This past weekend I had the pleasure (and pain) of running 7.25 miles with a local marathon training group. This was the second time I’d joined the group, and I’m likely to return, if for nothing else than to spend a few hours with one of the pacers, a guy named Joe* who introduced himself as an alcoholic, cocaine addict and three-pack-a-day smoker a few miles into the run.
Three packs. That’s like 60 cigarettes, right? It didn’t appear that we had much in common at first, but I shared back that my parents were smokers and I was very happy when they quit. He told me that he would wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep without a couple of smokes.
I remembered how I couldn’t sleep without crying for a while first, not so many years ago.
Joe and his wife met in a drug treatment program. They each have 18 years of sobriety under their belts, and Joe insisted that tobacco was by far the most difficult vice to quit. He is 58 years old.
I quit drinking and drugging at 40, Joe said, matter of factly, as I ran by his side.
What do you say in response to a critical, personal, unexpected and heartfelt truth shared on the run?
My thoughts bubbled to the surface, yet remained unsaid. Thank you for telling me. Thank you for sharing your story. You are so much braver than me. In fact, you are one of the most amazing men I’ve met, even though I just met you twenty minutes ago. And your calves are kickass for a guy pushing 60, by the way.
Silently I wondered, How did you quit? Why did you start? And how fantastic is it that you met the love of your life (so described by Joe) who also is a recovering drug addict and an accomplished distance runner in her 50s?
Nothing felt right.
Fortunately he just kept on talking and I kept on breathing and didn’t have to say much.
Later I reflected upon the truth that I am now 40 years old. And that Joe and I actually do have a lot in common.
I have not been as careful as I could be about what I consume and how I make decisions that impact my mind and body. I’m not an addict, at least not in the strictest sense. But I do find addictive behavior compelling, and have, for many years. It’s been said that bulimia and alcoholism are two sides of the same coin. Eating disorders are also often related to depression, a condition for which I have never been diagnosed, nor do I believe is something that I live with (fortunately). I did more than dabble in disordered eating, but that was more than fifteen years ago.
Today I almost do not recognize that young woman who was me, age 20, sometimes starving, sometimes stuffed, but you’re never completely able to leave who and how you once were.
Or are you?
I wondered more than once about chemical imbalance when I was unable to shake the sadness in the wake of my sister’s death. And I absolutely use wine and other mind-numbing hobbies (reading trashy novels, scrapbooking, nail-biting) to shake off sadness sometimes. I try to use better strategies, too (reading well-crafted, delightful novels, writing, running, long conversations with my incredible friends). But you know, sometimes you gotta do what works for you, and my life includes both good-for-you and less good-for-you coping mechanisms.
I never smoked cigarettes, but I understand their appeal.
Back to the run: this guy was telling me about a 50-miler trail race he finished in ten hours, and he claimed, I could have run ten more hours – it was that great!
He wasn’t bragging; he was happy. It was like running with a live over-sharer on Facebook. Weathered, but not withered, Joe was bright-eyed and unapologetically cheerful as he led us along the waterfront, across streets and beneath an early spring sun in Portland.
He described his first marathon in 2008 and how he started running at age 50. Today he is semi-retired, and he and his wife travel around running together. Over the next six weeks, they will complete three full marathons.
He went on: For years we just took and took and took. Saw how much we could take from others, on and on.
Shakes his head.
Now we just give back a little, just do what we can to make a small difference. My wife leads an annual retreat for recovering addicts. I lead a running group every week, every year. Not gonna stop. There’s a 70-something running community in Portland. I plan to be a part of it.
I can never give back as much as I took, but I can try, he said somewhat ruefully.
Are you kidding me?
He gave me something HUGE on Saturday, so much that I’m still mulling it over today. He gave me his story. His truth. While the part of the story I listened to was mostly the good stuff, he was honest about the fact that for 25 years, his life was tough and he struggled. The astonishing part is that he turned his life around. I don’t know how. I didn’t ask.
I’ll be out of town the next two Saturdays, but Joe told me that he’ll be looking for me at the group run on May 17th.
I’ll be there.
*Joe is not his real name.