During my years navigating the recovery world I had doctor after therapist after specialist after mentor warn me of the dreaded “transfer of addiction.” When people who have struggled with addiction become invested in athletics, careers, families, or other passions, professionals raise an eyebrow. New passions come with heavy criticism rather than praise. However, during my own experience exchanging drinking for running, I experienced only positive outcomes. Athletics (specifically obstacle course racing) has given me purpose, introduced me to growth-minded people, and even given me job opportunities. Obstacle course racing also helped me heal my unhealthy relationship with food by teaching me to appreciate my body for what it can do rather than what it looks like. Athletics certainly didn’t seem to have the same effects on my life that drinking did.
So why is transfer of addiction so stigmatized?
I reached out to Dr. Pence to inquire more about her opinions on this. All of my theories about addiction are anecdotal, but Dr. Pence has the clinical knowledge that I hoped would put some evidence-based analysis behind my thoughts.
Dr. Lara Pence has been a licensed psychologist for approximately 15 years. She started her work in eating disorder recovery, and then branched out into private practice. In the field of athletics, Dr. Pence teamed up with Spartan in 2018, and she is now one of the experts behind the first Women’s OCR Team! Congratulations Dr. Pence!
Dr. Pence defines mental illness (including addiction) as having three defining attributes. The effects of the mental illness must be pernicious, pervasive, and persistent. Pernicious can be further defined as being harmful to the daily life of a person. Pervasive can be further defined as spreading into multiple (or sometimes all) areas of a person’s daily life. Persistent can be further defined as effects that persist even after a person has tried their best to alleviate them. People who are in active addiction demonstrate pernicious, pervasive, and persistent effects from the addiction in their daily life. However, people who shift from substances to exercise, creative outlets, or other productive coping mechanisms, no longer exhibit these three attributes. As Dr. Pence points out, people may be very passionate about running, but they won’t end up in jail or destitute in their pursuit of running. On the other hand, breaking laws, destroying finances, damaging relationships, and even death, are all incredibly common themes with addiction. Both the anecdotal and clinical evidence points in one direction: exercise and other productive outlets are a coping mechanism, and addiction is in a completely different category all its own.
There’s another fascinating level to this.
Most of the people in recovery who shift their focus into these healthy outlets end up excelling in those new areas. They are excelling, not destructively transferring.
For example, Dr. Pence pointed out that if you look at some of the most successful endurance athletes you will find that many of their stories include chapters with addiction. Moreover, some quick history homework will reveal that some of the most world-renowned authors and artists struggled with addiction as well.
Here’s an idea, rather than “healthy” brains and “not healthy” brains, let’s reshift the narrative to simply, “different” brains. People with a certain neurological makeup, like those who are susceptible to substance dependence and addiction, need outlets to channel their inner empathy, creativity, and drive; however, when shifted into those outlets, the people with this neurological makeup actually thrive. Just because a person struggles under a certain environment (using substances) and thrives under another environment (coping mechanisms and productive outlets) does not mean that that brain is “not healthy,” that brain simply has specific needs if it is going to flourish. If you put a sunflower seed in an ocean it is going to die. However, if you put that same seed in the right soil, give it the right light, and meet its needs to grow, that seed is going to blossom into something beautiful.
In 2020 I wrote my first article for the students at Mission High School (the first public, addiction recovery high school in the nation), and it included the following message: “Addiction is not a problem, addiction is a misunderstood set of abilities, and with more understanding, your addiction could be your own personal superpower.” Dr. Pence echoes this sentiment and sends this message to those living with addiction: “There is nothing wrong with you, there is something so right with you, we just have to learn to channel your inner fire in a different way.”
Addiction is not the end.
Addiction is the turning point.
And if you think you might be struggling with addiction, please understand that this is an opportunity to unlock a brain with enormous amounts of potential.
Take that inner fire and use it for growth. You are not broken, you are just beginning.