Black Iron Gym provides free memberships to people working to stay sober

Credit: Krissy Mae Cagney, Black Iron Gym

Krissy Mae Cagney is helping others on their journey to sobriety by providing them with free memberships to the gym she founded.

The 29-year-old runs Black Iron Gym, a fitness center out of Reno, Nevada, which she opened three years ago. The facility is where she's built not only physical strength but the determination to stay off the drugs that ravaged her life for so long.

“I’ve had behavioral problems since I was a child, such as diagnosed anxiety and personality disorder,” she tells PEOPLE. “I started using at a really young age because of those behavioral problems so I used for about 10 years, all through high school and college. My addiction got bad enough to the point where it left me homeless several times.”

Over a decade of repeated drug use, Cagney found herself turning to cocaine, alcohol and other drugs to mask her mental health struggle. In turn, she entered numerous rehabilitation programs during her teens and early twenties, but she eventually moved away from family and friends and frequently landed in jail.

Through it all, though, Cagney says the only place she felt solace was in between the walls of a gym.

“Over the years, the only time that I would be able to stay sober longer than a couple of days is when I was really committed to the gym,” she recalls. “For the last year I used, it was a revolving door of trying to get sober, making it 10 days to two weeks and then drinking and using again.”

When she was 24, Cagney began experiencing alcohol-induced seizures, and was told by doctors she would die if she continued drinking. This was enough for her to realize if she was ever going to be clean, the time had come.

Cagney took to powerlifting and CrossFit harder than ever before, pushing and pulling her way to a longer-lasting sobriety. Today, she's been sober for five years, and through Black Iron, she wants to provide other recovering addicts a place that will encourage them to stay clean through exercise and counseling programs.

With her GoFundMe initiative, called “Reps 4 Recovery,” Cagney has offered about 100 recovering addicts—who are anywhere from a day to five years sober—free memberships to her gym. Together, these members motivate each other to stay clean and strong in the face of relapse. Many members, Cagney says, had no other fitness experiencing before signing up.

Krissy Mae Cagney
| Credit: Krissy Mae Cagney, Black Iron Gym

“Every time one of my gym members looks at me and tells me that they wouldn’t be sober without my gym or the program or me, there’s no other feeling in the world like that,” Cagney says. “All I really wanted the whole time I was getting sober was somebody like that to help me and I never had that. To be able to be that to all these people is just so fulfilling.”

Black Iron Gym is tapping into what a number of rehabilitation centers across the country have been realizing over the years: that incorporating fitness into their programs can have substantial benefits. In effect, members are replacing the high of the drugs with the high they get from exercise.

“For me, you have to chase a high when you’re using and with powerlifting, it was the same thing,” Cagney explains. “Chasing a personal record or the feeling of getting strong in the gym, for me, was the equivalent of getting high.”

Black Iron Gym
| Credit: Krissy Mae Cagney, Black Iron Gym

The Reps 4 Recovery GoFundMe page has raised more than $77,000 over the last year, just shy of its $85,000 goal. Cagney says she would like to turn it into a full-fledged treatment facility and hire a part-time in-house therapist for members.

One by one, Cagney hopes she can lead recovering addicts back into a life of good health and help them see addiction as an illness that can be healed.

“This is an illness and it must be treated, and shoving it off to the side and not doing anything about it is not treating your illness,” she says. “If you’re sober, whether it’s one year or five years or 10 years, you’re never going stop treating your illness. It doesn’t go anywhere, you just get better at managing it. The biggest thing is just taking it one day at a time.”