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Fitness, Depression, and the Phoenix.
Written by Dave Vargo on Jan 29, 2019.
A man who is
young, fit, and full of life.
married to an amazing woman who supports him fully and loves him
unconditionally, and a new father to a son who endlessly radiates infectious
joy and energy.
He has a
nice house, a supportive and helpful extended family, and has worked hard to
change his profession and establish a successful career path.
perpetually positive and always looking to make those around him smile and
He is a man who seems to have it all together.
Except behind closed doors, he is ripping apart at the seams.
The man in the story is me.
Hi, my name is Dave Vargo and this is my life.
The former story is not to suggest that my every day
existence is an outright lie, per se; rather it is a mask that I use to protect
myself and others from the grim truth:
For most of
my adult life, I have been fighting a war with depression.
Those who are unfortunate enough to share this diagnosis
know the weight that this word truly holds.
It’s critical to understand that clinical depression is more than just simply “feeling down”, or
having a terrible day. It’s more than what we feel after a breakup or losing
This isn’t to downplay the inherent shittiness of these events, it’s
simply to say that depression hits quite differently. In fact, for me at least,
depression seems to rear its ugly head when it makes absolutely no sense. When everything seems to be
going just fine.
Also, notice that I’ve used the word war, not battle. The general literary analogy
suggests that a war is made up of many battles that can be won or lost (i.e.
“you’ve won the battle but lost the war”). I bring this up because there have
been many battles in years past that I have most certainly lost.
The reality is: Depression possesses the immense power to
steal days from your life.
There have been mornings where I could barely scrape
together enough motivation to just put my feet on the ground.
When I did, I was nothing more than a zombie. A robot.
step I took was a chore, every word I spoke was forced, and every breath I took
was just one less that I had to take before I came home to collapse back onto
Everything in my life would come to a screeching halt.
I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t exercise. And, most detestable, I put an unfair amount
of strain on my relationship with my wife. I can’t begin to describe the guilt
and disgust that results from feeling like you’re failing those who love you
and depend on you.
What’s more, prior to becoming a full-time trainer in 2017,
I was stuck for years at an absolutely soul-crushing dead-end job, which made a bad situation worse. Every morning begged the question if
today would be the day that depression’s looming hands would descend and take
After years of cyclically sinking further down, I found myself consuming a steady diet of Xanax and dip during the workday.
Anything I could get my hands on to numb my miserable existence and, more often
than not, the evening was capped off by more than a few healthy servings of bourbon.
The Turning Point
I still remember the evening of my interview with Fitness Together.
Darkness had just begun to creep
in as I left the Jewish Community Center long after hours; the cold wind
beating against my face as I made my way back to my car. My mind was racing and
my back cramping, the lingering effects of an anxiety attack that I had
suffered during the service call I’d just wrapped up.
It had become common for me to suffer from regular panic attacks at work. And
that’s what happened on interview day. So, in frustration, I emailed the owner
of the studio to say I wouldn’t make our interview while I struggled to compose
myself amidst a scattering of copier parts across the floor.
After I finished up the service
call, I trudged out to my car, carelessly dumped what I had in my arms into my
trunk and slammed it shut. Then, I sat in silence for a minute and took a few
deep breaths to allow the storm in my head to pass. It was at that point that
I shook my head and had a moment of realization.
I submitted to the fact that this needed to happen. It was a sign - especially
after the particularly anxiety-ridden month that I had just endured - that this
was seemingly the universe’s last cruel shit on me before I rose above to the
next level in my life and career.
I needed to wipe the proverbial
blood from my face and get my ass up to that studio. This was now my time,
and I refused to let this fucking job cut away any more of my future and steal
any more of my soul.
I sped up to the studio and
fearlessly paraded through the door, my disdain for the situation that I had to
overcome still simmering in the back of my mind.
Chris – the general manager at
the time –was surprised to see me, mentioning that he thought I canceled, to
which I gave him a short overconfident line of “Well, I made it anyway.” I
buried my nervousness and took him through the mandatory “interview workout”,
pouring out as much of my knowledge and passion as possible, and we followed it
with a sit-down interview which would prove to be the first of a few successful
steps to begin the next chapter of my life.
Like many who share this curse, my depression comes in waves.
Highs and lows. Wins and losses.
It is a war made of many battles.
And, though I have lost many battles, I am still winning the war.
am still here.
If I open my eyes in the morning and I see light and can
draw breath, I have a goddamn chance.
This is what I say to myself in times of darkness, and it
will likely be echoed for the rest of my life.
One of my biggest fitness and business influences, John
Romaniello, once uttered this very powerful assertion:
”So much of anxiety
and depression comes from feeling out of control, and training gives you a very
secure measure of control.”
I have found this to be true as well.
Out of all of the things we encounter in life, the ability
we have to mold our habits and impose our will onto our
own body is the ultimate exercise of control. The power we have – but sometimes
do not use – to affect every area of our life is immense.
Fitness is more than just losing weight and gaining muscle.
It’s more than fitting into an old pair of pants and looking
good naked, or than lifting more weight than we did before.
It’s more than sets, reps, and iron.
Sure, these elements are important, but I’d argue vehemently
that in most cases, the true benefit of fitness is buried much deeper. Deeper
than most of the surface-level answers we give to the question of “What are
Peeling back the most superficial layers of a person’s
psyche, concealed below the surface you might find the confidence that’s needed
to allow a man to finally take the next step to excel in his career.
Or the mental strength to recover from a divorce or failed
Or simply the will to do something; anything, to find light when darkness falls and getting out of bed
is a seemingly unachievable action.
Fitness is a vehicle that allows us to create a focal point
for taking back control over our body and mind.
In Greek mythology, the Phoenix is a legendary mystical bird
that cyclically bursts into flames and rises again from the ashes of its
predecessor. This powerful symbol of renewal and regeneration can be applied to
any number of hardships we endure over the course of life.
Whatever form life’s adversity may manifest – anxiety, depression, loss of a loved one,
divorce, or the shame of failure – you have a very clear choice to either
wallow in your pain and sink further down, or burn your shit down and rise from your fucking
Sure, the scars of yesterday will always rise with you. I
personally relish this, however, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leverage the dormant fire you have burning within by taking
action on your fitness goals today.