No one grows up thinking they are going to become addicted to alcohol or drugs. But trauma is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition and each of us processes these negative experiences in different ways, some more destructive than others.
Some people are able to brush off painful experiences with little effort without turning to harmful coping mechanisms. Others grasp for things that take away or numb their pain. Unresolved trauma can lead to a series of complications and it is a primary reason that many people turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to make sense of their circumstances.
Over 40 million people struggle with a substance use disorder in the United States. And since individuals are so wonderfully unique, when it comes to treatment, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one person may not work for another, which is why individual treatment plans are so important to the recovery process.
Thanks to individuals and communities coming together to help create programs that support recovery, those experiencing a substance use disorder now have more options available to them than ever before. And one organization is using sports and other physical activities to help its community members heal from their past traumas, rebuild self-esteem, build meaningful relationships, and overcome their addictions.
Hope on a Mountain Top
Scott Strode had his first sip of alcohol when he was only 11 years old. At 15, he had already begun experimenting with hard drugs like cocaine—a habit that he would continue to struggle with for the next decade. Growing up, his father suffered from mental illness. All too often, his father would publicly shame his children, an act that made Strode feel small and insignificant. It was these feelings of inadequacy that ultimately led to his drug use.
At 24 years old, Strode found himself huddled on his bathroom floor after using cocaine for almost 24-hours straight. His heart was pounding and his mind was racing with thoughts about his future. And it was there, in his darkest hour, that he began to think about his mother.
What would it be like, he wondered, if the police had to tell his mom that her son had overdosed on a bathroom floor? That thought was enough for him to acknowledge that the time had come to seek help. Not knowing where to turn, he stumbled into a boxing gym a few days later. He was surprised to find that there was something about the physical activity that helped combat his addiction like nothing else he had ever tried. And while he was at that gym he saw a flyer for ice climbing and decided to give it a try.
The climb was exhilarating and he found the solitude of the snowy mountains so tranquil that he felt inspired to commit himself to changing his life. Strode recalls the impact that trip had on him as it forced him to imagine what his life could be if only he could manage his addiction.
From that point on, he threw himself into physical activity. He raced mountain bikes and participated in triathlons and, as he put it, “Every time I stood on top of a mountain or crossed the finish line, I was a little bit more a climber and a little bit less of an addict.”
Engaging in physical activity helped Strode get sober, but it was the community he had immersed himself in that helped him sustain that sobriety. Filled with gratitude and a desire to help others find the peace he had found, he decided to start The Phoenix.
Founded in 2006, just after Strode celebrated his ninth year of sobriety, The Phoenix describes itself as a “sober active community” and has already helped over 22,000 people over the last 12 years. Understanding the complexities of addiction all too well, Strode wanted to make obtaining sobriety as simple as possible by removing the barriers that exist for those seeking help with their addictions.
Since many recovery programs come with a hefty price tag, The Phoenix uses grants and donations in order to provide its services to community members free of charge. The only requirement is that participants be sober for 48 hours before entering one of its gyms. Currently, The Phoenix has locations in various cities in twelve states and is rapidly growing into new communities.
By focusing on physical activities like yoga, CrossFit, boxing, hiking, and strength training, community members learn to fill their time with productive activities while surrounding themselves with a community of support.
There is a great deal of shame associated with addiction, but the programs offered at The Phoenix are helping to replace that shame with a sense of achievement and pride in sobriety. If you’ve trained for a marathon, triathlon, or something similar, you know the sense of pride that comes with pushing yourself to your limits and then succeeding. This sense of accomplishment provides The Phoenix’s participants with the antidote to addiction that they have been in search of for far too long. And the results prove just how powerful this antidote truly is.
Unfortunately, 40-60 percent of those coming out of treatment relapse within the first year. However, The Phoenix has helped reduce relapse rates by 50 percent among its participants. Additionally, 73 percent of those participating in the program reported experiencing higher levels of self-esteem after joining the program. 82 percent reported an increase increase in emotional safety and 65 percent had improved attitudes about sobriety.
The Resiliency of the Human Spirit
At forty years old, Laurie Foster never thought she would find herself struggling with addiction. But, she had started drinking heavily and her dependence on alcohol was negatively impacting her son. The situation grew so dire that her son, Logan, would lay next to her as she was passed out on the bed, too afraid of what might happen if he left her alone.
Years later, Logan left home and served in Afghanistan, an experience that left him with crippling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As is common among those suffering from PTSD, Logan turned to substances in order to ease the continuous pain he couldn’t seem to escape. By this time, Laurie had already become a member of The Phoenix and had described it to her son as a “magical place” that was helping to keep her sober.
Logan was used to Laurie’s empty promises to get sober, and he was quite skeptical when Laurie had insisted that The Phoenix was different than all her other attempts. He recalled, “Every other day it was something new that was going to keep her sober. So of course, I was like, ‘okay mom.’”
After months of trying to numb his pain with alcohol, Logan decided to join his mother at The Phoenix. Upon seeing Logan enter the gym for the first time, Laurie began to tear up. “To have my kid join me in this place… I can’t explain to you the feeling of having my son in my life today because there was the longest time when I didn’t think I would have my son in my life.”
Laurie later added:
“The Phoenix has given us trust, it has given us faith, it has given us strength, and it has given us hope as a family.”
The Fosters were able to overcome their substance abuse by channelling their energy into strength training, and they used their success in the gym to help heal from their past traumas. But the Fosters are just two examples of the 22,000 lives that have been positively impacted as a result of The Phoenix.
Throughout his work with The Phoenix, Strode has been continuously amazed by the resiliency of the human spirit. No matter how hopeless someone struggling may feel at the height of their addiction, transformation is always possible. And it happens every single day at The Phoenix.