On Mountain Climbing, Homelessness, Addiction and Finding Our True Selves

On Mountain Climbing, Homelessness, Addiction and Finding Our True Selves
April 1, 2016 Gina Haines

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The painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog"  BY CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH

THE PAINTING “WANDERER ABOVE THE SEA OF FOG” BY CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH

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.