Live to Eat Well, Exercise, Be Well in Mind and Body

Starting Over After Assault and Trauma

How I am reclaiming my life, my health, and my fitness

In November 2012, I ran into the top three percent of female finishers in my first half marathon. The next month I was certified and working as a personal trainer. Shortly thereafter, I was scoring in the 98 and 100 percentiles for muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. I was fast, strong, powerful, lithe, confident, and ready to take on the world of fitness and nutrition like a pro.

By the following November, I had little heart or energy left to put on my tennis shoes. In six more months, I summoned all the strength and courage I had to escape a toxic, religious relationship with the man I thought I was going to marry. I left that relationship with no job, no home, no car, failing health, and sabotaged fitness. A week later, after being attacked by a jelly fish while night snorkeling, I was sexually assaulted by the very man who offered to bandage my wound – an older married man I sat behind in church; a father figure I trusted and to who I had confided my heartbreak and entrusted my injury.

At age 31, the identity I had spent a lifetime building came crashing down around me. Everything I knew about myself, about God, and about the world as I knew it was gone. The joy, power, self-confidence, and meaning I had found in fitness was also gone.

Beauty for Ashes

Waking up post-trauma is like waking up in a house that has been burned to the ground. Home, career, religion, friendships, family connections, hopes and dreams, laughter, health and fitness – much was gone or severely damaged. Sitting in the ashes of my former life and self, terrible, vast, and all-consuming is the grief and depression.

As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just get over it. My season of mourning ended up lasting far longer than I wanted – years of my life I can never get back. This was compounded by the fact that I had neither a full-time, permanent job or a permanent home and support system. (I recognize and am eternally grateful to the few people who went out of their way to assist me and assuage my pain.) I did almost whatever I could to keep a roof over my head, bouncing from place to place, all the while I filled out hundreds of applications and went on dozens of interviews, at the same time attempting to start my own health and fitness business and failing. I nannied, I babysat, I cooked, I folded towels and filled shampoo bottles at a gym, I taught group exercise and took a couple PT clients, I drove tourists around on a golf cart in DC, I rolled burritos and rang groceries at Whole Foods part-time, I sold freelance articles, I sold blood platelets. At one point, I inquired with the local homeless shelter, offering to exchange work for a bed. They never got back to me. Every day was a struggle to live and to want to live.

But there is good news. In the great story of redemption, we can trade our ashes for beauty.

Something I have learned during my adventures in national forests and parks is how important wildfires are to the future health of the very forests we are trying to protect. Wisdom now inspires the Forest Service to control those burns when possible, not to always extinguish them. Burned up within that ecosystem of beautiful trees is also the disease and decay that made that very fire so necessary. And what grows from the ashes is a lush, green forest.

Now that the ashes have settled, I have taken complete responsibility for my own reconstruction. I’ve made the conscious choice to grow something beautiful from the black, rich soil of my suffering.

Fast Forward

Today is December 31, 2016. After a very long and painful journey, I am happy to report that I am safe, secure, and settled into a wonderful and meaningful career, a lovely home nestled in a quiet mountain town, and an ever-growing community of family, friends, and colleagues. Physically and emotionally, I am robust and healthy again.

To paraphrase Judith Herman’s work in Trauma and Recovery, “Having come to terms with the traumatic past, I face the task of creating a future. I have mourned the old self that the trauma destroyed; now I must develop a new self. My relationships have been tested and forever changed by the trauma; now I must develop new relationships. The old beliefs that gave meaning to my life have been challenged; now I must find anew a sustaining faith.”

Over a lifetime, I am convinced that most people will go through many versions of the self. The person I was ten years ago is not the person I am today. And chances are high that the person I am today will not be the person I am ten years from now– for better or worse or both. Looking back over my lifetime, the old self that I love and miss and mourned for the most is the powerful, lithe athlete I carved out of my former chubby bookworm self. I am completely aware that I cannot recreate the past; nor do I want to. But I’d like to think I can pattern my new self after the old self who brought me so much joy.

2017 – A Fresh Start

I love the New Year and the days leading up to it when I get to reflect on the past and plan for the future. It’s an opportunity to start fresh, and I’m ready to reclaim every good piece of my body and soul that was stole from me. I’m ready to reclaim my fit self.

To be honest, I can still kill it in the gym. While my cardiovascular endurance has taken a really big hit, I exercise my muscles frequently enough that they haven’t atrophied. My exercise habits are no longer consistent, but neither are they non-existent. Compared to the average American, I’m still a mover and a shaker.

No lie, though, I’ve fluffed up. I know plenty of people who drop weight due to grief and trauma. Alas, I have the opposite problem. There were days when the only redeeming part of existence was a large, soft sugar cookie with almond buttercream frosting. Or a big glass of wine. Usually both. Daily. Hey, if that’s what it took for me to get out of bed, then thank heavens for wine and cookies. I have no shame.

And I am not fat, whatever Victoria’s Secret would have me believe. Let me say that again, louder, so I can believe myself, “I AM NOT FAT.” And even if I was, what does it matter? I weighed in at 145 pounds today. A far cry from the 125 pounds I used to be. Also a far cry from the 165 pounds that I used to be. So really, I’m not starting from scratch. I have a wealth of skills, knowledge, experience, muscle mass, and muscle memory that I didn’t have five years ago.

And I’m showing myself compassion. Post-trauma, my priorities changed. I didn’t have the emotional and physical energy to go on a casual nine-mile jog and throw weights around. My priorities were keeping a roof over my head, allowing myself to grieve, securing work, making peace with God, reestablishing relationships and building new ones. During that season of life, bonding over wine or fried chicken with a new friend was far more important and valuable to my recovery than attending a sports conditioning class.

But that phase of recovery is gladly drawing to a close and I look to the future with enthusiasm. I have athletic hopes and dreams and goals and ambitions again, as well as the spaciousness to pursue and achieve them now.

Join Me

Be you a friend or passer-by, you are invited to join me on my journey in this next phase of recovery as I joyfully construct a new self, new relationships, a new faith, and new fitness goals and achievements. Follow along on my blog, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

To the best of my ability, I will attempt to journal [almost] daily for the next five months while I pursue my fitness and weight-loss goals. And the plan is to also publish an extended article once a week.

And, please, feel free to share your own stories and struggles with me; nor hesitate to reach out to me in your own grief for some comfort or comradery. You are not alone.


  1. Wendy Holtz says:

    What a beautifully written article that speaks to healing and restoration in a way so many of us need to hear. I love your hope! Keep sharing!

    • Amber Johnson says:

      Thank you Wendy! And congratulations! You are the first ever human (non robot or marketing troll) to comment on this blog and website. Haha. Sending you a big hug of thanks!

  2. Beth Harborth says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I know it was difficult but extremely valuable for you and those surrounding you in love. Can’t wait to read more. You definitely have a gift.

  3. What a thoughtful, wonderful piece, Amber. I will happily follow your journey as I embark on a similar one in DC. May 2017 bring joy and strength to you!

  4. Annette Clay says:

    Well said! I will be following your journey with great interest and anticipation. I’m betting on you successfully meeting your personal goals. I hope 2017 is a grand year in a fabulous life.

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