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Gay teen athlete used weightlifting to keep from killing himself

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Preston Cope hated who he was growing up in rural Ohio, but is coming to acceptance as he looks to a brighter future.

Preston Cope
Photo by Candace Smith

We have all heard that exercise is good for the body, but for me weightlifting and powerlifting have been more than just about lifting heavy and creating a better physique. Lifting has been my escape, where I grow not only my muscles, but myself as a person. The growth that lifting has provided me has been instrumental to helping keep me alive.

I put my headphones in and listen to music, a podcast, or motivational videos from YouTube. Depending on the day of the week, I get ready for my main movements. That could involve putting knee sleeves on for squat, chalking my hands for deadlift or tightening wrist wraps for bench.

My favorite movement is the deadlift. After chalking my hands, I do my three warm-up sets to get ready for my heavy sets. Once it is time to pull heavy I put on more chalk, tighten my belt around my stomach, position my legs, look myself in the mirror and then pull. The first pull is always the hardest, but once I gain momentum I am in the zone. This zone creates the red face, shaking tired legs, the raw calluses, and, on good days, a new personal record.

While this all may seem familiar to anyone who lifts, what is probably not familiar is what is going on inside my head.

I am in a world where emotions and thoughts start flowing. I start thinking about things that I do my best to suppress throughout the rest of the day. During this time the emotions of anxiety, fear and a lot of anger come up. For the past two years, whether I knew it the whole time or not, anger has fueled my workouts. Instead of punching a wall, drowning these emotions in alcohol or drugs or completely offing myself, I used this anger it to hit a new PR.

I did one powerlifting competition just to try it, but it was not for me. I realized I had no desire to compete against other people because I already had a competition to focus on — with myself.

For the past two years I have had a constant battle inside my head about who I am. My brain wanted nothing more than to be straight. I wanted to be the person my family and friends expected me to be. I just wanted to be “normal.” However, as clichéd as it sounds, my heart has known from a very young age that I am gay.

I blame having such a hard time coming to terms with my sexuality on my roots. Living on a farm in rural Ohio is probably not the best place for an unknowingly gay boy to grow up. I attended a high school with a graduating class of less than 100, participated in conservative activities like 4H and come from a family with generations of farmers. If homosexuality was ever a topic, most likely it was the butt of a joke or just ridiculed.

I would hear things like my aunt telling a joke at a family holiday about Elton John and his sexuality. Or my cousin talking about those “stupid gays.” Or my Mom saying “ewww” when a same sex couple kissed on TV. Or my uncle saying, “I don’t really care for them” when talking about gays. Or my neighbor telling me that “it is a sin and they are all going to Hell.” These are only a fraction of things I have heard, and while they seemed innocent to the person saying them, they were absolutely scarring to me when trying to come to terms with myself.

During sophomore year of high school in 2015, I finally came out to myself. After years of denial, I could no longer hope that the feelings I was having were just a phase. It took months for me to physically say the words “I am gay” out loud to myself. I knew that if I said those words that it was going to be true and I did not want it to be.

I finally looked myself in my bathroom mirror and said “I am gay” and threw up into the toilet beside me and just cried hysterically.

I have never minded being different or standing out from the crowd, but I did not see this as just being uniquely different. I saw myself as disgusting, as a disappointment, and as a failure. I thought that if my mom reacted negatively to the same sex couple on TV, then she would surely find her own son disgusting. I thought of myself as everything I grew up hearing about gays — gross, sinful, sick, and that there was something wrong with me.

Since “something was wrong with me” I tried to figure out how to fix it. I would spend hours doing research and watching videos on homosexuality. It got to the point where I came across a study that showed that a certain type of bird with higher mercury levels was more prone to take part in homosexual behavior. I thought somehow I had too much mercury in me and needed to get rid of it. I absolutely drove myself insane trying to “fix” myself.

I would go to bed every night praying, begging, and pleading to just wake up straight, but the only thing I woke up to was disappointment. I could not change and this led me to absolutely hate the person I saw in the mirror.

By junior year I had quit all my sports and really started to withdraw myself from social situations. I quit track because I no longer really enjoyed it and by the time track season came around I had already found lifting and I wanted to just focus on that.

