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Mark's Story | Addiction, Recovery & Running

I am 22 years into recovery from addiction. It has now been nearly half my life. There is no doubt I would have been dead had I not made the changes I needed to make in order to be sober.

My pancreas and liver were damaged, my spirit filled with so much despair, my family confused and lost, and after few hospital stays and various other changes, here I am: 12 marathons, two daughters, three novels (that makes five kids) and a master's degree in counseling, but still in school as a perpetual Ph.D.- level stooge.

There is always a danger in talking about your addiction. In order to do it justice, you have to go into some gory details, otherwise it becomes just a tiny blip in the screen and a hangnail in the adventure of life. My plunge into addiction was not just a case of one drunk drive, a couple of hangovers, or a few failed attempts to stop drinking. It was much, much worse.

Often times when folks discuss their addiction, there is a degree of bragging. Circumstances are exaggerated, amounts are tripled, the "fish" gets bigger and bigger, all in a grandiose attempt to build up the teller's tale. I suppose you could call it the “A Million Little Pieces” lie, (referring to the novel where the writer exaggerated his condition, all in an attempt to sell more books.)

Strange how folks feed their egos by saying “I'm sicker than the rest of you” but it happens all the time, and it's happening in a church basement at an AA/NA meeting as I write this. You'll hear things like, “Oh yeah, son? Well, I wrung more booze out of my tie then you'll ever drink” or “I spilled enough cocaine off a mirror to kill most of you.”

Then there's the relapse bragger: the one who describes how he relapsed right in the parking lot of the first 23 treatment centers he went through and therefore his beast of burden is much more fearsome than yours.

So, in an attempt to do my addiction justice, I need to add some details, without glorifying it, trying to take the middle, watered-down road. So, here it is: 

By the time I was in high school, I was drinking daily, and this continued into my freshman year at the University of Michigan. Drinking was the only thing that made me happy, made me feel content and like I belonged. I was powerful, magical, and full of a nice warm glow that made me shine (or so I thought). These were my glory days, when I was superman and could do well in school, played some sports, was popular and could put all sorts of substances in my body in my experiment of one. I believed I was better than those around me who I thought lived mundane existences. I was the only one feeling fully alive, on fire, burning with a passion for everything. I could drink a fifth of vodka on a Wednesday night, go to class on Thursday morning, and come home with a B+ or better on my report card, and all was well with the world.

I was an arrogant ass, of course, and then it turned on me.

I started getting the shakes and sweats and got crazy fat. I couldn't get by without a drink in the morning, and in fact, had to pace myself during the day to keep a certain amount of alcohol in my bloodstream or suffer withdrawal. I bought $1.79 half pints of vodka, only to return to the store for another half pint and then another half pint, doing the dreaded half-pint shuffle.

To stop drinking was to have everything pulled away from me, so this was not going to happen. It was the only thing that made me feel significant and worthy, the only thing that filled all the holes in my spirit. I needed it biologically to stop shaking, spiritually to feel I had a purpose, and psychologically because, God, did I hate myself.

My family didn't know what to think and called me “chubhead” because I gained so much weight and was a disgustingly bloated alcoholic. (We all blamed the dorm food.) Things only got worse. During a fight, a thrown beer bottle shattered on my chin and ripped open my face. I had a couple of police incidents. I had an inability to go to class because I was too gross or was afraid I would vomit or just felt so inhuman. And I was always, always scrambling to stop from failing out of school. I was in and out of academic probation and taking incredible efforts to cover my tracks.

After having to leave the dorms for being put on probation, I moved into a house with some friends. We had a party with candles and smoking and literally burned the place down one night. One person was hospitalized but it could have been worse, and instead of learning a lesson, we sat in front of the house the day after, full of self-pity. And we drank.

Worse than all of this, however, was the despair and the loneliness and perpetual bitterness that grew in my belly. It was like I was pregnant with a demon child that got bigger and bigger until it overcame its host. I was lonely, scared, hurt, and thrashing out at others, at anyone I could blame. I felt resentment toward everything because I felt so insignificant.

Yet at the same time, my brain became incredibly twisted so that I thought I was better than everyone. The more disgusting I became, the more my brain had to work overtime to create a contrary illusion of myself as some unique, extraordinary, intelligent and misunderstood genius on an intellectual adventure. All of this was bullshit, of course, and I was full of worthlessness in my essence that I couldn't shake.

