean, even back then I knew I was going to be a writer, and why did I need to be fit to do that?

They always say you need a healthy mind in a healthy body, and I never believed it. But it’s true. The trouble was, my mental health deteriorated so slowly, and so subtly, I didn’t notice it. I see it now, looking back. How many times did I say to myself, at uni, “I could go out with friends, but I need to lose a few pounds first, people will notice.” And I’d vow to do it, and I would fail, and before long I was missing every single social occasion I was invited to. Then I stopped being invited altogether. And that was the start of a social anxiety that crippled me during my twenties, that made my life utterly miserable. And the weird thing was, I wasn’t even big back then. There was something else going on, and that’s the first time I wondered if maybe it was my mind holding back my body, and not the other way around. Anxiety is like trying to live life wearing a weighted vest, after all.

It was in my early thirties that I really became a prisoner, physically and mentally. I got locked inside a train of thought, a mantra, that I would start working out “tomorrow”. I would say it every single day. Every. Single. Day. And every day I would slip up, I’d eat too much, and then I’d binge, I’d cram everything I could find into my mouth, and it didn’t matter because I was starting again tomorrow. And the stupid, awful thing is I believed it. Every single night I would go to bed believing with all my heart that tomorrow was the day I changed things, that I changed my life. And it went from being a thought, to a joke, to a nightmare, because I started to understand that I would never be able to do it, I would never be able to switch off that defective piece of coding. I was killing myself, slowly, and I didn’t have the strength to stop.

And it was spreading, too, this way of thinking, It was starting to infect everything. I could start work on that new book tomorrow. I could finish the garden tomorrow. I could send those emails tomorrow. I could hang out with my kids tomorrow. I didn’t feel like I was living, I felt like I was constantly gearing up for something that would never actually happen, a completely new life that was a complete and utter lie. It was groundhog day, and I was silently screaming through my smile.

Then, a few weeks back, I saw a post on Facebook from the local TV channel, Mustard, asking if anyone struggled with their weight and wanted to try something new. All you had to do was submit a video diary of a day in your life. And I sat down and I did it, I just vomited out everything I’d been trying not to say for such a long time. Even that helped, because there’s something about watching yourself almost breaking down as you talk about being there for your kids in thirty years that makes you understand just how out of control you’ve become. It was like watching a different person, I didn’t even recognise him, and it kind of broke my heart.

The something new? Crossfit. I didn’t even know what it was, I kinda assumed it was related to the cross trainers, or elliptical trainers, you find in the gym. It was only when I got the call and was told I’d been accepted that I Googled it, and I can tell you I almost backed out there and then because those people looked insane. It was the kind of exercise you did when you were already built like a brick outhouse, when you had already run an ultra marathon. The thought of me doing something like that? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In the end, I didn’t do either, I just turned up, because I needed this to work, I needed this more than pretty much anything. So I gave it all I had, I threw myself into it. CrossFit is hard, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically and mentally. But the community is extraordinary, they support you every step of the way, nobody is left behind. Everybody suffers, everybody struggles, but the end of each workout… The only thing I can compare it too is my protagonist Alex Sawyer climbing that elevator shaft inside Furnace Penitentiary and bursting out into the moonlight. I felt free.

It really is a kind of freedom. I haven’t touched sugar in five weeks, since the day I walked into the Box. I’ve laid off the takeaways, I’ve eaten good, healthy meals, I’ve been walking the dogs more, I’ve been chasing the kids more, I’ve been standing up to write. And I’ve even been for a run. Yep, something I never thought I’d do. It was only a short one, and it was hard, but there was a moment when I was sprinting down a moonlit road, my feet drumming the asphalt, my face aching from the grin I was wearing, where I felt like I could actually take off and fly. I get it now, I get why people do it. It frees you in a way that nothing else does.

The other day my mum said she was watching me, and it was like I was emerging from something, and it’s so true. I’m hauling myself out of the mess of the old me, I’m forging something brand new, something strong, something confident, something happy. I’m freeing myself from the prison I created for myself all those years ago.

The physical changes speak for themselves—I’ve lost fourteen lbs in five weeks, I feel like somebody has changed my batteries—but it’s the mental changes that have blown me away. It’s like the world has changed colour, like I’m seeing it in a way I’ve never seen it before. I’m sharper, my writing is better, I’m happier, I’m more content, I don’t shy away from people or events, the anxiety has peeled away like old skin, like all that loose flesh. I just don’t feel it in the same way. And those bastard words, the ones that haunted me for so long—I can start again tomorrow—they crossed my mind once, but they didn’t have anywhere near the power they once did. I feel like I’m in control for the first time… ever.

The motto of the CrossFit Box where I train is “Believe you can, and you will!” It’s a motto I’ve embraced in every area of my life except my fitness and my health. But I really feel it now, I know that anything is possible. And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had blips. Sometimes bad habits rear up, sometimes anxiety hits me like a wrecking ball and I feel like I’m sinking back into the old me. But then I take a breath and know that I’m stronger now, that this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. You don’t win or lose a day at a time, you make the decision that you are going to win for life. And it helps that there’s an army of people who will keep you on track.

It’s a long journey ahead, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s the journey I’ve always wanted to take, and if you see me shooting for the moon then give me a wave, because I don’t want to take this ride alone.

Alexander Gordon Smith lives in Norwich, England, and is the author of the acclaimed Escape from Furnace series and other books published by Farrar Straus Giroux.