Running, Sobriety

Five Years Sober

6 Comments 29 May 2014

I’m celebrating five years sober today. The above picture was taken just before I quit drinking. I was at the end of a UK tour with Freshkills. I remember that I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open when this picture was taken, but I can’t recall much else.

 

In 2009, I lived in a run-down apartment right next to the BQE. I drove a crappy little maroon Dodge Neon that was falling apart. I had bags under my eyes and a paunch. I had nothing resembling a real job or a steady income. My primary sources of income were working door at Piano’s one night a week (11pm to 4am from Saturday night to Sunday morning, not a particularly fun shift) and working off Craig’s List. I played in three bands: Freshkills, RIBS and Rumanian Buck. I was comfortable in the knowledge that I had failed as a writer.

 

And now? I live in the same run-down apartment right next to the BQE. I drive a crappy little maroon minivan that is falling apart. I have bags under my eyes and a paunch. I have nothing resembling a real job or a steady income. And everything else is radically transformed. I haven’t had a job since 2011 because I haven’t had to. I own a little house in California. It’s not just that I started writing again, I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and became a bestselling author. I still don’t write every day because I have shitty work habits, but I ought to write every day because people are actually waiting for works I’ve promised them.

 

My body looks almost exactly the same as it did when I quit drinking, but I know it’s different inside. I can run. I didn’t just run a marathon, I ran a bunch of marathons, I ran marathons as training runs, I ran 2 marathons back-to-back, I ran a bunch of ultramarathons, the longest of which was 62 miles. It’s impossible to deny it: I’ve come a long way. And I have a long way to go.

 

I loved all three of the bands I played in in 2009, all three broke up, and all three broke up because of me. Yeah, I’m sober and I have a pretty decent handle on the whole “not drinking” thing, but I’m still angry and depressed and resentful and irritable and insecure and self-loathing and anti-social and neurotic and detail-obsessed and high-strung. Some of these were issues when I was a drunk and I’ve made improvement on them. Some of these flaws only got worse when I stopped drinking. And some are new. What’s the solution? I know if I had a couple of beers the next time I go out to a friend’s show, I’d have a much better time. I’d relax, I’d be able to connect with people better, I’d be funnier and more animated and less morose. And everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve would unravel, slowly at first, and then very quickly. My only option is to stay the course. I need to try every day: try to relax, try to enjoy, try to be more patient, try to let go.

 

I say I’m “celebrating” five years sobriety but that strikes me as an odd choice of word. I’ve chosen a rocky path and I know I have more difficulties ahead: what’s to celebrate? And how do you “celebrate” sobriety—a tall glass of seltzer and a marathon of Law and Order: SVU?

 

This is how I understand my illness: there are two people inside of me. One guy values his friends and family, still has a dream or two, is interested in the world and wants to do stuff: to engage, to participate, to express, to create. The other guy wants destroy the first guy, he wants a drink before even getting out of bed because fuck it and fuck you and fuck the world.

 

I’ve done a decent job of neutralizing the other guy these last five years. It’s not always an epic battle of good and evil, usually it’s just a battle to find a matching pair of socks and get out of the house… but yeah, some days it is an epic battle of good and evil. So I’ll celebrate this progress and celebrate the hard road ahead of me in a fitting way: by tackling the toughest ultra-marathon I’ve ever encountered.

 

The Peak Ultra in Pittsfield, Vermont is 53 miles of torture. I had trails of crusted blood down the back of my legs from the biting flies when I finished, and I started shaking uncontrollably not long after. It took me nearly 14 hours to complete the first time I ran it 3 years ago and I swore I would never do it again. I’m going to do it again.

 

I know I’ll never totally defeat this other guy because, well, he is me. But I can show him who is in charge. I can grind him down, I can knock him back on his heels, I can wear him down, and I can make him suffer. Wish me luck.

Music, Sobriety, Videos, Writing

no use going this way

No Comments 02 March 2014

I spent most of last week down in Virginia putting the final touches on my “new” solo record “Alcoholica” with the incredibly talented composer Erik Nickerson. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on it (okay, mostly proud of the work Erik has done on it) but I have grave misgivings about unleashing it on the world.

