At 23 I was ready for the biggest change of my life. I had spent the last year getting black-out drunk multiple times per week after work. I was depressed, alone, and existed in an environment that was completely indifferent to my pain. I needed a way out.
The Digital Expert Connection
I began to regularly lurk on the SomethingAwful forums, and through them I began to learn about physical fitness. People were posting transformations and talking about how they were completely different from their former selves. I wanted that. The recipe was easy to follow: go to the gym consistently, learn how to perform the main exercises (squat, deadlift, and bench press), and join a group of more experienced lifters if possible.
Plates, quarters, dimes and nickels
After about a month of fumbling about I joined a group of four other people who were really into power-lifting. Powerlifters are like bodybuilders, but instead of focusing on appearance they focus on simply increasing the amount of weight that they can move. The higher the total, the better you were.
This environment turned out to be extremely toxic. Cheating on their spouses was a regular discussion – our “leader” had a side girl (unknown to his wife of a decade), and he was really proud of being able to keep one hidden from the other. The others in the group would also talk about times where they came close, or did in fact cheat. Also, I began to see that the only thing that stopped them from lifting was injury. Torn muscles, torn tendons requiring surgery, bruises, discolorations and callouses were becoming increasingly common. My back became a regular source of discomfort, and sometimes the pain would be great enough that I would have to lie down in my bed for multiple days before I could stand up. I was writing checks my body couldn’t cash.
At some point I began to realize that the quality of individuals I interacted with had a huge impact upon who I was as a person, and that some part of me was beginning to become like they were – extremely masculine, confident and boastful. Deep down I didn’t like that, so I began to ghost them and eventually fell away completely.
A Second, Second Chance
When I decided to go back to school, I was ready to fully embrace that ecosystem. I guessed that my local community college was actually a portal to bigger things – people, places and careers that I couldn’t even comprehend. Luckily I was right.
Getting My Foot In The Door
The summer of 2007 I enrolled into an introduction to Psychology class that completely changed my life. I had read about the notoriety of one particular professor – she was difficult, taught topics as they related to her life experience, and there was no limit to her expectations and the level of difficulty. She graded based upon how you grew over time, not the quality of work you submitted. Through her I began to understand the economic context in which our area existed – the Inland Empire in Southern California. I learned to study more than I thought possible, question previously held assumptions, and understand how my privilege as a white male supersedes my ability. This class helped me re-wind the negative influence of my former group and instead grow my character from a better place.
I was hooked. I wanted to invest myself fully into the school to become the master of this domain. I had read that the best way to learn was to teach somebody else, so I decided to become a peer tutor. This involved taking a semester long class, after completion of which students would be considered for a part time tutoring job. On average, one to two tutoring positions were available per year. The competition for these jobs was fierce. The summer of 2008 and the global recession brought waves of jobless adults desperate for any income source, and money is an incredible motivator when you don’t have any.
A Welcomed Challenge
The professor was concurrently pursuing her PhD at USC and working part time doing the tutor training class, and raising twin boys that were around five or six years old. Her singular tactic was to challenge us to do more. She would regularly pass down her readings to us and engage us in discussion of the papers. These were hundreds of pages per week. I can see now that this was a way for her to become more familiar with the work, but I can’t argue against the positives of this mutually beneficial relationship, and truly I was receiving the bulk of the benefit. I was the only person to take on these readings. I wasn’t the only one to become a tutor, but I lived that life for the next five years, remaining as a tutor through the completion of my undergraduate degree. I challenged myself every step of the way in order to benefit the people around me.
It meant so much to me for her to teach in that style. She was willing to look past where we came from and what we looked like. She never held back her punches. She gave everyone the opportunity to do as much as they wanted, embodying the belief that if you challenge yourself, you will be surprised by how much you can accomplish.
It’s been 12 years since these events have taken place. I think about where I am now and when I trace branches back to their source, I come back to the events above.
The mentors that helped me out all had their own agendas, interests and biases, but they were willing to tell me about their truths as they saw them. I had to know when the right time was to disengage, or when healthy activities became destructive, or when I had to stick to my truth, not theirs.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I would be dead if I had stayed my previous course, and that these people saved my life.
I want you to know that if you’re struggling, there are people out there that are wanting to help you. It might not be the best kind of help, and it won’t be forever, but it’s out there.
I want you to know that ‘what is’ doesn’t have to be the end of your story. There’s always a different way to go, or a resource yet untapped.
There’s always “what could be”.