While grieving for her husband, author and journalist Poorna Bell began to realise that working on her physical strength had made her mentally stronger, too.
It started when I realised that, barring a wheelie bag, I couldn’t lift my own luggage without needing a man to help me. Despite considering myself to be an independent, self-sufficient woman, I had inadvertently relied on men – throughout my whole life – to make up the difference when it came to strength. I realised this after my husband Rob passed away in May 2015.
In that unspoken contract of heterosexual relationships, Rob was assigned bin duty and being the luggage monkey, while I did the supermarket shop and organised our holidays. But around a year after he died, I realised that I had to make myself stronger – if only for reasons of practicality.
To get strong, I realised I’d need someone to show me what to do. I hired a personal trainer who introduced me to the main lifts: bench press, deadlift and squats – all with a barbell. At first, I was suspicious, but he said, “Trust me.” I didn’t, but decided to give him a month to prove me wrong.
In those four weeks, I started to experience things I never had before. For a start, the free weights section no longer scared me. I also realised that weightlifting – something I had always associated with injury – was safe as long as you had someone to teach you good form. Most of the injury stories I’d heard had been from men who’d taught themselves and never really asked for advice. (Like asking for directions, except this time involving their spinal column.)
But the biggest, unexpected benefit was around the conversion of actual strength into mental strength. Fitness had helped me before when I struggled mentally. When Rob was really ill with depression, I started running to maintain my weight and it gave me respite from the tough stuff at home. I continued to run after he passed away, but there is something very solitary and internal about it. Some days, I’d literally start crying mid-run.
As I tried to rebuild my life, I needed something more. Weight training became a way of instilling a sense of order. Each week, I could see my numbers inching up, and it made me see the direct benefits of cause and effect. If I trained regularly, I would get stronger.
When you’re grieving and in a bad place – no matter the shape of your loss – you can feel like you exist in a place of chaos. Getting stronger made me feel that there was one small corner of my life that I could positively change, even if all around me was wreckage.
It was that simple. It seems mad that all that stood between me and staying in bed all day was a piece of paper that charted what I’d be doing for an hour with various bits of iron, but for months, that was the case.
During my first year of training, I moved house and managed to carry a lot of the furniture. I missed Rob terribly, but my new physical capacity helped to shore up my mental health. I also went from deadlifting 40kg to 75kg in just 12 months.
But like a lot of women who take to weights for the first time, I was also grappling with the fear of getting bulkier. My dad made a comment about me being more muscular, and I genuinely considered stopping altogether. Such is the pressure for women to look slim and small that I was almost willing to sacrifice something that had literally given me purpose and a will to live.
I mistook my shape changing – we call it re-conditioning – for bulk. I’m still the same dress size I was 10 years ago, except high street clothes don’t quite fit the same way because they are designed for a standardised female frame. And the female standard is not to lift weights.
I realise I carry a lot of body privilege compared to some, but it felt unsettling and strange. And yet, at the same time, I felt like I’d seen behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain: when you replace the goal of slimness with one of self-esteem and empowerment, it completely alters how you view the gym. It no longer becomes a place for emotional flagellation, but a place to generate huge amounts of physical power that then translates into emotional and mental power in other aspects of your life.
When I went on a sabbatical in 2017 for about eight months, I had to give up weight training. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that during this time I experienced one of the worst panic attacks of my life.
When I came back, I was embarking on a new freelance career and once again sought out things that gave me stability. It was a no-brainer to return to weightlifting. I hired a new trainer named Jack and a couple of months into training, he encouraged me to try powerlifting.
At first, I thought he was mad. Powerlifting is a competitive sport – you do three attempts of three lifts: bench, deadlift and squat. Your total is added together, and you might win your weight category, or beat a record. But mostly, it’s about beating your personal bests.
I entered a gym competition last November to test the waters and won overall female lifter with a total of 245kg. I pasted my certificate on my fridge as a reminder for whenever I think I can’t do something. As I saw my numbers rocket, it not only gave me huge amounts of confidence, but on days when I was struggling mentally, being able to have a good session would completely turn around my mood.
There’s a huge psychological element to powerlifting that improves my state of mind. You need patience – lifting big weights can’t be rushed – and when you don’t hit the number you want, you have to think your way logically and rationally out of it, otherwise you spiral into an anxious mess.
When I entered my first official competition at the end of March to qualify for the 2019 Euros, my total went up to 260kg. I failed my final squat lift, but I also got a personal best in deadlift – a big lesson was realising that this is a process, and that a setback doesn’t mean I can’t succeed in other areas. Jack also made me part of a powerlifting team called Barfight, who are there 24/7, if I’m worried about something – and not just to do with powerlifting.
From time to time I look about my life and weightlifting and I wonder what Rob would have made of it if he was still alive. It’s a hard place to visit emotionally because I know all this came from a place of pain and necessity. But I also knew my husband and what he loved about me, and I think he would be proud that I carved my strongest physical self out of unimaginable loss.
On competition day, I wear my wedding ring on a necklace. I may not ever be able to tell Rob what I’ve achieved, but when I touch the ring before each final lift, I feel he’s with me. And whether it’s real or not, it tells me that strength of all kinds can come out of loss.
If you’re inspired by Poorna’s journey, you can read more about Stylist Strong here.
Photography: Shani Kaplan (Shanicreates.com)
Images: Courtesy of Poorna Bell
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