 

One morning when I was 16, my friend Nick walked into my room without knocking. I was sorely hungover, laying in pile of blankets on the floor. He threw a book at me.

“You need to read this,” he said and then walked out.

I picked it up. The book was “Women” by Charles Bukowski.

I have replayed that moment over and over again in my mind, forwards and backwards: I am holding a book in my hands, unreading its title, unlearning its author’s name. I place it on my bed. Nick walks into my room backwards, articulates sounds I cannot understand and the book flutters off my bed into his hands. Nick walks out of my room backwards, carrying that evil tome out of my life. I lower myself onto my greasy pillow and retreat instantly back into sleep. The alcohol dyhydrogenase in my blood combines with the acetyl radicals and hydrogen in my body to form acetaldehyde, which is turned back into ethyl alcohol. My sleeping body returns from painfully hungover to blissfully drunk. Charles Bukowski never enters my life.

I took that book as my Bible. I was in pain and Bukowski’s wounded, macho bluster made instant sense to me. Long before my father had disappeared on us, I’d made up my mind to live in opposition to his circumscribed life, fleeing persecution at home to persecution at work, running frantically back and forth like a dog clipped to a clothesline wearing a rut in the lawn. Bukowski provided the map, the blueprint, the easy-to-follow-assembly instructions, the User’s Manual. An Idiot’s Guide, if you will. Where my father had been responsible, I would be free. Where he had capitulated, I would be uncompromising. My father was neurotic and fussy, hardly a man at all. Johnny Cash on one shoulder and Charles Bukowski on the other, I would be chaos.

For the amount of damage Bukowski wreaked on my life, I would have been better off if, instead of that narrow trade paperback from Black Sparrow Press, Nick had just given me the Anarchist’s Handbook or the Necronomicon or a vial of crystal meth or a test tube of weapons-grade anthrax or a loaded Kalishnikov. For a young man searching for how to live and who to be, it’s hard to imagine a worse influence than Bukowski.

 

When I quit drinking nearly five years ago, it put me at odds with my own music. My public appearances have been incredibly sparse since I sobered up. I finally had an epiphany last year while playing a show I had been coaxed into. I was playing a mean-spirited song I’d written when I was 25. As I was listening to the words come out of my mouth and listening to people laughing in spots that made me uncomfortable I realized that it’s not just that I no longer identify with this guy, I don’t like him. He’s fatalistic and nihilistic and he takes way too many cheap shots at women. I’m done with him.

But he’s not done with me. While I was off getting my life together and running too much, my shadow-self has been kicking much ass on the Internet. My old pal Doug Stanhope uses one of my old songs “The Only One Drinking Tonight” as the theme music for his podcast. (Let’s be clear—I feel only gratitude to Doug for that. I worked my ass off on that record and my work is my work is my work and I’m proud of all of it.) Our pal Jack Andino made a great and depressing video for the song featuring my buddies Andy Andrist, James Inman and Norm Wilkerson misbehaving on a hopeless comedy tour. That video now has 15,000 views.

This must be why I keep getting added on social media by troubled young men: maybe 25 years old, raccoon-eyed, questionable employment. I’m always puzzled when I click on their profiles—if these guys are going out for a run, it’s a beer run—until I recognize a quote in their profiles from one of my songs.

So… listen up. You should read all my stories. You should listen to all my records. By all means, buy the fucking T-shirt. But I am not a role model. The path I chose brought immeasurable grief to a lot of good people who didn’t deserve it, and also to me. This nihilistic record that’s coming out this year is not How You Should Live, it’s just how I lived until I finally came to my senses.

As unlikely and miraculous as my transformation has been, there are still a lot of people who haven’t forgiven me, and with good reason. I was a destructive alcoholic shithead. Don’t do it, man. There’s no use going this way.

 

Running, Sobriety, Writing

when the wheels come off

2 Comments 08 July 2013

I had a pretty shitty day at Finger Lakes Fifties on Saturday, which was only heightened by the fact that it’s one of my favorite races and I had a bunch of friends/ fans/ supporters there. I feel I need to write about if just to unpack it for myself.

