It is March 2022 and I am being admitted to a rehabilitation hospital.
My bags are being searched. A nurse takes out my clothes and shakes each piece, folds it again and starts a pile on the single bed.
There is a small desk, and a cupboard with three drawers. A bathroom with rubber hooks for towels that give way when you pull them with a finger. A shower curtain hanging from a rail designed to collapse, should you pull down on it with any weight.
My toiletries bag is opened. A tray of tablets is waved in the air.
I forgot that was in there. It’s Panadol, I tell them.
They take possession of the Panadol and my medication. Lexapro for depression and anxiety. Thiamine tablets. The GP said it would help save my brain from the wine, should it come to that.
“You can come and get your medication from us when you need it,” one of the nurses says.
“There is a safe, you should use it.
“You don’t know who is walking around this place. Everyone is an addict”, she says, and rolls her eyes.
I am here because my doctor found out that I drink more than one bottle of wine every evening.
The hangovers aren’t savage, but it wasn’t hangovers that led to my confession at the GP. It was the voice in my head.
“You’re an idiot,” it said.
“How have you done this AGAIN? OK, you’re not going to drink tonight. You’re going to have a night off. Just one. It’s not impossible.”
The nurses leave the room.
I take my shoes off and lay down on the single bed with the blanket pulled over my chin.
Someone is going to take over now, I thought. I can let go.
I spent six nights in the hospital. I was scheduled to be there for three weeks. I don’t feel this was a failure.
I have ruminated on many failures in my life because it is one of my favourite topics – things I messed up again – but this was not one of them.
On the seventh day of my time there, I was suddenly determined to go home.
The end, and then the beginning
The day started badly. I had the usual breakfast in the hospital dining room, sitting alone.
There were three sessions a day at which attendance was compulsory. The material covered in each differed. Mindfulness, the recovery ‘journey’, how to deal with cravings, a reflection, art therapy. I was suspicious of most of these and told the therapist so.
I probably began on the wrong foot.
On this seventh day, the first session of the morning did me in. For the sake of the privacy of others at the hospital and those who work there, I won’t detail exactly what was discussed in this session.
What I will say is that by the time I walked out of that room, I was done. It was another meeting that seemed to emphasise being prey to something, rather than an active participant in a complex life.
You are an addict, and you always will be, they said. You are powerless over this thing. It is only with the help of a higher power that you will recover.
I felt defeated before I’d really begun. Firstly, one would have to believe in a higher power.
My sister picked me up later that night.
This is not a story about my drinking. I drank too much and too often. It was a problem.
My drinking was quiet and contained. I held down jobs, have a partner, a son of whom I am proud. I have a doctorate. I wrote a book.
This story is about how I learned to live with myself once I didn’t drink. This was the hard bit.
Once I had stopped, I was like a half-peeled onion. Raw. Exposed. Making everyone cry.
This story is about weightlifting.
The will to lift
While I was in the hospital I began to think about what I would like to do with myself, if this treatment worked.
At some point I found myself looking at the NSW Weightlifting website. A sport for everyone, it said. I fancied that my short, squat frame was well matched to it.
During the 2020 Olympics I watched much of the lifting. I listened to the commentary and took mental notes. One particular woman was very impressive. At one point she said: “pain is irrelevant” and I drew breath.
I became fascinated by Hidilyn Diaz, the first person to win a gold medal for the Philippines. When she performed her final clean and realised she was going to hold it and thus win, she began crying before she returned the barbell to the floor. 2020 was her fourth Olympic games.
The website supplied a form through which they invited you to express your interest. I typed in my details.
Lifting heavy things is not new to me.
I tell people that lifting got me through a PhD and that is true. I had a personal trainer who asked me what kind of exercise I liked to do. I told him I wanted to become as strong as I possibly could. He trained me in the three powerlifting lifts: the deadlift, the squat and the bench press.
Lifting helped me bring mind and body together and withstand the separation I felt throughout the PhD process. Years spent sitting at a desk, alone in an office with no windows to the outside world, my thesis required me to prioritise the mind to get the job finished.
I chased personal bests to prove I could achieve something while my supervisors sent me out of their offices with yet another draft to be re-written.
