Finding sobriety on a mountaintop | Scott Strode | TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney I am a person in long-term recovery
from a substance-use disorder. (Applause) And what that means
is I haven’t smoked crack, snorted a line of cocaine, or touched
a sip of alcohol in over 19 years. (Applause) I had my first beer at 11. One of my cousins gave it to me. I had my first line of coke at 15. I had just gotten out of a psych ward for being suicidal. From 15 to 24, I drank
and used my way through life, and eventually ended up in Boston. At that point, my addiction
had gotten so bad that I was paranoid,
and afraid of everything. I found myself locked in my apartment, and there in the dark,
huddled on the bathroom floor, I had been using cocaine
for almost 24 hours straight. My heart was pounding, and it felt like it was going
to explode in my chest. I knew that’s how I was going to die. And when the sun rose
on Boston that morning, do you know what I thought of? I thought of my mom. I thought, “Somebody
is going to have to tell her that her son died on a bathroom floor
from a cocaine overdose.” And that’s the last night I used. No one ever dreams they’re going
to grow up to be an addict. I found my way into a boxing gym, and something about
getting in the ring for the first time helped chip away at my addiction. Eventually, I saw a brochure
for ice climbing. And on the cover was this guy
on a steep ice climb, and I thought, “I want to try that.” I signed up for a class,
and I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun my path of recovery. See, there’s something
special that happens when you tie into a climbing rope
for the first time in the winter. You look up at the glacier
or the climb ahead of you, and everything else seems to melt away. All the problems, all your worries, all the shame and self-loathing
from your addiction that so many addicts feel – it all drifts away and you’re left
just in that moment. All you hear is the crunch of the snow
under your crampons; the sound your ice ax makes
when it cracks into the deep blue ice; the sound of your breathing
as it drifts away and is muted by the soft falling snow. In that moment, in that place, I caught a glimpse of the possibility of who I could be: courageous and confident. Climbing would evolve into racing
mountain bikes, doing triathlons, eventually racing Ironman. And every time I stood
on top of a mountain or crossed a finish line, I was a little bit more a climber
and a little bit less an addict. I was fortunate; I found hope
on a mountaintop. And from that hope,
I began to heal from my addiction. But for so many people
that are still in their addiction, it can feel pretty hopeless. An estimated 23 million Americans
struggle with a substance-use disorder, and the average American
is more likely to die from an overdose than a motor vehicle accident, a mass shooting, and a terrorist attack, combined. So many of us get a loved one
plugged into formal treatment and we think, “Now
they’re going to be fixed,” only to find out that 40 to 60 percent of people coming out of formal treatment will relapse within the first year. Why is that? I think we can’t talk about
healing from addiction unless we also talk about
healing from trauma. I’m not just talking about
the big traumas – growing up in a war-torn country,
physical and sexual abuse. But I’m talking about
those little traumas – what it felt like
when your parents got divorced; what it felt like
when you were bullied in school; what it felt like when you
were abandoned by that loved one. Even though these traumas
don’t leave a wound that we can see, they affect how we see the world. I believe that trauma is the number one
public health crisis in our country. (Applause) Why was I compelled
to drink at 11 years old? Why was I using cocaine at 15,
and also suicidal? I think in part, it comes
from generational trauma that was passed from my father. See, his father left him
when he was young, so he carried a pain that he passed to me. My dad also struggled with mental illness, so he would yell at my siblings
and I if we lost, and he’d also yell at us
if we won the soccer game. He would publicly shame us, and I remember that always
made me feel so… …small. There’s also a unique kind
of inadequacy that you feel when you see a sibling that you love being abused, and you can do nothing to stop it. I think about how that must have
imprinted on me when I was little. Yes, I was once little. (Laughter) And when we’re little,
we’re emotional sponges. We absorb the energy around us
from our caregivers, and if that energy
is negative or traumatic, we often internalize it
as we did something wrong; we were failures. All of those little traumas
are tiny emotional cuts, and with enough of these cuts
