Friday, May 23, 2014

Running into recovery

I've been a runner since 2003.  As with a lot of other things I've tried, I jumped into it with both feet, thinking it would finally be the thing that . . . I don't know . . . fixed me. I collected bits and pieces of happiness along the way in my life, but something was always missing, and I tended to fill the space with alcohol. Somewhere deep inside, I knew it was a problem, although it would be years before I would own up to it, so I was always searching for the next great thing that would change me from the outside in. And there's no question that I was dedicated when I latched onto something. I had married my husband in 2001, and he was in his lazy law school days when we met, but he had been an avid runner and cyclist at one time. Somewhere around 2003, he decided to get back into running, and one day I decided to go along. I had never been a runner. In fact, the last time I had run at all was along I-64 in the pitch black dark of night after my college roommate and I ran out of gas on the way back to school from a beach trip. It was the pre-cell phone era, and we figured changing into sneakers and running to the nearest exit was our best bet. I suspect we made it about a quarter of a mile before I was huffing and puffing and taking a rest on a guard rail. Fortunately, we were rescued and that night had a happy ending, but it wasn't that I fell in love with running. My takeaway from the whole ordeal (besides start looking at your fuel gauge periodically) was that running is hard.

Fast forward to my first real run in March of 2003. I was certain it wasn't going to go well, but we set out to do an easy 2 miles around the neighborhood, and I felt great. I was surprised and delighted, especially considering I was hung over (possibly a little bit still drunk) from the night before. This was it! Running would be my salvation, the solution to the problem I couldn't admit I had. Before I even attempted another run, I was committed to doing my first 5k in two weeks, my first half marathon in September, and my first marathon in October. And for a while, it worked. I was excited about running. It felt good to push limits. Every time I added mileage and ran farther than I'd ever run before, I felt accomplished. I even drank less when I knew I was getting up to run in the morning. There had always been a sort of ebb and flow to my relationship with alcohol, which made denial easier. When things were bad, I leaned on it heavily, but when good things came into my life, I relied on it less. There were even times (like during my pregnancies) when I didn't drink at all.  So I looked for things – distractions – to help me fool myself into believing I didn't have a problem. When I started running, it was still early enough that I was able to focus some of my energy on something new.

As my relationship with running grew, I trained and raced all the time. I always felt like I needed that next race on the calendar – a reason to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. I was trying hard to run away from my addiction, but it was trying just as hard to swallow me whole. Running became my rationalization. I was able to tell myself that I was okay, as long as I could still run a marathon. Surely an alcoholic couldn't run a marathon. And what better way to reward myself after a training run or race than with a drink - or twelve. There were times early on that I really did feel good and healthy when I ran, and I would make plans for cleaning up the rest of my life. They were glimmers of hope that came mainly when I ran, and maybe that's why the whole concept never soured for me, no matter how ugly it got in the years to come.

Eventually, running became a punishment. I lost any ability to not drink the night before a run, so I would wake up hung over and dehydrated and hit the road. "This is what you deserve," I would tell myself as I plodded along. I wanted to suffer, to feel the damage I was doing to my body, to berate myself, and to assure myself that I could fix it by just not drinking next time. There were times my heart was beating so fast, I believed that I would die before I finished the run. I had zero mind-body connection – no idea if my racing heartrate was because I was running up hill or because I was going through withdrawal; no idea if my knee hurt because of a running injury or because I bumped into something in a drunken stupor the night before; no idea if I was getting blisters or hot spots on my feet because I was periodically losing feeling in parts of my hands and feet. I was scared. Scared enough to google everything I could find about withdrawal symptoms and alcoholic neuropathy. Not scared enough to stop drinking. I would run and tell myself that it was the last time, that I was definitely not going to drink like that again, that I wouldn't have to run feeling like that next time . . . if I survived this time.

In the end, I was drinking and running – sometimes at the same time. I showed up to more than one race still drunk from the night before. I kept pushing myself, punishing myself, and experiencing a total disconnect from my body. Addiction for me was about isolating myself. I isolated myself from everything and everyone. I was there but not there. Recovery for me is about connectedness – getting outside of myself and connecting with others but also reconnecting with myself. It was a slow process, first learning to connect with other addicts in recovery, but it eventually translated into other areas of my life.

Today I'm grateful for every ache and pain I feel on a run, because it's telling me something, and I can hear it. I know when I'm starting to get a blister because I can feel it. When I run up a hill and my heart feels like it's going to burst out of my chest, it makes me smile because my heart is telling me that it's working, not that I’m drinking myself to death. No wonder I didn't listen to my body before. I didn't want to hear what it was saying. I say running is a gift that keeps on giving because it's really been there for me all along. It's given me hope, it's taught me what my body and mind are capable of when they work together and what it can't do when they don't, it's gotten in my face and told me that I was dying, and it continues to be a huge part of my recovery. In very early recovery, I struggled with the concept of a higher power and my discomfort with prayer and meditation. Then I realized, running is my prayer and meditation and where I feel most connected to a higher power, whatever that may be. It's where I work out my problems, it's where I accept my weaknesses, it's where I come to terms with suffering, and it's where I find my strength. Of course, it's not the most important thing in my life – no, I don't love running more than I love my family – but it's where I wrap my head around all of those other things, big and small, and come out the other side feeling physically, mentally, and spiritually fit. If that's not recovery, then I don't know what is.        


  1. Very well written, Wendy! You have many talents.

  2. ReadEatWriteRun pointed me to your blog because we both have blogs, run and are in recovery.

    I really related to what you wrote here and in your more recent post about racing. I too worry that running could become another crutch for me dealing with life rather than being something that adds to it. I've gotten a coach for the reason you mention: to keep me from overdoing it. I don't know that I'm an all or nothing person, although I do get obsessed with different things from time to time, and running seems to be something that I'd like to stick.

    I don't know how you ran while you were drinking! It sounds like a very special kind of hell. Right after I got sober, I was too ill to do more than vigorously walk (and take copious naps while my broken body healed -- it took almost 2 years to stop feeling exhausted), so I find it amazing you carried on with it during your active drinking and right after rehab.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog.