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A Secret



This weekend should have been my relapse.


Human behavior, especially for an alcoholic, is not so hard to predict. The factors all mirrored the old days: partner thousands of miles away, home alone, finished a killer running weekend, nowhere I needed to be. I'm one year and ten months sober. My defenses aren't as high as they were at first; I don't go to meetings every day. Perfect time to go down the hole for three days like I used to.


I always drank alone. That's what I chose. I can't say, 'that's what I enjoyed' because 'enjoy' is not the right word for alcoholism. There is zero joy and nothing enjoyable about dousing that seeping wound in stinging, stinking liquor. I tried to get sober alone, and I've always failed, fantastically, alone. Alone feels like the safest, most isolated place a human soul can be. No one can mess with you, influence you, betray you, seduce you, judge you... all human drama is null at the low-lit, cold countertop of an empty house. Especially with a bottle in front of you and a glass in your hand.


I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it this weekend.


I know I could get away with it. I am impressively able to not seem drunk when I am very drunk (until I'm not). No one would know. That used to be a legitimate justification to me: if no one knows, then it doesn't matter. I used to be able to fill books with things people didn't know. Some were things I chose, some I didn't.


First I was a vault out of necessity. Abused kids learn to lie and keep secrets to survive and avoid punishment. Every one of them. As I grew older, I grew more indiscriminate about what went into the vault. I kept secrets for a lot of reasons, sometimes selfish reasons. I dare you to meet an alcoholic that doesn't keep secrets. In fact, the back of this computer has a sticker on it from a friend in AA that says, "I used to have a secret, now I have a story."


We are all as sick as the secrets we keep.


You've figured this out, but I didn't relapse. I didn't add another secret to the vault. Instead, I have one to share.


It's the secret that saved my life.

It happens to be the secret to ultrarunning.

When I was 17, I decided to kill myself. My existence wasn't worth the breath and effort it took to carry that much hurt. I simply felt like I couldn't. I wrote the words I can't over and over in my journals in every variation: I can't do this anymore. I can't hurt anymore. I can't carry this much, God. I cried in my prayers every night, every damn night, to fix me. To heal me. To give me more faith. To remove the sin from me. I had no desire to continue to live because living was simply too hard and hurt too much.


You have to understand, my heart was very broken. Broken beyond ever finding all of the pieces again. Broken well beyond human drama. Broken in ways they can't write about in textbooks. My body didn't feel like mine. My faith in the God of my youth wasn't helping me or comforting me. The pain did not stop. Have you seen the studies about learned helplessness in rats and dogs? When you shock an animal repeatedly, relentlessly, painfully - and you condition them to know they cannot escape, do you know what they do? Psychologist Martin Seligman discovered that they don't try to escape anymore. They lay down and take it. Learned helplessness is linked to major depression (the learned helplessness paradigm is the widest study of depression in animals) and high mortality rates. Children, too, are conditioned by their environments. Consider their lack of control. This is called powerlessness.


I started to think it through logistically and make a plan. I did some research and some tests. I wouldn't leave a note because I had nothing to say. No one understood my little soul in the first 17 years, there was no point trying to be understood in death. This wasn't for revenge. I just didn't want to exist. I started looking for places to leave my body that would be out of the way.


One day, I got close. I was terrified out of my mind. It was such a permanent decision. I asked myself why. And if you've ever asked yourself (or the universe) that question in utter hollow devastation and existential loneliness, you know that the answer is: silence. Really, really rude apathetic silence.


I started to cry. Why. Why today and not yesterday? Why not tomorrow? What makes today the right day? I couldn't answer that. There was no logical reason why the wound I had carried today I could not also carry tomorrow. So I released my grip. I went home. I needed an answer to that question first.


It took me a long time to find the answer.


You know why people who don't run shake their heads and laugh at us runners and say, "I could never do that." Well, it's because they can't. They mentally and physically are incapable. Their ability to tolerate the discomfort and suffering of running is extremely low. How long can most people run for? 10 minutes? 30? Maybe 60 for a hard workout?


I have a theory: everyone has a natural breaking point for what they can tolerate. I know people who think three miles is a really long run and a great workout that they have to work up to and fuel for. I know people who can't run a single mile, not even half. I know people who run mountain marathons carrying only a Nalgene bottles. If you go to a 100 mile race, you can watch people collide head-first into their limit without even slowing down. Some DNF sooner, some later. Some never break. We all naturally have a place that is "too much."


The place where we can't.


Some of those people will crumple at that boundary and quit. They do not want to hurt that much. It's not worth it. And some of them really cannot go on.


Part two of this theory: you can manipulate your tolerance.


Others in this overwhelming low place will choose to hoist themselves out of the camp chair, pick up their trekking poles, give a stoic nod of thanks to the volunteers, and shuffle bravely up the next peak. Often alone, guided by their bobbing headlamp. They will take power in this thought: I have done my training, I have done the work. I can get stronger, and I can carry more. What was once so terribly hard for me now rests easily on my broad shoulders. Does it make sense when I say that pain and tolerance are both very relative? Relative to the work you are willing to put in to push that boundary further.


My emotional tolerance is in my control. It's manipulatable. I can train myself (with the help of many wonderful teachers, close friends, good books and filled journals) to climb back up the rope that I was swinging so dangerously from the end of. If you run a marathon, you might think 50 miles will be so hard I mean, it's probably impossible. But you train and you do it. Then, you run 100 and it is so much harder. Then 200 and it is so hard. My training runs all summer have been marathon distance (or more). That 50 miler might be fun. That 100 looks gorgeous.

To get sober (hell, to stay sober) means to go into my own existential darkness, often alone, and train that emotional boundary. That mental boundary. That feeling of I need this or I don't want to feel this or I can't.


We admitted we were powerless are literally the first words of the twelve steps.


Getting sober, for me, was lacing up emotionally. I had to go way back to the place I had quit, and I had to go two steps further. I had to start training myself and doing the heavy lifting, even if it was starting small and ugly. I had to go back to this place several times.


Because the truth is that I can. You can, too. On your worst day, you can. I promise you. When I feel like the most garbage woman on earth and probably I have ruined things beyond repair and who knows if I will ever find all of the pieces again (and surely I won't), I can still use this for good. I can still tolerate enough to grow.


Instead of collapsing at the edge and crawling into the bottle, I put my hands against it and push. I can make it budge, even the tiniest bit. I can mark it and measure it and plot against it for next time. I can get some friends to help me those times when it's just too heavy for one person.


I'll leave you with one more encouraging thought: resilience is made, not born.


Seligman didn't just leave us with learned helplessness, even if that is what he is known for. He also coined the term learned optimism. Animals can be taught hope and resilience through training and practice. That training is more complicated for humans, but it exists, and the principle is sound.


Resilience is the opposite of powerlessness. I am still powerless over some things in my life, as I well should be. But many other things I am resilient against.


Don't quit. Not yet.


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