“I should get to Grey Dog a little earlier so I’ll try to get a table. I can order you something if you’d like?” was the text I received on my way to meeting Brett for the first time down by Union Square. I knew I'd like him right away because 1. He was timely and 2. He knew my need for caffeine was immediate. He greeted me with a hug and his energy was already incredible. As I do, I spent the first half hour getting caffeinated and talking his ear off about this project but finally, when I gave him some air to speak, Brett opened up about his story (and I kept asking questions so he couldn’t eat his salad, sorry about that, dude). His story had my jaw on the floor (hopefully I wasn't drooling)... there are no words for how inspiring his journey is. I knew I needed him on board for this project—luckily, he agreed to it!! But wait, there's more: Brett is a newly sponsored athlete of Thirteen Fit! Ladies and gentlemen, meet Brett!
I grew up in a small town called Manlius which is just outside of Syracuse, New York. I feel like everyone says this about their hometown, but there wasn't a lot to do. I had parents who wanted their kids to experience as much as possible, and then choose for themselves what they wanted to pursue. My dad pushed more for sports (he was a lacrosse and football player) and my mom pushed more for the arts (she was a visual artist/painter/designer). I was extremely fortunate that my elementary school program offered us the opportunity to start playing in band or orchestra in the 4th grade. I started with the cello but switched to the bass after a few years because I wanted to play music with friends in a band. Between this and singing in the school chorus and Syracuse Children's Choir, my mom was thrilled. I excelled in sports as well, playing soccer and lacrosse (I wasn't allowed to play football, baseball was too boring, and I was HORRIBLE at basketball) on local recreational teams: my dad was pumped. They were always and continue to be extremely encouraging about my endeavors scholastically, artistically, and athletically. I am beyond grateful and fortunate for them.
Sports were always a release for me, a temporary moment in my day where I was fully present on what I was doing, not thinking about homework, what other people thought of me, or anything else really—purely in the moment. I found this with music as well but the physical release also involved with sports had an effect that I truly enjoyed. I would play as hard as I could, never wanting to be taken out of the game, always wanting to be a part of the action even when it left me completely exhausted with trembling legs at the end of the game. I loved going to exhaustion, knowing that I had given everything I had. If I didn't feel this way after a game, especially if we lost, I would beat myself up for days thinking that I could have changed the outcome of the game if I had only tried harder.
Not to psychoanalyze too much, but there is also something in there for me related to people pleasing. I wanted to make my coaches happy, I wanted to make my parents happy, I didn't want to let my teammates down as if my performance on the field or on stage would take away all the conflict in the world. Crazy for a pre-teen and teenage kid to think he can fix the world, but hell, I was obsessed with Superman and he did it so why couldn't I?
As most high schoolers do, I became self-conscious and insecure during my teenage years. I found that sports gave me a sense of confidence that I didn't find in other places. However, a lot of this confidence was confined to the time that I was on the field during practice or a game and started to fade away from the rest of my life. I loved being in the choirs, orchestras, and the school musicals (I was the Dance Troupe Captain my senior year), but these things didn't bring much but ridicule from the cool kids… but being a musician when you’re older, however, super fucking cool, go figure. This insecurity combined with being called a “fag” more often than I can remember, attributed to my desire to fit in and show that I was a "man", whatever being a "man" means to a 15-year old boy. So, when my friends started experimenting with drugs and alcohol, I was on board immediately.
The first time I drank, a few friends and I passed around a bottle of peppermint schnapps and I remember feeling a sense of ease, well-being, and confidence that I hadn't ever felt in my life. I was funnier, more talkative, could interact with girls like a normal human being, and I wasn't self-conscious at all. I knew I was going to chase that feeling as much as I could, even though that very first time I got drunk I threw up everywhere, got caught by my parents, and had a horrible hangover the next day.
