Powerlifting Makes Me Feel Safe
A history of childhood sexual abuse.
I experienced childhood sexual abuse twice. From a family friend and from a family member. In high school, I was in a relationship that began with being emotionally abusive, and eventually sexual as well.
As a kid, I was overweight, and the people around me often made sure to remind me of it. I was called almost every name you can think of associated with the word “fat.” I was bullied not only for my weight, but also for the color of my blonde hair that I had as a kid, my light skin, my native language, Spanish, and also for being a “nerd.”
My earliest memories are flooded with these instances. I remember often feeling distressed about my body. I didn’t understand what sexual abuse was until I was older after I had experienced it. But I do remember that I often felt “yucky.” With the bullying too. I felt ashamed of myself. It even got to the point that as a teenager, I refused to have a mirror in my room.
To cope, I remember often starving myself during the day to “lose weight” so I could have less to be ashamed about. However, for some reason, the evening would make me anxious growing up. My prior therapist suggested that it was the anticipation of being bullied or hurt again the next day. The distress would often leave me so overwhelmed, that I would overeat at night. Usually things such as pan dulce con leche (sweet bread with milk) or lots of cereal in order to feel “good.”
Although not fully conclusive, it could be argued that these circumstances led to my negative relationship with food and my body growing up. Which overall made it difficult to feel safe. I wouldn’t feel safe at home, school, with family, or with friends. Even my subconscious didn’t feel safe because my dreams would often end as nightmares. This continued on for years.
In high school, I started getting involved in sports: basketball, cross-country, and track. As I grew older and eventually went to college, I started trying other sports like swimming, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, etc. Even while trying out these sports and martial arts, I had an exercise routine that I would keep every morning that included lifting weights and running.
During the final week of the winter quarter of my final year of undergrad, my dad was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and my mom had shoulder surgery. My dad had been completely paralyzed from his left side, and I remember feeling frustrated not having the strength to safely pull him up on my own. It was just my mom and I at home with my dad.
I was into long-distance running and swimming at the time, but even so, my dad’s “dead weight” from his inability to move half of his body was challenging. The situation felt like a shortcoming on my behalf.
My time also became more restricted as I balanced school, work, research, and sports during the week, and then chores, cooking, and helping my parents on the weekends. I decided to give up distance running to train my body to be physically stronger instead. I assumed that it would benefit my family in case my dad survived but continued to have difficulty with his mobility.
This is when I got into powerlifting. I went through an imposter phase because everyone else around me was lifting over a hundred or even two hundred pounds. I needed to constantly remind myself that everyone starts off somewhere in order to keep my motivation going.
When I graduated from college, I became my dad’s full-time caregiver. By this point, I was finally able to squat my own weight. However, what I found most fascinating was the mental shift that came after a workout session.
Every day, upon waking up, my mind would race.
“What if my dad doesn’t make it?” “When will my mom be able to work again?” “Will I be able to get into a graduate program?”
But during my workout session, every single movement I did was accompanied by an inhale or exhale. I knew the importance of the breath from distance running, swimming, martial arts, and yoga. Therefore, I tried incorporating that same focus into my lifts.
The heavy weight also required me to stay alert. The pressure against my shoulders, palms, or wherever I needed to hold the weight, made me conscious of my body’s positioning in relation to the bar and floor. In order to stay stable, I also learned how to better engage my core, lower back, and thighs.
Although I stopped powerlifting during the pandemic due to gym closures in 2020, I started going back to powerlifting the day after we buried my dad. I no longer needed to be physically strong to help him up or carry him whenever his legs were too weak. However, I needed to be emotionally strong. To support my mom and my family. To finish my master’s degree and eventually move on to a Ph.D. program.
I wanted to transcend losing my dad into things that brought me meaning and purpose. In order to do so, however, I needed to stay grounded in reality whenever my emotions and grief pangs overcame me. To feel balanced whenever my responsibilities became overwhelming. To be patient whenever I was filled with distress or desperation. To sense my breath whenever I felt lost about my future or confused about the current moment.
In practicing these attributes through powerlifting, I see myself closer to the person I always wanted to be. And it all started with trusting my body that if I showed up every day, gave it my all, and didn’t allow the intimidation of the heavyweights or the skilled people around me to get the best of me, I could feel safe enough my body to become, and to be.
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