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Escaping Addiction Through Exercise

How can exercise help you escape the substances that once kept you stagnant? The author of the hit book The Long Run has a few words of advice.

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By Sam Lansky

02/03/12

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There’s no way to read The Long Run and not be curious about the author. The ebook, published by Mishka Shubaly as a Kindle Single exclusively for Amazon, chronicles Shubaly’s drug-hazy peripatetic youth and journey into a sobriety of his own definition, one in which he exercises as ferociously as he partied. But what distinguishes Shubaly’s writing from the many other addiction memoirs saturating the market is his refreshing perspicacity, bracing honesty, and total avoidance of recovery clichés. 

Shubaly’s background is as a musician, where he plays bass in the band Freshkills and has toured with acts like The Strokes, Broken Social Scene, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but he also has an MFA from Columbia; he published his Kindle Single Shipwrecked, a first-person retelling of his experience getting marooned in the Bahamas, in 2001. Readers responded enthusiastically, and although he's not able to disclose exact sales figures, he says, "It did way better than either Amazon or I had hoped."

The Long Run went to #1 on Amazon’s Kindle Singles list, where Shubaly booted Stephen King from the top slot; months after its original release, it’s still #1 on three of Amazon’s lists, and has been in the Top 10 on the Singles list since its release. It’s a rare and thrillingly meritocratic rise to see a book about substance abuse published digitally so we contacted Shubaly to find out more about his background, the project, and what’s he’s working on next.  

What was the process of writing The Long Run like? Did you start out with the intention of writing about addiction, or running, or both?

I met up with my editor at Amazon after Shipwrecked had taken off to talk about what I was going to do next, and I pitched him a couple of stories, none of which he liked. Then, he said, “I already have your new story ready for you. It’s going to be about how you’ve gone from this drug-snorting, drunken madman to a sober long-distance runner. It’s going to be called The Long Run.” And I think I said something profound and incisive like, “Dude, thanks but no thanks. There’s no way I want to write about that painful, grueling process of rejoining the human race. And nobody is going to be interested in reading about it.” All of which goes to show that I know absolutely nothing. Thank God I was wrong—but man, was this story a bear to put down on paper.

I tried morphine after I tried Opana, and when morphine was like nothing compared to Opana, I thought, “Hmm. I wonder if I’ve totally thought this through.”

Was it cathartic, or just draining?

It was incredibly unpleasant going back and unearthing my past. I mean, I go to therapy, so I have talked about those things, but then there’s someone else there—you’re not all alone. And you’re not making a complete inventory of every selfish, stupid, cowardly thing you’ve done in your life. I think I submitted an early draft to my editor, and he just wrote back, “You need a bigger shovel,” or something cryptic yet insightful like that. I was like, “Fuck you! I do not want to go back in that hole!” But I trust him, and so I did, and it was as bad as I thought.

Coming out of it, man, feels so fucking great. Declaring to the world that you’ve been a fuck-up and gone through some awful shit—99% of which you’ve brought on yourself—is totally draining, but it’s also a tremendous relief. I was talking about it with my uncle the other night and I compared it to coming out of the closet: “Here is my secret life. Here is who I really am. Love it or hate it, this is what’s really been going on.” It’s been really liberating.

I think there’s an expectation with writing about addiction that it has to follow a fairly predictable path, and one that leads to a lifestyle of total abstinence. Did you have anxieties about writing something that circumvented that expected arc?

For sure. I knew that there would be negative responses from the sober community, and the community at large. But my obligation is to the truth, not to my friends or my readers. I have to tell the story honestly, and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve had a lot of negative feedback from people who have said, “If you didn’t have to go to AA, then you weren’t really an alcoholic”—which is so bizarre to me, that a disease would only be defined in reverse by a treatment of unknown effectiveness. Or, “if you occasionally eat hallucinogens, then you aren’t sober.” Everyone is entitled to their belief systems and opinions, but I am Mishka Shubaly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I know what my sober is and what it isn’t. I dug myself into a huge hole, and then I dug myself out of it. I won my sobriety on my own, I own it and I define it. And believe me, I’m harder on myself than any group or outside individual could be.

In The Long Run, you subvert many of the clichés that sober people tend to cite, about powerlessness and redemption. Do you think you’re able to see things in a different light because you don’t come from a 12-step centric background?