And to cope with this situation, I just drank and used more. Being in a college town meant lots of opportunities to put different substances into my body, and I experimented and become my own pharmacist, adding a bit of that and a mix of this, which of course just made me grosser and more miserable. When I think back on it, I can remember the misery and despair in the pit of my stomach, like a phantom limb or muscle memory. It remains there forever, healed over but scarred to help me never forget.

When I finally failed out of school, the one thing I had that I could point to, to trick myself that I wasn't a total waste, was gone. My delusions were stripped away. I had no more weapons to fight back against reality. (And it is the stripping away of weapons that has to happen before one can fully surrender.)

I started going to hospitals for short detox stays, had DTs and seizures, internal bleeding, and pancreatitis that was so incredibly painful. I had blood in my stool and blood in my vomit. I drank after vomiting, drank in the middle of the night to calm down a pounding blood pressure, and I responded by putting everything in my body I could to escape the pain of living. With each experiment to alleviate the pain, I was a worse monster for it.

In the end, I had become a sad, silly cliché: a self-pitying misunderstood artist. (Although I had no art to actually be misunderstood, I still liked to delude myself into thinking of myself as an artist.)

My efforts to get sober largely failed. I tried all sorts of measures - half measures, they are called. I cut down, I tried drinking only beer, drinking only on the weekend, writing down a chart (almost like a training plan) of how much I was allowed to drink each day. All of this in failed efforts to try and save my life.

Every relapse was bizarre but predictable. One time I rationalized how it made sense to drink on the way home from the hospital after a three-day detox. Another time I was in such denial that I had convinced myself I had quit even while I was drinking. With each step to get some vodka it was an out-of-body experience where I denied it was even happening. As long as I could try to make everyone else think I wasn't drinking, then I could live the lie. But it showed in my face and in my spirit and of course always progressed into something nasty.

I did go to one AA meeting in these early days. It was so bizarre to me at the time, these happy, caring, but deep individuals who somehow weren't drinking and seemed to look right through me. When they hugged me at the end, we held hands for a prayer and their sober smiles tried to connect with my heart, and I totally blew a circuit. I left the church parking lot and drove straight to a party store for a 40-ouncer. Too much reality and connection for me to handle.

And so it went on and on.

It only took a full surrender, realizing and then practicing the concepts of AA/NA and believing that I was worth saving, that finally let some true sobriety take root in my heart.

I have a lot of mixed thoughts on AA, more than I could describe accurately here, but I fully believe in the concepts of the steps. If you look at others who got sober, even those who say AA is full of crap, chances are if you trace how they got sober, they also followed a path that mirrors AA concepts. Having your false ego stripped away, surrendering all your weapons of living and thinking, and turning “it” over and letting go of anger, resentments, and your perpetual fight with the universe. These are things that exist in most any recovery growth.

It was amazing once I truly let go, and I began to “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle me.” There was indeed a new freedom and new happiness.

Yes, there is plenty of crap at AA meetings, and at times you could get drunk just from the alcohol fumes on the breath of many despite their claims they have been sober 30 years, but AA is the place, as Father Martin said, “Where priest can learn from plumber.” It's a place of healing and caring, a place outcasts can call home.

The results of the steps are not staying sober. You won't find that in there. The results are a spiritual awakening. And once you become spiritually awake you will find a life worth living. You will settle into your place in the grand scheme of the cosmos. It takes lots of practice, but if you can work with the universe, rather than against it, the energy flow brings some remarkable things your way. Doesn't mean you don't have angst and don't have plenty of issues and aren't crazy as hell. My life is stranger in recovery than it was in addiction.

Part of what saved me was returning to things that brought me joy in an earlier time. This included simple things. The tiny little treasures of life, where joy was packed in tight and disguised. Little things like food, a cup of coffee, an episode of Seinfeld.

Other things that I returned to that once brought me joy included running.

In high school, running was the only thing (besides a bit of AP English and cheating on my French tests) that I was good at. I'm sure it had to do with my body type: being fairly slight of frame, having the right type of fast-twitch muscles for endurance, and being of the introverted/dissociative type of mind inclined to go off on dreamy tangents during longer runs.