I didn’t have a promising week leading up to the race. On Monday, driving back from working on a record in Virginia with a friend, I had a blowout going about 85 on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had to wrestle my van across three lanes of heavy traffic in order to get over to the side of the highway to safety. I came as close as I ever have to rolling it and I’m not going to lie to you, it was pretty scary. Nothing like a brush with a banal death to make you appreciate the life you have.

Long story short, I got home at 8pm, a full 8 hours later than I’d hoped, out several hundred bucks for the tows and getting overcharged for a couple of used, dryrotted tires to replace the new-ish one that had blown out and the spare that had gotten stolen. Ugh. I was running late on the next Kindle Single so I stayed up till 8am to get an extremely rough first draft off to my editor.

I ended up staying two extra days in NYC before leaving town and I have a (very understanding) subletter, so then I spent two nights on air mattresses, one at home and one in Aaron’s guest room (thanks, pal!) I booked a hotel room in Ithaca the night before the race in hopes of getting one good night’s sleep but, of course, I can never sleep the night before a race.

It hasn’t been a great year for running for me. I haven’t been excited about running for a while. I signed up for 2 other ultras before Finger Lakes and didn’t even make it to the starting line. I managed to get a little re-energized by befriending ultra-triathlete Rich Roll and doing a marathon for Boston and actually ended up doing more training for Finger Lakes this year than I did last year.

Still, once the pack thinned out Saturday morning and I got out there on the trail alone, I found myself getting bored and dreading my second and third lap. I’d trained in minimalist shoes to strengthen my lower legs but chose to race in my Montrails, which soaked up all the water and held on to all the mud we ran through, so my feet were wet and heavy. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before, though. As I approached the end of the first lap, I started to consider dropping. My left hip and my right knee were bothering me and, after 15 miles, I was running as ragged as I usually do after 40 miles. Again: nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Running 50 miles is difficult by design.

When I came to the turnaround, I sat down for a minute, talked to some friends… and then tore off my tag and sadly slipped it to Chris Reynolds, the hard-working race director.

I told myself one of the reasons I quit was because I wanted to hang out with my ultrabuddies, many of whom I haven’t seen for a year, but after dropping after just one lap, I felt so shitty about myself that I split as soon as I could. I felt bad about it the whole day and then, when I woke up the day after the race and wasn’t sore at all, I just felt worse. I totally could have done it, and I totally pussed out.

What went wrong? Lots, but little of it had to do with my body. Sure, I was tired and hadn’t slept well in a week and I wore the wrong shoes and should have stretched/ warmed up more. But those are pretty common mistakes for me– I’ve made those mistakes and still gone out and had great races, even run PRs. What’s wrong is in my head: I’m just not emotionally invested in running anymore.

When I started running, my life was pretty empty. Band practice, work a couple nights a week, not much else. I had a lot to figure out and nothing to do and a ton of new, restless energy. Running was a means of escape: it filled up my hollow, newly sober days, it gave me a sense of forward momentum so I panicked less about the uncertain future ahead of me, it gave me a physical outlet for my anxiety. Yes, running is a means of escape. This aspect of running has been given plenty of attention– too much, in fact. Because running is also a means of CONFRONTING your issues.

When I quit drinking, I was in horrible shape– both fat and skinny. Running meant dealing with that head-on. I had shitty relationships with my family, many of my friends, a couple of women… okay, let’s just say I had a shitty relationship with the world in general. When I ran, my body was occupied but my mind was idle, so I was forced to reflect on the decisions I’d made, the grudges I held and the grudges held against me. So running meant dealing with those issues head-on. But at the very core of my beef with the world was fear. I was so afraid of failing that I was afraid of trying. Running when I was sorely out of shape meant both trying and failing, again and again, and out in public, in the world I resented and hated and feared. Maybe running is an escape for some people but for me, running was all about confronting the shit that I hated and feared the most.

Ironically, now that I’ve written an ebook about running that’s garnered me all this attention, I run less than I did before I wrote it. I run less because my life is full now. I have great friends and every single one of my relationships with my family members is dramatically better than it was before I stopped drinking and before I started running. Also, I have a career now, which is awesome, but it seems like there’s always an email I am late in responding to or a phone call I haven’t returned. I bought a house, which is also awesome, but man, that is a buttload of work and it seems like I’m just getting into the thick of it now. I’m doing lots of other awesome crap like going to Ireland and England and Canada and building guitars and teaching a bootcamp and that’s great… but it means I have less time for running.

