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Detours - a candid conversation with Leah West Casciano.

The detours are the most beautiful and heartbreaking parts, they teach us what we’re made of and who we were meant to be. 

You cannot be part of this community without having heard the name, Leah West Casciano. This girl, an OG, has been a strong placement in the community since coming in first place in the 2015 Open in Puerto Rico. Since then, she has transitioned into an elite powerlifter in the 60kg weight class and Olympic weightlifter in the 63kg weight class. She is a badass. Extremely empathetic, real, raw, and uncompromising in her sobriety.

“I’m a Pisces. I cry if I’m happy or sad. I cry a lot. I feel everything all the time.”

Leah’s presence has become more than of a talented athlete, but also a warrior in the arena of addiction and mental health. A leader in helping others fight the same fight she fights every day under the barbell, and outside the gym.

Leah grew up in a family of six and is the second in a long line of athletes. In her home, you had no choice to be involved in sports. Both Leah’s parents were professional bodybuilders. Her brothers and sisters always had free reign in choosing their sport. It was a simple expectation that each child be involved in a competitive arena. “They [my parents] were always open do letting us do whatever, but we had to do something.”

‘Something’ for Leah consisted of (read: all the things) karate, gymnastics, competitive travel soccer, swim team, softball, tennis, and competitive cheerleading in middle school and high school. “Dad’s rule- if you started a season with a team, you had to finish it. You were never allowed to quit. Not ever.” Leah’s total involvement in sports afforded her the opportunity to develop perseverance. A rare characteristic among today’s youth. “Being on a team translates into so much of our adult lives. With having a strong sense of loyalty and commitment came the understanding that you can’t just give up on something because you don’t like it anymore.”

When it came time to think about college Leah never placed that experience as high priority. She felt strongly that there were other more important lessons to be learned by living life. “My parents didn’t go to college. Both had trade jobs. In my mind, an 18-year-old isn’t in a place to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life. I don’t think it’s fair to pressure teenagers to make a choice on what schools they should be going to and what they want to do. Going to college, in what I consider to be very formative years of your life your early 20’s, shapes who you’re going to be as an adult.”

Life experiences found in travel, meeting new people, and learning how to navigate this world on your own is invaluable. That is where you figure out who you really are. What sets your soul on fire and how you can live your most authentic life without starving.  

Leah talks about childhood friends and how they end up in your life mainly due to circumstance. While these friends shape your experiences as you grow up and interact with the world, it isn’t the same as moving somewhere else, getting out of your comfort zone, meeting new people and letting life get a little bit messy. “You end up having a lot more in common as those people,” she states. “The ones you choose rather than the ones that end up in your life due to geography.”

Leah did life exactly like that. From 17 into her mid 20s, she moved all around the country, met tons of people, and tried out a slew of different jobs. Leah considers that an invaluable education. It’s funny how life moves us in certain directions even when we don’t realize it’s happening. A significant point to mention is that around this time in Leah’s life she spent much of it partying, doing drugs, and drinking excessively.

“For me, drugs and drinking goes back to high school. I was kind of living this double life.”

Leah grew up in upper middle class suburbia. She was a varsity athlete in a very large high school. It was the type of atmosphere where, if you were passing classes and performing, you weren’t going to get questioned. Her ability to, “get away with things” was far-reaching.

“In high school several of my friends died from either accidents that occurred while driving drunk or overdosing. I truly believe it was because of the lifestyle our parents were allowing us to have. It was an affluent area so a lot of our parents were gone all the time, which gave us a lot of freedom.”

Leah was always against anyone ever drinking and driving. She fully admits that she would always get really high or really drunk but, she would never get into the car with people. Leah’s lifestyle came to a crashing halt at the age of 17 at the end of her junior year. A girl she had frequently partied with dropped her name after coming clean to her mother about some of the dangerous situations she had been involved in.

“I was livid, but looking back-- thank God she did. My Dad pulled me out of High School and put me into an outpatient rehab facility and I never went back to school after that. I was so mad. I just didn’t have any choice. I went to 90 Narcotic Anonymous meetings in 90 days. After those meetings, I never touched narcotics again. Around that same time, I also had a few more friends overdose, so I was just like, ‘yeah this is dumb’.”

