Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Ourselves to Extremes

Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Ourselves to Extremes

by Jenny Valentish
Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Ourselves to Extremes

Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Ourselves to Extremes

by Jenny Valentish


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A no-holds-barred, gonzo dive into the world of extreme behavior; from abstinence to ego, punishment to curiosity, obsession to reinvention, acclaimed journalist Jenny Valentish uncovers what drives those who push the limits of endurance.

What do extreme eaters, MMA fighters, ultramarathon runners, and professional sex roleplayers have in common? What drives some people to push their bodies and minds to the brink, putting everything on the line to test the bounds of their capacity? When Jenny Valentish worked through her own addictions, she became fascinated by extremes in their myriad and unexpected manifestations. In the darkly funny, brash, and irresistible Everything Harder Than Everyone Else, Valentish immerses herself in the lives of sex workers, body builders, and dedicated fighters and finds that many of the people she encounters have overcome addictions and trauma to find release and community where the stakes are at their highest.

Harnessing a journalistic approach that’s equal parts brazenly curious and remarkably compassionate, Valentish finds herself neck-deep in her own investigation, embroiling herself in the world of competitive Muay Thai fighting and in the dark chambers of a sex dungeon. At every turn she stares unflinchingly into the darker corners of culture that polite society ignores and repudiates, asking readers and herself, how far are you willing to go?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781954641006
Publisher: Apollo Publishers
Publication date: 11/23/2021
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jenny Valentish is an author and journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper, Vice, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Cherry Bomb, a novel set in the music industry, and the research-memoir Woman of Substances, the coeditor of the anthology Your Mother Would Be Proud, and the creator of two blogs, New Age Guinea Pig and Hey Man, Now You're Really Living. Valentish is a board director of SMART Recovery Australia and has acted in consultancy and ambassador roles in the drug and alcohol field. Previously, she served as editor of Time Out (Melbourne) and Triple J's Jmag, worked as a music publicist and freelance writer, interviewing rock stars from Jack White to Joan Jett, and was a board member for The Push, a nonprofit music organization that connects young people to the music industry. She has taught memoir and nonfiction writing at universities, to drug and alcohol workers, and to writing organizations. Raised in the outskirts of London, England, Jenny currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

This is a book about people willing to do the sorts of things that most others couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t. From the get-go, I was so wired by writing it that I could barely sleep. It’s the antithesis to my last book, an addiction memoir that dove so far into its own navel that I thought I must surely have emerged from the process newborn and pure. Or maybe, as it turns out, just raring to go again. This time, despite not being the subject, I will be choked unconscious, strapped to a table and thrashed, staple-gun someone’s face, experiment with performance-enhancing drugs and wind up in a livestreamed fight. It’s a bit like method acting, I suppose.

In a way, though, it was that last book, Woman of Substances, that triggered the idea for Everything Harder Than Everyone Else. While there are all sorts of reasons that people consume substances, I noted that there are those who treat drug-taking like an Olympic sport, exploring their capacity to really push their bodies, and frankly, wanting to be the best at it. Those people, when they quit, might turn to a similarly annihilating pursuit—such as marathon running, getting the same gory kick out of pre-dawn starts and food rations as they did with their pre-dawn crashes and lines of coke, not to mention the glory of going all in. It made me wonder, what other reasons are there for somebody to repeatedly push themselves to the edge of annihilation?

Extreme athletes, death-defiers and those who perform incredible stunts of endurance have been celebrated throughout history. Ancient Greek poets such as Pindar and Statius hailed the demigods of pankration—an early kind of mixed martial arts, but with the referees wielding big sticks—and the violent scenes were recorded in pigment on pottery. The heroic bastards of medieval jousting tournaments verily made their way onto tapestries and canvases. In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, ‘broadside’ ballads in Britain, Ireland and North America were printed on cheap paper alongside crude woodcuts, immortalising outlaws and outliers, pugilists and prostitutes, hardnuts and hellraisers. In the 1927 anthology Frontier Ballads, edited by Charles J Finger, the songs are described as ‘glorification of wickedness, and the product of men of emotional instability who advocated breaches of the moral law’.

But pushing way beyond the comfort zone is also a sign of our modern times. In a world where the perfect temperature can be achieved at the push of a button, dinner can be delivered on cue and communication occurs ever more through screens and devices, the primal chemical surges designed to deliver us through situations of risk, such as hunting, fleeing predators and confronting rivals, still yearn to be released. So we engineer situations that will trigger them.