Basketball was a different story. I quit basketball because the environment was not healthy for me. I am told I am an old soul in a young body so I had a hard time relating with my teammates of the same age. Being around a group of immature high school boys where I was annoyed and felt out of place, on top of trying to come to terms with my sexuality, just mentally drained me.

The negative effects of the environment outweighed the small joy I got from playing and that is when I knew it was time to walk away. I do not regret quitting organized sports, because by doing so it gave me the time and energy to do lifting and that has been way more beneficial for me.

I could not help feeling as if this was not supposed to be me and that I was born with the wrong sexuality. I would always play loud music when I took a shower so my mom wouldn’t hear me crying while I tried to understand why this was happening to me.

I would get so mad at myself for not being able to be attracted to girls and it made me hate myself even more. I even became envious of straight couples. The best way I can explain it is that I was mourning the death of the person I would never be, while simultaneously hating the person I was.

I fell to the lowest point in my life. I hated myself, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to change, but I could not accept that this was going to be my life. I thought that if I could not even love myself than who would? If I could not change, I did not want to live. I wrote down my goodbyes and made three suicide videos — one for my mom, one for my sister and one for the rest of my family.

I thought that I had deleted them all, but I recently found the one to my mom. In it, I simply just talk about how I do not know how to be happy. At that time, I knew that I was gay, but if I was going to die, I wanted to be remembered as the person people thought me to be.

In the video, I never say anything about being gay and that is something that still gives me chills because had I died no one would have ever really known the real me.

Weighlifting has been Preston’s salvation.

As someone who lost their dad to suicide and knows how selfish it is and how damaging it is to a family, I never thought I would even think about doing the same thing. However, when you genuinely hate yourself, are so lost and confused, and feel so alone, suicide starts to sound like a very viable option.

For some reason I wasn’t strong enough, or I was strong enough not to go through with it; it depends on how you look at it. Just because I did not go through with it does not mean I wasn’t still completely broken. I was so mentally exhausted from fighting a losing battle all alone and I was just angry. Angry at God, angry at the world, angry at whatever for being born this way and this being my life.

This is where weightlifting played such a crucial rule in my life. Lifting may seem like on odd place to seek solace. However, no amount of weight on a barbell will every compare to the weight on my shoulders of fighting a silent battle, hiding such a big part of me and constantly worrying about what people will think. Putting a barbell on my back has helped keep me from putting a gun barrel in my mouth.

Even on my worst days, lifting was a positive outlet that just allowed me to breathe for a second when the rest of the time I felt like I was trapped in this bubble that was getting smaller and smaller. Even if it was just for a minute I would get the feeling of “everything is going to be OK” and that gave me enough strength to get through the next day.

While weightlifting allowed me to blow off my anger in a positive way and get me through my weeks, it was only a band aid and it was never going to solve my issues. While I did a great job acting like I was OK in public, at home it was a different story.

As time went on and I became more and more depressed and the mask I was wearing began to fall off. I think my Mom thought my behavior was just that of a normal moody teenager, but as time went on she started to get suspicious. She tried talking to me and I would just deflect what was really going on and just say “I don’t know what I am doing with my life” or “school is stressing me,” which were true, but they weren’t the main issue.

Then she walked in on me one night as I was crying and I think at that moment her motherly instincts kicked in and she knew something was seriously wrong. She said, “Preston I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.” I had planned on telling her that I was gay right after graduation; that way, if the worst-case scenario happened and she was disgusted with me I could move away.

However, I couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t even the fact that I was gay, it was the fact that I was just too mentally exhausted to hide that I was completely broken inside. So, with my head turned because I couldn’t even look at my own mom because I was so ashamed, I said “I think I am gay” and after that, all I could say was “I am so sorry, I am so sorry.”

I felt like I needed to apologize for not being the son she wanted, for being an embarrassment and a disappointment. I don’t even think I was really coming out to my mom, it was more of a cry for help. She grabbed me and said, “Look at me, Preston. You are my son, you are a good person, you are my baby, and I will always love you.”

One would think that getting that validation from my mom would have been such a relief but it wasn’t. Yes, it was nice to know that my mom accepted me, but I still hadn’t accepted myself and when you don’t love yourself it is very hard to receive or give love back.

