3215 words (12 minute read)

Chapter 8: The Onset

November 28, 2010

It’s morning and I feel a little groggy, but I’m ready to start the day. I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen. I bump into the refrigerator and scuttle along the kitchen wall, my depth perception askew, until I find the laminate countertop. I decide to let the day fully begin by eating breakfast. I pour a bowl of cereal and take it outside to eat. The soggy grains go down with two crushed caffeine pills mixed in a glass of warm water. It tastes like rubber and chalk with strong notes of poison and death, but it slowly wakes me up.

I sit on the stoop in the backyard, the sound of battered tennis balls playing in full stereo from the park across the street as I eat my breakfast and flick the sleep from my eyes. The rhythmic rallying of furry neon balls puts me in an ephemeral trance just mild enough for the caffeine buzz to bring me back to reality.

I look down at the clock on my phone. It’s just after eleven.

You realize you check your phone way too often, right? Looking at the time every five seconds doesn’t give you control over anything. It only proves how you are powerless.

I walk back inside and get ready for the gym. In the garage, my bike is patiently waiting like a faithful Labrador wagging its tail for a walk. I hop on and ride down Mary Place, where the brisk November air nips at my face. It feels good. There’s a full day of accomplishment ahead, a reminder of how satisfying this busy life of mine has become.

I pedal down Middlebrook, then Bodway as the Sonoma State campus appears on the horizon. My cadence is fast and full of forceful bursts. The 1980s model Univega is performing effortlessly for its age. The red light at the intersection of Bodway and East Cotati breaks my rhythm, testing the Univega’s worn brake pads.

Brian, a familiar face from the gym, is also stopped at the light. He pulls his newer, more expensive bike next to mine.

“Hey Jamison. Are you going to the gym?” he asks. I smile and nod nonchalantly. “What are you working out?”

“Legs, you?”

“Nice, me too,” Brian replies. “You want company?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Sweet,” Brian says. He gives me a smirk. “So, speaking of legs . . . How’s the modeling going?”

“Oh,” I give him a sideways glance and quickly think of something witty to say, “I’m glad you asked, there’s a photo shoot coming up that would be perfect for you. Only thing is: you have to grow out all your body hair, braid it, then get naked and wear one of those constable hats.”

Brian laughs and shakes his head, then the light turns green and we take off. pedaling our bikes through traffic. I’m hoping that working out with Brian will help me find the groove I’ve been looking for since my subpar performance at the bodybuilding competition back in May. I’ve had a cold at least three times since then and I often feel sluggish and unusually tired during my workouts. My body is probably trying to tell me something—it’s worn down and needs a break from the gym, but resting goes against my grain. Even after the competition I was back lifting weights the next day, burning off the calories from the pizza and beer I had during my post-competition binge.

For me, bodybuilding is not about competing against other people, it’s about competing against myself. That may be another reason why I didn’t place in the competition. I wanted to win, sure, but I cared more about pushing my body past its ever-increasing limits than I did about achieving an award-winning physique. And the two don’t always correlate—working out too much can be counterproductive to bodybuilding, and good health in general. My body needs rest—days without any exercise—but that’s not what I want. I want to work out all day, every day. I want all the exercise, all the time. Working out is my addiction, my nicotine, and I don’t just want a single cigarette, or even a pack, I want to smoke the whole damn carton at once. I love working out and nothing is going to stop me from doing what I love, which is precisely why I’m going to the gym right now.

Remnants of morning mist are illuminated by sunlight peeking through redwood branches as Brian and I ride along a campus bike path. I drift behind his bike as we emerge from the grove of trees to a stampede of bustling students. Timing the pace of campus pedestrians apparently involves more finesse than two bodybuilders have. We both abruptly brake to avoid tumbling into the herd, our tires skidding along the cement path. Then we carefully weave in between the walkers, runners, and even a university-issued golf cart, barely making it to the other side of the intersection.

Our destination is the Sonoma State Recreation Center, but I usually just call it the gym. The two-story building has a modern design made with a wood beam awning jutting out over the main entrance. The inside is covered in stone and polished wood surfaces. It’s one of the nicest gyms I’ve ever been to. It’s also where I play three intramural sports and work as a personal trainer when I’m not teaching my boot camp class in Santa Rosa.

Three hundred milligrams of caffeine are now streaming through my blood and into my brain, priming my muscles to throw some heavy weights around. When I walk inside the gym, it’s empty and frigid like most other gyms on a Sunday morning. But this one gives me an eerie feeling, like lying on a cold operating table counting backward from a hundred.

Brian and I start the workout by warming up our muscles with some foam rolling and dynamic stretches. Then Brian approaches the squat rack. He puts a forty-five-pound plate on each side of the bar and does an easy ten reps. I follow with twelve reps, and add another plate to each side so he can readily start the next set. He struggles but finishes the lift.

