How I Overcame Addiction with Strength Training

The story I am about to tell has never shared online before. I’ve talked about it in private and in some cases large and small groups, but I have not ever put it on the internet. This part of my life is not something that I’ve kept hidden, I just never felt the need to broadcast it… until now.

Why now? I don’t know. Maybe because I’ve got some major life decisions coming up and I’m feeling vulnerable. That’s not the point. The point is, I used to be a heavy drug user and I left that life behind in pursuit of bigger, stronger muscles.

I suppose it all started in the summer before going into highschool. There were some kids in the neighborhood that were getting into smoking pot and I was curious. It wasn’t hard to find and it was easier to get than alcohol. It took a couple tries, but the first time I got high was homecoming in 9th grade… and I liked it, a lot.

Some people say marijuana is a “gateway drug” and for me it was. It furthered my curiosity about other drugs and the people who I bought weed from gave me access to them. It wasn’t long before I started taking acid (LSD), smoking “greeners” (PCP) and huffing various substances. Then it was prescription pills and so called “designer drugs” such as ecstasy, crystal meth and special “K” (ketamine), and before even graduating high school I was into the hard stuff, particularly crack/cocaine.

Dan 11th grade

The people that knew me back then probably remember me as a “burn-out” or “stoner”. I had a reputation of being able to out drink (and out smoke) almost anyone. I funded my habits by selling weed and I hung around a crew that partied hard and got into some shady stuff.

This kept up until the spring of 1998 when I was 19. By then I had been arrested multiple times, escaped death on several occasions, all of my relationships had gone to shit and I was on a road to nowhere good.

After one particularly bad night, I decided to call it quits.

The Turning Point

I remember it clearly. It’s as if the Almighty pulled me outside of myself and showed me who I was and where I was headed, and that was dead or in jail. There was no other option but give it all up and walk away. And that’s what I did.

It was around 5am and I was smoking a cigarette on the deck of my parents house. I don’t know if it was the nights events that had left a bad taste in my mouth or if it was the cigarette, but the smoke was no longer enjoyable and I decided to start there. I put the cigarette out and casually crumbled the rest of the pack and dropped it in the trashcan on my way inside. That was the last time I smoked a cigarette (or did cocaine).

The next day I woke up with a resolve to give everything up for 30 days - long enough to break the habit. When I told my friends they laughed and bet money that I wouldn’t make it that long. I’m glad they did because as I would later find out about myself, it’s when people tell me that I can’t do something is when I will absolutely do it!

Dan crazy

For the first time in more than 5 years I had been sober for a full day. Along with some withdrawal symptoms, it was like a different high. I had a newfound energy that was previously only available if I was on some kind of amphetamine. There was some restless leg syndrome and a few sleepless nights, but there was also a notable shift in my personality - I felt like I was on fire!

I still hung out with the same people, went to the same places and I still sold drugs, I just didn’t do them. I wanted to, but my buddy told me I couldn’t quit, and I wanted to prove him wrong and win our $20 bet. However, it was during this 30-days clean that I started to find different things to do. I didn’t want sit around and play video games all day anymore; I wanted to go run and burn off some of my energy. I became increasingly bored with inactivity, so I started reading and working out.

After my 30 days were up I went out and got drunk. This was Memorial Day weekend and just happened to be the day before I started a new job, which I overslept for. I awoke to the sound of my friend ringing my doorbell, she was my ride and the one who got me the job. I had no choice to but to show up late, unshaven and hungover; not the best impression on your first day of work.

For the most part, I had fallen back into my old ways. Except now I had kindled a few new interests; mainly working out and reading. I read mostly about weight training but there were some spiritual books as well; the Bible, eastern philosophy and anything by Bruce Lee. I found myself increasingly drawn towards those things. My desire to alter my state of mind slowly started to be replaced with a desire to improve my physique (which in turned improved my state of mind).

In retrospect, there was probably a period of depression. My bodyweight had reached an all-time high and I hated what I saw in the mirror. I also didn’t feel as if I fit in with my old group of friends anymore, so I started to run away. Literally, there were times when I would leave a party and jog home because I didn’t want to do that anymore.

Training became my solace and my excuse to not hang out. I would actually go to the gym on my off days just to have a reason not to do the same old thing. It wasn’t my friends that I was trying to distance myself from, it was our shared interest of hard partying. I invited them to go to the gym with me, and some did, but few took to it the way that I did. For me it was a new high (scientifically it is) and I couldn’t get enough of it!

Some thoughts on addiction

Perhaps I traded one addiction for another, but I don’t think so. I’m now 20 years into strength training and I’m still getting stronger. I am improving my body, not damaging it, and I can take time off. That is the difference with an addiction - it’s problematic, and you can’t stop. An exercise addiction is running on a broken ankle or bench pressing in spite of a torn rotator cuff. I plan to do this for the rest of my life, so when I need time off for recovery, I take it. I will not sacrifice my health for a higher powerlifting total.

Maybe I was never addicted? I don’t know many people who could stop a crack habit “cold turkey” the way I did. But I also don’t know many people who had a Valium habit that exceeded 150mg a day and could still drink a 12 pack of beer.

Some people say that drug addiction is a disease. Well, it's not listed on the Center for Disease Control website, and to my knowledge there is no test that confirms any such disease conclusively.

I think calling addiction a disease is a cop out, or an enabler, depending on who's saying it. Labeling an addict as having a "disease" only gives power to it. It puts the problem on a pedestal and limits the users ability to get clean (with or without treatment).

The simple fact is that people have quit, which means other people CAN quit, too. Regardless of how many failed attempts, how many relapses, people have successfully left that life behind forever.

Of course, we all know far more that weren’t so lucky. My home city of Baltimore happens to be the heroin capital of the world and I’ve lost many friends to that stuff. Fortunately, I never got too much into that. Had I gotten hooked on opioids I might be telling a very different story.

Also remember that addiction can come in many forms; sex, porn, food, work, shopping, smart phones, etc. If you can’t stop something, you may have a problem. Just because some additions are more easily concealed, or are more socially accepted, doesn’t mean that they won’t ruin your life.

I believe people get addicted to drugs because of pain; physical, mental and/or emotional pain. The drugs usually further the pain with the problems they cause. It’s a vicious cycle, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Finding the right people, a spiritual practice and something positive to occupy your time is imperative.

Strength training gave me something worthy to pursue and an outlet for my tendency to take things to the extreme. It opened up a whole new world to me and introduced me to some really great people. It also sparked my interest in learning again. I guarantee that nobody that knew me in high school expected me to go to college, much less graduate with honors. Without taking an interest in exercise science, I wouldn’t have.

Of course there are many other things I credit to bringing me out of that life. It’s only by the grace of God that things played out the way they have. I’m lucky to have the love of my family and friends, and there are many good things in life that I have done nothing to earn, and frankly, probably don’t deserve.

Don’t get this story wrong; I can’t act as if I’m totally in the clear. I know that I am prone to drinking too much, and people make stupid decisions when under the influence. I’d like to think that I drink responsibly now, but I am not above making mistakes. So if you see me getting too liberal with the libation - call me out on it!

To anyone struggling with addiction now, I leave you with this: Change the status quo. You are powerful beyond measure. If you need professional help, get it. There are many programs out there that can assist you. Find the deeper meanings behind your addiction and deal with it. Finally, go pick up a barbell and exercise your demons. I promise you this: there is no better high than being healthy and strong.

If you're in the Baltimore area and interested in a "therapy" session, I offer a 2 week free trial to the gym. Come check us out!