After rehab, Leah moved out on her own, and has been ever since. Although it had been an eye-opening and painful experience, in the sense she lost the ability to finish high school and many of her childhood friends, she began partying a lot more after moving out. In the state of Georgia, if you’re 17 and not enrolled in school, you’re considered a legal adult. Consequently, your parents can’t legally do anything. Leah left home with this ‘I’m doing what I want attitude’, and never looked back.  In addition, she spent the better part of a year not speaking to her Dad. In her 17-year-old mentality ‘what he had done to her’ rather than ‘for her’ changed the course of her whole life.

 “Once I left home, I spent two years bartending, drinking, and using benzos. I was very, very out of control. In my mind, I was like ‘Oh, I’m good because those aren’t narcotics’. But they are still drugs. They are still prescription pills.”

Once Leah moved to Puerto Rico she cut out the pills and began drinking with a vengeance.

“It’s an island. It’s always summer. The drinking was very, very excessive. All day, every day, no matter what.”

At the time Leah didn’t feel like she had a problem. Essentially, being a bartender provided an atmosphere where everyone around her was doing the exact same thing, which almost normalized the drinking. There was no one to call her habits into question. Another huge factor in her life that was contributing to her excessive drinking, was her partner. Leah got married when she was just 21.

“It was just what we did,” she states very matter of fact. “Our relationship was literally, going out to bars and drinking.”

When you decide to stop drinking life becomes more lucid. What you thought was a meaningful relationship become stripped down to what it truly is, a relationship that’s solely based on drinking. Talking about drinking, what happened while drinking, where you’re going to be drinking next. These behaviors can be so incredibly isolating. Not to mention, when it came to her relationship with her husband it caused an immense amount of resentment.

“I lost a lot of relationships when I finally stopped,” Leah says with obvious sadness in her voice. “I always drank to the point of blackout, to the point of being very, very drunk. I didn’t know how to casually drink. I realized after a while I didn’t process alcohol in a way that made me better…some people are really fun and cool when they are drinking - that wasn’t me, ever.”

Leah realized she needed to make a change. Her marriage was going downhill and her mental health was suffering.

“Things were not good. That’s when I really began to focus on the gym because that’s what I had. The friends that I had at the gym were not the same types of partiers that I was used to hanging out with. In a way, having those things began to just naturally restrict my life.”

In all honesty, I wondered how Leah could perform at the gym prior to becoming sober. In my own experience and I’m sure many others can agree, drinking heavily handicaps one’s ability to perform. It can leave you feeling uncoordinated, foggy, and exhausted. But to Leah this was just a way of life. The status quo.

“I didn’t ever go to the gym drunk. I would be hungover and go to the gym and do it anyway. I didn’t know the difference because I just always felt like shit anyway. Just imagine a constant hangover. That was what I was used to from years of doing it. That was just life.”

Once you know how good you CAN feel, it’s hard to un feel that. When Leah stopped drinking she began walking around in what felt like a new life. Leah was grateful every day to wake up without a hangover. She also began to realize her full potential, and how good she could be at CrossFit® when she wasn’t getting in her own way. Leah stopped drinking in January 2014 and placed first in The Open in Puerto Rico in 2015.

Once Leah was done, she was really done, and it forced her to examine every part of her lifestyle that had once propelled those habits forward. With addiction, it is so much about people and places.

“I changed my whole life. I ended up leaving my relationship and the island in November 2015 and I really stayed sober by just focusing on training and weightlifting.”

Leah had her first experience with CrossFit® when she moved to Puerto Rico in 2009, with her boyfriend (at the time) to open a restaurant. Having worked in restaurants since she was 16, this seemed like a natural evolution for her. At the time, her boyfriend’s sister was living on the West Coast which is known as one of the top surfing spots in the world. Initially, Leah was invited to go down on vacation but when a commercial space became available in what was essentially paradise, they jumped on it.

“I was 19 years old and bartending so when the opportunity came up I was like ‘yeah let’s go’, without question.”

Leah had experimented with many aspects of fitness since graduating high school including a regular gym membership, working as a Pilates instructor, beach bootcamp, and spinning. Her explorations in the fitness world pretty much ran the gamut. But the moment she stepped into an affiliate things felt different.

Leah was running the restaurant in 2013 when an employee of hers had a friend come down for vacation. This same friend had found an affiliate 30 minutes away and asked Leah to go with her, thinking she would really like it. That was it.