I had been a varsity miler my freshman year, turning in a 4:26 in my sophomore year, but then come senior year, I went on my spring break and never returned to the field. Spring break 1987 was the end of my early running career, but after years of serious deadly substance abuse, I came out of retirement to run again.

And now I figure if I could keep drinking despite all the pain it caused me, I can keep running no matter the discomfort. I'm still chasing the high.

Meeting my wife, who was very fitness oriented, is what sparked the running flame to burn brighter. She would go to aerobics classes six or seven times a week, sometimes two classes in a row, sometimes followed by roller blading an eight-mile hilly track. Well, I upped my training in order to keep up (when you are young and in love, you'll do anything) and started to do some running events. My first was an off-road duathlon in which I took second place in my age group. The second was the Detroit Free Press Marathon. I ran with my cousin, also a first timer, and finished the event in Tiger Stadium.

This finish line was really just a new beginning.

All of this leads to my premise that the life of an addict and the life of a marathoner are not that different, yet certainly polar opposites. Like the yin and yang, they are shaped the same but different colors.

Both look at limits and blast right past them.

Both are looking to feel free. To use the body to extend past the body. To modify chemicals in one's body to transcend the body. The amazing feeling of power and revelation I get during a run is actually what I was seeking by using substances. They have that in common.

Of course, one is based on fear, hurt, laziness, immaturity, and cowardess, and the other is based on discipline, bravery, and inner strength. I'll let you decide which is which.

Being a distance runner, you have to learn how to push your body. Aches and pains are often to be dismissed in order to blast yourself up to higher performance, while care needs to be taken not to injure yourself. As marathoners, we can run through pain; that's part of the package.

And that same dismissiveness when the body pleads for you to stop drives addicts to continue to use their drug of choice. An addict's body is always giving them signs to stop. It's there from the first bit of nausea when you took your very first drink, to the hangover, depleted energy, anhedonia and depression. But as an addict, you dismiss it for a larger, more powerful craving to get to higher highs.

Still hung-over from last night? No problem, just get through the first few drinks (um, er, just run the first few miles) and then you'll have energy to go on. Just get out the door, and push it. That little ache in your head, that pain in your gut, that vomit on your chin, no problem. You are a warrior and can push on into something higher. In the words of Jim Morrison, “break on through to the other side.”

Because the life of an addict means there is part of the brain that gives you energy, focus, drive, and even creativity to get to the next high and dismisses all the warnings to stop. An addict who is craving his drug and needs money is the most creative and ambitious entrepreneur in the world and will come up with amazing quick ways to get funds for his drug. Nothing, not even silly things like “family,” “laws” and “ethics” can get in the way.

Of course, the drive to feel intoxicated almost killed me, but I am doing the same now, ignoring pains to test my body and the limits of my highs, only this time they are natural, and that is the difference.

If they packaged the high you get from a run, you could sell it at the local dope house and make some sweet cash. Problem is, with running you have to work for the high, so it's one not everyone will bother with. Natural highs get better over time, building on themselves; unnatural highs get worse over time. We were built to run, to catch our prey (see the book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall) and thus we are rewarded.

When we do things that are good for life, we get rewarded. Life has its own instinct and own built-in reward system. Life wants to go on, so when we strengthen ourselves, we are given a high. That's the reason for the pleasures of sex, food, being physically fit. Taking a good BM feels good because if it didn't, most of us would procrastinate and poison ourselves out of laziness. Nature is built by a grand designer with built-in fail-safes to make sure life goes on.

Babies and puppies are cute so we don't eat them.

Conversely, using drugs to get high is trying to cheat nature and get a high we didn't earn. We are trying to cheat our body chemically, and thus there is a debt to pay. And each time we try to cheat it, we are left a little worse off. It's the Bizarro, anti-training, that spirals downward.

As someone who has experienced most of the highs the world has to offer, I'm so grateful to have running (and skiing and biking and lifting, but mostly running) as my go-to drug of choice. Running is a true spiritual experience that detoxes the brain, enriches the soul, strengthens the body, rearranges emotions, and lets all the pieces fall into place so that after each run I'm a new being.

Add to that the communal feeling of a running event and connecting with thousands of other runners, and it's a very psychedelic, long, strange trip.

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. 

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