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Dawn Brown used to be addicted to crack.
“Addiction has been a problem for me for years. In the end I was all by myself, driving around in a car, smoking crack and drinking alcohol, 24/7. I just could not seem to get anything on track. I mean, I had been a registered nurse at one point.”
Eric Uebelacaer was in a similar situation.
“I was addicted crack cocaine for 25 years, off and on.”
These stories are not unusual at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and the Tacoma Rescue Mission, where homeless addicts might find themselves after hitting rock bottom.
The Missions give homeless people a permanent home for a year. They feed them, clothe them and put them in an addiction recovery program with counseling. In 2011, Mike Johnson, executive director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and an ex-ranger from Fort Lewis, added a new layer to the recovery program when he created Climbing out of a Homelessness. Johnson leads participants through a ten month training program that ends with climbing Mount Rainier.
“The first year of participants they said, you know, frankly, getting off heroine was harder,” says Johnson. “‘Thank you for giving me a neat experience.’ But what they really got out of it was the team. So from that point on we really focused on the team building side of things, the relationship side of things. We’ve now done five, almost six climbs. It’s changed a lot of lives, mine included.”
Johnson, who had never climbed Rainier before this program, says the climbers tend to stay off drugs, off of alcohol, and become functioning members of society again.
“It works because it’s dealing with the thing that’s actually the problem. The single biggest variable that’s correlated with adult homelessness is childhood maltreatment, childhood abuse, abandonment, trauma and neglect. We increasingly are aware that addiction’s root is really loneliness and inadequate connections with each other. And so it’s not merely that someone needs to learn to live without drugs or alcohol in their life. They need to learn how to live with people in their life. So the great thing about this climbing program is that while people are working on their sobriety, through a good and well established program, we’re also making available to them the chance to see a licensed mental health counselor to deal with their childhood trauma. Then the climbing program creates that new connection. It’s like, ohh, this is how people are meant to live with each other, to encourage each other. I need these guys as much as they need me. The truth is these are the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and I wouldn’t be climbing if it wasn’t for them.”
Anyone is welcome to join the climbing team, but in order to attempt Rainier, participants must first summit Mount Hood, which Uebelacaer did just two weeks ago. This is a huge accomplishment, considering he arrived at the Tacoma Rescue Mission in December in terrible shape.
“My addiction at that point had been at the worst stage it had ever been at. I’d been on a two year run, using every day, all day. When I got to the Mission I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, I was sick, no sense of belonging, no friends. It was a real dark place.”
Uebelacaer has a fresh tattoo of a mountain on his arm. Since he started training he hasn’t smoked a single cigarette, at 54 years old he says he’s in the best shape of his life and he’s getting ready to go back to school to earn a degree in exercise science and nutrition.
“Being a part of climb team is what’s taken me to the next level of my recovery,” Uebelacaer says. “It really has. The friendships, the sense of belonging, the community of it. You don’t have to do life alone. You really can’t do it alone, you’re not supposed to do it alone, that’s not the way it was ever designed. It’s been huge for me.
Homeless people often feel isolated from the rest of society, but the climbing program helps bridge that gap.
“Half the team is folks from the recovery program, the other half are people from the community,” Johnson explains. “We’re mixing them up in the van, we’re mixing them up on the trail, we’re mixing them up in the tents, frankly, up at Camp Muir. So in one tent you’ve got somebody who went to prison when he was 18 for armed robbery and has struggled with alcohol for the next dozen years and another guy who is a VP of accounts at Cisco Systems. They’re discovering that they’re climbing the same mountain, they want and need the same things, which includes each other. That’s what overcomes that sense of isolation.”
As for Dawn Brown, she was on the climbing team in 2013. She now works as a flight attendant and has connected with a group of women hikers and has gotten out on several trails this summer.
Click here for more information on how to join the Climbing out of a Homelessness team, or to make a donation.
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When I first saw the trailer for A New High—a forthcoming documentary film about an addiction recovery program that takes homeless adults to the top of Seattle’s Mt. Rainier, the highest mountain in the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest—I thought instantly of the famous Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” In the painting, a man stands with his back to the viewer, looking out from the top of a mountain-top over a vast expanse of land. It is the prototypical Romantic image—the individual has mastered the mountain by reaching its summit, but is left with a feeling of insignificance in the face of nature’s immensity. The Romantics believed that “man’s” true self could only be found in the wilderness, and this has endured in all manner of literature, advertising, and media. Who could forget Thoreau’s famous line, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”? Walden is taught year after year in high school curricula, and in my opinion, not because of its literary merit, but because of its subject matter. Thoreau himself said, “we can never have enough of nature.” Books like Into the Wild and Wild (notice a trend, here?) and their filmic adaptations—made in 2007 and 2014, respectively—were critical successes and “wildly” popular. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is a personal favorite of mine, and all of us have many friends, family, and acquaintances that have taken wilderness trips—the Appalachian trail, the Amazon, the Boundary Waters—to “find themselves.” All of these examples refer to the solitary individual in Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”; we may face our demons, our dreams, our desires, when faced with the fragility of our existence.