Which may be okay. Because I need running less than I used to. For one thing, I’ve taken a lot of steps to resolve conflict in my life… which means I don’t have entertaining worries to obsess over when I’m on my feet. Yeah, there are definitely some days when I wake up feeling angry or depressed and I have to go out and run till I’m exhausted. But that happens less frequently now than it used to. Often, when I do feel like that, I can’t go because I have too much other shit to do– usually good shit, like writing or making a record, but still shit that prevents me from running. I’m not okay with that. But I have to get okay with that, as it’s not going to go away.

I’m going running today. I hope that I will always run. But if I don’t, that’s alright. Running doesn’t define who I am. I define who I am. At the end of the day, running is a completely selfish action that I undertook to save my life. It has to stay something I do for selfish reasons.

When I bailed after just one lap at Finger Lakes, part of the reason I felt like shit is because I felt like I was letting my readers down. I hate letting anyone down but I especially hate the thought of letting my readers down, many of whom are fighting battles similar to mine. But here’s the thing: I didn’t write The Long Run for you. If it’s inspired you or helped you, that’s great… but I didn’t write it to help anyone and I certainly didn’t think it was going to inspire anyone. I thought it was an ugly story of an ugly man trying to become less ugly and I only hoped that it did as well as Shipwrecked. In fact, I wanted to put a warning label on it: ANY INSPIRATION YOU MAY RECEIVE FROM THIS STORY IS PURELY ACCIDENTAL. READER RELEASES THE AUTHOR FROM ALL LIABILITY.

I didn’t even write The Long Run for me, I didn’t want to write it at all! My editor Dave said “Your next Kindle Single will be about your transition from druggie/ drunk to ultrarunner and it will be called The Long Run. I have spoken.” I protested a bit but I relented because we’d already been through a bunch of shit together and I trusted him and, well, I didn’t know what else to do.

Am I glad I wrote it? You betcha. There is no other way of saying it: it changed my life. Oh, okay, at the end of the day, yes, I’m glad that it may have helped or inspired people because I do care about people and I want everyone to be okay. But here’s what made me stop at Finger Lakes: I realized that I was running for other people and that I wasn’t running for me. Call me naïve, but I still feel strongly about authorial honesty. I don’t make shit up– everything I write about, whether it’s horrifying or accidentally inspiring, is absolutely true, it actually happened in the real world. If I’m doing anything just to fulfill someone’s expectation of me, well, I’m not being true to myself. And I gotta be me.

My running buddies have said “You’ll get it the next time!” I love Finger Lakes 50s and I’m indebted to Chris and Joe Reynolds for putting it on… but there may not be a next time, there or anywhere else. That’s okay. Running was there for me when I needed it and I’m incredibly grateful for that. It makes me really sad to think about giving up distance running, even for a little while. But the reason why I’m able to give it up is the same thing that is so fantastic about running, why I will always sing its praises as the cheapest and most effective therapy around: running loves troubled souls unconditionally, and running will always be there for you when you need it.

Sobriety, Writing

FIND YOUR HOME

1 Comment 10 June 2013

20 years ago, when I was 16, my family lost our house during my parents’ divorce. It was devastating. Thinking about it now, my blood still runs hot with anger and cold with shame. One rainy day as I watched our neighbors pick through all our belongings we were selling in our driveway and front yard, I swore to myself that somehow, though I had no idea how, I would right this wrong, I would avenge the harm done to my family and my mother.

I moved 22 times between 15 and 28. The residence that I held longest during that period was the year in which I lived out of my Toyota minivan. My mom and my sisters endured similar humiliations—shithole apartments, sketchy roommates, degrading minimum-wage jobs in fast food and customer service.