“When I found out that this was a sport that you could compete at, it was like all the athleticism in my blood came out and I thought ‘Wait a second. I’m good at this. I can do this kind of stuff. So, I did that. I just went all in and started competing right away.”

I asked Leah what made CrossFit® different?

 “It was just like the organized sports I was used to growing up. You have a class time you show up to, there is a coach that takes you through the warm-up, and then you leave. You literally don’t have to think about anything. A true athlete doesn’t question what they are doing they just do what they are told. Even now with powerlifting and weightlifting, I don’t question my coach, I just do what I need to do and when it comes time to perform I perform. That’s what drew me immediately to CrossFit®. “

Leah became sober 8 months after her first class. Unlike any other group fitness class CrossFit® demands accountability. To show up and perform and post your score. Whether or not that was the entire reason behind Leah’s sobriety is unclear. But it certainly played a huge factor in leaving her marriage, her business, and many toxic relationships.

After leaving Puerto Rico and settling in Florida the reality of the difference in the level of competition between the two regions became blindingly clear.

“I went from being first in The Open in Puerto Rico to 250 [in the Atlantic], which I understand is great, but not when you were so much higher in a different region. As someone who is used to being an elite athlete, it was very discouraging for me.”

In 2015, shortly after moving to Florida, Leah was invited to a powerlifting meet. In her mind, she was already doing most of the movements in her training, so why not try it?  The only thing she needed to add in was the bench press and she would be all set. Shortly after that, Leah officially stopped doing CrossFit® to focus on powerlifting and weightlifting. “With powerlifting I was winning every meet I went into. I won the Florida state championships and was invited to the American Open. That’s when I stopped doing CrossFit®. Now, when people ask me why I just tell them, plain and simple, I am much more competitive in powerlifting and weightlifting than I am in CrossFit®. It’s not fun enough for me to literally kill myself every day and not get to an elite level, training two, two-three-hour training sessions a day, every day. Literally, your whole life. “

Putting her body through so much intensity wasn’t something she was willing to do if she had little hope of making it onto the competition floor. Leah makes the distinction between the sport and using it as the one hour in your day to stay fit and break a sweat.  

“My dad used to always tell us: ‘There is a difference between working out and training, we don’t work out, we train because we’re athletes.’ I wasn’t doing CrossFit® to workout. I was doing it to win. When I moved, and saw the competition around me get better and my level drop I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this if I’m not actually even going to be good’.”

Leah has made a name for herself in the powerlifting and weightlifting community as well as establishing a large social media presence along the way. While her accounts don’t just have one direction, she acknowledges she is a unique voice in the community that goes beyond fitness.

“Yes, I’m sober and it’s not an embarrassing thing.”

Leah speaks candidly about substance abuse and addiction with a very, ‘it is what it is’ attitude. “Some people have these chemical imbalances where they can’t handle alcohol. Period,” she states. That’s where she’s at and she has never tried to hide it.

“I like being that voice, but I am still an athlete. I would consider myself a smaller athlete at 5’6”, 135 lbs. I’m not a huge person like some of the other athletes you see out there. If you see me walking down the street I just look like a girl who works out- I think. I don’t think I look like anything that makes people wonder, ‘holy shit what does she do’. I can be very unassuming with my strength and I think that’s cool. Hopefully other females can look at me and realize they don’t need to have a certain build to lift weights.”

While many women in this community value strength and see a certain body type as beautiful, it is still not the norm among the general population. Leah is a weightlifter who doesn’t look like a typical weightlifter. Her presence is inspiring to the many women who are afraid to pick up the heavy weights.  She is a testimony to a body type females can have in the weightlifting community. This naturally brought the conversation full circle to the topic of body image.

“Being a female with a naturally athletic, but petite build, I think most other females in this position would agree that regular clothes don’t look good on us. I hear this all the time, and agree with it myself- we look better naked.”

Leah stresses the fact that she ‘does have a shape,’ but she is also muscular and clothes don’t really enhance that.

“My clothes make me look like I’m a 12-year-old boy. So, you have those weird types of thoughts when it comes to body image issues, which is a different end of the spectrum. I know there are plenty of people who would kill to have those types of issues with their bodies. It doesn’t make it any less.

Having a muscular build makes the imbalances that much more apparent. You find yourself wishing a certain muscle group would be bigger and picking apart things most other people would find beautiful or attractive.