I didn't know this until years later, but I never drank like a normal person drinks. I have a history of alcoholism and addiction in my family. I caught that same affliction and ran with it until my legs stopped working. Whenever I would start drinking, something changed in me. It was like a switch was flipped. I would be out with friends and not paying attention at all to what we were doing or what we were talking about, only really thinking about how much I had left in my drink and how I was going to get the next one. I would drink way past the point of a buzz, not stop when I was drunk and slurring my words, and regularly throw up and blackout. Think about that. Throwing up is literally your bodies way of saying, "You're poisoning yourself. Since you won't stop I am going to make you throw up so you don't die." Blacking out was the worst. I would wake up not knowing what I had said or done. Zero recollection of the night before. Miraculously, I didn't have any major legal or physical consequences in high school.
In high school, this was mostly on weekends, but over the course of my four years in college, it became three, four, five, six, then finally seven days a week. I was a very functional alcoholic in college. I was majoring in Jazz Bass Performance (Music) and Public Speaking (Communication) and somehow I was still going to class, getting good grades, working at the Admissions Office, singing in an acapella group, a member of a fraternity, and involved in club soccer and intramural sports. Since everything seemed to be going so well I couldn't have a drinking problem, right? Wellllll... I thought I might have a problem my junior year when I could no longer fall asleep without having a drink. If I didn't drink, I would literally be awake all night in bed sweating (read: going through withdrawal).
Alcohol was my drug of choice. I experimented with drugs here and there. Pot, cocaine, mushrooms, etc. I never got into things like heroin or meth, thank God. I didn't love other drugs, really and I always went back to alcohol.
I moved to Boston after college for a sales job that made me want to kill myself on a regular basis. Twelve hours a day of cold calling people trying to get them to work with me and a company that I didn't care about. I threw up at work regularly. I stayed in that job thinking that I had to have an office job and wear a suit and tie because that what my parents wanted and that's what people who went to college do. My parents never once said this to me. Even when they were paying for part of my college and I decided to major in music, they gave nothing encouragement because they could see how much I loved it. I built up the courage to quit that job and tell my parents, and remember them saying something like, "We didn't really know why you took that job in the first place." It's amazing what my alcoholic brain will twist into reality for me. I truly believe that alcoholism is a disease of perception. I regularly felt like the world was out to get me, like my life would be better if I only had X or Y, or that no one cared about me anyway so why did it matter anyway.
I started waiting tables and playing in a few bands. Super cliché artist life but it was awesome. I could drink as much as I wanted, I was making good money, supporting myself completely, and no one knew a thing. I even started writing my own music again, playing guitar and singing. On the outside my life looked great, I made it seem like I was really happy like I was pursuing my passion, and that waiting tables was just a means to an end. I was always embarrassed about being a server since I went to college. I felt like people looked down on me and thought I was stupid. Again, no one ever said this to me but that's what I perceived in my insecure, alcoholic brain.
When I was 23 years old it came to a head. This was a typical start to a day: jolt awake like someone taking their first breath after being held under water for a long time. Remember where I am. Try to remember what happened the night before. Did I offend anyone? Did angry Brett or funny/social Brett come out? Then, the pounding headache. Crawl to the bathroom and throw up, or, more regularly dry heave because I had apparently thrown up everything the night before. One thing always came up with the vomit or bile: blood. Stand up, brush my teeth to get the taste out of my mouth. Look in the mirror. See my sweating face, my empty eyes, and say to myself. "I fucking hate you." Make my way to the dresser where I kept a bottle of vodka stashed under my socks. Quietly unscrew the cap so my girlfriend wouldn't wake up and take three to four gulps just to stave off the nausea and withdrawal.
My alcoholism was so advanced that I had torn parts of my stomach and esophagus from all of the stomach acid coming up. I weighed about 235lbs (40lbs over my average weight). I couldn't get through a few hours without drinking, let alone a whole day, but I knew that I needed to stop or I would die. I was bankrupt morally, physically, and spiritually. I got sober with the help of a community in Boston. My mind felt crazy all the time and the mental progress was excruciatingly slow. I knew one thing would help—physical activity. I needed a release for all of that anxious energy that I felt every minute of every day.
