Uncovering Meaning in the Hard Places of Life

When I was in 7th grade the basketball team I played on was upset by our crosstown rival Central. They obliterated us on the court. We were favored but beaten badly. I went home and took the loss really hard. I always took losses hard. During my funk of shame, disappointment, and anger, my Grandma Wells, who was living with us at the time, came to me with a steaming cup of hot sassafras tea with the root in it. She said, drink this, it will help calm you down and bring you peace.

At the time I did not want peace, I only wanted to have won that game. However, I did drink the sassafras tea and it did help me settle down a bit. Today I remember the smell and the taste of the tea. Yet, I also remember the bitter disappointment suffered in the loss. 

Through the years I have learned the value of utilizing the concept of velvet steel when faced with difficult defeat, loss, and disappointment. It often requires steel to be velvet with yourself when you emotionally struggle with hurt feelings. Strong feelings like shame and resentment require the capacity to be gentle with yourself while initiating emotional steel to refuse to beat yourself up or wallow in self-pity. A velvet steel mentality is necessary to sort and sift meaningfulness in the hard places of life. 

There are many insights to finding meaningfulness in life that depend upon a velvet steel mentality.

  1. When facing the difficulty of hard times, don’t let yourself be defined by the struggle you experience. When you are down and depressed it is easy to conclude this is happening because you believe that is what you are—down and depressed. It is so human to be dominated and defined by the feelings that move through you. Addicts struggle with this concept. They go to a meeting and admit to everyone that they are an addict. They say “my name is… and I’m an alcoholic” or other addiction. They are encouraged to do this because they have lived life in denial to a point that it is costing them dearly. So they need to admit their addiction. However, they are not an addict. Addiction defines their behavior, not their sense of self. So an addict must apply velvet steel to face their addictive behavior (i.e. “I am an addict”). They must also apply velvet steel which fosters an embrace of their sense of self as being “an unrepeatable miracle of the universe”. In the midst of struggling to survive and be sober, this skillset is challenging to incorporate. It requires slowing down your brain and applying velvet steel to the mix of thoughts.
  1. Plunge into the present moment of experience and focus on being present in the moment. Addicts talk about having a “monkey brain”. Their mind races to every thought possible and they can’t stop ruminating about what used to be, ought to be, and the unknown future. This is a very hard place for addicts to be. Some addicts live on edge during waking moments. It becomes exhausting. Velvet steel requires one to be gentle and not demanding in an attempt to slow ruminations. It requires steel to bring one’s mind back to center and be present in the here and now. Addicts connect this skillset inwardly through practice, not perfection.
  1. Like Michelangelo, who carves away the excess to reveal a beautiful sculpture, recovery is about carving away the excess in order to free the inner beauty that has been waiting to be released. Most addicts enter recovery rugged and raw. Creating a calm inner spirit requires fires of refinement through trials and tribulations. An addict doesn’t sign up for this course. It is just what must be embraced. Velvet steel is necessary for addicts to patiently persevere in the midst of the ups and downs in recovery living. The development of recovery skillsets requires a commitment to daily conditioning and training. Sometimes you take 2 steps forward and 5 steps backwards. It seems that you are digging yourself into a hole. Trusting the process in applying the 12-Steps demands the embrace of velvet steel. Be gentle with yourself when going backward while embracing a steel mentality to persevere and move forward. Velvet steel helps to remain determined to carve away the excess in order to free the inner beauty of recovery.
  1. Refresh your life with what is sacred. No matter the pain, life is where you are. Addicts are forever wishing they could be anywhere but facing what is in front of them. The intensity of discomfort and pain triggers addicts to fantasize. The steel side of recovery helps an addict hold h/her feet to the fire of the here and now. As muscle to this skillset develops, the sacredness of the here and now is refreshed. The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence. The velvet side of recovery cultivates beauty no matter where you are, regardless of the pain.
  2. Recognize that the dearest things in life cannot be owned, they can only be shared. Addicts frenetically grasp and clutch for what they can call their own. When you take away an addict’s drug of choice, they feel panic and think that all hell has broken loose. They hold on with a death grip to their drug of choice that has become their identity. During moments of craving, sharing is an anathema. Grasping and clasping, they squeeze what they mistake as life, taking the life they know and making it far less. Materialism can be this way. Once we commit to making things “mine,” we unleash a career of gathering and storing. Life can become about my possessions, my money, my power and position. We can gather and store so much that we become constipated in sharing the dearest things in life—love, compassion, and community. I know a community that has stored millions of dollars but cannot share their fortune with meals for the homeless, citing that the storage must be saved for a rainy day. Velvet steel is required to gently and forcefully take away the mental locks of what is yours to open your heart to what cannot be owned but only shared.

In exchange for the promise of security, many addicts put a barrier between themselves and the adventures of future personal growth that could put a whole new light on their personal lives. The late Scott Peck describes in his book The Road Less Traveled how life can be like a journey through the desert. Upon reaching the first oasis, many settle in and refuse to go farther. They hunker down around the amenities of shade and water and live out the rest of their lives never venturing to complete the journey through the desert. Addicts can find that oasis in recovery. 

