“People who have an addiction will tell you, you have to find other things that give your life meaning and value,” said Doug Thomas, director of Utah's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health in the Department of Human Services. “Some people find it in family, some people find it in exercise, the outdoors. A lot of people in recovery are some of the most amazing people because they are giving back to help other people get into recovery, donating their time and resources and energy to help people who are in a similar place to where they were before.”
Social supports are so important, Thomas said.
“There's a lot of recent research showing that not having a social support system can be as influential on your health as not having healthcare,” he said. “So we need to have a social support system that supports people in recovery—and that's coming from people who are either in recovery or not using. And so having those safe places and strong people that can help when it is a difficult time are very important.”
I don't think people would be surprised to know that there are people in recovery in all facets of life, Thomas said.
“They are our friends, our family members, they are people we go to school with, people we go to work with, we go to church with and helping them feel comfortable and safe about disclosing that, actually is a support to them,” Thomas said. “So that they can, if they are struggling say, 'Hey, I'm really having a bad day. Oh well, let's go to lunch or go fishing,' or whatever kind of supports and activities are helpful.”
For Ian Acker, exercise was that helpful support. He had struggled for years with alcohol addiction before sobriety seemed possible. While everybody in recovery gets there a little differently, often what comes next is just as important. That's why about six years ago, Acker posted on Facebook that he was going to work out at Sugar House Park. Anyone who wanted to join him was welcome.
“I started with three people in a park, in Sugar House Park, with a boombox,” he said. “I think I knew two of them and I think one person trickled in. But I put up a Facebook post saying, 'Let's connect through exercise and recovery. And then I just stayed consistent. And now we have this; it's crazy.”
Acker chose exercise because after he works out he can sit and talk honestly about what's going on in his life.
“I'm present,” he said. “After I am done sweating and wearing my body out I feel like I can connect really well with people. When I am in the middle of a set I'm giving people hugs and it's just easier for me to connect. It's just a lubricant to connection and serenity.”
That was the start of Fit to Recover (FTR), a nonprofit gym in Salt Lake City that serves as a recovery support group for people with substance use disorders. But Fit to Recover is more than members getting together to swing kettle bells or spot each other on the pull up bars. That's just one obvious component. Programming at Fit to Recover involves nutrition classes, creative expression through painting, writing, or music, and community service.
“Giving back and being part of the community because a lot of times we were taking from the community,” Acker explained. “We go down to the homeless shelter and some of our people have been homeless. The person who runs our community service [program] once was down there. And that's where her passion is and she's so good at it. And it remind us that we could go back there. Today we are passing out last place medals at the marathon to let people know you tried, you did your best, and you finished and that's all that matters.”
That Acker will be out cheerleading for people he doesn't know isn't a surprise. As CEO and founder of FTR he sets the tone for the organization. And it's a kind and reassuring one.
“I think the reason it works is because I truly do care how they are doing,” he said. “I think that they have so many other things going on, the last thing they want to do is come somewhere and feel uncomfortable.”
He teaches bootcamp on Saturday mornings. Before it starts Acker is pacing across the gym, perfecting his playlist, and greeting people as they came in. It seems everyone gets a hug. Some of the regulars chat, but for the most part, people sit and stretch in silence. A transformation happens somewhere in the hour that Acker has them squatting and doing burpees. The last part of the class is devoted to talking. Anyone who needs to speak is encouraged to do so.
One woman shares that she lost a friend to suicide a few days ago. She's angry and needed someplace to go and work through it and FTR was it. That's why this place is so meaningful for the 400 people who come and attend classes every week. They come to work out and they tend to leave a little lighter.
Acker admits that there are days when even he feels overwhelmed and like everything is ending. But what keeps him grounded is gratitude and remembering why he started FTR in the first place.
“When I was first getting sober I said 'If I can just have a purpose and help people, that's all I really want,'” he said. “And I remember that. Even though it's really hard, I still wake up every day with purpose.”
For Georgia Gregersen, FTR's operations manager, establishing a support system is critical for people in recovery because addiction is something that needs to be managed like a chronic disease. It doesn't disappear the day you stop using. When tragedies happen, like the death of a loved one, having social supports in place may be more likely to help a person in recovery endure them without relapsing—this is something Gregersen knows all too well.
“I had almost six years of sobriety the first time,” she said. “I had my whole life together. I was graduating college and if you looked at my life you'd think she is succeeding. And I thought I can just drink one Heineken. Fast forward a couple of years, I'm homeless, I'm addicted to heroin, I'm living on the streets, I lost complete custody of my son, and if that isn't proof that it is progressive then I don't know what is. I didn't stay vigilant.”
It's not uncommon for setbacks to happen in recovery. It may take a person years before they find what works for them and have the resources in place to pursue it, Gregersen said.
“It's like there's a magical moment I guess where the resources and the help becomes available at a point in time when somebody is willing,” she said. “I think the resources are key because a lot of times when you give somebody resources, even if they don't take to it the first time it doesn't mean it doesn't work. It doesn't mean it's not helpful. Because if I hadn't been introduced to a program of recovery I wouldn't have known where to go. I wouldn't have even known it was a thing. When people come here and they stay for a week and then they relapse, they still know that FTR is here. They still know that it's possible for people to be sober and to be happy. And they remember that even when they're back out there using. They know, like I knew.”
And when resources and timing align, groups like FTR will be there to help people stay the course.
“The goal is the same, to connect, to have an experience that is scary,” Gregersen said. “That's how I think of it, it's scary. When you show up for something that scares you and you do it anyways. I mean that's what recovery is all about. Being sober is absolutely terrifying. And you do it anyways.”
Music in this story:
Moby – Flower
Macklemore – Glorious