Surviving suicide, rape and abuse through powerlifting: my story

On October 5, 2012, Gene and Ame Rychlak created the campaign “Power Against Violence and Abuse”. Their mission is as simple and complex as powerlifting itself: to confront all forms of abuse. Abuse, by definition, is an act of violence that takes place between asymmetric players: an adult against a child or an elderly person, a man against a woman, a human being against an animal, anyone against a disabled person. We could grow this list and consider racial violence (asymmetric relations between people from different ethnic origins), harassment at the workplace (asymmetric relations between people at different levels of a working hierarchy), etc.

It doesn’t matter: they are all cruel, unacceptable and they leave irreversible marks. An abused person most frequently develops post trauma stress disorder (PTSD), may see other darker disorders be triggered in them, may become victims of drug addiction or even suicide. Whatever happens, don’t fool yourself into believing that “forgiveness erases the wound”. It doesn’t.

The first objective of the Rychlaks’ campaign is to raise awareness and this is exactly how we need to face issues that are historically swept under the carpet. It is hard to get people engaged in a cause if the problem is invisible.

So I volunteered to tell my story, in the hopes that other people involved in our powerlifting community will come forward and tell theirs. I know I am not alone and I am not an isolated case. When my story was published in Brazil, I received dozens of e-mails from women who had suffered very similar forms of abuse, but could never speak out.

It took me thirty years to do so. I only did it because, first, powerlifting saved my life. Second, I have a supportive family that asked me to do it.

When I was a teenager, my country lived under a military dictatorship. My brothers and their friends were engaged in the fight against it. There were many clandestine leftist organizations and at this point most of the people I knew belonged to the Brazilian Communist Party. In 1975, two activists were tortured and killed. Many dozens were killed in the previous years, but those two deaths were too close to home. I knew the time was coming for them to recruit me into the party. I was 12 at the time and starting my athletic life as a fencer. Eventually, I became a pretty good fencer, one of the first in the national ranking. I was happy for the first time in my life. Some doctors, later on, speculated that I had already been abused as a very young child – abused teenagers and women frequently were abused children. All I know is that I was “weird” and unhappy, except when I was an athlete.

The Party decided that I had to leave my sport and dedicate my life to political activism. That was when the nightmares began. I was the underdog of the system – the youngest girl – and was frequently punished for reasons I could never understand. Now it is quite clear that this is how you disrupt the person’s ability to react to violence.

In 1979 I was “recruited” by a trotskist organization that believed (and everyone had to agree) we were at a pre-revolutionary stage. Any sacrifice was justified. Having sex was considered revolutionary – no matter if you wanted it or not. No young woman would deny sex in that environment because that would mean being bashed as a counter-revolutionary petit-burgeouse – something like a vermin. Many men had me and I had no idea that sex was not supposed to hurt. Nobody had told me that. Until one day one actually drugged me and forced me with violence. I tried to react but he was stronger.

It was the only time I reacted and notified “the authorities”: the adults responsible for whatever behavior rules there were. There were meetings about the subject and in the end, nothing was done. The rapist laughed at me whenever I had to walk by him and made jokes.

I was already cutting myself more frequently and in and out of periods of deep depression.

In 1980 I became pregnant (or late 1979). I didn’t want to have the abortion, but everybody else did. I was still a minor, so I had no say. They took me to a clandestine clinic. It was a mansion in an upper part of town, huge place. I was given the number 56 that day. I believe they made hundreds of abortions. I was left alone there, nurses came and took me to a dark room with three surgical tables. In two of them there were unconscious women with their legs spread open and a pool of blood under them. I was terrified. They took me to the empty table, a doctor came, scolded me and put me to sleep. The next thing I knew was that I was in a huge dormitory with dozens of beds, dressed in a white surgical gown and a large stain of blood.

The next day there was a meeting of the “national student executive committee”. I was severely scolded because I wouldn’t stop crying and I told them I couldn’t accomplish the tasks that were assigned to me. A man rose and said: “Compañera, if we were actually in the revolutionary stage, you would be executed”.

After that, I became very sick. My uterus had been perforated. My mind had been harmed the most. The symptoms of what later was diagnosed as bipolar disorder, PTSD and maybe epilepsy evolved. I was again punished by the Party.

From then on, it was just humiliation over humiliation. I was sent to live in Rio and my recollection of that period is the closest I can think of as hell. One day I snapped and went back home. I was 18 at the time.

From then until my early forties, I was in and out of psychiatric treatment. I have no idea how I managed to build myself a solid academic career, to major in Biology, get a M.Sc. in chemical ecology, a Ph.D. in sociology of science and move on.

During a less stressful moment I had a baby, in 1989, my only daughter. Unfortunately, the symptoms of whatever I had came back.

In 2005 I slashed my throat and lost more than one liter of blood in a deserted dirt road.  At that exact moment, a man was passing by. His name was Nilson, he was an electrician. He took me to a small clinic five minutes away from where we were and they stitched me as best as they could. They told me we could only know whether I would make it or not in half an hour. There was too much blood and no surgical room and the jugular was cut. We were at a small beach town and there would be no way to take me to a decent hospital.

During the longest half hour of my life, I decided that whatever I had was pretty severe but I had no wish to live as a zombie anymore. No drugs.

The doctors strongly opposed my decision and I knew that if I didn’t have my family’s support, I could be institutionalized (again) and forcibly medicated. My brothers backed me, though.

That was how I discovered powerlifting, in 2006. The minute I entered the gym (it is called GCA and is located in the middle of a slum in São Paulo) I understood I was finally home. A home I had never had in my whole life. I knew I would never leave it.

The doctors had forecast that soon I would attempt suicide again because the illness was a rare and very severe type of “whatever it was” and that I wouldn’t last much longer. Probably during the following months I would kill myself, but I wouldn’t last more than five years.

My expiration date was July the 4th, 2010. I’m still alive. I never had severe symptoms again.

I owe it to Powerlifting.

Powerlifting saved my life and I feel I must give back something of what I received from it. So I dedicate my life to this sport: I study it, I compete, I write about it, but chiefly I try to teach other people who need this noble form of art that allows me to appreciate the beauty of life for a little longer.

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Final remarks: an abused person will never be the same again. There is extensive research about that, but I can tell from my own experience that although powerlifting saved my life, there is no cure for whatever I have. I am ok while teaching to whatever number of students, but I can’t be in crowds; I am weary of strangers; I don’t like being touched by strangers and even not-so-strangers. I am weird, a freak. But I am a freak who can be happy under a loaded bar and I think this is what I wanted everyone to know. No, there is no cure, there is no forgetting, there is no complete healing. But, yes, there is happiness and serenity beyond abuse. Mine was found under the bar, with as much weight as I can manage.


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