The cause as well as the cure: The role of sports in the world of addiction recovery

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By Andrew L. Dieden, Esq., author
The Sports Lover’s Guide to Recovery
(Hazelden Publishing, 2008)

Sports by themselves are beautiful. They’re fun to watch and we receive many benefits when we play, including better fitness and lessons in virtuous behavior. However, as with many activities that are otherwise healthy and beneficial, sports can be dangerous in excess. It goes without saying that peak performance requires training, but athletes in increasing numbers are stepping over the line that separates dedication from addiction, discipline from disease. Which side of the line you’re on can mean the difference between reaching your performance potential and falling to a new personal low. If you haven’t crossed the line, educate yourself about preventing the disease. If you are addicted, don’t worry. Sports can help you recover. But how?

The Feeling

Have you ever been out exercising when you felt really strong and fit, excited that you were realizing the benefits of your training program? While cycling, your upper body was relaxed and your pedal strokes were strong, smooth, complete circles. You climbed hills in a bigger gear than ever, eating up large chunks of ground with good form and calm, measured breathing. Ripping down the back side of the hills you felt elation, tasting the sweet rewards of being in good shape. “Training is the key,” you told yourself. “If I train even harder, I will feel even better on the next ride and during my next race.”

Training, like just about everything, comes at a price. We find the time and energy to train at the expense of some other activity, such as rest. If you really want it, or need it, somehow you adjust your life and you train more. The fitness elation pulls you to further action. You have become motivated, consciously or otherwise, by the promise of an experience that truly satisfies you. What you may not realize is that you are potentially headed toward a mental, physical, and spiritual disaster. Depending on how far you take it, you could be on the chronic, progressively destructive path to addiction. The tricky thing is that you may not know or acknowledge it because addiction is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease.

Exercise Dependence

Over-training addiction, known as exercise dependence, can occur in alarming numbers. In one study assessing the prevalence of exercise dependence published in the Journal of American College Health (Garmin, Hayduk, Crider, Hodel (2004), researchers found 22 percent of their sample (n=257) self-reported at least one “exercise dependent” response pattern. Similarly alarming is “the triad,” an exercise-related addiction involving 1) a clear pattern of over training and under recovery; 2) an eating disorder; and 3) amenorrhea. Research published in the American College of Sports Medicine Journal shows the triad occurring in 75-80% of women runners who compete at the collegiate or elite levels. Fortunately for addicted athletes, effective recovery programs have been developed for substance abuse, gambling, overeating, sex etc. These programs, especially those following a 12-step model with support groups, are successfully treating those with exercise dependence and triad sufferers, as well.

Many things make us feel good. We can become addicted to just about anything. Whether we become addicted and to what depends on the individual and the activity. There are some things that, once experienced, consistently take over a large number of people’s lives. They are classified as highly addictive. Working, for instance, can be addictive. Workaholics need control and success in order to feel contentment. Eating can be addictive. Overeaters are satisfied only by consuming large quantities. Addictive gamblers feel they need the excitement created by chance. According to Dr. Brigitte Lank, an expert in sexual addiction assessment and treatment, sex addicts are generally on a quest to satisfy unmet intimacy needs. Alcoholics and substance abusers find that ingesting chemicals provides relief from their naturally restless, discontented state. Some people can engage in these activities and walk away from them without the compulsion for more. Others become obsessed with “more.” The latter, including me, suffer from addiction. I am an alcoholic, an alcohol addict.

Addiction

Generally, when we experience things that make us feel good, we develop a drive to go back to them, to feel good again. We naturally want to repeat pleasant experiences. This is especially true when the experience in question makes us feel really good, so good that we want the experience as often as possible. If we can control what’s necessary to experience that pleasure, we may do it over and over until we grow to rely on the promise of that feeling. We now perceive the experience as a need. Our brains physically transform to accommodate our new high-priority activity. No longer is a choice made in our pre-frontal cortex, instead our inclination toward this experience becomes an instinctual reaction processed in our brains’ survival center, near the brain stem. This is addiction’s physiological progression.

What is addiction? A layman’s definition is this: addiction is a chronic, progressive disease characterized by a mental obsession and a physical allergy. In other words, we think about doing it a lot and doing it is a catalyst for doing it again. Addictions of every type are characterized by 1) compulsion to “use”; 2) loss of control during use; and 3) continuing to use despite negative consequences caused by the use. As I said, my addiction is alcoholism.

