The summer before I started high school, I watched the movie Top Gun at least 200 times. It was one of two VHS tapes that didn’t bore me at my dad’s house, where I was spending the summer. I lived vicariously through Maverick and Goose. I wanted to fly those planes because I knew even back then that there had to be a high in that. I will fill you in on a small, but possibly important detail. At that point in my life, I had never even been on a commercial plane. But I was addicted to the idea of a thrill and I wanted it.
I did not pursue becoming a fighter pilot because I was already destined to be a ballerina!! By now you may be getting a glimpse into exactly why being an alcoholic and addict is so perfectly suited for me. When the Master of the Atlanta Ballet tells you that you have the most beautiful point he’s ever seen, it means you’ll be a prima with the New York City ballet in at least five years, right? That’s what I made it mean. Ballet was my world. Dancing releases a lot of endorphins and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not a healthy thing for a teenager with early, undiagnosed cyclothymia and addiction behavior to throw herself into anything. At age 16 and two months shy of a big audition to get me into an arts based boarding school where I could major in ballet, I was injured and a professional dance career was off the table. I thought ballet would never abandon me. That’s how it all looked to me at that young age. All I could see was a girl who didn’t get to keep anything that she truly loved. I’d lost parents, houses, friends, schools, and now ballet. It didn’t feel like there was anything left to lose. That’s when I started seeking the chemical highs.
Over the next few years I sought drugs. They had to be uppers, always adrenaline producing, but many, many drugs. The kind where you’re pretty sure you’re having a heart attack. That’s about as adrenaline producing as you get. I kept doing that until I was so sick I could no longer eat or function normally. I knew I was going to lose my job or maybe my life. I stopped doing drugs two months after my 21st birthday. But I still needed highs. To replace the drugs and alcohol, I used caffeine constantly and consumed enormous amounts of sugar. Men also provided a great buzz for me. Eventually all that replacing didn’t work out and I didn’t stay sober. When I came back into recovery this time, I knew there could be no replacements if I really wanted this to work.
It turns out that I’m an adrenaline junkie. I see a lot of people in recovery trade old addictions for new ones to keep those endorphins going. Staying up late is adrenaline producing because it raises your cortisol. Jumping in and out of relationships and having sex often are also replacements. Abusing caffeine, sugar, and cigarettes produce that effect as well. Running to the point of injury and chronic pain is all too common. It’s not called a “Runner’s High” for no reason.
Why are some of us more adrenaline seeking than others? I believe there is an ancestral connection. Humans have a nervous system wired for sympathetic mode, otherwise known as fight or flight. It’s necessary for hunting, fighting, and all things survival. Our day-to-day desk job lives don’t give us that “fix.” Tack on growing up in trauma or suffering from mental health problems, and our first instinct can be to go after the unhealthy adrenaline rushes to escape our discomfort. Fast forward to sobriety and we still have a nervous system wired towards the high. We potentially throw ourselves into extreme running, sports, sex, or work to feel it. This is still escape and not conducive to recovery in the long term.
The key? Balance. There’s nothing wrong with having some excitement in your life as long as you are not doing it to run from your feelings. Escape is dangerous and if you are trying to stay sober, you have to learn healthy coping skills. When mindfulness becomes a daily way of life, you no longer search for unhealthy escapes. If you choose extreme activities from a healthy place, it’s often because you are being mindful and deeply connected with your most human and primal self. You may be wondering how to tell the difference. Ask yourself if you are seeking an adrenalin rush because you want to feel that old, familiar high or if you are completely comfortable in your skin today and choosing actions that grow who you are instead of running from yourself. Pause and see if the activity in question is hurting any other part of your life. Are you sleeping well? Are you eating well? Are you moving your body in a safe way that won’t cause injuries that could affect your sobriety? Life in recovery is about so much more than that instant fix we found so readily in the bottle, the hit, or the acting out. It is about living a holistic and fulfilling life that we can only attain by doing the work and feeling without escape.