The Monkey on My Back

My name is Tom and I’m a gym-aholic.

It began innocently enough. It was October 1973. I was three years out of the University of Washington and old enough to know better. But I didn’t see the warning signs. To begin with, a friend had to secure a fake student ID for me . . . yes, an illegal ID card . . . in order to introduce me to the weight room in the Intramural Activities Building. Second, once at the gym, my friend’s pleasant, charming personality changed. He became an aggressive car salesman, convincing me, who merely wanted a sports model, that I needed a powerful muscle car. “Being young and cute won’t last forever,” he said. “You need a gimmick to ensure continued marketability among gay men.”

In hindsight, I must ask, was this invitation to the gym, simply a kind gesture made to make me more appealing to a demographic focused on physical attractiveness?  Or did he know all along I would become addicted, like he had, and accompany him down this rocky road? I should have turned him down. I should have run away. I knew the IMA was not a place for me. It was a place I had religiously avoided as a collegian. I say “religiously” because I grew up at a time when Jewish athletes were as rare as straight male hairdressers and a muscular Jew was an oxymoron.  Nevertheless, from that first visit to the IMA, I was hooked.  Three, four, five times a week hooked.

Was it because I quickly realized working out improved my appearance, boosted my self-confidence, garnered attention, and triggered floods of testosterone to rush through my previously unmanly veins?  I don’t know. Was it because several friends and I shared the same work-out schedule and our gym visits became as much a social event as they were about physical fitness?  Oh, god, I don’t know. Or was it about watching the younger frat boys cavorting in the weight room with their puppy-dog energy and all-American good looks or was it because of the easy access to fit naked men in the showers and sauna? I don’t know what it was. All I know is that I couldn’t say no.

Although I was no longer a UW student, I worked out at the IMA for several years, using a series of fake student IDs, illegal ID cards, to feed my cravings for muscles. When my sources for fake IDs dried up, and I could no longer get my highs at the IMA, I should have ended my obsession with the gym. I should have gotten off that damn endless merry-go-round. But I couldn’t. I was weak.

And then, as if I hadn’t seen enough evil, Satan stepped in. His name was, appropriately, Stan and he opened Seattle’s first gym catering to a gay male clientele; I signed the contract without looking at the cost or details. All I could think of was I needed a fix. I needed a barbell, a sit-up board, a chin-up bar, a god damn jump rope. I needed my high. But, then, without warning, the gym closed. Some say Stan was a bad businessman and went broke; but I think he got busted for trafficking illegal muscles.

Needless to say, I was on the street again looking for a new supplier. Just as I was hitting rock bottom, just as I began offering to carry housewives’ grocery bags out of supermarkets to their cars so I could do bicep curls with them, just as I began seeking out frightened elderly ladies at busy intersections and offered to carry them in a clean-and-jerk position across the street, just as I bought a 50 pound marble monkey to set on my back when I did pushups in my dark, claustrophobic, curtains-drawn, Thigh-Master, Ab-Roller, and Jazzercize video strewn apartment, I found a gym. It wasn’t a good gym; the quality of its equipment was poor. But a bad high is better than no high at all.

Then I found another gym, and another, and another. I heard about them on the street. From people like me, other addicts. Weak people. People who couldn’t say no. Most of these gyms teemed with gay men. Helpless gay men like me. Addicted to the gym. “Oh, I can stop anytime I want,” they would say as they moved rhythmically to the club’s background dance music. “I work out to release the tensions from work,” others would lie, as they looked at their muscular torsos and figure-flattering coordinated gym ensembles in the mirror.

Many of these gyms had spa areas featuring hot tubs, and saunas. For some members, this was the draw, not the muscle-and-ego-building equipment. “I need to come here to relax from my stressful, fast-paced life,” a professional dog-walker once told me in a hot tub as he attempted to play footsie with me. For these people, the club, more specifically the spa part of the club, could provide the opportunity for sexual encounters. This aspect of gym life often led to another addiction, sexual addition. I, however, through all my gym years, managed, for the most part, to avoid those activities, this added craving.  I don’t think I had more than . . . oh, say. . . 600 sexual experiences at gyms. Six-fifty tops.  And most did not involve another person.

But, as the years passed, as I approached retirement, I found myself enjoying the gym less and less. My addiction appeared to be weakening. Perhaps my body’s chemistry was changing with age. The need to work out became less controlling and it seemed to be replaced with another craving, that for sitting, sleeping, and the serenity of home. Or it could have been because my aging, torqued, arthritic back just couldn’t take the physical and, more important, the psychological abuse anymore. So, this month, after 43 years and countless gyms, I stopped working out. I quit going to the gym. Cold turkey.

That doesn’t mean I am no longer an addict. I will always be a gym addict. But I am now living one day at a time, focusing on staying clean and gym-free. It has been 18 days since I have been in one of those dens of iniquity. And with my determination and your prayers and support, those 18 days will become 180 days and a then a lifetime.  A lifetime without that 50 pound marble monkey on my back.

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