Thankfully, my mom is a great mom and forced me to go to therapy.

Preston has found the gym to be a great place to think.

Most of my senior year I have been in therapy talking about my sexuality and how I feel about myself. As the saying goes “it helps just to talk about it” and I can attest to this. I like to think that I am a pretty strong person, but bottling up so many emotions and confusions for years will eat even the strongest person alive.

During my time in therapy I have made a lot of progress with myself and have learned a lot, but one thing really stayed with me. I have had so much fear of disappointing the people closest to me, but as my therapist has taught me, if someone really cares about you, the only thing that should matter is that you are HEALTHY, HAPPY and ALIVE. This is a rule that I will live with for the rest of my life, no matter the situation. At the end of the day, the people that matter don’t mind, and the people that mind don’t matter.

As I write this I am not publicly out yet, however by the time this is published I will obviously be. The day after my high school graduation last week I made this YouTube video to explain to people in my hometown what I have been going through:

I have come so far with learning how to accept myself, but I still have a lot of progress to make. I still have days where I wake up and I go back to complete denial that this is my life. I think this stems from the fact that I have had such a hard time with the label “gay.”

I thought that if I was “gay,” my life and personality had to fit a stereotype. However, this has been due to a lack of exposure and small town thinking. I owe a huge thanks to Gus Kenworthy, Colton Haynes, and Robbie Rogers and his book “Coming Out to Play.” Thank you for living your lives authentically and helping to show others struggling to find themselves that their sexuality does not have to define their personality nor their capabilities.

The first person I told that I was gay was my friend sophomore year of high school and she has kept my secret for more than two years and I am very thankful because being outed before I was ready is something I would not have been able to handle. As of this writing only five people officially know that I am gay; all have shown me nothing but love and support, especially my sister and my mom. My mom has been the one who has picked me up on the days where I did not have enough strength to do so myself. She has not only taught me, but has showed me what unconditional love is and for that I am forever grateful.

There are also handful of people who know that I am gay in Hawaii. I went there for my spring break and it was the one of the best experiences of my life.

While the beautiful hikes, awesome weather and water, and amazing people I met were great, what made it such an amazing experience was for the first time in my life I could just be me. No constant worrying, no hiding, no feeling like I have this immense amount of weight on my shoulders. It is not like I was a drastically different person than the person I am in my hometown, just the truer version of myself. It is actually very sad to think that one of the best times in my life was something as simple as just being me.

Preston in Hawaii.

I only know a few gay people right now. This is due to the fact that I have only recently let myself explore my true self. For years I denied my feelings for guys and so I refused to act on them. However, as I got older and started to come to terms with myself I needed to make sure that the feelings that I was having were true.

I reached out to another gay male around my age I found on social media and we got in contact and eventually met up. It only took 17 years, but I had my real first kiss. I have kissed a few girls before, but it felt dead — no passion, no spark, just lips.

When I kissed my first guy it was like one of those corny movies when people kiss and the fireworks go off. Everything I was taught growing up told me this was wrong, but to me it felt so right. At this time, I knew that everything that I had been trying to suppress was true and I could no longer deny my nature.

As of now I am doing OK. I still have a lot of anxiety about coming out and still struggle with mild depression. I still have days where I unrealistically hope this will go away. However, I have made so much progress and am very optimistic.

Just as the more courageous people who have come out before me and told their stories, I hope to help anyone struggling with their identity. I hope to help raise awareness about mental illness and help to end the stigma surrounding it. I hope to help open peoples’ minds who may still have the small town mentality of what it means to be “gay.”

I will continue my journey to find myself, my purpose in life, and to fully accept the person that I am. By doing so, I hope that I can one day live a life of peace, like the peace I feel when I am lifting.

Preston Cope, 18, graduated in May as a valedictorian of his Ohio high school class of 2017. You can watch his valedictorian speech here.

He has also completed a year and half at Youngstown State University majoring in Business Administration. He is taking the summer to decide on his future endeavors.

He can be reached at prestoncopeyl@gmail.com, @pcope8 on Instagram, @p.cope8 on Snapchat, @prestoncope8 on Twitter and Preston Cope on Facebook.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski