283 days ago I downloaded an app that starts a counter to track your progress with quitting a habit. It was my first serious attempt to quit drinking on my own. I’ve started a new counter four times since then. I walked into my first meeting (shaking and teary), then I started reaching out to friends (often shaking and teary), then I started reading about it, now I am starting to write about it.
My current counter shows only four days. The glass bottles are stinking in my garbage can.
In between then, I’ve been sober weeks, even months, but never permanently. When a weak or painful (or even particularly happy) moment hit, a cannonball bender was chained to the feeling.
This backslide is my final. Of course I’ve made that promise to myself dozens of times, we all have, but this one is different.
I am different.
It’s very easy, in the hanging remorse of a relapse, to cross your heart and swear an oath to never return to this wrecked place. You sincerely mean it, too. Alcohol is a schoolyard bully; there is no escape. He is always harassing (“cunning, baffling, and powerful”), but just out of reach no matter how hard you chase or flail after him. In childlike desperation you angrily swing your fists. Should you somehow manage to pin him down, he will cry uncle and you will let him up, thinking you’ve won. The thing about bullies is that they always come back.
That is, they continue to pursue until you square off and land a blow. Only when you take his power and stop fearing him will he leave you alone. No more fits of desperation and tears. Confidence and discipline. Dignity, resilience. Those are characteristics of a woman I respect.
I cracked his teeth. Next time I’ll break his jaw.
I ran Black Hills 100 this weekend. Wednesday I woke up, drunk, to a phone of worried texts, missed calls and a voicemail from a good friend and fellow ultrarunner. He asked to come check on me and I said yes, scared and relieved. I knew I was at bottom. I knew it, not like the stinging slap or bleeding cut I’d felt so many times before, but deep in my marrow. Gravely in my heart. Calm and broken.
Finally. The beginning of the end.
He showed up at my door and brought me home, even with his family there. I curled up in his daughter’s bed and slept, safe at last.
In 283 days, more than that really, I’d been falling deeper, falling faster – making sure to hit every ledge on the way down. Although I was successfully marking off many more sober days than ever before, if I had one drink I may as well have a hundred because I ruined it. When you are trying to get healthy, even one drink lands you squarely into hell, and alcohol is emotional. Ironically, people who abuse alcohol often abuse it to escape some original wound from the devil. That is the cyclical well I fell down. I abused alcohol to insulate from loneliness, and the byproduct was deep isolation.
Last week I ran out of ledges and hit the rocky bottom. When I woke up, bruised and sick, I finally genuinely understood the things I’d been listening to in recovery. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. Keep quitting until you quit. You only sink down until you decide to swim up. Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness. Willingness is the key.
It’s so grossly cliche to promise “this time will be different,” yet at some point that has to be true for every broken person who recovers. There is a moment they cross the axis of the teeter-totter, the weight shifts, and they gain momentum with each inch. I will always remember my last drink.
I spent that day trying to heal and work out what exactly this change was and how to protect it and grow it, a night dry heaving and sweating, and the next day driving I-90 to South Dakota to run.
Every ultra will eventually ask you the same question: can you, will you?
I walked to the start boldly. Obviously not because of my exemplary week of tapering, but because running has always gifted me freedom and confidence. Genuine friendship. I may not know exactly what the next weeks and months look like, but I know how to run a race. One step at a time.
I wanted to go hard, even though in the back of my mind I was not sure I was physically ready. In the first eleven miles I got lost, which set me back an hour. I could earn it back, minute by minute, if I was efficient. I would have to push a little extra throughout the day. Originally 106 miles, now 110. I began to pass people slowly.
It was sweltering, air so thick you could see it resting in the trees. The black hills were saturated white with humidity. I felt like I was in a sauna with Satan and a fever. Sweat dripped from the hem of my tank as we climbed for miles. No wind came down the hills.
Even though it was very difficult running, I knew I was moving up the pack. The course is rocky and technical with brutally long slow climbs (but also long fast descents). It’s engaging, but my thoughts wandered. I worried about what would happen after the weekend. If you look too far ahead on a rocky trail, you’re sure to misstep.
I washed my slimy skin and soaked my hat in the Elk Creek crossings. I have again taken up practicing being more present, fully present, in what I am doing and who I am with – the opposite of drinking and blundering. The iciness prickled and soothed. My hot cheeks felt fresh. What a detox.
The sun burned up the sky and soaked into our skin. From a race standpoint: I drank four packs of ice water before the second pee of the day. So. Much. Sweat. I was careful to be aware of salt and food intake, but I have been experimenting running on feel rather than method, and perhaps that is a downfall when unused to heat.