“Active” alcoholism affected me in a fairly standard way. I lived for many years in a cycle where my drinking caused poor, self-centered behavior and bad decisions that were mentally and physically taxing. I’d drink to find relief because I was convinced that I needed alcohol and I deserved it. One drink usually led to many more and I would end up baffled that I was in worse shape than before I started. That’s the disease. I knew something was wrong, but I was afraid to change. When I started thinking of my recovery program in terms of sports, I really understood what I needed to do. Once I understood my mission, I trained wisely and consistently in order to become a spiritual athlete. In any event, with my drinking and years of competitive sports, I can relate to the exercise dependent’s perceived need to train as much as possible.

Sports and the Cause

According to the standard model, exercise dependence is initially characterized by a compulsion to train, to exercise. Next, once exercising begins, it is difficult for the addict to stop. There is always something more that he or she can add to the workout that will make him or her better. Finally, someone who is exercise dependent will continue training despite negative consequences, such as repetitive and/or excessive use injuries, such as stress fractures and dehydration. In order to cover-up addiction’s negative consequences, an exercise dependent may even begin supplementing his or her diet with steroids and/or human growth hormone(s) (HGH). With steroids and HGH, the problems eventually compound and many cross-diseases come into play, including cancer and organ failure. An athlete does not need to take steroids to qualify as exercise dependent. The disease is usually much more subtle. Whether addictive behavior is overt or subtle is immaterial. The addicted individual needs help.

Sports and the Cure

The lessons and fundamentals of successful athletic performance are now being used to facilitate addiction recovery programs. Sports are friendly and familiar to a large percentage of addicts. As such, they help motivate and facilitate addicts’ understanding of addiction and the 12-step recovery process. It works like this: successful athletes, teams, and recovering addicts all need strength, flexibility, balance and endurance in order to succeed. In The Sports Lover’s Guide to Recovery, great athletes and coaches, from Mia Hamm to Vince Lombardi, teach how to acquire these attributes and apply them through 1) commitment; 2) training and conditioning, and 3) maintenance and passing it on. The book’s quotes and stories show that success in athletics and recovery is possible when we play the game correctly. Playing the game correctly means subjecting one’s behavior to others’ scrutiny.

Athletes who are at-risk of becoming exercise dependent will benefit from an open and honest assessment of his or her training regimen by a non-interested, qualified third party. Athletes that slip into addiction frequently keep their workout schedules to themselves. This allows denial about overtraining to foment, fostering an athlete’s subjective belief that addiction’s consequences will not happen to them, that negative consequences are for other, less-gifted or less-driven, athletes. A common characteristic of addictive behavior is compromised honesty, and humility, part of the price of overtraining.

The answer is for athletes to consistently tell a coach or an athletic peer honestly how much they’re training. A coach’s or peer’s objectivity will produce an accurate assessment, so it is equally important that the athlete listen to the response and take their advice. Then, planning and sharing daily training goals with someone else before and after workouts will make it more difficult to exceed the agreed-upon healthy, vigorous workout. Hopefully, by using these precautions an athlete won’t “go rogue,” exceeding that which is healthy and likely to improve performance and happiness. Finally, if an athlete doesn’t seem able to limit themselves to a lighter, modified training program, looking into a suitable addiction recovery program is a prudent next move.  Exemplary programs exist all over the country, one such program addresses alcohol abuse in Ohio.

In addition to workout monitoring, individuals suffering from any addiction, including exercise, need to find and participate in an addiction recovery program. The Sports Lover’s Guide to Recovery can help anyone understand that addiction has nothing to do with willpower. Instead, the book explains that recovery is a simple process that requires some concentrated effort. Eventually, an addict’s goal is regularly sharing with other recovering addicts about their problems. In recovery, we win with our teammates. I encourage anyone who thinks they might have a problem with addiction to start by consulting with someone they trust: a family member, a religious figure, a close friend, an employee assistance program, etc. Please also feel free to write to me at www.sportsrecoveryguide.com. We will do our best to point you in the right direction.

The important thing is to show dignity and humility and get help. As baseball legend Satchel Paige said, “Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way.” Good luck in being a better athlete within a better life.

The Sports Lover’s Guide to Recovery is available in bookstores and online at Hazelden.org, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Sportsrecoveryguide.com.

3 thoughts on “The cause as well as the cure: The role of sports in the world of addiction recovery

  • December 4, 2008 at 3:44 pm
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    I’ve read Andrew Dieden’s book “The Sports Lover’s Guide to Recovery” and it is great! The anecdotes from famous athletes makes for a page-turner. I’ve passed it along to friends who also think it’s an excellent read.

    Reply
  • May 28, 2009 at 8:47 am
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    Reply

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