It’s April. The weather in New England is warming up. Flowers are blooming, and our deciduous trees have grown their leaves back. The world is coming alive again.
But I feel dead inside. My girlfriend (justifiably!) dumped me. Work is at the center stage of my life. Considering how I feel about FinancialCompany, this is frankly pretty terrible. I thought that working towards financial independence would solve all of my problems but life was proving me to be wrong on this count.
In hindsight, I see that the core problem is that my coping mechanisms were fundamentally flawed.
Somewhere along the lines, I thought that drinking would help me to tolerate the work grind. Wrong. It makes things worse.
If you’ve read the previous posts in this series, you know that I already started exercising a bit. I didn’t stop doing this just because I was drinking and hung over. Instead I jogged through it, headaches and dehydration and all.
So this Saturday in April was one of my scheduled days to go running. I hit the road and at first it seems like any other quick bout of exercise. To that point in my life, I’d been logging two or three miles per session, twice a week, for a total of four to six. At the time I thought that was plenty ‘o exercise for a guy in his 20s.
But this particular morning, I went further. I put in a full six, mostly because I had a lot of excess frustration built up over how my life was going, which was, in a word: Shittily. I’m not sure I’d ever run that far in a single stretch before. The last two were a haze, trudging stubbornly through exhaustion, one foot at a time. I didn’t care. I deserved the punishment.
And something miraculous happened. I was so blissfully tired afterward, that the frozen cogs of my mind got unstuck without alcohol. I was loose and relaxed, FinancialCompany the furthest thing from my mind.
For the rest of the day, the Veil of Cthulhu was lifted entirely. I saw colors again. Food tasted better. There were tangibly positive effects on my perception and happiness. I remember that I’d bought a book six months ago, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, but it’d gone untouched since. I unpacked it and read the rest of the day, nearly ten straight hours. Even an emergency Call from Cthulhu couldn’t disrupt my state of general well being — I went right back to genuinely enjoying my leisure time without skipping a beat.
Put another way, I was happy — and this change in mood came about for no apparent reason other than the exercise.
I didn’t drink that day — I felt no particular need to, because the effect exercise had on my brain. It became an optimism-producing organ, full of happiness and contentment.
I thought: Is it that simple? Do I just need to work out harder?
Listen, I don’t think it works this way for everyone, but I can say that for me, the answer turned out to be an enormous yes.
The next several weeks, I forced myself to exercise for close to forty five minutes nearly every day. I jumped from 4-6 miles a week of jogging to 25, almost overnight. Slogging through the extra miles and keeping my heartrate up had a profound effect on me — I stopped caring nearly as much about work, and at the same time, my desire to drink went down. There’s no doubt that the actual exercising was incredibly painful for the first couple of months — I think I was in a state of constant agony during my runs — but at the same time there was something cleansing about it.
Every day, when I woke up at six thirty, I told myself: This is the hardest part of your day. It’s going to be painful. But you are going to do it. It’s only an hour, and you can do anything for an hour, no matter how concentrated the suck is.
So I’d jump on the treadmill, still sore from the day before, my muscles weak and stiff. If my legs could talk, they’d be saying Please, God, Don’t Do This To Us Today. Please. Anything But This. But I threw the manual override switch and forced my limbs into action anyway.
Since then, I’ve come to think of extensive running — or any heavy exercise — as sort of absorbing future pain. Because yeah, it’s uncomfortable to put the miles in, but in return, the rest of the day becomes a lot more fun. This is probably due to the wicked endorphin high. It’s just much harder to be upset about anything when your core mood has just been cranked skyward.
I can’t stress enough how transformative this discovery was. I’d been searching for the answer to my life-stress problems and, as it happened, the solution was right there the whole time, and it was virtually free, to boot. I could hardly believe it.
I wish someone had told me earlier that the best way to tough out the work grind is to stop thinking that working more and/or working harder will solve your problems. It won’t — or at least, it didn’t for me.
The solution was to instead work on myself.
Three weeks after I started exercising heavily, roughly around the start of May, I’m not drinking any more at all. I essentially traded one addiction for another, alcohol for exercise. And I’m fortunate that I made the switch when I did — I was just starting to consider bringing a flask to work and expanding my drinking hours. I have no doubt that doing this would have put me into some kind of alcohol death-spiral which could have only concluded with my lifeless body being found in a garbage bin somewhere reeking of Boone’s. I do believe that exercise saved my life.
This was the *last* period, by the way, that I struggled with alcohol. I still have an adult beverage once in a while but I enjoy exercise so much that I simply don’t want to drink most of the time because of the negative effect on my workouts.
So listen: I feel a bit apologetic for speaking on this topic for so long. After all, it’s the second page on this blog that I’m going on (and on, and on) about it. But I think it’s important to include these stories in the Job Experience because I never much cared about drinking before I started working full time. Sure, I experimented a little bit in college but I did not have thoughts like I need a drink or I deserve to get drunk until I had been fully immersed in corporate life for a while.
While I understand that I took things to an extreme for a period of time, I also think at the same time that many of us drink more than we need to or should as a way to cope with our jobs or “reward” ourselves for bad days endured. We drink to — as I did — “relax” and get our brains “unstuck” from thinking about the work grind. Work becomes, for many of us, the excuse to drink.
I posit that most of the time, we’re doing more harm to ourselves than good.
It’s worth adding that I have absolutely no moral objection to drinking (or many other recreational drugs, for that matter) and I understand that alcohol affects people differently. There’s no doubt that I don’t mix with any of this stuff all that well, though.
No more alcohol talk from here on out. Promise.