Standing At The Bar

By Angus Thomas 12/12/14

I swapped a bar full of booze for one with weights on each end.


I spent many of my drunken years standing at the bar looking for someone to love me, for affirmation, for validation—actually for someone just to notice me. Now, coming up to 14 years of sobriety, I find myself standing at a new bar about to have the most transformative exercise, which results in the flowering of a wonderful metaphor, leaving me able to love and appreciate myself without the need for external validation.

So here I am, now at 51, at my 21-year-old weight, fit as a fiddle, sober, standing at the bar again. Only this time it's an olympic bar weighing 60kg.

The beginning of my descent into active addiction started at the end of my sporting youth. After three years of dedicated hard work, in and out of school, I represented GB at the World Junior Rowing Championships. I underperformed academically, in part, because of my undiagnosed learning difficulties, which required me to take my A-levels three times before achieving enough to get into university. While I could make no sense of my life in the classroom, I thrived on the discipline of sport and the role models of the healthy male coaches that supported and encouraged me. I had great success in my early rowing career and the discipline and single-mindedness seemed to come naturally—at least in this area of my life.

Following a lackluster performance at the World Championships (cue the excuses) I moved into university rowing where any discipline was soon eroded by the discovery of wine, women and benzos. I entered university as a mature student (21 years old) having taken so long to achieve what my fellow students had managed so easily at 18. But left to my own devices and without the strong support of coaches, rowing somehow seemed empty and the needed discipline just didn't show up. Instead, I fell in love, started smoking and flirted with prescription opiates. 

So here I am, now at 51, a year back into rowing, eating a plant-based diet, at my 21-year-old weight, fit as a fiddle, sober – standing at the bar again. Only this time it's an olympic bar weighing 60kg in my old school gym with my strength and conditioning coach, Dawfydd (Daf). I haven’t lifted for 30 years and generally I don't like to train my legs as I don't want them to be so tired that I can't run, row or cycle tomorrow. But I have reached a plateau – I need to get some strength in my legs or I can see I will stay stuck.

The move I am about to attempt is called a deadlift. All I have to do is place my feet - hip width apart against the bar -  squat down and pick the bar up, straighten my legs and lower the bar down again. Simple. Only it isn’t because my head is full of negative "can’t do" thoughts. The shitty committee is reminding me of every failure, of every rejection I ever felt and the conclusion is that I will fail at this, and worse, I will injure myself,  which means I definitely won't be able to run, row or cycle tomorrow.

As I come down into the squat, I slowly wrap my hands around the bar and tease myself by slowly trying to take the weight by pushing into the ground with my feet, squeezing my butt and bracing my shoulders. Nothing. No give. Dead. Deadlift.

Shit! I can't do this—the first familiar thought in my head. I can’t do this. And even if I could do it, what would it prove? What’s the point in doing it anyway? I stand up. 

Daf looks at me with a knowing smile. “Don't think about it,” he says. “Just think about your form, bracing from the abs, straight back, head forward and do it.” I squat down at the bar again. This is one of those moments where I tell myself that Daf (or whomever it happens to be) has had it easier than me, that weightlifting is so much easier for everyone else. Like he got the manual at birth, while I was distracted by the marvel of what I had found between my legs. But the thought occurs that maybe Daf was once here—a novice at the bar and the only thing that separates us is that he pushed through and I have not. Isn’t that the story of my life? Didn't everyone have it easier than me? 

I squat down again and this time I push really hard with my legs. Although every part of me is still saying this is impossible the bar starts to rise—all 60kg of it. As the weight rises, I moan like a female tennis star and then I’m struck with terror for the safety of my back and the what ifs—like what if it breaks and I never ever run, row or cycle ever?! Majestically, I arrive at the top of the lift, bar-in-hand at waist height, smiling, not daring to look at Daf out of embarrassment for the noise I made getting it there. And then the descent to the floor and five further reps, each one ever so slightly easier than the last.

Amazing. I feel strong. I feel transformed. I feel I have joined a fellowship of men – real men, the kind of men who scared me with their competence. I feel like I joined a tribe just like I did when I got a full sleeve tattoo. Except this time I did it, I participated – it didn't just get done to me – I did it. And that's a great metaphor for recovery. 

Emmet Fox once said something along these lines—if you go to the ocean with a thimble you come away with a thimble full of water. I spent so many years of my life, both intoxicated and sober, in AA complaining that I didn't have an ocean, a thimble or the legs to make the journey. Today, I go to the ocean with the biggest bucket I can muster and today, I know that with a little help, I will hoist that bucket up, full, triumphantly, like the man I always wanted to be. People should get out there, be a verb, be active, do something, and in the process, despite the odds, we can begin to grow and come to love ourselves a bit more.

Angus Thomas is a London based portrait photographer, wellness advocate & athlete using #plantpower to fuel his journey.

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