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Runner Stops Before Going the Distance

Runner Stops Before Going the Distance

There were so many epiphanies that could have set Amanda Nelson on a path to sobriety. Each one a stark realization resulting from a new bottom reached that raised roughly the same question: “What am I doing?

She had one such realization as she was being transported to jail with shackles around her ankles following an arrest for domestic violence. In describing how difficult it was to walk with shackles, she said “I thought that sidewalk would never end.”

She was defending herself in that incident, but alcohol was a major factor. In the fog of detox, embarrassment and shame, she decided it was time to make a change.

She made it 90 days. Then came Mother’s Day 2015. 

She was staying with a friend after being evicted from her apartment. Her 12-year-old daughter, who was staying with her grandparents, came over with a thoughtful gift. She knew her mom was depressed and hoped to cheer her up. She gave her mother the cast-iron skillet she had wanted. But to her daughter’s disappointment, Nelson’s response was muted by meth. It led to an argument and her daughter slammed a door in Nelson’s face. “That door hit me in my soul,” Nelson said.

But not hard enough to make change permanent—not just yet.

She decided to move to Florida from her home state of Mississippi. She’d start a new life. Rebuild her relationship with her daughter. Maybe she could get her to come back. But Nelson had no real plan and only $200 to her name. She soon fell in with the same crowd that kept opening all the wrong doors in her life.

What would it take to really change? Another epiphany? Epiphanies can sometimes blind, causing us to shield our eyes from the light they shine on the messes we promised to clean up some day. What Amanda Nelson really needed was not a blaring light, but a simple sign. She found one at a literal crossroads. It bore a single four-letter-word: STOP.

The evening before, she had driven to a bar in another town 30 minutes away. It was a friend’s birthday. A cause for celebration. She drank liquor, which was not her usual drink of choice. The last thing she remembered was sipping what would later turn out to be her last drink ever. Then she blacked out.

When she came to, she was standing alone in the dark at an intersection back in her own hometown. She looked up through her haze and stared at the stop sign in front of her. It seemed to stare back. She had no idea how she had gotten there. No idea where her car might be. Terrifying thoughts swarmed inside her aching head—had she crashed the car? Did she hurt anyone? Were these the final moments of freedom before she’d be taken back to jail?

She had faced scary things before. She had been held at gunpoint. She had wrecked a car. She had been to jail four times. She’d been evicted. She’d been broke. She’d been abused.  But facing this stop sign in the middle of the night was the scariest moment of Nelson’s life.

As she stood bewildered at a crossroads she concluded that this sign was unmistakable. She had lived this way for 17 years. She had come hundreds of miles to rebuild her life. Now it was time to stop for good.

On the spot, that early morning of August 10, 2015, Nelson gave up alcohol cold turkey, along with all drugs, cigarettes, and even coffee and soda. Any substance that might keep her shackled to addiction and away from her daughter.

“My addictive behaviors are still there,” she said. “They can become an obsession. I’m all or nothing.”

To fill the void she once filled with substances, she turned to healthier obsessions she felt might serve her better, especially exercise.

I like to challenge myself. It’s like a game. When I feel the stress of life, I like to do something that takes my breath away.

She lists the variety of physical distractions she’s built into her life since adopting sobriety. “I do like riding my bike. Doing obstacle courses. Triathlons.”  Long walks help too. She works out in some way every day.

“I like to challenge myself. It’s like a game. When I feel the stress of life, I like to do something that takes my breath away.”

But running a marathon? She never even considered it.

“Running is my least favorite thing,” she admitted. “I hate every second of it. But it keeps me sober.”

As Nelson began to build a future, she took a job at a restaurant where she met Don St. Jacques, a Florida businessman. St. Jacques had taken up running to try to get back into shape after 30 busy years working on his career. He completed some shorter races before signing up for his first Chicago Marathon in 2018. After touring Mercy Home while on a visit to Chicago that summer, he decided to dedicate his efforts to supporting our work. Since then, St. Jacques has become one of the Mercy Home Heroes’ most ardent boosters, recruiting other Sunshine State runners to lace up their shoes for the cause.

Last year, St. Jacques asked Nelson whether she’d consider joining his “Beach Heroes Team” in Clearwater to help raise funds for Mercy Home. Not only had she never run a marathon before, she had never heard of Mercy Home. But the chance to make a difference in young people’s lives while giving herself another goal to strive for appealed to her.

“I’m drawn to helping others who’ve been through similar things,” she said. She enlisted, crediting St. Jacques passion and persistence. “He doesn’t take no for an answer.”

In 2020, Nelson, St. Jacques, and five other “Beach Heroes” completed a virtual marathon in steamy Florida, raising more than $12,000 for Mercy Home. She has since run a half marathon and has her eyes set on an Ironman Triathlon. This fall, she plans on supporting our work through the Heroes Challenge program. While running may not be an end in and of itself for Nelson, breaking up the routine with some bold new challenge is—and it’s a critical lifeline.

“Things get boring,” she admitted, saying she always needs to add excitement by setting new goals. “I have to tell myself to take that step or become a meth head again. That’s a real conversation I have with myself in the mirror.”

The busy single mom pursues off-road challenges as well. While working full-time in the mortgage industry, she enrolled in a long-distance degree program at Penn State University, where she is working toward a BS in Human Development and Family Studies, a degree she hopes to use to help others. Her incredible work ethic and determination have enabled her to earn a spot on the Dean’s List.

And she continues to use her hard-earned experience to counsel and inspire others. She likes talking to teens about the dangers of substance use, having started drinking herself at age 16 and becoming a single mother at 19. She tells her story to groups and on her Website, patchedwangs.com. In 2017, she published a book, PATCHED WANGS: The Redneck Way to C.O.N.N.E.C.T. and Make Your Life Be Like God Intended It to Be!

Some of the same advice she gives to youth or people overcoming addiction is like advice she’d give first-time or would-be marathon runners.

“Don’t look too far ahead in the training schedule. Take one step at a time. One task at a time. Eventually you will get to your goal.”

It’s been the story of her new life of sobriety that has spanned six years so far. It’s helped her chip away at the messes left behind from 17 years of addiction, including her past legal and financial issues. And it’s helped her free herself from shackles of every kind. 

“You can do all things,” she said. “Just keep pressing.”

Her biggest goal, however, remains rebuilding her relationship with her daughter, now a 19-year-old college student.

Nelson credits her daughter with saving her life.  She remains the reason why she works so hard.  But she was also the one who slammed the door that got her attention, initiating a long painful journey that led her to the crossroads.

She said the wrong doors open when you’re making bad choices, “Like you’re never going to stop. Something has to disrupt so you don’t have a choice. That’s what that door did for me that day.”

She has high hopes for her daughter’s future. “She got to witness all the bad stuff,” Nelson said. “I think it opened her eyes so she can make wise choices.”

Her strategy for rebuilding her most important relationship is consistent with her approach to tackling a marathon or pursuing any difficult goal. She asked rhetorically, “How am I going to get there?”

She answered, “Just showing up.”

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