by Kathleen Ryan, special to The Laconia Daily Sun
LACONIA — When four residents from a local drug rehab facility show up early on a Saturday morning to help the Belknap Range Trail Tenders (BRATTS) rebuild hiking trails on Belknap Mountain, it's understandable that another volunteer assumes they must be serving court-ordered community service.
At first glance, Chris, Dan, A.J., and Alex (they asked that their last names not be used in this article) look like they could be facing trouble. They wear bandanas and ink and urban style Timberland boots, they spit chew, they give off conflicting vibes of hyper-awareness and distractibility. It's not until you look more closely, into their eyes and smiles, that you see hope and the optimism that trouble is now behind them.
The four men are residents at the Riverbank House in Laconia, a long-term residential addiction rehabilitation program that practices cutting edge philosophy in the field of drug and alcohol recovery. "Pursue constructive passions" is one of its mottos, and Riverbank provides residents with a full schedule of activities designed to address the long term effects caused by active addiction while retraining the brain to find motivation and reward without drugs or alcohol.
For Riverbank residents, pre-dawn hikes to watch the sunrise make memories that can and do compete against old memories of a heroin high. Riverbank keeps the men so active that thoughts of drug use don't have time to spiral into cravings.
The Center for Disease Control and the National Institute for Health now classify addiction as a complex, chronic, life threatening disease of the brain that no amount of willpower or moral character can "cure." By the time people seek help for addiction, drugs have hijacked and altered the brain, impairing both its communication system and reward circuitry. Chronic use of addictive drugs causes lasting neurological disruptions that impair judgment, memory, cognitive function, impulse control, the regulation of emotion, motivation, and the ability to defer gratification. Boredom is an excruciating symptom in early recovery, irritability is unrelenting, and changes to the brain make it almost impossible for those in early remission to feel pleasure or satisfaction. These impairments persist long after drug use is stopped.
Even in remission, active addiction leaves the brain well trained to crave, seek, and demand instant reward.
When a drug addicted person seeks help, enters rehab, abstains from drugs, and cooperates with the rehab's philosophy, the person is taking huge strides toward wellness. But when a drug addicted person in remission actually takes what has been learned in rehab and voluntarily applies it to the real world, the person is making a monumental contribution toward sustained recovery. Because Riverbank House teaches that real rewards can be achieved without drugs or alcohol, A..J, Chris, Dan, and Alex showed up to volunteer with the Belknap Range Trail Tenders.
At 26, Chris is the oldest of the four friends. He thinks before he speaks, a trait that suggests maturity. He began experimenting with drugs at age 12, and illegal prescription opioid use inevitably led to intravenous heroin use at the cost of hundreds of dollars a week. "You can shoot a lot of $50 bags in a day," he explains.
Chris volunteered with BRATTS because he is learning to take what he calls 'right action.' "I want to be involved in the community," he says. "I want the experience of being a part of something bigger than myself."
Dan, the baby of the bunch at 21, has an encyclopedic obsession with shuttered mental institutions in Massachusetts. He knows their histories, the grounds, the number of structures at each property, and the best photographic angles within the empty buildings; logically, he also knows the schedule and patrol routes of security at each abandoned institution. There is an innocence to Dan's enthusiasm, as if he truly believes — and believes you should believe — that just for fun everyone should tour abandoned buildings haunted by tragic histories.
Dan's a sparkler: he twinkles with mischief and boyish charm and instant likeability. Heroin cost him thousands of dollars a week. Riverbank is his eleventh rehab or treatment program.
The Riverbank House practices daily meditation, and Dan can draw a connection between the benefits of that meditation and the acute awareness brought on by quarrying boulders with BRATTS. "I had hiked before, but a trail always just happened to me. I never thought about how it was built," Dan says. "Today will change every step I take on a mountain."
Alex, 22, is the quiet, seemingly shy one. Unlike his three friends, Alex used cocaine, not heroin. In a different class than opiates, cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant that makes most users chatty and energized. Early in their recovery, former cocaine users often struggle with shyness, lethargy, and anxiety. When cocaine addiction is in early remission, the brain screams for new experiences while simultaneously arguing, why bother? By just showing up to volunteer with BRATTS Alex is taking positive action toward progressive recovery.
A.J., 25, is the firecracker of the four. Smaller, leaner, and more kinetic than his friends, A.J. talks politics, world events, finance, and his disdain for recovery platitudes (although he admits they serve a purpose). Riverbank is his seventh attempt at recovery from heroin and alcohol. Curious, observant, and completely lacking a filter between his brain and mouth, A.J. is a blurter. But he practices a healthy measure of self-acceptance about his blurting, repeatedly catching and correcting himself. When he swears in front of Hal Graham, the president of BRATTS, he immediately apologizes with such sincerity and effort that the apology itself includes another swear.
Because the four live together at the Riverbank House and have bonded so closely, they finish each other's sentences, speak over each other, or speak in unison. When they share their stories about early recovery, a theme emerges. They talk constantly about Randy (Bartlett), the director of Riverbank. They thread him through every story, but they don't talk about what he's taught them or what he's done for them. They talk about how he has treated them — about how kind and open and accepting and understanding he has been toward their individual circumstances. They talk about the respect he has afforded them, and it is clear they value Randy as a role model rather than resenting him as an authority figure. They seem thirsty for role models, for concrete examples of how to live, how to act, how to interact, as if heroin and cocaine and alcohol have left huge gaps in their understanding of life.
After seven hours working on a BRATTS crew they feel positive, relaxed, and what they call "accomplished-tired."
"I feel really good about myself," Alex says. "I feel like if I can do those seven hours, I can do anything."
With no prior experience in trail reconstruction, as they quarried boulders they could not conceptualize the final outcome and that made them increasingly nervous.
"It started to look like people were just rolling rocks down to the trail," Dan says.
"There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the plan," Chris adds.
Aj agrees. "We wanted to ask, 'What's our end game?'"
But then they start talking about Graham, the founder and president of the Trail Tenders. Hal is 75 years old.
"I was afraid I couldn't keep up with him," Chris says, a little shocked.
"Yeah, I mean, we worked hard, but we took a few breaks. We never saw Hal sit down once," Dan says.
"Nothing seemed to be coming together," Chris says. "People kept rolling rocks, and the four of us kept watching Hal. He didn't seem concerned at all. He was totally calm."
Alex agrees. "Hal was totally calm. He was completely confident that the project would succeed, and it did."
The men are quiet for a moment. Then Chris, speaking for the group, says, "It was just the coolest thing to witness. Someone working that hard for free, rather than for money. Someone working that hard without any stress. He was teaching us to recognize real passion."
The Riverbank House motto "pursue constructive passions" expresses a recovery philosophy. The four friends seem to have the "pursue" part down: they take action to pursue sustained recovery. By their willingness to volunteer in the community, they seem to have a grasp on "constructive." But there aren't a lot of passions in the life of an active addict. There is only the drug.
When Alex, A.J., Chris, and Dan entered the Riverbank House, passion was just a vague concept, one of gaps that drugs had left in their understanding of life. Their gaps can't be filled by someone telling them how to fill gaps. They need concrete examples, and they look everywhere for role models who will demonstrate what the four of them do not yet understand. Because they watched Hal, they now have a concrete grasp of the passion in "pursue constructive passions."
Saturday, because four young men in recovery saw a role model in Hal Graham, more than just a trail underwent reconstruction on Belknap Mountain.