Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Out There - A Story of Ultra Recovery: Book Review

There are many theories about addiction.  Some feel that anyone can become addicted to particular substances which have particular chemical properties.  Some think that there is an 'addictive personality type', or that it is hereditary.  Nowadays, I think most experts believe its a complex issue that likely has multiple causes and is a combination of genetics and environment.

I'm no addiction expert, as a therapist its not a presenting problem I see in my client population very often.  The only exception is what some people might call, 'food addiction', but, honestly I don't think its an addiction so much as a dysfunctional coping strategy.  Likewise, I don't believe that all people who misuse alcohol or drugs have an actual chemical dependence.  Again, its often just a dysfunctional coping strategy.  We all use certain consumables or behaviours to self-medicate or numb ourselves from time to time, whether its a tub of ice cream after a breakup, a glass of wine after a hard day of work, or a shopping binge when we're feeling down.  These aren't really active problem solving strategies, but they distract us from our anxiety or pain.  For some people though, the misuse of a substance becomes extreme enough that it destroys not just bodies, but lives.  Alcohol causes more social problems (crime, violence, etc.) than just about anything else, however, in our culture consumption is not only condoned but often encouraged. Its something we all need to be mindful of.

Even though I am a health nut, I can easily see how alcohol or something like prescription pain meds can start becoming a problem.  That's because I am very much an all-or-nothing person, and one who has experienced anxiety and depression in the past.  Luckily, the only thing I've probably gone too far with is exercise. It was easy to over train back in grad school, and justify it, because I was getting paid to do it (teach fitness classes and personal train).  Fortunately, I learned that more isn't always better, even for good things.

But because I know I can take things to extremes, addiction fascinates and scares me.  This is probably why I was absolutely mesmerized by David Clark's memoir, Out There.

He starts by describing his childhood, which was fraught with instability due to his family's numerous moves across the U.S., and volatile financial situation.  Although his parents seem to have been nothing but loving and supportive, the family oscillated between periods of relative comfort to being completely broke and homeless (living in their truck and driving around in search of employment opportunities). By his late teens/early 20s, his alcohol consumption had already become problematic.  Clark describes in detail his drinking and associated risky behaviours (driving under the influence, taking pain pills with the alcohol, eating nothing but fast food), which reminded me just how amazing the human body can be.  But reading it all made me absolutely cringe just imagining the damage he was doing to himself!  He was very lucky to have not killed himself or someone else.  At the height of all this, his weight tipped the scales at 320 lbs.

He was very fortunate to have a supportive wife and healthy children from it all.  Though he says me went to great lengths to try not to let his alcoholism affect them, it had to, so I was very impressed that his wife stayed by his side through it all.

After many years in denial that he really had serious problem, he finally hit rock bottom.  What is fascinating to me is what happened next.  He made a conscious decision that running would be part of his recovery.  Of course, given my background I know that physical activity is very effective for helping individuals with all sorts of mental health problems. But he literally makes the steadfast decision before he is even physically capable of running at all.  He reframes his self-definition from alcoholic/obese man, to runner.  He goes out and buys runners and sweats and then begins running from the ground up (one minute+).  Of course, this is a great way to make any major change - incrementally so you don't get burned out or overwhelmed.  But since this guy, no matter what he does, knows no limits, he quickly surpasses running regular marathons to becoming an ultramarathoner (i.e. 100 mile races, etc.)!

Being a personal trainer, however, I could see what was coming next.  He didn't cross train and he began overtraining and eventually injured his back and had to have back surgery.  But he then rehabbed his way back up to those crazy ultramarathons.  I say crazy because, to me, even the monotony of a half marathon is too much, long distance running is just never something I think I could enjoy, especially at the extreme level Clark does it at! 

I don't consider this book a self-help book but it definitely is an inspirational memoir, which I think will resonate with anyone who has had, or does have an addiction issue.  Being a therapist, I would have preferred to hear more of his introspection and spiritual awakening along this journey, but he gives very little insight into the 'why' until close to the end.  At that point he does start to divulge more detail into how the instability of his childhood caused him tremendous anxiety.  This isn't surprising, but I would have liked to know more, like did being poor and homeless at times make him feel shame, fear, or give him an inferiority complex.  Reading between the lines I think it made him doubt that he matters, as he often mentions returning to the place of seeing himself as just 'the kid from the block'.  Certainly, having a sense of purpose is extremely important to each and every one of us, and his running and the social activism he now does around addiction, likely give him that sense of purpose he may have been missing.

I was very disappointed that at the end, he admits to having cheated on his wife, who by his account stayed by his side through all this chaos and turmoil.  This finally led to the demise of their marriage, but he claims they are still close friends.  Seriously dude, after all that, you cheated on her??? But I know, every single one of us can make mistakes and he admits that this was one of his biggest.

Even if you don't have addiction issues, you may find Clark's story fascinating and inspirational.  Not just because he ends up an uber elite athlete, but because he is so honest in disclosing his troubled past. If you do struggle with addiction issues, I definitely recommend you give it a read.  I know some experts believe that there are some people who can only recover from an addiction by replacing it with another activity, and if that's the case, exercise is a better replacement addiction than just about anything else!

Good job to Clark for sharing his story, I am sure it will help lots of others.

Disclosure: I was sent this book to review, but all opinions on this blog are my own.

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