Hello everyone, my name is John Joshua William Oxenford, and I work for The NAN Project as a Lead Peer Mentor – I’ve been working with TNP since August of 2020, and find that it gives me (and all of us involved) a platform to give help to people who are struggling with mental illness. The NAN Project helps me reconnect with my acting skills while presenting my own personal story of crisis and recovery. I have been acting since I was eight years old, and have been in a few plays (around 2008-2009) including The Boys of Winter at The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Romeo & Juliet for the New Art Theatre in New Hampshire. Music is another huge element in my life. I have my own solo project in the metal genre, and I am looking to expand into other genres by collaborating with other musicians. I just got my very first demo recorded at Chillhouse Recording Studio, and am trying to reach out to other musicians to play with. But my main focus in my life, and something that connects very closely with my mental, physical, emotional–and even spiritual–stability, is fitness! In this story I will discuss how fitness was (and is) a main focus in my life, and how it changed and evolved throughout my life until now; and mainly, how it positively effects and supports my mental health (as well as my physical, emotional, and spiritual health, which in my opinion are all closely connected).
My first form of fitness was soccer. My mother got me involved with Cambridge Youth Soccer at age eight, and I started as a defender on the ‘Ebony’ team; I remember the first time I kicked a soccer ball in a game; the ball came rolling to me, none of the other kids were near – I thought, “What should I do?”– and I made the decision to run up and kick the ball as hard as I could! And that’s when soccer started being a huge part of my life.
My next team was ‘Ivory.’ I was playing with a lot of higher skilled kids, and did what I could when I was on the field, but I didn’t do much. In the last quarter of the season, our extremely supportive coach made it his dedication that my friend and I would each score our very first goal. Believe it or not, before the season was over, we both did! It gave me the idea and understanding that through setting goals and having support from others to accomplish them, one can complete seemingly unreachable ambitions. What a motivation to keep playing my favorite sport.
‘Sky Blue,’ my next team, was a completely different experience… we were losing every game, by massive goal differences. However, even from ‘Sky Blue’ I had a learning opportunity. It must have been one of the last games of the season. All of my teammates had stopped playing, and were literally just standing still (who could blame them?). The other team was kicking the ball around effortlessly, bringing the game to a close… Even though it seemed the match had come to a close, I had not stopped trying. I chased the ball as fast as I could and yelled at my teammates, “Come on guys! It’s not over yet!” And even though they didn’t seem to take any notice, I learned something about myself that day… I am not someone who easily gives up.
Today, as we at TNP present to schools, I remember that moment in my life, and search to convey that life experience to students who might be going through a similar time as I did. Even though I could have seen that game as another hopeless loss, I gave all that I could until the very end; it reminds me of times in my life when I didn’t feel like there was any hope for me; that memory, of not giving up, helps and has helped me know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and there is hope – sometimes you just have to wait it out until it arrives. And even though that season of seemingly endless losses didn’t feel good, it gave me some emotional and mental endurance, for when I was on other teams, that some players had never been through. This endurance is important for me when accomplishing my fitness goals, and something that I carry with me through other challenges in my life.
In high school, I was a starter as a defender, on my school’s, Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS), soccer team, and later transitioned to midfield. Trying out for the team was a heavy challenge, where we had to complete 12 laps on the field’s track (the center field at Danehy Park, that CRLS used for home games and most of the time for practice) in a short amount of time. Even after making the team, the new requirements for midfield were another challenge. Midfield required me to keep my head up and aware, to pass to my teammates as well as still play defense if my team needed it. This required new effort, but it also gave me new self esteem, as I was able to accomplish new challenges that seemed daunting to me at first. Being on this team, from Freshman to Junior year, was exciting, and brought on an event, in my Sophomore year, which is now my favorite memory of playing soccer.
