30 in 30

Editor’s Note:

In the original print version of this article, there was an error stating that Michael’s sobriety date was December 14 after he stopped drinking, but that he continued to use drugs for three years afterwards. This is not correct. While Michael did continue to use drugs for three years after he stopped drinking, December 14 is the date he entered treatment and stopped using any mind-altering substances. As a leader in the recovery world, this detail is crucial to Michael’s credibility and accountability to those he serves, and Hard Prairie deeply regrets the error.

As told to Jenny Thorsen

I always had a desire for physical activity and competition. I loved pushing my body to the limit long ago when I was young. But I was always insecure, like I wasn’t good enough, like there was this block between me and everyone else. Even when I excelled at something, there was always this nagging voice in my head telling me, You’re not good enough. The people that are doing what you want to do are set apart from you. I never did figure out what exactly that stemmed from.

I fell in love with drinking and drugs in high school because they made me feel like I was no longer apart from everyone. It was a social lubricant that made me feel like I could talk to anyone, be around anyone. It started as a way to celebrate achievements. I would always drink and then once I was drunk, I wasn’t afraid to do drugs. That’s just the way it was my entire life. So there was something to do with wanting to celebrate and the only way that I really knew how to celebrate, to achieve conviviality and all that was to drink and to eventually use drugs.

The only thing is, drugs and alcohol don’t really help with physical activity. With strenuous activity, you can’t go run a hundred miler drunk or on drugs. Alcohol and drugs messed up high school sports for me. Later in life, I joined the Marine Corps and alcohol and drugs ruined that too. I would start to excel like previous times in my life, and then alcohol and drugs would take over and ruin it. In the process, I got married to an amazing woman and we had children who are now adults. But throughout my life, I still had that desire to do something big physically, but it would always be ruined by alcohol and drugs. 

So there was a pattern in my life of aspiring to be a great athlete in different areas and never being able to do it, all the while stringing along a wife and children that are obviously getting neglected because I’m drinking and using drugs. My wife, my ex-wife now, left me when things got too bad, when I was using and not spending time with the children. She took the kids and moved to Vegas. I embraced her, helped load the kids into a Uhaul, and watched her drive away. And I cried. It was a painful moment, but there was also a part of me that was like, now I can drink and use drugs exactly the way I want to. That’s when I really sank into a deep and dark place in my life where I gave all of my attention to drugs and alcohol. 

It was a progression over the next several years, but I went there. I drank until I couldn’t drink anymore. I started to vomit blood, and my body just couldn’t take alcohol anymore. I could no longer get intoxicated through alcohol and for six entire months, I tried with every piece in my body to get drunk, to stay drinking, and I could not. I would take the smallest sip of alcohol, the smallest shot, the smallest sip of beer, and I would puke violently. So it was over. There was one night in particular where my mother was letting me stay at her house during this period of time. I was in a room in the back of her house, I had the window open, I was vomiting blood out of the window, and I didn’t want to tell her. I was hoping that it would go away, but it didn’t. I got dizzy and fell on the floor. Then I crawled on my hands and knees to her room and told her, “I need to go to the hospital.” And that was the last time I ever drank. 

My sobriety date is December 14 because I stopped drinking at that moment, but I also knew I wasn’t done checking out. I wasn’t done getting high and so when I ended up in a crack house, it’s because I devoted all of my energy to now doing drugs. That probably lasted for three years. Those three years were probably the worst years of my life. If you’ve never lived in a crack house or a drug house, it’s very chaotic. Anyone who lives there is trying to find drugs. There are times when there’s no drugs around. There’s a drought, so to speak, and so everyone’s sick. There’s never really any food or nourishment. There was a jar of peanut butter in the refrigerator that I’d take a scoop out of every morning. Someone would have to remind me to hydrate. It was very bad. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I looked horrible. I was emaciated, like a skeleton. I did not want to go out in public in any way, but obviously had to to go get my drugs. And the saddest thing in the world is when I was living in the crack house and I still had the desire to run, I would go jogging in the park and the kids that lived in the area knew me as the crack head that would run in the park. I’ll never forget that. 

It took my mother and her older sister to come and rescue me and get me into treatment. It was just really, really bad, but in a way I’m glad that it got that bad because when they came to get me into treatment, I was ready. The party had been long over, and I didn’t have any energy left for the hustle of trying to acquire drugs. I felt death right around the door. When you stop eating on a regular basis, when you stop drinking water, when you never ever take care of yourself or clean yourself or change clothes for that matter for a long, long time, you just kind of feel like death is right around the corner because who lives like that, you know?  

