Dean had known anxiety and depression for as long as he could remember. He couldn’t put his finger on a single cause. 

It was more an amalgamation of his early life experiences: seeing his father beating his mom and then leaving the family when Dean was six, the constant bullying and abuse from his older brother, watching his mother struggling as a single mom with three kids, not having what the other kids at school had.

As a result, Dean became a shy, introverted kid. He had no friends at school so spent his lunchtimes in the library, trying to keep out of sight of the school heavies. Still, at least once a week he’d find himself on the receiving end of a punch, a trip or a push.

The bullying didn’t stop when Dean got home. Social media was even more brutal, with taunting texts being a nightly occurrence.  He dreaded the sound of another text arriving on his phone but, at the same time, couldn’t resist the urge to look at it. Every hateful word drove him deeper and deeper into a spiral of depression.

Losing Himself in Gaming & Junk Food

By age thirteen Dean had found two crutches to help him deal with his depression: food and gaming. Junk food gave him a fleeting sense of sensory pleasure while gaming allowed him to escape his reality into a world of make-believe where he was a somebody.

Physical activity didn’t fit much into Dean’s life. In fact, the only exercise he got was the 200-yard walk to and from the bus stop each school day. Of course, there was also the tortuous twice-weekly P.E. sessions where it seemed the whole point of the class was to highlight how pathetically out of shape he and a couple of the other nerds were.

The bullying, ostracism, and despair only got worse when Dean moved from middle school to college. Up until then, he’d tried to keep his problems to himself, knowing how stressed his mother was just trying to pay the bills and keep her head above water. But in 10th Grade, things came to a head.

Dean had walked into the library bathroom one lunchtime when he came across three of his classmates standing around smoking a joint. He immediately turned to leave but, before he got to the door, one of them barricaded it and pushed him back toward the toilet cubicle.

The three boys then proceeded to threaten Dean about what they’d do to him if he told on them. One of them then held him in a headlock while another forced the joint between his lips. When Dean refused to inhale they pulled down his pants, took off his underwear, and threw them both in the toilet bowl.

The three bullies then left the bathroom, leaving Dean sobbing on the toilet bowl.

When Dean failed to return to class, the teacher asked if anyone knew where he was. The three bullies didn’t say a word, apart from joining in with most of the rest of the class with disparaging comments to the effect that nobody missed him so who cared.

The teacher sent a runner to tell the deputy principal that Dean was missing. He then proceeded to carry out a search of the school grounds and buildings. Finally, at about 2:30, he came across Dean, still sitting on the library toilet cubicle, shaking uncontrollably as he held his soaking pants in his hands.

It was that incident that led to Dean’s being taken out of school by his mother. The school had promised to put an end to the bullying. But nothing changed. In fact, things got worse for Dean as the story spread that he’d wet his pants and was too embarrassed to come out of the bathroom.

His mother wanted to homeschool Dean, but with all her commitments, there was no way that was going to happen. As a result, his schooling effectively ended in the middle of the 10th grade and for the next two years, life involved sleeping in until 10:30, eating sugar laden cereal as he powered up his computer, and playing games until late into the night.

Big Brother Intervenes

It was Dean’s older brother, Rob, who got him into exercise. Even though Rob had been one of his brother’s tormentors in his youth, he’d matured quite a bit by the time he’d reached 19. By then he’d been working out for about five years and managed to build quite an impressive physique. He’d also discovered the mental benefits of exercise. He knew that this was just what his brother needed.

Rob initially took Dean to his gym. But, by now, Dean had become so introverted and shy that he was too self-conscious about exercising in front of other people to make a go of it. So, Dean decided to take him to a personal trainer.

Dean and Rob came into my gym in March of 2018. When Rob explained that it was his brother who was in need of training, I immediately knew that I had my work cut out. This kid was one of the shyest people I had ever met.

I knew that the first thing I had to do was to gain Dean’s confidence. We decided that I’d come to train him at his house twice per week, On Monday and Thursday. On that first meeting, I managed to get him to confirm that he actually wanted to work out, rather than just doing it to please his brother. He then told me that the reason for doing it was to feel better about himself.

That was a starting point.

Over the first month of training, I sent Dean a lot of stuff to read online to motivate him. These included things like the life story of Lou Ferrigno, who was also painfully shy, yet used bodybuilding to turn his life around. I also got him to watch YouTube videos about how working out can help with depression and anxiety.

The actual training was gradual. We started with bodyweight exercises like push-ups, air squats, the wall sit and inverted pull ups. Then, when he was able to do multiple reps, I introduced resistance band training and, eventually barbells and dumbbells.

I didn’t broach the subject of nutrition until we’d been working together for about a month. Doing it any earlier would have overwhelmed him. Again, the approach was piecemeal. First, I had him switch from regular Coke to the diet version. Then we worked on the snacks, introducing nuts and fruit.

Dean’s transformation began on the inside and slowly radiated outward. The first sign that his confidence was growing was that he was looking me in the eye more often. Then he began talking about the stuff I’d sent him to read. After reading the Lou Ferrigno article, he’d gone online and started watching episodes of the Incredible Hulk. This obviously cut into his gaming time, feeding his mind with a more positive stimulus.

It was very gratifying to see Dean coming out of his shell. After about four months, we had gotten to the point where he felt comfortable working out in my studio, so we switched locations. By then he was getting stronger and actually starting to add some muscle to his frame.

The physical changes to his body fed Dean’s self-confidence. He was walking a little taller and engaging people in conversation, something he had been incapable of doing just a few months previously.

The concept of goal setting really helped Dean. From day one we began setting goals. I made sure to keep them concrete, achievable and short. Setting long term goals at the start would only have seemed too unattainable and, therefore, de-motivating.

The first goal was to do 10 push ups. Dean got there in 3 weeks. With each goal attainment, I made a big deal about it without going over the top. Dean’s sense of achievement and self-accomplishment grew with every new goal that we knocked off.

The new-found sense of accomplishment that Dean experienced in the gym began to spill over to the rest of his life. He decided that there was more to life than playing video games all day.

One day he talked to me about what he had to do to get a job. I told him that it came down to goal setting and so together we worked out a plan of action. The first thing he needed was to decide what area he wanted to work in. Then he needed to put together a resume and begin to approach prospective employers.

Dean decided that he wanted to work for EB Games as a store clerk. By working through one goal at a time, Dean was able to secure what was a dream job (at the time). The ability to cold call the manager and follow through with an interview was something that would have been inconceivable a year earlier.

Dean Continues to Thrive

Dean has been working at EB Games for one and a half years now and he’s recently been promoted to a trainee manager. We’re still training together once per week, and he works out with his older brother Rob four other days each week at the gym.

Through adopting a health and fitness lifestyle, Dean has progressed from being an introverted, depressed non-functioning member of society to becoming a young man who feels goals about himself and his accomplishments. He’s holding down a good job and has positive goals for the future.

He still has his bad days when the negative self-talk overwhelms him and the memories of the torment he suffered as a youth come flooding back. But now he has tools to help him deal with them. He’ll bring up his favorite motivational playlist on his phone, plug in his ear phones and go for a run, knowing that the taste of his sweat dripping down his cheeks and the feeling he’ll get from dopamine and serotonin release will soon overwhelm those negative feelings and pull him out of depression.

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