ADDICTION & HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
BY MIKE HOLDEN, WITH AILI HAMMERSMITH, CASEY STENEHJEM, & LORI YOKIEL
PHOTOS BY SCOTT DIESTLER | LIQUID SPECTRUM
HAIR/MAKEUP BY HEATHER WITTIG, ERICA AMARIS, & MELISSA IVERSON
Three inspiring women turn to fitness as they beat addiction
Aili Hammersmith hit rock bottom.
“My body image issues started late in high school, and just got worse as I entered my college years. I was actively bulimic for over three years. Despite the purging, I still gained weight. Embarrassed, I started smoking to curb hunger and drank to cope with any emotions. Then I took laxatives and was cutting myself, which led to an ambulance trip to the ER. This was my turning point,” she says. She started exercising.
At first, she wasn’t sure where to start. “I researched online to see how many calories I should eat, how many times I needed to workout, etc. I was really just winging it. Everything I ate was recorded in an app on my phone, and I was running outside, rollerblading and doing workout DVDs for exercise,” explains 37-year-old Hammersmith, who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota. And then the mother of two hit another wall, trying to lose postpartum weight.
“After a couple years, I couldn’t lose the last ten pounds. So I looked into getting a coach and possibly doing a fitness competition,” she says. “I searched online and through Facebook to find a trainer with a good reputation for results. I ended up working with one for several months, but he ended up being such a bully that it wasn’t worth it. But I did lose the last ten.”
“I kept exercising and lifting, and I then slipped into drinking and drugs.” -Casey Stenehjem
That experience drove her to find a locally-based competition coach, who could prepare her for the second half of her goal, along with an improved science-driven diet Hammersmith describes it as “magical.” Finding the right coach worked, and then some.
“I won first in my class at my first Figure competition,” says Hammersmith. “I rode on that high for months to come. I would have been happy with a top five finish. That’s always the goal at least.” But she more than surpassed her goal at that initial competition.
“They called third, not me. When they called second and it was not me, you could see in a video my instant change in posture. I went from standing tall to hunched over because I was so very humbled. I should have stood tall but I was just in shock. I was standing next to amazing women who also poured their hearts and souls into the competition. I just felt so lucky,” she says.
That was 2011 and that theme, of finding herself in the company of inspiring women and feeling fortunate, would continue for Hammersmith. In 2013, she met Casey Stenehjem through a friend while at her competition coach’s house.
Stenehjem, a 25-year-old from Minneapolis, previously battled an eating disorder and, like Hammersmith, found herself turning to exercise in an effort to beat it. “I became addicted to running,” says Stenehjem. “Once I started to recover from my eating disorder, I kept light exercise in my life to keep me sane. About a year after my recovery, I wanted to heal my anorexic scars on my body, which were my bones. I started to hate how skinny I was. This is where I fell in love with strength training.”
But her journey to better health wasn’t without its bumps. “I kept exercising and lifting, and I then slipped into drinking and drugs. It took some time to pull myself out of the drinking. I didn’t see it as a problem because it wasn’t as serious as it was when I was younger.”
Despite the setback, working out remained a key part of Stenehjem’s life. “For some reason, I never could let go of what exercise gave me,” she says. “It was therapeutic. One day, hitting rock bottom, I made a list. I wrote down everything that makes me feel better; all which were negative, except for exercise. I circled it and decided that is where I needed to place my focus.”
“I had a rough, unexplained break up, peer pressure, recovering from a knee injury, financial issues, and more.” -Casey Stenehjem
In order to maintain that focus, Stenehjem says she needed a challenge and signed up for her first competition. “I always admired strong women and had met one who introduced me to fitness competitions. That commitment wasn’t only pushing my body to the max, it was also mental. I had to self talk daily. I didn’t think I was capable of it. I learned so much about myself in those 14 weeks of preparation.”
She spent all 14 of those weeks sober and it wasn’t easy. “I was bothered by the ongoing joke of my coworkers at the time that I could never give up alcohol. I took that pretty hard. I questioned myself about if that were true and if I could commit to my own word. Every single day while I was getting ready for that competition I told myself ‘Be true to your word. You owe yourself that. Bad things will happen but that doesn’t mean you don’t stop.’”
