By Sharon G. Jonas
At age 13, Chris Schoeck was a student at an upscale private school, a member of the local swim team, a Boy Scout and an alcoholic.
For 10 years of his young life, Chris spent each day either secretly drinking, planning how to get alcohol, or figuring out where he could hide to consume it. The obsession dictated his friendships, plagued his daytime thoughts and nighttime dreams, and robbed him of fully experiencing key years of development.
Today Chris is known as Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, a 48-year-old professional strongman who inspires audiences of all ages and backgrounds by performing unimaginable feats of strength. His repertoire includes bending steel bars and spikes, ripping decks of cards in half and reshaping heavy steel horseshoes into heart shapes with his bare hands. Sober for over 25 years, Chris remains on the road to recovery and personal fulfillment by pursuing his unconventional passion.
Growing up, Chris recalls, “feeling out of sync.” He struggled with learning disabilities, shyness and being bullied. His social issues led to him harboring a disdain for group activities and team sports. Drawn to solitary endeavors, he found satisfaction by working out and lifting weights. Despite his reckless drinking, he even managed to earn a black belt in karate.
At seventeen, Chris’ parents encouraged him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. “I carried a six-pack to the first meeting believing that my fellow drinkers wouldn’t mind. Even when a group of attendees encouraged me to relinquish them after the meeting, I didn’t give them up. Instead I drank them all before heading home. I wasn’t mentally ready to accept their message.”
It wasn’t until he noticed that his mental state was deteriorating and thinking clearly became difficult that he felt the necessity to quit. “What AA did was made me consider that drinking could be affecting me. I stopped cold turkey the summer before college. No drinking, no smoking, not even caffeine.”
But his first week away at college Chris attended a party and got drunk. Eventually he dropped out, attended rehab, barely escaped death after passing out on railroad tracks, suffered countless sickening hangovers and still drank. It wasn’t until the age of 22, when his body revolted and he could no longer hold down even a sip of alcohol that he felt compelled to quit.
While a monumental step in the right direction, the next 10 years of his life were profoundly empty. Chris managed to hold jobs, but realized he had lost out on normal development. “I was alive, but not really living. It was a distinctly long and bleak time in my life. I didn’t drink, but it still possessed me mentally.”
Unfulfilled by a career with the postal service and then in the restaurant industry, Chris turned towards the gym, the one place he felt comfortable. He worked at becoming a personal trainer and Olympic weight lifter and eventually began feeling more connected with the world. Then a shoulder injury impeded his ability to compete as a weight lifter, and he felt devastated.
An unusual turnkey—a 90-year-old strongman with a firm congratulatory handshake given to Chris after he won his last weight lifting competition—opened the doorway to a new path in life. “I was so impressed with the man’s hand strength that I inquired about him and his life. The notion of being a strongman took hold of me. I researched it, found a mentor and worked long and hard at learning to accomplish feats of strength. Each step of progress moved me closer to a more rewarding life.”
Chris served as a keynote presenter at NAMI Utah’s state conference in October 2015 where he spoke frankly to fellow peers about recovery and his personal challenges. Francisca Blanc, NAMI Utah’s Developmental Director said the conference’s title, ‘Power of the Mind’ was inspired by Chris after she saw the documentary “Bending Steel” which aired on Direct TV.
The award-winning film revealed Chris’ journey from an alienated loner practicing strongman feats in the remote depths of the basement in his apartment building to him breaking a world’s record for bending a formidable steel bar while on stage in Coney Island.
Viewers in the U.S. and abroad have contacted Chris via email telling him how his life story motivated them to return to school, change careers, volunteer and get more involved by taking action in life. One young man wrote: “I struggle with depression and “Bending Steel” has shown me you can conquer anything with motivation and support of friends. It showed me that I can overcome depression by changing the way that I think.”
For Chris, becoming a professional strongman developed more than just his body. “I shattered psychological barriers along with the physical ones. My captivity to a badly introverted existence ended. I gained self-confidence. It opened the door to new friendships and ties to people that helped me develop social skills which I was sorely lacking.”
“Finding a passion, something that sparks an interest is vital for long-term sobriety,” says Chris. “Pressing on through failure, believing that change is possible and dedicating yourself to an activity you feel is worthwhile are cornerstones for personal progress. For those who feel they don’t have any interests, I say keep looking, never stop trying. For those who feel they have no talent, I say don’t believe that. You just haven’t found it yet.”
Even though addiction took its toll on Chris, he is living proof that change is always possible. “As the steel bends in my hands and transforms, I shed limiting thoughts. In a real sense, every twisted horseshoe or reshaped steel bar is a rebirth.”
Sharon G. Jonas is a freelance writer and publicist living in Long Island, N.Y. She regularly contributes articles to newspapers and magazines and serves as the staff writer for the international publication UnconventionalAthletes.com.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI