Ignite Recovery: Wisconsin & The Sober Active Movement!

Ignite Recovery, based in Wisconsin, is the latest sober active group that has successfully integrated a healthy lifestyle into an overall addiction recovery program.   I interviewed the founders to find out how Ignite came to be and to learn about Ignite’s mission.   Here’s my interview with the founders of Ignite.  

A group shot of members of Ignite-Recovery in Wisconsin.

What are your short-term goals and long-term goals for Ignite?

Our short-term goals are to increase the capacity and membership of our sober active lifestyle community.  We are also involved in community outreach to reduce the stigma around addiction and recovery.  We are accomplishing these short-term goals by increasing our class offerings and expanding Ignites’ reach. This has been a grassroots recovery movement and we have been building partnerships throughout southeast Wisconsin. Through these partnerships, we have been able to find new locations to offer our classes.  

Our long-term goal is to start planting recovery outreach centers through Wisconsin. Our plan is to start small, but we are striving to create the Ignite model for these recovery outreach centers.       Our dream would be to have space with a warehouse-style gym, yoga studio and cafe that serves healthy foods. We want to create a space where people can connect with one another and grow in physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. 

The inclusion of Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) is unique.   I am not aware of any other similar type program here in the United States!  How does MMA fit into an overall recovery program?  People think of yoga and meditation when they think of recovery but not MMA.  So, let’s enlighten them to the benefits since what you are doing is unique. 

All of our offerings are about serving, mobilizing, and empowering the local recovery community.  When we launch a class or group it is really about what the local community wants to do.  Offering MMA classes came about because a person in recovery reached out to me about being of service.  He is certified as a personal trainer, he trains people in jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, etc. and he wanted to give back to people in recovery.  For Ignite, it is really about us being able to empower himto help others.  When we talked more, MMA is about self-discipline, embracing pain, and becoming a better, stronger person.  Before we launched the first MMA class, “Fight for Recovery”, we started asking our community what they thought and if people would be interested in attending. The overwhelming response was yes!

For us, Ignite Recovery is about creating opportunities for people to connect and find their tribe. Nobody is pressured to do anything they do not want to do.  If you want to do MMA – do that, if you want to do yoga – do that, if you want to train for triathlons – do that.  As long as it is about creating community and growing in recovery together, we will probably support it.   

Shari is the mother of someone in recovery.  I asked her how a sober active community can benefit the families of people in addiction recovery?

For almost 4 years I’ve been co-facilitating a family support group for those with loved ones who are either in active substance use or in recovery. My sole credentials for first working with families was that of being a mom of a person in recovery.

Aerial yoga and Sharon, one of its founders.

Ignite embraces both harm reduction and the ideology of the evidence-based CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Therapy) approach. There are three things at the core of this: First, is a need to pull families out of their unhealthy entanglements with their loved ones — yes, we get too close and try to micromanage everything.  Second, we share with them some of the best strategies for moving their loved ones toward treatment (no, you can’t force them to do anything). And third, we teach them some of the best ways to support a family member in recovery (lean in when you can, step back when you have to). So, those who embrace CRAFT, also embrace the idea that there is value to understanding as much as they can about their loved one’s condition.  For many families, these basic concepts are game-changers and Ignite plays a part at in each.

Having a sober active community is the first line of defense when your loved one is using, and you need self-care. Take a yoga class. Go on a Sunday morning hike with people who are journeying toward recovery (and see what possibilities are out there).   We also provide a valuable resource.  Family members can sit in an open meeting after a class. Listen and learn from the experience of others   Finally Ignite is a useful tool for reconnecting with a family member once they’re on their recovery path.  For example, at one of the Ignite classes, I met a mother and daughter who were doing just that. They were taking one a yoga class together because they had been looking for a place where they could just “be” together.  Ignite provides a neutral space where people can be safe just being themselves.

Given the reality of so many student athletes getting hooked on opiates for sports-related injuries, I wanted to know how Ignite could benefit this growing demographic within the addiction recovery community.

Members of Ingite after a CrossFit workout.

