Thursday, October 11, 2012

Addiction and Cure

Author's Note: This blog entry discusses running as an addiction that affects my personality, and as a cure for my depression. In discussing addiction and depression, I in no way wish to offend anyone. This is about my experience, my struggle, and my journey. Thanks for reading.

Addiction is a worrisome word most of the time. It calls to mind illicit activities, an inability to control one's urges, and a sense of impending doom as destructive habits go unchecked. Veteran runners will tell you about the runner's high without any sense of irony or concern. Non-runners will roll their eyes, because surely this is just something runners talk about; it likely doesn't exist and is just a figment of a deluded mind.

But the runner's high is real, caused by endorphins and hormones released during exercise; and if the high is real, then it makes sense that - like other things that get you high - running can be addicting.

I have written before about becoming a total nightmare on days I don't run.  This still holds true for the most part, although since increasing my mileage and consistently running in the morning, I find that rest days aren't as difficult to deal with. My body craves rest, and I don't really mind taking those days off anymore. However, I am noticing different side-effects of running consistently.

For example, this week we ran Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. We took Tuesday off. We were supposed to run Wednesday, but you know what they say about "the best laid plans". I didn't feel guilty about taking Tuesday and Wednesday off, but my mood underwent the kind of subtle and horrific change that can only be attributed to not getting a fix when your body is screaming for one.

I was lethargic all day. I was irritable with my students. I came home after work and wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep for a year. I was despondent; I clung to M and barely held back tears that, if pressed, I could not have explained the cause for.

Here's the thing. I've dealt with depression. I don't mean the kind of depression where you're kind of sad but a good day with friends pulls you out of it. I'm talking consistent, unshakeable, deep depression. The kind that leads down dark roads paved with unhealthy habits and addictions, concerned parents, baffled friends, helpless therapists, medications that prove useless, etc. I've read some interesting articles about running and depression, specifically that running can "cure" depression, but that those who choose this route may need to rack up 40+ miles a week in order to stave off the monster.

Anyway, on days I don't run, that deep, gnawing, unfathomable depression that has no immediate cause (and therefore no immediate solution) threatens to wake from its hibernation. It's barely a shadow of what I've dealt with in the past, but...well, slippery slopes, and all that.

So yes, running is an addiction for me. It's one that keeps me sane. On the days I think I'm too tired to run, I sleep an extra two hours but then struggle through a day filled with fatigue and short fuses. My students, who often bring me joy, irk me. They notice it, too, because kids are observant, and because they're tactless, they ask, "Are you getting sick? Are you tired? Are you okay? You look sick. You look tired."

On the days I force myself out of bed, I lose two hours of sleep but go to work feeling refreshed and buoyant. The energy lasts all day.

Off-days that are planned ahead are much easier to deal with, but the days that sneak up on us because of circumstances outside our control never turn out to be good days.

Running has become a wonderful drug for me, but I have to worry, because like any addiction, there are negative side-effects. This week I've had some tenderness in my ankles and knees; what if I injure myself and have to take time off? What if I (like many runners before me) ignore the signs that I need to cut back a bit? I could cross train at the gym on the rowing machine, the elliptical, the bike, in the pool...but I know that part of the high I get from running is from running. I may still be getting exercise in, but nothing affects me like running does.

This was meant to be a lighthearted post, and I think it got away from me. But I've been reflecting on the past ten months (oh my gosh, has it been that long since I made this resolution?!), and my relationship with running has changed and changed again. It's amazing how important it's become to me, and I feel a sense of complacent pride when I think down the road five, ten, fifteen years and know I will still be running.

When I think back to high school, when I half-heartedly walked the mile run in close to 20 minutes and was struggling with a beast of a depressive nature, I can hardly believe the lifestyle change I've somehow managed to make. It used to look impossible; it was a mountain I'd never conquer. But today I can credit my health, my happiness, my solid relationships, and my clear head to running. It's truly been a miracle drug.



  1. I'm going to go ahead and comment on this post... even though I realize that commenting on someone else's journey can be taken the wrong way. I'm not actually commenting on your journey, just recognizing myself in your words. And seeing myself about... a year ago. Dedicating a large part of my life to running has changed my life a LOT. And I do remember a time when all my mental health issues were entangled with my running (and lack of) and my racing (and my very poor performance). And happily, a year later, I can see that my moods have stabilized around the running. I've learned over months and months of struggling that my brain and chemical soup have adapted to off days, off runs, off races.

    The advice part (I hate advice): hang in there. Keep running. You might notice a stabilization after a few more months. It sounds like running is as new to your brain chemistry as it is to your body. Both of them will adapt over time. Good luck and thanks SO much for sharing!!!!!!!!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience; it moves me to know others have experienced the same kind of reaction. And it's comforting to know that our minds and bodies begin to adjust, given time.

      I appreciate your advice, especially because it wasn't "take a break!" lol. I'm confident that my relationship with running will change again, and hopefully that change - like you said - brings stability. Thanks for your kind words :o)