I had tried to get sober several times previously but with hardly any enthusiasm. Something was different here. I woke up that first day sober with an energy I hadn't felt before. A weight had been lifted and a new desire had taken over. I needed to change everything about my life or else I would go back to the same life that I had known before. Within a few hours, I was at the gym trying to lift weights that had previously been no problem for me. The challenge caused an initial frustration that brought on quick flashes of wanting to say, "Fuck it." and drink. This was followed up by a stubborn determination to prove to myself that I could get through one day without drinking and with a full lifting session at the gym. The next day was the same. And the next. Each day I had to mentally and physically recommit to the life that I was trying to create. The hardest part was getting out of the house. Once I was out of the house and at the gym, pushing my body to do more, I wouldn't think about drinking, at least for the time that I was there. Afterward, when I was getting the urges to drink again, I didn't want to ruin the hard work that I had put in that day. This is an extreme over-simplification of things, but the best that I can do currently. The mental torment of addiction of any kind is horrible. I wanted to give up all the time. I wanted to die all the time. But something about getting myself into better shape was giving me a daily dose of hope that I hadn't felt in a long time.
I began going to the gym and lifting weights with a vengeance. I could feel the muscles working, I could feel the exhaustion, and, most importantly at that time for me, I could see the results of my work. Even if I didn't feel like I was getting better mentally, I could see the physical changes happening, and that meant progress. I was losing fat and gaining muscle. My confidence started to go up. I was terrified to talk to women without a drink in my system but I did notice them noticing me and that gave me a boost. I rediscovered the joy in pushing myself to my limits, to failure even, just to see what my body could do. I don't say this to brag, but I got really fucking strong. I benched 450lbs for a set of two and was squatting 405lbs for sets of eight. Just like in sports, I found that when I was lifting weights I wasn't thinking about anything else. All the craziness in my head went away and I could focus on the immediate task at hand. I had been looking for strength, stability, and power both physically and mentally my whole life, believing that alcohol was going to give me these things. But I found them in the weight room. My mind calmed. My strength improved. My desire to drink went away and was replaced my desire to push myself physically.
The fitness manager at the gym approached me one day and asked if I had ever thought about training people. I admitted that I had no idea how to train people, hadn't studied training or even biology in college, and that I just learned as I went with myself. He said, "Well, you know more than 80% of the people who walk in the gym for the first time, so why not give it a try?" I became a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and a NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist. I started training people in the way that I knew how which was to put them through bodybuilding style supersets while also taking what I learned through NASM to work on their imbalances. Even while starting this job, my insecurity still nagged at me regularly. I would regularly have thoughts like, "People will think you’re just a stupid jock," or, "You're wasting your college education," or, "You're a disappointment to your parents," or, sometimes the worst, comparing myself to my friends who had "real jobs" or "real careers." My alcoholic brain did everything it could to self-sabotage this great opportunity in my life. As I continued to battle my own demons, my boss took me under his wing and did one-on-one training sessions with me to help me progress. My clients started seeing results which made me happy, but one client, in particular, got me hooked on helping people improve their lives through exercise.
Enter Karen, a 57-year-old woman who had just gotten a knee replacement. Our gym was connected to a PT office so I would regularly go over there to ask the PT's questions and watch them work with people. Clients would often then leave their care and come to get some personal training. Karen had done several months of PT to get her back on her feet after surgery. We took our time, doing stability work with bands and assisted sitting down and standing up drills. None of this is the sexy training of a high-level athlete. However, one day Karen came in with a huge smile on her face and said, "I put my pants on by myself without having to sit down to do it!" I didn't realize it completely until that moment, but I had helped to improve the quality of Karen's everyday life. She wasn't trying to lose weight or put on muscle mass like a lot of the other people in the gym. She was simply trying to live. She wanted to live an independent lifestyle while she continued to age. I had never felt so good about helping someone else and proud of myself at the same time. Ultimate Self? I would say I felt pretty close to it in that moment.
