Running Changed My Life When I Was a Teen—and Now It’s Helping Me Find Myself Again

The first time I ran 3 full miles without stopping, it was almost by accident. I was 14, and a couple of my best friends had been running on our school’s JV cross-country team. They invited me to the first practice of the year, and I tagged along just to try it out. “The first practice is always easy,” they said. I had no idea what I was in for—and how much that one day would change my life for the next two decades.

On that cool and humid August day in Michigan, the team huddled together for the first run of the season. Head out for an easy three miles, the coach said. Um, what? Up until then, I had only been walking with a few jogs in between—mostly to get time to myself and listen to my favorite bands of the time: No Doubt, Green Day, and Blink-182.

We took off on the path that lines Grand Traverse Bay. The varsity girls quickly vanished into the distance, while my friends and I plodded along at a pace that felt impossible to continue for—how long was this run again? Three whole miles? Oh god.

Along the out-and-back course, the faster runners cheered us on when they passed us after the turnaround. We cheered back. My friends and I chatted most of the way, catching up on our summers and talking about our upcoming school year. Laura and I would be in the same AP classes. Keyana was taking a few honors classes. We all had the same lunch hour.

By mile 2, I really didn’t think I’d make it. The feeling of my lungs burning and my legs heavy underneath me was all new. But we had to make it back, and I wanted to do my best to keep up with my friends. Somehow, we all finished together, greeted by high fives from the rest of the team. I felt like I was going to die, and it felt awesome. I was hooked.

I was soon running on my own, using the time as a way to work out all of the many emotions that come with being a teenager.

When the cross-country season ended, I didn’t move on to another sport or indoor track like many of my teammates. I liked running, so I kept at it. My mom bought me a pair of long running tights for winter, and I would head out after school for a solo run on the rural roads around the senior high school until mom was able to pick me up after work.

I now realize that this time running was invaluable during my impressionable teen years. As many runners will attest, the time to myself was therapeutic—a time where I could clear my head of worries and distractions. It also boosted my self-esteem and gave me a healthy outlet for my anger, fear, and all of the other emotions that I couldn’t yet name or understand. The two years I spent on the cross-country team also introduced me to the idea of a running community, which became pivotal later in life.

Courtesy of the author

The author running cross-country in high school

During college and into early adulthood, running was my hobby. I finished my first marathon at age 20.

To say I was busy in college would be a gross understatement. I played clarinet and later served as drum major in the Northwestern University marching band. I helped raise thousands of dollars for charity as my sorority’s philanthropy chair. I was an editor at the school newspaper. And I did all of this while trying to keep up with the school’s challenging academic load and earn money to eat at my near-minimum-wage work-study job in the band office. I barely had time to sleep, let alone pursue hobbies.

I still managed to find time to run, though. It wasn’t just a hobby at this point—it was what kept me feeling like myself. On several occasions, I would stay up until 3 A.M. writing an essay, turn it in at 7 A.M. after a quick nap, then go for a run before collapsing into bed to finally catch up on sleep. Running helped me wind down and clear my head after a stressful deadline. It wasn’t punishment—it was bliss. When I was really stressed, I’d crank up my iPod to full volume and blast System of a Down, sprinting the choruses and jogging the verses along the school’s intramural fields.

Running became part of me. Whether I was running with a marathon training group in Chicago summers, jogging it out on the gym treadmill in Chicago winters, or later, when I worked in Pennsylvania, logging miles alone in the middle of the woods, I knew I could count on my daily runs to let me process the day and work out whatever I was going through. Running helped me through the heartbreak of my first big breakup, seasonal depression, the stress and elation of planning my wedding, and the loneliness of living in a rural town where I knew no one except for my co-workers.

Then addiction hit. Hard. My love for running was replaced by a dependency on stimulants to get me from responsibility to responsibility.

Adderall is a drug used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, but it’s also a powerful stimulant with the potential for abuse. At the time, I was battling an especially fatiguing bout of depression that was exacerbated by insomnia. I was also working two jobs in order to save up money to move across the country. Stimulants seemed like the perfect solution. For a short while, they were. I was able to get up early in the morning and have the energy to hit up a bootcamp class before a 10-hour workday.

Within a couple of months, I was working until midnight or 2 A.M. on freelance projects to supplement my day job and gobbling up study drugs like candy to keep up with the pace.

When I was using, I would work, work, work—but I was actually slow and non-productive. The hyper-focus the stimulants gave me destroyed my ability to get into a writing flow, and my euphoric enthusiasm for work made me prioritize small, quick-reward tasks over important jobs. Then, once I ran out of meds for the month, I’d sleep all weekend and down coffee and herbal stimulants to fend off the strong urge to sleep underneath my desk.

As my addiction deepened, I lost myself. I stopped running. I stopped hanging out with friends. I stopped everything.

Within months of taking that first pill, I was using on the regular. When I had energy, all I wanted to do was work. When I crashed, all I wanted to do was sleep. I didn’t eat much. I avoided friends. I stopped running. Plus, working out wasn’t fun anymore. A possible side effect of Adderall is nausea, and when I was using, I would dry heave if I worked out too hard. My muscles were tight (another possible side effect) and I would fatigue easily.

I stole and lied to fuel my habit, and although I was plagued by the guilt, I continued lying and stealing for two more years. I tried all sorts of recovery strategies, including counseling and 12-step meetings, but could never put much time together. I spent my 30th birthday in withdrawal, sick in bed with a 104-degree fever, totally burnt out from too many all-nighters.

With the help of an intensive outpatient recovery program, a non-12-step-based recovery program called SMART Recovery, and support from my husband, I was finally able to quit stimulants. During treatment, I was warned about cross-addiction, which is when a person substitutes one addiction for another. For example, some people will quit drugs only to start compulsively shopping. I didn’t think that would apply to me, though. I never had a problem with alcohol or marijuana, so I figured it was OK to keep drinking and smoking. (By this time I lived in California, where I had a medical marijuana prescription for insomnia.)

