Nonfiction Written Works

Scales, Fails, and Mirrors by Brandon Carver

Being healthy is almost effortless when you’re young and active. As a three-sport athlete in high school, I never even thought about needing to get fit or be in better shape. With the rigorous year-round practices and games that come along with playing three sports, it’s no wonder that I could be healthy and look good without needing to do any sort of formal working out or dieting. I lived the typical carefree teenage life of eating whatever I wanted and only putting out effort when required. Unfortunately, like most good things, this carefree season of time had a shelf life, and everything normal to me was about to change.

As I stepped on the scale, I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. Surely this scale was broken, or perhaps the ground wasn’t level. I stepped off the scale to give it time to reset and come to its senses, stepped back on, and it shouted back at me the same thing that it shouted the first time: “You got fat!” Although the scale didn’t actually fat-shame me, it may as well have. I had been out of high school for just over four years and hadn’t paid any mind to the fact that I had perhaps put on a few extra pounds. It’s easy to be deceived into thinking you haven’t fallen as far as you have when you’re the one doing the measuring. This time, however, I allowed the scale to do the measuring instead of me. As I stepped off the scale for the second time, my mind began trying to make sense of what I saw. It only took a few minutes to come to terms with the fact that what I saw on the scale was completely logical. Although I was no longer a teenager, I was still living that carefree lifestyle of eating whatever I wanted and only putting out effort when required; however, I was no longer playing any sports.

After having my scale yell at me for being unhealthy, I found myself evaluating my option. Yes, option – singular. The only thing I could think of doing to remedy the situation was to join a gym and start lifting weights. Before walking into the gym, I remember thinking to myself that this would be easy; after all, I was a former three-sport athlete (we won’t talk about the fact that I was a very average, lazy three-sport athlete). After standing in the gym for about 30 seconds, I realized I was in way over my head. Even though I had played sports nearly my entire life, I had never really lifted weights, or at least not often enough to fit confidently into a formal gym setting. I, of course, headed straight for the dumbbell rack and started with some bicep curls followed by some bench press, both of which were in cahoots with my scale and were yelling at me, “You’re weak!” After leaving that gym, I decided I’d be better suited in one of the smaller gyms. Better to be a big fish in a small pond, right? After finding a gym that better shielded my insecurities, I was able to go to the gym and not feel as awkward or exposed, which helped me commit and go all in.

It didn’t take long for what started as a healthy desire to get fit to morph into an unhealthy, never-ending hamster wheel of needing to look better. Over a two-year period of time, I had not only lost all the weight that I had put on after high school, but I had put on 20-plus pounds of lean muscle mass. Mission accomplished. Or was it? The irony of standing in a mirror every day and critiquing yourself, even after getting into great shape according to most people’s standards, is that it encourages you to find new flaws. I was undoubtedly in the best shape of my life: I was consistently getting compliments from women (with occasional squeezing of my muscles), and my peers were impressed by my newfound appearance, yet all that did was fuel my need to be even more muscular and leaner. What started as a healthy journey had become a way to cover my insecurities and make me feel more valuable. I once had a dream where a voice spoke to me and said, “Brandon, the more you try to be perfect, the harder it will be.” I didn’t understand what that meant then, but looking back, it was exactly what I was experiencing. The more progress I saw in the gym, the harder it became to see more of that same progress. The better I looked, the more difficult it became to fix the “flaws” I was still finding. Our bodies have natural limits; once we start hitting those limits, progress slows rapidly, which is normal and expected. The issue for me was that I wanted to continue to see the drastic progress I had seen those first couple of years, but I had reached a point where my progress was slowing due to my natural limitations.

As I sat in a dingy, dark room on a stranger’s couch, I couldn’t help but be very uncomfortable. Drugs had never been my thing, so this sort of interaction was entirely foreign to me and just didn’t feel right. I justified what I was doing with the fact that I was buying steroids, which weren’t like other hard drugs. They were harmless. Finally, I had gotten what I came for and was headed home. I couldn’t help but want to inject my newfound miracle elixir right away! After several failed attempts, my friend finally gave me my first injection, right in the butt cheek. This was the solution I had been looking for. I was finally going to start seeing some radical progress again. Sure enough, after getting through my first cycle of steroids, I ballooned up and saw the results I hoped for, although they weren’t quite as spectacular as I expected. After several more drug deals with some rather sketchy people, I had completed several steroid cycles and was bigger and leaner than ever.

Toward the end of my last cycle of steroids, I had a thought come to my mind that would make me question everything. I was standing in my mirror admiring my progress when seemingly, out of nowhere, I had a thought go through my head, “Perhaps it’d be better if you weren’t here anymore?” This one fleeting thought startled me into sobriety, both mentally and physically. I couldn’t understand how I could be depressed when I was achieving exactly what I set out to achieve. That one fleeting thought brought me back to what the voice spoke to me in my dream, “Brandon, the more you try to be perfect, the harder it will be.”  I had become so engrossed with being bigger, stronger, leaner, and tougher that I was blinded to the fact that I had set an unachievable goal. There was no end in sight because there would always be someone bigger, stronger, leaner, tougher, and so on. At that moment, standing in front of my mirror, I made the conscious decision not only to stop taking steroids but to learn how to be more balanced in how I viewed health, fitness, and myself.

It has been nearly twelve years since I stood there in my mirror and made the most life-changing decision I’ve ever made. Certainly, I’ve struggled with the tendency of being too harsh with how I view my appearance, but I am leaps and bounds better than I once was. I’ve learned many lessons since I first stepped on the scale four years after graduating high school, but all those lessons can be summed up in one word: balance. With anything in life, we must be balanced with how we approach and do things, especially when it involves our own health, be it physical or mental. The most important thing I’ve learned over the past 12 years is to be gracious with myself and not to expect perfectionism. I’ve found that when I’m gracious and kind to myself, I’m quicker to move on from failures and don’t spiral downward into worry, guilt, or shame. Today, instead of picking yourself apart and finding all your faults, meditate on what you’re doing right and focus on your good attributes. If you’re going to put a magnifying glass on yourself, look for the good things, and when you see something that you deem a flaw, be gentle and balanced in how you deal with it.