I was a starter in a game, playing midfield, and the ball came to me, and I looked up, seeing that I had some time; I was at the half field line, and found some comfort in kicking the ball a few paces, thinking about what I should do… All of a sudden, I felt an inspiration to kick the ball, and I just let that feeling guide me as I gave everything I had at that moment to kick the ball. I saw it leave my foot, and it soared far over all of the other players and curled smoothly into the upper left side of the other team’s goal, as their keeper dove as far as he could to try to stop the goal. That experience helps me find hope and confidence in myself when I am going through moments of depression or low self esteem, when I feel like I can’t do anything good enough or it’s just not worth trying. I think it is important for people to make note, and remember, those moments in their lives, when they did something that helped them feel good about themselves, when they accomplished something that made them feel really proud – especially when combatting moments of sadness or hopelessness.
And yet, something changed during my senior year of high school. I think it was mainly through my increasing use of substances – that I’d done to try and socialize and have fun and feel confident with other kids – that really brought me down. I became isolated and angry, and doubtful of even my family and friends. Out of nowhere, I decided to stop playing soccer – my only source of fitness. It wasn’t all terrible… I joined the dance club, and was able to perform for the school in their modern dance performance; I was still playing music with friends, and even writing my own songs; I was also winning awards in acting competitions. However, another result of my symptoms, which now I am certain came from substance abuse, was that I decided not to join the school’s theatre department in that year’s play, the play that they were taking to the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild’s Theatre Competition (something that, since Freshman year, had been a main point of every year for me). My symptoms were taking over, and I began to become skeptical of everyone around me, antisocial, introverted, and angry.
This only increased during my first year of college, and led me quickly to make a decision to drop out. I wasn’t playing soccer, and I wasn’t exercising in any way. I tried my skills in the professional acting world, but dropped out of that too. I stopped communicating with friends and family, and, all of this doubt in the world and anger of things not going my way and lack of trust in people who could have helped me, led me to attempt suicide. The first thing I remember, after waking up in hospital, is seeing my mom; and that was a very appropriate experience, because it was mainly through her advice and encouragement that I began to incorporate fitness into my life, again, in other ways.
After my recovery in hospital, I began living in a group home in Somerville, MA, and was just beginning to put my life together again, more independently this time. I began to trust my mother (again) and we regained our close bond that we’d had before I began substance abuse. She advised me to get a membership at a gym, and I began to research gyms that were close to where I lived. It took a few years of trying out different gyms, with different locations, different trainers, and different vibes and environments… Eventually I found a gym that was, appropriately, in the same building as the Mass Rehab building that I was going to to look for work and train for job interviews – just a 10 minute walk from where I was living. I got some lessons with a trainer there that helped me get comfortable with the gym, as I began to decide what workouts I wanted to incorporate into my routine. I started to feel like a real gym goer, and so I also began to acquire the feeling of being in another community, one that was focused solely on physical health. However, I was still trying to find the correct medications for me, and thus was going in and out of hospitalizations. The decision I made after my final release from hospital, was a milestone in my fitness lifestyle.
With the exception of “Fresh Air,” time (when we were taken outside for an hour twice a day, in a fenced off area, to shoot some hoops and get a breather) I was stuck indoors for about a month. My mother was very worried about me not getting any exercise, so, she bought me some pushup rotation handles – and even bought a treadmill for the ward! So, I became accustomed to counting out some pushups, when I felt like it, and getting a good 20-30 minute fast walk when the inspiration called. So, it was out of hospital, after my last hospitalization, with my medications finally set in a way that was comfortable for me, that I began to make some consistent fitness goals for myself to accomplish. Every day, I did 10 pushups, and jogged to the bridge and back (about 30 minutes). And, I did this routine, practically every day without fail, for a year. Once I got comfortable with that routine, I added 5-10 more pushups, and jogged a little bit further, on the Boston esplanade (about 45 min).