I remember staying with my mom and my sister Tashina one fall when I was 26. I wasn’t even crashing on the couch: it was a one bedroom and the couch was Tashina’s bed. I slept on the floor. There was a horrible rainstorm one night and the roof started leaking badly, in every room. We scrambled to get pots or bowls under the most significant leaks until we ran out of containers. I remember shuffling our bedding around so we weren’t sleeping underneath the drips and cursing and laughing and cursing some more. Again, I vowed that I would see my mother restored. Not to the top, as we had never been on top, but just to the middle, the bottom of the middle even. Anything but the bottom.

On one visit to my mother when she was working as a caretaker in the Virgin Islands, I literally evicted my old dog off her bed at night and slept on that, dog hair and dog stink be damned. My last trip down there when I was 32, just months before I quit drinking, there was one bed up for grabs so my mom and I took turns sleeping on the floor. I remember talking to her until we fell asleep, then resuming our conversation when we woke up in the morning, our backs aching from the cheap, shitty bed and the shittier floor. It was hell, but at least we were in it together. Again, I swore that I would see our fortunes reversed, as I had sworn in the past, again and again, though by now it felt more like a fantasy than some realistic goal: I would get us a home, I would build a death ray machine, we would all live forever.

Of course, by then the pain of losing our home had ceased to be something that drove me to succeed. I drank passionately. I made mistake after mistake after mistake. Bitterness consumed me, and it became a reason to give up, an excuse for my failures.

Then, in 2009, I stopped drinking and started getting my shit together. I wrote about my mistakes for Amazon in The Long Run. Last week, using only the money I made from writing about those mistakes, I put a deposit down on a house in California, a house we will call “Sweet Revenge.” It’s on the outskirts of a little town called Rainbow. Yes, Virginia, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

If you zoom out and look at my situation as a whole, it makes sense in a way: losing our house made me burn out, then bottom out, then write so much that a house came back to me. And also: man, that makes no fucking sense at all. It gets weirder.

On May 30th, I recorded the audio book for The Long Run. When I walked out of the studio to my Toyota minivan (just like the one I lived in) I realized that I had parked on a street that figures in The Long Run. When I checked my messages, I found out that the seller had accepted my offer on the house. It was four years to the day since I had quit drinking. It’s fairly well-documented that I don’t believe in God or Jesus or Allah or Muhammad or Budda or the capital-U Universe or positive vibes or karma or kismet or chi or soulmates or The Force or any of that shit. But right now, if you worship the Easter Bunny, well, I will happily kneel at his fluffy feet with you and bow my head in front of him in a prayer of gratitude.

This whole experience of finding a home is too intense for me to look at directly, like the tiny star at the end of an arc-welder’s torch, so I’m not going to dwell on it. Instead, let me just say: THANK YOU. Thank you to all of my friends and my family who believed in me when I didn’t, thanks to the teachers and editors and writers who saw something other folks didn’t, thanks to everyone who’s ever read, shared, reviewed or gifted a story of mine, and thank you and thank you and thank you.

What else? Oh yeah: welcome home, Mom.

Running, Sobriety, Writing

Graduation Day

No Comments 09 May 2013

This monday, my drug and alcohol counselor ‘graduated’ me from treatment. We’d each separately brought the idea up several times in the past but it never seemed like quite the right time. But I brought it up to him about a month ago and we both agreed to think on it before meeting up again.

When I walked into his office on Monday, he greeted me with a copy of the NYTimes I was recently in, the first time I’d seen it in the flesh (they recently printed the covers of two of my Kindle Singles on the front page of the Arts section). It was a cool surprise for both of us as I hadn’t given him a heads up about it– he had been surprised to find it, much as I was surprised to find out he knew about it. I like my counselor a lot and I like to think that it was a rewarding moment for him as a therapist to be kicking back after work with his paper and stumble upon the work of a client who had come to him an anonymous drunk getting the nod from the Old Gray Lady. It was also the sign we had both been waiting for.

We had a great last talk. I gave him a big awkward hug–the first in our career– and gave him my solemn promise that before I took another drink, I’d call him. I’m going to miss him: as a tireless listener, as a fount of solid advice, and as a really excellent human being.

I met vegan Ironman legend (and fellow alcoholic) Rich Roll a couple of weeks ago when we did a really intense podcast together. He asked me a lot of tough questions, some of which are still rolling around in my head, unanswered. He made a couple of assertions that I wasn’t ready for and that I’m primed to react negatively to… but when you’re hanging out with a guy who has trod the same darkness you have, done even harder work than you have to pull out of it, and then has gone on to do some really un-fucking-believable things, well, it’s in bad faith to do anything other than hem and haw and think hard about it and then respond with total honesty.

