Mention the word addiction or recovery and, not so long ago, folks would almost exclusively think of 12-step meetings like AA or NA. Meetings were often held in church basements or community halls where a good cup of coffee was available, and newcomers were always welcome. The only requirement for membership was a desire to stop using.
These programs have helped millions of individuals since AA’s inception in 1935 in Akron, Ohio by the founders who were often simply referred to as Bill W. and Dr. Bob. The two were termed “hopeless alcoholics.” It’s a captivating story and the impact of their meeting is profoundly measured through a worldwide reach.
The contrast between active addiction and recovery is equally profound. It is the difference between hopelessness and possibility. Knowing this, it is also important to recognize that, due to increased understanding of the human brain and behavior, the methods for delivering help are more varied, more researched, and becoming even more available than ever before.
Opinions tend to vary around the different methods available to finding ways to heal, however, the meaning of the word heal stays consistent. To heal is to find wholeness according to its definition. To find wholeness, then, is to embrace the varied areas, or domains, in life. Emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health are essential components for being whole and for maintaining life balance.
At West End Outreach Services (WEOS) the treatment program here in Forks uses an evidence-based curriculum titled “Living in Balance” and the approach to healing is for individualized care so that people utilize their own personal strengths while also discovering and addressing the source of underlying feelings that can interfere with recovery efforts.
Maintaining, strengthening, and addressing physical health are significant towards healing those issues related to behavioral health. Whether it is scheduling with your doctor’s office for an exam, going for a twenty-minute walk each day, or setting fitness goals at the gym, movement is increasingly being supported as an essential leg to literally stand on in recovery efforts.
This emphasis on physical health has been happening for some time now. In Boston, for example, there are the Boston Bulldogs, a running group founded in 2008 to support those battling or recovering from addiction. Their activities are wide-ranging, from neighborhood meetups to training in preparation to run the Boston Marathon. Since the group was founded, interest and participation have continued to grow. Boston Strong, indeed.
Also supporting the integration of physical and behavioral health is The Phoenix, a program that exists in forty-three cities across twenty-two states. They boast 42,000 members since 2006. The Phoenix promotes a variety of choices. “We offer activities for everyone-from weightlifting and boxing to running, hiking, and yoga. All help people grow stronger together, overcome the stigma of addiction, and rise to their full potential,” they state on their website.
Recovery groups are not difficult to hook up with. As noted, AA’s only requirement is a desire to quit drinking, and similarly, it appears easy to get started with The Phoenix. “The cost of membership is 48 hours of sobriety. That’s it,” they state.
There’s even a 2017 documentary film, Skid Row Marathon, about the transformative power of physical activity in recovery. Based in Los Angeles, the film’s synopsis:
When a criminal court judge starts a running club on LA’s notorious skid row and begins training a motley group of addicts and criminals to run marathons, lives begin to change.
SKID ROW MARATHON follows four runners as they rise from the mean streets of LA to run marathons around the world, fighting the pull of homelessness and addiction at every turn.
Their story is one of hope, friendship, and dignity. (skidrowmarathon.com)
The anecdotes tell the story as does the Harvard Medical School health blog where one can find an article titled “Can exercise help conquer addiction?” by contributor Claire Twark, MD.
Dr. Twark’s work includes providing medication-assisted treatment for patients with substance use disorders. In this article she states combining exercise with other interventions looks promising.
The author spells out a case for including exercise in a recovery program. “In my experience, many patients with various substance use disorders have found that exercise helps to distract them from cravings,” she states.
“Workouts add structure to the day. They help with forming positive social connections, and help treat depression and anxiety in combination with other therapies,” says Dr. Twark, a self-described athlete who considers the benefits of exercise for all of her patients.
Here in Forks, WEOS offers possibilities both in the substance use treatment program as well as for mental health clients. Clients making progress in drug and alcohol treatment can check out a day pass that allows them access to the local gym where they can swim, lift weights, get some cardio, or join a workout class. The gym provides orientation for newcomers unfamiliar with the options available.
An organized Activity Group offers a wide range of possibilities for individuals who are currently behavioral health clients enrolled in mental health or co-occurring services. The group meets on one Tuesday each month to plan an activity, set personal goals, and consider the logistics of spending a few hours later in the week participating in an activity. The basic goal is to gain mindfulness skills … to observe, describe and participate.
Outings start at the Hope Center and have included a late-winter forest hike to Marymere Falls where, yes, snow was falling on cedars. Picnics, hiking, and photography trips to Olympic National Park beaches have taken place. WEOS has provided transportation to and from destinations.
Last year, even with the limits of surviving a pandemic, an end-of-summer gathering to play outdoor lawn games and enjoy a picnic, as well as hikes nearby at the Elk Creek Conservation Area occurred. Activities have been chosen by group members to be accessible for all levels with staff on hand to support and encourage participation.
So, as springtime begins to warm the air and the days grow longer, WEOS is announcing that the Hope Center Activity Group will be hitting stride soon with continued goals to enhance the connection that physical health plays in gaining overall balance and, as many clients like to say, to simply have fun.
By Michael Salsbury, WEOS Substance Use Program Coordinator
(Michael Salsbury has been the Substance Use Program Coordinator for Forks Community Hospital, WEOS since June 2019. He has taken clients running in the hills around Clallam Bay, hiking in the Olympic National Park, and drives the van for Hope Center beach trips.)
Disclaimer: This column is not intended as a diagnosis or recommended treatment of a specific condition. Answers are not a replacement for an individual medical evaluation. Individual health concerns should be evaluated by a licensed clinician.