Running Away From Drinking Myself to Death

On grief, morning runs, and not getting drunk to late-night news broadcasts alone anymore.

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Jan 7 2019, 3:38pm

As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here. This piece by Robyn Kanner about how running helped her get sober also appeared in Broadly's weekly newsletter, This Is Fine. Sign up here to receive a newsletter with a new dealing-with-life strategy each Sunday evening.

Last mid-July, kids were still setting firecrackers off in the street on an evening when I met a friend at the bar. He suggested I have the “sad boy special,” a well whiskey shot and a Narragansett. He asked what I planned to do next, since I’d just left my job as a product designer. A brief time before, I loved to talk about work. I was employed by a large tech company, had launched a startup that garnered its fair share of press, and was being recruited to join what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s White House. All that had changed, and at the time, I just wanted to drink.

I told my friend that I didn’t have any plans. He asked—in the same tone he did about work—if I had plans to die. I guess he understood that I was depressed—if not that I had been wrecking my body with alcohol every day for a long time. I told him, no, I don’t. I’m just here, drinking the sad boy special, trying not to think about anything. I love him, but I hated talking about how I’m doing. Besides, everything was fine.

Sure, that was sort of true—I paid my rent on time. I wasn’t sleeping, but it’s fine. Most mornings, I woke up with a sour taste on my tongue from drinking, but it’s fine. I stopped replying to texts, but it’s fine. I was in a relationship with someone who maybe loved me, but I left them because I only knew how to process trauma by myself— it’s fine. Everything was fine as long as I kept evading life with alcohol. It was, for a little while, the only thing that felt like it helped.

That night, I got home from the bar in time for ABC’s World News Now. It’s my favorite late-night broadcast. My father, like me, was an anxious sleeper. This ramped up as he got sicker—he died of multiple sclerosis when I was 19. When I was a kid, he napped from 9 to 11:30 PM. As my mother crawled into bed, he got up, had a drink, and watched television. In the morning, I’d find he had taped the funny parts of World News Now for me to watch before school. When I put it on on nights like this one, it felt like all I had left of him. I had a few more drinks and watched the whole thing, the proximity to him both heightening and subduing the hurt. In the dead of night, every commercial except If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma is a self-help commercial. Watching them, I told myself that I didn’t need help. This is just a hard summer. I’ll get through this, but, right now, I need to take a break from my life.

World News Now ended, but I wasn’t ready for sleep. I needed something to calm me down from thinking about my father—and professional burnout, and my failed relationship. I used to have a therapist, who I stopped seeing because I went to most of our sessions buzzed. (They had no idea.) I prefer to work through pain privately, so I built a habit of calling crisis hotlines, rotating through local ones in different states. I never wanted to get the same person twice. I didn’t want them to think I had a serious drinking problem.

That night, a woman in Georgia picked up. Using a fake name, I slurred to her that I needed someone to talk me down from spiraling. For 20 minutes, she told me about her two boys, ex-husband, and weekend plans. There was fresh fruit at the farmer’s market she’d been anxious to get her hands on. Focusing on her day-to-day soothed me, and I fell asleep listening to her plans.

The morning after that call, I decided to stop drinking.

Instead of thinking about my hangover when I woke up, I was preoccupied with the woman in Georgia. After talking to me, she probably went home to her kids. Maybe she made them breakfast. Her routine is important; she knows what she’s doing next. I liked how that sounded—so far from the open-ended conversation I had over the sad boy special. My only regular concern, I realized, was figuring out the next time I could drift into a stupor.

On my first day of sobriety, I stayed inside my apartment and played video games with the shades pulled down. I don’t even enjoy playing video games—I just liked that my hands were distracted from shaking and my mind was away from my problems. When it got dark out, I stepped outside for some fresh air and drifted into thought. Maybe the stars are more comfortable out past the city lights. Useless thoughts like that—but necessary interruptions from the reality that my life was in ruins because of liquor. In this reckoning with the stars, I submitted to being powerless over alcohol.

