Transferring Addictions

Last weekend Betsy and I had the opportunity to speak at Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, OR.  We were honored to be invited into the shop to speak by Hal and Carly Koerner.  Hal has always been a guy that I’ve admired as a runner from afar.  It was pretty cool to be talking at his shop and to have him in the crowd.


Betsy and I with Hal Koerner before our talk at Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, OR

During our presentation, before we opened it up for questions from the crowd, Betsy asked me a relatively benign question, our normal Modus Operandi, to set the mood and comfort zone for the crowd to feel like they can ask any question of us.  We are both open books.

Betsy asked: “Spence, is all of the running and training you are doing evidence of you transferring addictions?”

During my first year of sobriety I was posed the exact same question in a similar setting at a presentation Betsy and I were hosting at Oregon State University.  In fact, my buddy Josh, was the one who brought it up.  Immediately, I went into defense mode.  Hell no, I wasn’t transferring addictions, I was just using running as a “vehicle for self-discovery.”  At the time I thought the idea of transferring addictions had a negative connotation and I wasn’t able to accept the reality of the truth.  Three years later my position on the topic has changed.

After Betsy asked her question I could not have predicted my response.  I immediately got choked up and broke down.  This was the first time in a public setting that I admitted to transferring addictions. My answer: “Yup, I sure have.”  Throughout the last several months it had become clear that I was in the mode of chasing miles and training at volumes that I just wasn’t physically prepared for, especially given the emotional/personal stress that I was under.  I was displaying the same addictive tendencies that I once had when I was drinking excessively.

So, what is wrong, if anything at all,  with the idea of transferring addictions?  My default setting has always been one of “more is better,” coupled with the idea that I can get obsessive with anything that I take on.  That mentality has indeed worked in my favor from time to time.  Furthermore, why did I get so defensive early on when posed the question?  Perhaps I was in a place that I wasn’t willing to accept the fact that I indeed had an addictive personality.  Maybe I was steeped in a mode of denial.

In recovery I’ve come across many folks, especially athletic-minded types that incorporate exercise into their respective recovery program, who get asked the same question.  More times than not they initially shared the same sentiment that I once held onto,  that there was a negative tone to the idea of transferring addictions.  Why does this have to be the case?

We all go through some sort of process in life.  Being an endurance athlete helps me in maintaining sobriety day-to-day.  Now that I’ve gone through the process of overdoing it, by becoming addicted to training, I once again understand how my addictive tendencies can creep up in other facets of life, not with just drinking and drugs.  Whether or not someone transfers their addictions from drugs and alcohol to exercise, it doesn’t seem to me that this is necessarily a bad thing, as long as we have some sort of governing mechanism to keep us in check.  Today, I have that mechanism in place.  Whether it is in the form of a sponsor, a coach, a therapist, or a mentor, I believe that having some sort of checks and balances in place helps us monitor our addictive tendencies and can help us survive and thrive as we all move forward in life, regardless of the coping strategies we find helpful to employ.

To further understand how I was transferring addictions it helped to hear stories where others in recovery, especially athletes, were using different modes of action and athleticism to perhaps relieve themselves of the impulse to drink.  Although hard to find with a random google search, stories like this are rife across the athletic landscape, especially those that are endurance minded.  I’ve been in touch with several people over the last couple of years who are also trying to understand if the idea of addiction transference is a good or bad thing.  How about this…it’s just a thing, I don’t necessarily believe it has to labelled one way or another.  Let’s put it this way, what is wrong with me going out for a run in the woods for several hours when the alternative is to lock myself in my apartment and drink myself to death?  I know the consequences if I follow the urge to pursue the latter.   Trust me, it’s not pretty.  It would not end well. That being said, it’s now my challenge to myself to keep employing a sense of mindfulness to such athletic alternatives to drugs and alcohol.  Sustainability is a huge key for this mental shift to occur in an appropriate manner.

Today’s takeaway – don’t assume that just because I’m sober I know everything.  I’m still new to this process and if I look back over the last 3 and a half years there is no way I could have predicted the profound mental shifts that have occurred each and every day.