I have a pretty screwed up history with food and fitness. When I was a little kid, I hated being the "chubby" athlete, especially since it felt like all my friends were skinny and could eat whatever they wanted.
In college I decided enough was enough, and I started working out while counting calories. Within a few months, however, my relationship with food deteriorated until I started restricting calories under a healthy level. By the time I started my senior year, I was consuming only about 500 calories per day.
Thanks to the support of friends, professors, and a kick-ass therapist, I finally came out of it, but then discovered I was left with a gaping hole in my life. My disordered eating gave me a sense of control over everything, and as graduation (and the scary, unpredictable future) moved closer every day, I sank into depression.
My doctor prescribed medication, but it didn’t help. Despite the fact that I had plans to move into an adorable apartment with my best friend to kick-start a lifetime of adventures, I fell to my lowest point. I’d graduated early, but I was still living in my college town—and I soon discovered that outside the university bubble, life wasn’t going to be as simple as I’d assumed.
The antidepressants I’d been prescribed only made my depression worse, and I distinctly remember the day I sat in my bedroom, gripping my bottle of pills, wishing I could just give up. I hated everything about my life, hated myself, hated my body, and hated feeling like I had no options. The further I descended, the more terrified I became. On some level, I knew that despite everything, part of me knew I wasn’t ready to give up.
A random woman saved my life that day, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful. I called a helpline and spoke to someone who reminded me of my potential and hope for my future, and I decided to keep going.
Fortunately, that was my lowest point. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually get better from there.
I continued to have ups and downs. After my negative reaction, I was taken off antidepressants, then I was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. My doctor prescribed birth control pills, hoping they would level out my hormones and treat the crippling depression that was hitting me every month, but once again, no such luck.
Shortly after I began taking the pills, I started suffering from anxiety and severe panic attacks. After one of my panic attacks lasted almost a full day, I called my doctor, who instructed me on how to stop taking the birth control. We tried antidepressants again (a different drug than the one I’d taken before), but the results were no different. Instead of treating my depression, I felt numb. Nothing mattered—not my job, not my boyfriend, not my friends. I was empty, and I started considering suicide again.
I was crushed; after being diagnosed with PMDD, I thought I’d finally figured out the cause of my depression and understood why it felt so cyclical. Once again, my doctor again weaned me off antidepressants, and—although I know medication can be a game changer and helps so many people—I decided to seek out other options.
I felt empowered, and over the weeks, I noticed this feeling leak into other areas of my life as well.
Over the next few years, I tried practically everything I could get my hands on. Yoga, meditation, running, giving up caffeine, vitamins... all of it helped a little bit, but nothing really solved the problem. I started tracking my periods using an app that notified me a few days before my PMDD symptoms would appear. This way, I could warn my friends and boyfriend and remind myself the devastation and despair I was feeling were just due to hormones. Even with all of that, however, I was miserable. I’d figured out a way to scrape by, but I hated that I felt like I was simply surviving. I didn’t want to live that way for the rest of my life, but I didn’t see any other options.
This January, my life changed completely. After seeing a video about superhero-inspired fitness transformations, my fiancé and I decided to get personal trainers. We’d spent our entire lives in a cycle of diet and exercise, never really knowing how to do it right, and our results were all over the place. Even in the middle of my eating disorder, at my lowest weight, I was skinny-fat at best. I wanted to know what it was like to be in kick-ass shape and feel strong—not starve myself or run five miles per day.
But what began as a desire for a different aesthetic ended up changing me in ways I’d never imagined. I discovered a passion for lifting heavy weights and chose to ignore the stigma about weights and women ("lifting makes you bulky”). I gave up low-calorie diets for tracking macronutrients and clean eating. Instead of an obsession, I discovered a lifestyle filled with balance and progress.
My trainer encouraged me to throw away my scale, and we focused on using progress photos and strength gains to track my fitness journey. I started a progressive deadlifting program, and I set my first one-rep max at 195 pounds. (As a beginner, that’s not too shabby.)
A few months into working out with a trainer, I decided to reintroduce caffeine into my diet. I’d given it up for three years—even a single cup could send me into an anxiety attack—but I felt better and craved a cup of decent coffee.
Surprisingly, nothing happened. I had my cup of coffee, and while I couldn’t have more than two in a day, I was thrilled to discover I could benefit from the energy boost without spiraling into jitters, anxiety, or a potential panic attack.
From there, I started realizing the changes in my life went beyond the physical. I lost body fat and could fit back into my smallest clothing from the worst of my eating disorder, but I was lifting heavier weights with each workout. I upped my training schedule from two to five days per week and found myself excited about working out in a way I’d never experienced before.
More than that, I started noticing my PMDD getting better. My depression was nowhere near as powerful as it had once been, and the fear, worry, and sadness that had haunted and defined me for nearly a decade started falling by the wayside.
I found a way to handle depression, anxiety, and stress that completely changed my life. I felt empowered, and over the weeks, I noticed this feeling leak into other areas of my life as well. My productivity increased, as did my drive to start (and finish!) new projects. I began venturing out of my comfort zone for the first time in years.
Weight lifting has certainly changed my body, but more importantly, it’s changed my life.
Editor's Note: The opinions presented in this article are the author's personal views and should not be treated as medical advice.
Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker. After graduating from Huntington University with a B.A. in history, she went on to receive a master’s degree in modern British history from the University of East Anglia. In her spare time, Sutton enjoys fangirling, running, and anything related to ice cream. Pluto is still a planet in her heart. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.