This one has been sitting in my "drafts" folder for a hot minute.
Normally, I update my blog for major events (such as a race), or key information I feel is vital to nearly everyone's personal fitness and wellness journeys. Today's post is definitely the latter, and while it is a little scary to use my business platform to share something so personal, I have found in my nearly 7 years of personal training that the more open I am, the more my clients find that I am a real, honest, relatable human being. I am NOT a pillar of training perfection. In fact, I'd say my internal struggles have had a more profound influence on my training than any race or other physical achievement. And I hope what I have learned in the past several months of introspection will serve to help others as well.
So here goes.
The past couple of years have presented an incredible challenge for so many, myself included. Between a global pandemic and the accompanying pain and loss, and the compounding pressure of day-to-day stressors and uncertainties, I know I'm not alone with having felt an unrelenting burden since early 2020. I feel like it’s finally time to be candid about my mental health journey. For some time, I have struggled with the idea of being this open and vulnerable, but as I have started to talk to more people about my wellness journey, I’m finding I am hardly alone.
First, I wish to acknowledge my extreme privilege. I have a loving family, a home, and financial stability. Any issues I am continue to work on through this day, which previously fueled unhealthy behaviors, came from internalized pain and suppressed trauma from incidents that live in the past. My current life is secure, and I am generally quite happy. Any residual dark clouds hanging over me simply indicate that I still have some work to do, but they do not overwhelm or overshadow all the amazing things in my life.
I do not wish to raise any concerns about my current mental state, so I’ll preface this by sharing that I have had a lot of success working through depression and subsequent alcohol use disorder with Better Help and Moderation Management. If you are considering therapy for ANY reason, but aren’t sure what your insurance covers or whether you can afford paying out of pocket, Better Help has options for people who might need financial assistance, and Moderation Management is free (they rely on donations if/when people are able to contribute). So before I go into my story, know that I am in a healthy place because I was able to utilize these resources. And if you’re thinking about getting help for yourself (remember, there is no threshold for how “bad” things need to be to benefit from mental health support), don’t hesitate! You have nothing to lose and EVERYTHING to gain by reaching out.
With the start of the pandemic, I, like so many others, faced a good deal of uncertainty professionally and personally. Would I be able to pivot fast enough to a virtual training platform to keep my business going? Would my clients even be receptive to that? How can I ensure my daughter feels supported as she navigates the shift to virtual learning? How do I make sure she maintains a healthy social life with the loss of daily, face-to-face interactions? How long will this last? The questions were endless and the answers unknown.
We took it to heart that it was our responsibility to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 by staying home, only ordering carry-out when we didn’t want to cook, and not socializing with others outside the home for quite some time. At first, this wasn’t too terrible. We kept busy enough, taking on various “pandemic projects”. And hell, it was cheaper to eat and drink at home anyway, right? I brushed up on my old bartending skills to treat ourselves to craft cocktails, splurged on a variety of unheard-of IPAs, and signed up for virtual wine tastings. I was determined to try to have some fun in light of an otherwise solemn time. And without having to wake up nearly as early to see clients thanks to not commuting, I could justify indulging a little more throughout the week.
As the story often goes, occasional treats became frequent indulgence. Frequent indulgence became habitual. Habitual became necessary. Before I knew it, I had developed an unhealthy tolerance and it took way more to even “feel it” when I drank. I stopped mixing drinks and went straight to the liquor. I wasn’t tasting the beer anymore, but downing it mindlessly immediately after runs. Bottle of wine in one night? No problem. I’d down a drink, usually a strong beer, RIGHT after a run so that I could get that warm and fuzzy feeling thanks to a revved-up metabolism and empty stomach. I ignored the importance of hydrating between drinks to keep from losing those warm fuzzies.
While the pandemic certainly made it easier to drink more frequently without apparent consequence, it wasn't the real start of my unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The groundwork had already been laid for that many, many years prior. Restaurant shifts that concluded ceremoniously with kitchen staff pulling out bottles of cheap bourbon or tequila. Trail races with kegs at the finish line, going drink for drink with the guys as we tried to numb our minds and legs from whatever evils the course had thrown our way. And in life, any minor inconvenience was viewed as an OK reason to knock back an extra drink or three. Add a challenging childhood and history of depression into the mix, and I had the perfect recipe for alcohol use disorder. But I was able to hide it quite easily behind my extroverted personality and passion for running and training. Outwardly, I was happy and competitive. Inwardly, quite troubled and feeling like a fraud.
