Here’s my interview with Steve Wilson, about his unique journey to the other side of those dark and drunken nights.
So what were your last days drinking like?
During my last months of living in New York, November to December 2014, I would go on these very long walks along the water. Just trying to calm myself and find any kind of clarity in my thoughts. I remember wondering how many people jumped into the Hudson and did not fight it. Just brutal bone-cutting thoughts. Whatever bits of light and inner dialog I would pull from these walks I would immediately erase with a night of hard drinking. Or two. I remember listening to Warren Zevon’s cover of “Back in the High Life Again” and uncontrollably crying. I knew I had reached the end of my drinking, I just didn’t have any idea how to do it. My only instinct was to get out of the city. Down in the basement of my friend’s bar I spray-painted “Wilson Lives” as a “Kilroy was here” kind of joke to myself. But there was also hope there.
A week later I was in a rental car with some changes of clothes and guitars, headed south. I looked in the rear view at the city as the sun went down and let out a scream. And then I drove myself down the east coast to Florida over the span of two days on pure adrenaline.
The first thing I did when I got to my hometown was buy a pair of running shoes.
So you get to Florida, you just start running? Were you a runner in high school or anything like that?
I attempted maybe two runs in the first eight months. The thought of doing it everyday was too daunting and I was too much of a shell. I hadn’t run before at all. In fact you could probably count on two hands how many times I worked out between the ages of 15 to 34. I am a prolific reader so I had read about running just how I devoured a lot of self-helpy books and books on Buddhism.
My first year and a half to two years of sobriety were anxiety-ridden and I fell off a few times–a wedding, a music festival, a too-soon return to New York.
One day, after a little bit of sober time, I tried to run–like, really tried to run. I would go all out, but I was heavier at the time and I would run out of steam about three-quarters of a mile in. But I would get out there and try the next day and the next until I could finally do two. Once I attempted trail running the world opened up. It nourished me. I could attempt my two miles everyday and then go die on a log and listen and observe. I’d watch animals go about their days, watch seasons change. That one little nature break gave me an energy boost and then I’d run some more. I fell in love with the process.
After some trial and error and injury I learned to slow down. To put just enough stress on the body then recover. While I was doing this every day I found the dialogue with myself I’d been looking for. Looking into my past, I unearthed little traumas, polished them, and let them go. I also realized how lucky I was and the lack of real trauma in my past. I had so many kind friends and family–it was like my safety nets had safety nets, so to squander such good fortune would be foolish.
And you just progressed from there? Just kept running one little mile at a time?
Yes. And for the first year, I didn’t post about it on social media or talk too much about it. I didn’t want it to be another thing I said I would do and wouldn’t be able to follow through on. When I was drinking that would always happen–big ideas and no follow-through. That would bother me so much when I did that.
My friend Caitlyn in New York is my running guru and she was one of the only people I knew who ran. I would be stumbling home after closing a bar and would bump into her, her husband and friends going out early for a run. She suggested I sign up for a race. I eventually picked a trail marathon called the Swamp Forest Trail. It was very ambitious, but I liked the idea of starting big. At first, I ran the marathon distance alone just to see if I could. When I finally ran the Swamp Forest Trail marathon, the technical trails had people falling all over the place. I fell twice, but I finished third. After that, I proceeded to run a half marathon, 12k, 10k, and then a 5k. So I did it in reverse order. That felt like the right way for me to do it.
Wait–your first race was a marathon? In the goddamn woods! How long had you been training by that point?
Hahaha! Yeah man can’t stop crazy. Like a year in. I did two in the woods, actually!
Some would say the one I did solo doesn’t count, but the body remembers. Hobbling around the next few days told me it was real enough. It was three months later when I joined others to do the official trail marathon. Once I started doing shorter distances I ran those faster. Training alone makes you weird.
And you did not treatment correct? No rehab, AA, NA–just ran and ran? And now you’re clean?
I didn’t do any in- or outpatient therapy or AA. I had a false impression that it was really religious. Plus, I’m pretty shy. But I can see now how it would have helped a lot of the growing pains along the road to recovery. To be very honest I was thrilled to find your website last week. It’s more my speed. And, nope, no other substances or medications. I don’t rule out weed down the line but whenever I’m around it I don’t partake. The last few years I’ve become very protective of my brain chemistry.
What books have you read that have helped in your transformation?
There’s a beautiful little self-published book called “Butterflies on a Sea Wind” by Anne Rudloe. She was a renowned Marine biologist in Florida and had a marine lab with her husband Jack. Her book pairs her love of the outdoors and love of science with Zen meditation. It’s a very good daily reader book and I occasionally give it to friends if I think it will help. Of course there’s also Old Alan Watts and Ram Das speeches. Plus Thich Nhat Hanh books are constant companions. I also do yoga and meditate once per day.
So what’s the best day you’ve had running?
My best race was called the Flash 12k. It was about an hour outside of my town on the Gulf Coast and I dragged my dad to it. He walks with a cane and he made the walk to be there at the start/finish. I dedicated it to him at the start and proceeded to run the eight fastest consecutive miles I’ve ever run and made first in my age group. I gave him my medal at the end of that one.
How has all this changed you as a person?
I’m calmer. It allows me time to process people and things going on in my life. I’ve been around to help as extended family gets older having observed how scary that can be. I am able to listen to people in a way that would’ve never been possible before. I go through my daily running catharsis ritual and find my heart bigger at the end of it.
And when I do run with other people I try to make it a celebration. I’m a firm believer of running with anybody at any pace. It’s the only sport where nobody boos. In sobriety I eventually settled on the saying “When you’re better, people will know when they see you.” There’s no timeline for that and you can’t declare it. People will know when you’re truly different.
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