From addict to Ironman - An interview with Darren


This week's #healthspotalk is a bit of a different kind. I met Darren, the founder of Old Dawg Coaching during my stay at Phuket Cleanse. Remember the torturous lifeguard workout I told you about? Yep, that's with him. What about the 45min. intense HIIT the stairs workout? Also with him. In short: all the tough workouts are with Darren. During one of our pool workouts I gave Phil a quick smooch and was mercilessly punished with a minute of swimming while being pulled back by a rope (see pictures below). Learned my lesson there.

Darren is the definitely the right man for this job. Armed with a degree in kinesiology  (exercise physiology), five Ironman Triathlon finishes and his unstoppable desire to see you transform your obstacles into opportunities, he has a willpower and drive that is contagious and make you want to work that bit harder.

However, his greatest result wasn’t on an Ironman race course; but 14 years of sobriety. Yes, you read that correctly. Darren has a history of drug and alcohol abuse and has been sober since 14 years. It's his past that has made him go down the path he is on today; one that is utterly inspiring and eye-opening.

There's one thing I want to talk about before I let him share his story: On the surface, a person with an eating disorder and a person with an alcohol/drug addiction might seem strikingly different. One has a body image issue, the other has issues concerning sensation. But once you dig a little deeper, it's easy to see how those two problems might share common roots. In fact, in a lot of people the addiction and the eating disorder are wrestling for control at the same time. The high is never high enough, the scale is never low enough, and the image in the mirror is never good enough. There is that unsatisfied hunger for more, better, faster -  and a search for instant gratification is the result. One common root cause means one common solution. With people who have an eating disorder the issue is not food, much like how for people who have a substance addiction the issue is not the substance. Darren's story is a perfect illustration of this.

You went from addict to iron man. Tell us a bit more about your story.

Thank you so much for this opportunity , it truly is an honour.

I am a Canadian by birth, so that means that I pretty much grew up with a hockey stick in my hand. I was always an active child and loved to spend hours out on the rink. Summers were spent working out on the farm, at camp, or getting my bike dirty. From an early age, I always felt my happiest when I was playing outside and moving around. I had a very loving and supporting home life, and by all accounts it was pretty normal. Note that normal would take on a pretty diluted definition in my late twenties.

Normal for any addict or alcoholic might be a little bit different then how most people would define normal. For me normal was not doing any cocaine after 5am, because only real junkies use all the time. Not injecting also made me normal. Normal also meant that I would do anything possible to get my next score - manipulate / lie / cheat and steal. I would do anything to protect my secret identity, because I didn’t want anyone to find out just how abnormal I really was. Normal also meant drinking until I would black out and not remembering anything from the night before. Having to change the sheets a few times a week because I would piss the bed was also normal. Getting off a bus during rush hour and puking my guts out in front of everyone and all that was warranted was a shrug of the shoulders -yup you guessed it …normal. Are we normal if we are having conversations with bottles of booze? “ You will not get me tonight “- and guess what, I’d wake up and find the empty bottles littered throughout my bedroom.

Fourteen years ago I sat with the razor blade and I wanted it all to end. I even got the direction of the cuts right. My saving grace was that I didn't cut deep enough. My thought at the time was that I was such a worthless piece of crap that I couldn't even get this right. There is a part of me that likes to think that some mechanism of self preservation kicked in and I stopped dead in my tracks. Saw the light so to speak , and came to my senses. My senses are what lead me to this place. That was my normal .

Stef , guess what, I did get it right - my deepest scars are my greatest strengths .

Even after 14 years , I still get goose bumps thinking about that day - it helps me to connect with people on a deeper level of humanity. To see and feel the struggle that people go through, we all stumble, fall, and get knocked on our ass - we all have stories how we have risen back up from our darkest moments. That's what the true meaning of running an Ironman is for me - the ability to have perseverance with myself and to a larger extent with life.

I could easily talk about all the training, commitment and what it takes to complete the race. The feeling of sheer euphoria of crossing the finish line. The taste of real food after the race and not another bloody power gel. The pain the next day of taking the first few steps just out of bed to the bathroom, and the absolute horror when you realize that you have to get up off the toilet seat. The pride of wearing the finisher's shirt.

I never would have believed that I would have done an Ironman back when I was in the grip of cocaine and alcoholism. And I am very proud of my achievement. But I also think that I, in some ways, traded in one addiction for another. If you would have asked me a few years ago I would have said NO - but over the last few years -with the help of an amazing woman who has no idea how much she has impacted me and who I am eternally grateful for -have come to see that I really did trade in one addiction for another.