Becoming sober and ending the craziness in behavior is enough. They often settle around the oasis in the recovery they have discovered. Yet, there is no settling in personal growth. It requires that we embrace the adventure of individual growth and expand our awareness well beyond stopping destructive behavior. To do so an addict must initiate courage to leave the oasis and journey forward into the desert. Most addicts do not make this choice. It relates to the fear of free falling. Who enjoys this experience? Yet, detaching from the predictable and embracing the unknown in order to expand growth and understanding in life requires a commitment to walk through the entire desert of life experience. This authentic trek requires the velvet steel of personal courage. Those who decide to make the trek discover freedom and serenity in recovery living.

Limits by Dr. Ken Wells

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” 

― Steve Jobs

Limits are difficult for type A, entrepreneurial people who like to insist on getting things the way they want it. And when they don’t, that’s when the color comes out in their behavior. Some people become green with envy, red with rage or a host of other colors demonstrating frustration, anger and exasperation. Some show ugly intolerance, making deleterious demands with iterations that reflect sophomoric immaturity. There is a mentality in the social milieu of our country that disdains limitations. There is an emphasis upon becoming a limitless person. Yet I have discovered great benefit to living within the context of personal limits. 

Boundaries are synonymous with limitations. Living within the framework of boundaries has saved more than one addict from deepening the hole of destructive behavior. 

Metaphors for the value of limits are all around us. I grew up in east central Illinois. To go home, I often fly from Phoenix to St. Louis. From the airport, I take Interstate 270 around the city of St. Louis leading to the I-70 bridge over the Mississippi River that parallels the old Chain of Rocks Bridge that has been shut down and abandoned for decades. After crossing the Mississippi there is another bridge that goes over a canal built for commercial barges to navigate safely through the Chain of Rocks. 

This canal is designed to be wide enough to accommodate the barge traffic with a steep shoreline. It is plenty deep so that commercial traffic can navigate with no problem. For me, this canal channel is a metaphor to recovery. There is no danger of the barge becoming impeded or stuck in shallow waters. The canal is designed and properly sized for typical commercial barge traffic. Within its confines, each barge is safe from the hazard of shallow waters. 

As long as addicts stay within the confines of healthy boundaries and respect limitation, they are safe from the hazards that lead to addictive acting out. It’s only when an addict ignores limitations that he or she gets into trouble with addictive acting out. Work addicts frequently lose themselves in the conquest of pursuing more to keep from being less. At some point, one more acquisition only adds meaningless content to an overstuffed portfolio. Ego grows while awareness of personal brilliance dims. 

I often hear complaints from work addicts who resent the need for limitation and boundary. Yet, true to the metaphor,  individuals who honor and respect limitation discover that they can go as deep within the boundary as they want. Rather than think horizontally, I want this, that and the other, consider the unexplored depths of going deep within.  It’s by respecting our limits and going deep within the heart that we have the opportunity to know ourselves best. Canadian poet Shane Koyczan declared that,“To discover the thing you’re brilliant at you first must explore meaningfulness in average experiences of life.” Limitations are the common stuff of every day living. Everyone has limits. The common frame of mind of “having your cake and eating it too” is often unrealistic. Limitation is the average awareness that all must embrace. Rather than stretching yourself to conquer more and more, consider plunging deep within the heart of average everyday experience and mine your own personal brilliance from within.   


  1. What personal limits have you tried to ignore?
  2. If you were to honor your limits and go deep within, what does your personal brilliance tell you about who you are? 
  3. Does the word “average” only connote assessment and judgment of performance to you?
  4. If average meant commonplace experience, what every day happenings do you minimize in your chase for achievement and success? 
  5. In what ways do your personal limits offer benefit rather than a burden toward developing personal brilliance?

Understanding Crazy Living by Dr. Ken Wells

“I’m on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen.
It’s not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.”
By Charlie Sheen

Addiction is all-consuming. Brilliance is lost to the twisted, distorted perspective that says, “I am the essence of brilliance.” Audacious self-importance keeps a person stuck. Now in reported recovery, Sheen may well speak from a different place than he once was.

I remember watching Charlie Sheen on 20/20 television show when he said, “I just didn’t believe I was like everybody else. I thought I was unique.” The public self-destruction of Charlie Sheen was painful to follow in the news. The descent from being the highest-paid American television actor on primetime ($1.8 million per episode on Two and a Half Men) to being HIV positive and suspected of threatening to kill a former fiancée all was very sad to his most loyal fan base.

Addicts are an odd lot. Rapacious, loner, renegade, charismatic, luminary, chic, and disgusting are among the many adjectives that describe those who suffer from addiction. During my professional experience, I have treated individuals who have squandered hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to escaping what they don’t want to feel. I have listened to a medical professional describe having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner numerous times and confessing that they cannot get enough of what they really don’t want. Some have spent millions of dollars on a cocktail of experience with sugar daddy prostitutes, alcohol, and opiates and then blew their brains out! I have spent time with workaholics who literally experienced tremors, excessive sweating, nausea, and diarrhea from simply withdrawing from the rush of adrenaline that comes with the art of the deal. The merry-go-round lifestyle of most addicts is dumbfounding and would make anyone dizzy just listening to the staggering story of out-of-control behavior.