“There you go, man.” I use my trainer voice, a mix of Richard Simmons screeching and Jack Nicholson yelling. “Nice job. Was that ten?”

“Yeah, barely,” Brian says.

“You had good form, though, that’s all that matters.” I start my warmup set and complete fifteen reps without help, though I struggle a bit on the last one. Brian seems reluctant as I add more weight.

“Another forty-five?” he asks, approaching the squat rack.

“You got this, man. I’ll spot you, then you can drop the weight on the next set. Okay?”

“Sure.” He sounds unenthusiastic. Brian goes for three reps, gets the first easily, but begins to struggle on his second rep.

“Come on, one more.” Again I use my best trainer voice. “I got you the whole way, let’s go, man.” Brian finishes the set and lets out a big breath.

“Ah, that one almost killed me,” he says. “My eyes were about to pop.”

“You gotta breathe. Great job, though, you got three. How many reps do you normally get at three-fifteen?” I look at Brian for a reply.

“I’ve never tried before. That was a first for me. How many can you do?” he asks.

“Hopefully I can get three, but we’ll see.” I’ll at least get three reps, shit I need five just to be content.

I hoist three hundred and fifteen pounds off the squat rack, my toes at a slightly obtuse angle and knees in-line with my shoulders. Then I slowly lower my hips to a ninety-degree angle.

Down, up—one. Down, up—two. Down, up—three.

Let’s go, you lazy bum, two more.

Down, up—four. Down, up—five.

Come on, Brian is watching, go for six.

“You got this,” Brian takes over the role of trainer. “One more, bro.” He steps behind me and wraps his arms around my waist to help me lift the weight.

“Aye. No help,” I shake my head.

“Okay. Okay. It’s all you,” Brian says. He backs away and I barely rack the bar in time before my legs give out. Brian gives me a thumbs up and I stumble away from the squat rack.

“That didn’t feel good.” I move toward the nearest chair.

“Don’t sit, man, walk it off,” Brian says.

But I can’t walk it off. I can barely walk at all. I collapse onto the chair and blankly stare into space. The walls are infinite—I see only a featureless white abyss. My brain needs more oxygen, more blood, more everything. I want this feeling to stop. I’m ready to tap out, but I can’t. I don’t know how. My vision fades and the abyss gets deeper and more pervasive, sucking me into an all-consuming vortex. The powerful maelstrom continues to pull me under as my heart beats dangerously fast. It’s hard to concentrate long enough to take my pulse, but I think my heart rate is around 180 beats per minute. It’s usually about 45 beats per minute when I’m sitting down. Maybe this is what a heart attack feels like, or maybe it’s a blood clot, or a hemorrhage.

This isn’t a heart attack. Where’s the numb arm and chest pain? This is nothing. You’ve been through much worse, like that time you had appendicitis and still finished the workout, went to class, then work, and did another workout the next day before finally going to see a doctor. And look, you’re still alive, you’re more than alive, you are thriving. This is the first decent workout you’ve had in months. You can’t give up on this, you have to finish.

I manage to move, or more like fall, to the floor. I lie with my feet propped on the chair from which I fell. I look dramatic and thirsty for attention, but the attention is unwanted.

Brian finishes his set and passes the proverbial baton by lowering the weight. He’s smart. Propped under the squat rack, my reflection in the wall-length mirror is either from a carnival fun house, or my impaired brain is on quite the ride. Among the starry geometric shapes floating in the infinite space that has become my vision, there is an invisible rip tide of doubt pulling my self-efficacy out to sea.

Twelve reps at two hundred and seventy-five pounds is normal for me, but I’m now struggling to get five reps as I do the next set, my condition worsening with each movement I make. The starry shapes and bright lights have now turned to darkness; the walls have caved in, daylight is sparse, and once again I am on the floor.

You look like one of those melodramatic meat heads grunting and theatrically falling to the floor after a workout. We get it—you work out hard and have this urge to torture yourself with exercise, but nobody really gives a shit. So, come on, get off the floor.

Lying on the ground in a stew of pain and malaise, I’m concerned for my health. I try to face-palm the pain away, but this is a new kind of pain. It jolts me and stabs at every part of my body. It’s not like the pain I usually feel during a workout—the pain I have, up until now, secretly thrived on; the pain that has kept me coming back for more.

I’m unsure about what to do next. If I stop the workout now I would be admitting defeat, but there is no foreseeable end to this rotten feeling. If this is what taking too many caffeine pills does, the rest are going in the trash. This will pass. It has to, it always does. I have puked, bled, even passed out while lifting weights, but I have never felt this sick.

Moving on to lunges, Brian and I each grab two dumbbells and stride the length of the gym, like I’ve done hundreds of times before. Maybe that’s why I start to feel a bit better—maybe the familiarity of it all, the comfort found in a pair of dumbbells, will bring me back, or maybe my body has simply run out of immune responses. It could also be the increased blood flow, or maybe it’s just the caffeine leaving my system. Either way, I hope it will all be over soon.