There are the destination adventures: running with the bulls in Pamplona; taking hallucinogenics to indulge in post-apocalyptic Mad Max–style fantasies at Burning Man; survival vacations, where guides upskill suburbanites in not dying in mountainous or desert terrains; treks up Mount Everest, which can have two-and-a-half-hour queues near the summit. Some adventure and ultramarathon races are now so oversubscribed that organisers have implemented lottery systems.

In every major city, fight gyms run pricey ‘pretender to contender’ training programs, designed to give desk jockeys a taste of glory in the boxing ring. And thanks to the exaltations of Russell Brand, Liam Hemsworth and Oprah, Dutch athlete Wim Hof’s three-pillared method of cold therapy, breathing and meditation has become accessible to anyone with the app. (Not convinced you want to immerse yourself in freezing water? Hof recommends: ‘Die once a day, because it makes you so alive!’ So consider turning the hot tap off in the shower and getting it over and done with first thing.)

There is also a horde of armchair athletes, who prefer to dabble in endurance tourism from the comfort of our lounge rooms. Basically, most of us think we ought to get out of our comfort zone, but we’ll just let someone else test the water first, while we think about it. Everyone’s reading and downloading the wisdom of former Navy SEALs on leadership and discipline, turning to Joe Rogan’s podcast for the lowdown on turbo supplements and talking about ‘grit’. At conferences, professional adventurers are booked to give motivational talks about resilience and risk-taking to sales executives and real estate agents. Among the highest-rated television shows is the UK’s brutal SAS: Who Dares Wins (which The Guardian dubbed ‘a sadistic PE lesson’) and the Australian spinoff, SAS Australia, in which contestants are challenged to complete an SAS selection course, while being cursed at by former Special Forces soldiers, dragged through mud, launched backwards out of helicopters into freezing lakes and shot at with blanks. The five-part adventure series Don’t Rock the Boat pitched UK celebs into freezing waters to row the length of Britain, resulting in mass vomiting and fainting.

Whether vicariously or directly, we give ourselves permission to feel these ugly, primal emotions—and the chemical rewards are great. Endurance athletes experience what’s colloquially called ‘runner’s high’—a blissful cocktail of endocannabinoids, endorphins and serotonin, the flood of which can feel transcendent, even spiritual. There’s a similar rush going on during high-octane thrill-seeking. When base jumpers are about to leap into the unknown, the amygdala senses the risk and triggers the release of a blend of chemicals: dopamine, which provides focus; adrenaline, which increases heart rate, boosting oxygen and glucose for energy; and endorphins, to protect against pain. The brain releases testosterone, for a boost of strength and confidence. In bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) play, the endogenous opioid system responds to the pain, releasing opioid peptides. It seems some of us are more wired than others to activate those ancient systems, be it through being caned in a dungeon during a lunchbreak or climbing a sheer rock wall at the weekend.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that research into extreme behaviour started in earnest in the decade of experimentation. The 1960s introduced the work of Universityof Massachusetts psychology professor Seymour Epstein, who studied parachutists’ physiological arousal when approaching a jump and observed the immense sense of wellbeing derived from surviving fear. Daniel Ellis Berlyne, associate professor at Boston University, investigated levels of hedonic arousal through stimuli such as novelty, complexity, surprise and incongruity.

Marvin Zuckerman, a professor of psychology at the Universityof Delaware, deduced that volunteers lining up to participate in experiments on hypnosis and new drugs were—judging by their other lifestyle choices—likely to be sensation-seekers hoping to groove on a trippy experience. In 1964, Zuckerman and others developed the sensation-seeking scale, a personality test that revealed there were multiple dimensions to sensation-seeking behaviour. Seven years later, he introduced the sensation seeking scale form IV, an expanded and refined version that triggered a wave of interest in this area. Among its adherents were psychologist Frank Farley, who formulated the concept of the Type T (thrill-seeking) personality, theorising that such individuals require an increased level of stimulation to maintain their energy levels. This built on Zuckerman’s belief that high-sensation seekers need a lot of stimulation to reach what he calls their optimal level of arousal (and similarly, there’s a theory among drug researchers that those drawn to drug-taking naturally produce low amounts of dopamine).

Farley is particularly interested in the positive aspects of thrill-seekers—among them extreme athletes, entrepreneurs and explorers—and what we can learn from them. He loves getting his own hair blown back by watching them up close and personal.

