Whenever someone asks me to describe myself, I almost always become confused and uneasy about what that question actually means. Do they mean my physical attributes? Do they mean the standardized test type questions that you can only answer with a #2 pencil? Do they mean I should describe myself how I think the world wants me to appear at certain stages of my life? Well in any case, I don’t really believe any of those options hold much weight if you really want to get to know someone. All those questions serve their purpose, but none of them could ever fully encapsulate what makes our hearts beat faster with love and excitement, our hairs stand up in awe and amazement or our eyes swell with emotion.
I was born in the summer of 1989 in a small city about five miles north of Boston. Welcome to Malden Massachusetts! For any of you that are familiar with the area, Malden is very much like the other cities that surround Boston. The houses employ old victorian style architecture, the streets are winding back roads that possess no real rhyme or reason as far as navigation is concerned, and the people that live there have a lot of pride for their city. I say that with a lot of conviction because even though I have relocated to Florida over two and a half years ago, Malden will always be home. Even as I typed that, I stuck my chest out and lifted my chin because I will always feel a certain prideful connection to that city.
I was born to my loving mother Susan and my hard working and intelligent father Anthony. My father is an electrical engineer and my mother is a nurse, but shortly after giving birth to me, she took some time off of work to care for my older brother and I. My brother Anthony is about two years older than me, and when we were growing up we were as close as brothers get. I grew up in a very loving home surrounded by two parents that cared about me and my well being, and a brother that was my best friend. But it was not just my immediate family that played a large role in my life, I also had my large extended family around me at all times. We’re Italian, and anyone that knows anything about Italians knows that family always comes first. When my parents were busy on the weekends my brother and I would take a trip to Chelsea and stay with my grandmother, grandfather and my aunt. I can remember exactly how the old brick house looked under the Boston summer sun. I can remember how the house began to smell as I walked up the entry way stairs to get to the second floor where they lived. I can remember how warm my grandparents and my aunt made me feel inside when I got there. That apartment in Chelsea always felt like my second home.
I mention these things because family has always been of paramount importance in my life. We weren’t rich in the traditional sense, but we sure were rich with love and affection. My brother and I had everything we ever needed and some of what we wanted, and for that I can honestly say we were blessed. As I said, my mother took years off of work and always made sure my brother and I were balanced in our daily lives. At this same time, my father was working long days and hard nights to provide for his family in a way his dad never did for him. This is the reason my parents will always be my biggest heroes.
As the years passed and I entered grade school I began trying to figure out where I fit in. After all, I played every sport under the sun but at the same time I loved school and got really good grades. So was I an academic or an athlete? Sports were always tough for me because I was a very undersized in my early years. I was under five feet tall until high school and because of that I always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. But yet, I always wanted to be liked by everyone that I came into contact with, so I developed this chameleon type of armor that I used to protect me. When I was around the athletes I was one of them and I acted as if I couldn’t care less about school. What I didn’t mention to them was that I did my homework the first day it was assigned and never missed a day of school. When I was surrounded by the more academic type, I downplayed my attachment to athletics and tried to make myself out to be more intelligent than I was. I guess I was trying to answer that ever elusive question, “who am I?”
At this point in my life I was pushed around a little bit because of my small stature, and also because I had a terrible lisp growing up. When I was born I had an issue with my hearing and had a few surgeries to correct it. The problem was that by the time my ears were working properly I was already pronouncing words wrong and my tongue seemed to have a mind of its own. Not only did I have a Boston accent, I also had a speech issue. It amazing anyone could understand me at all. So for the better part of my life growing up I had to go to speech therapy to correct it, and I can remember being very self conscious when the other kids around me would call it to the forefront of jokes. It didn’t affect me too much on the outside because even at a young age I knew that would have given them the power. However, looking back at it now, I can honestly say I was getting angry, resentful and self-conscious about certain aspects of my life.
I was angry that I wasn’t a big and strong gifted athlete because I idolized the likes of Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Randy Moss, and Marshall Faulk. I wanted so badly to be these guys but I did not possess the natural talent or size necessary to stand out on the football field or the basketball court. So I connected myself to the idea of the underdog and my favorite character in cinema history to this day is still Rocky Balboa. I came to understand that even though I may not have been the most naturally gifted I could still work harder than everyone else. I always did my best. I could rest my head at night and know that I did everything in my power with the gifts I was given to be the best version of me in that particular scenario. But I still wanted to stand out.
