This post was originally published on October 7, 2014.
Many in early sobriety are told to “put your program first,” which essentially means respect the disease of alcoholism and make treating it your number one priority. That in itself is hard to do but through suggestions, newcomers are offered tools to help them stay sober—like attending 12-step meetings, talking to other alcoholics, doing step work and even making their bed and opening their mail on time. But rarely do we hear old timers suggest getting a regular exercise routine, finding and maintaining a consistent eating schedule or making sure to get a full eight hours of sleep as imperative factors in staying sober. Yet, as we continue to trudge the road of physical towards emotional sobriety, many of us have learned that taking care of the basics of life can be crucial in achieving long-term serenity and inner peace.
Jennifer Matesa’s book, The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober (Hazelden, October 14, 2014), is a fresh and factual look at the recovering alcoholic and addict’s all-around physical well-being as a direct relation to the quality of their recovery, level of happiness and, of course, long-term health.
Let’s Get Physical
In 12-step, we are taught that alcoholics have a three-fold disease: an allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind and a spiritual malady and that we need to treat all three aspects in order to stay sober. In meetings, we deal with the allergy by not drinking, the mind by listening to other alcoholics and the spirituality by the power of the group. But when the unbridled emotions of addition run high, we are told by those who have come before us to write about it, to pray about it, talk about it. However, as Matesa points out, addiction is as much a physical illness as it is a spiritual one. If we ignore the healing needs of our body during the recovery process, we rob ourselves of well-rounded recovery.
Still, it’s not surprising that our sponsors don’t tell us to cut out sugar and grab a gym membership. Having to come to terms with and admit to others and yourself that you are an alcoholic or drug addict is hard enough without being told to adapt a regular workout routine. Although friends, family and employers may have known—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that we need to quit drinking, many of us are still convinced it’s just a big misunderstanding. If a regular fitness schedule gets grouped in with the things we supposedly had to do to stay sober, more people would probably say sayonara.
And, of course, AA has no opinions on outside issues (Tradition 10) so it would be controversial to blatantly tell people they need to incorporate exercise into their regular routing order to fully recover. While many rehabs encourage and even schedule physical activity in the daily regime, if you weren’t an exerciser before rehab, you probably won’t be once you leave the forced structure of addiction treatment.
I Hated Exercise and Even I Agree
Even though I spent the early part of my life taking ballet, gymnastics, tennis and being a competitive figure skater, I never considered myself an athlete. Mostly because I hated exercising—it was something my mother made me do and I associated with cold, dark new England mornings or a place I was schlepped after a long hard day of 3rd grade. Extra curricular activities and sports were never anything more than a dreaded obligation for me so I was thankful for the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) mentality that has been stressed throughout my sobriety. If exercising is overwhelming, I am told to give myself a break, not to worry about it and understand that it doesn’t need to be decided on or handled in that moment. However, no sponsor or fellow AA member would ever be that gentle if we were talking about going to meetings, doing step work or fulfilling AA commitments. We are taught to never say no to an AA commitment yet it’s completely fine to say no to the gym.
In the 10th year of my sobriety, I finally discovered the immense benefits of exercise when, during a break up, I found myself consumed with anger. I remember feeling it pulsate through my veins begging for some kind of a release. But I didn’t know what to do—I wasn’t going to get violent (again) but I couldn’t hold it in any longer and I was getting scared of what I might do to myself or someone else. A friend somehow convinced me to join her at a yoga class and I could not believe how much better I felt afterwards. I felt completely removed from my anger and calm. It’s no accident that nearly every in-patient treatment center offers yoga as part of their program. For years, I have heard addicts tell me that exercise was part of their program but I wasn’t ready to consider it a crucial option for myself—on par with meetings and step work—until then.
But the truth is, you don’t have to move your body, eat healthy, sleep enough, have healthy relationships, a fulfilling career or even mediate to stay sober—I am living proof that a person can violate all of those things and keep their sober time. Yet the longer we stay sober and present in our lives, the more we naturally connect with our bodies and can hear it almost say, Take me for a hike, a yoga class, a 20 minute walk, because physical exertion even on a small level is an action—most likely a contrary action—and if there is one thing alcoholism hates, it’s esteem-able acts and self-care.
How the Book Breaks It Down
Matesa divides the balance of physical recovery into five simple elements: exercise, diet, sleep, sex and pleasure, meditation and awareness. For each category, she delivers several compelling personal anecdotes with known research and statistical data to back it up and further drive home how attending to the physical needs of the body can get easily overlooked and why it’s so important that they aren’t. She addresses the unfortunate divide between Western medicine and holistic treatments. How many of us, especially those in recovery, go to the doctor with an ailment hoping to be guided towards the best solution but what we end up getting is a pill. While some medication is necessary for some people (this book is not going to suggest you go off your Lithium), we are certainly living in a time when plenty of people are misdiagnosed and overly medicated.
After the damage we have done to ourselves with drinking and drugging, Matesa urges us to put the same amount of time and effort into physical recovery as we do our mental, emotional and spiritual recovery. By making exercise part of our regular routine, we connect with our bodies and are finally able to listen to what it is telling us.
The Recovering Body opens our eyes to the next level of recovery—offering clarity into the great benefits of expanding our wellness as people who have chosen life over the downward spiral of addiction. Whatever your drug or process of choice might be, there is no question that The Recovery Body is a much needed addition to 12-step outside literature. As the Big Books says, “More will be disclosed” and I believe in Jennifer Matesa’s The Recovery Body, it already has.