Why are there so many in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction who turn to running as their new high?
Distance running by its nature lends itself to the addictive personality, if there is such a thing, of rewarding those who blast past barriers. It not only rewards but demands the obsessive brain, the kind who goes to a $5 all-you-can-drink keg party and asks for $10 worth. It's the metaphorical potato chip that, once it's on your taste buds, lights up something deeper within you that craves more.
Yes, addicts can be cowards, immature, fragile, obnoxious, and so on (it's an `in' group thing, so I can get away with saying that) but lazy is one thing we are not. Maybe lazy when it comes to responsibilities, sure, but not lazy when it comes to getting what we want.
There is nothing more industrious, more creative, or more persistent than an addict trying to get high. Waking up in the morning with unexplained bumps and bruises, not a penny to our name, barely able to see through bloodshot eyes, vomit ready to project out of us at any moment, and afraid to make eye contact with another human being. Yet still, an addict is pulled by powerful forces to get out of bed and find a way to get high every day. We will walk, crawl or run any race distance to get what we want.
You think a bit of muscle pain or discomfort is going to stop us from hitting the road and taking a run? No way.
Running can provide the needed spiritual awakening to help an addict stay sober. Running just seems to make all of your atoms spin a bit faster, unearths previously hidden parts of yourself, and allows a connection with something deeper. Yes, this is partly due to the physical explosions of endorphins and cannabinoids, but the result is an overall sense of well-being and feeling of peace with your place in the universe.
Compare this spiritual awakening with the spiritual despair of the last stages of addiction. As the consequences of addiction escalate, a loss of meaning to live is often the result. That is why spirituality is crucial to recovery.
They say religion is for those who don't want to go to hell, but spirituality is for those who have been to hell and don't want to go back. Well, running yourself to physical extremes provides a sense of harrowing hell and then ascending. It's the biblical notion of a descent, and then ascension to, yes, feeling like you are sitting on the right hand of God at the finish. During some euphoric moments of a run, I feel fully connected to the universe, doubts of a higher power are erased, and I understand my place in the cosmos at these moments. And it's pretty darn beautiful.
By the way, if you subscribe to, or even read, the 12 steps of AA, spirituality is the whole reason you work the first 11. The steps say not a word about staying sober; they only speak to having a spiritual awakening. Once you experience the thrill of such an awakening, the despair of using will taste too bitter and certainly be avoided.
Solitary and communal: Running is both of these. It offers alone time and an inner exploration like no other. “I run as I dream - alone,” I like to quip, paraphrasing Joseph Conrad from Heart of Darkness.
Yet the communal nature of a group run, and even more so, starting a marathon with 40,000 other runners and then seeing them near the end, at mile 23, is a feeling of primitive and transcendent connection. We are all psychically connected in those moments, and the primal nature of the event strips down the artificial barriers between us. The feeling of being one with others around me during these moments is not unlike using psychedelics. I've felt them both, and they are not that dissimilar.
When you are using, sober life seems so boring, and like a curse. Of course, once you get sober, you realize there is not enough time in the day to do all the things you want to do. But you still need an edge, and despite the stereotypical geeky cross-country runner in high school, runners have an edge since their brains and hearts go to some unique places, and discomfort becomes a whole new comfort zone. Drunken, wasted exploits are replaced by stories of amazing workouts. A strung-out addict is a sad, silly cliché, whereas the ultra-marathoning, tattooed-up runner doing 80 miles a week with self-made body armor of muscle is truly one who lives on the edge.
Most addicts are emotionally stunted. We can't express fear or joy or insecurity or talk about things. But running, even though it isn't verbal, has always been an expression of feelings for me. There is nothing that vents rage and anger like a good set of intervals. Nothing. And nothing that provides a sense of joy like a 10-mile trail run. Running brings me to an emotional catharsis such that I cry at the end of every marathon. It both expresses emotions and polishes them up. Witness the end of any marathon, and you'll see the spectrum of emotions squeezed out of every human who makes it across the finish.
Our bodies are pretty ravaged and have been punished by too much and not enough, so running is one way to start being good to them.
Yes, we've done some rotten things, so in order to live with ourselves, we tend to inflate our egos and lie to ourselves about who we really are in order get by. The worse we became, the more lies we had to feed ourselves about who we really were, and this usually means artificially building ourselves up. But deep in our hearts, we feel less than, inferior, scared of others, since we've always felt they had some secret gene that made them know how to live in ways we never learned. Inside the haughty ego is a core of shame and worthlessness.
Running balances this out. It checks your ego since there is always, always somebody faster - and you will always be humbled by a run. Yet you feel incredibly triumphant inside, and never inferior because you have conquered, you are a warrior now, you run like a beast, and have found new strength and new hope. This leads to the affirmation of....
Yes, you are worthy - this seems so Stuart Smalley, but running makes us face ourselves, prove ourselves, and every time we win one of those little battles - either to get out the door and put in a few miles, to hit a certain mileage split, or to qualify for the Boston Marathon, it affirms our existence. We've stared into ourselves, listened to the voices of doubt and fear, yet instead responded to something higher.
The bottom line is, a recovering addict still needs to get high. Difference is, one form of getting high is cheap, is killing you, will hurt your loved ones, and is not going to work anymore, while the other will bring you to a higher place of your higher self. Yes, I still want to chase the dragon down, sometimes catch it, ride aboard and soar above my existence for a while, but I would also like to return from the ride in a better spot. Drugs and alcohol never did this, but the highs through running often provide what the addict was truly looking for in the first place; Physical strength, emotional expression, spiritual well-being, and a deeper connection with oneself and others. Recovering addicts are just on a different side of the getting-high yin-yang.
About the Author
Mark Matthews is a 13-time marathoner, a Boston qualifier, a recovering addict of 21 years, and a substance-abuse counselor in Detroit. In 2014, he became a Runwell advocate, and is currently training to run the 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon to support the mission of Runwell. The above story is an excerpt from his book "Chasing the Dragon: Running to Get High"
Mark is currently raising funds to help those struggling with addiction have access to quality treatment for the disease of addiction. Click here to support Mark and Runwell as they make strides toward ending the stigmas associated with addiction.