But I didn't think my depression was that bad, and I rarely got that drunk. Occasionally tipsy, but hardly ever “out of control.” The story I told myself was that I only ever got truly drunk once or twice a year, which, in my mind, was totally normal. Everyone gets a little crazy once in a while, right? Of course, as a personal trainer, I knew there was no way my daily drinking wasn’t taking SOME sort of toll on my health. But, I also felt like I could just deal with that later. I’d get back to “normal” when business returned back to normal. When my kid went back to in-person learning. When we turned the page from 2020 to 2021 and I wouldn’t have the excuse of being at home all the time to justify getting tipsy on a Tuesday.
Except I did not really stop. Or even cut back. I struggled to get back to a normal sleep schedule and found myself pouring even more after my husband and kid went to bed in order to finally feel tired enough to fall asleep, even though I knew alcohol messes with sleep. And I knew that it would be harder to wake up. I knew that it would effect recovery from tough workouts. But I eschewed all that common knowledge for the sake of numbing myself to sleep. I thought it was just the pandemic that brought this on, but in reality, other events in my life continued to fuel the habit. It wasn’t just about falling asleep at night, it was about turning off the brain to not think about all the OTHER shit that bothered me. Going into 2021, there was a lot of upset and challenging shifts in my immediate family. I was witnessing, from afar, a LOT of pain and heartache that I could not do anything about. It brought up a lot of painful memories from my childhood, from similar situations where I also had absolutely no control. I had worked hard in my adult life and into parenthood to not perpetuate harmful behaviors I had witness growing up, but I was powerless to stop others in my family from walking that same path. And somehow, in some twisted way, I used this to justify my own drinking even more. I wasn’t being emotionally abusive to my family. I maintained steady employment. I figured I was generally a pleasant person to be around. I ran trail races and often made podium. I was FINE. I DESERVE a drink because I was keeping my shit together. I deserve another drink for continuing to work and train so hard myself. I deserve another drink for… whatever. For existing as a halfway decent human being.
But honestly, I felt like shit. I started to feel like an imposter, and while fielding phone calls from upset family members about this or that new situation, I was mindlessly pouring myself yet another. My husband started to comment on how quickly I could go through a bottle of bourbon or gin. I laughed it off saying “It’s not a large bottle! It’s just a couple ounces at a time!” (They were not small bottles… they were not small pours). I had a fucking problem, but still struggled to admit it because no one else really seemed to notice. Even my husband, having only casually remarked on my increased consumption, never called me out directly to say “I think you’re drinking too much.” I suspect, knowing my family's history of drinking and abusive behaviors, that he didn’t want me to think that I thought that he thought that I has headed down the same dangerous road. I could never dream of becoming that mean, detached, or abbusive, but I was not behaving in a healthy way, either. I started to hate myself for it. Here I am, a personal trainer preaching health and balance and being good to ourselves and taking care of not just our physical but our mental well-being, and I had turned into a closet drinker.
June 1st, 2021 was the last time I was drunk. I hope, with the strength and resolve I have built in since that date, that it will remain THE LAST time I’ll ever get drunk. We were invited to an event with an open bar with a LOT of beverage options. It was the first event we would attend in over a year and a half, and I of course went into it with the mindset that I would get to really let loose and enjoy myself. Never mind that I have never been that good at being drunk. I’m less of the dancing-on-the-tables kind of drunk and more of the emotional-nauseous-crying-in-the-corner kind of drunk. That night was no exception. When the 5th (or 6th? Or 7th?) drink hit, it was like walking straight into a brick wall. A brick wall that threw insults at my soul. All of my years of trying to drown my demons did nothing but give them an amplifier and a microphone.
I had been handed someone’s key to drive us back to a friend’s house, and I luckily had the wherewithal to say “Oh no, I can’t drive.” But I felt incredibly ashamed and self-conscious in that moment that I was SO inebriated. "They can all see how messed up you are." I started to spiral into a pit of depression fueled by anxiety with a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. I was a fake. I was a fraud. I had no business calling myself a wellness professional. Everyone was going to see right through me. Why do I even bother trying to prove that I am a decent person? I apparently said a lot of this out loud, including some scarier thoughts, like “I’m a trash human,” and “Why should I even bother anymore?”