The benefit is enormous.  Many young people struggle to connect with the treatment world, particularly with AA. While all of us at Ignite are huge proponents of the program (for family members, of course, t’s the community of Al-Anon), we know that many struggle with the feeling that AA was the only community for addicts. So, if you’re not sitting in a church basement somewhere talking about your issues, you’re not healing. Often, a person is scared or uncomfortable to open up in a small room filled with chairs in a circle. It’s difficult to develop relationships, true relationships with individuals that way.  For an athlete, it’s easier to work out, sweat, feel pain together and at the end there is this connection over something common you did together.  And, after a few times, it grows from a “Hello”, to a “How was your weekend” to knowing intimate details about another person. It’s funny, because it’s almost like dating. There is a fear of opening up at times, specifically in the meeting rooms. But once you do, it changes your life.  And if that connection you made at Ignite reaches out and goes to a meeting, that person may feel stronger to open up because they have support with them.  There’s a lot of healing that can be done in experiential communities — a lot of bonding that can happen while hiking, climbing, working out at the gym. 

Adam lived in a sober house for a period of time and that experience helped him stay sober.  I asked Adam about how he benefited from that experience and how others could as well. 


Adam and his family



When I first found recovery, I was a mess.  Living in a sober house help me learn how to live life again.  I got connected to 12-step recovery groups and I launched myself on a path spiritual progress.  Being active was also a big part of that early journey that has continued for the past now 8 plus years.  I began going to the gym with another guy in the sober living and working out became a consistent part of my life.  I also got connected with a recovery softball team (where I met Tim), got back into rock climbing, and started playing beach volleyball.  It was really about doing all the activities I loved to do, and the disease of addiction had gotten in the way of.  Working the steps, sponsoring guys, and being active has always been a huge part of my recovery.  I was always trying to grow and be a better person.  I am also pretty competitive, so I spent a few years training for beach volleyball and competing in tournaments.  The importance that being active has had on my journey and my physical, mental, and spiritual growth is what led us to launch Ignite Recovery and create an inclusive active lifestyle community.  We just know how important fitness has been to us and we want to help others find fitness in recovery.

Ben has shared publicly in the past about how his addiction to pain-killers began at the dentist.  I asked him what advice he has for others about pain killers for dental visits or other routine medical procedures? 

I work in the medical field as a Veterinarian and have many friends on the human medical side as well. The government is doing a great job at restricting the access of prescription pain medications. Most practitioners are starting to avoid opioids as a first line of defense for pain management and opting for other, non-addictive substances.  But, more than likely, there will be a time in almost every child’s life when they will be prescribed opioids.  And rather than blindly doling them out without fear of consequence, parents should educate themselves as much as possible. The same care they give to what their children eat, and what they watch on TV really needs to be given to what medications they allow them to have — even more so.  They will need to research addiction and understand its causes and causalities.  

The first Vicodin (Hydrocodone) I ever took was prescribed for my wisdom teeth.  I remember it vividly:  Sitting in a living room chair, staring at the wall, thinking this was the greatest thing ever.  But, as stated earlier, education is key.  Because of this experience I definitely had a genetic component in me that would have reared its ugly head at any time.  The next thing to consider is that while my prescription was only for 5 days, I had easy access other opiates. The problem arose when I realized my mother (who had a significant medical condition and has had many operations), had a cabinet full of Vicodin (hydrocodone) that she never finished.  I had direct access to something that my parents never in their wildest dreams ever thought was a problem. It was not locked up, not thought about, or ever checked on. I stole that medication for months with no one being the wiser.  Herein lies the larger issue.  Potentially, if these unused prescriptions were disposed of correctly, or accounted for in a lock box or safe box, itmayhave slowed my progression.  But as an addict, I would have found a way.  I would have bought them or lied in the locker room to get them.

Most parents think, “never with my child” and I had a white collar, privileged upbringing.  That is how my parents thought.  But addiction doesn’t care about income, race, sexuality or any defining factors you can think of.  Its all-encompassing and can affect anyone.  So, if there are controlled substances in the house.  Lock them up.  Keep track of them! Do not put them under the bathroom sink and forget about them. 

I asked Tim about how got started and why CrossFit has become an important part of his program personally and at Ignite….  Here is what he had to say.   

