I AM Compensating For Something: A Bodybuilder Speaks Out
Bodybuilding addiction: When you become stronger and weaker at the same time.
People love to make anorexia jokes whenever a famous actress gets too thin (and fat jokes if she goes six pounds the other direction), but you'd never look at, say, The Rock and wonder if he has body image issues. How could he? He looks awesome!
But bodybuilding addiction is totally a thing; these are the cases where an obsession with physique leads to lost jobs and ruined relationships, rather than a series of roles in increasingly implausible action movies. We talked to "Brian," a former bodybuilding addict from Florida, who says ...
It Starts With Low Self-Esteem And A Need To Belong
It plays out like a parody of those drug PSAs from the 1960s. Brian had low self-esteem and, during his senior year of high school, his brother gave him a free sample of the good stuff. Only here it came in the form of one of those "free workout" fliers for a gym. Brian became the first person in history to actually use one of those things. "During my first day," he says, "it was like a light bulb went off in my head. ... One of the trainers told me I could have killer biceps and a six-pack by the end of the year."
"You'll need a face mask to survive all the panties being thrown at you."
He was hooked. Laugh if you want, but you can become addicted to anything. Exercise releases endorphins, and teenage insecurity did the rest -- addiction is always about escape. "When I wasn't in the gym, I didn't feel like moving. But I saw myself in the mirror and would immediately feel better. All the bodybuilders in the gym congratulated me and started recommending eating whey and muscle mass supplement. I worked on different parts of my body and waited to see who would notice first. That was a huge motivation for me, because it was validating that I wasn't a stick dude anymore."
Ah, validation -- the greatest high of all. Psychologists say that's the real driver behind bodybuilding addiction -- getting hooked on the constant compliments. Brian's life became like Trainspotting, if Ewan McGregor had traded in his needle for having buff gym rats say "Nice lats, bro" as they passed by on their way to the free weights. It's around here when you'll start to realize this tale also sounds like somebody being sucked into a cult -- the sense of belonging, the need to separate yourself from all of those weak and impure outsiders, the discovery of a larger purpose in life, the continual policing of behavior within the group ...
"Brother Chad has not removed his sleeves! SHAME!"
"I couldn't quit. ... Looking toned was now the new being scrawny. I saw everyone in the gym ... their huge muscles and workouts that took hours. I was miles behind. Every time I thought about this depression would come back. So I would add extra time or more lifts."
Like Any Addiction, It Can Fuck Up Your Life
"It was in my head that I had to do more, that I could do more. I convinced myself that building up my muscles was going to make everything better," he says.
"One more set, and then you'll finally have your father's approval."
It seems like many addicts have similar stories, but there appears to be a sharp divide when it comes to how obvious your addiction is from the outside. The stumbling drunk, the strung-out crackhead, the gambler who has sold his children to the Russian mob ... they've usually got an intervention coming soon, even if it's just in the form of being yelled at by a judge. But when your addiction is slowly turning you into a sculpted Greek god, pity is in short supply. Not even Brian knew he had a problem, right up until he lost his job over it.
"I was actually fired when I was at the gym powerlifting. ... I was an hour late for work and my only excuse was that I was exercising. My boss knew I was here a lot (my arm muscles were actually stretching out some of the company polo shirts), but she said it was the last straw and I was let go. I told my spotter and he shrugged and told me my job was keeping me back. The crazy thing was that, at the time, I believed him."
"So you're going to start paying my rent and grocery bills, right?"
"Nah, food and shelter are just holding you back, too."
Obviously, getting fired because you spend too much time working out is better than getting fired because you passed out in a puddle of your own vomit for 48 hours after a heroin binge. But Brian was still just as fired, and this is surprisingly common among bodybuilding addicts -- home and work fall by the wayside as "users" spiral out of control. Jobs can become all but impossible to find because of the insistence that they not interfere with the insane training schedule.