As much as I idolized all the best athletes in their respected sports I was also enamored with my parents from a very early age. Not just because of their ability to make me feel safe and loved, but because in their earlier years they were both competitive body builders. When my mother and father started dating he was already really interested in bodybuilding and had a tall and lanky frame perfect for building muscle. My mom was a young nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was focusing on her studies while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. She had no knowledge of weight training or proper nutrition and up until meeting him never really thought much about it. Once they got together, a big part of their life was built around going to the gym together, dieting together, meal prepping together and competing in shows in the New England area together. When I was a kid I can vividly remember pulling their competition pictures off the mantle over the fireplace to show my friends how big and muscular my parents used to be. The reactions were always that of awe and amazement. I couldn’t wait until my mom said I was old enough to start lifting weights. Maybe that would have been my opportunity to be the best at something.
Before my thirteenth birthday my dad and I began weight training in my basement a few times a week. He would show me what exercises worked specific muscle groups and how to do them without risking injury. He made sure to document how much I was lifting and how many times, he called these things “sets and reps.” I slowly picked up on the lingo and started to see some progress in the way my body looked. I can remember being in school and looking forward to my weight lifting sessions with my dad when he got home from work. I knew that in other organized sports I was competing with other people, but when it came to weight training I was competing with myself and I could get used to that. I knew I only had to work hard to be better than the person I was the day before, and that was something that was going to hold my attention for the next 15 years.
But there was a storm brewing.
In the last few years of my life before I hit high school, something inside of me began to change. I was good at school but I wasn’t the best. I was good at sports but I wasn’t the best. And I was introduced to weight lifting but it was merely a seed that was planted, it was not yet a lifestyle. I was getting more and more angry about this as the years went on and I wanted so badly to find my niche. As I mentioned, I always hung around my brother, and his friends were my friends. By this time they were already in high school and some of them didn’t really concern themselves with sports or school because they had found weed and alcohol. I can remember thinking, “maybe this will be the way for me to stand out amongst the crowd that often times seems to swallow me up.” But I had this mental battle going on in my head telling me that want to be an athlete and a scholar and those people don’t do drugs and drink. I was getting uncomfortable in my own skin because even though I could find a way to fit in with anyone, I didn’t know who I was on the inside.
By the time I was in 8th grade I was smoking cigarettes, smoking weed and sneaking out of the house to go drink with my brother and his friends in the school yard down the street. And for the first time in my life I no longer cared if I was the best athlete or the brightest young mind in school, I was just “Lil Nick.” That was the name my friends bestowed upon me because not only was I two years younger than them, I was also the second person named Nick in our group of friends. Of course my small and underwhelming stature also played into my unofficial title; so I embraced it. They thought it was hysterical to have an undersized 13 year old drinking with them, and I thought I finally found my niche. I felt as if this is where I belonged and this is what I was missing all along. Then one morning I woke up on my friends couch with throw up in my pockets and had to have a serious conversation with my mother about what was going on with me.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that at this point I was at a crossroads in my life. The decisions I was making based on the feelings I had inside, were about to determine how the next 15 years of my life were going to unfold. I knew that I did not want to disappoint my family and let my mother and father down, and I also knew I did not want to give up the things that I loved and cared about – sports and school. But I knew that for the first time in my life I felt put together when I was drinking and using drugs, and for that reason I couldn’t let them go completely. I remember making a conscious decision to balance all three of these things and make it work as my life progressed more into adulthood. My master plan didn’t work as well as I had hoped because before I even started high school I graduated from using just liquor and weed. At this point I was already selling small amounts of weed out of my parents house and taking Percocets and Xanax.
I was fearful of my future without knowing it. I was resentful at all the people that pushed me around. And I was angry for all the things that I wasn’t given. And I lusted for more. I knew I was blessed in many aspects of my life but all I could find myself fixating on was the things I did not have. I was endlessly searching for some external solution to an internal conflict. All I needed to do was open my eyes to see what was around me, but it is hard to see the forest when you are amongst the trees.
“Nick’s story over the next few months will be chronicling through his past battles with addiction and his ongoing battle with improving himself everyday, not only in life but in the gym. His discipline is poetic and his determination is breathtaking. Always Strong Fitness was created on the premise that everyone has their trials and tribulations. Addiction hits everyone, whether it be our own families, friends or just some guy you may have worked with once. To common are the stories of heartbreak and sorrow, but There is Strength, There is Success and There is Always Hope!”- Ross Hardaway