A.J., a member of Ignite getting his pump on

A good friend who I met through a co-ed recovery softball league came to me with an idea about a community non-profit that was based around fitness.  He showed me what The Phoenix (then known as Phoenix Multisport) was doing and how it was centered around CrossFit.  I thought that idea was great! I have my CF-L1 and I also coach classes at CrossFit Waukesha which is where Ignite holds its functional fitness classes right now. I’ve been to prison twice which is where I found time to do correspondence courses through ISSA. Ultimately, I received my personal trainer certification. Almost seven years later, with a lot of work by a lot of people, we’ve launched interest meetings doing CrossFit and it has blossomed.

Why is CrossFit so popular in the addiction recovery community?   How does it benefit members of that community?

So many reasons!  In general, CrossFit is about fitness.  Our physical, mental, and spiritual health are all interwoven.  I love how CrossFit talks about fitness being beyond wellness.  Where wellness is normality, being healthy, and the absence of disease.  Fitness is having a heightened defense against disease.  When we look at our physical, mental, and spiritual wellness we actually want to be FIT.  We want physical, mental, and spiritual fitness to provide a heightened defense against the disease of addiction.  Like you would say, we want to supercharge our recovery – and CrossFit enhances our fitness. 

CrossFit naturally creates community.  Tim, Shari, and I along with some others in our community all belong to CrossFit Waukesha and the structure of classes create opportunities for people to connect.  It is not like going to some chain gym where everyone is listening to music on headphones, their face is in their phones, and they just want to work out and leave.  At CrossFit, people are talking, connecting, encouraging each other.  They connect with those who work out at their box and they notice when somebody misses a class.  CrossFit’s ability to build community and relationships is perfect for the recovery community.

CrossFit is both a physical and mental test.  Physically it’s about the sport, there is infinite room for improvement and growth.  Everything is measurable so you can really see where and how you are getting better.  Nothing feels better than a new PR – hitting a big lift or smashing an old time.  At the same time, CrossFit is just as much about the mental aspect of the sport – the sports psychology.  It’s about embracing the pain and knowing what your body can do.  So many times, it’s about a mindset.  My legs, arms, and lungs will be on fire and my mind will tell me to stop, yet when we embrace the pain and keep pushing a breakthrough is often waiting.  Nothing feels better than physically doing something your mind tells you that you can’t.  This carries over into our recovery journey.  We are going to deal with pain and things that are uncomfortable and being fit helps us overcome adversity.  

CrossFit is often referred to as “functional fitness” and many of us in the recovery aren’t just looking for something that helps us tone or look good — for many of us ‘fitness’ is about being able to function in the world and to do the work that has been given to us to do. So, the term “function” takes on a whole new meaning. It really fits us.Ultimately, CrossFit enhances our physical, mental, and spiritual fitness so we can have resilience in recovery!

To learn more about Ignite, visit their Facebook page @IgniteRecovery or their website: www.ignite-recovery.org.  

Mount Everest Journal: My Trek From Lukla to Everest Base Camp: Day Six

After six days of trekking, it is becoming crystal clear that the physical challenge of hiking is taking a backseat to the mental challenge of living in freezing temperatures for days at a time. Yesterday was 19 degrees and overnight reached -15 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. The tea houses we are staying in are definitely warmer than a tent, but not heated and quite cold at night. This morning when I woke up my water bottle which was outside my sleeping bag was partially frozen. I slept with my phone, head-lamp and charging batteries in my sleeping bag as otherwise the cold would drain the batteries! If the cold can do that to electronic devices you can imagine it’s impact on the human body.

Increasingly, the challenge we face are mental rather than physical. Part of the altitude acclimation process is for the body to slowly to adjust. I’ve experienced many of the usual symptoms which include flatulence, difficulty sleeping, intense dreams, difficulty breathing (especially at night) and loss of appetite. My fellow trekkers have all experienced similar effects from altitude and cold. As someone who tries to be as respectful as possible to my body, given I abused it for so many years, trekking seems to be completely inconsistent with self-care. However, this type of short-term challenge to my physical and mental limit is a very healthy thing. It gives me the opportunity to test the limits of my abilities and pushes me further and further out of comfort zone. It’s a form of physical, mental and spiritual growth that empowers me to continue to grow as opposed to staying safely in the comfort zone I know. To me, that’s a form of death. Slowly expecting less and less from myself. That’s the opposite of growth. I am fully committed to aging optimally, rather than gracefully. To do that, I must continue to push myself.