Why? Gabor Maté has been so helpful with this question. He suggests rather than why the addiction, why the pain? A simple question that requires the courage to go deep under the surface and examine family-of-origin, social mores, economic conditions, etc that promote escape through addiction. This post will focus on family of origin.

As a kid, I always wondered if I was crazy. I created a make-believe friend who would walk alongside me and I could talk and feel safe as I walked up and down the railroad tracks of the Illinois Central. I once printed fliers warning of the end of the world and tried to give them to people I cared for and loved, fearing they would perish in hell. When my Little league coach was killed in a train/car crash I literally put my ear to the ground and thought I heard his screams in hell because when he died he was a Catholic! I was taught that Catholics weren’t Christian. I ran out of a minor league baseball stadium believing that it was going to blow up. And once I cut a 12-inch gash on the top of my right arm from my wrist to my elbow. I learned to soothe myself each night with masturbation. It was my only constant soothing source.

Later in life, I learned to hide and minimize these earlier childhood experiences by focusing on pleasing others, by being zealous in my Christian faith and by working harder than anyone else I knew. My work addiction and sex addiction flourished to a point of being out of control. Once I worked 120 hours in one week and averaged 80-90 hours per week as a minister “serving” God. Sex addiction became a way for me to medicate the crazy work schedule for which I was complimented for sacrificing for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Depression was never felt because I was too busy and tired to feel it. I used work and sex to be a way of holding back depression. However, like trying to hold a beach ball underwater, inevitably depression sprang forth and debilitated the existence of my life. Paralyzed with depression and unable to function, I had lost 48 pounds in six weeks and was suicidal. Hospitalized I found myself in the proverbial padded cell contemplating how I got there.

I thought about all the crap that my family and I had gone through in the church, and a wave of rage came over me. There were memories of a lot of sexual abuse. I felt the shame that manacled me and all of my siblings. I thought of the complexity of everything I knew about the church and its abuse. I wanted to throw up, but I did not. Rather, I began hitting my Bible with my bare fists. I struck my Bible again and again until my knuckles were bleeding. When I finished, I was exhausted. Not from the physical act of hitting but from tapping into all the rage, hate, and shame that had enveloped my life like a wet blanket for so many years.

Soren Kierkegaard once said, “life is meant to be lived forward but it can only be understood backwards”. Since being hospitalized for major depression, I have launched a lifelong exploration to understand why I suffered such debilitating depression. Somehow I had to make sense of the physical, sexual, emotional, and religious abuse I experienced. I wanted to know why I was an addict. I never signed up to be one! Learning about my family’s dysfunction helped me to convert and integrate unbelievably painful and abusive behaviors, perpetrated to me and from me, to a healing experience that made sense to me. This pursuit imparted wisdom which promoted self-compassion and empathy toward others.

It made sense that I would have a make-believe friend as a young boy. Being the youngest of five boys in a family of nine, I never experienced fitting in or acceptance by my older brothers. Every attempt to impress was thwarted or sabotaged. Any win I ever achieved in sports over an older brother was derided and shamed. If I didn’t want to play I was criticized for being a big baby. I once pitched a perfect game in baseball and was criticized for that! So fantasy became my refuge. Having a make-believe friend who was nice to me made all the sense in the world. Figuring out that I grew up in an evangelical cult helped me understand my over-the-top evangelistic fervor and fear. Think about it. If you were a young kid and sat week after week listening to a preacher tell you horror stories about people who died and went to hell, and that the world would end any day, you would probably do some type of crazy behavior.

Paradoxically, cutting myself felt soothing. It relieved tremendous emotional pain inside. It was a way of telling someone I was in distress, and cleaning myself up was a manageable problem, but the craziness in my life was not. Masturbation became a constant predictable source of relief in a world of chaos when I was a kid.

Listed are a few considerations to unravel your own craziness:

  1. Listen to your feelings — they are the voice of the universe talking to you about your life imbalance. Shame, hate, anger, depression, and resentment are powerful feelings you tend to want to avoid. Rather than run from them, embrace them. They will tell you what you need and your wise mind will suggest how to meet that need if you will but listen!
  2. Look backward for understanding your addiction behavior. You might find the meaning that could save your life. Nothing changes until it is real. Careful examination of your family of origin can help you make sense of your current destructive behavior. Actions and behaviors that seem crazy from one perspective will make sense from another. Understanding will help cultivate adult insight and compassion which creates acceptance and meaningfulness.
  3. Trying to fill the empty hole inside with a cocktail of experience (performance, work, alcohol, drugs, etc) from the outside is like a little kid who can’t get enough sugar. There is never enough! Unmet developmental needs from childhood are wounds that must be scrubbed. When ignored they create a pool of pain that triggers destructive behavior to sedate the emotional pain that exists. Grieving unmet needs from an early age is a way of discharging the suffering that gets locked in childhood. If the wound is not scrubbed and cleaned then the infection of arrogance, wanting what I want when I want it, contaminates and spreads through selfish myopic behavior. Adults give their power to the immature child within to make decisions and run the show. You will need to grow yourself up, take the reins from the small child, and enable your wise-mind adult self to make the decisions and empower you to sit with painful discomfort and resource your healing.

