Reason for Gratitude

August 18, 2017

We AA’s have a lot to be grateful for.  And for those of us who are AA members and runners, we may have more yet to be thankful for.

There seems to be a trend in the running world today for top elite runners to share their stories and struggles with depression.   I call it a “trend,” while also realizing that these stories and struggles are not made up for attention or ego inflation. Their authenticity and their deep impact on the sufferer is unmistakable.  These stories are very intense emotionally and they are very inspiring.

Rob Krar, winner of Western States 100 in 2014, released a short video titled, “Depressions: A Few Moments From 30 Miles in the Canyon”about his battle with depression in December of 2014.

He talks about the denial, fear, and anger associated with his depression and his eventual acceptance of it.  Rob also connects his depression to his success in ultramarathons and how he embraces the physical and emotional pain near the end of an ultra, possibly more effectively than someone who has never dealt with depression.

Rob Krar running the Canyons
Rob Krar running the Canyons

Another very inspiring video about depression and running is Nikki Kimball’s 2013 documentary “Finding Traction.”  

 Nikki is a seasoned ultrarunner who has competed at the top level of the sport for many years.  In this video, she shares the dark places she is able to go to in a race and the near madness of trying to put oneself through an ultra-distance race.  Like Rob, Nikki seems to be able to better deal with the darkness of distance running because of her having to deal with the darkness of her depression.

Nikki Kimball on the 273 Mile Long Trail
Nikki Kimball on the 273 Mile Long Trail

Another video to check out is Billy Yang’s 2017 “Life in a Day: The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run” in which he documents the 2016 Western States experience of four top female runners: Kaci Lichteig, Magda Boulet, Anna-Mae Flynn, and Devon Yanko. 

Devon’s story in particular gets into the issue of depression and how running has enabled her to overcome adversity in her life and how it allows her to rise above her depression and achieve greatness in the sport. 

Devon taking a break at Last Chance in Western States 2016
Devon taking a break at Last Chance in Western States 2016

Most recently, Myke Mermsmeyer and Matt Trappe released a video about Jim Walmsley’s battle with depression called “Lighting the Fire.”

If you don’t know who Jim Walmsley is, especially in the running world today, dude, look him up.  The guy is blazing fast but his recklessness burned him in this year’s big dance at Western States.  It will be very exciting to see him learn from his mistakes and come back with a fierce determination and humility which seems to be a prerequisite for Western States’ success.  In the above mentioned video, Jim talks about his battle with depression and how he channeled a lot of its darkness into the fire of miles upon miles of training.  It isn’t hard to watch this video and feel like you and Jim could conquer the world on foot while battling your inner demons all the while.

Jim Walmsley Samples. Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer / myke.hermsmeyer@gmail.com / @mykehphoto
Jim Walmsley Samples. Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer / myke.hermsmeyer@gmail.com / @mykehphoto

The four videos referred to above are immensely inspiring and I challenge you to watch them without tears welling up inside you.  They can also be viewed here.  Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA and sober for 19 years, wrote in a letter in 1954, “Sometimes, we become depressed – I ought to know; I have been a champion dry-bender case myself.  While the surface causes were a part of the picture – trigger-events that precipitated depression – the underlying causes, I am satisfied, ran much deeper.  Intellectually, I could accept my situation.  Emotionally, I could not.  To these problems, there are certainly no pat answers.  But part of the answer surely lies in the constant effort to practice all of AA’s Twelve Steps.” As members of AA, I think we have an opportunity here to be very grateful for our blessings.  We have the 12 Steps to help us accept who we are, they encourage us to turn to a higher power, admit our wrongdoings, make restitution for harms done, and then continue daily to improve our conscious contact with a God of our understanding and carry the message of AA to those still suffering.  Sometimes I wish that we could offer the 12 Steps as part of a solution to sufferers of depression.  Granted, sometimes depression needs to be treated medically, but pretty much every AA knows the pains and darkness of depression when they walk through the doors of AA.  Depending on how quickly and thoroughly an AA practices the 12 Steps, that depression is often lifted and the AA can then proceed in their lives to use their story and their experience to help others.  Alcohol pushes us into the darkest of places and then we can surrender and adopt the principles of AA, not out of virtue, but out of the will to survive.  Unfortunately I guess, many sufferers of depression do not have the angry lash of alcohol to beat them down so badly that they need to take the drastic measures that are outlined in the 12 Steps – the Steps offer us a way up and out into the light again.  It is courageous and admirable that the above mentioned runners are sharing their stories.  Similar to AA, they are healing through sharing and through helping others.  I just wish that we could share with them the sustaining power of a God of our understanding and the Fellowship in the rooms of AA – my hope is that they will find this in their lives.  As you know, we have no monopoly on healing in AA and we are not a cure-all, so may they be blessed with their own conscious contact with a God of their understanding and a Fellowship that is near and dear to them.  Bill Wilson wrote in the AA Grapevine in 1958, “I asked myself, ‘Why can’t the Twelve Steps work to release me from this unbearable depression?’ 

By the hour, I stared at the St. Francis Prayer:  ‘It is better to comfort than to be comforted.’  Suddenly I realized what the answer might be.  My basic flaw had always been dependence on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and confidence.  Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I fought for them.  And when defeat came, so did my depression.  Reinforced by what grace I could find in prayer, I had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people and circumstances.  Then only could I be free to love as Francis had loved.”

St Francis Prayer

It is no secret that our co-founder, Bill Wilson, suffered from severe bouts of depression in sobriety.  He could spend days in bed immobile and it is interesting to know that to battle his depression, he walked often and just concentrated on his breathe.  He found that when he did this, his depression would lift and he could carry on with some normalcy and strength. Bill wrote a letter in 1960, stating, “When I was tired and couldn’t concentrate, I used to fall back on an affirmation toward life that took the form of simple walking and deep breathing.  I sometimes told myself that I couldn’t do even this – I was too weak.  But I learned that this was the point at which I could not give in without becoming still more depressed.  So I would set myself a small stint.  I would determine to walk a quarter of a mile.  And I would concentrate by counting my breathing – say, six steps to each slow inhalation and four to each exhalation.  Having done the quarter-mile, I found that I could go on, maybe a half-mile more.  Then another half-mile, and maybe another.  This was encouraging.  The false sense of physical weakness would leave me (this feeling being so characteristic of depressions).  The walking and especially the breathing were powerful affirmations toward life and living and away from failure and death.  The counting represented a minimum discipline in concentration, to get some rest from the wear and tear of fear and guilt.”  Could our dear Bill Wilson have been a long distance runner given the right circumstances and direction?  I leave the answer up to you dear reader, and leave it to your imagination to envision our dear Bill, loping along a mountainside or down Boylston Street, that fierce look in his eyes and that ever grateful pounding in his heart that he be blessed with the grace to move swiftly with his Higher Power ever so near.

Let us take this opportunity to give thanks to AA’s Steps and Traditions – that they and the God that inspired them keep us ever humble, helpful to others, and fleet footed.  And let us also take this opportunity to pray for those who suffer depression, that we may be a light to them in their darkness and that they find the One who has all power – the One who lives in each and every one of us.

Bill W. in good humor

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