The wealth of research into endurance focuses on genetic advantage and physiological prowess. But I’m more interested in fossicking around in personal histories, to examine the psychological drive and see—a bit like Farley—what patterns and divergences it can illuminate. For some of my interviewees, a physical focus quietens an overactive mind. Others pressure-test, exposing their bodies to a small dose of stress or pain to protect against a potential larger threat in the future, in the same way that we might use a vaccine. They tend to be those who have already had reason to be fearful. And for some, physical pain might distract from emotional pain in the same way that digging the fingernails into the webbing of the thumbs seems to help when getting tattooed. Sigmund Freud labelled as ‘repetition compulsion’ the unconscious tendency to repeat the most destructive or distressing events of our past; it’s sometimes also called ‘traumatic re-enactment’. On occasions, maybe the motive isn’t at all obvious to the individual, which might explain the tendency of some major athletes to equate their suffering and sacrifice to that of Jesus himself.

Woven through the tales of these outliers are themes familiar to all of us, but amplified through their heightened drives: sensation seeking and euphoria chasing; instant gratification and impulsivity; compartmentalising and the development of double lives; humble mastery versus the need for validation; fighting as catharsis; death wishes and self-sabotage; obsession and addiction; retirement and reinvention; and that fine line between pleasure and pain.

It must, of course, be noted that it’s not always the case that people who take part in a pursuit that pushes their body to extremes have a common disposition or personal history. It’s more accurate to say that what the pursuit has to offer can be a particular draw for some kinds of people. Take bodybuilding, which requires unforgiving scheduling—every hour of the day is structured and regimented. It’s a natural fit for those like my interviewees Karen Adigos and Kortney Olson, who grew up in chaotic households with inconsistent parenting, and who yearned for order and control in their adult lives.

In these pages, strongman athlete Camilla Fogagnolo uses her childhood adversity as grist for the mill and wonders if top athletes use training as a form of self-harm. Performance artist Stelarc seeks erasure of the self by turning his body into an artistic medium. Wrestler KrackerJak employs bloodletting in the ring as an outlet for his natural-born agitation, and observes the effect on his wellbeing when injury prevents him from indulging in this curated ultraviolence. Christine Ferea, a bare-knuckle boxer whose gnarliest opponent is herself, reveals the nexus between ego and anger, and causes me to ponder whether the death drive that Freud hypothesised about in his Viennese salon is a much more tangible concept for fighters.

In the world of BDSM and extreme pain, Sir James, a sex worker specialising in domination, helps those who believe that being the ‘most used’ and degraded sexually gives them the power to withstand anything in their daily life. As for him, engaging in play as the dominant gives him a ‘top high’ that verges pleasurably on mania, and for which he joneses if he doesn’t experience it for more than a few weeks. Architect Wendy Crane tells me that her perception of body and mind was that they were two very separate entities, until she discovered the transcendence of flesh-hook suspension. Now she feels completely connected.

Ultrarunner Charlie Engle draws parallels between his epic adventure races and his former life smoking crack, wondering if the same need for validation powers both. Former ballet dancer Chloe Bayliss digs deeply into the way her sense of self was tied to her profession, to the point that quitting was a terrifying prospect. Then there’s the neuroscientist continuously violating his senses to override his disgust response. Through him and others, I discover that disgust endurance—be it through television gameshows where contestants eat what most of us consider to be repulsive, videos of horrific injuries and porn sites that specifically curate stomach-churning content—is its own genre, and that disgust has a valuable evolutionary purpose. And, in the chapter that may destroy my hitherto exemplary Goodreads rating, porn-star-turned-MMA fighter Orion Starr explains how, for her, sex and violence are two sides of the same coin, because both allow her to test her limits and stick it to the doubters in her childhood who thought she was a pipsqueak.

In delving into my interviewees’ stress-testing adventures, there’s a lot that can be learnt about the human condition. What you choose to do with their hard-fought wisdom is between you and your conscience.

Table of Contents

1. Don’t Know When to Stop: Endurance Athletes

2. Tasting the Limits: Performance Artists and Rogue Scientists

3. Bringing Order to Chaos: Bodybuilders

4. Engaging in Edgeplay: BDSM

5. Leveling Up: Belts and Iron

6. This Is Hardcore: Porn Stars

7. The Art of Suffering: Wrestlers

8. Anger Is an Energy: Fighters

9. The First Death: Retirement and Reinvention


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