When you look underneath the addictive behavior, it’s never crazy and always makes sense. It is not healthy sense but nonetheless, there is rhyme and reason to what seems crazy-making. Only when you unravel what’s behind your own crazy-making behavior will you be able to answer the question “Why the pain?”

Breaking Free from Addiction: The Process of Letting Go and Finding Better Solutions

Letting go of who you’ve been, for who you can become, is a process of letting go. It’s a process of eliminating the current solution you’re using to try and soothe yourself.

As my friend Dr. Gabor Maté says, “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” 

When we see addictions, we are seeing someone in pain… someone in fear… someone feeling loneliness, depression, anger, isolation, and more. The addiction happens to be the way they are scratching the itch.

Think of the pain metaphorically as the itch. There’s nothing wrong with wanting pain to go away; it’s the method you use to scratch the itch.

It’s also worth pointing out that when I look at people who have addictions, many have a lot of physical pain. It’s possible that the same manifestations that cause addiction… (or cause someone to self-destruct… or to try and get the dopamine hits they are looking for through behaviors or chemicals… or cause repressed emotions and a feeling of not being okay in the world…) are the same things that manifest as physical pain.

In this way, the pain is a way for our bodies to try and protect itself from feeling feelings it does not want to feel.

People who look at addicts as moral degenerates need to understand something…

There’s not a person on the planet that has some unmanageable, out of control behavior who WANTS that.

Some people may say, “They DO want it, because they are obviously doing it.” But the truth is, the pain serves them to the degree that it helps them scratches the itch.

In this way, addiction IS a solution for people; it’s just not a good one.

It’s one that could kill them.

That’s why I want to find better solutions that have efficacy and share those with the world.  That’s why I created Genius Recovery.

Does Drug or Alcohol Rehab Work?

There are plenty of successful recovery stories that testify that drug and centers can work well for many addicts. However, this success really hinges on matching the right kind of treatment with the specifics of the addiction and the addict’s personality. Not every treatment for addiction is the same, just as not every addict is the same. In fact, there’s no official way to measure the success of a rehab program. It all depends on how the addict defines success. If the goal is just to reduce consumption, then this might be easier to achieve than addressing some of the underlying issues that might prevent someone from entering recovery completely.

Some people who abuse drugs or alcohol do manage to quit on their own. However, one might argue that if an addict can decide on his or her own to change their behavior, then maybe their dependence wasn’t to the level of addiction. This is where rehabilitation centers come in. Some addicts have such bad withdrawal symptoms vomiting, physical shakes that resemble seizures—that they need around-the clock medical care. This type of care is known as in-patient or residential care, depending on how long the addict stays in the facility. In-patient services are usually shorter, about a month, while residential programs tend to be longer. An alternative treatment plan would be an outpatient program that relies on counseling and mentoring.

Rehab Programs

RehabMany in-patient and residential programs are very costly. However, this might make an addict take them more seriously. If you know that you are committing a large sum of money to your health, you tend to value the process more. Also, you can weigh the cost of rehabilitation against the cost of fines and lawyer fees resulting from addictive behaviours. You might get into jail when caught in the possession of illegal narcotics.

And then, of course, there’s the old adage “you get what you pay for.” Rehab programs are often staffed by knowledgeable medical staff with graduate degrees in their fields. The national boards often evaluated the centers. However, a treatment plan is only as good as the commitment a patient makes to it. If an addict does not truly want to recover, then it won’t happen. Mere completion of program doesn’t indicate success, as patients can revert back to their old habits after finishing the treatment. So much of recovery from addiction has to happen through changes in the outlook of the person suffering from addiction.

Bear in mind that a relapse isn’t an indication that treatment hasn’t been successful. Neither is it a judgment about the personal failing of the addict. In fact, it’s merely just a pretty normal step in the process of recovery. Addicts often relapse few times before they realize the severity of addiction and the need to avoid from mood-altering substances. In many ways, the most important “work” rehabs  accomplish is to introduce addicts to the basic tenets of 12-step programs, healthy routines and habits, and what it takes to achieve long-term sobriety.


