Lifting in the Dark: Strength Training and Depression

I considered just retreating to my room, binge-watching Netflix, and hunkering down until it passes. The darkness always hit. I had never thought to hit back. This time, however, I wanted to fight. . . . I fought, but I didn’t fight alone. There were more people in the foxhole with me than the foxhole could hold.

Lifting in the Dark: Strength Training and Depression

By: Darrell Jones

“We can’t go over it,

We can’t go under it.

Oh no!

We’ve got to go through it!” 

—Michael Rosen, “We Are Going on a Bear Hunt.” 

It was a day similar to most. I had returned home from work to be greeted by my lovely wife and two excited black Labs. However, when I walked down the hallway to my bedroom, I sat down on the floor and didn’t want to get up. My wife had come back to the room to find me there, face soaked in tears and paralyzed by fear. It had come again. The stubborn darkness of depression was descending on me.  

I had been here nine years before.  

Depression has been a constant companion in my life. I’ve tried every method possible to shake it, but its velcro-strength grip on my psyche has proven one that I couldn’t outflank. Nine years ago, it came at a time of transition, stress, and conflict. That time, I surrendered. I retreated to a pile of blankets, a bag of french fries, and a bucket of ice cream. I let my hair grow and put on fifty pounds. I made every effort to avoid dealing with what was happening in my head.

While depression has reared its ugly head like a twisted game of whack of mole during nearly every season of my life, this time was more intense than I had felt since that terrible spiral almost a decade ago. I was again in a time of transition, stress, and conflict. Immediately, I was thrust into a shame spiral. “I am a minister,” I said to myself. “I shouldn’t struggle this way. What if other folks find out? Why is this happening? What do you have to be sad about? You have a 500 lb squat, plenty of friends, and a wife who loves you more than anything in this world?” I had lots of questions; I had little in the way of answers. I’d heard someone say that depression is like a bruise, “you don’t really know how it got there, all that you know is that it hurts when someone touches it.” This described my situation perfectly. 

I considered just retreating to my room, binge-watching Netflix, and hunkering down until it passes. The darkness always hit. I had never thought to hit back. 

This time, however, I wanted to fight. I had grown. I had grown in my faith. I had grown in maturity, and I had grown in my understanding of exactly why I lift weights to begin with. This time around the physical strength gained through barbell training empowered the mental toughness to keep moving forward. I had done things under the barbell that I had never thought possible. What if I attacked this stubborn darkness with the same tenacity? Could it be that the point of barbell training was not to chase numbers on the platform, but to be refined in the cauldron of hard work and then to be equipped to tarry through all of life’s hardships? Barbell Training had changed me. I wasn’t the same scared kid from nine years ago, and I wasn’t about to let depression convince me that all the progress was in vain.  Much like the childhood story about going on a bear hunt, to tackle this beast, I can’t go over it, I can’t go under it, I was going to have to go through it.

I looked at TrueCoach and saw deadlifts and tempo squats were programmed for that day. I drove to my friend’s house, where I lift, and loaded up the barbell.  It didn’t move. I grabbed a sip of water, cranked Metallica, chalked up my hands, tightened my belt, got back behind the bar, walked through the five setup steps…and it didn’t move. I was dejected. I grabbed my things to make the walk of shame back to the truck, and I stopped and thought, I’ve pulled this weight a thousand times. How many one-by-fives have I done at this weight? Walking away meant giving up, and I didn’t want to do that. I was going to have to lift in the dark. So, I repeated the previously mentioned steps; and I pulled harder than a backwoods dentist yanking on a molar; and it broke off the ground. It was slow and painful. Technically the lift looked awful. My back wasn’t set hard enough. The bar was forward of midfoot, and the barbell wasn’t anywhere near my shins. My knees were shaking like Elvis during a performance of blue suede shoes, but I pulled it, and for a moment, there was reprieve. Barbell Therapy had offered a short break from the crippling darkness. 

Don’t get me wrong; it didn’t make the darkness go away. When I put the bar down, I was still going to have to do the hard work of walking headlong into something I didn’t know or understand. I was still going to need to seek the counsel of wise friends. I was going to have to seek out people that I trust with my life, who had been there before and could point out the landmines to avoid as I walked through a tough season of life. But what it did show me was that the mental illness wasn’t going to have the last laugh. As long as I was standing, pressing, pulling, and squatting, I was fighting. Even when every voice in my head was telling me not too. I was on a 4-day split at the time, which meant that I was going to have the opportunity to lift in the dark again the next day, and two more times that week, and ten more times, that month, however long until the stubborn darkness lifted. 

I have entered into a season where the fog has lifted. I still didn’t have any answers or any more clarity as to why depression has plagued me for years. I am guessing that it will be a lifelong companion, always riding shotgun and rearing its ugly head from time to time. Sometimes I will fight and make my way through the heavy season of the soul; sometimes I will lose that fight and be immobilized like I was back in February. 

I don’t know much, but I know this, lifting has helped me fight back. It has gotten me out of bed, off the floor, and under the barbell. My encouragement to anyone going through this is to fight. Even if that fight means just putting one foot in front of the other until the darkness lifts. I was fortunate enough to realize that I didn’t have to walk through this alone. I could tell my friends without fear of shame. I could tell my boss without fear of termination, and I could tell my coach without fear of judgment. I fought, but I didn’t fight alone. There were more people in the foxhole with me than the foxhole could hold. Depression will seek to convince you that you are crazy. It grows in the cold and dark places. Exposing it to the light of friends, faith, and three by fives showed what I had known all along, there is something virtuous about punching the clock and pulling the load. It may not always be fun, and it may not always move, but it always matters. 




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