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Strong People - Dan Fish

Dan tells us all his story of his fantastic transformation from someone who struggled with substance abuse to how he then went on to compete in his first Strongman competition. Dan works with Son of Anxiety Strength Club based in Clitheroe helping people get strong and supporting those overcoming substance abuse.

A little under 12 months ago I woke and had the most horrific feeling of disappointment that I hadn’t simply ‘gone’ in my sleep… ten plus years of social and habitual substance abuse had slowly snowballed to this dark place. Something had to be done.

I knew exactly what I was doing. It was my own choice and ending up in this place was 100% my own doing. What’s more, I liked it. The highs were outweighed by the lows many years ago but I just got high again and increasingly more often… eventually I spent more time coming down than being up and every aspect of my life began to suffer. Some far sooner than others. Relationships broke down, mended, but each time a little more missing from what used to be until eventually I found myself living alone. By design? Looking back that seems likely, I was the architect of my own confinement in order to be able to continue the abuse and self-loathing unimpeded and in total secrecy. I hid the extent of my habits from everyone. Even my now ex-girlfriend of close to ten years.

If the above sounds like a woe is me attitude, you’re absolutely right, it was. I hated myself for it too, but it wasn’t enough to end my destructive behaviour. I suppose you could say I had an awakening, quite literally. In that brief moment coming around from yet another cocaine-bingeinduced ‘twitch state’ more akin to a trip than sleep, I knew that if I didn’t make substantial changes the next time I might not be so lucky…

I knew the script, I’d been here before (well, almost...). I knew how to diet, train, meal plan/prep and how to put it all into action. This time however I was going to need help so I made an appointment with the NHS local mental health team, 12-week wait, great! That won’t do, I need to start this ball rolling now so I arranged to have a chat with my boss. Now as understanding and easy to approach as he is, it was a difficult conversation to have nonetheless, but sure enough he came through. You might be wondering, why was the first person I chose to speak to my boss? Technically it wasn’t, there were friends and family I had approached briefly but going to my boss made me accountable, in my own head at least. I knew that by opening up to him and the company I have worked for going on nine years now, I would have to stick to what we discussed if I were to continue what had so far been a successful career.

It was agreed that whilst I was waiting to hear back from the mental health team I would transfer my gym membership to a more relevant location for my interests. A new start in a new environment was just what I needed too, I had to remove myself as much as possible from my old ways if I was to break the cycle. I also started a course of St John’s Wort under his advice, I wasn’t sure if a herbal remedy was going to provide much support, after all, I’d been flooding my system with who knows how many toxins and poisons… how could a plant-based medication tackle that, right? Regardless, I was open to all the suggestions and advice I could get. I needed to clamber out of this hole and fast. And so, armed with my Wort, a new gym and the dogged determination not to die, I put on my gloves and hit the bags. Figuratively and physically. The new gym was a local boxing gym I had used a few times in the past and found I enjoyed the act of releasing aggression into a heavy bag. Two weeks in however and I was realising that the boxing gym didn’t have enough of the other part of what I’d previously found equally if not more enjoyable, weights. A quick re-think in strategy and Google search of the area threw up a few ideas but the obvious choice was Absolute Fitness. I knew about the gym previously of course but until now I was simply too scared to try it out. Not now, the new me was putting himself into scary situations, what did I have to lose, after all?