The next day, as I nursed my “Hangxiety”, and for several days following that, my husband asked me “How are you doing? Are you ok?” no less than 327 times. Somehow, after being a regular drinker for most of my adult life (and a bit before that, to be honest), it wasn't until THIS moment that I finally realized that alcohol and my brain chemistry do NOT mix well. I needed a hard reset. I could no longer afford to get buzzed, let alone drunk, ever again.
Part of my moderation journey involved a necessary period of abstinence, followed by a period of adhering to abstaining from alcohol during the week and a non-negotiable cap on number of drinks when I do indulge. After seven months of following Moderation Management's guidelines for reducing consumption to stay within "healthy" limits (which do vary, depending on what country you live in, interestingly), I was finally able to tackle "Dryuary" and abstain from alcohol completely from 1/1 until my birthday, 1/29. Prior to this past year, I could not recall a single, intentional, alcohol-free day, except for my pregnancy. Even 100-mile trail races offered sips of booze at aid stations, which I certainly took advantage of. But as of sharing this post right now, I have had more alcohol-free days since last June than the past ten years. I am still in awe at this moment that I managed to abstain the past several weekends (with the exception of said birthday). An alcohol-free Saturday with a 10pm curfew because of a Sunday long run used to sound like something people who were allergic to fun would do. "NERD" I would think, when a runner boasted about their healthy dinner and only drinking water before bed. Well, now I'm happily a part of that club.
My journey to work on my mental health and moderation does not have a finite end point, and I know this will be tricky to navigate in a trail running scene that loves to party. Sometimes, sipping water socially just won’t cut it, but I have found that non-alcoholic brews help me feel like I’m participating in the post-run fun. And when the urge to drink is triggered by a stressful situation, I know to rely on the homework assigned by my therapist to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of reaching for alcohol. I now have the following rules - again, thanks to Moderation Management - which have helped me tremendously:
1) Aim for more alcohol-free days than drinking days in any given month. This is much easier now having done "Dryuary", which really helped eliminate the regular cravings that, up until this past month, were still something I had to make a conscious effort to ignore.
2) No drinking before processing emotions. And definitely no drinking instead of processing emotions!
3) Honor my feelings. Drinking wasn’t the only way I avoided triggers. I used to push too hard with exercise, too, claiming a hard run was just as cathartic as therapy (it's not, and in fact, I'm sure several overuse injuries showed up as a result). So now instead of distraction or avoidance, I get out my proverbial tool box and pick from any number of practices - meditation, tapping, writing, yoga - instead of trying to burry the discomfort.
4) Have a plan and a limit. Moving forward, I hope to be able to enjoy an occasional beverage, but I MUST set the intention to stay within a specific limit. My favorite tip from MM came at the end of this year's Dryuary: It is OK to consider a drink as part of an event, but not the main event.
Everyone is different, and I can only speak to what has and has not worked for me up through this current point of time. As of right now, being candid and transparent is serving me FAR better than the self-inflicted isolation of trying to hide my habit and pretend I was fine. I am not 100% okay all of the time. But that is 100% okay. I have to be honest with myself and expectations, which is why the abstinence approach would not work for me. Having a healthy relationship with alcohol means having the glass of wine because it’s a really good wine. Not just because it’s something to drink and I need to drink something.
As for the root of a lot of my anxiety and depression, dragged to the surface thanks to the inevitable isolation of this pandemic, what I am comfortable sharing is that a lot of my behaviors developed as an attempt to protect myself from feeling violated, or fears of future betrayals. In the past, the gameplay was "numb and block". If I don’t have to think about how something makes me feel, then I don’t have to feel those feelings. This is something that, sadly, far too many people can identify with. So again, whatever “it” is that has you feeling like maybe you need some help or support, there is no litmus test, no upper or lower limit for how upset you need to feel, to benefit from therapy or group support!
I’ll conclude with acknowledging that I know many people endure challenging seasons. Some seasons last just a few weeks or months, others last for years. So if any of this resonates with you, don’t hesitate to reach out to me so I can share resources for professional support. I worried for the longest time that I would be a bother or a burden, until I realized what I would do if someone turned to me for help. I would absolutely do what I could to show support, and I want anyone reading this to have faith that there is SOMEONE out there who will do the same for you. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they need to isolate or hide like I did. Whether it's drinking, dependence on another substance, or trying to work through the unknowns of living with any kind of mental health diagnosis, please just remember that you are loved, and you are not alone!
Much love, and HUGE virtual hugs! Thank you so much for reading.