A New High is, ostensibly, preoccupied with this image—the film’s promotional poster bears a remarkable resemblance to the Friedrich painting. While the new film is about change—real, profound, transformation in the lives of homeless adults—it isn’t the mysterious qualities of the natural world that affect this change: it’s the strength of human-to-human relationships.
“It’s not really the mountain,” Mike Johnson (who co-directors Stephen Scarpulla and Sam Miron call the protagonist of the film) tells me during our phone interview. “It’s the team.”
Johnson is the former CEO of the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle, current CEO of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and founder of the “Climbing out of Homelessness” program. The program takes homeless adults in drug and alcohol addiction recovery, through a ten-month, physically and emotionally demanding training process that ends at Rainier’s summit. “At first we thought [the program] was just going to be kind of a nifty way to help Seattle understand how hard it is to overcome homelessness, by climbing a mountain. That’s as big as the idea was at first… then we had the realization that this was life changing. While the recovery program was helping people learn to live without drugs and alcohol, we were helping people learn to live with each other. The teamwork process was as therapeutic a part of their journey as anything else.”
“Climbing out of Homelessness” has done five climbs since its founding in 2010, and a A New High chronicles their third annual climb. Scarpulla and Miron connected with Johnson in 2012, and after spending a week in Seattle, were “blown away” by the program and its participants.
“We’ve worked on a lot of different documentaries,” Miron says. “All kinds of different documentaries with a social justice element… this was just completely, totally different.” When asked why, the two co-directors and their protagonist voiced a unanimous opinion: the intense camaraderie of the group. Scarpulla and Miron trained for nearly a year with the 13-person climbing team, essentially living in the shelter before their ascent up the mountain.
“These film-makers treated everybody as humans, and their stories as sacred,” Johnson tells me. “That’s what built that trust, because folks believed that if they opened up, their stories would be used and treated with dignity… not as source or as product.”
This was no easy task. Both co-directors agree that the hardest part of the production process—which of course involved the actual climb up the mountain—was navigating the complexities of their close relationships to these men and women.
“Being with these people, you become really close to them,” Miron says. “You forget that they’re living in a homeless shelter, and you forget that they’re recovering from addiction, and you forget that all of these things have happened to them. Then all of a sudden it’s very real, it’s in your face, and you… have no idea how to handle it it all—if you film it, if it’s okay to film it, do they want to be filmed—it’s a difficult feeling.”
“We were so personally involved in the film,” Scarpulla says. “We were there for the triumphs and the let-downs. It’s tough to see people that you’ve come to call your friends maybe start to go off on the wrong path—and be pointing a camera right in the face of it as its happening.”
An addict, on average, goes through treatment seven times, and the connection between homelessness and addiction is strong. SAMSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) estimates that sixty percent of homeless adults have a substance abuse problem. This is often linked, to childhood neglect, abuse, and trauma.
“It’s not just about getting sober,” Johnson tells me. “It’s about the loss of hope in relationships. Like, ‘if I love someone or let them love me, would it just hurt in the end’?” While most of us could never pretend to understand what these men and women have experienced, who among us doesn’t relate to that feeling?
Despite the odds, 12 out of the 13 climbers in A New High have stayed sober, without relapse.
“They’re doing really, really, well,” Johnson says, his smile palpable through the phone.
“I think the trick was they realized that this film could be an opportunity to transmute the rough stories of their past into something that could touch others,” Scarpulla muses. “It gives struggle meaning. I don’t want to speak for them, but that was definitely my experience, watching the film with them, after it was completed. I think the general reaction was, ‘wow, that’s my life, that’s me up there. I’m looking around at a room of people that are moved by my story, and that somehow makes it worth it.’” Scarpulla laughs. “I hope.”
As I went into the interview thinking about Friedrich and his “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” I couldn’t help but ask if Mt. Rainier itself heightened the stakes of the recovery process.
“The stakes are already high.” Scarpulla is quick to say. “Climbing a mountain, compared to the danger of addiction? You can’t compare the two.”
