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Finding Fitness Brought Me Back from the Brink of Suicide

Depressed and anxious, I looked out the window of my home in New Jersey at all of the people moving happily through their lives. I wondered how I'd become a prisoner in my own house. How had I reached this dark place? How had my life gone so far off the rails? And how could I make it all end?

It's true. I had reached a point where I felt so desperate I was even contemplating suicide—more often than I'd like to admit. The thoughts crept up on me. What started as some dark thoughts slowly morphed into an overwhelming darkness that took over my entire mind. All I could think was how much I hated myself and my life. And how much I wanted it all to just end. I didn't see any other escape from the sadness and pain.

My depression started with marital problems. When my ex-husband and I first met, things were picture-perfect romance. Our wedding day was one of the happiest days of my life and I thought it was just the beginning of a long, beautiful life together. I didn't think we were perfect, of course, but I figured we'd make it through together. The cracks began to show almost immediately. It wasn't so much that we had problems—all couples have struggles, right?—it was how we dealt with them. Or, rather, how we didn't deal with them. Instead of talking things out and moving on, we just swept everything under the rug and pretended nothing was wrong. (Here are three conversations you must have before saying "I do.")

Eventually, the pile of issues under the rug got so huge, it became a mountain.

As the months went on and the tension rose, I started to feel off. White noise filled my mind, I couldn't focus, and I didn't want to leave my house or do things I used to enjoy. I didn't realize I was depressed. At the time, all I could think was that I was drowning and no one could see it. If my ex-husband noticed my slide into sadness, he didn't mention it (par for the course in our relationship) and he didn't help me. I felt utterly lost and alone. This was when the suicidal thoughts started.

Yet even though things felt so awful, I was determined to try and save my marriage. Divorce wasn't something I even wanted to consider. I decided, through my fog of depression, that the real problem was that I wasn't good enough for him. Perhaps, I thought, if I got fit and beautiful he'd see me in a different way, in the way he used to look at me, and the romance would come back. I'd never been much into fitness before and wasn't sure where to start. All I knew was that I didn't want to face people yet. So I started exercising and doing home workouts with an app on my phone.

It didn't work—at least not in the way I'd originally planned. I did get fitter and stronger but my husband remained distant. But while it didn't help him love me more, as I kept working out, I slowly started to realize that it was helping me to love myself. My self-esteem had been nonexistent for years. But the more I worked out, the more I began to see tiny little sparks of the old me.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to try something outside of my home—a pole dancing fitness class. It was something that had always looked fun to me and it turned out to be a blast (here's why you should try one, too). I started attending classes several times a week. But there was still one part of it I had a hard time with: the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I hated looking in them. I hated everything about myself, outside and in. I was still firmly in the grip of my depression. But bit by bit I was making progress.

After about six months, my instructor approached me and told me I was really good at the pole and I should consider becoming a teacher. I was floored. But as I thought about it, I realized that she saw something special in me that I didn't—and that that was worth pursuing.

Michele Santiago

So I got trained in pole fitness and became a teacher, discovering that I have a true passion, not just for that one type of workout but for fitness in general. I loved teaching people and inspiring and cheering them on in their own journeys. I loved the challenge of trying new things. But most of all I loved how a good sweat turned off the noise in my brain and helped me find a moment of clarity and peace in what had become a very tumultuous life. While I was teaching, I didn't have to worry about my failing marriage or anything else. Nothing had changed at home—in fact, things had gotten even worse between my husband and me—yet at the gym I felt empowered, strong, and even happy.

Not long after, I decided to get my personal training and group fitness certifications so I could teach more classes, like kickboxing and barre. In my personal training certification class I met Maryelizabeth, a spitfire of a woman who quickly became one of my closest friends. We decided to open The Underground Trainers, a personal training studio in Rutherford, NJ, together. Around the same time, my husband and I officially separated.

Michele Santiago and Business Partner

Even though I was devastated about my marriage, my once long, dark, lonely days were filled with purpose and light. I'd found my calling and it was to help others. As someone who personally struggled with depression, I found I had a knack for recognizing sadness in others, even when they were trying to hide it behind a happy facade, like I always had. This ability to empathize made me a better trainer. I could understand how fitness was about so much more than a simple workout. It was about saving your own life. (Here are 13 proven mental benefits of exercise.) We even decided to make our business motto "Life is tough but so are you" to reach out to others who might be in similarly difficult circumstances.

Michele Santiago Climbing Stairs

In November 2016, my divorce was finalized, closing that unhappy chapter of my life. And while I'll never say that I'm "cured" from my depression, it is mostly abated. These days, I'm happy more often than I'm not. I've come so far, I almost can't recognize the woman who just a few years back had thoughts about killing herself. I recently decided to memorialize my journey back from the brink with a tattoo. I got the word "smile" written in script, replacing the "i" with a ";". The semicolon represents Project Semicolon, an international mental health awareness project that aims to reduce incidents of suicide and help those struggling with mental illness. I picked the word "smile" to remind myself that there is always a reason to smile every day, I just have to look for it. And these days, those reasons aren't so hard to find.

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