I didn’t really know what had happened between the time when I laid on a gym bench and pressed 65 kilograms upwards and away from my body and this moment in the hospital.
I’d gone from middle aged woman of middling lifting ability to an empty shell who no longer felt much at all.
The heaviness of the blankets on the hospital bed was the first thing I noticed in a long while that gave me comfort. Physical comfort. I asked for a blanket to be brought in for me from home: a heavy, knitted orange blanket my grandmother made for my son about 15 years ago. I needed more weight on me than the hospital blanket could offer.
The first night I slept with it I imagined my grandmother was holding me.
You don’t just wake up one day and have a drinking problem. For me, it developed over a long time. For the past 15 or so years I have used alcohol as medication.
In the years between 1992 and 2008, I experienced a succession of ‘events’ that I do not wish to describe. Some of them marked me significantly, to the point of trauma.
The emotional scar tissue developed over many years, although I did not know it at the time. Having a small child and being a single parent for a while, I learned to just keep going. Food must be on the table. Rent paid. A small child put to bed, clothes washed, school uniforms ironed, lunches packed.
You put your head down and do what is required because there is someone in your life who is far more important than you.
The scars were patched up and ignored.
In 2010, my grandmother died. Something inside me broke.
There would be no more patching over the scars; they busted open, and I was left frantically trying to hold everything together.
A few weeks later, I noticed increasing bouts of light-headedness. It was unnerving enough to see a doctor. He mentioned anxiety but I paid little attention. Then I noticed an undercurrent of dread running inside me almost constantly. It was not obviously related to what was happening around me. It just appeared one day, and I couldn’t get it to leave.
The only thing that would make it fade was two or three drinks. It would always return but for a few hours I would have some relief.
This dread stayed with me for another eight years, being worst when I was in the final stages of my doctorate. By then I was in a constant state of panic.
Sitting at lunch with my partner in a fancy restaurant, I got up and down constantly, walking outside, texting my sister, asking her to say something good. Sitting on a bench in the street, frozen in place, full of panic. Two women stood near, having a conversation. I wanted them to come to me, to ring the ambulance and take me to hospital.
Just help me, I whispered. But they didn’t notice me.
Two days before I submitted my thesis, I lost control on the train on the way to uni and had to text my sister to ask why I was like this when I was about to finish. I was nearly there, why did I feel so bad? Just tell me something good, I asked for the thousandth time, just please tell me something good.
These are some of the episodes I remember.
My anxiety – I started to call it ‘my’ because by then it had become part of who I was — managed to develop a tolerance to the wine. It took more and more for me to numb things.
Aside from the wine, the one thing that assisted me was lifting heavy things. The stronger my body became, the more skilled my mind at pushing through barriers.
Sometimes I barely hurdled them, falling on my face after catching myself, but somehow, for a reason I still don’t understand, I got up.
The deadlift was my favourite lift. The process of performing it became a ritual during the writing of my thesis. I was trained just enough that my muscles developed a memory. It required me to first consciously train body and mind work together, until the body could do it alone.
My adult life has been an ongoing wrestle between academic pursuits and my deep love of sport; the interdependence of body and mind required for lifting seemed to embody a struggle I too clearly understood.
The lifting, however, did not have the power of the wine. It could not provide the same relief.
Of course, being unconscious by the time your head hits the pillow is far easier than taking yourself to the gym in the evening in a bid to tire anxiety into submission. You just end up in a darker place over the longer term.
I was happy with this deal. Until one day I wasn’t.
For the first few weeks of ‘recovery’, I predominantly felt relief. I didn’t have to drink anymore. I didn’t have to drive to work with studied focus, concerned I would lose concentration and have an accident. I didn’t have to wake up feeling like I had only just gone to sleep. To look at people on the train and wonder how they managed alcohol-free days.
Until the day I walked past a graduation and saw parents standing either side of their child, in cap and gown, posing for a photo. I graduated in 2019. My family was there. It didn’t feel joyful. I didn’t feel proud. I felt very little. I was there, but when I saw those families, I realised I wasn’t there at all.
