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Sobriety is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Discovering resilience, growth, and self-forgiveness on the path to recovery

The last day I drank was in no way remarkable. There was no epiphanies moment, nor atrocious circumstance that forced me to make the decision. It was a day like any other, when I wondered if this would be the time it finally stuck. The last day I drank had been one of many last days, another notch in a trailing belt of failed attempts.

What made this day different, you ask? Nothing really, other than my own endurance and stubborn resolve. Each failed attempt to stay sober over the years formed thick calluses and fibrous sheets of muscle, allowing me to progress a few steps further the next go. I was determined to live a life of sobriety, so every time I stumbled I picked myself back up, no matter how weary I was from my shame and embarrassment.

I have been on my journey to recovery for many years now, and while the decision to quit abusing substances was made in a heartbeat, the path to its realization has been long and challenging. Having recently completed my second marathon, I’ve noticed striking parallels between the journey of recovery and the challenges of long-distance running.

Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint, and the race, I’ve realized, is never over; overcoming addiction is not a one-time event but rather an ongoing process of self-discovery and growth.

From the Starting Line to Sustained Recovery

My starting line of sobriety began a few months into 2020 when the world was in lockdown and many of us decided to drown our fears of contagion in bottomless bottles of booze. After a few months of drinking from dusk until dawn, rendering my mind and body completely useless, I asked myself, is this how I wanted to die? I decided that it wasn’t. So began my arduous training for the marathon of recovery.

At the time I’m writing this, I am 202 days clean, and proud of that number despite being on the journey for exponentially longer. If you want to know how I’ve managed to remain in my first year of sobriety for four years now, the answer is simple: relapse. They say relapse is part of the recovery process, and mine has been rife with it. Relapse is what knocks you down, what brings you to your knees and has you raising your fists to the sky, calling out for a power greater than yourself to release you from the agony.

Ironically, relapse is also what makes you stronger. It’s the terrifying reality check and harsh reminder you need to light the fire under your ass. You’ve seen what happens when you hit “rock bottom,” however many times you hit it, and watch with shocking indifference as you turn to undisciplined mush, so easily susceptible to your cravings. Time and time again you determine there’s no possible way you’re coming back from the fall. But you do, you get back up. You keep moving one foot in front of the other.

Relapse, while not encouraged, is arguably a necessary and expected step toward recovery. It’s your brain returning to the only safety and comfort it knows during a time of great uncertainty. Sobriety is a race into the unknown, and it is justifiable for you to want to fall back on that terrible truth you’re so familiar with—that substances will temporarily release you from your suffering and doubt—despite also understanding this to be the exact truth you’re attempting to evolve from.

Doubt is the pervasive voice that creeps in at every twist and turn of the marathon toward a sustained recovery. You learn to map out where in the journey it will catch up with you, and how to distinguish its many siren calls. When I first decided to stop drinking, I lasted a few months before doubt made its first move, tempting me to add a caveat to my budding sobriety: I wouldn’t drink but I could continue to use pills and uppers, as I did not feel that they were part of “my problem.” And look at that, I didn’t drink for two years. Astounding, miraculous. So why did I still feel like my life was slipping out of my hands? Could it be my increasing dependence on snorting fine white powders?

I told myself those drugs weren’t “my problem,” but I was using them to disappear from myself and the rest of the world. I wasn’t sleeping much, if at all, and was beginning to make pitiful excuses for absence to coworkers, family, and friends. What had I gotten myself into? I must not want to quit substances, and I couldn’t! I felt incapable of living a life that didn’t involve a vehicle of escape. I would quickly discover that doubt wasn’t going anywhere and that it would be present at every mile marker along the way.

Truly understanding how setbacks were a normal part of my recovery was the start of leaning toward and embracing self-forgiveness. The only way to make it through the endless miles of the marathon is to be kind to yourself and trust that you are capable of the feat. When the sun is beating down on you and your legs feel stiff with defeat, remind yourself that you signed up for this and trained tirelessly for it.

From Self-Doubt to Self-Discovery

I realized pretty early into the race that my personal sobriety journey would need to be one free from all substances. Not just alcohol, but powders, pills, inhalants, and plants too. It was then that the marathon turned into an uphill race.

I have not relapsed once, but countless times. The first few times left me in fits of agony and despair. I told myself that I was a disappointment to everyone who was rooting for my recovery on the sidelines. I told myself that I was a hopeless cause and must not want to get or be better. I told myself that I must want to die if it is death I believe to be at the end of this road. I told myself that I lacked the necessary strength to do it.

But it’s not strength you need to be successful in recovery, it’s self-forgiveness in the darkest of times and everlasting compassion when all you want to do is hate yourself. In order to move forward in sobriety, you need to leave behind your personal understanding of failure.

Each time I relapsed, I was met with a wall of self-hatred. I lashed out against the wall with all my fury, blaming myself as my fists met the concrete. It was only when I softened my heart and forgave myself that I realized it wasn’t a wall, but a door. The marathon was still going, they hadn’t shut it all down because I slipped. The lanes would remain open so long as I chose not to quit.

During the race, you’ll inevitably pass by a crowd of spectators. These are your friends, family, and the strangers you meet in recovery meetings. You may be afraid to look up at them for fear that they are judging you for having fallen so many times. Perhaps they can even smell the self-doubt on you.

You assume they think that you can’t do this, that you’re drowning, that addiction has its death grip on you and is whispering seductively into your ear to quit the race now while you can. But when you sheepishly look up toward the crowd, you’re surprised to find them all cheering you on, hands holding signs of enthusiastic support. A burst of pride—a runner’s high—surges through you. The look of amazement in your eyes reflected in their own.

And so I continue along my path, even when every inch of me screams to stop, because I deserve to know what it feels like to not give up on myself.

The marathon of sobriety is ongoing. It moves from excitement to dread to elation, and you will find the path is easier to navigate when you move through its ups and downs with forgiveness and grace. As I continue my journey, I carry with me the lessons learned and the strength gained from every step taken. Sobriety is not just a destination, but an ongoing process of self-discovery and growth—a marathon worth running, no matter how long the road may be.

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Lindsey Goodrow is a queer and sober essayist writing from Long Beach, California. She is obsessed with unearthing and unraveling life’s addictive feelings. Her work has been featured in the The Gay and Lesbian Review, and her newsletter, Sober Gemini, is published monthly on Substack.