I eventually needed a change in my own fitness routine and decided to try CrossFit because of the community aspect of the workouts. I had grown very tired of working out on my own. I missed the camaraderie that I felt when I was playing team sports. I was strong as hell but couldn't go up and down a flight of stairs without being a bit out of breath. This wasn't exactly the fitness level that I had imagined for myself. I signed up for an intro class at CrossFit South Brooklyn in January of 2014. To be honest, my ego got in the way for a while when I started CrossFit. I had zero flexibility (I still am limited, but I'm getting better) and couldn't get into some of the positions required just to do some of the lifts. I relied entirely on my strength rather than technique. I had to be humbled in a big way to allow myself to fail and learn and fail again. This is something that my perfectionist, people pleasing teenage self would never have done. If I wasn't really good at something, I would never even attempt it. Even though I was regularly teaching people to see the small improvements and be easy with themselves, I didn't take that same advice with myself.
All the strength I told you about before? It meant nothing when the workout was 50 box jumps to a 24" box for time or 100 burpees for time. After a minute or so I would be breathing so heavily that I couldn't continue, while people around me were continuing to move past me and crush my ego. A particular workout that ground me into the floor was during my first experience with the CrossFit Open, an annual global competition in the CrossFit community. CrossFit Headquarters releases one workout every week for five weeks and people from around the world take it on to see how their fitness stacks up. The workout was:
21-18-15-12-9-6-3 reps of both Barbell Thrusters (95lbs) and Burpees Over the Bar.
By the round of 18, I wanted to die. Not in that way that I had when I was in my addiction, but because my body physically was starting to fail and I had to continue to prove to myself that I could finish the workout. I was one of the last people to finish the work out that day, and my ego was properly put in its place. This was another challenge that I wanted to take on but this was more than physical. There was a mental aspect to this work that reminded me of addiction in a way. I wanted to give up and say, "Fuck it," in the middle of workouts regularly but I also wanted to prove to myself that I could improve, not only in my physical fitness but in my mental toughness as well. A major part of CrossFit is pushing your body until your mind tells you to stop. The battle that I find myself in there is giving into my mind or forcing myself to continue, even when my muscles are screaming and my lungs are on fire.
Now, ten years after starting as a personal trainer in Boston, I am still pushing myself and other people to do the things that we don't think we can. I work as a Coach and Personal Trainer at CrossFit South Brooklyn and I love my job. I train to the point of exhaustion some days. I push my limits, both physically and mentally. Fitness saved my life while I was getting sober, giving me the outlet that I needed. It then gave me a purpose for my life. I knew that I wanted to help other people and that I had the opportunity to positively affect the way people experienced the world.
People come into the gym every day for different reasons. Some are ready to get their first pull up. Some want to lift a lot of weight. Some want to lose weight. Some want to alleviate back/shoulder pain. Some want to get in shape for a wedding. Some just had a shitty day and want to release their pent-up energy. Everyone has their own reasons but the main thing is that they keep showing up. They made a decision that how they were living wasn't good enough for them and they took the step to initiate a change. If seeing that day in and day out isn't inspiring, I don't know what is.
So what does trying to be my Ultimate Self mean? For me, it means knowing my purpose and living a life that is in line with that purpose. Right now I have a large vision of my purpose: help other people. That could come in many different forms. I could be a teacher, a lawyer, work at a staffing firm connecting people with jobs, or anything else that is about servicing others. I am working on continuing to narrow my purpose to something more specific, but for now it means that I help others by helping to them move well and live a pain free life, pushing them to do things that they didn't think were physically possible for themselves, and trying to inspire them to do this by continuing to flirt with the edge of possibility with my own physicality. If I never tried to do this for myself, why would anyone trust me to help them on their journey? Ultimate Self can have a million different definitions. I believe that if we are truly honest with ourselves, digging into our deepest, most inner truth, most of us know how we want to be living. The challenge is starting to change habits that have formed over years, getting by the fear of actually acknowledging that we aren't doing what we are passionate about, potentially breaking out of social norms, and day by day getting ourselves past the suicide of "Fuck it." All of these barriers stop the majority of people. I'm not saying that I've gotten past all of these things either. Far from it. I struggle daily with living a life that is in line with what I want to do. It would be much easier to do something else. But then I wouldn't be striving toward my Ultimate Self, I would just be floating unconsciously through life. I didn't go through the hell of alcoholism and addiction just to do that.