And that's not all. "Many places didn't want to hire a guy with huge arms," says Brian. "One job I applied for was as an orderly at a children's wing in a hospital, and I was told that I would scare them. I'm a really gentle guy, but little kids can be really intimidated. I ended up being a bouncer for a club."
Where intimidating children is actively encouraged.
So, Brian rearranged his life to accommodate his nonstop bodybuilding, rolling through a succession of bouncing gigs to pay his whey bills. Well, some of his whey bills. "My parents ... they always gave me money when I was in between jobs, to buy food. I spent most of it on bodybuilding supplements." The only reason Brian wound up getting help is because he'd listed his parents as his emergency contacts for one bouncing job. "When I didn't show up for work because my training was longer than usual, my manager called them to make sure I was OK, and if I was, they told me, I would be fired the next time I was late."
"I'm gonna take one of my cutting personal days."
Finally, the people around Brian recognized he had a problem -- five years after it started. His parents demanded he see a psychologist, and that's where he found out he had muscle dysmorphia, the medical term for when someone gains muscle to the extreme because they see themselves as small and weak. Psychology professionals call it a kind of reverse anorexia, and sufferers even tend to have suicidal tendencies. It doesn't matter who you are -- once you've programmed yourself to hate what you see in the mirror, that can become an inescapable prison.
"I didn't think this was a problem," Brian remembers. "I was healthy ... but when he asked me why I was doing this, besides to just get muscular, I had nothing."
Steroids Are Ubiquitous
You might think it's weird that we haven't mentioned steroids by this point, so we suppose we should address the elephant in the room. Steroids have been a source of regret for Brian since Day 1. Specifically, the fact that he never did them. He couldn't, because his bouncer jobs were big on drug testing.
Though in a pinch, you could just steal some Coors Light from the cooler and no one would know the difference.
"It killed me, because I wanted to develop larger muscles like did. Everyone else used them. Most of them cycled their usage (taking time off to balance hormones) but you would occasionally see it." He told us about one bodybuilder, who he nicknamed "Chet," who "always played thrash metal while he injected himself, hit the wall a few times with his fist and screamed, 'Let's do it!'" Because some people make it their life's business to embody the most ridiculous stereotypes for whatever they happen to be doing.
Brian says ruefully that his steroid "sobriety" is "why it took me so long to build my muscles up and why mine never got as big as theirs." (There's that muscle dysmorphia talking again.) He adds, "Everyone who could, used. It was as normal as seeing someone wipe sweat from their face."
"Here's your complimentary workout towel and hypodermic needle!"
According to studies, 1 out of every 5 bodybuilders use steroids, but Brian's gym (his second gym; we'll get to that in a moment) was filled with "serious" bodybuilders, so the 'roid ratio was considerably higher. The practice isn't exactly frowned upon; keep in mind it wasn't until the late 2000s that professional bodybuilding started testing for steroids because -- duh -- 'roided-out bodybuilders make for a way more impressive competition. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to steroid use back in the day. They were, and still are, part of the culture.
"Swole Culture" Made Everything Worse
If you've spent a lot of time at a larger gym, you've probably spotted these guys. " tend to dominate a gym," says Brian. "They're there all the time, they can scare away people because of their attitude, they grunt a lot, they're loud, and any music they listen to will always bleed out of their headphones. Instead of saying encouragingly, 'You can do it!' it's more like, 'PUMP, PUMP, PUMP! DO IT!'"
"PUMP IT UP! WHILE YOUR FEET ARE STOMPIN' AND THE JAM IS PUMPING!"
"Swole" isn't just a dumb term for having swollen muscles. It's a whole subculture, and it's not entirely a negative one. Brian emphasizes how supportive his fellow gym rats were -- as long as he kept working out. Ironically, it's exactly the kind of support group recovering addicts need, just in the other direction. "If I stopped pumping a weight someone would say, 'Fight it bro. Keep pumping that iron!' We all also traded workouts that worked for us." But, Brian adds, "A lot of it was negative."