Everyone in my group went for an acclimation climb today. I decided to stay behind and give my body a rest. My back is staring to hurt and my feet need a break from being in my hiking boots. So I decided to stay back, stretch my back with yoga poses like up and down dog, journal, tape some videos for Spiritual Adrenaline and just relax. I bring my morning spiritual reading with me. In Just for Today, my morning reading included this passage.

“We inventory our lives in great detail, and discuss our inventory with our sponsor. We ask the God of our understanding to remove our character defects, the shortcomings that are the source of our troubles. We take responsibility for the things we’ve done and make amends for them. And we incorporate all these disciplines into our daily lives, practicing these principles in all our affairs”.

I skipped the acclimation climb today to have a “me” day full of introspection. The reading this morning brought a smile to my face as I believe it’s a message from my higher power confirming my choice for today was the right one. It’s my higher power’s way of signaling his or her approval. I’ll put the day to good use and be ready for the tough days to come.

 

Mount Everest Journal: My Trek From Lukla to Everest Base Camp: Day Five

Today wake up at 13,500 feet and trek to Pheriche at 14,600.

It was a beautiful morning once again. My trek took us past yak farms and that’s about it. I didn’t see much else except stunning views of snow-capped mountains and an increasingly spartan landscape. The entire morning, I enjoyed the roar of the Dudhkosi river below me.  A fierce and beautiful river that roars very loudly.  I could hear the roar all the way up where we were trekking and I’ll bet up to the top of the mountains as well. It’s a beautiful sound to hear as you slowly make your way along narrow mountain trails on the way to Pheriche.

What starts to set in as I made my way along the narrow mountain trails was just how far away from civilization I truly am. This place is like being on a whole different planet. I was aware there were small mountain villages up here but not aware that such a strong mountain culture existed. There is an entire civilization here that lives completely differently from the way we do. Everything is a struggle and only achieved through hard work. Clean drinking water takes work. Heat takes work. It’s impossible for me not to reflect on just how much I take for granted.  

Another thing that becomes crystal clear is just how far off the grid I truly am. There’s almost no cellular service and minimal Wi-Fi. If you want to get online, you have to pay for the privilege. For the first time in a really long time, I feel completely present right here and now. I’ve got no email to check, no texts, no social media just the present. It’s an awesome thing, but in some way scary thing, to be in the here and now. For me, it’s an opportunity to turn completely introspective. Tomorrow is a rest day and I plan to inventory where I am in my life, both in positive ways but more importantly in areas where I need to improvement and prepare a gratitude list. I will also do a detailed tenth-step inventory.

Mount Everest Journal: My Trek From Lukla to Everest Base Camp: Day Four

Waking up in Tashinga was an experience. When we arrived at this small village the evening haze blocked the view. The weather here is pretty consistent with clear morning skies and overcast and foggy afternoons and late evenings. After waking up I went outside to check out the scenery and my jaw literally dropped. In each direction you could see tall snow-capped mountains. The view was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I am not exaggerating when I say the view brought tears to my eyes. This is what I came to see! I felt so alive and excited to get back out and trek higher. Like any addict or alcoholic, one gorgeous mountain vista is not enough: I want more. I want to go higher, see bigger mountains and more of them. I just finished my morning spiritual program, reading Just for Today and Daily Reflections. So I tell myself easy does it. Pace yourself. Stop chasing more and enjoy what is! Stay in the present and breath deep.

Today we wake up at 11,500 feet and when we arrive at our destination, Pongboche, we will be at 13,500. Off we go….

We hiked for two hours on a forty-five-degree angle straight up. Right at the beginning of our trek we came to a suspension bridge. Not as high or as long as some of the others we encountered. Having gone over so many yesterday, I took Deep breath, said to myself “fear is not my friend” and “fear is not a fact”. I kept my eyes on the other side and made my way across. It was a little less challenging than the day before. When you confront fear, it loses its power.

Our two hour forty-five-degree incline climb was hard. To say this was a challenging is an understatement. There were a couple of times I thought my heart might pop out of my chest it was pounded so hard. I needed a lot of breaks as did everyone in our group. Once again each of us was supportive of one another and slowly but surely we arrived in Tambuche.  