The next morning, I went for a run, looking for another high. When I was a teenager, I loved to run. Like a drug, it cleared my mind. It had been a while since then. I ran until drinking sounded dreadful, then I ran some more. It was early, and Brooklyn was slowly waking up. A man watered his flowers; the subway screeched; a woman with a floral top drank coffee on her stoop. I noticed the calmness in the details of the morning—how life was actually being lived in it. Throughout the day, I replied to old texts I never responded to. Nobody I talked to understood what I was apologizing for. I drank, one by one, at least six liters of water.

On these first head-clearing runs, I started to understand how everything got so bad: Every drink that I had was a result of a resentment paired with the fear it stemmed from: I have resentment at my father because I fear that one day, I’ll also die from multiple sclerosis. I fear that he never got the chance to teach me the things he needed to. I fear that I’ll always push people away when life gets too hard, like he did. I resent my design work because I fear that it doesn’t have a huge impact on the world—that I could have made something better. I’m tethered to my emotions in sobriety now, all of the time. All the bad parts of me are crystal-clear, and the shame makes me grimace in frustration, but I know I owe it to myself to move forward. I do my best to do that keeping a strict routine of running and 12-step meetings.

I attended meetings daily as part of an outpatient stint in rehab. At first, I was petrified of AA. It felt like a thing people with real problems had to do and not me, a Person Who Was Being Scouted to Join the White House. In a fit of nerves, I texted a sober friend all of my anxieties before my first meeting. I don’t wanna make small chat. Do we all drink water together? Is there like a big welcome to AA sign? What if someone from Twitter recognizes me? I hate this. She knew the drill about this kind of drama, and so she simply responded, “Idk honey it’s okay.”

And it was. I quickly found a group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings who just wanted to stop drinking. I latched onto a sponsor early in sobriety when she showed up to a meeting late and only because it was next to the apartment of person she had just slept with. Perfect for me.

Every time I call my sponsor, she gives me the same advice. “Fuck the people who did shitty things that hurt you. They’re idiots,” she says. “The only thing that is important is your sobriety.” I tell her that sobriety would be easier with a drink. It’s meant to be a joke, but she won’t let me off the hook. “If you want to drink, then drink. I’m not going to fucking stop you. If you want to stop being unwell, then stay sober. It’s your fucking life.” The tough love keeps me sober.

As the clock strikes midnight on my 90th day of sobriety, I’m alone on my couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s watching the film on Amy Winehouse. It sounds sad, but I promise it wasn’t. Spending this moment with someone who didn’t make it reminded me of the stakes—the importance of being alive. I considered staying up to watch World News Now to feel poetic about how that thought extends to my dad, but settled on a healthy night of sleep instead.

When I woke up, I put on my running shoes to start my anniversary day. It was colder than when I first started exercising. The shame I felt on my first sober run was replaced with an unbridled flex. Then, and now—and similar to drinking, except it actually works—I didn’t have space to think about my grief, work, or relationships when I run. I could only focus on breathing, or the whole run collapses. I paced myself to the tracks on Eminem’s album Recovery. As I do on every run, I shouted out Eminem’s opening line—“You can get the dick. It’s a testament to myself that nothing can get between me and my sobriety. I felt like I could do anything. The thought goes, I’m the Michael Jordan of sobriety, and I’m here to dunk on anything that tries to test me.

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On a celebratory post-run call with my sponsor, I was quick to share all the gold I feel. She appreciated my enthusiasm, but reminded me that I’m an alcoholic with an incurable disease. My euphoria shifted as I told her all the little secrets I used to keep—how I handled my hangovers by hanging my head low to avoid eye contact, how I still miss the way bourbon burned down my throat on winter nights, and how I’m afraid I won’t stay sober forever. There was a quiet moment. She understood. She told me how she misses the way wine swirled around a long-stemmed glass at dinner with friends—that no one sober knows if they’re going to be sober forever. It was a forgiving moment, and it humbled me.

Kids were playing outside on a frigid December morning when I took my last run of 2018. My father visited me on that run, as he sometimes does now. Long before any drink, I was a kid who wanted to hang out with her dad. He’s been gone a long while, but our relationship continues to evolve. He’s my higher power now, and I call upon him to help me. I drank to keep the sadness of his death away. In sobriety, he’s here to keep me grounded. Thoughts of him move my life forward instead of back. I sleep better—more gently. His presence keeps me sober, alive, and running.