At the first AA meeting I went to almost 25 years ago, an old timer was asked to talk to the group and tell his story. I’ll never forget the first words he said, standing up in front of the group of about 50 alcoholics:
“Yeah, even though I’m glad to be at a meeting, and I’m honored that I was asked to speak here tonight, it makes me sad looking out at this group, because one thing I know is a fact: half of y’all are going to die drunk.”
He went on to cite statistics about 50 percent relapse rates and other scary stuff; then told his story. He was 72, had first entered AA in his early 30s and had almost 30 years of solid sobriety. Then, just before he was about to retire, he slipped. For five years. He lost his job, lost his wife, lost the respect of his kids and lost his retirement. Now, he was back in meetings, and had just gotten his five-year chip the week before.
I come back to his story often, in my mind, just to remind myself that it can happen to any one of us, at any time. Those of us in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction will have bad days. We’ll have days we want to drink; we’ll have days we want to use. We’ll have days when we are triggered like crazy.
For me, I have a particular day, twice a month, when I almost always want to drink. I’m divorced. I have a great relationship with my daughter and a good relationship with my ex-wife. I see my daughter more than most divorced dads, and she stays with me every other weekend. By the time her mother picks her up Sunday afternoon, though, I sure do have a lot of pent-up frustration. And usually her mother says something during the kid exchange that gets under my skin.
How do I cope? No matter how tired I am, no matter how much I want to drink or use, no matter what the weather is like, I exercise. I get on my bike and go for a ride. My bike heals me — without fail, I feel better in about 10 minutes. I’m rolling along, working my legs, putting the weekend behind me. I can feel the tension slipping away; I can feel a good Sunday evening life-reset coming on. It works every time.
The Neurochemical Effects of Exercise
What’s going on in my brain when I exercise? Research shows that exercise alters brain chemistry for the better. Among other things, exercise:
- Increases levels of norepinephrine, a hormone that regulates stress
- Lowers levels of cortisol, a hormone that causes stress
- Increases levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that combats depression
- Increases levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that combats depression and increases sensations of pleasure
- Increases executive brain function
Exercise and Recovery
Everyone in recovery has to deal with trigger-happy days. Just about everything involved in being a living, breathing adult — family, work, friends, bills — has potential to cause stress and anxiety, which can be triggering and lead to relapse. As a coping mechanism, I’ve always known that exercise works for me. It chills me out and gets me steady. It gives me time to get away from it all, think things over and get perspective. I always feel better after exercise. Always. But don’t just take it from me: research proves that exercise has a profound neurochemical effect on the brain. That’s why it’s a fantastic Top Line behavior, and a tool everyone in recovery should have in their toolbox. If the old-timer who spoke at my first AA meeting had exercise in his life, perhaps he wouldn’t have had his devastating five-year slip. And maybe, just maybe, if we all add exercise to our recovery process, we’ll be able to alter that daunting 50 percent rate.
By Angus Whyte