Meet the Man Who’s Stronger Than Drugs

Though we all go through plenty of highs and lows in life, few people have seen the extreme ends of the spectrum as clearly as Willie ‘The Bam’ Johnson. For anybody who is a fan of martial arts, Johnson is something of a legend. He’s the first American in history to win be a nationally-ranked, Triple Crown martial arts champion and holds fifth- and seventh-degree black belts in karate and kung fu, respectively. Beyond that, he’s also trained in jujitsu, Thai boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and Tai Chi. To top it all off, he achieved the rank of Grand Master in 1995 and has been inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

Still, nobody is more in awe of his ascendancy than Johnson himself. “As a six-year-old kid growing up in the city of Baltimore in a community called Lafayette Projects,” Johnson says, “there were a lot of things going on in my household.” Beyond the general struggle of growing up in a poor, hard-working family, there were also significant family dysfunctions. “I was being molested and [experiencing] things that made me feel so less-than by other family members.”

The first germ of change happened only by accident. “There was this one moment where my mom had allowed me to go to this movie called Chinese Connection with a neighbor,” Johnson says. “I went there and I got a chance to see Bruce Lee. And I didn’t see Bruce Lee, I saw me. I saw an opportunity and I found a way to get through the pain I was going through.” From that day forward, there was virtually never a moment when Johnson wasn’t honing his martial arts skills.

Although he had all the enthusiasm, finding ways to practice was somewhat challenging. “In that time, there weren’t that many schools or people who were doing martial arts,” Johnson says. “You would have to find somebody who learned it in the military or a guy who was teaching privately. I found a guy who was teaching privately and he began to help me along.” Before long, Johnson was learning privately, sitting in on classes with the permission of instructors and honing his craft. Slowly but surely, he took things to the next level.

“As I got a little older, around 10,” he says, “My sister moved out and I made my own dojo in my apartment.” He started having kids in the neighborhood over to teach them privately until a few years later, one of his younger students suggested they try offering the class in a local community center. “I went over there, the first thing the guy told me was, ‘What are you talking about?'” Johnson says. “‘You’re only 12 years old, you can’t teach no class.'”

After that, Johnson and his troupe of kids went outside to practice in the field—where they were spotted by Kenneth Parker, a counselor at the community center. As it turns out, Parker was so impressed that he talked the owner into letting him lead a martial arts class at the center for the kids. “[Parker] was already a black belt in karate, did yoga, was into holistic health,” Johnson says. “He became a mentor and kept reinforcing my creativity.”

By the time he was 17, Johnson had competed in (and won) tournaments. By the time he was 18, he had his own martial arts school in Baltimore. As the 80s rolled in, Johnson’s star was on the rise—right as crack cocaine and heroin were flooding the city streets. “I started really being recognized in magazines,” he says. “All those dreams I had as a kid were now manifesting. But because of the influx of crack cocaine and heroin, all of my friends were becoming big-time drug dealers.”

The neighborhood Johnson remembered as a kid was eroding, replaced with gun fights and drug dealers. It culminated when Johnson saw his best friend get shot up outside his home. “Friends were hurting friends, family was hurting family,” Johnson says. “That’s when my addiction really took off.” Though it included drug use, the issue was more complex than that. “I was addicted to carrying guns, selling drugs, using drugs,” he says. “I never put a needle in my arm but [I] was addicted to a lifestyle.”

At home, Johnson’s mom was struggling with cancer. In his world, he had scored his first official cover shoot for a martial arts magazine. His plan was to go to the shoot and then go out partying—but he missed the bus. Instead of shooting for the magazine, he went home to see his mother, who was particularly ill. “My mom died in my arms [that night],” he says. “Her last words were, ‘Be good, Bam Bam.’”

Things got worse after that. “When she died, I was on the path to suicide,” he says. “I was smoking everything, taking everything. I ended up homeless. I was eating out of trash cans.” It wasn’t long after that Johnson found himself serving a year-long sentence in federal prison. “When I got locked up, I had crack cocaine in my pocket after they searched me,” he says. “After all that happened, I thought, ‘I could take this crack and go crazy, or I can flush it down the toilet and ask God to give me a chance.’” He chose the latter.

Johnson started working with a drug counselor in prison and working a 12-step program. He came up with the idea for Stronger than Drugs, a program to keep Baltimore kids ages four to 17-years-old off of drugs. Despite all his success and personal achievements, his sponsor doled out some hard lessons to Johnson. “I had five kids,” Johnson says. “My sponsor would say to me, ‘Don’t come in here like you’re all clean and sober when you still have an alcoholic’s behavior. When you go home, you gotta respect women. And secondly, go get your kids and raise your kids. Pay off your child support and stop talking like you’re some gangster on the streets. When you do all that, I’m impressed.’”

When he got out of jail, Johnson made good on his promise. “I still do everything I did in jail to this day,” he says—that means practicing martial arts, trying to guide the youth away from drugs and crime and relentlessly pursuing self-development. Aside from teaching students, Stronger than Drugs remains one of Johnson’s biggest projects. “Our ultimate goal is to educate the kids,” he says. “How do we educate them so they don’t have to come in a room and say, ‘Hey, my name is Johnny and I’m an alcoholic.’” Just as every great journey begins with a single step, Johnson’s philosophy behind his recovery and his success is as simple as can be. “In the martial arts, we say that a black belt is just a white belt that never quits,” he says. “And that’s what AA is. We’re just beginners who never quit.”

