Define Your Body, Redefine Yourself
Errol N. Hannigan's downward slide began with a slip, the kind of nuisance that could happen to any of us. Only, this slip happened to injure his knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery. Then came an infection and a month-long hospital stay.
Eventually, the knee needed replacing, a surgery that would be repeated six times. Yet something was amiss. The infection still smoldered deep in the bone. His doctors presented a grim ultimatum: Surrender your leg now or your life in two days.
Hannigan's body survived the amputation, but his soul and his identity were both crushed. Things became so bad that he planned to finish the job started by the infection, by taking his own life. He loaded a gun. He lined the walls of his garage with plastic. He went to his wife, asking for her permission to end his pain, once and for all. Having been diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder lupus, she withheld both her permission and sympathy. "No," she said. "I'm going to need you now."
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It's one thing not to pull the trigger; it's another to truly begin living again. That process began the day he accompanied his wife to the gym. She was looking for a way to manage her disease, but the results were even more dramatic for him: Within five minutes, the pain that had dogged him since the knee injury seemed to vanish.
Who knows how much of that pain was in his body, how much of it was in his mind. After all, amputees frequently encounter phantom pain, a mocking reminder of what it was like to be whole. But Hannigan, a.k.a. "Captain Ahab" on BodySpace, was learning a simple truth firsthand: Nothing lifts one's mood better than training.
"Taking up fitness isn't necessarily about learning how to do a biceps curl or a seated cable row," the legendary Cory Everson, a six-time Ms. Olympia (1984-89), once told me. "It's more about learning to feel good about yourself, whatever your age or bodyweight."
Or, Everson could have added, whatever trial you've been put through.
Consciously or not, Hannigan further tilted the odds in his favor by going to the gym in the company of a loved one, his wife. Researchers find that when it comes to fitness-regimen compliance, having a supportive partner predicts success better even than one's own attitude. Training with a partner not only holds you accountable but also involves someone else in your success.
One reason training makes people feel better is that the gym provides a readymade social setting, a place of interaction with like-minded individuals. After all, most of us have learned the majority of what we know about training by watching others. A social context is also important for other aspects of staying fit, including diet.
"Group support is essential," says nutrition expert Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. "Even Weight Watchers is one of these weird mergers of horrible nutritional advice with advanced social technique. The details change, but every 12-step group in the world reproduces some form of the support group. That's what makes them work."
This doesn't mean your gym time is a social hour. Be inspired by your workout environment, but never lose sight of why you're there. "People think I'm rude and conceited 'cause I don't speak to anybody in the gym," David Henry, a 35-year-old pro bodybuilder who was runner-up at the Europa Battle of Champions contest (202 division) in 2010, told me. "I'm like, 'Look, this is what I do for a living. I don't have time to come in here and talk about what happened on the weekend, or listen to what girl you took out." Feed off of the intensity of others, but don't let them distract you.
Competition offers another compelling social context and leadership opportunity. Maria Kwiatkowski, Ph.D., now 50, decided to do a bodybuilding contest in Connecticut several years back as a way of challenging herself. Her physique and routine were both tight, but as the contest day began, she felt terrible inside, as if she had made a huge miscalculation.
"Everybody seemed to be with someone who was supportive, someone telling them how great they looked, whereas I was standing there by myself," she recalls. "I allowed myself to become deflated. You can see it in the tape of the morning show."
She felt so bad, in fact, that she decided to bail before the evening show. Then, something inside of her clicked. She recalls:
"[Before the night show], I went into a bar and I said, 'I have $4. I want a glass of wine. What can I get?' I drank it and said to myself, I'm just going to have fun with this. Later, backstage, a group of people around me, men and women alike, were saying, 'You look great, I didn't know that a woman could be muscular and sexy,' and so on. I felt so good and so glad that I stayed true to myself. People came up to me later and said, 'I was so afraid of working out with weights-and then I saw you.'"
Once he had looked within and righted his own ship, Hannigan, like Kwiatkowski, could become an example to others. English bodybuilder Simon Robinson would easily relate to both stories. Robinson lost a leg, too, albeit even more suddenly, in an accident.
One day, he was driving along a snakelike road in the English countryside; unbeknownst to him and other motorists, a truck filled with oil had sprung a leak, leaving dangerous patches in his wake. Robinson hit a slick and spun into oncoming traffic. The resulting accident left him with a fractured spleen, fractured vertebrae, a broken cheekbone, and two shattered legs. One could be salvaged; the other had to be removed. Simon learned what had happened upon awakening from a coma.
The accident ended the career of an Olympics-caliber tae kwon do competitor, but Robinson was equally gifted as a bodybuilder. "I have no doubt that if Simon had not lost his leg, he would have been an IFBB professional," says Kerry Keyes, an observer of the British bodybuilding scene for decades. Not surprisingly, Simon suffered bouts of depression. He was also wheelchair bound for a year before graduating to crutches.
Yet Simon overcame this devastating setback by returning to the gym, which allowed him to redefine himself and his relationship with others. At first, it wasn't easy. Aside from the obvious challenges posed by lower-body training, everything from overhead presses to bench pressing requires the planting of one's feet for support.
Robinson learned to use his abs to anchor his body. His gains progressed to where he could do exhibitions, often for the incarcerated, those who could identify with a man having good reason to lose hope. "I've had a lot of people say, 'Now that I've seen you, I've got to lose weight,'" Robinson says. "It makes me want to carry on even more."
Thankfully, not all of our challenges arise from the sort of life-altering tragedies that struck both Hannigan and Robinson. They tend to be more like Kwiatkowski's: We push ourselves out of a comfort zone, we stumble a bit, and then, hopefully, we find the strength to move forward and redefine ourselves in the process.
Challenge yourself to assume a new role in 2011 relating to health, fitness, diet, or some combination thereof. Learn to lead in your own realm, and then expand that realm. If obesity plagues your family, become the person who not only sheds unwanted pounds and avoids obesity-related health woes, but also leads family and friends down the same healthy path.
If you don't have an influencer, or anyone to influence, BodySpace can help. Create a BodyGroup specifically for your "obstacle," map the group's goals, and then start the move to motivation and success in collaboration with others.
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Who knows: You might even find yourself training alongside Captain Ahab.
About The Author:
Before joining Bodybuilding.com, Jeff O'Connell was executive writer at Men's Health and editor-in-chief at Muscle & Fitness. His feature writing has been cited in both the Best American Sports Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies, and his service writing has been a finalist for a Maggie Award in the "best how-to" category. He has coauthored four books, including Mario Lopez's Knockout Fitness and LL Cool J's Platinum Workout, which became a New York Times bestseller. Hyperion will publish his solo book Sugar Nation, based on one of his Men's Health features, in June 2011.
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