Tambuche is the location of a stunning Buddhist Monastery with a breathtaking view of the valley, including Mount Everest. No matter what direction you turn, snow-capped mountains take your breath away. You can see a number of peaks, including Themacrku, Khonde, Amadablam and of course Everest. The place has a surreal and almost magical feeling to it which is hard to explain. Prayers have been carved into rocks all around the town and prayer flags also adorn the hilltops. I will never forget the beauty and peacefulness of this place. I will also never forget how it sits so perfectly in the valley and seems like it belongs there. As if it was meant to be by the design of some higher power.

After Tambuche, we began another two hour hike up to our final destination of Pangboche. I think it’s worth pointing out that we don’t just go higher, but drop down hundreds or thousands of feet and then have to re-climb back up to the altitude where we started before going higher. We have to follow the natural contours and that means often going down and then back up. Both the morning and afternoon hikes took us way down in altitude before we began our ascent. It’s frustrating but part of the trek and everyone has to do it and you kind of get used to it.

When we arrive in Pangboche, the skies are still somewhat clear but clouds have rolled in. The clouds give the mountains an eerie, almost ominous feeling. The landscape becomes so much more dramatic when the clouds role in. On our hike up, we passed massive prayer rocks high up the cliff face. We passed rolling fields with mountain yaks grazing, lots of Sherpa’s carrying heavy loads up to the villages in the higher altitudes and of course fellow trekkers.

Our tea house for tonight is the Everest View Lodge. True to it’s name, we have a view of the summit of Mount Everest with the snow and wind blowing flares of snow off of the summit. As we go higher, the tea houses become increasingly basic and quite cold. Not like sleeping in a tent kind of cold but all the luxuries from lower on the mountain are slowly disappearing, Aside from the cold given the building has no insulation, the lights flicker on and off. As I laid in my bed, I started to realize that this altitude isn’t really meant for people. We as humans are able to master nature to some extent, but up here nature is showing us who the boss truly is. It’s not us! By recognizing nature is in charge, I avoid the mistake of my ego not showing nature and the mountains the respect they deserve. Mountains show no mercy! So it’s good for me to remember this and keep my ego in check as we begin our final days of trekking into much higher altitudes.

 

Mount Everest Journal: My Trek From Lukla to Everest Base Camp: Day Two

We returned again to the Katmandu airport and found many other trekkers from the day before there again as well. A sense of comradely arose as we were all struggling to get out of a Katmandu and up into the mountains via helicopter. The final cost for everyone in our group was $480.00 each for the helicopter. As people we knew headed out to the runway for their trip, we would high five them and hope to do the next group to go. Our helicopter was supposed to take off between 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. We all felt for the locals who have to deal with this daily. It is a tough way to live and reminded me of how lucky I am to live in NYC (although it certainly has its challenges). We all hoped to get called next to head out to a helicopter and begin our journey. We all felt the majestic beauty of the mountains would be worth the current difficulty.  At about noon, our helicopter finally takes off.

It’s funny how a 45-minute helicopter ride through the stunning Himalayas can radically improve your mood. As the helicopter took off over Katmandu, the city became a kaleidoscope of colors. Ancient stupas still dominate the skyline and the smoke rising from the Hindu burial grounds gave the city an eerie feel. However, soon we were no longer in an urban area but rather flying over ancient terraced farming villages dotting the mountainside. We then headed into the clouds and when we emerge above them, we realize we are getting much closer to the snow-capped mountains that are legendary.  My group gets real excited as we see a few and get a taste of what is store in in the days to come. Our helicopter slowly descends into Lukla, the start point of the ancient trail that will ultimately take us to Mount Everest.

Lukla is surprisingly modern. I’ve seen Lukla on television and in movies. Seeing it in person though is completely different. Over the last twenty years it has developed quite a bit and its streets are lined with pastry shops, barber shops, restaurant, bars, and “tea houses”. These tea houses are very basic accommodations, some with and some without running water. They are everywhere and you can go from a simple tent to mountain luxury, that means a bathroom and luke-warm water to shower.   The town has a wild west feel to it which makes it exhilarating.  This is the jumping point to all the famous treks in Nepal, Everest Base Camp and the Three Passes, among them.  After a quick stop at a pastry shop, we begin our trek.

