I’m going to make an assumption that we all know that running is great, not just for our physical but also our mental health. A lot of runners took to the sport as a way to escape the stresses of everyday life and it seems there are a fair amount of ultrarunners out there who have, at one time or another, struggled with depression and even addiction.
I know this because I am one of those runners and I am one of those ultrarunners. I took up running in April 2011 after realising my life had become a little chaotic – on the surface it looked like I was doing okay but inside I was hurting and to deal with that I was increasingly turning to drinking too much, smoking too much pot and taking other recreational drugs just to cover up my real feelings. At the beginning of that month I walked away from a Social Work masters degree unsure that I would ever return to complete a masters program, let alone one in Social Work. It turns out that I did return to my career path and to a modified social work masters programme, eventually graduating in July 2012 with an MSc in Social Studies and now, as this blog attests, I am happy runner so this post is certainly not all doom and gloom!
I had been smoking cannabis, heavily and pretty much everyday, since I was sixteen years old and then around my 21st birthday I discovered I had a penchant for taking recreational drugs like ecstasy, speed and later on cocaine. With the drugs came drinking and with a family history of alcohol addiction I was on a slippery slope by the time I walked away from my original masters program in 2011 but looking back I was on a pretty slippery slope from the moment I took my first ecstasy pill and began chasing the weekend – I’m not saying I was your ‘typical’ addict (there is no typical addict) but I was definitely addicted. I found the competing pressures of study, family strife, girlfriend, work, bills and rent far too much to handle unless I had a joint in one hand and a beer in the other with a decent plan for the weekend’s stimulant based activities in place. I really struggled with automatic negative responses and thoughts to life’s smallest problems and that was with or without a drink, a joint or some other drug!
I don’t have much recollection of how I got through my undergraduate years and came out of the other side with a 2:1 but I did, even after a year’s academic suspension at the end of my first year. In short the drugs and drink masked my underlying depression, my sense of being worthless and having no direction even though, as I mentioned above, on paper and on the surface everything looked like I was doing okay; friends, social life, good degree, career path. I kept my inner turmoil to myself and the bits that I did let slip I did by making light of. That pent up turmoil came to a head whilst I was undertaking my final social work placement in children’s services. I had 30 days to go until the end and it looked like I was going to fail. For the first time in my academic life I was going to fail and I could not handle that idea. I had a conversation with myself and asked why I was going to fail. The answers were many but two stuck out: I said to myself I was going to fail because I didn’t want to pass, I didn’t want to become a social worker and when I asked why that was the answer I got from myself was unexpected and profound. I said to myself you don’t want this because it’s stressing you out to the point where you are drinking four to six cans of beer every night, to the point where all you can think about most days is when you can go home and have a joint (or two or three), to the point where you’re consuming more cocaine on the weekend than you ever have. What are you going to do about this then Al? The answer at that point was to walk away. Fuck it I said. The process was pretty quick and I found my university to be very supportive – I thank them now for not letting me throw it all away completely. They could obviously see I was troubled and needed some time and space to either address my issues or reconcile myself to a different life.
Well, I did a bit of both. I took time from April 2011 to January 2012 to address a whole heap of underlying issues and then whilst in the process I reconciled myself to the idea that my life was going to be different but in a positive way. This didn’t happen overnight. One of the driving factors behind this was a friend of mine reaching out to pull me out of the malaise – there was no sympathy, no indulging of my wallowing in self pity – he just came into my room one afternoon and said something along the lines of “You had better sort yourself out because we’re going to climb a mountain in Switzerland in September.” He then handed me a return plane ticket and left! This was the kick I needed – I now owed my friend for a plane ticket and had a challenge laid at my feet that I didn’t really know how to get my head around. April went from being a black hole into which my life was disappearing to an opportunity to turn my life around. I got a job as a Caretaker towards the end of the month and began looking at how people trained to go to the mountains. This is how I found running. I hated it at first, I had never in my life done any strenuous physical activity and it took me a good while before I could run 5km without stopping, throwing up or getting cramp!
Anyway, I’ll move it on. Once I settled into running I began to love the quiet time it gave me to reflect on life and to plan for the future. I relished the sense of accomplishment I got during and after each and every run. I gave up smoking cigarettes and realised that running became instantly more pleasurable – I could run further and faster and it was great. I went to Switzerland in September of that year feeling fitter than I ever had, I’d kicked cigarettes and I had bought my drinking right down to an acceptable level. I still drank but I wasn’t drinking to forget, to ‘cope’ or to get drunk – I was drinking socially, at home over meals and moderately and at weekends (but less moderately). On returning from Switzerland I decided that I really wanted to focus on making my life work and for me that meant I embraced running wholeheartedly. Those of you who are regular runners and those of you who race will know that when you embrace the sport it becomes a lifestyle and one that returns that embrace whether you run solo, with friends or with a club! It was from here that I changed my diet, I stopped eating processed crap, I cut out dairy and I began to eat as much whole food as possible – I didn’t assign a label to myself like ‘vegan’ or ‘paleo’, I just ate whatever was good for me and I continue to do that to this day. After running my first 10k race in May 2012 I got the racing bug, I ran my first half marathon in June and then finished 12th at my local 10k in July! It was at this point that I really, really embraced the sport. I began to think about which races I wanted to run, I briefly joined a running club (club running isn’t for me I’ve found) and I spent a lot more time training. Although I had turned my life around and it felt like I was on the right track I still had a love/hate relationship with drugs.
Towards the end of 2012 I managed to stop using ecstasy and MDMA and this started a chain reaction. I tried and failed a number of times from this point to stop taking cocaine and to stop smoking cannabis but the point was the longer I abstained the better my running became and the better I felt mentally. I can’t remember my last ecstasy pill, MDMA ‘bomb’ or line of cocaine – the ecstasy thing was sometime around December 2012 and I finally kicked the coke to the sidelines in August 2013. I do remember my last joint though because it was my one and only relapse. I stopped smoking cannabis for what I thought was for good in April 2013 but on Christmas Day that year I ‘had a smoke’ and pretty much instantly regretted it so I haven’t touched it since! So, when I finally did stop taking drugs altogether my world changed and that was difficult to deal with – I found it tough being around people on drugs and so I stopped visiting friends who recreationally and habitually took them at weekends or smoked cannabis during the week. My circle began to shrink but the running community was right there on the roads, the trails, at the track, at races and through blogs and the internet! What I’m left with is a core of friends who respect my decision to be drug free, friends who share my passion for running and with the people I learned to make friends with at work as I found I had something more to talk about other than ‘the weekend’ or what was on TV any given night of the week. Not all of my friends are runners, in fact few of them are but I know for a fact that we’re friends because we understand and respect each other for the people we actually are and not the people we present to ourselves through the haze of drugs, drink and depression.
My career has been back on track (pun intended) since August 2012 and my current role has put me in a position where I work with people in long term recovery from addiction – mostly alcohol but also crack, heroin and other drugs. Sometimes drugs and alcohol. Sometimes with other lesser known addictions thrown into the mix too. On Thursday morning I will be chairing ‘Thought for the Day’ which is a forum for staff members to share thoughts on recovery strategies and sometimes anything which might come to mind with clients – it’s a place where people in recovery learn to manage disagreements and to harness their communication skills. I was going to broadly speak about running as a strategy for good mental health and addiction recovery using the examples of Timmy Olson and Nikki Kimball amongst others when it dawned on me that as well as these guys I could really use my own story as an example of transition and change through running. I’m looking forward to the discussion and I’m hoping that at least one of those present might consider lacing up and going for a run over the weekend!
Peace & Blessings x