Felicia Lee-Sexton’s gold hoops sway and her biceps bulge as she swings a sledgehammer over her head before slamming it down on a tractor tire.
On one bicep, a tattoo reads “6-16-93.”
The tattoo is a reminder of the day when her sister dragged her to a rehabilitation clinic against her will, and Lee-Sexton cried on the floor when her drug test came back positive for cocaine use.
Only two out of the 10 people whom she was in treatment with at the now-closed Riverside Hospital in Third Ward have survived. She is one of the fortunate ones, she said, because she hasn’t experienced any health problems even though she snorted and smoked cocaine for 11 years.
She remembers what it felt like to be strongly connected to a foreign, and fatal, substance.
“Most addicts don’t know they’re addicts right away,” she said. “You don’t realize your life has become unmanageable or is in a downward spiral right away. As an addict, your disease goes with you. I always think about a woman who buys all the shoes, who thinks she has it going on. She never realizes in her mind that she has a problem.”
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After getting clean, Lee-Sexton lived a pretty typical life. She owned a few businesses over a 20-year span, including a credit restoration business after she obtained her paralegal license. She married a man she met through the program, but they eventually divorced when he continued to use illegal substances.
About 10 years ago, a good friend invited her to work out. Then she tried powerlifting which segued into bodybuilding. Now, she’s a professional fitness model and bodybuilder who has amassed quite a collection of trophies and titles, including state powerlifting records for women over 50.
“I always felt there was a different me in me,” she said.
Twenty-six years after her last high, Sexton-Lee spends every day in a gym, usually the one she founded in Stafford, The Women’s Health and Fitness Center, and gets high in a different way.
Her exercise warmup includes tire slams, pushups and dumbbell raises, and it appears to be more difficult than a typical person’s full workout. She wears combat-style boots to protect her ankles, but also because it makes her feel stronger.
She breaks up her workouts in the morning, afternoon, and again, in the evening Monday through Thursday; on Friday, she takes the afternoon and evening off, but is back in the gym at 6 a.m. Saturday and again Sunday morning before church.
In between, she helps train women who want to better their lives — physically and spiritually — and goes to her other job as a wellness manager at Legacy Community Health. In the Legacy Body Positive gym, she sees patients diagnosed with diabetes, eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction and HIV, as well as members of the LGBTQ community.
“It’s continuous work not just for today, but every day,” Sexton-Lee said. “It’s a struggle, but it’s a good struggle.”
Her body is a machine, and she loves the control she has to mold it into what she wants.
“I realized how it also transformed my thinking. It took my mind away from the negativity, and I felt so much stronger,” she said. “Things don’t bother me as much, things go over my head. It’s my release, keeps my mind clear. It’s the best thing for me. If you keep me out for a few days, I’m frantic.”
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Two years ago, Lee-Sexton self-published “From Recovery to Discovery: My Journey Through Addiction” and began giving motivational speeches about her experience as a former drug user and current fitness professional.
In October, Lee-Sexton will deliver her story in a TED Talk at Lone Star College. She plans on wearing her signature boots.
What she says can be surprising to people, but that transparency is part of the recovery process.
“With my addiction, I would do the exact same thing again because that made me who I am,” she said. “I was in a church, high-as-a-kite every Sunday…many people don’t know that an addict was sitting right next to them. But we all have a right to live out our story and have our journey. We have a right to recover the way we have to recover.
“If you really look at your life, something is going on in your house right now that you’re probably not talking about. The question is what is their story.”