As the day crept on, I continued to gain the precious minutes I had lost so early. I spent almost the entire day alone, lost in my thoughts. I felt hopeful. Playful. I was happy. I love running, and I love the idea of being free. Free off of the trail, too. It was miserable in the conditions, but my heart was unaffected.
I was anxious for the sun to set and temperatures to fall. We all wilted. Still, I was proud of the race I was running. I pushed or kicked back when I thought it made sense. 100 miles is a significant amount of time to manage well. I first tried my hand at long ultras knowing I could hike or sit anytime I wanted; now that I better understand what that animal is, I enjoy wrestling it.
I found myself back with the runners I had started with. I was not going to take home a buffalo skull by a long shot, but that did not matter. It is very easy to be discouraged and throw a race away if you get lost, especially for five miles. I ruined it.
No, that doesn’t have to be true.
The sun dropped and I pushed to the turnaround with Erika; we were the fifth place females. My muscles complained. The course is a beast to be sure, but it was not a beast I was not trained for. My legs should not hurt, not this early. My ribcage was tender. I shrugged. Get to the halfway mark and take advantage of the night.
At Silver City I changed into dry clothes, ate, caffeinated, grabbed poles and a pacer and took off. Rick and I chatted happily as I filled him in on the day and crossed the field under the big dipper into the sweltering summer night.
“Rick, I think I’m going to be -” and then I bent over my poles and lost the contents of my stomach. I stood up. What had just happened? I sipped electrolytes and continued on. Then I threw up again. And again. A quarter mile later again. And so on. Thick black bile, and eventually just air. Still, I clung to my poles and my body shook, retching nothing. My abdomen tightened.
I’ve thrown up running before. Today was hot. Walk it out, drink it out. Take your time. I will pull through. We hiked slowly on, but it did not help. It seemed like my headlamp bounced all over the trail and the trail kept sliding away from me. A mile passed, two after an eternity. My quads started to seize unexpectedly and I tripped or fell. Something was not right. I laid on the side of the trail clutching my knees when my insides cramped excruciatingly. Worry crept in.
Rick picked me up by the armpits and we hiked on, at least until I heaved or sat or fell again. I drank all the water I had. My legs wouldn’t obey. Quarter mile by quarter mile, for four miles, hours passed. I could not understand it. I could not hike myself out of it.
The question came at mile 65: can you, will you?
Will I? Hell yes. I signed up to be out here all day and all night and into the next day. I need this run for my plans this fall. I love this course. I want that buckle. I came to run with heart and my heart did not falter.
Can I? Crickets.
I’ve never truly had to answer that question. Am I able to. Am I capable. Competent. Fit. Do I have the skills. Synonyms rattled through my head and blurry thoughts reeled away from me.
Of course I am, I told myself.
Then why are you curled up in poison ivy, I asked back. Crickets.
Rick and I were done attempting silly conversation and began to assess logically. I peed the wrong color. When a runner passed, we asked her to please send someone to pick us up on the road. My race was done. I was done. Over four hours had passed and I had not made it to the next aid station only seven miles away. This didn’t feel like nausea I could muster through. My body was shutting down.
When you DNF mentally, you talk yourself out of overcoming to the finish. You convince yourself that you can’t, or make an excuse that seems valid at the time that is regrettable later that same night or the next morning when you feel guilty to be comfy in bed rather than hiking out that sunrise. When you physically DNF, your mind cries to keep going but your body fails. The next morning, there is no regret because there was no other decision (except maybe to get IV fluids). You drag yourself to the finish and cheer on your fellow runners because you are proud of them.
Failure can be a weapon, but failure can also be a foundation. My body failed, probably because of binging earlier that week or possibly from poor nutrition management in heat, or even from pushing too hard to catch up. I don’t know. Maybe all three. But I heard once that a setback makes the best comeback, and I liked it.
I showed up and I raced hard. I can stand behind that honestly. A DNF is only proof that I had an opportunity to learn something. I have failed myself and my husband and my friends many times, but if I learn something from it, I think I can stand behind that, too, honestly in the end.
I believe that sobriety is a stone’s throw from this line of thinking. At the mile of weakness or difficulty: can you, will you?
Except in that instance, I always can. The part that is important is that I will. One step in front of the other. That is a race that I cannot afford not to finish. I will.
For the race photo this year, each runner was given the instructions: look into the mirror with admiration of yourself. Remember that woman I had respect for? That’s the woman I want to admire in the mirror. Resilient. Honest. Disciplined. Confident.