It was around then that I began working as a cleaner for Boston Sports Club, and later, Boston Racquet Club. Through being immersed in the gym experience, and seeing other people’s routines, and experimenting with different workouts, I found my own routine. Now, I write down a percentage of how much I worked out every day; with my main routine being, given enough time, 4 sets of 10 pushups, 2 sets of 10 situps, 2 sets of 10 crunches, and a 30 minute jog on the treadmill. I also do some cardio on the row machine sometimes, as well as some calisthenic cardio (like high knees or fast feet). Sometimes I do some free weight work, or a few sets on the gym machines. And if I don’t have enough time to do all that, I do the most that I can. I’ve been more than happy now that we are into spring, and I count that my jog (around the Charles River in Cambridge) clocks from 40 min to 50 minutes! And it was only through first completing my smaller tasks that I am now able to accomplish these larger tasks, so something I always say is, “10 steps is better than no steps.” When I started working out, of course I had my dreams and ambitions, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to get there in one day.I think one should always feel good about accomplishing the basics first, and set the greater ambitions after one has achieved those smaller, more basic goals. With fitness, this is especially important in order to exercise safely. Also, living (finally) in my own apartment, nearer to the river–and in a healthier environment–has increased my motivation for fitness exponentially. So make sure you are feeling good about what you are doing, because emotional support helps physical achievements greatly.
Another compliment to my mom! She offered that we work out every Sunday with a friend she met at work – who worked out at gym classes all the time! I said yes, and we take turns every week on leading the workout for 45 minutes; we do leg work, with some activities like lunges, monster walks, and jump squats; fast interval cardio, with fast feet, high knees, and jumping jacks; abdominal work, with bicycles, planks, and standing crunches; I otherwise would not have added these workouts into my workout routine – plus I get two fitness trainers and get to be a trainer myself every third week as well! On rainy days, I stay in and do some fast feet, high knees, jumping jacks, and jumping rope, with some pushups and crunches and situps.
On days where I don’t have the energy to complete my goals 100%, I do the most I feel I’m motivated to do (10 pushups is better than none); and if I were to recommend some ways to workout on “not-motivated days”, I would say, get a trainer at a gym, or set up your workouts with a friend, to hold yourself more accountable and not to have to rely wholly on yourself every day, you don’t have to be down on yourself for not accomplishing 100% of your goals every day. I remember at work (with The NAN Project), me and another coworker found out fitness was a mutual element in one another’s lives – so we set up a pushup contest, at lunch! So, on a day where I would have otherwise not done too much fitness activity, I got to check off my pushups goal–as well as others that I did after the motivation I got from the pushup contest.
Fitness meets my physical goal, but it also meets my emotional, mental – and even spiritual – goals. Maintaining my fitness routine helps me feel good about myself, emotionally, of the fact that I met an important goal in my life. Even if I don’t look like a first place body builder (yet?..), just the fact that I accomplished something that means a lot to me helps me feel happy and proud of myself every day I accomplish it. Mentally, I am sure, fitness is a requirement; oxygen and blood circulation going through my entire system keeps me in a good mental state, and helps keep my thoughts on a healthy track. And, lastly, spirituality… I used to think, being diagnosed with a mental illness contradicted spirituality, and I would self diagnose any event (that I used to think was spiritual) as a symptom. I often get feelings, sensations, or thoughts when I work out that I would call spiritual, and, through therapy, I am now able to be with those events without diagnosing them as symptoms, and be aware of symptoms as separate from those experiences. Jogging around the Charles River (in the city I grew up in, living in my own apartment, and being in a healthy environment) helps me have faith, that, through consistent dedication to the things that matter to me, I am seen as a person who can help this world, by a power that looks well upon a person who cultivates healthy energies to make a healthier world.
Keeping up with consistent exercise has physiological benefits that can improve one’s mental health, but it is also the routine and discipline in meeting my fitness goals that has helped me keep on my path to recovery. Whatever your level of motivation, I encourage you to start a goal on something that matters to you in your life. It is both the effect of doing something that matters to you as well as the pride you feel in achieving a goal, that can help you in improving your wellbeing.