Addict. Drug dealer. Felon. But since getting sober he inspires others to do the same in his unique exercise class.
Posted in , Nov 25, 2021
Meet me and I bet you don’t think, That guy’s a New York fitness instructor.
I’m not some toned and tanned yoga teacher wearing trendy athletic gear.
I’m a 58-year-old recovering alcoholic and drug addict with a regular-guy physique, shaved head, long gray beard and a body covered in tattoos.
Actually, I don’t think of myself as a fitness instructor, though I do teach SoulCycle classes in New York City, where I live. I’m not sure what to call what I do for a living.
How about…soul inspirer. That’s my goal for every class I lead. It’s also what I try to do for my life-coaching clients. And my podcast listeners.
I have been blessed by God with an amazing second chance in life. I went from being an addict, drug dealer and convicted felon to living and thriving as a sober person for 14 years so far.
I used to hate what I’d done to myself. Now I wake up excited for each new day. Surrendering to a higher power taught me that anyone, however low they’ve sunk, can change direction and climb back up.
I want to pass on that hope. I want to share the joy that comes from living without fear. It’s my mission. One class, one client, one day at a time.
You’ll see what I mean if you come to one of my classes. Rows of stationary bicycles face a single bike on a platform up front. People arrive, in every shape, size and fitness level. They climb on the bikes, and the lights dim. Rock music starts up.
I go slow at first, but soon we’re pounding the pedals, and the music gets louder. I’m loud too.
“Everything you need is already inside you!” I shout. “That’s why I call this a work-in, not a workout!”
I share my story. I encourage people to face their own fears and believe in themselves. I don’t proselytize, but I am candid about being a changed man, saved by grace and grateful for everything I have.
There’s something about being in a small, loud room, surrounded by exhausted, exhilarated, sweaty people facing their limits, that makes you vulnerable.
It sounds weird, but it feels like church. That’s how it was for me my first time. Before I became an instructor, I was a rider like anyone else. I stumbled into my first SoulCycle class 10 years ago. I weighed 300 pounds and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. I was only a few years sober. I had no idea that one class would change the course of my life.
Back up to the beginning. I can’t blame anyone but myself for my problems. I grew up in a loving middle-class family. We moved a lot as my dad climbed the corporate ladder in publishing, and I always felt out of place at school.
Lots of kids grow up feeling awkward. I dealt with it by drinking, starting with sips I’d sneak from my parents’ liquor cabinet before escalating to full-blown alcohol dependency by high school.
Soon I picked up cocaine, got addicted and started dealing to support my habit. TV makes the drug life look glamorous. Believe me, it’s not, no matter how many hip New York parties you go to or how many A-list celebrities buy your drugs.
One morning, after a night of clubbing and dealing, I sat in my car on a Manhattan side street, snorting coke and watching the sun rise. The neighborhood gradually woke up, and families began coming outside to walk to school or work. Parents with kids. Husbands and wives. Good people. They all looked so happy. So normal.
I sat there, alone with my coke and self-loathing. I’m not worthy of a good life, I thought. That pretty much sums up the self-consuming reality of addiction, the spiritual desolation.
I could tell you my addiction story, my qualification as we say in 12-step, and believe me, it’s crazy. But it arrives where they all do. At rock bottom. Mine came in 2006. I’d moved to Los Angeles to pursue stand-up comedy. One day, cops searched my Hollywood apartment and discovered bags of marijuana and cash. I was arrested, convicted and ordered into a six-month residential treatment program in L.A., plus two years’ probation.
I’d already been to rehab multiple times and even sobered up for a long stretch after finishing a treatment program in Mississippi during my mid-twenties. Walking into the facility in L.A., I suddenly remembered what it had felt like to be sober. I’d been happy. Stable. Proud of myself. The siren song of drugs took that all away.
Why had I relapsed? I didn’t really know. What I did know is I wanted my sobriety back, and I would do anything to get it.
I remembered a guy I’d met in the Mississippi treatment program.
“Do you pray?” he’d asked in a thick Southern accent.
“No,” I said.
“Why? You afraid?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.” After all, I’d been shot at during drug deals and tried to kill myself several times.
“Then get down on your knees and pray with me.” The guy knelt by his bed and put his hands together.
I wasn’t about to back down from a challenge. I knelt beside him. The next thing I knew, a peace I had never experienced enveloped me. A sense that something bigger than I could comprehend held me in its hands and would never let me go. I surrendered wholeheartedly. Though my sobriety didn’t last, I had been touched by something miraculous that had taken root deep in my soul.
So I was ready, really ready, to surrender again in the L.A. treatment program. I prayed every morning and evening. I worked the 12 steps. I was determined to walk a different path and asked God for guidance.
I became a case manager—but that didn’t mean all my habits were healthy. I ballooned to 300 pounds. My doctor told me I was a junk food addict and a walking heart attack.
One day, out shopping for underwear (I’m not kidding), I passed a brand-new SoulCycle studio in a mall. On a strange impulse, I walked in.
“Want to try a class?” said the owner. Me? Something made me say yes. I heaved myself onto the bike closest to the door—in case I keeled over and someone had to haul me out.
I started pedaling. Right away, I was out of breath. Everything hurt. I wanted to stop so badly.
Then a thought came to me: I have survived getting shot at, attempting to kill myself and doing an insane amount of drugs. Am I going to let junk food defeat me? No!
I pedaled my heart out and, by the end of the class, felt like a different person. It wasn’t quite like praying, but it was close. I had left some broken part of me behind on the bike and walked out of the studio feeling amazed that I’d survived.
I signed up for two more classes the next day. And the next. Then the day after that. I lost weight fast and gained a reputation for inspiring other riders with my enthusiasm and willingness to bare my soul as the class revved up.
Not long after my first class, an instructor called. He’d hurt his ankle. “Want to help me teach?” he asked.
Again, something made me say yes. I was still pretty heavy. I still smoked, though less. I mounted the podium and got on a bike beside the instructor’s. He led the class, but I helped keep the cadence going. I thought I would be terrified. Instead, the bright lights and eager faces inspired me to pedal even harder. They made me want to be my best self.
A month later, a master teacher asked if I’d like to become an instructor myself. I agreed and ended up moving back to New York to train.
My teaching style was…unique. I held nothing back. I shared my story of addiction and recovery. My struggle with weight. My feelings of worthlessness and my newfound faith in myself. It was an exercise class. But it was also a place where people, including me, could trade their self-deceptions and negative self-talk for an hour’s worth of pure grit. A sanctuary. I loved it.
I’ve been doing it ever since. My classes are popular, but it’s not because I’m some fitness star. I have a hope and an honesty that comes from surrender to a loving higher power. I’ve been to the bottom and, by the grace of God, climbed back up.
See what I mean? I’m a soul inspirer. A guy saved by grace who is helping other people find their own next right step. One class, one client, one day at a time.
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