1. Sobriety in and of itself isn’t enough. Or at least it should be more than about just not drinking. Sobriety can free you to flourish, but in order for that to happen you need a community for encouragement, support, and enjoyment.
2. I certainly don’t want to be a work-dinner-couch boring sober-man, but I can see that the bad habits I’ve cultivated over the past several years might lead me in that direction. Of course a work-dinner-couch boring sober-man is light years better than a work-dinner-couch drunk, but nevertheless I realize I’ll need to stay motivated and active. I want to use my health and my clear mind for something worthwhile, so for the time being I should probably avoid the couch at all costs. Which brings me to my last point.
3. What is it that I used to love before my idea of fun revolved around alcohol? I didn’t start seriously drinking until late in college, but given that college was quite a long time ago now I have some soul searching ahead of me. I remember that I used to read all the time and competitively row and run. I used to go on long hikes and bike rides with my friends, and fish and swim. And, I remember loving it all without alcohol in the mix.
Over the past several years alcohol has pretty much destroyed my attention span for reading–it’s hard to sit down with a good book half a bottle of wine into the night. Drinking has also diminished my health to the point where I have a lot of work to get back to the point where running, swimming, and/or rowing are in the cards. My smoking isn’t helping on that front either, but that’s another battle for another day. At least I have my friends, but the big challenge for me will be to find ways to maintain those friendships without re-introducing alcohol. That’s another post for another day as well.
In any case, I found Sacha’s article thought-provoking, entertaining, and inspiring. Enjoy!
After I’d been sober a year and the haze of recovery began to lift — that is, when I began to widen my daily travels to broader spheres than the short distance between the video store and my apartment — I noticed that, outside of B-movies, I had no appreciable interests at all. Years before, in graduate school, I had been forced to fill out a little get-to-know-you questionnaire to break the ice with my fellow students. Having no hobbies or any discernable extra-curricular interests to speak of (save drinking, of course), I winged it — which is to say, I lied — and wrote: “skeet shooting” and “rapping on the mic.” Imagine the disappointment of my classmates when they discovered I had neither a talent for weaponry nor hip-hop.
Now it struck me that I ought to do something about all of those blank “about me” boxes on every social-networking Web site I encountered; I ought to capitalize on my newfound health. Because despite eating out every night, not exercising a whit and generally burnishing my form into the couch, I did feel like sobriety was indeed a newfound health. Naturally, I signed up to run the Marine Corps Marathon.
Despite eating out every night, not exercising a whit and generally burnishing my form into the couch, I did feel like sobriety was indeed a newfound health. Naturally, I signed up to run a marathon.
“If you can run three miles, you can run a marathon” was the promise of the National AIDS Marathon Training Program. I couldn’t run three miles. And yet, in a kind of momentary insanity, I decided that hardly mattered. Neither did the fact that I had only recently quit smoking. And so, in May 2006, I found myself standing with my new marathon training team in the shadow of our nation’s Capitol. I had not run but loped through three miles of paved hell before being placed in a training group based on my time, such as it was. There were few teams slower than us and what seemed like dozens of faster ones, including the herd we nicknamed the Gazelles, which seemed to be comprised entirely of supermodels and N.B.A. All-Stars. We, on the other hand, were the C students of the marathon, the Sweathogs. To complete the mission at hand, we were asked to follow some simple rules: run with the group every Saturday for ever-increasing distances and then run 45-minute maintenance runs just two more times each week.
Around this time, I noticed that maintaining my sobriety was starting to feel like its own marathon. I found myself bowing out of social events and even faking illness when the famously alcohol-sodden corporate retreat rolled around (brainstorming and mojitos anyone?). Replacing one marathon with another seemed only natural. Instead of hiding from alcohol, I would run from it! Besides, I figured I had nothing to lose: The coaches told me, if I followed their rules, I would finish an epic race and experience incredible joy. I thought, worst case, I would descend into a dehydrated spider crawl, call it a day and forget the whole enterprise.
I decided to act like I could do it before I decided whether or not I believed I could. For a long time that worked.
So I did my two 45-minute maintenance runs and then joined my group in the inhuman pre-dawn hours for long Saturday runs. We guzzled sports drinks the color of Windex and ate gumdrops made from salt. We were, among other things, a mortgage broker, a schoolteacher, a nonprofit administrator, a corporate consultant and a scientist. Together we were friends. “Put a shirt on!” I would yell at a lithe, eight-foot-tall Gazelle in a bra top and athletic skort as she flew by. “And eat a sandwich,” another Sweathog would add as we crammed those salty sport beans down our throats and continued to discuss in precise detail all the food we would be eating when the run was over. It was a true camaraderie of athletes.