Yes - I was happy to label myself as an Ironman and it relived some of my guilt for the shame of my past. I was the Ironman and no longer the ex coke head. I used this guilt to train harder and log more and more training hours -but it still never alleviated my sense of shame. I didn't really have any sense of balance in my life. It had never anything to do with such a fantastic sport and lifestyle, it was me all me and nothing but me. No matter how many finishers shirts I had in my closet, it never gave me that sense of validation that I was craving. Still chasing the dragon, but this time with shaved legs and a tight aero position.

What exactly was your turning point?

The true turning point for me was not when I had the razor blade in my hand, but was 10 years into sobriety . When I finally confronted my misguided sense of relationship with self. For the majority of my life I had a misguided sense of love, how to receive love and how to give love. I had no idea how to love myself, which lead to some pretty maladaptive ways of looking for love. I think that the word that I am looking for is co dependency. I’d search high and low for love , thinking that it was some buried treasure hidden outside myself.

Do you have any sense of what it’s like to walk around on egg shells around other people? Saying yes when I wanted to scream no. So afraid to say no and so desperate for people to validate me. I was always trying to stay one step ahead of the game and do whatever it took to please people. But if I couldn’t love myself, how the heck could someone else love me?

The true turning point has been when I have started to learn how to truly love all of myself, an unconditional acceptance of myself (scars and all).

I think that this notion that we have to be perfect holds so many people back from pulling the trigger on the life that we deserve. I’ve let go of this need to be perfect and it’s allowed me not to need anyone else's permission to love myself. I also had to drop the labels I would give myself. Drop the Ironman label, let go of the addict label .What I learned was that I am so much more then a label – I am whatever I choose myself to be.

I choose.

But I had to see things in a different light – a subtle shift in my perspective. It wasn’t with a magic wave of a wand  – it took a lot of time. I couldn’t just be me, I lacked the strength to stand on my own two feet. Naked without that label, something that had been my comfort zone for so long. It allowed me to play it safe and secure – I settled for less because I kept telling myself that I am just an addict and should be happy and grateful for what I have in life. Who was I to ask for more..

But you know what it really was?

It was a cop out; an excuse for me to keep playing the victim. "Why bother since it wont work out anyways –I’m just a victim." The addict label was another excuse I would use as a lifeline to the safety and security of 'good enough'.

It's only now that I can truly stand before you just as Darren without any safety lines of any label.

After you got sober, eating started to replace the alcohol and you developed a dysfunctional relationship to food. Why do you think that was?

For as long as I can remember my eating was a source of comfort. Now what happens when we combine that with a distorted perception of self and a very unhealthy body image? I was so scared of what others would think about me, filled with so many insecurities about my body.

"Please, please just like me for the way I look. Because if you peel away the superficial layer –how could you possibly like what you will find? Don’t expose that naked core, the one that has no where left to hide."

I needed that sense of validation. How many times would I tell myself “I’ve been good for a few days and can have that movie theatre microwave popcorn with almond hershey bar broken in it. You’ve been good, have the whole pizza, ice cream and the chips. At least you are getting some healthy nutrients with the blueberries and bananas in the three bowls of granola." Kind of reminds me of the Lite Beer with a shot of vodka in it. The master of spinning my own web.

Binge binge binge.

Then it would start... The gate was open. Bring on the emotional eating. I would eat to have effect. Table for three please –shame /remorse/ and self pity. The  only way I could feel better was to keep eating. That voice in my head that beat me up – that voice that says things to us that no other person has ever said to us – we are the masters of our own self manipulation. We know the exact buttons to push in our own minds. If I am feeling so physically ill and uncomfortable then by all means it justifies the circus in my head. It can’t be me – deflect. Who in their right mind would admit that they are a result of their own thoughts? It’s a pretty huge hit for that precious sense of self. I wanted to eradicate the insecurities that I felt about myself. I wanted control and security.

Funny how that old dated version of healthy only revolved around appearance. Never mind the total lack of emotional or spiritual health.

Exercise was also a form of punishment. I would punish myself for the way that I would eat. You were bad for eating that food. Now you will be good for exercising. Whole pizza and ice cream , three hail mary’s...

I couldn’t see the line that I crossed and would lie to clients about my eating habits. I mean people were coming to me for guidance and yet here I was not having my own shit together. How could I? I was so scared that they would find out that I was a fraud. Here we go again..

I totally agree with what you said. In the end it doesn't have anything to do with the food or the booze or the drug, but about the relationship that we have with ourself.

You run a company in Phuket called Old Dawg Coaching. What do you guys do and what is the philosophy behind it ?

