“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.” Plato
The Set Up
I don’t know a whole lot about perfection, I am an imperfect man, but I do know a lot about overcoming the grips of a helpless alcoholic state and in contemplating Plato’s statement, it’s quite apparent that he didn’t. I haven’t hidden that I’m a recovered/recovering alcoholic on this blog, but I’ve decided it’s time to lay some things out, to actually try to write something with a little meaning. This series will deal with several maladies and the studies done on combating them with exercise. Some I’ll have dealt with personally, others, not. I will start with using exercise to aid in recovery from alcoholism because this is what I know best.
To begin, there are several schools of thought as to what alcoholism really is. Some doctors believe that it’s all “in the genes”, others suggest that it is a combination of genetics and poor choices. Still others maintain that it is simply a failure of willpower, of poor choices or of character flaws. Being an ex-drunk, there is room for argument for the latter, that of simple “character flaws”, but it is weak and generally attempted by people who haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. I tend to view my own malady as a mixture of shitty genetics, from both sides of my family, and of a failure of willpower and character flaws. The “all genetics” argument doesn’t hold water with me in the end either – if it were genetics alone, I wouldn’t be typing this having not touched a drop in 19 years without a bunch of drugs coursing through my system to counteract my genes. Cancer falls under that category and you can rarely, if at all, cure that by simply living right and going to a few meetings a week. Whatever a bunch of doctors think matters not in my world. I just needed to get better.
With that said, there is a growing swell of study related to the effects of exercise and how it can be used as an aid in treating alcoholism. I am biased on how much of a help this is because I’ve lived through it, so forgive me if I choose not to get lost in the weeds (page 5 and 6 – ridiculous). Also, there are even a few factions that believe that exercise can treat alcoholism. Forgive me if I cough and shout bullshit at the same time. If you take a drunk horse thief and sober him up, what do you have? If you answered “a horse thief”, you’re right. Give an alcoholic a pair of running shoes and a month’s supply of Night Train and you’ll end up with a brand new pair of running shoes and a bunch of empty bottles, 99.5 times out of 100. In fact, it is not uncommon for doctors to say things like this: “Patterns of drug abuse among teens suggest that physical activity can strengthen resistance to addiction. Results from the NIDA-funded Monitoring the Future survey, for example, indicate that high school students who exercise regularly are less likely than sedentary teens to smoke cigarettes or abuse marijuana“. Having walked in those shoes, I’d say they’ve got it bass-ackwards. Pot smoking kids are less likely to engage in physical activity. I’ve smoked a joint or two (hundred) on a baseball field but I never played ball while stoned – that would be like smoking a joint and not inhaling, as if anyone would be so stupid. Fortunately, the good doctor linked above corrects herself: “Perhaps students who choose to exercise tend to make healthy decisions in general“. That’s getting to the point, but not quite and I believe that is the inherent problem with otherwise incredibly intelligent people trying to figure a drunk out. We make no sense and because of that, it’s damn tough to figure us out logically. There is far more to alcoholism than simply making healthy decisions. You’d be better off trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose. I will attempt to explain further.
The Rubber Meets the Road
Let’s get to the Barium, Cobalt and Nitrogen of the matter – the meat if you will. Exercise is a very important thing to an addict who chooses to no longer put mood or mind altering drugs in their system for any length of time. Exercise releases endorphins into the system which interact with the brain’s opiate receptors. This is a natural occurrence, the body’s way of dealing with pain. The side effect is a feeling of euphoria. Is there anyone out there who would hazard a guess as to why a person who can’t even take Tylenol 3’s responsibly would like that?… This is not rocket science folks, even though some might make it out to be. It’s the one sure-fire way to get a jolt of the feeling that “everything is OK”. If I’m down for one reason or another, it’s nothing an hour on my bike or pounding on the pavement can’t get me in a state of mind to fix. Read that last sentence again, slowly. The structure and choice of words is important. When a person is mentally down, it’s hard – sometimes near impossible – to rise from that ash heap to solve life’s problems. If I’m down, it’s hard to see out of the hole. If I’ve got the endorphins kicking, I’m floating above it, I can see the lay of the land. It’s easier to mentally run through what I need to do to get me out of the hole, in other words.
