Finding healing: Innovative Utah program turns addicts into athletes
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
PROVO — As Shalise Morgan trained for her first 100-mile race, the toughest days she faced had nothing to do with physical demands.
Instead, it was convincing herself that a 39-year-old woman who’d wrestled drug addiction most of her life was capable of accomplishing something many lifelong athletes wouldn’t even consider.
“The hardest part was knowing that I’m worth it,” she said of running the Pony Express 100-mile race last October. “But being involved in this group, they kind of took me in and believed in me until I believed in myself. The help and support from these guys, it really makes you stronger.”
The group she’s referring to is Addict II Athlete. It’s a group whose mission is to help addicts maintain sobriety by replacing addiction with accomplishment, and it was founded by a former addict-turned-athlete — Blu Robinson. A clinical mental health and substance abuse counselor for Utah County, Robinson said he realized the benefits of athletics in his own recovery, years before a group of addicts inspired him to create Addict II Athlete three years ago.
Robinson loved sports as a youth, but a tumultuous childhood meant no real organized or competitive sports in his life. He moved 22 times by the time he was 18, and he started using drugs at 15. He dropped out of high school and “bounced around” until he “hit rock bottom” at 21 years old.
“I really just had enough,” he said. “I just stopped cold turkey.”
Not backing down
He made fairly decent money working as a courier at a youth treatment center, which is where he met his future wife, so he invested in a mountain bike. His first ride, he met a group who allowed him to join them. A year later, when he started dating his wife, the man who was to be his father-in-law enticed him into another experience.
“He said, ‘If you want to date my daughter, let’s run a marathon together,'” Robinson said smiling. “I had no idea what that was.”
He agreed to take the challenge — only to find out later from his fiancee that he’d committed to running 26.2 miles. But instead of shying away from the challenge, he embraced it.
“Never really having a dad, just training with this guy, I started bonding with him, and I started doing things I didn’t think I could,” Robinson said. “I stopped identifying myself as an addict.”
And that’s exactly what Robinson now wants for the addicts who commit to the Addict II Athlete program. He wants them to find new identities while they achieve new accomplishments.
“They’re more than that,” he said of the tendency of therapy programs to require addicts to continually identify themselves as addicts. “It’s a part of them, but it’s not who they are. They’re athletes, mothers, fathers and so many other things.”
Robinson went back to school at night to earn his high school diploma. Then he went to UVU, during which time he received his license to be a substance abuse counselor. After graduating from UVU in 2006, he started with the Utah County Health Department as a case manager. He was working with young boys, and part of the therapy was training for a triathlon. He found that the boys would open up to him while they were sharing a tough bike ride in ways they never did any other time.
In 2011, he was walking through the parking garage on his way to his office when he saw a group of clients huddled together. They were forging each other’s paperwork saying they were attending their required 12-step meetings.
Their excuse for doing so was “all people do in those meetings is complain,” Robinson said. That encounter started him thinking.
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