As far back as I can remember, I’ve chased anything that would replace pain with pleasure, starting with chocolate and attention, then upgrading to amphetamines, cocaine and eventually opiates. At the tail end of the 1980s, through a series of interventions I was forced to give up my amphetamine/opiate habit. Multiple support systems helped me through this period, but nothing quelled my insatiable need to always be an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Then one day, in that first grueling drug-free year, I found spinning.
Spinning dates back to the 1980s. There were only a handful of students and three teachers, but it didn’t matter. It seemed we were all there for the same purpose: endorphins. In a quick 45-minute class I could go from despondent to exhilarated. From that day forward, the chase was on.
Endorphins are similar to man-made opiates like morphine. Our bodies naturally release them to mask pain and cause a sense of well-being or even euphoria. When we have an endorphin rush in response to events like danger, exercise or sex, it is a biological defense strategy to get us through a stress-induced situation. It is a chemical reaction causing us to feel good about some human survival need, like procreating.
Endorphins also work as an analgesic, the body’s form of an aspirin, only better. Their job is to bind with the opiate receptors, which are proteins, found on the cells in the brain that promote or reduce the movement of information. Every person has a different amount of receptors on their cells depending on their DNA. Most people have a normal amount of receptors and can take a single aspirin to quell a headache. However, people with what’s called a high tolerance or a penchant for addiction produce an overabundance of these receptors and might need a bottle of narcotics to address the very same headache. In my case, I needed a pharmacy to get through stress. I do believe I was born this way, a nerve ending looking for an endorphin rush.
The best description of being me is “uncomfortable.” As a child, my discomfort was in relation to everything from playing tag to family dinners to bedtime. It was as if I was always running and the rest of the world was standing still. So my solution was to match everyone else’s external speed by changing my internal one.
It may seem counterintuitive, but my first indulgence was chocolate. Many times what happens with addicts is that the caffeine and sugar have an opposing effect, and in my case they calmed down my over-revved system. The moment I’d receive my weekly allowance, I would run straight to the corner store, slap it down and order up all the chocolate five dollars would buy, then tear the paper off on the spot and gobble down the candy before you could say “Boo Radley.” It created instant calm and was what I needed to get through the rest of the day.
With the arrival of middle school, I switched out sugar for amphetamines, which go by a variety of street names such as speed, black beauties, uppers, pep pills, bennies and eye-openers. I initially found them in the form of diet pills, easily swiped from my mother’s handbag, then later purchased them at various unsuspecting drugstores with fake prescriptions. (Warning: Do not try this at home; it’s highly hazardous to your health—and anyway, drugstores have wised up.) With college came graduating from amphetamines to cocaine, then cocaine mixed with opiates, then just opiates. All the while I was using to keep up with the world around me. For every cocaine-induced experience, I gained another feather in my cap of surviving academically, socially or just plain surviving a day with nothing to do.
As I struggled through my early adulthood, it became increasingly difficult to negotiate experiences without some sort of pain control, regardless of whether the event before me was happy, sad or scary. I needed the results in advance. With cocaine, no matter how much of a mess I’d make and no matter how crazy the outcome—like starting my night in Ann Arbor, Mich., then blacking out and coming to in Chicago, driving a car I’d never seen before—in the end, drugs gave me a very known emotional result. I called it “controlled pain.”
Then one day it all fell apart, as these things do. The drugs stopped working and the messes got so big that I couldn’t outrun my own receptors. Outside sources weighed in and suggested I change tack, at which point I was lucky enough to find my way into a sober, clean life. With sobriety, my circumstances changed, but my nature remained the same. Now that drugs had been removed, I found myself spending most of my hours sleeping or miserable or mostly both. I still needed an endorphin rush just to calm down enough to brush my teeth, and there wasn’t one in sight.
I can vividly remember that first spin class. I went at the urging of an ex-drug-addict friend. Initially, I couldn’t see how stationary bikes were such a big deal. Still, I showed up in an attempt to do things differently than I had in the past. Even at that first class, even with my limited knowledge of the workout, I got such a rush out of those 45 minutes that I signed up to come back every day for the next year, and I did. I went from being a cokehead to a cycle-addict. Support, therapy and self-help groups were all helping me, but I have to say, spinning my way into endorphins physically changed my world. It addressed a very real problem: the need to quell the screaming receptors in my brain.
Over the years I’ve expanded my endorphin-seeking repertoire. I’ve explored scuba diving, skateboarding, snowboarding and, my personal favorite, surfing. Each of these brings its own form of soothing to the brain. Every time I take up a new sport, I do it in my well-worn addict way: I go all out, buy gear, dive in and do it every day for a few years. And for what it’s worth, the payoffs have been incredible. I’m healthier, both physically and emotionally, and I always come away lighter and brighter.
My route to meeting the world with calm instead of anxiety happened experientially; no amount of reading or classes would have prepared me. What it boils down to is that I had a problem, right from the start. My way of dealing with it was to self-medicate. When that stopped working, I could have taken any number of roads to address my antsy-ness in the world. I could have gotten controlled medication or grown more pious or walked a hundred different spiritual paths—and I do partake in meditation now and find it helps greatly—but for me, just for me, exercise has always changed my experience, almost instantaneously. What happens is that no matter how the day is going, once I get my heart rate up and my body moving, my mind lets go, and somehow I’m transported out of all the weight I’m carrying around in my head and set free from the burden of my own thinking.
For years I’ve wanted to translate my incessant spinning, which I now do in my house with my headphones on, into road cycling, but I’ve been reluctant at the thought of sharing the streets with the multitude of motorists in Los Angeles. Just last week I began my quest for a bike, and I’ve decided to embark on riding out on the open road. In the back of my head I’m already thinking about the AIDS ride, followed by cycling across America, then maybe Europe, Africa, Asia… maybe I’ll go around the globe, who knows? Like I said, once I get an idea and it feels good, I have to take it all the way. The best part about this thinking is all my ideas these days are ones that enhance my life, let me see my world differently and get me into healthier, better shape—emotionally, spiritually and physically.