Everyone has moments where your whole life changes.
For Krissy Mae Cagney, that moment was waking up in a hospital bed on May 28, 2013. It wasn’t the first time Cagney had woken up in the hospital. It had become a running joke among her and her friends when she hurt herself drunk or got alcohol poisoning, that she would wind up with an overnight visit. This time, though, Cagney woke up after alcohol-induced seizures typical of heavy drinkers in their 40s and 50s. She was just 24.
“They said I was lucky to be alive. It’s not common to have that kind of reaction in yours 20s,” said Cagney, who got into drugs and alcohol at 16. “I was terrified when I woke up.”
That was the first day she went to AA. And Cagney — a powerlifter, Black Iron Gym owner, nutritionist and Doughnuts and Deadlifts founder —kept showing up every single day.
“I think back and, from a health standpoint, I never even considered what the drugs and alcohol were doing to me internally,” said Cagney who, amazingly enough, was lifting during her binge drug and alcohol use.
“When I would stop doing them, I would gain weight and panic. A lot of the drug use was to curb the insecurities and the weight gain. The drinking, I was just depressed and lonely and always resorted to alcohol. I’m a completely different person now, but alcoholism and addiction isn’t something that goes away. You have to manage it and control it and use it to inspire.”
Cagney, who has more than 300,000 Instagram followers and an impressive legion of Facebook and Twitter fans, has made telling her story an important part of who she is.
There’s a lengthy bio on Cagney’s website, references to her demons on social media posts and the project she’s currently working on: a non-profit for addicts and alcoholics that would give them free gym memberships.
“It’s crazy how many weightlifters and powerlifters have had substance use problems. It seems to be more prominent with addicts and alcoholics who have found sobriety through fitness and strength training,” Cagney said.
“It comes down to replacing an unhealthy addiction with a healthier one.”
Cagney receives messages daily from people she’s inspired to quit drinking or using to get into the gym. An outdoor enthusiast, she knows fitness isn’t the only way to change the lives of people struggling with addiction, but her non-profit (currently unnamed) will be a start.
“Everyone in Reno [Nev.] knows what I went through. There’s no point in hiding anything about it,” she said. “A lot of people on social media watched me relapse multiple times. There was a year-long period where I went sober and then wouldn’t be sober. There’s people who have been around for the three years of my journey, it’ s crazy.
It’s important if you want to inspire people, if that’s your goal, to show more aspects to life than just PR’s all the time.”
Cagney, who easily squats double bodyweight, is a raw, drug-free USA powerlifter. Always a fan of strength and conditioning —she took a class in high school to get out of P.E. — Cagney had a friend introduce her to CrossFit while hosting boot camps in New York in 2012. She began her powerlifting career when she moved to the city the following year.
It was then that the popular lifestyle brand Doughnuts and Deadlifts was born, out of a joke.
“Before flexible dieting was a thing, I’d bring donuts on the weekends [living in California] and everyone would yell at me,” Cagney said. “They’d be like, ‘What are you doing? Get those out of here!’ We turned it into our Doughnuts and Deadlifts Day, and started the hashtag as a joke. People would make fun of me.”
When Cagney moved to New York, a friend begged her to run the hashtag on t-shirts.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to be that fitness person that has gimmicky shirts,’” Cagney said, laughing.
She finally obliged and let her friend do one small order. They immediately sold out.
“It was the biggest learning process- everything was self-taught and we slowly had to dial in how we did things,” said Cagney, who had no prior business experience and now has a small staff working on Doughnuts and Deadflits. “We are still learning how to optimize things.”
Albeit on a much bigger stage.
Doughnuts and Deadlifts has been a sponsor of the USAPL and, about a year ago, Cagney woke up to upwards of 50 texts: ESPN’s Mike Golic was wearing a Doughnuts and Deadlifts shirt on air.
“That was a ‘holy shit’ moment,” Cagney said. “We didn’t send it to him, he purchased it on his own. His daughter follows the Instagram. To wake up to Mike Golic on ESPN, that was easily the coolest thing and the coolest feeling — I was like, ‘OK this is pretty big.’”
It was also in New York that Cagney, again unintentionally, made a big splash with her first ebook.
Always fascinated by nutrition, she took nutrition classes in college and interned for a dietician, Cagney wanted to create a document for some of her clients to better understand some principles.
At the time, flexible dieting was popular for bodybuilders but no one really knew about it in Powerlifting or CrossFit, so Cagney wrote a 30-page PDF. It ended up selling 50,000 copies.
She has since updated it, Flexible Dieting 2.0, which is one of four e-books on her website. Cagney has stopped doing nutrition seminars and, while still doing some nutrition coaching for athletes, she’s more passionate now about sobriety and helping people improve their lives.
Recently re-located back to Reno, Cagney opened Black Iron Gym on May 1, which she operated remotely for the first six months.
It’s in this 6,000-ft warehouse that her worlds collide.
Doughnuts and Deadlifts is housed here and Cagney is with them on Mondays and the gym all day on Fridays.
Being an in-person presence has forced the natural introvert to be more social, something that still gives her anxiety in large groups as she spent most of her young life not knowing how to be in social situations sober.
She hopes to help others avoid some of her struggles with this non-profit, the next project for the restless Cagney, who works best when she is doing and creating and challenged.
“I’m not a one-dimensional person where everything is about lifting,” Cagney said. “A very small portion of my life is about lifting and training and that’s what I’m known for so that’s what [my] social media is. I like to read and write, I’m very crafty, I like projects. And I know it’s not just lifting and fitness that has kept me sober.
I know a lot of it has to do with the reading and writing and gardening, so I try to share more than just lifting really heavy weights all the time. That’s one of the concerns you have is [saying] fitness and training is the best way to get sober. I don’t find that to be true. I try to share that it’s about balance. I hike and ride my bike. There’s a lot more to life than training. I think people get so caught up in training and lifting numbers it can be counter-productive to what you are doing. You have to have balance.”
All images courtesy of Krissy Mae Cagney.