I transferred. Dragging my scared, sweating ass through the yellow door of this well hidden unit, I entered the reception area, anxiety levels through the roof. I don’t remember the conversation I had with Colin, the owner, word for word but I bet I sounded pretty pathetic. I left clutching a flier for a PT Colin had recommended. “Who on Earth is Rolonde Bradshaw?” The name rang a bell, I remembered hearing whispers of this mysterious chap from some of the guys I knew at my old gym but I couldn’t put a face to the name. Nor could I remember exactly what I’d been hearing about him. He’s a viking? Um, what?… A quick Facebook search later and I’d located the right man, dropped him a message and set up a meet. Walking back into that gym for the second time and having not yet trained there, 250lbs, bulbous, out of breath and looking extremely worse for wear we sat briefly and discussed my goals. All I knew is I wanted to feel better, to have more confidence and to be able to put the past behind me once and for all. I knew I enjoyed lifting weights and thus I was here in the hope he knew how to help. To this day I don’t have a clue what his first impressions were of me, I suspect not knowing me from Adam, and seeing the gelatinous mess that sat before him, he probably thought I’d waste his time. Who could blame him? To look at me it was obvious to see how far gone I was and how much work was going to be required to rescue the real me stuck behind the belly of this beast. I wasn’t even sure myself how I would react to working with a personal trainer, if I would stick it out or let him down like I’d let myself and others down. It was reasonable to assume so, I guess. Nevertheless, a date was set for our first training session. In truth, I don’t remember that first session though Rolonde has since commented that I was almost sweating just from watching him perform the exercises as an example(!). I believe him too, for quite some time I would create pools of sweat around where I trained. Two weeks prior to any form of exercise, I began to watch what I ate, using the MyFitnessPal app to track everything down to the last morsel or at least as closely as possible in the absence of my trusty digital scales. And I mean everything, even the veg was weighed before throwing it into a pot. I’d already cut out alcohol, drugs and takeaways – the three main vices that had plagued most of my adult life. I started tracking my progress and ‘clean’ days on a wall chart. This turned out to be invaluable in the early days of the process and an activity that I fully intend to continue having taken a couple of months off being quite as anal about it leading up to the competition… Green: no drugs, Orange: no alcohol, Yellow: no takeaways, Stars: days I trained, Illegible scribbling: current weight/milestones hit/cheat meals/PT sessions

The PT sessions soon racked up, the way I saw it I had the money spare to help refocus my efforts and energy on something positive. On days I wasn’t training with Rolonde I was in the gym following the set routines we built and tweaked in order to aid the weight-loss effort. We focused heavily on resistance training as it was quite simply what I most enjoyed doing. I can’t stress enough how important it is to do what you love or else you’ll easily fall off the wagon and revert back to old ways. This has been key for me, previously I focused too much on cardio and killing myself doing hour upon hour of pavement pounding or treadmill training like a damned hamster… Cardio is now short but efficient and always weighted in some way. Yes, my bodyweight/fat loss isn’t dropping as quickly as it might be but I’m enjoying every minute of it and accepting that this is for the long term and not something I’m expecting to achieve overnight. Not that weight-loss is my main or sole goal… In fact, it’s more of a happy side effect.

As momentum began to gather, so did my confidence in and out of the gym. I was beginning to feel normal again as the clouds started to lift. I was living alone and loving it. This was new to me, I’d only ever lived in the family home, with friends or girlfriends. It took some adjusting to but once I got into a routine I cherished the alone time and silence. It was bliss. As luck/fate, call it what you will, would have it, I met someone. I was looking, but I wasn’t expecting to find an angel quite as quickly as I did, nevertheless my rock appeared in splendid form. Armed with support in all corners I was setup for success, I felt like I couldn’t fail and I carried this over into the gym.

The PT’s continued to rack up, the PB’s continued to fall, strength increased, weight melted away and somewhere along the way entering a competition was mentioned. Shit just got real. I’d never even considered putting myself out there in front of an audience no matter the size, in fact I’d been quick to rubbish the idea over the years. Was it doable? Could I put in an effort that I could be proud of? Rolonde seemed to think so, and thus as Kaos released their first-timers and novice event, I signed up. Training changed almost immediately to incorporate the events and focus more on those and the supplemental workouts to further improve my performance. I just didn’t want to come last! Whispers that I had a possible top 5 finish… dare I dream?

As the next few months rolled by the person I once was became a distant memory and I barely recognised this new me, the determination and sacrifices I made… at times I felt possessed. Obsessed, definitely. Any cravings for alcohol or drugs, nonexistent. That part of me well and truly in the past. I often found myself reflecting on the things I’d left behind and people I no longer saw. I miss so much of my past and I’m sure one day I’ll be able to revisit some of it but I knew that I had to make some tough choices.