“It almost makes me feel bad or guilty for not hating how I look, and never really having hated how I look. So many people have body image issues I feel badly that I don’t. I think it comes from me growing up in sports. It’s more important to have my body perform the way I want it to, rather than look a certain way.”

How unbelievably beautiful and refreshing it is to hear Leah say this. Social media does it, society does it, men and women do it to each other. We are hypercritical of ourselves and others. Why not focus on what our bodies can do? On performance. Isn’t that a much more beautiful and healthy approach? Amen, girl.

Leah wanted to take her message and her sobriety beyond the four walls of the gym and give to others what fitness and weightlifting gave to her. A new life. In October of 2016 Leah facilitated a “Sober October” challenge via a private Facebook group. She called the group, Mental Kilter. While the whole idea behind Mental Kilter started out as a class that would be run inside the gym, it became much more than that for Leah and for those involved in the platform.   

“It was going to be a workout then a meeting for people who don’t use substances. I had always thought outside of a bar and partying, where can we meet other people who don’t use. The gym. For us, in this lifestyle, it’s the gym.”

Leah began using Instagram to post motivational quotes about sobriety and using fitness as your meeting place. Your church. The place you go to escape substance abuse.

“It was just this tiny little thing I had started,” Leah said.

Her Facebook group drew in 85 people who all had decided they didn’t want to use drugs or drink for the entire month of October. Leah could not believe the response. It was a forum that was so natural in its design people felt comfortable enough to tell their most painful and intimate stories about their lives and their struggles. Leah was the unofficial but official leader to those in the group.

“I changed the name of it to ‘Mental Kilter Warrior’, that’s when I built a website and shared my testimony. Then, I began to get flooded with other people’s stories and I started sharing them as well. Out of that it’s slowly grown into a peer facilitated support group for people who have overcome or would like to overcome addiction and substance abuse.”

The group has also drawn those living with mental health disorders across the spectrum, from generalized anxiety to eating disorders. Leah thinks the following arises from people seeing it as a ‘safe haven’. Although she views her role in it modestly as a facilitator, “They [the group members] would call me their leader because I’m the one who created the platform for them,” she says in a way that makes it seem she almost doesn’t believe it herself.

To date, Leah has held three Mental Kilter workshops with the hopes to continue to expand the groups reach. Dan Tyminski, a four times Games Athlete and a recovering heroin addict, does all the workshops with Leah, “Because who doesn’t want a Games Athlete leading them in a workout.” Leah laughs out loud. This is true.

When I ask Leah, what keeps her not using she responds without hesitation,

“That group.”

“I told them all this year, more than I ever thought it would be, I don’t drink because of them. Getting clean is very easy, it’s staying clean that is actually hard. I don’t want to be drunk. I do have desires to just drink. So, I’ll sit and weigh out the pros and cons and I’ll think about the people who are counting on me. “

“I totally have days where I would love a few glasses of wine or a beer and I just wait until the feeling passes. I don’t think of myself as an addict, just because I feel weird saying that about myself. But I know I have chemical imbalances. I look at a bottle of wine as if it is meant for one person, and I know that’s not true. That right there, is how I know I should not drink alcohol.”

I asked Leah what she is most proud of outside of the gym she immediately responds with sobriety.

“I am very proud of remaining sober given a lot of the situations I have been in. I feel like a lot of other people would have broken a long time ago.  Beyond that, I’m also proud that I have always allowed myself to do what I want. I’m proud that I’ve lived, what would seem to some people, a very odd and crazy life. I just picked up and moved and started over many times. I’m proud of myself for that.”

To her audience and to me in this moment, Leah has shown a tremendous amount of resiliency in her willingness to be open about some of the darker times in her life. During this phone call and across her social media accounts she remains transparent. I think that’s what makes Leah so relatable. She isn’t afraid to tell it like it is or have people disagree with her. She isn’t afraid of her own opinions.

Leah and I talked about how people are so often content in complacency. They have big dreams of things they would like to do, yet they never do them. Although, the road is rarely ever straight and narrow, Leah has ended up in exactly where she is because of the detours. The detours are the most beautiful and heartbreaking parts, they teach us what we’re made of and who we are meant to be.  

 

Interview conducted and article written by Chestee Blog Editor, Genevieve Gyulavary, March 2018.  

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