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Running From Addiction
How exercise became a pillar of my recovery, and why sometimes, we need to set our skepticism aside.
I Was a Skeptic
I’m a natural skeptic.
When I first heard that exercise could help people overcome addiction, I was completely dismissive of the idea.
Even before that, I had seen exercise prescribed as a treatment for a plethora of mental health problems, from depression to attention-deficit disorder, and it never made any sense to me. How could going for a run have a significant effect on any problem so severe?
I had worked out on and off throughout my life, but never very seriously. I was certainly no athlete, and I never played sports in middle or high school. In my experience, exercise was mostly just a pain. It had never seemed to help me with my depression, and I didn’t see how it would help with my addiction either.
When I read stories of alcoholics who had used exercise to help them recover, I rolled my eyes. I told myself that they were delusional and that they must have never been “real” alcoholics. I thought that if their drinking problem had been as bad as mine, exercise couldn’t possibly have been much help.
I went about seven years between my first attempt to quit drinking and finally getting sober. During that time, I read and listened to a lot of stories from recovered alcoholics. It always sounded ridiculous to me to hear that exercise was an important part of recovery, but I couldn’t help noticing how incredibly often it came up. If you put a dozen recovered alcoholics in a room, there’s good money that at least one of them has run a marathon.
So, I debated back and forth with myself each time that I heard about exercise as a recovery tool. The idea that working out could help me quit drinking sounded unbelievable, but the overwhelming anecdotal evidence weighed heavily against my skepticism.
Why I Ran
It was only a few weeks into getting sober that I set my doubts aside and began to run. What finally pushed me over the edge? Sheer boredom.
The truth is that I was going out of my mind with nothing to do. I had gotten so used to spending all my free time drinking that I wasn’t sure what to do with these new, sober hours each evening.
I tried every hobby under the sun, including running.
I had run before, but this time around, something clicked with me immediately. Maybe it was simply my desperation to get out of the house.
During my first few weeks sober, I thought about drinking essentially every waking moment. My cravings were incredibly intense and difficult to resist.
Running gave me some of my first real reprieve. I worried that it might be too boring and that I’d end up just thinking about alcohol the entire time. Instead, it let me forget alcohol for the first time in weeks. My mind just zoned out as I ran.
What’s even better is that those runs lifted my mood for the rest of the day. Of course, the cravings always returned, but they’d be weaker and I’d be happier. Running didn’t magically make sobriety easy, but it did help me to believe that sobriety was possible.
I quickly ramped up my running during my first couple of years sober, eventually getting to the point where I was running five or six days a week. Not only did it help me to stay sober, but it also helped me to deal with my anxiety and depression, both of which had initially gotten worse when I quit drinking.
Why was running so helpful? Each time I run I:
Get out of the house
Get a little sunlight
Put myself around other people
Work toward a goal
These are all great things for someone recovering from addiction. It directly fights against the destructive isolation and loneliness that many of us (myself included) struggle with.
For me, the last point, working toward a goal, was particularly important. Early on in sobriety, I often felt like I was just treading water in life. I had quit drinking, but in so many other ways my life had not improved at all. In many ways, it had even gotten worse.
That feeling of stagnation led to thoughts of drinking, which put me in a dangerous position. If I dwelled on it too long, it likely would have led to a relapse.
However, running gave me a clear, measurable way to see some type of progress in my life. Even if everything else was staying the same, I was at least getting in shape, and I had the numbers to prove it. I watched my 5k time drop week after week, each time feeling proud of myself for continuing to improve.
Running became symbolic for me. It was a rejection of my old life when I would sit around every night getting drunk and watching television. Now, I was sober and on the move, getting healthier and healthier with each day.
Most of all, though, running just made me happy. The sad truth is that my first year sober was mostly miserable. I didn’t have a lot to be happy for back then, but going on runs brought a little bit of joy back to my life.
An incredibly important part of my recovery was learning to be happy again. Creating a running habit was a step in that direction.
There are times in life when skepticism is healthy, but when left unchecked, it can also become a major impediment.
When it came to exercise, I was the biggest skeptic. I never thought in a million years that running could have any positive effect in helping me to quit drinking. Now, I’m a true believer.
Running wasn’t the only thing that helped me stay sober, but it was truly one of the most important. These days, I consider exercising an indispensable tool in the recovery process.
I know that there will be some who read this and are just as skeptical as I used to be. I don’t think there’s anything I can say to get you over your own doubts. However, I do believe that you can get past them by simply giving exercise a fair try. Stick with running (or any other exercise) for a couple of months, and see for yourself whether it helps.
There’s a broader lesson that I’ve taken away from this experience which is to be open to new recovery tools even when my gut reaction is skepticism. I think that a lot of my early rejection came from a place of arrogance. The truth is that doing things my way is exactly what led to my years of drinking. To overcome my addiction, I had to be willing to try new things, even when I wasn’t sure they’d help.
Exercise has proven to be one of the most important parts of my sobriety. Is it for everyone? I’m not sure. But, it’s worth finding out.
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