I was wrong about cross-addiction. I kept my habits somewhat in check while I was working a 9-to-5 job, but when I was laid off, I started drinking heavily. I still wasn’t running. I blew off freelance deadlines. I yelled at friends for no reason. In one particularly ugly and embarrassing drunken rage, I smashed dishes across the hardwood floor because my husband criticized me for not cleaning the kitchen.

What happened to the woman who finished a marathon at age 20? Who went running nearly every day? Who excelled at work and academics, never missing a deadline or flaking on a project? Who loved her friends dearly and tried hard to show them they were loved? Who would never steal, let alone lie, to her family and doctors?

If I wasn’t a loyal friend or a moral person, if I wasn’t someone who loved running and music, then who was I?

I didn’t know anymore.

I’m now almost a year sober. Running has been an integral part of my recovery.

I knew that to recover, I needed to find balance in my life and learn how to better manage my emotions. So, in addition to other recovery activities like reading about addiction, journaling, and attending meetings, I turned to the same thing that helped me cope with life’s difficulties years ago: running.

At first, my runs (if you could call them that) were painfully slow and short. I would walk for three minutes, run for one minute, and still could only manage to cover about 2 miles at a time. The guilt consumed me—how could I let it get this bad? And yet, running allowed me to work through the guilt—to accept it without allowing it to hold me back.

I had also gained 50-plus pounds during addiction and recovery, which made running more difficult. I was used to a little achiness in my knees and tightness in my hamstrings through the years, but I noticed I was now aching in my butt, hips, shoulders, calves, and ankles. I kept at it, though, and supplemented my running with easy biking to give my body a break. It wasn’t fun, but in my heart, I knew it was necessary.

Running helped my recovery, but recovery also helped my running.

I learned several lessons during addiction recovery that enabled me to stick with running despite the frustrations. First, patience. It took me about two years to get clean. I beat myself up after every relapse. Up until now, I had been successful at nearly everything I attempted—why was recovery so hard? But I knew that I couldn’t give up, and I had to swallow my pride and keep trying. Support from SMART Recovery helped me bounce back from relapses and realize that I was improving—using less, using less often, being more honest—despite the relapses.

I also had to overcome my perfectionist tendencies and my neurotic ambition. I was so terrified of failing at anything that I took extreme measures, including but not limited to addictive drugs. To overcome my addiction to study drugs, I had to learn to separate my self-worth from my accomplishments. To this day, high-stress work-related situations are a trigger for me, but I know now that achievement (or lack thereof) doesn’t determine my value as a person.

I also had to learn to be OK with relaxing and doing less. I had to learn to be kinder to myself and accept my limitations. Especially while I was going through post-acute withdrawal (for me, a period of extreme depression and fatigue that lasted for about six months) I had to learn that whatever I was able to do was enough. Narcotics Anonymous has a saying, “Easy does it,” which I now take to heart and repeat as a mantra whenever I start feeling inadequate.

Without these lessons, I don’t know if I would have been able to start running again. I was slow. It hurt. It wasn’t very fun. I wasn’t my old self. But thanks to recovery, I was OK with all of that. I knew that if I just stuck with it, I would get better, and it would get easier. I was OK with being imperfect. I was OK sucking at running. I was going to be OK.

Courtesy of the author

I signed up for a 10K and set my expectations low. It was amazing.

When I was offered a chance to attend the Jamaica Reggae Marathon for no charge as press, I couldn’t refuse. The series of races included a half-marathon and 10K, so I signed up for the 10K. I planned on following a training program, but even the “beginner” program that I bought online was too advanced for me. By race day, I had been run-walking two or three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes. The 10K would take at least an hour.

I decided to apply the “Easy does it” mantra to the race and see what happened. My plan was to walk three minutes, run two minutes, alternating through the race and adjusting my plan if needed. Our group of reporters and bloggers became fast friends through our mutual interest of running and the outdoors. When I expressed my nervousness, they all reassured me that I could just take it easy and enjoy the crowds, music, and scenery along the course.

As our group of reporters and bloggers gathered at the start line, I was reminded of what drew me to running in the first place. The humid morning was reminiscent of my first-ever 3-mile run with the cross-country team, all of us huddled together in nervous excitement.

A couple of miles into the race, my legs felt light and my spirits were high. I was surrounded by groups of friends running together, and people of all sorts of body types, from numerous countries (many runners wore their country’s flag), and plenty of people walking or doing a combination of run-walking like I was. The last mile was tough as the hot Jamaican sun warmed the air, but I was greeted by cheers and high fives from the crowd. My new friends who already finished were waiting to meet me, and we stood at the finish line cheering on the other runners and looking out for our friends who ran the half-marathon.

I had done it. I had overcome my fears. I had trained to the best of my ability. I took it easy, and I did it.

Recovery is still difficult every day, but I’m feeling more like myself than ever.

I usually work out by biking nowadays, since it’s gentler on my body and easier to do than running when I’m feeling tired. But I look forward to my semi-weekly runs, usually on Saturdays or Sundays, and make an effort to go somewhere special or wear one of my favorite workout outfits. I run with a smile on my face most of the time, blaring The Greatest Showman soundtrack in my headphones, thinking of how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go.

I run for my health. I run to process my thoughts and feelings. I run because it feels good, even when it’s hard. I run for myself. I have myself back.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to learn how to find help. If you are looking for an active recovery community, visit The Phoenix to see if there’s a facility in your city. To donate to The Phoenix’s program, now in nine states and growing, click here.

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Self – Fitness