it can add up to a big wound. I know what you’re thinking: some
of those things happened to you, and you’re not an addict. Well, there’s other ways
we cope with this. Many of us seek our emotional well-being
from something external. Maybe it’s what we look like,
maybe it’s how much money we make, maybe it’s whether or not
our sports team won the Superbowl. Go Broncos! (Laughter) (Cheers) We have love addiction, we have love avoidance, we have workaholism, eating disorders, and the list goes on and on. So how do we heal from this? I know standing on top of a mountain
can be part of it; that goes directly
to the self-esteem piece. But what about the opposite of trauma? We have to learn how to build
nurturing communities for our children to grow up in. I want you to think
about that for a moment. What kind of environment would you want
your children to grow up in? I want you to make a list. Here’s mine: encouraging, full of joy,
accepting, loving, a place where we are physically
and emotionally safe. With the understanding
of these two things coming together – the power of standing
on top of a mountain, and the power of a nurturing community – I thought, “How do we give this
to others that are struggling?” I thought, “How do we take
thousands of recovering addicts up a mountain in a nurturing environment?” It seems impossible. But it’s not. And that’s exactly what we did. With a core group of people,
I started a nonprofit, and we created a sober, active community. We’ve since served
18,000 people in 10 years, in five cities, in three states. (Cheers) (Applause) All of those programs are free
to anyone who’s 48 hours clean and sober. They come to yoga,
hiking, biking and climbing. They find a positive coping mechanism, and they find a peer group
that supports them in their recovery. And there’s a code of conduct
that frames the community. It says that anything
that isn’t nurturing isn’t welcome, and with those simple boundaries in place, it’s had a profound effect
on people’s lives. Seventy-three percent of people
had improved self-esteem. Eighty-two percent felt emotionally safe. I think the other 18
were probably on that wall. (Laughter) Sixty-five percent had improved
attitudes towards sobriety. And three-quarters of the people
that attend stayed sober. (Applause) Now I want you to imagine for a moment that I’m someone
who’s 48 hours clean and sober, and I show up at this gym. I walk up to the door. I grab the door handle. It feels so heavy. It feels so heavy because
this is my first time as an adult walking into a roomful of people
without a drink or a drug in my system. On top of that, I’m about to do
my first CrossFit workout. (Laughter) So, am I even going to make it
through the warm-up? You know what? Maybe I’ll just go get a drink. The guy at the front desk gives me
the waiver and the code of conduct, and I’m filling it out, thinking, “I’m just going to hand it
back to this guy, and I’m going back to that old apartment
where my friends are still using.” You know, that kind of apartment
where addicts go to die. Or, “I’ll just grab a handle
of vodka, and I’ll numb out. I’ll make the pain
and the anxiety go away.” This guy at the front desk, though,
he can tell I’m a little anxious, and he starts to share his own story. This guy was a heroin addict?
How’s that even possible? He’s so fit. Well, he walks with me into the gym,
and in that moment, I feel accepted here. This guy and this other girl
come over to me and they help me set up my weights. They give me a white PVC pipe
and they start to warm me up. They’re teaching me the clean and jerk. I learned this lift when I was in prison, but never with technique or form. “Strong back,” they say, “stand it up,
triple extension, high pull.” Now we go back over to the weights. The room is full of people. We line up at our barbells, and the clock starts to count down
to start the workout. Five, four, three, two… I look around the gym. Everyone in here is in recovery. I can feel that they believe in me – me: a junky, a drunk. As a matter of fact,
they believe in me so much that in that moment,
I start to believe in myself. The clock clicks over
to start the workout. I reach down to grab my barbell, a seemingly unmovable weight. But I grab it, and I pull, I pull with all the technique,
strength, and courage that I draw from the people around me. And for a moment, it becomes weightless and it lands on my shoulders. The bar oscillates from the weight and I jerk it overheard, stand it up proudly,
and let it crash to the floor. I get an acknowledging smile
from my new friends, and a fist bump
from my new workout partner. And in that moment,
I find supportive community. And in that community, I find hope. (Applause) (Cheers) Thanks. (Applause) (Cheers)

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