Of all the muscles in the body, the heart is probably the most essential. In conjunction with the diaphragm, the heart works to delivering oxygen and nutrients to every other system in the body by pumping blood 24 hours a day.
One of the many signals the universe sent telling me it was time to make a change in my life, time to quit drinking, was on a weekend that should have been enjoyable but was pure misery. In 2015, I’d been riding in an organized metric century bike ride benefiting the MS Society since 2010 for five years. The first ride in 2010 was a two day ride in July. I was new to cycling and out of shape and it was ridiculously hot and humid. We were staying in the dorms at a local university and several people spent the night heaving in the bathroom after the first day of riding. I vowed to get better and started training.
Over the next few year’s my riding improved despite heavier and heavier drinking, but when I look at my annual miles I can see that things started to go south in 2013. I dropped from well over 1500 miles a year to a few hundred. When we stared the 60 mile ride in August of 2015, I may have had 100 miles under my belt for the season. We planned to ride the metric century in the first day and ride another 40 on Sunday.
On Saturday, I suffered. I a struggled mightily and barely finished the first ride. Wiped out I went to bed early and woke the next day knowing I would never be able to ride another 5 miles let alone 40. I drive home defeated and dejected.
I hadn’t trained because I was no longer in the game. My game was drinking and I was a professional at it. I was no longer a cyclist. It took me another month to gain the courage to address my alcoholism.
When I first quit drinking I tried to address everything at once. I figured that if I was making one life change, making several at once was a good idea. I tried to address my drinking, eating, and exercise habits all at once and quickly became overwhelmed. Luckily, I had the sense to let go and focus on the problem that was most urgent, my drinking.
In the spring of 2018, I went on a trip back to Penn State for the first time and was inspired by a fraternity brother who had lost over 50 pounds who ran a 5K that I walked. It was time to start addressing my exercise habits.
At the age of 45, I decided that I was going to become a runner. The only problem was that I hated running and I was convinced that my knees couldn’t take it. I started out slow, using the C25K app, and icing my knees after every run. The first run/walk had me do 8 reps of 60 seconds of running, followed by 90 seconds of walking. Those 60 seconds were awful. But gradually, I got better and I was able to run for longer periods of time. Gradually, I was strengthening my heart.
Two years on, and I’m still running. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. Never before in my entire life have I had this kind of aerobic base. And I’m seeing results. I’m down 4 inches in my waist and my face is visibly thinner. But what’s really been impressive to me is how much better I am at cycling. I’m setting PRs again on my rides, for the first time since 2013.
The other day, as I was running I was thinking about how I’ve strengthened my heart through running and it occurred to me that I’ve strengthened my emotional heart in my recovery. We all have two hearts, the physical one that pumps our blood as well as our emotional heart. The heart is the life force of our existence, physically and emotionally.
Over the past four years and nine months, I’ve learned a lot about my emotional heart. I’ve learned that it was suppressed by my addiction. I’ve learned that addiction numbs not just the negative feelings, but all our feelings. In the early days of sobriety, when I was beginning to feel my feelings again, it was often painful. It felt like walking through the world without my skin. The highs were high, the lows were low, and everything felt overwhelming.
Just as with running, over time I strengthened my emotional heart by working with the 12 steps and in therapy. And my emotions became less difficult and more manageable. Just as with running, it’s been a slow and at times painful process, but I’m also seeing results.
I’ve become more tolerant and more mindful of my reactions to situations. I notice how my body responds to things that once spurred an immediate negative reaction from me. Often there is a bodily sensation that precedes the emotion. And when I recognize that sensation, I know what is about to happen and can (sometimes) short circuit the reaction and respond rather than react. It is definitely a work in progress.
By getting honest and sharing my struggles in my recovery, I learned the miracle of vulnerability. I’ve learned how to have my feelings again, how to respond rather than to react, how to sit with pain and how to forgive. In these ways, I have strengthened my emotional heart, and built a more resilient emotional base.