How the Gym Saved Me

Standing in the Las Vegas Convention Center at the 2015 Olympia Fitness Expo in September, handing out supplement samples, interacting with our Metabolic Nutrition team, and even meeting people in person who knew me from my Instagram account, @california_thor, I realized something had changed in me. I felt extremely happy and joyful, the kind of joy that comes from your core, and it felt so good. It’s a feeling that had not surfaced a lot in the past five years due to an onslaught of unfortunate circumstances I’ve listed below:

· 6 months of extended, initially undiagnosable extreme lung sickness

· The discovery that black mold in the walls of my rental home caused the sickness and months of moving in and out of my room and my home to try to solve the problem while I fought with the rental company and homeowners.

· A year struggling with an adult-onset speech impediment (which at first they thought may have been caused by all the meds I had been on or by the mold), including five months of speech therapy and attempt after attempt to find a cause and cure — all while attempting to continue my career as a classroom teacher and public speaker.

· The struggle of my health issues helped lead to the end of a serious relationship that I thought was leading towards marriage.

· A discovery that my problem was neurological and Parkinson’s medication can control my speech, then two years of using multiple types of the meds to try to find one that would make me less drowsy, as I fell asleep all over the place including behind the wheel of my car at a traffic light. It felt like I was sleep walking through life.

· My mom was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer and had a year of treatments, only for it to return the next year with an initial wrongful diagnosis of her potentially dying within days or weeks. Now, she has just finished another round of seven months of chemo treatments that have worked, but the reality is her cancer is classified incurable.

· I have spent an accumulated total of six months over the past two years staying with and helping my parents on the other side of the country where I only know my parents, away from my own home and community.

· Giving two extremely personal public speeches in two years, while still scared of speaking in public due to the speech impediment.

· And, in the midst of it all, the majority of my close friends just happened to move out of town and/or got married and became much less available on a regular basis, and I had to move four different times due to roommates moving or marrying.

That list is not a poor-pitiful-me list. And, some good things have happened to me during this time also. But, the reality is: that is a lot to happen to someone in five years. And the majority of these incidents overlapped and some are still ongoing. My mom’s cancer, my drowsy life on Parkinson’s medication, my anxiety over public speaking, and missing close friends being present on a daily basis are all still active parts of my life today.

The two best decisions I made during this time: 1) seeing a pastor/counselor on a regular basis as I realized I could not handle this level of sadness and grieving on my own, and 2) focusing on personal fitness in the gym. My counselor has helped me navigate the ongoing depth of sadness that threatened to imprison me. As I’ve learned, I have been basically treading water in the grieving process most of this time, as things kept happening. At each point I was close to coming to terms with one hit on my body, mind, or spirit, another hit or tragedy came along. It felt like I was personally under attack. I have experienced feelings of joy, blessing, and thankfulness at different times during all of these circumstances, a sign to me that God has been present and helping me persevere. But throughout, there has been this deep, painful, heartbreaking, underlying sadness. Considering all that has happened, it is reasonable.

One of the books my counselor assigned me to read led to my decision to throw myself into fitness and working out more than ever before. The book You Gotta Keep Dancin’ by Tim Hansel is a powerful account of how Hansel handled physical and emotional suffering for over 20 years, as he lived in continual pain as a result of a climbing mishap. In the book, he says:

“…exercise, especially of the large muscle groups produce chemicals that fight depression and low spirits. Believe it or not, exercise may be one of the most important things that we can do in the midst of pain or sorrow or grief.”

Since then, I have worked out every day at the gym or elsewhere for the past three years, and I am in the best shape of my life. The workouts with weight training also help me push through the drowsiness of the Parkinson’s drugs, and it feels good to physically do something to fight back. Some days it literally helps get me out of bed and out into the world.

Then, a little over a year ago, I began sharing my personal fitness and health journey on Instagram under the account name @california_thor. I asked none of my friends to follow the account because I knew most of them would not be interested in gym selfies and bodybuilding workouts, an activity I’ve actually been interested in almost all of my life. Slowly, the account took off. And, as more and more people followed my journey and shared how I was motivating them, I became more and more encouraged and motivated by them and it lifted my spirits. We hear so many bad things about social media, but I have seen in just a short period of time how positive it can be. Sure, there are some crazy people out there that say or send awful things, but my experience has been 95% positive. In just over a year, my @california_thor page has more than 31,000 followers, including very few people I knew in real life before starting Instagram. Somewhere around February, the supplement company Metabolic Nutrition and their marketing team found my page and asked me to sign an ambassador sponsorship agreement through their new Hall of Heroes program, and they were followed by FlexComics fitness apparel and FitMark bags, and I now have five industry sponsors. As a 45-year-old man who was an underweight, extremely skinny and sick teenager and always more creative than athletic, I have been blown away by this new sponsored athlete experience and the opportunities it brings.

A lot of my friends and people I have known for a long time, don’t really understand why the gym and working out is so important to me. As I share my excitement about all of the things happening for me in the fitness industry, it almost seems like some of the people in my life think I am going through a mid-life crisis. Well, I kind of did, and the gym saved me from it. Many of my friends unfollow me on Instagram because I post too many gym selfies or they shake their head in confusion when I talk about my excitement of working at Mr. Olympia or when I discuss meeting up in person at my local gym or other gyms around the country with fitness people I’ve met from around the world through Instagram. It is always fun for me when a few of my long time friends choose to follow and join me in what has become such an integral part of my story. Its OK that many people in my life do not understand, because honestly I’m in it for me. And, it has changed my life.

In the midst of a difficult and extremely sad time, fitness, weight training and the gym provided more than I could imagine:

· A place to physically fight against the drowsiness of the medication.

· A healthy way to escape the anger and sadness that kept me up late at night and woke me up early in the morning.

· A place to find community when my friend community dwindled: some of the most encouraging people in my life today I initially met online through Instagram fitness pages or through my sponsorships

· Self-confidence and helping to rebuild my identity, when my identity was shaken

· A personal, daily creative outlet, through social media, like I had not had since I was writing and creating my own stories as a television news reporter and anchor more than a decade ago

· A transformation of my body, an improved body image, and a healing experience from my childhood and teenage years when I was extremely underweight and often ridiculed for being skinny and not athletic. The before and after photo at the top of this post is me on the left on my 40th birthday before I got sick and me today on the right at 45.

· A home away from home wherever I go

· A new appreciation of God and the human body He created

· A place to worship God in activity when church was not possible

In the Pixar movie Inside Out, the filmmakers creatively and entertainingly explore five basic emotions through animated characters: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. The movie presents the well-researched idea that all of these emotions are important to being fully human, and that sadness is a necessary and important part of life and can help you find joy. These past five years, sadness, anger, and fear have understandably been near the forefront of my emotions or at “master control in my headquarters,” as the Pixar characters say. I am a man of deep faith in God, and I know that a place in itself cannot actually save you, but I do believe that God can use any means possible, including a place or experience, to bring joy and restoration in our lives. And, it feels like God used the gym to give me a healthy outlet to cope with these feelings of deep sadness and restore joy to my master control.

So that day in September, working at one of the biggest fitness and bodybuilding expos for one of the best supplement companies on the market, I felt restored and renewed. And, I rejoiced. I still am. As I say on my Instagram account, that is why I will Never Give Up on my fitness journey. No Excuses.