Have I Just Replaced One Addiction With Another? (Guest Post)

On my daily walk to the gym, in the darkness of 5 am in London, Ontario, I began reflecting on the changes that occurred when I got into fitness.  Thinking about the hours spent researching fitness and nutrition, the stacks of supplements (proteins, amino acids, greens) on top of my fridge, how I weigh out and track my food intake, I found myself wondering, “Have I just replaced one addiction with another?”

Let me back up a bit…

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Rotman Institute of Philosophy talk at Western University by Dr. Hanna Pickard, entitled Why Do Addicts Use? Getting Real about Drugs, Identity and Adversity.  In her talk, Dr. Pickard explored the power of the neurobiological myth (i.e., that addicts are neurobiologically compelled to use and cannot help it) and its social and moral repercussions.  While not wholly dismissive of neuroscience, Dr. Pickard emphasized the multifaceted and complex nature of addition.

In doing so, she noted that to understand addition, we also need to have conversations about the value of drugs, the relevance of psycho-socio-economic context, and the role of narrative self-identity.  You can listen/watch the full talk here.

I was particularly struck – in that full-bodied, dizzying kind of way – when Dr. Pickard read a personal narrative from a former addict (name omitted for anonymity).  In this narrative, the person recounted the loss of identity they experienced while recovering from a drug-addicted lifestyle.  That is, when your self-identity is so strong that it permeates almost every aspect of your life, there is a tremendous void when this identity is given up during recovery – how do you fill up that heavy, daunting space?  What do you do with all your time now?

As you may have read when Tracy interviewed me here, I got into fitness after what was a couple years of problematically drinking and partying.  My drinking made up my self-identity, fueling my behavior and filling most my thoughts.  For instance, I would plan my week around when, where, and with whom I would drink, and when I would recover (because it was excessive enough that recoveries were required).  It was the way my peers, friends, and family knew me; it was how I knew me, as if I truly did not know how else to be.

When I got my gym membership last January, I had no idea what I was in for.  I had no idea that I’d fall in love with fitness like I did.  As that love developed and grew, the old habits that came with my drinking lifestyle slowly faded away as new habits that came with my fitness lifestyle filled those would-have-been voids.  Instead of starting off my day with a pounding headache, wondering who I could get to drink with me that day, I’d wake up at the crack of dawn, full of energy and excitement as I’d weigh out my pre-workout meal (to make sure I was getting adequate amounts of macro-nutrients to fuel my workout) and pack my gym bag.  Late nights out were replaced with early nights in (to ensure I had a proper amount of sleep for my muscles to recover and grow).

I’ve often been told by my peers and others in my life that my lifestyle is problematic, excessive, and unhealthy, being told things like “well you need to be able to enjoy other things in life too”, or “weighing your food is excessive and wrong”, and “your lifestyle is too extreme, you sound like an addict, that can’t be right”, and on it goes.

So, on that early morning walk to the gym, these reflections had me wondering whether I had just replaced one addiction with another.  While it may seem as if I did to some, for me, something much deeper and more complex than mere replacement had occurred.  My drinking lifestyle and self-identity was life-restricting, but my fitness lifestyle and self-identity is life-enhancing.  My drinking self-identity made me feel like a spectator in my own life, watching it unfold without ever really participating in it – as if I were sleepwalking through my life without ever truly feeling.  And while I never felt like I was truly myself, I genuinely did not know who else to be or what else to do; in a sense, I became a prisoner to my own self-identity.  It was just who I was, it was just what I did, and what people expected from me.

My fitness lifestyle and identity, however, didn’t just act as a replacement for my old lifestyle/identity; it did, perhaps, initially, but as time went on it became more than that.  When we replace one thing with something similar, we usually get the same output, behavior, or end-result.  I like to think of it in terms of RAM on a computer.  If the RAM (random access memory) on my computer dies, I can replace that part and (hopefully) my computer runs just as it did prior to the crash.  With respect to the question above, however, the result – my quality of life – was not the same (or even similar) with my new lifestyle/self-identity.  It was enhanced and enriched; it woke me up.  No longer was a spectator to my own life, but was a genuine part of it.  Finally, I felt like I was authentically myself.

Through Dr. Pickard’s incredible talk, my reflections on what fitness means to me, and what it taught (and continues to teach) me, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the new narrative self-identity that I’ve created and fostered through fitness.  So, when people offer their unsolicited, “Oh, that’s unhealthy, excessive, wrong, etc.” I smile on the inside, because I know that they cannot contextualize my current lifestyle within my deeper, complex, and often quite painful personal history.

A selfie in a parking garage. Jaclyn, after a grueling leg workout.

Jaclyn, after a grueling leg workout

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London, Ontario, completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.