When I mentioned to Rich that I had graduated from treatment, he responded simply with “Are you cured?” Apparently, ballbusting is the fourth sport triathletes engage in… (keep it up, Rich, and I am going to give you that Charlie Horse I promised you when we last met). As usual, he’s got a incontrovertible point. The sidelines are littered with alcoholics who mastered sobriety so completely that they felt comfortable going right back to drinking. It’s good to have a friend to nudge me on that point. In the words of Ida B. Wells, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Drinking or not, I know I’ll always be an alcoholic. Just as I tired of the cult of alcohol, I have no interest in joining a cult of no alcohol so I’m going to continue to work hard in my life to just make alcohol irrelevant in my life, a minor footnote in my past, and make sobriety my natural state. Pretty revolutionary thinking there, huh? Making your natural state your natural state? Thanks, it feels good to be a hero.

I will never make alcohol irrelevant in my life. Sobriety will never be effortless for me. I will asymptotically approach these two ideals, but I will never reach them. That’s okay. I will get closer to them than I am now. That’s good enough.

On the subject of addiction, here are a few words from my failed book proposal. May they help you on your way:

There is a shiny black scorpion with a long, armored, serpentine tail coiled around my spine at the base of my neck. Its pincers reach through gaps in my vertebrae to gently but firmly grasp my spinal cord. Its reticulated tail lovingly circles my spine, cradling each wildly curved bone, its terminus hovering expectantly over that braid of nerve endings; a bulb pregnant with poison, then a thick, cruelly curved spike.

             The scorpion is asleep. Life is pretty sweet right now. When I run under the blazing hot sun until I’m exhausted or find a smelly dog on the street in Mexico and scratch that tickle spot that makes its leg skitter and it sheds all over the clean shirt I just put on or when I make my sister’s kids laugh in the back seat of the car by singing bathroom songs, good, healthy blood runs over this sleeping scorpion, softening its armor, turning its thick black shell walnut brown, then rich, racehorse brown, then liver and finally pink, slowly eroding it and dissolving it, absorbing its minerals and proteins back into my body.

But when I get a whiff of Jameson or take certain types of cold medicine or get too angry or tired or depressed, it twitches uneasily in its slumber, its tail writhing minutely, its pincers digging ever-so-slightly into my spinal cord. I live in fear of what will happen if that evil little fucker ever wakes up.

The Jameson thing, I get. I’m an alcoholic. I have been for a long time and the common wisdom is that I will be one for the rest of my life. The scorpion stirring in its arachnid dreams when alcohol vapor hits my sinuses is a purely chemical reaction. But this vile crustacean/ arthropod/ dinosaur/ demon wakes for other things, too: pornography, video games, Ebay, Facebook… even a fucking Snickers bar. Crack, methamphetamine, heroin—they’re huge. Ounce for ounce, each of them is more destructive than enriched uranium. You can’t ridicule someone crushed under that avalanche of pleasure. But a fucking candy bar? The smaller the thing that diminishes one, the smaller one is by comparison. A woolly mule of a man, 6’5”, 215 pounds, a man who has broken bones by accident and on purpose… laid low by a piece of candy? You gotta be kidding me. It’s too pathetic to even be a punchline.

This spiny black abomination, it’s not some rare tropical parasite that wormed its way inside me. It’s not a hive of nanobots implanted by an elite squadron of secret UN commandos, it’s not a malign interplanetary virus injected into me by some universe-hopping alien scientist. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, I built this monstrosity, one miniscule bad decision after another. It’s a devil of my own creation, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, my mistakes incarnate. Now I have to live with it as it lives within me and try to slowly wear it down before it wears me down. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. [end]

 

Sobriety

new article coming soon on TheFix.com

No Comments 26 June 2012

TheFix.com is a cool site focused on sobriety that did a really great, in-depth interview with me about The Long Run a while back– you can read that here. I’ll have an article going up for them in late July/ early August.


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