Training with depression. You are not alone.

“Depression is a physical illness.” —Terry Bradshaw

In June of 2011, I was on top of the world. I had discovered Starting Strength a year ago that month thanks to my husband, Diego. I was out of back pain. I had joined a dance company again. I opened my business, Fivex3 Training, and was slowly gaining clients, meeting people and rehearsing with my company. Life was great. The end of August, we held our first Strongman Workshop with my new friend, Mike Mckenna of McKenna’s Gym. After the workshop, Mike encouraged me to register for a Strongman Contest at the end of September. And I did. I was embarking on a completely new way of training, living, dancing. There was nothing to stop me.

Then my younger sister, Charlotte, was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer in September of 2011. And life, as I knew it, stopped. Her world, my world and my parent’s world turned upside down that week in September. And we never looked back.

Charlotte, Jack, El and I. Thanksgiving 2014

I withdrew from my  Strongwoman contest. Charlotte had her surgery. I stopped barbell training and did a month of kettlebell training because my body and mind just seemed like it needed a different change of pace. We held a charity Yoga/Basic Training event for the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation in October. It would be the first of many  events that I would hold to raise money for cancer research. My sister started chemotherapy in November. Life with my family and my training was never to be the same. Life became running my classes at the gym, squeezing in training sessions, picking up my niece and nephew  from school, getting them home and even sometimes getting them to bed. The Ulman Foundation often says that when one person has cancer, the entire family has cancer. And they are right. Life must go on….it’s just a different life than the one you were living the day before cancer. And my life is still different 8 years later.

Over these past 8 years, my training has been a real roller coaster ride. Up, down, up, down. How I have managed to make any type of progress is astounding. But I manage.  I manage. And I train the best I can.

Between  October  2011 and  January 2015,  my sister battled her cancer. And the pain I experienced during these years was not related primarily to my back (although the stress from watching my sister go through her ordeal certainly contributed to many training sessions with back discomfort)….it was heartache, depression, anxiety, sadness and uncertainty.

Three and half years later after her diagnosis in September 2011, on February 11, 2015, my sister Charlotte died from Stage 4 Colon Cancer at the age of 38. Her children were 7 and 4 years old at the time of her death. This past February marked four years since she died. Her pain was my pain. If I were to look back over my training log during the 3.5 years that she was sick and the 4 years after she died, I would see a lot, A LOT  of “punching the clock” sessions. I would see a lot of “working out” and many, many, MANY different exercises. Weights would be up, then down again, then up again. And then all of a sudden, a particular lift might not even be in my program anymore. I cannot tell you how many times I had to stop squatting or deadlifting. This was my “new normal” training routine. When Charlotte felt good, I felt good. When she felt like shit, I felt like shit. The night before she died, I could barely move. Everything hurt. My bones, my muscles, my heart. It wasn’t until a year after she died that things slowly started to turn around.

2016 actually turned out to be one of the best training periods of my life. From March to December of that year, I was able to make real gains, lift without pain, train regularly and even compete for the first time in a full strength meet. And to this day, I don’t know what made this all possible. Maybe it was the fact that I was finally able to speak to my brother-in-law without wanting to kill him. Maybe my stress level had finally reached an all time low. Maybe because a year had passed and much of my anger had passed with it.  Maybe because I finally realized that my niece and nephew were what mattered the most, NOT my issues with their father. All I know is I was able to go to the gym and actually TRAIN. And it felt so good to be in control again of my body. My parents and I were moving forward, my niece and nephew were doing well and my brother had a baby which meant I was an aunt again. 😉 Life was returning to another  “new normal.”

Then a new roadblock hit us.

Me, my brother Jimmy and Jack and Eleanor. May 2018

Towards the end of 2017, we learned that my brother-in-law had decide to move to Colorado. Just when we were starting to accept where we were with him and Jack and Eleanor, he delivers this blow. My training started to take a hit….again. The only two lovely, wonderful humans we had to remember Charlotte by would be moving halfway across the country. To us, Charlotte was dying a second time. What the hell were we going to do?

We tried to not think about it from January to June. We did not talk about it too much with the kids. They did not want to talk about it. Their life was in Baltimore with their friends, their school, their grandparents and aunts and uncles. And with their cousins. The end of June, we said goodbye to them. It was as terrible for them as it was for us. They cried. My parents cried. I cried. And then we started to move forward to yet another “new normal.”

In July, we moved the gym to its new location so I had something to focus on and that kept me occupied.  The Charm City Strongwoman Contest rolled around too, and I continued to stay busy. But it was hard. Although I was busy working to keep the memory of my sister alive, it was the first year that Jack and El would not be at the contest. I tried to put that out of my mind, but it was still there.

By  the end of September 2018, nothing felt right. And by the middle of October, I was in agony. I came home one Tuesday night from the gym and just started to cry.  Earlier that night, I was trying to get down to the floor to demonstrate a skill and everything just fucking hurt. All of my joints, muscles and bones seemed to be screaming at the same time “Stop!!!!”

“You either have rheumatoid arthritis, or you are depressed,” my husband said to me that night. “It’s time for you to see your doctor.” I immediately agreed and made an appointment, convinced it was RA or gout. I had done a Web MD search (you know what I mean!! ) and pretty much was ready for my blood work to show all sorts of signs of medical issues. I had been feeling shitty for so long, and finally, I was going to get an answer.

My appointment was for the following Monday. I woke up that morning feeling miserable and not wanting to get out of bed. But I had an appointment at 12 with my doctor, and I knew I would not have time to train afterwards. Even in the state I was in, NOT training was never an option with me.  It had been my therapy and it would always remain my primary way of addressing stress, no matter how I felt.

I went to the gym and tried to squat. Pain shot through my hip and back. Yet, I persisted. By the time I got to the end of my session, I could barely walk. I pulled myself together and went to my appointment. It was raining that day which also made me feel even more like shit. I sat down in the room with the nurse who took my blood pressure and temperature. As she was inputting the information into the computer, she asked,”Have you felt depressed lately?” I turned to her and point blank said, “Actually, yes.” She nodded and made a note in the computer. She left the room and then it hit me what I had just said. I started to cry. By the time my doctor came in to see me about five minutes later, I was a goddamn mess. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I just sat there, crying. I talked. She listened.

Then my doctor said,”You know, Emily, I have know you for over a decade so I think I know you pretty well. Since Charlotte’s death, you have done everything you can to help yourself with non-pharmaceutical things such as weight training…but would you be open to trying something pharmaceutical?” I looked at her and immediately said, “Yes.”  When that word came out of my mouth and I realized what I had just said, another realization also came to me.  I was depressed. Just like Diego had thought. And just what my doctor thought too. My niece and nephew, my last two pieces to Charlotte, were gone. I was now grieving for a second loss…..them.  Although I thought that their moving away would help me move on, it did just the opposite. It made me even more sad, more anxious and more angry. We did a bunch of blood work and everything came back completely normal. No rheumatoid arthritis. No gout. My B12 was very low but when I read the results, I realized that it had  to be from all the Gas X and acid reflux stuff I had been taking the past four years to help with my “stomach issues” (which was just my head being a little bitch to me because of all the stress). I immediately took myself off the Gas X and have taken it “as needed,” meaning every now and then.

As of October 18, 2018, I have been on Cymbalta. As much as I did not want accept the fact that maybe I needed medication to help me with my anxiety and depression, I realized that day in my doctor’s office that it was okay and normal. It was okay to ask for help. It did not make me weak. It did not make me dependent on someone. “Suck it up and deal with it,” is never the answer. And I was done feeling anxious.

Jack and El. Christmas 2019 in Baltimore.

The difference between how I felt in October to now is incredible. My energy is high. My emotions are in check. My body does not ache as much anymore. I am more optimistic about the future. Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went without many tears or sadness. My niece and nephew came for two weeks during the Christmas break and it was the best two weeks during the holidays that I can ever remember having since my sister died. They flew back to Colorado about a week after New Year’s. My parents took them to the airport. I talked to my mom later that night and she told me that they were in tears the entire time they were saying goodbye, just like in June when they left the first time.  The next morning, I could not get out of bed.  I finally dragged myself out and went to make breakfast. I had an appetite so I knew I was not sick. It was not until later when I was at the gym training that I realized what it had been. Depression. Jack and El were gone. Again. And I was sad. Recognizing this and accepting that this may happen over and over again was the first step to feeling all right with what was going on with me. And I am okay with that.

Since beginning my medication, I have been much calmer. I am facing my new “normal” head on and accepting where we are today. My tears do not come nearly as often as they used if they come at all. This is weird to me but at the same time, I am so glad that I do not cry as often as I used to. I am still sad. I still miss Charlotte and I miss Jack and El. But I am not as anxious or nervous as I was in September. I enjoy their Face Time calls.  Jack plays his banjo and talks about his rock climbing adventures while Eleanor makes weird faces and laughs hysterically like her mother used to do. The three of us enjoy these calls more and more these days because we know that in July, they will be here again, for about six weeks. This is definitely something we are all looking forward to. 😉

Depression is real. Depression does not care if you are male, female, black, white, young, old. Depression is normal. Some of us will experience it and others will not. Do not discount how you are feeling and do not be afraid to ask for help. I thought that I could get by with just training. But accepting the fact that I needed something more than just talking, something more than just lifting weights, has actually made my training so much better.

Remember, you are not alone.

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” 

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

5 thoughts on “Training with depression. You are not alone.”

    1. Thank you, Shane. It took me some time to post it. Not sure if I wanted to or not….kind of scary to put yourself out there but I train too many people who suffer from depression on some form or another and I wanted them to know I am here for them and I understand. Thank you for reading. 😉

  1. Beautiful. My own experiences have been in the opposite direction (started Cymbalta, eventually added strength training) but the point remains. Depression is a multi-system disease and should be treated as such.

    Also, “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine.”

    1. Thanks Matt. 😉 Thank you for reading. Strength training did wonders for me during her illness and even after her death, but I eventually knew I needed something more. 😉 Thank you again for reading and commenting.

  2. Depression is like a truck that runs over you, backs up, and runs over you again…and again…and again. You are one of the fortuate ones who had smart, caring people around to help you through and guide you toward getting better.

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