At sign-up to the comp, I’d managed 50lb weight-loss and added 100kg onto my deadlift within 6 months but now I had to focus on eating to keep the weight on, strength up and increasing if I was to manage the events for reps. Easy, eating is what I’m best at! Turns out, you’ve got to get that bit just right too or you end up too far over target and sluggish, feeling fat and lazy again. Still, with a little tweaking, experimenting and ‘balls to it’ attitude, I started to find a new weekly rhythm that allowed me to eat pretty much what I liked without having too much of a negative impact. Meeting TJ had introduced me to new foods too, things I’d previously sniffed at and assumed I wouldn’t enjoy. This was the new me though, I wanted to keep putting myself into new situations and try new things. Sushi, well, why hadn’t I tried this sooner? And Thai food! Oh my days… March 2019 Then, wham! Injury. F**k! I’d managed to partially slip a disc in my lower back whilst squatting. The pain was agonising for weeks. Training fell off a cliff. I started to panic. Swallowing my pride I went to the spinal clinic for inspection and advice. They confirmed the slipped disc and gave me some exercises to help with it. They had an immediate effect. Excellent! Back to training… wham! It happened again. OK, too soon. Slow it down, do your exercises, take some time to recover. I was 2 weeks out from competition and only managing a couple of training sessions a week at reduced work-rate. By this time I’d all but accepted I wasn’t going to do well in the comp but it was all about showing up and giving it a go. That was the goal anyway, to achieve something in any small part so that I had to something to show for my efforts to get and stay clean over the last 7 months.

A week out from comp and some of the training group suggested and recommended I went to Victoria at Revival for a sports massage. Couldn’t hurt, right? Tentatively, I booked in for an appointment a few days before the comp. Knowing Victoria from school it was a relaxed atmosphere and the session flew by as we caught up whilst she bent, stretched and dug into me. I left feeling refreshed and my back had been on the mend for a few days now, I was starting to feel hopeful. A last minute purchase of an under-belt another great recommendation from the group, and I was as ready as I could be.

In the weeks leading up to the event I’d been having waves of panic and fear, then moments later jubilation and excitement about what was to come. It was difficult to control at times and the panic on an occasion or two got the better of me. I’d never had a panic attack before I hope it’s some time before I have one again, but as the days fell away and Saturday, the day before the event, rolled around I was oddly calm. The weekend had seen a friend in need reach out and I was there to help in any small way I could. He’d been there for me over these past months and played a major role in my transformation so of course I wasn’t about to see him struggle. Looking back, this probably helped take my mind off things and steadied my nerves.

6am, Sunday 2nd June. Awake before my alarm, rolled onto the floor and proceeded to do my back and leg exercises. My back wasn’t 100% but it was as good as I could hope for given the short time I’d had to rehab. Having triple checked my bag we loaded up the car and set off. Registration was at 8am-9am and travel between home and Kaos was smooth sailing so early in the morning. I connected my phone to the cars bluetooth and proceeded to blast out some drum & bass to get in the zone. I must have been a sight to behold! We arrive, parked on the bowling alley car park as instructed, which we later received a parking fine for and subsequently Kaos resolved for everyone, and walked the short distance to the gym unit.

To look at Kaos you wouldn’t think it spawns some of the countries and worlds strongest athletes but it just goes to show you don’t need massive, spectacularly well stocked facilities to get the job done. I register, number 7 and change into my Kaos T-shirt. Your registration number is also the order in which you’ll be competing, excellent, I’m about mid-way. I can get a feel for some of the competition at least those going before me. (As it turns out, as soon as my event was completed I scarpered off to a quiet corner to recover and focus on the next event so didn’t watch much of what was happening after me, sorry guys!).

I’d been to Kaos only once before, the week previous to get a quick handle on their atlas stone (70KG) and sandbag carry (80KG). I wasn’t happy how my back was holding up but managed eleven atlas stone reps and a few short lengths with the sandbag in practice. The sandbag event was my main concern, carrying that weight and the pressure it put on my lower back hadn’t felt great… I figured I was going to injure it further anyway so to focus on doing the best I can and deal with the consequences later. As the remaining athletes arrived and more spectators with them, I was still relatively calm. Milling about I started talking to competitors and found a few of the other first Timers. Experience and training ranged greatly which gave me some immediate confidence that I was unlikely to come last at least. But, as I started to warm up for the first event, log lift for reps, the adrenaline kicked in and I started to shake. This is it...

Want to know how Dan did in his first competition? Follow him on Instagram @a_son_of_anxiety to find out.  You can download the Sons of Anxiety events app here to see what the strength club is all about and you can find their competitions listed on this site.

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