As time and erosion have shaped and smoothed sandstone slabs and towering monuments of Sedona, the Red Rocks are also proving to be a human rock tumbler of sorts, wearing away rough, abrasive exteriors and revealing hidden beauty beneath.
Such is the case of David, a smart, likeable 20-year-old blond from Louisville, Kentucky. “I started selling cocaine and Xanax when I was 16 and I actually really started selling it before I used it. I always had cocaine in front of me, so I would test it out and eventually just got addicted. That led me to a group of people that are really into drugs. And then I met my favorite drug, Xanax, or any kind of Benzo [benzodiazepines are a group of hypnotic muscle relaxants]. I couldn’t even really go to school without taking Xanax. If I didn’t have it, I would just be an anxious mess.”
David had been kicked out of college and lost jobs because of his inability to function without being high. That was until he landed a job at a fast-food restaurant. “My general manager and my manager would buy drugs from me and let me sell drugs out of the place. They really liked what I had and didn’t care what I did.”
The drugs made David feel good about himself – fitting in with people he had looked up to like the cool kids in high school – until they didn’t. “A big thing I would do was sit in my misery and smoke a bunch of weed. I was living in my grandma’s basement and everything was going downhill, but for some reason my mind kept telling me that this was normal.”
However, his parents did not. Five months ago, they sent David to Back2Basics Outdoor Adventure Therapy, a six-month recovery program for young men that combines group living and a traditional 12-step program with activities like hiking, rock climbing and kayaking in locations such as the Grand Canyon and Sedona.
“What I’ve noticed being at Back2Basics and going on outdoor trips once a week is that nature is really a spiritual thing for me. What I’ve come to find out is that nature is my higher power and it’s beautiful out here. I can really connect with the Earth. Back home, drugs were my higher power.”
On a cool winter day, David is hiking on the Huckaby Trail, side by side on a path to recovery with his new friends, young men he calls “brothers.” One of them is Michael.
Into the Pits
“I was headed to either jail, institutions or prison and I was pretty apathetic to life,” says the six-foot-tall, athletic 27-year-old from Albuquerque. “I was living a dangerous life – violence, crime, having to deal with police, figuring out how to make money on a daily basis, which became an ordeal sometimes. And I was stuck.”
In his young life, Michael had watched seven, eight, maybe nine of his friends die from overdoses or violence. “It took me a long time to actually pull the trigger and get out of it, but withdrawals were hell. Like when you’re dope sick, the only thing I can really relate it to is being just starving and you don’t have any food. What are you willing to do to get that food?”
Michael’s addiction started in high school with drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana on the weekends. By age 19 he was using cocaine, ecstasy and other party drugs. “Heroin was the one that took me to the pits. It’s super addictive and can change anyone’s life.”
He entered Back2Basics eight months ago. “When I’m out here, I do reflect on how it used to be and what I used to be like. Being outdoors helps me connect to a peaceful place. You get away from it all and there’s nothing but you and nature. I feel like it’s important for me to center myself. And I realize that there’s more to life.”
At his lowest low, Michael did not care if he lived or died. Today, he says he will be sober the rest of his life. “Back2Basics helped me change my outlook on life. The outdoors, physical fitness, eating healthy, living healthy, making healthy lifestyle choices and being honest, loving those people around me and caring about people – compassion – is all part of my new lifestyle choices. I try to live for my friends, those who I’ve loved and I’ve lost. I owe my life to Back2Basics.”
Connecting with Nature
Also on the journey is Zack, a 28-year-old surfer from Monterey, California, who holds a degree in Chinese culture and a minor in economics. Like many, he came to Back2Basics to get rid of an addiction. His was heroin. What he found was so much more, including self-love, confidence and a connection to something greater than himself.
“I’ve always been into the outdoors. But now, I really appreciate it a lot more,” he said. “Seeing the inland and the desert kind of beauty, it’s quite amazing. Nature means the trees, the ground, the Earth, everything that revolves around the universe and we are all part of that in a way. It’s finding that spiritual being within me and staying heart-centered and grounded, and knowing that I am a part of everyone and everything.”
Mike, a 25-year-old from Queenstown, Maryland, had been addicted for nine years, through multiple detoxes and in and out of 30-day treatment centers. “I decided to give myself one last chance and finally try sobriety for myself.” He sent himself to Back2Basics and has been sober for three months.
“What’s different here is that it’s six months. The length of stay is huge. After a 30-day treatment center you still feel sick and withdrawn from the drugs. Another important part this program is the outdoors aspect of it. We spend about half the time indoors and the other half outdoors in the wilderness – all over Arizona, Utah and Nevada, New Mexico, wherever it may be that we go. This is like a symbol of something that’s greater than myself. Nature is a fantastic thing. It’s astonishing to me in the Red Rocks and all these mountains and rocks surrounding us on a daily basis. It’s something that I’ve never experienced or seen before in my life. It’s astonishing to wake up and see this every day.”
