Ken Walsh: Trading in Drug Highs for CrossFit Highs while Helping High School Students
Ken Walsh hit rock bottom in 2012. One day soon CrossFit would help him turn his life around and he’d have a new mission, speaking to high school students about addiction, mental health, trauma and fitness. But today wasn’t that day.
- “I got a call telling me my father was in the hospital with pneumonia. Within a week, we found out he had stage four lung cancer and three to six months to live. Two weeks later, the pneumonia had spread to his other lung and killed him,” said 43-year-old Walsh.
What hit Walsh the hardest was the fact that his father had passed away with a lot of regrets.
- “I started to question my own mortality. I was 50 pounds overweight and my drug use at the time was at its worst,” said Walsh, whose drug and alcohol problem started when he was just a teenager.
- “I was basically high all day every day,” he said of his high school years.
In hindsight, he knows substance abuse was his way of coping with “the trauma and emotions” that stemmed from his home life.
- “We were poor and on welfare, and my mother was an opioid addict and mentally ill,” he explained.
- “I witnessed multiple suicide attempts…For most of my high school years, she was there, but not there. Sometimes she just laid in bed all day,” he added.
Meanwhile, one of Walsh’s older sisters — whom he was very close with and had taken on a motherly role in his life — had become addicted to heroin and eventually shot and killed herself.
Again, Walsh coped by turning to drugs and alcohol. But when his father died in 2012, something triggered inside of him.
- “I started thinking about the legacy I wanted to leave in the world. For the first time ever, I was honest with myself about who I am and what I want to be. I knew that it was time for a change. That’s when my fitness journey started,” Walsh said.
He had heard about CrossFit and was interested in trying, but he felt too overweight and unhealthy to join a CrossFit gym. Instead, Walsh started dieting and running five or six days a week and within a year-and-a-half, he had lost 50 pounds. Though healthier, he continued to lie to himself that he could continue to be a social drinker, he explained.
- “This is common with addicts. You think you can still do it sometimes and get it under control,” he said.
- “But then I would drink and it would lower my inhibitions and then I’d do drugs. So I’d be really healthy for a bit, but then would drink and do drugs and smoke cigarettes, and then would go back to being really healthy again,” he said of the yo-yo lifestyle he lived that year.
To make matters worse Walsh, who also battles anxiety and depression, was diagnosed as bipolar.
- “When you throw drugs and alcohol into the mix with mental illness, it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire,” he said.
After a year of dieting and running and losing weight, all the while continuing to binge with drugs and alcohol, Walsh decided it was time to try CrossFit. He joined Resilience CrossFit in Hopkinton, MA in 2014.
- “Right away, the community was very supportive and welcoming to all walks of life, and that feeling of belonging I get from CrossFit is something I was looking for, something I needed,” he said.
- “The fitness high kind of replaced the high I would get from drugs. And the workouts really helped me deal with the angst and anxiety I feel, and get rid of all the negative energy in my life,” Walsh added of how his life started to turn around when he found CrossFit.
More than anything, though, CrossFit made him want to be healthier.
- “Being surrounded by healthy and fit people started to change how I lived my life outside the gym. I wanted to be able to be at my best when I was at the gym,” he said.
Becoming healthier and fitter also helped Walsh accept that he needed to stop fooling himself that he could continue to be a social drinker and drug user.
- “I finally accepted that I’m not like other people. I needed to give into the fact that I can’t drink or do drugs at all,” said Walsh.
Today, Walsh has been totally sober for more than two years, and he works out seven days a week at Post Road CrossFit in North Kingstown, R.I., where he lives with his wife and two kids.
- “I’m happy now. I’d forgotten for a long time what it felt like to feel true joy,” he said of his mental state today.
On the side, he devotes time to sharing his story by speaking at local high schools, where he talks about trauma, mental illness, his battle with alcohol and drugs and the importance of fitness for those with substance abuse and mental illness. His goal is to help the youth of today by providing them tools to better cope with trauma, mental illness and addiction.
- “My story has evolved in terms of what I share. At first, I mostly talked about mental illness, but as my workouts started getting better and my whole life started improving from sobriety, I started being more outspoken about my addiction…And since I started being more open, more and more people seek me out and tell me that they’re struggling too,” said Walsh, who now works as a senior project manager for a medical device manufacturer.
His message: “I think people need to see someone that looks like me — someone who is fit and in shape and has their life together — can still be an addict, and that recovery is possible,” he said.
- “We need to continue to attack the stigma of mental health and addiction head on, and bring empathetic discussions (about) these diseases into the mainstream conversation so that people who are suffering are willing to ask for help without fear of being judged. The battle with addiction and mental illness is winnable, if we ask for help, build the right support system, and work tirelessly towards the goal of mental health and long-term recovery.”