At the young age of 21, I found myself managing a team of 25 salespeople. It was a daunting task, and not only due to my lack of experience. The company I worked for was undergoing some major changes-70 percent of the staff were new employees and my team had taken over the business of another department.
I worked long hours, only took breaks to smoke cigarettes, and tried to be all things to all people.
During this time, I was spending most evenings out drinking and socializing with friends. After all, I was in my early 20s. That’s what I was supposed to be doing, right? I had a respectable, well-paid job that I was good at. I was young, free, and single with a large group of friends. I had my whole life ahead of me.
Everything was perfect. Or at least, it should have been.
After two years on the job, I suffered a breakdown and had to take three months off work to recover. I was exhausted, depressed, and anxious. I didn’t understand all of that at the time, but I knew that I couldn’t carry on the way I was. I started taking antidepressants, I saw a counselor, and I spent hours trying to figure out exactly what had gone wrong.
The first few weeks were horrendous. I was plagued with guilt about not being at work. I had let my colleagues, my family, and my friends down.
I was angry at myself for feeling the way I did, because I knew there were plenty of people who had it so much worse than I did. What surprised me the most, having no real experience or knowledge about mental illness, was how much it affected me physically.
I was exhausted, had regular headaches, felt shaky, dizzy and weak. I even started to have problems with digestion, and I felt entirely broken. I wasn’t sure that I would ever get back to being who I had been.
During those first few weeks, I stripped my life almost completely bare. I wasn’t working. I cut out all social activities. I rarely left the house. My sleep became so messed up that I felt disconnected from the rest of the world.
My only company was the TV. It was the summer of 2012, the summer of the London Olympic Games.
Other than playing team games in school, I’d never had much of an interest in sports. The closest I had come to exercise in recent years was dancing during my nights out, and I certainly never watched sports on TV. But being alone for days on end, with little energy or motivation to do much else, I found myself hooked on the Olympics.
I enjoyed watching my country come together for this historic event-it made me feel proud and a part of something.
Following the Games and keeping up to date with the latest scores and results gave me a focus, something to take my mind off of myself. More importantly, I was inspired by the athletes. Their motivation and ambition astounded me. The years of training and hard work they’d endured, their commitment and determination. I loved watching them win, especially the British contenders, but I was also moved by watching them lose.
Of course it was emotional to see them so heartbroken after giving it their all, but they were there, they had worked tirelessly for the chance to compete, they were living their dreams. To me, it didn’t matter that they hadn’t won.
Those athletes sparked something in me. They gave me the fight I needed to start getting back on track. I may have been broken, but I could put myself back together. It didn’t matter if I stumbled along the way, or if I couldn’t get back to being the person I used to be. What mattered was that I tried.
In such a poor physical and mental state, the advice I had received over and over again was that exercise would benefit me hugely.
So I began walking, cycling, and swimming. I joined the local gym and worked on both my fitness and strength. I changed my diet radically, swapping packaged foods for fruits and vegetables, grilled chicken, and fish. I cut out sugary snacks. I stopped smoking and drinking alcohol. I brought my sleeping patterns back under control and started to take care of my appearance again.
I lost nearly 30 pounds in under three months. I looked and felt incredible. And it wasn’t just about the weight or the dress size-I had more energy and I felt confident and positive. Best of all, I was able to see a future for myself again.
I never did get back to being the person I used to be. I became an improved version. I left the job that was now so obviously wrong for me. I met my partner and settled down, swapping binge-drinking for playing house, learning to cook and going on long, romantic walks. I left behind destructive friendships and bad habits and focused on taking care of myself. I learned to appreciate the small things in life and stopped pushing myself to achieve, achieve, achieve.
I’d like to say I’ve been happy and healthy ever since, but sadly, life doesn’t always work that way. The anxiety and depression creep back in every now and again, and my weight fluctuates. But despite the ups and downs that life throws at me, I always manage to get myself back on track.
I learned a valuable lesson during the summer of 2012. Exercise not only changes your body, it changes your mind, your attitude, and your mood.