Meet a former crack addict – and other extremists

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When it came to crack smoking, Charlie Engle was the best. He was also pretty good at drinking. It wasn’t until his late twenties that he finally managed to quit and instead turned to ultrarunning.

Three years ago, at 56, he was celebrating 27 years of sobriety by running 27 hours straight.

“Part of ultrarunning is a desire to be different,” he says. “And for the addict too, there is a deep need to separate from the crowd. It sounds crazy to say that, but the people on the streets were like, “You could smoke more crack than anyone else I’ve ever seen,” and there was a weird, “Yeah, c ‘is to the right!

“There is always a part of me that wants to be validated by doing things that others cannot.”

Charlie Engle is one of the many topics featured in Jenny Valentish’s book “Everything Harder Than Everyone Else – Why Some of Us Push Ourselves to Extremes” (Apollo Publishers), which examines what prompts some people to go beyond what most of us consider safe, tasteful or rational.

“Pushing your body to such extremes is essentially self-harm,” Valentish told The Post. All of her subjects, she said, “have not only found something that they’re good at, but something that makes people gasp as well. There is a lot of bravado.

According to University of Wisconsin psychologist Frank Farley, up to 30% of Americans are what he calls “type T” people, thrill-seekers who not only thrive on intensity, conflict and risk, but also need over-stimulation to reach their optimal level. of excitement. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware believes that thrill seekers are motivated by naturally lower levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine in their system.

Alex Mann pursued extreme pain through the fight to the death – until it led to brain damage.
Cory Lockwood Photography

“The nature of dopamine is that the more you break in your reward system, the more responsive it becomes, which means the more you feel pressured to raise the stakes,” writes Valentish.

Take Alex Mann, 42. Like almost all of the case studies, he is what Valentish calls a “naturally born leg jiggler”.

He found an outlet for his energy in “Deathmatch” wrestling, where he fought under the name “KrackerJak”, using creative props and weapons, such as a cactus attached to a baseball bat with wire. barbed. Valentish said that sports “were the perfect thing for Alex to channel all of that restless energy he had in him.”

In the book, Mann describes how the “masochistic melodrama” of struggle and the pursuit of pain was all-consuming. He even allowed Valentish to shoot a stapler in his forehead, just to show how far he was willing to go.

“I felt like I was coming home. . . feeling pain in parts of my body in which I had never felt pain before, and I was pushed beyond belief by the frantic exchange of energy, ”he explained .

Camilla Fogagnolo said she was sexually assaulted as a child and other multiple traumas led her to seek extraordinary challenges.
Camilla Fogagnolo said she was sexually assaulted as a child and other multiple traumas led her to seek extraordinary challenges.
Kishka jensen

KrackerJak believed his wrestling days were over in 2016 when he suffered a brain injury after being repeatedly hit on the head with a DVD player during a fight. Now, five years later, he is making a hesitant return to the ring.

“This all has a lot in common with scratching a nagging itch,” he reflects. “The more you scratch, the more you scratch.”

Other extremists say they experienced a painful scenario early in their life and are pressured to replay the trauma “with the unconscious desire to achieve a different outcome in order to emerge victorious,” writes Valentish.

This describes Camilla Fogagnolo, 36. A former Olympic weightlifter turned professional strong woman (who can lift cars), she was sexually assaulted as a child and was later kicked out of the family home for drinking, smoking and general rebellion. Along the way, she has also suffered several mournings, from her companion horse to her father to her trainer.

But now she realizes that her trauma is what made her who she is, forcing her to do whatever it takes to be the best. Much of this can be attributed to her disciplined father, Roberto, who subjected her and her two brothers to a daily exercise of qigong-style breathing exercises, an uphill circuit, rounds of tumbling, somersaults and hand jumps, rope climbs and splitting wood. .

Richie Steward said he channeled his anger after a scorching childhood in MMA fights.
Richie Steward said he channeled his anger after a scorching childhood in MMA fights.

“Looking back, it was a weird setup, because we’ve always been taught that the ego is nothing and ‘yourself’ is nothing,” she said in the book. “So even though we strive to be as good as possible, we were always supposed to come last.”

It was a similar story with Richie “Hardcore” Steward, who also survived a scorching childhood to fulfill his dream of becoming a mixed martial arts fighter and now works as an educator, activist and speaker on the prevention of sexual violence. and mental health.

He notes that the first 1,000 days of a child’s neurodevelopment are critical to how our personalities take shape.

Thrill seekers like Charlie Engle (above) are motivated by naturally lower levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine, according to psychologist Marvin Zuckerman.
Thrill seekers like Charlie Engle (above) are motivated by naturally lower levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine, according to psychologist Marvin Zuckerman.
Zandy Mangold

“Well, my first thousand days were not peaceful,” he said in the book. “And eventually I ended up beating my dad a few times because I was getting good at fighting, but that’s not a healthy thing to do.

“I needed a place to put all my hurt feelings.”

Some extremists are outliers, whose behavior is not the result of trauma or tragedy, but of runaway curiosity. Like Dr Jack Allocca.

Dr Jack Allocca has consumed over 100 species of animals, many of which he hunts himself.
Dr Jack Allocca has consumed over 100 species of animals, many of which he hunts himself.
@ jack.allocca Instagram

Italian neuroscientist working at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Allocca is determined to challenge common notions of disgust by eating anything most people consider inedible or just plain wrong. To date, it has consumed more than 100 species of animals, including monkeys, vultures, caribou, wombats, bears, koalas, lions, tigers, whales and zebras, which it hunts. alongside indigenous tribes.

For Allocca, it’s all about hunting.

“The pursuit is a mixture of anger, coordination [and] cruelty, ”he admitted to Valentish. “And finally, there’s the actual assault, where you’re next to the animal and you fight it. You stab or strangle him, and there’s a specific functional panic reaction in which you just have to beat that other animal.

Everything is harder than everyone

But when the battle is over, Allocca said he is experiencing the deepest form of peace.

“It is an altered state,” he said. “You have a carcass in your hand, you are covered in blood and bruises. The process of chasing an animal, killing it, butchering it, is one of the most complex psychological and neurological experiences I can relate.

Ultimately, Charlie Engle believes that some of the traits that motivated his pursuit of a drug-induced high – tenacity, resourcefulness, endurance, and almost restless motivation – were the same ones he needed for become a successful ultrarunner.

“The best I have ever felt about drugs was actually acquiring the drug,” he told Valentish. “There is nothing more powerful than having the drugs in my pocket; the idea of ​​what it can be.

“Once the frenzy starts it’s all downhill from there. But the idea of ​​what that can be is huge. In a way, running is the same because there’s this weird idea that you’re going to get into a hundred thousand and this time it’s going to be different.

“This time it’s not going to hurt that bad, and everything is going to be perfect.”


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