For a while there, obsessing over every detail of running—from mile split times to foam roller techniques—allowed me to ignore what was going wrong with my life. At one point, I did nothing but work and run. I was grumpy on rest days, and positively euphoric after weekend 20 milers. Perhaps I thought that if I ran far enough, I would actually find happiness. But I found that it isn’t enough to do something that’s perceived as a “healthy” activity… you also have to be performing that activity for healthy reasons.
Eighteen months ago, I moved to Paris, France, to begin the next stage of my career. While this may sound terribly glamorous, my first months weren’t taken up with long picnics on the banks of the Seine or checking out masterworks at the Louvre.
It turns out that it’s nearly impossible to rent an apartment in Paris without first providing three months of French pay stubs… which of course you can’t have until you’ve been working there for three months. This Catch-22 forced me to spend my paychecks—and nearly every waking moment—moving from hotels to hostels to overpriced AirBnBs, frantically emailing people in a second language, and trying not to get scammed by weirdos on Craigslist. Wine, cheese, and the Edith Piaf museum would have to wait.
The work I had moved to Paris for was very rewarding, but ultimately lonely. I was working with children, which was wonderful, but also meant that I spent full days chatting exclusively with the under-10 set. This made me feel like I wasn’t getting any social nourishment; my work didn’t introduce me to any adults I could try to befriend, or even just have the occasional grown-up conversation with.
I’m hardly an extrovert, and have always relied on my friends to introduce me to other people. If I had looked harder (or um, at all), I’m sure there were plenty of expat meetups I could have attended, or French-English conversational groups I could have joined. But new social situations intimidate me; to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone even if someone had pressed a flyer for a “New in Town English Speakers’ Meet-and-Greet Event” right into my hand.
I had a history of relying on alcohol as a social lubricant to ease my anxieties about interacting with people, especially new ones. So it wasn’t a massive leap to find a new role for drinking in my life; I took easily to the feeling of numbness that alcohol could bring, and the way it could stop my negative internal monologue.
My days became very simple: I would get up, go to work, come home, and then drink until I passed out. Some nights I would feel enlivened and would play some music—the early 2000s indie hits undoubtedly annoyed my neighbors—and dance around my tiny apartment. Some nights I would sink into the sofa and cry between gulps.
Staying in touch with old friends from home became the only thing that kept me going. I don’t know if any of them knew anything was wrong, but some of them probably suspected it; after all, I was supposed to be living the high life in a new, amazing city, not pinging them on Facebook messenger all day.
I can’t really say why I decided to do it, but one night, I asked an old friend, a nurse, for some advice about problem drinking. At this point, I didn’t really need any confirmation that what I was doing wasn’t good for me, and the validation she provided was hardly what you’d call a comfort, but by sharing this thought and agreeing that something needed to be done, I felt bound to my friend to honor my word.
This is how I found myself sitting in AA a couple of weeks before my 23rd birthday. Although I knew I was taking a positive step toward regaining control of my life, I also felt despair about how I had gotten to this point. When it came to the sharing part of the session, I just wanted to break down in tears. The stories the others had shared—primarily about their years of sobriety and how they had turned their lives around—were inspiring, but also really daunting.
Having given up my main pastime, I decided I needed something new to keep me busy. I had been a runner in college and had completed my first marathon a year earlier, but I felt out of practice. I knew that exercise would benefit me, and give me some structure and purpose… and so started my next addiction.
I would spend my evenings pouring over running websites for tips, training plans, and nutritional advice. I ate the same three meals per day: fruit and yogurt in the morning, pasta with vegetables and boiled eggs for lunch, and a lentil curry for dinner. Every day, no meat, no sugar, no fun. I would allow myself a small treat or two a week, but gradually felt more and more guilty about it.
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I began to use running as an excuse to not address any of the other problems in my life. Not happy with your job? Well, the hours are pretty good to fit a running schedule around. Still not made any friends? Eh, they’re not worth the accompanying late nights that might mess up the running schedule.
Did I get into fantastic shape? Absolutely. But I was unhappy with everything in my life aside from my running progress, and was honestly no less miserable than I had been a few months earlier, when I’d been drinking myself to sleep. My life had no balance; I had no enjoyment other than putting one foot in front of the other.
Nearing the end of my contract with my employer, I decided not to stay in Paris. When I came home, unemployed, one of the first things I decided to do was compete in a 48-mile ultra-marathon, but I had to drop out after 30 miles due to recurrent knee problems. After that disappointment, I decided to put my running shoes away and think about what had gone wrong.
While running is certainly better for your body than over-drinking, pouring all your energy into one activity as a way to ignore other problems in your life isn’t a solution. In the end, I realized that I had just swapped one obsession for another.
Lately, I’ve decided to drink again. Yes, sometimes I have too much, but I am conscious of not letting it become a problem. And I’m running again too. Not as frequently as before, not as far, and not as fast, but I enjoy it. I chose to challenge myself again and have moved to another new city, but this time, I’ve made the effort to create a network of friends to explore the city and go out to dinner with. Am I happy? I’m happier. It’s not like I’ve had some earth-shattering revelations and become enlightened or anything grand-scale like that, but I’ve learned that a great 5K time doesn’t make you happy the way that having a well-rounded life does, and I’m grateful to be where I am.