At that moment I saw that I had been moving through my life with a thick layer of protection, provided by alcohol.
I had managed to avoid feeling bad – mostly — but I had also missed opportunities to feel very good.
A local weightlifting club contacted me. I had almost forgotten that I had submitted that form. They invited me to come in for a trial.
Weightlifting requires speed and balance and being trained in it seemed to be a good way to regain some confidence in my body, and thus, myself.
The club was smaller than I expected. Two rooms and a mezzanine, plus a small bathroom. Grey painted brick walls, a red line painted just above head height, where a picture rail might be. In the room with the lifting platforms, light was provided by fluorescent tubes and three small windows at the top of the far wall. Pictures printed from a home computer were pinned on every wall.
The coach, originally from Central Asia, was taciturn but welcoming.
He handed me a wooden broom stick and showed me the first movement. I tried to mimic him. Your wrists, he said, roll them forward. Bring the stick up your legs, pull up through your elbows, roll the stick overhead and lock out your arms. Wrists, he said again.
He took the broomstick and handed me a barbell. It had no weights on it. He was teaching me to do a straight leg snatch. I did it over and over again. When he was satisfied, he moved onto another movement: the hang snatch.
I held the broomstick again, this time across my thighs, at a height allowed by the wide grip I was told to take. He instructed me to lift the bar above my head in one movement, this time squatting to catch it. Hold the squat he said. I did this a number of times, I lost count, until he assessed my squat and general form.
I’d been moving for over half an hour. I hadn’t told the coach I’d recently come out of hospital, I was recovering from a drinking problem or that I hate cardio. I just kept doing what he told me. My legs started to shake slightly when I held the bar aloft.
Then the nausea rolled over me.
I tried to choke it down but after a few minutes I knew I was going to have to acknowledge it because I thought I was going to vomit. I asked him where the bathroom was. It was old, pink, tiles cracked. I sat on the floor, I felt bad enough not to care about who or what had been here, and put my head towards the bowl, but nothing emerged.
I sat back against the wall, the tiles cool under my legs. I took a moment then went back downstairs. OK, I’m ready to go now, I told the coach. Have a lolly, he said.
Despite this start, I returned to the club.
When I am there it’s about the session only. I have no past, I have no future, I am in that moment. The coach doesn’t care what I did earlier or what I am going to do later. It’s just about performing the actions correctly. If that takes many attempts, so be it.
He uses a broomstick to keep my line straight when I squat. I am supposed to descend without hitting it. I hit my head against it and try again. I have learned to squat without technique, and he needs to fix this.
You need your technique to be good, he said, otherwise you will rely on your strength at higher weights.
For the past 15 years I have relied on strength. I had no technique. I relied on the brute force of wine to beat anxiety into submission.
It’s like unbuttoning, he said. You’ve buttoned something up the wrong way and now we need to unbutton it and do it properly.
I began to realise that my body bore real, physical scars that would also need to be addressed before I could achieve proper technique. I have broken my left ankle twice and dislocated my left knee once.
The scar tissue there will need to be dealt with before I can squat as low as is required for these lifts. Hip flexors stuck tight after years of sitting. A hunched back, developed early to hide a large bust, exacerbated later by screens on phones and computers. A girdle of flesh left after an emergency caesarean and a large baby. All of these things need to be broken down.
Another lifter told me that lifting exposes things that were there but hidden or ignored.
“You only see them ‘under weight’,” she said. If you’re injured or a part of your body is not operating well, you won’t necessarily notice it until you put it under stress, or you get older.
“If I wasn’t able to address these things now,” she said, “I might not be able to walk when I’m older.”
My brain has been under stress for many years, and I thought I could mask it with alcohol and with what I realise now were half-hearted attempts to lift heavy things.
Eventually, I broke down. Like a car never cared for or serviced.
Weightlifting is helping me face those wounds, the physical and emotional scar tissue built over many years.
It simultaneously holds the scars to the light, whilst giving me reason to start working on them, to break them down gently and with love.
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Georgina Hibberd is a writer and academic. She is the author of Never Surrender, an account of the GWS Giants’ 2020 AFLW season, written from inside the club.