Addiction Once Ran Charlie Engle’s Life. Now He Outruns It—and Everything Else

For most of us, running a marathon is a nearly insurmountable challenge. A marathon, after all, is 26 miles long and can involve temporarily shrinking half an inch due to lack of water, sustaining short-term kidney damage and wobbling over the finish line. Though a marathon might be a big enough challenge for most people, it isn’t enough for Charlie Engle. Engle is an ultramarathon runner and as such, he’s no stranger to completing staggering physical challenges. What doesn’t get mentioned as much, however, is that some of Engle’s most grueling challenges have been mental and spiritual—namely, getting sober and maintaining his peace and purpose.

Before that, it’s worth running through (forgive me) some of the incredible things Engle has accomplished thus far. Before he got sober, he ran the Big Sur marathon and the Boston Marathon. He entered his first ultramarathon in 1996 in Brisbane, Australia by accident, thinking it was shorter—and ended up winning the men’s division anyway. He ran more events after that, including the Borneo Eco-Challenge, a 12-day adventure race where runners trek 320 miles and some change through the jungles of Borneo. Finally, Engle ran for 111 days straight all the way across the Sahara desert. That’s 4,300 miles. To put that in perspective, that’s about 38 miles a day—in other words, a marathon in the morning, a lunch break and a second marathon in the afternoon for 111 days straight.

He even wrote his own memoir, Running Man, detailing his life and experiences (and in typical Engle fashion, he overdid it: “I wrote 800 pages for my 300-page book”). Although Engle has been written about ad infinitum, the hardest part about his story is explaining where his Herculean drive comes from. To hear him tell it, it actually has a lot to do with childhood and addiction. “Like with most addicts, it’s complicated,” he says. “When I was a kid, I distinctly remember that I had this very bohemian upbringing. I liked to call myself ‘lovingly neglected.’ My mom was 18 years old and a theater major, so I was around a lot of adults.”

While Engle remembers his childhood warmly, the environment he lived in did expose him to alcohol and drugs like marijuana at an early age. “Regularly in my house, there was not a lot to eat or drink,” he says. “It was like living in a college dorm room almost. When I was about 10 years old, I woke up at two in the morning and there was nothing in the fridge. So I walked back through and grabbed a beer sitting on the table and I drank it. And I liked it. I liked it immediately.”

Even though that formative beer didn’t immediately lead Engle into the lifestyle of addiction, he says that it definitely planted a seed that grew in his college years. Though he was active in sports and involved in extracurriculars in high school, college was a wake-up call. “I went to UNC Chapel Hill and I think I expected there to be a ‘Welcome, Charlie’ banner on my dorm,” he says with a laugh. “What I found out very quickly was that I was actually pretty average.” Like any young adult whose self-image was in jeopardy, Engle looked for another thing to excel at—and found it almost immediately. “What I discovered by accident is that I was an All-American, first-team drinker. I could drink more than anybody else around,” he says. “It’s not the identity that one looks for, but that sort of became my identity in college.”

Drinking quickly escalated to harder drugs, all of which cost Engle a lot of time. “I did cocaine, I dealt cocaine,” Engle says. “The first time I tried it I didn’t feel a thing. Then the second time, everything changed. Everything was clearer and I had big plans and I was going to do all the things the person says they’re going to do when they’re on coke. And I spent the next 10 years after that night chasing that first high.” Engle’s rock bottom happened in Wichita, Kansas in 1992. He was on a cocaine binge and at the end of it, his car was shot at with a hail of bullets. He attended AA that same day and started on the path to sobriety.

It was in sobriety that the true self-discovery began. “Once I got sober, the mission for me was to pound the addict out of me,” Engle says. “If I could’ve taken a scalpel and cut the addict out of me, I would’ve done that. And it took me three years to realize that the addict was all the best parts of me. It wasn’t the part of me I needed to get rid of, it was the part of me I needed to nurture and point towards the things I really wanted to do.”

Although Engle adheres to a 12-step recovery program, he says that extreme physical exertion (put more bluntly: physical suffering) was a kind of spiritual key to unlocking the treasure of his potential. “The other ways to cause yourself pain are [an unhealthy] physical relationship, a lousy job,” he says. “Those are long-term commitments that are hard to untangle. If I go race a 100-miler, I actually know that 100 miles is going to end one way or another. I want to get to a place during that 100-miler that I desperately want to quit. That’s actually why I’m there, to get that feeling and then push past that.”

In fitting with that spirit, Engle’s newest adventure is the 5.8 Expedition, an ambitious undertaking which plans to have Engle race from the points of lowest to highest altitude on all seven continents. The crown jewel of the project is to be a trek from the Dead Sea in Jordan to the top of Mount Everest—but there are other races to complete first. “Phase one of 5.8 is going to happen in June,” he says. “It’s going to be in Africa, so from the lowest place to the top of Kilimanjaro.” Although many of us might tremble in the face of such a challenge, Engle couldn’t be more excited. “The point is that all of us live within this tiny 5.8 miles of atmosphere that surrounds the planet,” he says. “I think it’s a metaphor for life. We’re all in this together. Running in Africa or South America or Badwater, those are the payoffs for being sober. I get to do things like that. I get to go suffer in those places.”

