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How Physical Fitness Made My Recovery from Addiction the Best It Could Be…

October 2014

For the more than a decade I ran two or three times a week with recovering friends, Saturday being the long run at a friend who we call Grateful Jim(‘s) house.  He’d have coffee brewed and a simple lunch in the slow cooker for when we finished so we’d show up at 9 am, have a cup of coffee and talk about our recovery or the ills of the world before taking off for the run.  For the first three miles, while we could actually talk, we would talk about how cool it was to be a part of what became known as the Crane Lake Running Club.  After that we were pretty much working too hard and all discussion ceased until we got back to have lunch.  Through lunch we would talk about the run and how blessed we were to have such a great place to meet, run, eat and swim (in the summertime – Jim lives on a lake).  Eventually, when I got into triathlons several of us did our first Olympic length tri’s out there together.  I had tee shirts made for the events, bought tri bumper stickers for participants and another photographer friend of Bill’s recorded the whole thing.  Now that I’m mainly into cycling I still stop by every now and again to hang out with the guys when I can.

Recovery from alcoholism alone is damn near impossible.  With a group of other recovering people the odds are vastly improved but still not all that great.  In the group I run with, we’re all old-timers now.  In fact, in the core group, I don’t think we’ve had one relapse…

I started into a fit lifestyle almost as soon as I left treatment.  While fitness wasn’t pushed at the treatment center, physical activity was.  I had been active my whole life though, so when I got out of treatment I naturally gravitated to a fit lifestyle but I did it my way.  I got into rollerblading through a guy I met at work.  I also lived across the street from one of the best county parks in all of southeastern Michigan for rollerblading – it has an 8 mile paved loop cut through the woods around a fantastic lake.  On weekdays I’d do one or two loops, two days after work.  On the weekend days, I’d do two laps on Saturday and up to four laps on Sunday…  Within a couple of months I could hold a 19 mph average with speeds in excess of 30 mph on the downhill sections.  I had no idea why I was so drawn to the exercise, I just knew that I was.

A year later I moved and my trips to the park slowed a bit.  Then I met a girl and they slowed a bit more and eventually I hung my blades up after I broke up with the girl and took a year off to concentrate on fixing me, without the distraction of a relationship.  After a year and a half, I met my wife.  We were engaged after four months and I began a new career shortly thereafter.  We traveled and were into skiing but neither of us was all that active.  Then we got big.  My wife took up running first, then brought me into it once I realized running (even though I promised myself I’d never run) was the only way I would be able to step out of the front door to do something.  I never looked back after that first day of running, about 14 years ago.

Out of my 21+ years of sobriety, I’ve been exceptionally active for 17 though never as active as I’ve been over the last three.  Now, one of the more important parts of recovery is taking a regular personal inventory – a lot like taking stock of what’s on the shelves if you owned a grocery store.  If done thoroughly and regularly, an addict becomes rather adept at assessing what’s going on in their life.  The assessment becomes natural, reflexive.  Why am I doing well, why am I struggling, where can I improve, where am I excelling?  I have done this with fitness and it boils down to one simple reality:  I love the escape.

On the highly technical side, when I quit drinking I gave up an easy, if destructive, means of escaping how I felt when I wasn’t knackered.  I could write a small book about all of the reasons but it’s not necessary.  What is important is the understanding that once I learned to fix what was wrong inside my head, I didn’t need to depress my thoughts and emotions with booze or drugs.  After that, the escape afforded by physical activity (currently cycling) fits the bill perfectly.  The main benefit is the endorphins, let’s call it what it is.  To put this simply, endorphins stimulate the exact part of the brain that drugs and alcohol do.  While a normal person might feel the “endorphin high”, in a ex-drunk it fires up exactly the right part of the brain.  Add to that the ability to simply shut the brain down and ride (or run) without altering my mind or mood with a foreign substance.

On the emotional side of the ledger, alcoholics are often described as an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex”.  The inferiority complex is where to begin, at least for me.  Starting back when I first got sober and didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground, I couldn’t find much good about me.  Even though I was sober I was constantly struggling with how to grow up and take responsibility for my life.  So I had this constant push-pull going on with whether I was good getting better or not doing enough…  The fitness gave me an achievement that my inferiority complex couldn’t mess with and it gave me that sense of accomplishment three or four times a week.  It turned out, that was something I could build on and “winning” began to permeate every part of my existence.  No longer was I stuck with that nagging, defeatist approach to everything because I had physical proof I could win against my stinking thinking if I worked at it and just did the next right thing.  I began to change the tape I played in my head.  I went from thinking that I was a loser to believing I could be a winner in a matter of months.  From there I grew to believe that I could succeed in whatever I put my mind to as long as I chose to apply myself.

From that point on, and as long as I’ve been enjoying my physical activity de jour, that winner mentality has seen me through some pretty bleak and scary times.  It’s helped me to come out on top too…  So while many people look at having to go out for a run, a ride or a swim, for something as simple as losing weight, as a chore, I look at being blessed with the ability to do so as the cure to a whole mess of ills.

Now, for those who know me and have followed this blog for a while, you know why I don’t like taking it easy.  You know why I push so hard and ride so fast.  If I can do my best there, I can do my best anywhere.  It gives me something to excel at no matter how hard the road ahead is.  It, along with twelve simple steps, makes me better.

For those who might be sobering up or find themselves a little lost in the program, get involved, get some running shoes or a bike, work the steps and ride (or run) your ass off.  You don’t even have to believe that it will work at first.  Believe that I believe and go from there.


  1. hi says:

    Thank you.

  2. When I first got sober, the only physical activity I could handle was walking because my body was so wrecked from my alcohol abuse. So I walked three miles a day to get to and from my morning meeting. I really enjoyed that time to listen to music and be alone with my thoughts, even when my thoughts were unpleasant.

    I didn’t start getting into physical fitness until almost 2 years ago. Again, I started with daily walking on the treadmill and then months later started to run. I had just been through a tough time and had been in a bad, dangerous place mentally. I think running and fitness pulled me out of the danger zone. But I do worry that the escape could become a replacement drug, so I keep mindful tat what I’m doing doesn’t become another way for me to not deal with my problems. It feels like a fine line sometimes, especially when I put too much weight on my performance as it relates to my self esteem.

    Great post and as always I’m glad to read about someone who’s been sober and at this journey for longer than me.

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