Depression, the Heaviest Weight I’ve Lifted Yet


Depression, the Heaviest Weight I’ve Lifted Yet

When I shattered my wrists last year, I didn’t think that my twin loves of writing and weightlifting – both of which I was rendered incapable of doing – would save me.

I’d tripped on my own feet while walking out of the gym and got a hairline fracture in one arm, and a screw implant in the other, which left both my arms in casts for eight months. It turned my life upside down. I couldn’t get in or out of taxis, washrooms. I needed to be fed. I was left wondering when I’d be able to write with my hands again, especially with a looming deadline for 3, my novel based on the myth of the founding of Singapore (where I live) by a Srivijaya prince.

The deadline was the least of my worries – I was floundering because I had to abandon my CrossFit regime. The advice I got was all in the same vein as the stuff people had said when I’d started lifting. That I should stop acting like a tomboy with all this lifting 100 kg weights business, and do something regular like Zumba or aerobics.

But these had never done much for me. And lifting had done plenty. In fact, it has been a life raft in many ways. I’m fighting clinical depression and working out is one of the ways I stay sane. Because without the endorphin highs and adrenaline buzz, I would be in a blue funk most of the time. Apart from battling this all-too-common modern malaise, something I read in the New York Magazine recently has stuck with me, “In a world where comfort is king, arduous physical activity provides a rare opportunity to practice suffering.”

My infatuation with weight training is intense and recent. I found myself in Mumbai during a particularly wet monsoon. During one downpour, the water rose to my hips by the time I reached home and I was overwhelmed by one nagging thought. I have three massive Siberian huskies, who weigh more than 20 kilos each. If I’d been out walking them and had to lift one to safety during an emergency like this, I just wouldn’t have the strength to do it. I had also become a bit of a wuss living overseas and the spate of violence against women in India scared me immensely. In that pouring rain, I felt, fiercely, the urge to be more than just fit. I wanted to be strong.

When I have to do an exercise I absolutely detest for CrossFit, like running, the only way I can do it is to compete with my characters.

So I ventured into CrossFit: a combination of Olympic lifting (on a good day I could lift 100 kg weights), exercises to increase stamina and gymnastics. Up until the accident, the workouts kept me grounded and disciplined as I decided to take the plunge, become a full-time writer, and quit my career as an academic at a business school.

The connection between writing and weightlifting might be unfathomable to other people, but the two are seamlessly linked in my life. When I’m squatting down to lift 100 kg, all I’m focusing on is my breathing or my knees. It makes me zen: There’s no room for anxieties about sales numbers and reviews, or wondering if my belly is sticking out. No space for self-obsession at all, really.

The characters in my books get me through the tough sessions. They are just the best gym buddies. I’ll be thinking “Damn, I can’t lift that” and one of their voices will pop up in my head with, “Of course you can, I’ll show you how it’s done.” When I have to do an exercise I absolutely detest for CrossFit, like running, the only way I can do it is to compete with my characters. Weight training has also taught me humility and patience, qualities I need badly as a writer. There are days when I lift half of what I did the previous week and I have to accept that training is a slow process. Knowing this helps me keep calm about the days when I write junk.

That thought of a future where I could lift again, was all that got me through being bound to the bed. My injuries began to hurt less, made better because of the resilience lifting weights has taught me. Thinking about the weights gave me the grit to continue typing out my books, in bed, using one finger on each hand.

And then the big day came after two months, when I got to step out of the house, see a doctor, and hit the gym. I’d been recommended half an hour of brisk walking every day. Good joke. I didn’t (couldn’t) move my “cyborg” arm, but I kept up the running and used machines to continue to weight train, focusing on my back and lower body. Pretty soon, everyone at the gym had a nickname for me: “The girl with the blue cast”.

Earlier this year I managed to return to lifting light weights. But a few weeks ago, I released a book called Immortal (a thriller about a cursed professor who can’t seem to die) so now I’m going through a post-partum depression of sorts, where I skulk around the house all day. Pizza, whiskey and no exercise is the trip I’m on at the moment.

In the meantime, carrying my youngest canine daughter, who weighs 21 kilos, up three flights of stairs is all the weight lifting I can do. Every once in a while, I tell myself, it is good to go back to the basics. The 21 kilos, I hope, will soon morph into the 100 that are more my style.