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Clean: 'Emotional Fitness' (5/30/22)


Published May 30, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner

Sweat poured down from my brow as I twisted my torso back and forth to the rhythm of the music in my headphones. I was three years sober, and I was nearing the end of a physically demanding workout. Throughout the course of my recovery, I had developed a comprehensive daily fitness regimen that consisted of a series of challenging exercises. It gave me great satisfaction to see my hard work pay off through positive changes in my physical appearance, but it came at a cost. Although I had managed to bring my physical fitness to a level that I had never thought possible, I had neglected to focus the same amount of attention on my emotional health.

After finishing a series of specialized exercises, I walked into the bathroom and paused in front of the mirror. As I stared at my reflection, I began compulsively scrutinizing my flaws. I had been working out for several hours, but I still found myself obsessively searching for physical imperfections. I was trapped in a destructive pattern of reflexive self-judgment, but I had no idea how to escape it. My addiction had transferred from drugs and alcohol to exercise, and I was beginning to experience the consequences of my unsustainable behavior pattern.

Suddenly, I heard my phone ring. I stepped away from the mirror, reached down into my pocket and answered the call. It was a friend from my recovery circle whom I had not spoken with in several weeks. After regaling me with humorous stories for several minutes, he revealed his reason for calling.

“I reached out to you an hour ago to invite you to an online sobriety fellowship meeting, but you never responded to my text. Is everything OK with you?”

My mind raced at the speed of a supersonic jet as I struggled to come up with an excuse for not replying to his message. After a few seconds of awkward silence, I decided that I owed it to myself to tell him the truth:

“To be honest, I’m having a really difficult time. I’ve been working out all day, and I’m starting to obsess about my appearance in an unhealthy way. What do you think I should do?”

I was afraid my friend would judge me for my insanity. Instead, he offered some priceless words of encouragement and advice.

“I’ve been there before. It took a long time before I realized that no one else was judging me as harshly as I was. We all have a tendency to be our own harshest critics, but I’ve found that getting back to the basics helps me get out of my own head. Why don’t you take a break from your workout and come to the online sobriety fellowship meeting? Exercise is great, but you need to take care of your emotional fitness first.”

After promising to show up for the meeting, I hung up the call and went back to the bathroom to wash my face. As I stood in front of the mirror, I made a conscious effort not to judge myself on what I saw in my reflection. By drawing upon the strength of my sobriety community, I was able to detach from my self-centered fear and take the first step toward developing a healthier way of thinking. Recovery had given me a feeling of fulfillment that was better than any workout — and I was grateful that my friend had helped me remove the metaphorical weight of the world from my shoulders.

Always remember:

Keep moving forward.
Run towards the truth.
Don’t quit before the miracle happens.

Benjamin Lerner is a recovering addict, composer, writer, musician and radio host. He has been sober since June 13, 2016. In his weekly column "Clean," originally published in Vermont News Guide, he shares his personal journey and lessons learned from his life in recovery. Columns published before July 12, 2020, can be found here. Newer installments are available on