In Pursuit Of The Gains: how the gym helped me recover from knockout punches
There are so many things I wish I could tell the younger version of myself.
Time travel has yet to be made accessible to civilians, so the best option I'm left with is reflection. I can't change my past, but I can certainly reflect upon it, learn from it, and use what I learn about myself and the world to improve the future.
Recently, I've been reflecting on one of my most consistent habits. For the vast majority of my life, I've had some sort of physical fitness regimen that I've been faithful to. The different ways that these regimens manifested are indicative of the different thought processes that motivated me during different phases of my life.
At times, my athletic pursuits have been motivated by a desire to overcome a pervasive feeling of inferiority or inadequacy. During other phases, my workout routine served as a means of masking anger that I didn't have the capacity to express. Today, my fitness endeavors are fueled by self-belief and a desire to be the best version of myself.
I can say without a doubt that no matter what my level of maturity during any given time, the gym has always been a form of therapy for me. In order to give insight into how my workouts have helped me, I have to lead with some of the internal roadblocks that I've had to overcome.
"I can't change my past, but I can certainly reflect upon it, learn from it, and use what I learn about myself and the world to improve the future."
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
I don’t remember how hard I pushed him, how loud my voice was, or how many people stopped to stare. I don’t remember what was said after that climatic moment.
The guy I pushed? He was a friend. He had drunkenly poured a bit of water on my shirt, because drunk people think that non-funny things are actually funny. It typically would have elicited a more measured response. The situation was annoying, but nothing more. The military and childish pranks often go hand in hand.
Not this time.
We were right outside of the Firstie Club, one of West Point’s most prestigious bars. That didn’t matter to me. Nor did it matter that I was in front of numerous classmates. Nor did it matter to me that any sort of physical altercation with another cadet on campus could quickly jeopardize my entire military career, months before graduation.
I had endured the rigors of life at a military academy for almost four years to be a commissioned Second Lieutenant in the United States Army after graduation from West Point, but I didn’t care about any of that in the moment. None of that mattered.
I’ve heard of “rage blackouts” before, but this is the only time I’ve experienced one.
The combination of alcohol, instinct, and a slight provocation was enough to manifest a physical outburst. My extreme reaction was fueled by the months of fear and guilt that I carried on my shoulders and in my heart. When there’s no outlet for anger, an explosion eventually ensues. This particular explosion had been in the works for years.
It’s no coincidence that I hit a physical peak at West Point. I took all of the negative emotions that were bottled up inside and channeled them into intense weightlifting sessions.
After getting cut from the track team in my second semester at the academy, I transitioned from a 145 pound middle distance runner to a muscular 190 pound gym rat. I let go of runner’s high and found fulfillment in the rush of hypertrophy. I went from a newcomer in the weightroom to routinely benching 225, squatting 315, and deadlifting 375 for reps.
I felt bigger. I felt stronger. It felt great to see my body grow. None of this changed the fact that my intensity in the gym was fueled by quiet rage.
My transition from an optimistic, highly motivated freshman at the academy to a brooding, pessimistic senior was gradual. It can’t be tied to one specific event. It would be more accurate to describe my time at West Point as a continuous downhill spiral that eventually led to my expulsion.
The downhill spiral didn’t seem like it was inescapable until it was too late for me to change course. I knew that I was in for some of the biggest challenges of my life when I first set foot on campus. I looked forward to it. I knew that my time at the academy would shape me, force me to mature, and turn me into a better leader. It did.
It also made me feel like I was drowning. Gasping for air, fighting wave after wave as it washed over me and pulled me under. Life as a cadet offered little to no time for introspection. I was too busy fighting to keep my head above water as I prepared for another storm. There was no time to think about the trauma I had yet to heal from or the way my morals were shifting for survival’s sake.
West Point is designed to prepare cadets to lead soldiers to war, so it turns the college experience into a battlefield. Due to lack of introspection, personal accountability, and spiritual consistency, I ended up losing that war. The same anger that pushed me to lift heavy weights in the gym pushed me over the edge and made me forget who I was. I got to a point where I was willing to prioritize my vices over my principles.