Right away, the breathtaking beauty of this place starts to become clear. Almost everywhere you look are stunning vistas, prayer wheels and mountain peaks. The trail runs along the Dudh Koshi River. The sound of rushing rapids is the dominant noise as we trek higher. Waterfalls fall from high atop the mountains and look like silver bands extending all along the mountain.

The river is spawned from melting glaciers on Everest and other nearby mountains. It’s the source of the Ganghes, the holy river that travels through Nepal and India. The river is a crystal clear aqua color that is unmistakable of run off from a glacier.

We crossed three suspension bridges along our five-hour trek. These bridges were my biggest fear and part of the reason I wanted to participate. I am afraid of heights! Not in the sense of climbing a mountain but being near a ledge with a steep drop off. I took deep breaths but I was terrified as I crossed. I seriously thought about dropping to my knees and crawling on all fours the entire way across. How embarrassing would that have been? Seriously embarrassing and I would never have lived it down.

Suspension bridge along trek route to Everest Base Camp.

I kept breathing really deeply and repeating to myself “it’s time to overcome this fear” and “I’m not turning around; I am overcoming this fear”. I got over the three bridges which was great practice for the days to come. After five hours or so of trekking, one hour in the dark which was very scary as most of the trek was along a steep mountain ledge, we arrived at our tea house in the Village of Phakding at 8,700 feet for the night and settled in.

 

Mount Everest Journal: My Trek from Lukla to the Everest Base Camp: Day One

For most people trekking to the Mount Everest Basecamp, the journey begins in Katmandu. The City is ancient and full of rolling alley ways with restaurants, bars and all other kinds of shops. The tourist district, known as Thamel, is in the center of the city and is party central. It’s full of trekkers and an odd assortment of other tourists looking to party hard. Many of the trekkers get totally wasted given this is their last chance before beginning their trek. Although I don’t drink, I wanted to “experience” the scene so I went to two well-known bars, Buddha Bar and Purple Haze. I’ve got to tell you, the Thamel scene rocks!

Me on the party hardy streets of Thamel.

I had a really good time and met people from all over the world. The only problem is drinking and altitude don’t mix. The next morning I saw many of the same people at the domestic air terminal waiting for flights to the mountain region and other parts of Nepal. Their bloodshot eyes and faint look told the story of their night (or nights) out in Katmandu.  If you are looking for an alcohol free activity, high-altitude hiking or mountain climbing is for you.  Given the pressure on the body in high altitude and diminished oxygen, even small amounts of alcohol results in hospitalization.   Hopefully the partiers got it out of their system.  Last night didn’t look like so much fun this morning.  I remember those mornings very well, hungover and totally miserable.  Seeing some of the same people from the last night at the airport made me grateful I no longer drink!   I woke up rested and ready to trek for the next two weeks.

…………

The scene at the airport was what one should expect at a domestic terminal in a very poor third-world country. The place was packed, flights oversold and the atmosphere pretty chaotic. We arrived at the airport at 9 a.m. for our 10 a.m. flight to Lukla. At 2:30 p.m., we are informed that we may not be able to get a flight today as all the flights are overbooked and one of two planes to our destination is out of service.

Boudanath Stupa in Katmandu..

That’s how it is in Nepal, your flight may or may not happen. It gets worse though as we are then told the airline has oversold flights for tomorrow as well (starting to see a pattern here 😂) and even if we come back tomorrow morning and wait again all day, we may not be able to actually get on a plane. That’s when our guide recommends we hire a helicopter. It only costs $400.00 a person. Only $400.00 a person! It’s either that or drive all night for approximately ten hours over unpaved mountain roads to Lukla. What would you do? So we hired a helicopter. The only thing worse than dealing with this crazy third-world bullshit is doing it with a hangover. I am once again reminded of how fortunate I am to have stopped drinking. As no helicopters were available, we headed back into Katmandu for the night. The day challenged my patience but reconfirmed the benefits of meditative practice based upon Buddhist principles. I never blew a gasket, never got the urge to drink or smoke, and took deep breaths in and out with the out breath symbolizing my agitation and the in breath symbolizing patience and loving kindness.