I had set myself up for marathon success: I had a cohort of supporters, I followed the training rules, I hydrated for fear of splitting headaches, I had my guilt-inducing early morning car pool in place, and I had faith in the coaches. And yet, when it came to sobriety, I resisted help, I resisted talk of higher powers, I resisted the notion that a few simple rules and a cohort of support could be helpful. I was in control; I had stayed sober for a year all by myself. And that’s right about when I started to get very cocky about running, too. Maybe the training had just kick-started the latent runner in me. I started to have fantasies about the Iron Man triathlon (I suppose I’ll have to buy a bike, I thought) and marathons around the world. I even imagined what it might be like to run with the Gazelles — the first 5-foot-1-inch woman to make the cut. Who needed support when you had the steely resolve of a champion coursing through your blood?
And then I ran 23 miles. I had already completed 18- and 20-mile runs, accomplishments that had bolstered my confidence and secured my allegiance to the training program. But on the 16th mile of the 23-mile run, I plummeted into crisis. I was suddenly and acutely aware of the seven miles between me and the end of the run — and that felt like a mind-numbing expanse. My legs were able, but my brain was seized with terror and my pulse echoed in my skull. I took uncomfortably shallow breaths and my heart fluttered; I wanted to wrest open my rib cage and let all the air outside in. Overwhelmed by the thought of continuing the run, but scared of quitting and watching my Sweathogs go on without me, I was in a panic.
I thought I would be unmasked, that the coach would see I was not a runner but a crazy person in high-end technical fabric.
How could this be happening? I mean, I was exercising! Shouldn’t endorphins or some such be coursing through my body? Shouldn’t my brain be bathed in serotonin right about now? And where was that runner’s high I’d heard so much about? Instead of seeking support from the Sweathogs, I told them I was feeling tense but didn’t elaborate; I didn’t want to mess with their heads by explaining the whole seven more miles thing. A giant part of me begged to stop; an equal force pleaded to go on. I was trapped, and neither route led to relief. Split in two, I clenched my teeth and fists and barreled through. It was the first time since that initial white-knuckled three-mile lope that I had relied on willpower alone. It was no way to run.
There was no reprieve at the end of the 23 miles, just rage, tears, panic and an uncontrollable urge to beat at the hollow, edgy sensation in my chest. I thought I would be unmasked, that the coach would see I was not a runner but a crazy person in high-end technical fabric. When I told the coach about my struggle, however, he was unfazed. He explained that I was not stuck out there on the course, that I had never been trapped. He gave me permission to take a break any time I wanted. He also gave me permission to fully confide in my teammates without fear of sucking them into my madness. And if I kept running, he told me to remember that I choose to run. No one was forcing me to run. He had taken me this far, and now he asked me if I still trusted him. I did. “You had me at ‘You choose to run,’” I said as I exhaled.
Throughout that summer, friends inevitably expressed admiration at my willpower to take on 15-plus miles at a time. And though I did not always disabuse people of this admiration, I knew a different truth: willpower is what happens when you have to muscle through; but I didn’t have to muscle through. I had an arsenal of support and ballasts in place to keep me on the right path. Those kooky coaches — who yelled out cheesy and embarrassing cheers, like “I see some heroes on the Mall today!” — were like hyper-euphoric angels, hell-bent on seeing us through the bizarrely human act of running exactly 26.2 miles. And, when the road was really tough, the day particularly hot, and the edible runner’s goo low, I would repeat, in a singsong whisper, I choose to run. I choose to run. I’d look around at my sweet Sweathogs. I choose to run. I’d stare down at my feet. I choose to run. One in front of the other. I choose to run. Sometimes, I’d look up to see I’d gone several miles in a kind of trance.
By the time I crossed the finish line that October and wrapped the silver space blanket around my shoulders, I had found not only a new respect for my body, but a new respect for faith — a concept that would become integral to my recovery but one I had always disdained as illogical and submissive. I realized that I hadn’t known everything, that the “possible” consisted of more than what I had experienced or conceived in my own head. What’s more, I stopped seeing my sobriety as some kind of endurance test consuming every scrap of fight I had. Like marathon training, it’s not about willpower and white-knuckling it; it’s about making the next right choice. I’ve since set myself up for sober success; I follow a few simple rules and surround myself with sober Sweathogs. And sometimes, when it gets difficult, I close my eyes and think, “I choose to run.”
Art: The Biglin Brothers Racing, by Thomas Eakins