That mentality is the reason I chose to compromise my integrity and break some fundamental academy rules. That mentality is what got me expelled from West Point. The disciplinary process almost broke me.
I don’t remember the last time I’ve cried due to sadness.
I still experience every spectrum of emotion - the highs and the lows - but for some reason, I don’t believe that I’ve shed a tear due to negative emotion since I left West Point in 2012. I can’t quite put my finger on what changed, but I process emotions differently now. Managing overwhelming loneliness, sadness, and shame every day for six months changed the way that I physically respond to extreme emotion.
I wasn’t working to recover from a huge hit for that six month period. I wasn’t fighting for survival. I had temporarily given up on everything. I gave up on trying to heal, because of how many interactions with classmates, faculty, and “friends” ripped the scabs off. Time, and time, and time, again. My mind has blocked out a good chunk of this part of my life. I struggle to remember details. I remember emotions more than actual events.
While my physical peak at West Point was fueled by anger that I was unable to articulate, the physical peak that preceded it was fueled by insecurity. Before I found catharsis in the weight room, I conquered my feelings of inadequacy on the track.
The screams were deafening.
I was trying to focus on the most important race of my life, but all I could hear was the roar of the crowd. Feet stomping on the bleachers, coaches yelling out instructions, teammates screaming encouragement to each other. It all echoed off of the walls and shook the floor of the tiny indoor track facility. The stage doesn't get much bigger for an 18-year old high school middle distance runner.
My heart was pounding as I continued to jog in place, trying to stay loose. I was the anchor leg for our 4x400 relay. I watched intently as my teammate rounded the corner in second place, right behind our arch-rival, Potomac High School. We had just narrowly defeated them in the same relay a few weeks ago at Districts. The winner of the heat would be crowned Regional Champion.
We had to get those gold medals.
There’s an art to relay handoffs. Your teammate is putting every bit of energy they have left into getting the baton to you as quickly as possoble, while your stomach churns with anticipation as you visualize your leg of the race. You have to control the situation. Move too fast and you’ll leave your teammate behind before the exchange happens. Move too slow and they might run into you.
As I hit my stride and looked back for the baton, none of these thoughts were on my conscience. They had been rehearsed to the point that they were instinctive. As soon as the baton hit my hand, I clenched my fingers together and took off like my life depended on it.
Indoor races are chess matches, because of how small the track is. A 400 meter run is one lap on an outdoor track, but it’s two laps inside. My heart was pumping at a million miles per hour as I hit my stride, catching up to the guy in front of me and mentally preparing for the moment where I would surge past him on the last straightaway.
The last 50 meters race felt like an out of body experience. I strained every muscle in my body, fighting fatigue as my legs started to feel like cinder blocks. I’m sure the crowd got even louder as I passed the Potomac runner. Didn’t matter to me. I was too focused on my lungs as they screamed for air.
I collapsed at the finish line as the building continued to explode with sound. The only thought in my head: we won.
I wasn't the best runner in the state, but I was good enough. My work ethic pushed me over the top and allowed me to hold my own against some of the best competition that local track meets had to offer.
I was the kid who trained during the summer to get the extra edge. I was the kid who put in the extra effort during every workout. I wanted to win. I wanted medals and faster times. I also wanted the social acceptance that had evaded me for most of my childhood. I wasn’t solely motivated by a desire to “be all I could be.”
I wanted the glory, too.
I wanted to be stronger. Cooler. “Blacker.” More popular. All of the things that are alluring to young Black kid who grew up in the suburbs but watched BET behind their parents' backs and knew classmates who grew up in New York or DC. I had solid grades in the advanced classes, but being able to hit the "Grindin" beat on a lunch table and excel athletically was far more important to teenage Michell.
I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself. I frequently shrunk myself to avoid standing out from the pack. Having an exceptional vocabulary level didn't exactly make the crowd go wild. Middle school can be a cruel experience. We were all trying to find ourselves, experiencing puberty, and fighting to come into our own.
We were surrounded by people dealing with struggles similar to our own, but had yet to grow comfortable enough with ourselves to allow our vulnerabilities to serve as bridges. I wanted whatever form of power and social status that I could find in that environment. Middle school was where I started to set myself apart from my classmates as an athlete. I dominated almost all competition in eighth grade, and carried that attitude into high school the next year.
"It's not easy to consistently choose self-belief, but making that commitment equips you to change your life for the better."
I’m happy to say that I’ve let go of the belief that there are particular traits that define one’s “Blackness” or "coolness." It took a while. I had to see examples of people who went against the grain. I had to get to a point where I valued my unique traits more than conformity. It took a while, but we here now.
While I still struggle with self-image at times, my internal dialogue is focused on how I can be my best self, as opposed to how I can be “good enough.” That certainly hasn’t eliminated my tendency to question myself. It's not easy to consistently choose self-belief, but making that commitment equips you to dramatically change your life for the better.
July 16, 2016.
I hit the snooze button. Again.
I had made a daily habit of procrastinating to start my day. Up until this point, it had been due to indifference about my job. Today marked a new reason for my slow rising. That reason?
Overwhelming, paralyzing fear.
It was my first day waking up without a day job in almost three years. Over four years after leaving behind the meticulously restricted, regimented lifestyle of a West Point cadet, I found myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. I was navigating the beginning stages of self-employment.
All of a sudden, every part of my day was left up to me. There were no meetings to leave my apartment for. No bosses or coworkers to consider. Every choice was mine to make. Every loss was mine to own. It was a shock to my system. Opportunity was all around me, but massive adjustments had to be made to a life that was previously defined and directed by other peoples’ expectations over my own.
In the months that followed, I frequently fell into a dark hole at the intersection of analysis paralysis, imposter syndrome, and cynicism. There were points when I was unsure if I’d ever climb back out of that hole. I rarely got out of bed when my alarm clock rang. Fear stifled my creativity and dictated my every move.
I tried to pretend that I was ok when people checked in on me. Thankfully, not a lot of people outside of family and close friends were checking in. It was due to my own choices. I was slower to respond to texts and less likely to answer phone calls. I hid myself and my fears from the majority of the world. It's a counterproductive coping mechanism that I fall into when I run out of answers.
The largely self-induced period of isolation that came with my entry into entrepreneurism ended up sparking the healthiest relationship that I’ve had with my physical fitness journey thus far. At this point, I had internalized the ways that my athletic pursuits helped me to navigate life, even when they were fueled by toxic emotions. I made sure to keep those routines close during this period of time.
Whether I found the willpower to get up without pressing the snooze button or not, I chose to start at least five days every week with an intense lifting session, fueled by caffeinated pre-workout powder and a playlist with a level of intensity that would make Russell Westbrook proud.
I found therapy in the weight room. Again. The key difference is that this time around I used self-belief as fuel in place of anger. No matter how confusing, complicated, or unpredictable my workday might become, I could start the day in complete control of my workout. I could see measured, consistent progress. If the rest of my day went to shit, I could be proud of the way my body was changing.
It's been two years since I left my job. I'm in a different phase of entrepreneurism now - but my commitment to the gym has yet to falter. I still have terrible days and unpredictable plot twists to deal with. I still need the sense of stability that the gym gives me. I'm always trying new types of workouts, and I've switched gyms a few times over the years, but the lifestyle remains consistent.
"Insecurity and anger aren’t sustainable forms of energy to spark self-improvement. They might provide you with short term fuel, but if they become a consistent part of your life they will eat you alive."
Thankfully, I was able to eventually let go of the insecurities I held close to my chest as an adolescent. They sparked my entry into athletics, but they couldn’t be part of my psyche forever.
Thankfully, I was able to let go of the deep-rooted anger and resentment that I carried with me in the wake of my West Point experience. It pushed me to rebound from my own life-altering mistakes, but it wasn’t allowing me to rebuild a healthy life outlook.
These days, I’m allowing my focus, tenacity, and drive in the gym to be fueled by the belief that I can continue to accomplish exceptional things in all areas of my life. I don’t plan to compete in any sports leagues or join any teams. In fact, I don’t plan to compete with anyone but myself.
I have no idea what seemingly insurmountable internal conflicts will come my way in the future. I don't expect life to get any easier. I can't predict where I'll be in five years. No matter what happens, you can catch me in the gym every morning bench pressing through the pressure.
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