This is one in a series of 12 stories that explores the role of strength in modern life.
KC Mitchell hit rock bottom at the Happiest Place on Earth. Disney-land, 2013: The now-34-year-old Army veteran and amputee—IED, Kandahar province, Afghanistan—had planned three days with his wife and daughter in the park. But his pain was inescapable. Day one went like this: stand in line, feel that raging pain, get anxious, sit and sulk, eat more Oxy, repeat.
Which wasn’t surprising. Mitchell had spent the past year in a hole. He would mostly play video games alone at home while eating Doritos and OxyContin with a Rolling Rock back, a habit that rendered him a sorrowful, unable, addicted mess.
So they cut the trip short, the visit that was meant to celebrate his daughter’s second birthday. “And it just upset me so bad,” says Mitchell. “I wasn’t living up to the person and dad that I wanted to be.”
A quarter of Iraq- and Afghanistan–war veterans return stateside with post–traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which include depression, self–destructive behavior, irritability, and addiction. That percentage, however, doesn’t apply to amputees, 66 per-cent of whom show symptoms of the condition
“Disneyland was my reckoning,” says Mitchell. “I remember getting back to the house and flushing every single narcotic. I just accepted that I’m always going to be in pain, and that was that.” Three days of crawl-out-of-your-skin withdrawal followed, after which Mitchell used that magical momentum from newfound sobriety to carry himself into a gym.
“I was insecure. I wore sweatpants to cover my leg,” he says. But he began showing up every day, eventually making friends whom he told to “make sure I’m coming here.” Within several months, he was walking stronger. “I didn’t have that little hitch in my step, and I was just feeling better,” he says. With his daughter’s third birthday looming, it was time to face that mouse again.
“I paid for the trip up front,” he says. “And I kicked Disneyland’s ass for three days straight.” Iron and the act of moving it pulled Mitchell out of holes both physical and mental, strengthening his outlook and wounded body. Science backs his experience: New research suggests that strength training is one of the best ways to treat depression.
In 2015, he caught wind of competitive powerlifting, a sport in which you bench, squat, and deadlift as much weight as possible. The idea of a one-legged dude doing heavy, lower-body compound lifts yielded bewildered looks, but Mitchell didn’t care. He went to that gym every day.
Squatting was the hardest. “It was something that had been so easy to do,” says Mitchell. Squatting big numbers requires “spreading the floor,” pushing laterally with your feet and bending at the ankle as you lower the weight, which is not easy to do with a prosthesis. It took him a year to be able to use regulation form, where your hips drop below your knees.
In 2017, Mitchell became the first amputee to compete in a full powerlifting competition; he squatted 435, benched 424, and deadlifted 600 pounds.
“I’m doing things I never thought I’d be capable of doing when I first got blown up,” he says. His journey has him rethinking the PTSD label. “I’ve been through some shit. But I hate the label PTSD, because it makes me sound like I have an incurable virus. I call it post-traumatic self-growth instead.”