“The death rate on the route we take up Rainier is six out of a thousand,” Johnson says. “The death rate of being an I.V. addict on the streets of Seattle? So much higher. We’re climbing a mountain, and in a film that’s capturing everything along the way… that’s high stakes, but it’s really important to understand that the underlying stakes associated with this are already so, so high.”
The men and women in “Climbing out of Homelessness” are not Friedrich’s mountain wanderer—they are faced with the fallibility, the fragility of humanity, as homeless individuals and as addicts. Rainier serves as nothing more than a metaphor.
“It doesn’t have to be mountain climbing,” Johnson says emphatically. “It can be blogging, or sailing, or chess—whatever it is that you can build a team around. That’s the deepest need—to help folks that have become isolated from mainstream relationships and society, because of their background, become a part of these strong friendships.”
“It’s all about relationships at the end of the day,” Scarpulla agrees. “There is a tendency, especially with homelessness and addiction, to shy away from being present with it, and to kind of put it out of sight, out of mind…It’s about being present with people. That’s so healing in and of itself.”
The men and women in A New High didn’t need the mountain to “live deliberately”, but it was the journey up the mountain that built the relationships necessary to recover from addiction. Both the film and the “Climbing out of Homelessness” program are ultimately a moving tribute to the power of community, working together, and friendship.
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In A NEW HIGH, a diverse group of men and women come together to climb out of homelessness and drug addiction through an unorthodox recovery program that uses mountain climbing as a means of rehabilitation. After one year of intense physical and mental conditioning, the team attempts to summit one of the most dangerous mountains in the country, Mt. Rainier.
Producer Eamon Downey spoke to me earlier this week about the making of the film:
JS: How did you become of aware of Mike Johnson and this rather unique rehabilitation program at the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle?
ED: Our film’s Executive Producer/Producer Philip Erdoes had heard of a similar program in Washington around a decade ago. Given the unique approach of this recovery program and it’s tremendous success in helping addicts overcome their addiction, our team reached out to the program in 2012. After a little digging, we found Mike Johnson leading his own climbing out of homelessness and addiction program at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Our production crew flew out to visit the team and himself to see if there was a film there. It was probably within five minutes of meeting Mike and the team that we decided it was imperative we move to Seattle immediately to spend a year documenting this transformative story.
JS: How did you approach them about making your documentary?
ED: Approaching anyone to be featured in a documentary is a delicate subject especially when we’re looking to follow them as they recover from the darkest periods of their lives. However, being in the depths of recovery, the team members felt it was equally important to share this story of perseverance, if for nothing else so that it may inspire other addicts to seek treatment.
JS: Was there any hesitation from any of the participants featured in the film in taking part?
ED: Initially upon hearing that some filmmakers from New York City want to follow their lives in recovery for a year, there may have been a bit of hesitation that was quickly alleviated once we met with the team members. It was clear that we wanted to share this story for the same reason they agreed to participate: to share their journey and instill hope in others struggling to summit their own personal demons. Once we established we were all on the same page, all the participants were eager to be part of this film.
JS: How tough was the climb up Mt. Rainier for you as filmmakers – physically climbing and capturing it on film?
ED: Climbing a mountain is a challenge. Climbing a mountain with the extra weight of film equipment in addition to your climb gear is extremely difficult. Running up and down along rope lines to capture each character as they make their way to the summit is almost beyond comprehension, but Samuel and Stephen did tremendous work filming the climb as you’ll see on screen. They trained alongside the recovery climbers throughout the year, but between the extra pounds on their backs and filmmaking duties it’s almost as though they had summited the mountain twice during the climb, but without a single complaint. The importance to do justice to the story was their fuel.
JS: It’s a very inspiring story that unfolds as we root on the participants, both with the climb and in putting their lives back together – can you talk about how it was for you as filmmakers witnessing both the triumphs and pitfalls?
ED: Spending a year in such an intimate setting with the recovery climbers really transformed them from documentary subjects to friends whose recovery we personally cared about succeeding. Being an objective documentarian is such a difficult balance and of course we were proud of their personal triumphs and saddened when some recovery climbers hit roadblocks in their path. The real lesson learned here isn’t if you summit you win or if you stumble you fail; it’s your perseverance to stay sober or to keep coming back for treatment that defines your recovery. It’s just as inspirational witnessing a full recovery as it is seeing someone that stumbled get back up and keep trying.
A NEW HIGH screens on at 8:30pm on Friday, March 4 at the Peabody Essex Museum http://salemfilmfest.com/2016/films/new-high/
Archive for 2016
Recovery Beyond > 2016