PLYMOUTH — Robin Agricola lives in Massachusetts but spends nearly every weekend scaling the craggy cliffs found in central New Hampshire. Her life today is a far cry from what it was five years ago, when heroin addiction was ruling over her.
“I was one of those addicts that looked like I had it all together from the outside, but but inside my life was crumbling,” she said. She found a 12-step program that helped her to get sober, it was climbing, she said, that has helped her stay sober.
Agricola isn’t alone. In central New Hampshire, where there’s abundant access to outdoor adventure, the substance abuse recovery community has made use of hiking trails and climbing lines. On Saturday, May 12, the hiking community extended a hand to those in recovery, through a fundraising event, “Climb Above Addiction,” which attracted more than 100 people and raised more than $6,000.
The event at the American Alpine Club’s Rattlesnake Campground on Buffalo Road in Rumney included a portable climbing wall. Proceeds went to a scholarship fund for the Plymouth House, a 12-step rehabilitation center.
The “Climb Above Addiction” is a project of Plymouth State University’s social entrepreneurship class, which is coached by graduate student Andrew Casler. The project is an exercise in social enterprise, he said, an idea that a business model can exist to serve society or the environment.
“Because it’s a college class, and it’s people who are relatively young who are working on the project, we really saw that the opioid epidemic is impacting a lot of people, and a lot of them are 18-25, 30s, a lot of young people who are having their lives derailed by opioids. It’s just a huge problem facing the state,” said Casler. “It’s one of those subjects that a lot of people aren’t talking about but it’s affecting more people than anyone would want to admit.”
Meanwhile, the Plymouth area boasts some of the best rock climbing in New England.
“We hope that this event can encourage people to develop their bodies and minds by rock climbing or hiking,” Casler said. “Participants will get to experience thrilling, healthy activities while also supporting the scholarship for someone who is ready to get well but can’t afford to enter a rehabilitation program.”
The Plymouth House, which has been in operation for more than 15 years, helps people overcome addiction, both from substance use or from behavioral addictions, such as gambling. Matt Howe, program director at the Plymouth House, said the organization’s “core competency” is helping young adults who are struggling with opioid addiction.
Howe, a graduate of both PSU and the Plymouth House, the latter of which he attended on scholarship, said the Climb Above Addiction hits home for him.
“It’s close to my heart, because the money goes directly to providing treatment to a person… If you’re a local person making a donation, you’re going to get treatment for someone with 100 percent of the funds.”
The Plymouth House currently utilizes yoga for its clients, said Howe, who added that he would like to further incorporate the region’s natural environment in his clients’ therapy.
The outdoors played an important role in Howe’s own recovery. He’s now an active SCUBA diver, and when he was first entering recovery, he discovered running.
“Trail running became a big part of my life,” he said. “Being outside, being in the mountains, that’s huge.”
Exercise, especially when done outside, is known to be an effective therapy for depression and anxiety, and those afflictions can plague people in recovery. Outdoor pursuits can also be especially instructive for people who are making a new life for themselves.
“Addiction is a function of a lack of coping skills,” Howe said. “We use substances instrumentally, as tools. It works, it’s just not a long-term strategy.” At first, the substances are effective in helping the user cope with his or her life. As the usage continues, though, the effectiveness wanes, while the cost to the user’s quality of life grows ever steeper. “You make a decision to not drink or drug anymore, and to your surprise, you find that you don’t have that power.”
Howe said that 12-step programs help people to recover by developing healthy coping mechanisms, find a meaning and purpose to their life, form new and meaningful relationships and to find something enjoyable to do with their time.
Outdoor experiences can help, either directly or indirectly, with all of those objectives.
Howe said, “We’re connection-seeking creatures. Without connections, we fall easily into despair. Despair is really fertile ground for addiction to manifest.”
Far from boring
Agricola, who lives in Easton, Massachusetts, said getting sober was the first step. What came next, she said, was everything else.
“I accepted help and got sober through AA and the 12 steps. But when you start getting sober, you realize that you don’t know who you are. For me, I was introduced to climbing, and I jumped in head first.”
“There’s something about the mindfulness of movement that you can’t be thinking about anything else except climbing.” She said it’s a “state of active meditation.” Through the 12 steps, she learned to relinquish herself to a higher power. For her, that power is meditation.
“I don’t really have a god. I am a spiritual person, meditation is how I find solace in my life. Hiking, kayaking, these activities are what give me peace.”
When she was entering sobriety, one of her anxieties was about how she would spend the time that she used to spend using heroin. She was worried that she would be bored.
“Hiking, climbing, kayaking, was what made me feel like I was better off sober… My life is so far from boring because I’ve found these activities.”