You might be able to guess one of those negatives by how infuriating it is to type or read the word "swole." "I look back now and I can see how crazy and douchey it made me look. 'Bro' does get thrown around a lot, and I'll still use it in everyday conversation. Among bodybuilders? Totally normal. But everyone else gets creeped out. 'Bro' has a negative connotation, and using that word alone changes how people see you. I would be in conversations at a bank with a teller and would be having a nice, pleasant back and forth. But as soon as I said that, they changed. The smile went away and they got me out of there as soon as possible."
"Sorry, sir, I'm allergic to douche."
How bad did it get? Well, Brian's first gym actually tried to offload him, and the other obsessive exercisers, to another gym. One guy got kicked out altogether. "He got into a huge argument about wiping down the bench press and asked them why they didn't deadlift. He only left when they threatened to call the police. I thought he was being a huge asshole, but when I got into the second gym, asking someone that seemed normal."
If you're confused, you're just out of the loop on swole jargon -- asking someone why they don't deadlift is interpreted as an insult, a version of the "Do you even lift, bro?" meme:
"I now know he was saying that and leaving sweat on the bench to be noticed, because we all want validation. 'Do you even lift bro' is not an insult to people who don't go to the gym -- they just want attention on their own body."
But that just brings us to the saddest part of all ...
Having Huge Muscles Isn't Even An Advantage
Remember when Brian's gorilla-arms made it difficult for him to get work that involved children, presumably because they feared he'd treat them as living dumbbells? Well, being ridiculously huge impacts your life in other ways. "When my biceps were at 14 inches and my veins looked like they were popping out, everyone was suddenly concerned. I could see why. I expected ladies to start asking me if they could feel my muscles, but instead they went out of their way to avoid me. Even at bars, when I tried to engage one in conversation, they would take one look at my arms and say, 'Compensating for something?' or something similar."
"Yes ... yes, actually ..."
OK, so Brian apparently went to a bar for rude people with death wishes. But he encountered some more banal problems too. "Finding clothes that fit. Pants were fine because I mainly focused on my upper body, but shirts were a real problem. Most of my older shirts I liked had to become tank tops because of the sleeves being too small. Half of my wardrobe at the time was actually tank tops. The real nightmare was a suit jacket. My best friend had a wedding in Tampa, and I was fitted for a tuxedo as best man. Besides my arms, I was the equivalent to a medium. But the man who measured my sleeves said, 'We might not be able to tailor a jacket for you.' Fortunately, they had some really huge jackets and they sewed on the sleeves."
His biggest problem, however, is something he shares with millions of recovering alcoholics and addicts: Once you give up your addiction, you often give up your social group, too. In Brian's case, it meant all his "swole" gym buddies, who by this point were also some of his only buddies. "After I told them I was stopping because I had a problem, they told me I really was weak. When I canceled, the bodybuilder who ran the gym said to me, 'You're turning your back on your physique, bro. You'll lose all your muscle.' I told him again it was for my mental health, since I would feel bad about my body no matter what, but he and a few others who passed me by just called me a quitter, as if this was personal." Of course, it is personal, in a way -- this is still all about validation, and tearing down quitters reinforces their group as the dedicated elite.
"Come on, let's go do shoulder shrugs until we can shrug off all our feelings."
This is not to say that all bodybuilders are addicts, of course. Millions of people can pursue it as a hobby without getting sucked into a pit of obsession that ruins every other aspect of their life. Maybe the difference for someone like Brian is just a matter of getting started for all the wrong reasons -- insecurity is a beast that only gets hungrier as you feed it.
As for Brian, well, his muscles are back down to a somewhat normal size these days, and he no longer resembles a giant bunch of grapes. The downside is he's not getting that continuous stream of compliments from his bros, but the upside is he'll never have to use the word "swole" ever again.
Evan V. Symon is a writer interviewer and interview finder for the Personal Experience team here at Cracked. Have a job/experience that you would like to contribute to? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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