Life at Rock Bottom
B2B Lead Guide Nick Huth understands the demons these men face and is surprised by nothing. The confident, outgoing, encouraging counselor is a no-nonsense kind of guy whose intense brown eyes are on the sharp lookout for excuses and justifications. Despite his authoritative presence and got-it-together demeanor, Huth is lucky to be alive. In fact, he has been considered medically dead three times from drug overdoses. He has experienced homelessness in a previous part of his life that had him sleeping on the ground in North Carolina and washing his clothes in a creek.
Huth’s addiction began with alcohol at age 13. His 20s were a blur and his choice of drug was indiscriminate.
“I would get to the bottom and roll around in it. For me those kinds of physical consequences didn’t scare me. Death didn’t scare me. I’ve been in and out of jail many times. And all that stuff didn’t scare me. What eventually got to me was an emotional bottom. For me it was every day waking up, upset that I woke up and wishing that I would die, and kind of fantasizing about death, but not following through with suicide ever. I essentially had nothing left to live for. So, for me, getting to B2B was a reprieve because I finally had something to work toward. And after several months, I no longer wanted to die.”
Huth, along with the men he is now leading, attribute much of their sobriety to their new community. “Drug addiction is a pretty lonely endeavor. When you get to the point that I was at, I did most of that alone. So, I always felt very lonely. Having a community that I found at B2B was incredible. Being around people that actually genuinely care about you is incredible.”
The B2B alum cites a reconnection with nature as part of the sustainable sobriety solution. “I’ve always loved the outdoors, but it’s pretty tough to get outside when you’ve got a crippling heroin addiction, so I didn’t do much of that when I was doing drugs. So, to reconnect with that was incredible. And I love working in it now.”
Sober for five years, Huth explains that drug addiction is a much-misunderstood chronic disease that, left untreated, leads to death. “A lot of people hear ‘drug addict,’ or ‘alcoholic’ and think about the bearded guy under the bridge that’s dressed in rags and has nothing. And that just isn’t the case. I’m a drug addict and came from a nice family. I had no wants or needs as a kid. My parents don’t drink or use drugs and they love me. So, I don’t have anything like that to blame my addiction on. I think I would have been an addict had I come out of some multi-million-dollar mansion or had grown up in the ghetto. Addiction is just a thing that I have and in order to address the problem, we’ve got to learn more about the problem and how best to fix it.”
A Path to Recovery
Huth currently is studying psychology. He plans to transfer to Northern Arizona University, work toward a doctorate degree and have a career helping people recover from addictions. In the meantime, he is working with B2B Outdoor Director Kelly McGrath, an empathic picture of strength and competence packed into a small frame.
“Being in the wilderness or even just wild places, like Sedona, is an amazing way to connect with people and to connect with ourselves,” said the seasoned Grand Canyon river runner. “I think it breaks us down. We come in with our experiences. We all have traumas and pasts that are part of our story, but being in the outdoors has allowed us, myself included, to change the narrative, change what that story is and build confidence and friendships and a connection to the Earth.”
With opioid addiction at an all-time high in the United States, McGrath says people who would never be suspected of drug use are facing severe addition issues. B2B addresses the epidemic first by eliminating distractions. “When the residents come onboard, they are stripped of their cell phones, email, Instagram – all of those things. We keep a tight ship when it comes to outside influences and part of that is because so many of their influences were really negative and we’re retraining the brain. We’re doing work to start a new path and get away from the habits that really have brought a lot of negativity and unhealthy lifestyles.”
On this day, that new path has led David, Michael, Zach and Mike to a breathtaking overlook high above the city of Sedona with majestic Cathedral Rock in the backdrop rising from the high desert floor. Huth and McGrath believe today’s miles underfoot are part of an essential stretch on the road to recovery with the Red Rocks providing a powerful foundation for a drug-free life. QCBN
By Bonnie Stevens, QCBN
Back2Basics Outdoor Adventure Therapy has been operating in Flagstaff for seven years with a success rate of _____. Roy DuPrez M.Ed., founded the company after recognizing the power of wild places. “The outdoors offer a way to find an adrenaline rush that’s healthy and natural,” says the surfer/snowboarder. For more information, visit www.back2basicsoutdooradventures.com or call 928-814-2220.
Photo caption: Participants in Back2Basics say being immersed in Northern Arizona’s wildlands is a calming experience that gives them a chance to reflect on their lives and commune with nature.
Photo by Bonnie Stevens