I enjoy running immensely — I mean, who wouldn’t, with this (👀⬆️) beautiful, soft, flat nature trail at their disposal? — but I am by no means a runner. Come to the Delaware Canal towpath on any Sunday morning if you want to witness the clear contrast between regular, middle-aged schmoes like me and the real deal.
I mean, besides the obvious difference in speed and overall physique, I’ve got music from a carefully curated playlist blaring in my ear buds. I will slow down or even stop, if I need to adjust said music. Serious runners don’t mess with those types of pedestrian creature comforts. They motor through the miles in steely silence.
Me, vs. Them:
Such transcendent mental toughness is beyond my comprehension. The ability to just be with one’s thoughts — for minutes, let alone hours — is truly a foreign concept. In fact, I have such an intense, innate aversion to “peace and quiet” that I feel naked, uncomfortable, even distressed if I don’t have a certain type of noise in my environment.
As you might imagine, this need — along with all my other neurotic issues — has become particularly potent since I quit drinking 40 months (as of Nov. 7) ago. But thinking back, I’ve always been this way. I self-soothed with sound, long before alcohol was a blip on my radar.
In elementary school, I used to fall asleep every night to books-on-tape from the library playing on my Fisher Price cassette deck (was anyone else obsessed with “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH”?) I recorded audio from Saturday morning cartoon shows (s/o to my fellow “Muppet Babies” fans!) so I could listen while I played or wrote stories in my room. When I got my first boom box for Christmas in my early teens, it was constantly tuned in to soft-rock radio. In high school/college, I wound down with Sarah McLachlan, The Sundays, or Cranberries CDs on a portable player, then Coldplay, Death Cab or Ben Folds on a more sophisticated “adult” stereo system…
When my team sports career ended and I started running/working out solo, you never ever caught me without a Walkman (and gross, sweaty headphone pads).
I’m kind of back in college now (peep my gorgeous grad school campus 👀⬆️), and rare is the waking moment when I’m without a playlist, podcast or audiobook pulsing in my ears, or the TV droning in the background. Often, both will be happening at the same time, whether I’m studying or writing…or even doing yoga.
Seriously, I play audio from YouTube yoga programs on my phone and go through poses with “Dateline,” “Forensic Files,” or “House of the Dragon” looming on the flatscreen, unmuted, inches from my face. And shit, if you think that’s bizarre, I sometimes talk or sing to myself to fill the void, when I’m alone in the woods or doing chores around the house.
My version of “meditation” is playing one of the free relaxation tracks on Audible, featuring narrators like Diddy or Nick Jonas. 😂
No getting around it: I am certifiably terrified of silence. In fact, I’m so reliant on my wireless headphones that even after I accidentally ran them through the washing machine (for the second time 🙄) and completely shorted out the right ear, I still plugged in the left one and went for my daily walk.
It wasn’t at all surprising a few weeks back, after I had to co-run a role-play counseling group in one of my classes, and someone wrote on the peer feedback form: “It seemed like when there was silence in the room, you were eager to jump in and fill it, rather than just letting it be.”
Uh…f*ck yeah I was! 😂
I mean, “letting it be”? With all the uncertainty and unpredictability and lack of control and awful, torturous anxiety? YIKES! 😱
I feel like if I knew, or had ever thought to learn, how to handle all that, I never would have ended up an alcoholic.
Drinking, like music or media or nervous psychobabble, is — sorry, WAS — just another form of distraction. It was a way to stave off having to slow down or sit with deep thoughts/strong feelings and the doubt and uneasiness they inevitably bring. It was an easy, lazy escape from the excruciating stillness that, for me, always breeds existential dread.
I’ve spent my whole life grabbing onto this thing or the other, and on and on, to fill up any and all open space. I couldn’t bear to face emptiness, or really anything unwieldy or unstructured, nor did I ever try to approach it with curiosity or wonder. The world felt too scary and threatening without constantly clinging to the illusion of control.
Avoidance — that is my enduring addiction.
Awareness is the first step in overcoming anything, and I’ve clearly got that going for me. Which is nice. It’s funny how, once you are aware, once you’re actually paying attention to something, the universe suddenly starts sending you messages that relate. Or, maybe it’s that you finally notice the messages you’ve been being sent your entire damn life but were thus far too dense to absorb? 🤔 Either way, it’s true what they say: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Case in point: The other day when I was running on the canal with a brand new, old-school playlist blasting in my ear buds, the song “Thank U” by Alanis Morrisette came on.
That song came out in 1998, and I’d heard it countless times before, but there were certain gaps in the lyrics where I never could make out exactly what she was saying, and I never went and looked it up. For example, at the end of the chorus, she’s thanking all these things that presumably led to her personal transformation or spiritual awakening…
I don’t even want to tell you what I used to think that last thing on the list was, but on that run on that day in October 2022, it was suddenly crystal clear:
(BTW, this is another thing that I think probably separates me from real runners: I occasionally get choked up, mid-stride, when my music hits a nerve. I just keep going, drying the tears with my sweat towel, and it passes…hopefully with no witnesses.)
I get it, Alanis. 💯. I think I heard somewhere that she’s also in recovery, in which case this song makes even more sense. And if recovery was like running a race — which it’s totally NOT, and thank GOD for that — she had me beat before I even got started.
I mean, yo, I was born in ’78, and this truth has basically been tapping on my shoulder ever since. It took what it took for me to wake up, take a look, and see. Now I’m here, almost 3 1/2 years sober, training for a career in counseling, and if you think about it, the timing is pretty perfect.
In recovery, and maybe even in life, I suspect there is no true peace without quiet. Avoiding stillness is putting a ceiling on your growth…or, like trying to run while clinging to a crutch.
Whew! OK! I’m heading out to the park now, with plenty to think about during my usual 4-miler. I’m excited to try out a fresh playlist and these brand new wireless headphones I bought to replace the broken pair.
…Yes, I realize I just got done talking about how I need to be quiet, but come on. We’re not shooting for any miracles here!
I’m 44, with a sedentary job and in (relatively) mediocre shape, and music is pretty much my chief source of motivation to break a sweat, so no matter how much quiet time I’m able to cultivate in the course of my recovery journey, I think it’s safe to say I’m never going to be able to run in silence.