Do you think you can teach an old dog a new trick ? Whether you think that you can or you can’t; you are right. There is no right or wrong answer but only the power that you give to the Can or the Can't. That power rests with you. At Old Dawg Coaching we believe that the secret to any lasting change is changing our thoughts and beliefs. We also need to be aware of our assumptions and limiting beliefs.

We focus on reconnecting with our self through moving our bodies. It’s very important to think of training as play time, something that came so natural to us when we were kids. We made our own rules, got dirty and didn't have a single worry. Our training is hard, but playful in a way that allows you to connect with that inner child again.

We offer individual and group classes and also work with a great physiotherapist. Charlie has a heart of gold and cares a lot about giving back to other people. Together we're a passionate team that truly walks the talk and wants to help other's become the best version of themselves.

Tell us a bit more about Tom and how you are helping him to fullfill his life dream of learning to surf – at the age of 70 . What an awesome project!

At the ripe young age of 70 Tom wants to learn how to surf. Talk about causing a massive blip on my EKG. We all have dreams that for whatever reason, they remain just that: dreams. We think about them but don’t take any action to make them real.

Tom is definitely busy with the doing. All of the training we are doing now is to put his body in the best position to pop up on a surf board and catch a few waves. From a kinesiology standpoint we had to look at specific energy system training, sport skill development, rate of force development and optimal planning and periodisation. I think it’s such an empowering story that can help inspire so many people. Who doesn’t want to reinvent themselves?

What advice could you give to anyone reading this who’s currently struggling with an addiction? Any words or wisdom you’d like to share?

Believe me when I tell you that it doesn’t have to be helpless and hopeless. There is a solution and a way out. We need to remember that addiction is a disease of isolation. Reach out for help or email me at olddawgcoaching@ gmail .com - asking another human being for help is the first step.

There is also a lot of shame and guilt associated with addiction. It took me a long time to realize that I didn't have to keep punishing myself over and over again for my mistakes. My dad once told me something that has stuck with me for a very long time: "Why do you think that there are erasers on the end of a pencil?". At the end of the day it came down to my choice to drink and use , but it’s also my choice to remain sober. We need to put the same effort into our sobriety as we did with looking to get messed up.

In summary, here are some things that worked for me:

  1. Stopped judging myself as GOOD or BAD because of the food I ate …. It’s FOOD it is not a moral barometer . It’s food and not such a BIG DEAL.
  2. Discarded the notion of a “cheat day “ - too much emphasis  on being GOOD or BAD = REWARD . What was the reward , the exact thing I was depriving myself.
  3. Started working on Loving myself - during the first 5 years of my sobriety I had no idea what that meant .Isn’t going to meetings and not using for the day good enough?
  4. Looked past my imperfections and focused on positive attributes ( I know that it is very tough when all we see are the negatives ) - fall into that even today - Progression not Perfection
  5. Stopped worrying about what others think of me -I hate to break it to you but other people are so wrapped up in their own stuff, that we are not even on their radars.

This may scare some people, but there will always be tough days, even without the recovery asterisks. There are days when I just want to curl up in a little ball and hide under the fuzzy wuzzy duckie blankie, but what I have learned is that when I feel like this I immediately find one thing I’m grateful for and reach out and make a small difference in one other persons’ life. Want a sure fire way to immediately change how you feel about yourself? Give someone a smile. It will immediately give you a hit (sorry I couldn't resist) of serotonin, and guess what? All it costs is a little effort on your part and you have immediately taken yourself out of the problem mindset and put yourself in the solution mindset.

Another thing that obviously has helped me is being active and I encourage everyone to try it out! I love that sense of just being in the moment of moving my body. Research shows that we can rewire those neural connections in the brain through exercise. Exercise to release those feel good chemicals in the brain and body vs. what we used to numb ourselves with.Think re-patterning .

I know that as addicts we want that instant gratification, but sobriety is not something that will happen with a snap of a finger. It takes patience, perseverance and persistence but trust me when I tell you that you are worth it. Take it from someone who use to have conversations with bottles of booze -anything is possible.

I have always had so much gratitude for the people in the rooms of AA and NA - and I wouldn't be where I am sitting if it were not for the power of one human being reaching out to another. Reach out to AA / NA / CA - sobriety is not ours to keep and we must give it away . Another amazing program that had a profound impact on my life is Racing for Recovery . Todd is a guy who has been there and knows what it takes to maintain and live an amazing life.

Thank you so much Stef -you have no idea how much this has helped me .

Thank you for sharing your experience & for the great time at Phuket Cleanse together!

And here is a little video of a "Lifeguard Workout" that we did together during ours stay at PC.