When I was eleven I was on my school’s gymnastic team. A year later I traded in all my after-school activities for boys and drugs. From that point until I entered rehab at twenty-eight, the only exercise I got was from sex or from being chased by police dogs. I don’t know if this qualifies as a ”fitness phase” but in my late teens I’d regularly jog from 14th and Third to Avenue D to cop heroin. In those days cabs wouldn’t go into Alphabet City and jogging felt safer than walking.
When I got clean and sober my body started sending signals to my brain “Hey remember me? I’ve been sustaining this girl while you were hijacked by active addiction? Can you get her to give me a little attention please?” because out of nowhere I wanted to start exercising. I had a few friends who were “gym nuts” but my entry into fitness started slow. I couldn’t feign the enthusiasm for working out that they had. When they’d try to cheer me on I’d get annoyed. I deliberately started going when I knew they weren’t there.
My gym experience was miserable. I’d be bored after a few laps around the track. I could only dog-paddle around the pool for so long before I’d feel ridiculous. And forget about figuring out how to use the resistance machines. Even if someone took time to explain them to me, I couldn’t pay attention. My ADD stressed-out brain would get overwhelmed. I loved the idea of being strong and fit with a fabulous body but I definitely didn’t have any love for the gym. After a while it felt like I was paying a monthly membership so that I could hate myself in entirely new ways. But I kept showing up.
Here’s the thing. Everything I was going through was totally normal for the amount of drugs I’d been using and the length of time I’d been using them. It was going to take a while for my brain to rebalance itself. In the 80s there wasn’t the science and research to back what I was discovering first hand in my recovery process. All I knew was that for the first four months I was either too hot or too cold. I would feel happy and out of nowhere be filled with anxiety. Stress seemed to be irrational. It could be set off by an idea. I got my first good night’s sleep somewhere between 5 and 6 months clean and it took a year before I could read a page in a novel and be able to tell you what I’d read. I’d either be wired for sound or completely lackluster. It was normal to be laughing and crying in the space of five minutes. When someone with less clean time than me said they were running five miles a day I wanted to slit my throat.
Here’s what was happening in my brain. During prolonged drug use, dopamine receptors get jacked up, sometimes 1500 times higher than their natural levels. The brain stops releasing natural dopamine and endorphins in an attempt to rebalance itself. Dopamine is what drives out desires. It’s responsible for motivating us and rewarding us. This is how we experience intense pleasure, love, and connection. When you take away drugs and alcohol there’s a major drop in dopamine levels. We feel this deficit as lack of motivation and lack of reward. This means that even things that should feel great only feel slightly satisfying. It’s hard to maintain motivation when there is no immediate pay off. When the brain’s in dopamine-deficit mode it creates stress. This is what makes it hard to focus attention and why it’s difficult to sleep. The brain responds to low dopamine levels the way we respond to heartbreak. It yearns. So even if the obsession to get high has been lifted and drug cravings have vanished, it’s normal for a strange broken-hearted despair to linger over everything.
Healing takes time. Luckily the brain, body, and spirit (the you) want to survive and thrive. It wants to restore itself and our lifestyle changes speed up the payoff. At the beginning I couldn’t muster up motivation to workout because I wasn’t getting enough of a pleasure payout but I continued to show up at the gym and do what I could. Eventually I found what worked for me. When I started getting an endorphin high from aerobic classes I understood what motivated people to run five miles or run marathons.
I began to sleep better and my energy increased. Weird new positive feelings started surfacing. I felt proud of myself for staying committed to my health and my recovery, self-esteem started silencing some of the self-hate. It’s crazy how all it took was finding the right workout to boost my endorphins and the payoff was immediate.
If I get honest, what drove me to join a gym, aside from peer pressure, was vanity. I wanted a slamming body. I instead I got hooked on the feelings and this is what sustained my motivation. The body thing just sort of happened as a bi-product.
If you are new to recovery (or an oldtimer who has avoided exercising) I hope you find a form of cardio that excites you. Your brain will reward you for it, your immune system will strengthen and yes – your body will change.