I definitely feel like AA didn’t and doesn’t speak to me. My life was never out of control; my life was always just short of out of control. I was never powerless before alcohol. It ebbed and flowed—I had good nights and I had bad nights. And I didn’t really have a desire to stop drinking; I had a desire for a new life in which alcohol wasn’t a factor. I didn’t want to go from the cult of alcohol to the cult of no-alcohol; I wanted to get out of that cult-like way of thinking altogether. I don’t know if this is possible, but I don’t want to have a life in which I am eternally in recovery. I want to get to a point where alcohol isn’t a factor, where it doesn’t pull me and I don’t push back against it—where I just live my life. I don’t know if that’s possible, but I’m doing the research right now to try and find out. That research is more arduous and grueling than the research I was doing when I treated my body like a science experiment, but it’s also more rewarding. And cheaper! If I can backtrack a bit—I learned more about sobriety from Malcolm X than I did from AA: By any means necessary.

I want to talk a little bit about Opana. Speaking as a former opiate enthusiast (I spent a term at Vassar hilariously addicted to Dilaudid), not to mention the kid who carried a prescription drug reference in his backpack all through high school, I was mortified that I’d never heard of it, let alone taken it. Is it hard to come by anymore?

When I got it, I think it had just come back on the market, and it literally fell into my lap. (If you look up “Bad Dreams” on New York Press, there’s a more detailed telling of that story.) When I discovered it, I was like, “This is going to be great! Humanity has searched for eons for a better way to get drunk, and I found it!” What’s ironic is that when I started doing it, old friends kept stopping me in the street to tell me how good I looked, because I wasn’t drinking so much and had lost weight. I tried morphine after I tried Opana, and when morphine was like nothing compared to Opana, I thought, “Hmm. I wonder if I’ve totally thought this through.” Of course, I hadn’t. And coming off that shit the second time was fucking horrible. I’m amazed I didn’t die just getting hit by a car in the street or something. I mean, I fell asleep in the middle of the street several times. When I was drinking, I could at least make it to the sidewalk or bushes.

Switching gears—do you think exercise addiction (or compulsive exercise, or exercise bulimia) is a real thing? Do you identify as one?

I totally think it’s a real thing. And I am totally not an exercise addict. I’m the opposite of an exercise addict, and that’s why it deeply offends me when people assume I’m one, or call me one. Dude—do you know how much work it takes to get your body ready to run 62 miles, and then to go out and do it? 

I can say with utter certainty that I do not.

It’s a fucking drag. I like running—sometimes. But I don’t like training; I hate training; and I hate going to the gym. But I do it, because I know it’s good for me, and I know that it’s a way to embrace the life I want. I drank and drugged to escape the world; I run to adventure out into it, to experience it. Drinking and drugging was easy for me; I had to fight myself not to do it. Running and working out is incredibly hard for me; I have to fight myself to do it. In fact, I was cursing my editor the other day for getting me to write The Long Run. I was like, “Argh, now all these people are expecting me to go out and run and I don’t want to.” And then I realized it was perfect: I don’t have to work as hard to make myself run, because other people are doing it for me. I have successfully outsourced my motivation. It’s nice, particularly when you’re like me, and you have a devil sitting on one shoulder, and then you look at the other shoulder, and instead of an angel, it’s a bigger devil. And you’re like, “Fuck.” And then there’s some 13-year-old kid in West Virginia, who’s like, “I just read The Long Run and it was awesome and then I went out and ran 18 miles,” and then I smack myself in the forehead and say, “Fuck you, kid,” and go out and run 19. I’m just a dude—a dude who really, really screwed things up. And then slowly, meticulously, with great effort, unscrewed things up. I don’t have answers, only questions. Well, okay, I have a little insight and some snappy comebacks. I’m not a role model, or a cult leader. Just a dude who is grateful to be okay and who wants everyone else to be okay, too. 

What’s your next project?

My next Single is called Are You Lonesome Tonight? and it’s about love, among other things. It drops on Valentine’s Day on Amazon. I’m going to bug my editor about doing another Kindle Single for November of this year—the subject of that one is top-secret right now. One day, I hope that there will be a physical book of my writing so my mother can die happy. I’m talking to Amazon about making Spanish translations of my stuff available, which I’m super excited about. Oh—my band Freshkills has a new record out in March. I’m going to finish a solo record this year, of a lot of my old drinking songs that I recorded but was too fucked up to finish or put out. The working title is "Why I Can’t Drink."

Sam Lansky is a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about Britney Spears and dating in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky

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