I struggled with the decision of whether to attach my name to this piece or leave it anonymous. On the one hand, I consider myself a supporter of the End the Stigma campaign, which aims to change perspectives on mental health through open discussion of issues. However, once this article is published, I run the risk of clients or clients’ parents finding out about my own battles with mental illness.
When I think about it, though, my hesitance comes down to fear—fear that people will not be understanding or able to separate my mental health from my capabilities. Fear has been a companion of mine for a long time.
When I was 11 years old, I was diagnosed with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. The anti-anxiety medications I took kept my symptoms in check for years, but the side effects eventually forced me to take a break from medication all together.
Though I felt great for a short time after, I soon realized that the longer I went without medication, the more anxious I felt. I tried to work on other ways of dealing with anxious feelings. I started exercising more regularly, learned about progressive muscle relaxation, bought lavender essential oils and did deep breathing when I felt overwhelmed.
But as time went on and I remained off medication, I experienced multiple panic attacks and had a complete mental breakdown. I knew I had to see my psychiatrist. She renewed my old medication and told me not to return to work until I was stable again. As I waited for the medication to build up in my system again, I continued to try to find ways to cope with the bouts of anxiety that plagued me. I took medical leave and told my boss I didn’t know when I would be returning. I ended up not going back.
Depressed, constantly anxious, overwhelmed, irritated and unable to relax or enjoy anything, I made the decision to go to an on-ramp class at a local CrossFit box. To be honest, my goal when walking into that first class on July 4, 2014, was to make it through without crying and without letting on that something was wrong. After I clumsily tried to learn new skills, used a barbell for the first time and did an extremely modified WOD designed for beginners, something unexpected happened.
Kievit said CrossFit's group setting is great for people who are dealing with anxiety because it reduces the stress a person might experience in a one-on-one session. It also creates community.
For the first time in weeks I felt like I could breathe. The weight on my chest had let up. My body was so spent from the workout, muscles shaking, that I was finally able to do what I had been failing to do for weeks: relax. It felt like all the blood seeped from my brain to my muscles and left me without enough power to think. It was incredible.
I came home drenched in sweat to report back to my mom. I remember telling her the workout was the only thing that truly helped my anxiety since the panic attacks had started up again. She immediately asked, “Can you go every day?” I laughed knowing that I would be lucky if my body could handle going back in two days.
For the next eight weeks, I continued to struggle as I waited for the medication to build up and take effect. My only real salvation during that time was knowing I would feel good the next time I went to a CrossFit class. I held on to that knowledge to help get me through some rough parts. Some days it was the only thing I looked forward to.
By the time I began to really stabilize, I had just started a new job and was overwhelmed with the added responsibilities. I left the first day thinking to myself, “I can’t do this,” but I forced myself to go back the next day, and each day after that got easier. Even with my medication, going to CrossFit classes—now three days a week—felt essential to making it through the week.
Kievit said physical exertion takes her out of her head and helps her find calm.
Fast-forward to present day: I feel completely recovered and in an even better place mentally than I was before the medication setback happened. When I have difficulty coping with the stressors of the day, I make sure I get to the gym. It never fails to improve my mood and take me out of my own head. For some reason, being completely drained and gasping for air allows me to relax and breathe freely.
People are often surprised by my decision to spend a relatively large sum of money each month “just to go to the gym.” There are plenty of explanations for why it’s worth the money. CrossFit is the best workout I’ve ever gotten. Also, I don’t have to plan anything. All I have to do is show up and do what I’m told, and I’ll see and feel results. It’s like having a personal trainer but in a group setting, so the focus isn’t all on you.
The group setting is one of CrossFit’s most attractive qualities. Everyone suffers through the same conditioning. Everyone is miserable during the WOD but friendly and talkative before and after. There’s a good amount of support, and this type of environment creates community.
CrossFit improves one's physical fitness, but for Kievit, the mental benefits are the most indispensable effect of training.
But, if people ask me, I tell them that the most important reason why I pay to do CrossFit is its effect on mental health. Even as a young, first-time homebuyer with a relatively low-paying 30-hour-a-week job, I’m not willing to compromise on my CrossFit membership. I would rather give up buying new clothes or going out to dinner if it came down to it. My health, especially my mental health, comes first.
Doing CrossFit is how I know I can stay well. As someone who has felt completely debilitated by a mental illness, I can tell you that I would pay anything to never feel that way again.
About the author: Amy Kievit is a Family and Youth Counselor in Hartford, Connecticut. In her spare time she volunteers at a Therapeutic Horseback Riding Center and works out at Yankee CrossFit in Farmington, Connecticut.
All photos: Courtesy of Amy Kievit