Engle’s many high-profile races also have environmental and humanitarian projects attached as well, and 5.8 is no different. Though the project will undoubtedly inspire others, spread awareness and raise money for Engle’s newest environmental non-profit We Are One Village, the core motivation is still selfish, in a sense. “I’ve come to the deep understanding that service is incredibly selfish,” he says with a laugh. “Hard physical suffering, if I could put a picture to it, is like taking a firehose and cleaning out my insides to replace it with something better. I can’t find another way to have that sort of replenishment.”

Eating Dessert on a Full Stomach Helped Me Beat My Sugar Addiction

Like many folks with drinking problems, my first addiction was sugar. I actually recall the horror of losing my grip on a Cookies and Cream ice cream cone when I was three years old at Baskin Robbins. I was devastated, watching that perfectly good scoop of fresh ice cream hit the ground and turn into a goopy mess on the floor. I also recall hiding in the closet every Halloween so I could polish off my plastic pumpkin full of bite-sized Snickers, Three Musketeers and Mars Bars. My parents always warned me that I’d get sick if I ate too much candy, but that just never happened. To this day, my tolerance for sugar is about 10 times that of the average person.

Though I’ve managed to shelve the alcohol and the cigarettes, the sugar problem persists to this day. I’ve tried quitting altogether, but no matter how many times I hit an OA meeting, I just can’t give it up. Apparently, I’m not alone; a former AA sponsor who managed to rack up 30+ years of both sobriety and smobriety couldn’t quit the sugar either. She tried over and over and over, but she just couldn’t resist her cravings for Sees Candies suckers.

I’m sure one of the main reasons I can’t call it quits with sugar is that it never destroyed my life like alcohol. Sure, I sometimes have bad sugar hangovers, but thankfully the problem isn’t so bad that I binge on the stuff day after day after day. If I do have a sugar coma, it’s just a few days out of the month. I wish I could have iron self-control, like so many people you run into at 12-step meetings in LA who don’t consume caffeine or sugar or dairy or gluten or fructose or anything made from animals, but I’m just not willing to exert any more energy in quitting anything. Is it really that bad if I overdo it on Oreos?

Still, sugar is pretty gnarly, and gaining weight from stuffing my face with doughnuts all day is the least of my concerns. Though I wouldn’t be happy about going up a size or two, my main worry is that weight gain can bring on diabetes and insulin resistance. Diabetes in itself is bad enough, but the disease may trigger early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. No thank you. Then there’s the horrifying effect sugar has on my brain today; it messes with both my focus and my mood, and at times it can even trigger bouts of rage.

About a year ago, I made the mistake of scarfing down a box of Oreos with milk before bed and on a relatively empty stomach, and when I woke up in the morning I was convinced, for no reason whatsoever, that my boyfriend didn’t love me or pay enough attention to me. So, I proceeded to call him to tell him so, and when he didn’t pick up, I called multiple times, something I never do, until he finally picked up.

He answered with a quizzical “Are you okay?” With my body in a state of mild convulsion, I realized that no, I was not okay. I was in the midst of a sugar withdrawal only slightly less acute than the withdrawals I experienced from alcohol. What’s worse is that this ended up happening a second time, about a month later. Sugar, apparently, had the power to make me certifiably insane.

After these horrible occurrences and two tearful apologies to my boyfriend, I decided I really needed to take the sugar addiction seriously. But I’d already tried to quit so many times, and I just didn’t want to go through the agony of withdrawal only to give in again.

Then I remembered that a few weeks earlier I was out at a nice meal and ordered some blueberry beignets with vanilla ice cream on a full stomach, and I didn’t even finish them! The irresistible craving that I typically develop when eating something sweet on an empty stomach just didn’t surface. The same thing happened with alcohol; I rarely got blitzed while drinking at dinner, and even if I had a lot to drink usually just got sleepy and went to bed. Since I didn’t need to shovel down five beignets, I didn’t suffer from a sugar hangover or blood sugar imbalance.

Upon remembering this, I made a rule with myself that I wouldn’t have sugar unless it was on a full stomach. I’d let myself eat an entire package of Oreos if I wanted, as long as I’d already scarfed down plenty of protein and fiber.

The rule seems to be working.

Right now I’m in Armenia, my mother country, and this place has more Oreos than any other country outside of the US, so I’m beginning to believe my sugar addiction is genetic. You can find white chocolate and milk chocolate-covered Oreos, Brownie Oreos, Oreo Thins, and they even sell Oreos by the kilo.

I don’t resist buying these. Instead, I just cook up some chicken with eggplant, or eat some yogurt and lavash, and top it all off with olives and then chase whatever I just ate down with water and wait a good 20 minutes before allowing myself to eat the cookies. By the time all that food registers to my brain, I just don’t have the physiological desire to stuff my face with the cookies. I’ll end up eating maybe four or five of them (it’s a lot for some folks, but that’s nothing for me), and then putting the box away.