The reality to all of this is that the exercise only treats a symptom or two of the disease of alcoholism. That’s why it can’t be the cure though. Alcoholism is reasonably and partially defined as a state of hopelessness in the mind and body. In part the death spiral occurs because many (if not all) of us choose the easy way to the feeling that everything is OK, it’s the needed escape from the committee in the gray matter between my ears that lead me to the first drink. Now a reasonable and intelligent person might come at this from the angle that exercise is the exact answer! It gives the alcoholic the relief from the depressive state of mind and helps heal the body, after all it works in hamsters! Eureka! Well boys and girls, I’m here to tell you, it ain’t that simple – how I wish it were. Allow me to explain: You take the most popular kid in school, one of the pretty ones, mom and dad have money and everything just seems to work for them. They are genuinely happy, well liked and content. Then you take a guy like me, mom and dad had money but I always felt like an outsider looking in, like I was never good enough to be a part of the crowd – my first two beers made that feeling fade. The next two cured it, if only for a few hours. The same thing happened each and every time I got drunk for the next two years or so. If you think a marathon’s worth of endorphins are going to bust through that, you’re nuts. Imagine this as a roller coaster. I started drinking and it was like going up the first hill. Life got better, all of my worries faded, I became popular, I started dating the hot girls, I started getting better grades (go figure)…then I got to the top. And I started down. I got into trouble at home, then at work, then college, then with the law, and finally the health started slipping – the problem was that I didn’t have enough steam to make it to the top of the next hill (which probably saved my life in all truthfulness). No matter how hard I tried to drink it back, that feeling of being OK was no longer attainable. I became stuck at the bottom between the first and second hills. A pair of Nike’s will get you out of a hole, yes, but not a 150′ rise whilst trying to push a roller coaster car – and that’s what you’re faced with in trying recover from a state of moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Or another way to look at it for the cyclists, that’s a lot of shit to bust through with a Schwinn.
So What Is The Answer
It has been my experience that once I hit the bottom and threw the shovel off to the side, it took a lot of work to get me to the top of the roller coaster’s second hill. Mainly through working with a lot of sober friends and a few mentors who helped me to understand where things had gone wrong and how to repair the damage. Once at the top of the hill, the next step was to learn how to smooth that bastard out a little so the peaks aren’t so high and the valleys aren’t so low. That’s all spiritual and moral work… And where I had my first introduction to exercise in the form of rollerblading. I’d go eight miles, two or three times a week followed by a long day Saturday almost always with a friend I’d met at work (24-40 miles – it doesn’t take all that long, I could average about 18 mph – my fastest was 20) Matt didn’t share my malady, we just hung out well together because we both really loved rollerblading. The exercise helped maintain the balance, or the straightened track. It gave me something to strive for and a way to blow off extra steam. When I got stuck in a little hole, it gave me the clarity to see my way about. The next step was to shed the roller coaster car. Believe me, pushing that thing around is hard work. That was mostly spiritual with a little leg work. In the process, I developed a relationship with God, or at least my understanding of what God is (and that’s changed quite a bit in the last two decades, especially since having kids).
That, in its imperfection, is what exercise means to putting the plug in the jug, for me. Could I have done that through exercise alone? Doubtful, my life would be a shell of what it now is without fixing the moral and spiritual aspects. What exercise has done for me, though, is given me drive and a sense of purpose and accomplishment during soft spots in my life where it was needed to keep from slipping back. Where alcohol failed, by giving me a false sense of self-worth, exercise and setting my endorphins free gave me that euphoric feeling that allows me to cruise down that happy road of destiny, rather than trudge it. I’ve had enough of trudging for one lifetime.
By the way, if you were scratching your head at the Barium, Cobalt and Nitrogen comment, look them up on the Periodic Table. Barium=Ba, Cobalt=Co, Nitrogen=N. Put them together: BaCoN. The breakfast meat of champions.