“There’s still a part of me that wants to be validated through doing things that other people don’t.”Charlie Engle, an ultrarunner
In this book, Jenny Valentish introduces you to people who push themselves beyond what most people are capable of or even want to do. She interviewed endurance athletes, performance artists, a rogue scientist, bodybuilders, those who participate in BDSM, martial artists, porn stars, wrestlers and fighters.
Sometimes fascinating, sometimes sad and sometimes disgust inducing, their stories took me into their worlds. They attempted to give me some understanding of why people do things like running in heat that can melt your shoes, attempt to overcome your “notions of disgust by eating what many would consider to be inedible” or putting your body in situations where extreme physical pain is to be expected, not avoided.
Some flog their reward pathways like dopamine jockeys; some careen towards injury because of an unwillingness to slow their pace; some goad themselves on to ever-greater heights or more depraved depths; some explore new frontiers of physical pain as a form of self-flagellation; some have knitted their identity so tightly to their pursuit that they risk tumbling into an abyss if it’s taken away.
In some instances, trauma seems to have provided both the impetus to attempt the activity in the first place and the ability to endure, when body and mind are both screaming at you to stop. A need to prove something, to yourself or other people, is a motivating factor for other people. Others simply went for a run one day and discovered they loved it.
The final chapter also addresses what can happen when you have worked so hard to reach a goal and finally achieve it, leaving in its wake a void as you wonder where you go from here. I found the discussion around having your identity so closely linked with an activity or job and how difficult it can be to find your bearings when that is taken from you unexpectedly particularly relatable.
One word that I absolutely adored, which I haven’t specifically come across before, was ikagai. It’s a Japanese concept that is all about your reason for being; what gives your life meaning, worth or purpose.
Some people might read a book like this and be inspired to take up running or wrestling, but that’s not me. Although I marvel at the people who are able to push their bodies so hard, you’re definitely not likely to see me running anywhere anytime soon. Unless, of course, someone’s chasing me, and even then I’ll be stopping as soon as it’s safe to do so.
While I read some books because they mirror my life in some way, I read books like this so I can get a glimpse of what things like bodybuilding are like without having to actually do it myself.
Content warnings include mention of addiction, alcoholism, bullying, child abuse, death by suicide, domestic abuse, eating disorders, mental health, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.
If you’re squeamish, don’t want to read about the variety of animals people have eaten or what they have done to their bodies for ‘art’, or don’t want to experience someone making a mockery of COVID, maybe don’t read the second chapter.
There is also a doctor, who prescribes performance and image enhancing drugs, that I found extremely problematic. They’re speaking to the author about their blood test results here. “In fact, my immune system is so good, he says, that the coronavirus won’t stick; at which point I wonder if the phrase ‘with a pinch of salt’ ought to apply to everything.” You think COVID doesn’t have serious impacts on previously healthy people? Seriously, doctor?
Once Upon a Blurb
When Jenny Valentish wrote a memoir about addiction, she noticed that people who treated drug-taking like an Olympic sport would often hurl themselves into a pursuit such as marathon running upon getting sober. What stayed constant was the need to push their boundaries.
Everything Harder Than Everyone Else follows people doing the things that most couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Their insights lead Jenny on a compulsive, sometimes reckless journey through psychology, endurance and the power of obsession, revealing what we can learn about the human condition.
There’s the neuroscientist violating his brain to override his disgust response. The athlete using childhood adversity as grist for the mill. The wrestler turning restlessness into curated ultraviolence. The designer who hangs from hooks in her flesh to get out of her head. The performance artist seeking erasure by manipulating his body. The BDSM dominant helping people flirt with death to feel more alive. The bare-knuckle boxer whose gnarliest opponent was once her ego. And the porn-star-turned-fighter for whom sex and violence are two sides of the same coin.
Darkly funny and vividly penetrating, Everything Harder Than Everyone Else explores our deeper selves and asks: what are your limits?