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A Different Kind of Addiction

This past weekend, a close friend who I regard very highly, invited my wife and I to attend an alcoholics anonymous meeting. Little did I know, and prior to our getting to know one another, our friend had battled alcoholism. Just having completed a fourth year sober, this specific evening was to be our friend’s “lead-in” – meaning, it was their night to share the story. Over the course of an hour an a half, I learned more about my friend’s life than his/her “own mother.” I learned about the ups, the downs, the very low points, the struggles, the backlashes, and most importantly their recovery and return to life. I listened as my friend cried, conjuring up the darkest secrets that have been kept hidden from everyone around. I learned about their own struggle to address their problem, face their demons, and find out how to recover and improve their life. One of the reason’s I was included was because I am not only their friend, but I share a very common interest with what brought their life back together – Ironman triathlons.

Many people probably do not know this about me, but I have worked in drug addictions clinics for over 4 years now, managing opiate addiction. There are so many misconceptions from within the public regarding why some people become addicted to drugs, or alcohol for that matter. Projections like people are “weak-minded” or “immature” are frequently used, but the fact of the matter is that drugs are capable of changing the way our brains work, and this can happen with even a single use. The changes that result foster compulsive behaviors and the pathway that follows can quickly and readily lead to addiction. I too was once naive and formerly thought that the only people who became addicted to drugs were the weak-minded and those who made poor choices. Then I worked in the addiction clinic and I had patients who were high functioning business executives, lawyers, and even doctors. These patients clearly break the mold of whom we as a society think addiction targets. Although, there is a well documented link between psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression that can drive drug addiction, one of the most common similarities between patients with an addiction, however, is their personality.

I have only attended one AA meeting now, but I was quickly schooled that no-one who has ever been an alcoholic will refer to this in the past tense… Once you are an alcoholic and you admit this, you are an alcoholic for the rest of your life. There are no “formers” or “has-beens,” because one of the main ideas of healing an addicted mind is accepting our own faults and recognizing them moving forward, yet identifying that the character traits that enabled addiction before are always going to be there. During the “lead-in,” my friend referred to the alcoholic personality – always trying to be the best, take on more than you can handle, always stressing, never accepting that you’re good enough, or that you’ve accomplished enough. As the talk transitioned to the “After addiction” phase, where my friend found his/herself through meetings, counseling, prayer, friends and family, and of course adopting the lifestyle of a triathlete, you realize that many of the same behaviors that fueled the alcoholism are still there… just the mechanism for handling stress and anxiety has changed – from alcohol to triathlons. Of course my friend’s addictive personality has not changed, there is just a much more constructive outlet in place. In turn, now my friend is quite literally, addicted to triathlons.

This may sound trite, but the entire evening that I sat there listening to my friend’s AA Lean-In, I couldn’t help but think of how parallel my life has been up and till this point. I shared many of the same college behaviors, attitudes, circles of friends, and life events that preceded their story of alcoholism. I share many of the same insecurities – I think to myself often that I am not good enough or have not proven myself. At the end of the talk, I was truly appreciative and thankful that I found triathlon at an early age, because I do believe there was and still is a strong potential if I were to choose to drink as a means of addressing my stress and anxiety rather than my usual nightly workouts.

Triathlon, and especially Ironman racing, is an addiction. When you consider it, I have continued to run and bike despite harmful consequences to myself – tendonitis, fractures, anemia, malnutrition. There have been months where I have spent exuberant amounts of money on bikes, wheels, race kits, etc. that many would view as crazy. I crave my workouts until I am able to complete them, and if I miss a workout – I go through my own form of withdrawal – I don’t feel good, I have trouble sleeping, my appetite is all over the place, and my day feels empty. And then lets face it, exercise does provide a sort of euphoria. There have been many anti-drug adds where the phrase is coined, “Exercies is my drug.” The first day of college track practice – I got dropped 7 miles into a 9 mile run by the more senior cross country guys. The 7 miles I ran that day were by far the fastest and hardest I had ever covered. I rode back in the van that day with the biggest runner’s high I have ever felt, despite the fact the coach was looking at me with that you-shouldn’t-be-riding-in-my-van gaze. I have now become so tolerant to 9 mile runs that I rarely get even a glimpse of the feeling of satisfaction that I used to. Finally, talk to a triathlete preparing for a race, and most all of them have in some way risked self-destructing through excessive exercise in much the same way chronic drug users risk overdosing.

It has been 10 days since I completed Ironman Louisville. I clearly paid for it that race – I couldn’t walk in a straight line without limping for 5 days, I blew out both of the big toe nails on each of my feet, and I flared up the tendonitis that comes and goes in my right ankle. Many people have praised me for the time I finished the race in and the money that I raised, but my addictive personality tells me that that wasn’t good enough, and I can do better. My Ironman withdrawal is setting in because I already miss the feeling of being in the race and competing. I’ve already starting planning what’s next, and the likely plan will be the half Ironman in Austin, TX in October, and we are going to make a family vacation to Cozumel, Mexico to complete another full Ironman in November. One of the key concepts that my friend spoke about was how selfish alcoholism can be. Racing Ironmans is a very selfish act as well, with regards to all the time and money it takes to fully engage. Racing in these things is an addiction, but at least they are a far more constructive outlet that can at least be used to benefit others rather than just ourselves.

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