Running Helped Me Stop Self-Medicating

After 20 years of hard drinking and heavy anxiety, I'm sober and fit.

Aaron Jordahl

Aaron Jordahl

Numbers don't lie. So here's the first number I'll throw at you: 0.45. That's the blood alcohol level I've reached at least a couple of times. I'd go from drinking one beer to whole stretches that I can't recall, and coming to in the ER. That's how I rolled: If I had a drink it would be two weeks lost.

Oh, I'd back off. I put myself through withdrawal about 20 times. Each time was worse. Once I didn't sleep for 6 days straight because of the withdrawal symptoms. Another time, I had to go to the ER and was in for 3 days because the withdrawal was so bad I just couldn't take it. Things like anxiety and dread are way exaggerated when you're in that state. I think I even have some PTSD from that time. Anything that reminds me of that state of mind—I can't grow out my beard because it reminds me of when I cleaned up and shaved it.

So I'll tell you how the turnaround started. It was a gradual process. I've been working in hotels for a long time. Housekeeping, because you can do that drunk. I laugh now, but—yeah. So I got this job three summers ago at a hotel in a town about five miles away. I don't drive, so I biked to work a lot. And started to enjoy it. My dad, who I was living with, was still drinking very heavily. I couldn't take it, so I took another housekeeping job for room and board. I was living in a basement, alone with spiders and depression. But I got a taste of exercise. I still drank, but I kept at it.

I used to run cross-country in high school and I have someone from the team who's now my running partner. He'd started running years ago to help himself get off of meth. So he told me to just go for a quick jog, see what happens. It was a half-mile and I did it. I was so excited. I called my buddy immediately and told him it felt great. So I did more half-mile jogs. Again, I kept at it— and started getting sober stretches in there.

One time, I heard someone say that cardio or running is a physical injection of progress. And that's basically what it is. I always had confidence and self-esteem issues coming from a bad family, so I started self-medicating the anxiety. Once I started to exercise I started to see improvement in the anxiety.

And like I said, numbers don't lie. So when the numbers started coming back after the exercising, I couldn't deny it. Then I hit the ER again after a bender and it was a big eye-opener: When you go into the ER at 0.45, they test to make sure all your organs are functioning. I couldn't respond because I was way too far gone, but I remember a doctor telling me I was "extremely healthy."

I thought he was kidding. Could he see me? It was a shock. But again the numbers: the blood pressure coming down, the weight coming off, finding out that things I thought were impossible are possible. Aside from how I was abusing myself, I was healthy. That made me realize it was possible to stop drinking.

The last time I recovered from my blood alcohol being 0.43, I thought about going through treatment and then doing a halfway house. But here's the thing: I knew the running was doing a lot of good, and when you're in-patient you don't have the opportunity to go out and run as many miles as you need. Addicts are good at making deals with themselves, but I figured one more slip after that and I'd go in-patient.

But I didn't slip. The say addicts have to "do the work," and that's what I consider running to be. A lot of people would consider what I do torture. I've logged more than 1000 miles and my longest run is 13.5. I'm 38, I've lost 100 pounds, and after 20 years of hard drinking, I haven't had alcohol in 16 months.

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My running partner compares it to Fight Club: After a run, the rest of your life gets quieter. Everything is easier to handle. I never thought I would be able to run 5 miles and then work. But work is easy now. When I'm running, I feel like there's nothing better I could be doing at that moment. It gives me perspective, which I really need. Everything has been so skewed for the last 20 years. I only have a year of reliable memory. When I'm out there running, I don't know if it's the oxygen or the endorphins, but I do my best thinking. It puts my anxieties to rest.

And it's not just me. I joined a running club on Sundays. Nearby there's an open mine pit filled with water and it's 2.6 miles around the rim. Perfect running. So I've met quite a few runners and I'd say that 90 percent of them picked up running to try to stop something else. They use it to help recovery.

Sometimes I wonder: Is it really that simple? The way to stop addictive behavior is to do something else? For me, yeah. If I'm off-kilter, I know what to do about it: Go for a run and I'll feel better.

Now I see a drink as a loaded weapon. Kind of like Russian roulette but with 50-50 odds instead of one in six. If I drank now, I'd go on a bender and because my tolerance is so low I probably wouldn't make it. I don't even take Nyquil. I don't want anything touching my brain.

But the truth is I don't dread my days anymore. I enjoy them. I look forward to them. I used to wake up only a few minutes before work so I didn't have to think about it, just rush out and go. Now I get up early, have coffee, run 5 miles. Work is 5.7 miles away so I try to run out there 3 times a week.

I've learned a lot of things running that I can apply to life. The most important: Take the next step. No matter what. If I'm going out for a 10-mile run, I'm not thinking about the whole run. Just about the next hill, the next corner. If you take one step at a time, you'll get where you're going.

As told to Mike Zimmerman

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