There were plenty of things that could have thrown Stenehjem off her plan. “I had a rough, unexplained break up, peer pressure, recovery from a knee injury, financial issues, and more. Every day I wanted to give up and do what I thought made me feel better. After the competition I realized I can stay true to my word. I can decide to do something and accomplish it. And I can make my own choices, even when life gets rough.”
Stenehjem’s goal at the end of those 14 weeks was simply to step on stage at The Iron Viking fitness competition in Duluth. During the morning portion of the show, Stenehjem lost all her confidence. “I realized I started worrying about my looks, not self acceptance. But I went on stage at the night show with a whole different attitude. It was a great accomplishment and a lesson learned,” as she went on to take fifth place.
“Yokiel has been sober for almost 20 years, after checking herself into treatment for drugs and alcohol at 18 years old…”
In May of this year, Hammersmith connected with another woman who uses fitness as a way to deal with life on life’s terms, a phrase sometimes used by those who battle addition. Lori Yokiel was barely clothed when it happened. They met while Hammersmith was spray tanning her and other women at the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation’s Mr. and Mrs. Natural Minnesota show in Bloomington.
Hammersmith and Yokiel, who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, also realized that they had some things in common. In addition to fighting addition—Yokiel has been sober for almost 20 years, after checking herself into treatment for drugs and alcohol at 18 years old—they both saw a marriage come to an end and faced adversity in their personal life.
“Despite the fact I had been clean and sober for 13 years, I was still suffering so many losses…”
“When I met Aili there was a connection, immediately, for I didn’t feel judged from her, as I was up for my first competition and she was tanning my bare naked ass. That meant a lot and helped me to have more confidence to step on that stage,” says Yokiel. Hammersmith laughs about this first encounter. “We use humor to get through, too,” she says.
For Yokiel, it happened in 2008. “Despite the fact I had been clean and sober for 13 years, I was still suffering so many losses,” says Yokiel. “These included the loss of a baby, going through bankruptcy and foreclosure and losing my marriage. My ex-husband left with my personal bridesmaid. With all of this, I decided to begin working on my outside.”
She was introduced to a trainer through a chiropractor that she’d seen for migraines. “He suggested that I give her a call and see if she might be able to help me strengthen my muscles. It was after I called her that I began my journey in fitness and health,” explains Yokiel.
That was 2008 and Yokiel weighed over 200 pounds at the time. “I have not only dropped 70 lbs, 65 inches and over 25% body fat, but I’ve obtained sponsorships through multiple venues as a sponsored runner and now a sponsored bodybuilder,” says Yokiel, who has attended nearly 37 road races and has only recently branched out into fitness competitions like the one where she met Hammersmith.
Though they’re unable to exercise together due to geography, Hammersmith, Stenehjem, and Yokiel continue to motivate one another. “We support each other via text and on Facebook,” says Hammersmith. They also look to support others going through situations that are similar to what they’ve dealt with. “We are standing as leaders on something that is a common issue,” says Stenehjem.
One thing the three woman hear sometimes is that perhaps they’ve simply replaced one addiction with another, that exercise has taken the place of a drinking problem or eating disorder. None of them feel this is true.
“I respect what my body does for me, what it has the ability to do and what it has gone through.” -Casey Stenehjem
“My fitness journey did not start immediately following my bout with bulimia. If it had, it definitely would have been replacing one addiction with another. I got the help I needed and years passed before I knew it was time to channel my energy into something more positive,” explains Hammersmith.
“I used to fear that I went from one addiction to the next until I realized I choose to worship and respect my body,” says Stenehjem. “I respect what my body does for me, what it has the ability to do and what it has gone through. I have never looked at my past addictions this way. They seemed to have chosen me.”
“For me, it’s not switching addictions, due to the simple fact that I work with trainers who mentor me through a program,” states Yokiel. “It’s the guidance and suggestions from them, where I need to follow what’s being taught, otherwise, I’m running the show – hence an addiction. I solely believe that when one relies on a program and follows it through faith and a higher power, one is not in an addiction. They are working on their inner self and soul as well as their physique and inner balance.”
“You have to take care of your body,” says Hammersmith. “It’s the only place you have to live.”
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