A New High: Physical Exercise and Recovery
By Steph G.
I was flying. The fallacy of my belief was revealed the moment I crashed – flying had been falling and I had been too high to notice. I didn’t stop at ground zero. Instead my bloated body travelled through several layers of geography. Such was bottom.
I was 35 and in horrible shape. I dragged myself upstairs and slept fitfully. I chain-smoked, binged on sugar and fat, was in a constant state of stress and was prone to mystery rashes that crawled up my arms and made it as far as my face. Body and mind had a relationship so dysfunctional that there were many days when it seemed that a divorce of the two was the only viable option. Nearly every thought cut like a scimitar.
Somehow I made it through those first agonizing days. There was no god to pray to as far I was concerned. If a theistic solution wasn’t going to cut it I needed an alternative to supplement what help I got from the fellowship. Hanging around meetings was problematic: I felt alienated and triggered by the god talk, thought spirituality such a vague and dilute term as to be of no help whatsoever and was concerned that many appeared to be in no better shape than I was. They coughed in a gurgling, guttural sort of way in between quoting the Big Book and reminiscing about surly old sponsors long gone.
At one meeting that I attended, a slightly stunned man stood outside the church with us and suddenly announced, “I mean, why do we do it? The smoking, I mean. All this effort to get sober and then – poof! – dead of lung cancer. Don’t get me wrong… I smoke too.”
And that about summed it up for me.
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That physical exercise improves the body is obvious. But of greater importance to the recovering addict is that an ever-increasing number of studies confirm that getting moving is just as beneficial to the brain as it is to the muscles and joints. Exercise triggers cascades of feel-good chemicals, promotes natural pain relief and increases blood flow to the brain. This provides additional glucose to brain cells which results in more connections between neurons. Enhanced neuroplasticity means faster healing and improved cognition.
I believe addiction to be a sort of acquired brain injury and that the physical exercise that is a mandatory part of my personal recovery plan helps by building new healthy circuits to replace ones that encode unhealthy and self-defeating thoughts.
Exercise helps in other ways too. As an addict I am hardwired to seek instant gratification. Exercise is one of those rare activities that provide both instant and delayed gratification. As long as a person doesn’t overdo it, benefits can be experienced from the first workout onward. Those benefits accumulate which was not the case with my using, which was subject to the law of diminishing returns. Giving up my addiction also left me with many empty hours to fill. Time previously spent lifting glasses, waiting on dealers and re-watching Kung Fu Panda was now devoted to transforming body and brain.
And so, in the late summer of 2014, I began. The Tour de France – the annual bicycle race – was on at the time and I spent a portion of each daily broadcast with my toes shoved under the TV stand so I could perform crunches while watching some of the planet’s healthiest people pump their way up mountains. I dreamed of future healthful adventures.
My parents lent me a bicycle and I began riding it around the neighbourhood for half hour stretches. I purchased some running gear and slowly rediscovered an old love. I read a book on stretching and applied it.
My progress was by no means a steady upward climb. There were days in those first few months when I was so depressed that I was unable to do the one thing most likely to alleviate that awful malaise.
Six months into recovery I moved to Toronto. It was now deepest winter but I did not let that deter me. I had stopped exercising altogether for a couple of months and it was time to rededicate myself to healing. I restarted with a simple run/walk program. The first week my session involved running for two minutes and walking for four and repeating that five times for a total workout half an hour in duration. Each week of the program I ran a steadily increasing percentage of the time and by week 10 was running the whole 30 minutes.
The psychological rewards were immense. I recognized that I was gaining in mental toughness and slowly my core beliefs transformed. At the beginning of recovery I was convinced that I was the laziest, stupidest, most useless thing ever. But the steely determination that got me out running four days a week in freezing cold provided evidence to the contrary.
I began to believe in myself again.
Powerlessness was an illusion of the past. I set new goals in other areas of my life and reached them. I sprinted up stairs easily and became a better worker because now I was able to sit, focus and move about with much greater facility. My memory improved and so did my ability to bat away unwanted thoughts.
Spring rolled around and I found a gym that offered discounted memberships to low-income people. I began to supplement my running with twice-weekly weightlifting sessions. Anxiety provoked by the thought of a long, slow and painful decline towards the grave was lessened with each repetition. I stood straighter, slept better and smiled more.
That summer I went kayaking and discovered an organization that takes marginalized people on hikes through local conservation areas. I found a guidebook that featured numerous “psychogeographic” walking tours of Toronto and noticed that my brain thrived on the novelty of exploring new neighbourhoods by foot. My brain had to relearn how to experience pleasure in the absence of foreign psychoactive substances. I believe this would have been impossible without physical exercise.
Along the way I encountered a non-theistic definition of spirituality that resonated with me. Sam Harris, neuroscientist and freethinker, defines it thus: “…the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness – through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness.” Psychedelics were not an option for me and so it was via meditation, running and agnostic AA that I found my own version of nirvana.
Exercise changed my vibe, which made me more approachable and confident in social situations and thus the horrible isolation of active addiction became a thing of the past.
The journey continues and becomes more rewarding with every step. One of my presents this past Christmas was a book entitled Yoga for Runners. Author Christine Felstead is a fellow Torontonian and maintains a studio and website. The book made such a strong impression on me that I ordered one of her DVDs. I have become convinced of the necessity of lengthening my hamstrings while blissing out on Tibetan flute music. Such things did not preoccupy me when I was drinking and drugging.
To summarize: running lifts my non-theistic soul out of its doldrums and promotes healthy thinking and is the closest thing I have to a religion. Lifting weights protects my joints, changes my proportions in pleasing ways and leaves me with a clean feeling that no drug was ever able to provide. Yoga quiets all urges, improves my form and connects me with that long-distant stranger: myself.
Yet for this alcoholic that is not quite enough so this past week I tried out a complimentary Kung Fu class. The Wu Xing Martial Arts facility proved to be top notch with hardwood floors and requisite Kung Fu movie posters. Multiple reproductions of Bruce Lee watched as I accidentally joined a children’s class, thinking that their cooldown was actually the warm up for the All Levels Kung Fu class at 6:30 pm. Such a thing would have once mortified me – especially since I worked out for a full five minutes prior to being made aware of my mistake – but I took it in stride and quickly recouped my dignity.
On the way home I passed a brightly lit bar without looking in.