An hour after doing lunges and the awful feeling still persists. The chills are lingering, and my heart rate is bouncing around like a kid on a trampoline—that is, a trampoline with rusty nails sticking up and razor wire covering the edges.

“How are you feeling, bud?” Brian asks, a look of concern on his face. I sort of forgot he was still standing by me. My mind is foggy and full of lapses.

“Uh, not too good, but I’m hanging in there.”

The nausea that was subsiding is back and my circulation feels like a garden hose with a kink in it, increasing volume and pressure to force through an ample blood supply. Maybe that’s why my skin has gone from hot and sweaty to cold and clammy.

“Are you down for one more lift?” Brian asks.

“Okay.” Now I’m the one who sounds unenthusiastic.

“Do you know how to hack squat?” I look down at the ground, take a deep breath, and nod my head. “Okay, you go first so I can watch. I need help with my form,” Brian says.

Lifting the bar feels like holding a five hundred pound steel beam above my head. My body has never felt this weak. Each muscle movement feels like swimming in a lake with heavy clothes on—dead weight hanging from my limbs. Halfway through the warmup set my grip slips and the weights drop to the floor.

“What’s up, man? You all right?” Brian asks. “Want to do something else?”

“No, sorry, I’m feeling like crap. It’s just not my day. I’m calling it, but let’s get after it again soon.”

My ego will have to deal with a premature end to the workout. I walk out of the gym and look at the time on my phone. My head is spinning and my vision is too blurry to read what the phone says.

Outside, the temperature is probably in the low-70s, a typical California day, but my body is freezing, shaking under four layers of clothing. And to make it worse, I can’t find my bike. All the damn things look the same locked to the metal racks in front of the gym. I see a jumbled mess of blurry handlebars, seats, and tires. I’m lost and confused, but thankfully a bit of familiarity arrives just in time.

“Hey, friend!” a voice says, coming from the jumbled mess. It’s Kendra, her brown eyes and each curl of her hair gradually coming into focus through my blurry vision.

“Hi,” I look at her and eek out a quick smile.

“What are you doing?” she smiles back.

“Looking for my bike …”

“Oh. Where’d you put it?”

“I’m not really sure.”

“Yeah you do, silly. Isn’t that it over there? The old blue one?” Kendra points to my bike locked to a metal pole a few yards from the bike racks.

Too sick to be embarrassed, I unlock the Univega. A gentle touch glides across my back and cups my shoulder, bypassing my body’s hypersensitivity and temporarily easing my pain. “Wanna ride with me?” Kendra asks with a smile on her face. I nod and slowly mount the Univega.

Kendra talks casually as we ride home together. Concentrating on her words feels almost impossible, but luckily I don’t need to understand them to be comforted. Giving in to the moment, the unknown, I stop fighting my worsening symptoms and just focus on the humming coming out of her mouth. The lovely lullaby and soothing vibrations of Kendra’s voice brings me some peace, as much peace as there is to be found with an ailing body.

I barely make it home, then sit in a corner of my room and stare at the wall like a zombie. Some time passes, not much, and I already forget where Kendra went and what I did with my bike.

Damn, maybe something is wrong with you, maybe you’re not just out for attention.

More time passes and I haven’t moved. I’m still sitting motionless in a corner of my room and Thomas is now standing in the doorway, but again, I’m having serious concentration problems. He’s asking me a question.

“Jamison? Are you okay?”

“I … I think so, but, I don’t know, it kinda feels like—”

“You don’t look good, man. You’re really pale,” he says.

“Yeah, I don’t feel good.” I close my eyes and briefly try to imagine myself feeling better.

“What does it feel like?”

“What?” I open my eyes and dizzily look up at Thomas. His words sound like someone with a bad phone connection — lots of white noise with spurts of clarity.

“What do you feel?”

“Uh. My heart is beating really fast. I have chills. I’m nauseated and feel disoriented. There are weird shapes, blotches everywhere, and it’s hard to make out what you’re saying.”

“Did you take your temperature?” Thomas asks.

“I don’t have a thermometer.”

“Shoot, I don’t have one either. Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asks.

“No, no, I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but do you want me to get you anything? Some food or something?” Thomas asks. I think for a second, then listlessly look across the room at my backpack.

“The protein shake in my backpack might help.” I point to the bag on the other side of the room.

“Sure, man, here you go,” he says, handing me the plastic bottle holding my shake. “I’ll check on you in a bit.”

Thomas leaves my room and I warily crawl into bed. Moving is cumbersome. I get under the covers and try to rest, but the chills won’t relent and my accelerated heart rate is making it impossible to relax. All I can do is curl up into a ball and hope tomorrow will be better.