As a result, I don’t wake up out of my mind and in a rage at the world, and I don’t get all shaky and cracked-out and suffer from an inability to focus. For now, it’s a doable, harm-reductive approach that will hopefully help me stave off early-onset dementia, diabetes, and even an expanding waistline as I grow old.

An Entrepreneur in Recovery Who’s Determined to Connect the Two

As anyone with any proximity to addiction knows, the recovery world is rife with colorful life stories. Still, addiction entrepreneur Alex Shohet’s is unusually rich. “I’ve had a long and complicated career,” he says. “I probably have a story that’s out of some kind of crime novel.” Shohet’s most recent venture is The Red Door, a luxe sober living home founded in 2018 that offers recovery support while also serving as an incubator space for its members’ business ventures, creative projects and start-up ideas.

If that marriage seems counter-intuitive, that’s because it is—and Shohet understands that. “We always call it the experiment,” he says. “There’s a linear approach to recovery which is to get clean and sober and then when you’re healthy enough, go back and start working. What we’re trying to say is, ‘Well, it’s not actually linear.’” For Shohet, The Red Door represents a point on his own business and recovery trajectory some 34 years removed from where it all started. To understand it in context, it’s best to go back to the beginning.

As a young man, Shohet attended UCLA but was battling addiction at the time. “I became a heroin and cocaine user,” he says. “I never graduated. I was going in and out of treatment and in and out of whatever else.” This rocky period of Shohet’s life led to him dropping out of college and attending an inpatient program at Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Pasadena. “I stayed there for six months and then did about 12 months of outpatient,” he says.

In 1988, Shohet left Impact with newfound sobriety. But he also had a series of unpleasant realizations after getting back into the real world. “When I was in Impact, there was a period of time where you’re supposed to go out and get a job,” he says. “The challenge with that is: what do you put on your resume? I was doing petty crimes, I was a heroin and cocaine drug addict, I’d spent six months in a treatment center for people coming out of prison. Was I supposed to write all that?”

The common wisdom of 12-Step oriented programs is that recovering addicts ought to pursue a life of rigorous honesty and authenticity. Unfortunately, Shohet found it difficult to be both rigorously honest and gainfully employed. “I’m not saying I encourage this,” he says, “but faced with the opportunity of not having work, I lied on my resume.” Shortly thereafter, Shohet found employment working with personal computers (on the strength of his uncompleted engineering degree from UCLA). Fortunately, luckier times were ahead.

With the guidance of a friend and mentor, Shohet started his own computer company and found success during the dot-com boom of the 90s. In 2000, Shohet’s sponsor died of AIDS and his best friend died from relapse complications. On top of that, his wife became pregnant right as her brother passed away. Combined with the burst of the dot-com bubble, the stress led to Shohet relapsing and finding himself in rehab once again at Beit T’Shuvah. “I went [to rehab] the first time as basically a homeless person,” Shohet says. “When I went in the second time, I went in as a yuppie.”

Though his position had changed, he noticed the same problem as before: recovering addicts were finding it nearly impossible to reintegrate into the labor force. After researching the problem more on his own, Shohet embarked on new business ventures. The first was Wonderland, a high-end treatment center in the Hollywood Hills which has since closed amidst legal disputes with his then-business partner, Dr. Howard Samuels. Shohet then split off to found ONE80Center, which also closed amidst legal troubles related to two wrongful death suits. After years of legal battles, Shohet found himself back at square one. “After the litigation was over,” he says, “I went back and started saying, ‘Well, one thing I thought was a missing element in previous versions of treatment was entrepreneurship.’”

Through all his experiences in the Wild West of the high-end California rehab industry, Shohet says he always remained focused on his social mission. “I feel like what we do [at The Red Door] is standing on the back of all the other programs that have existed before us,” he says. “In the 80s, the places with work components were Salvation Army, Delancey Street, Impact. The thing about it was that most of the kinds of employment available were blue-collar work. But there was a big part of the population left out of that.”

Historically speaking, it’s no secret that jobs within the recovery industry are some of the best jobs available to recovering addicts. Still, those jobs represent a very narrow slice of the entire labor market. “Maybe we can expand on the blue-collar work and become more relevant or more current,” he says. “People can come out of these programs and feel like they can compete and succeed.”

Despite the entrepreneurial aspect, The Red Door still has all the rigor of any other sober living home. The house has five bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms and equips clients with their own customized recovery teams of therapists, psychiatrists and other treatment professionals. Above all, Shohet is hoping to change the way addiction is treated and to break down the stereotypes society has about people in recovery.

“Many addicts have an incredible amount of drive,” Shohet says. “When it’s harnessed towards their addictions, it’s very destructive. But that drive can be harnessed or directed into other things.” Speaking personally, Shohet says that his entrepreneurial journey and recovery are more or less inseparable—and he hopes the Red Door can impart that wisdom onto others like himself. “I’m passionately interested in creating things and building things and learning everything I can about business,” he says. “But I’m also an addict.”