So I was going to call my aunt but didn’t know exactly what I was going to say to her. I just knew that I was in a bad spot. I thought to myself, I’ve had her pick me up and I’ve gone to her house and I’ve detoxed before. And as soon as I got better, I went right back to doing drugs. So was I going to do that again? Was I going to ask her for money for more drugs even though she’s told me she’s not giving me a red cent anymore? What was I going to do? But I knew her work number and I had no one else to call, so I was just going to dial the number and see what happened.

Somehow, I accidentally dialed Schick Shadel instead, the drug rehabilitation center. I’m in the depths of my despair and I dialed the number thinking it’s my aunt, and it’s the guy from Schick Shadel and he says, “This is Schick Shadel Drug Recovery Center, may I help you?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, I’m a drug addict.” And he started to talk to me. He let me run my mouth for an hour about my drug addiction and how bad it had gotten. That’s when the process started. That’s when I reached out to my mother and my aunt and said, “This guy may have a bed for me in a treatment center tonight, are you guys willing to give me a ride?” And of course they’re skeptical. But I wanted to escape that house, and essentially, I wanted to escape that life. 

Unfortunately, he called me back later on and told me he couldn’t get me into treatment because my insurance wasn’t going to cover it, but when I called my aunt and my mother, I got the wheels turning. So one day, my aunt left a pamphlet on the front doorstep of the house that I was living in, and it had a list of treatment centers. And the very first one on the top of the list said “Michael’s House.” I figured that must be a sign. I’m going to call them and see what they can do. That man checked my insurance and he said, “I could have you in Palm Springs tonight on a flight. And if you graduate treatment, I will pay for your flight back. But we’ve got to do this now, Michael.” And so I called my mom and asked her to pick me up.  

When she came, I got high one last time. I said goodbye to that house and got in the car, but I still had reservations. I was scared. I’m thinking, oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? And so I started to curse and yell at my mother. I got in the car and I’m telling her, “The devil’s in your back seat right now. Aren’t you going to start speaking in tongues or quoting some scripture? Aren’t you going to rebuke him?” And she said, “No Michael. I’m not here to do any of that. I’m just a mother trying to save her son’s life.” And I broke. I started to cry, and the rest is history. It was December 14, 2012 - the day I stopped using drugs and the date that I entered treatment and started a life of complete abstinence from all mind-altering substances.

Michael’s House was such an oasis of recovery. I knew that I was in the right place and I knew that my life was going to change, but had it not been for some people in that facility, I don’t know if I would have made it. My first five days in that treatment center, I could not sleep. That was longer than I’ve ever stayed up on drugs. I would eventually pass out in the middle of group therapy which you can’t really do, but they would allow me to sometimes. But I remember there was a night in particular where I couldn’t go to sleep and there was a counselor that was there around 3:00 in the morning, and she was 20 years clean off methamphetamine. She said, “Michael, I just want you to go around the pool as many times as you can. Do it until you can’t walk anymore and come 6:00 in the morning when everyone has to get up, if you want to continue to walk around it, just do it.” And you know, that walk turned into a slight jog. And it went from speed walk to jog to sometimes pure sprinting, and the counselors let me run around that pool crying like a maniac. But I was letting out all the demons that I wanted my mom to rebuke. I was letting them all out, and it was all coming to an end. 

There were times in treatment where when you first get there, they give you a little something to wean off of the drugs so it’s not so excruciating. But after a while, they just take you off of everything. I remember going on this hike and I’m having all the withdrawals from the opiates, and it’s just painful. And I remember being at the top of the mountain with a counselor and I said, “Man, you’re going to have to get a helicopter to come pick me up because I can’t go down that mountain.” And he says, “Trust me, we’re going to run down this mountain.” And I laughed at him because in all of that pain I was like, you think I’m running down this mountain? But don’t you know, I was running behind him down that mountain and he was yelling, “Chase me, Michael!”  And I’m running down the mountain behind him. I’ll never forget that. 

I got clean and sober in Palm Springs. I came home and I started to go to the 12 step meetings. In treatment, I started going on these morning walks up into the hills every single morning. Once we did that for a week, they started to take us on hikes into the hills in Palm Springs where we could see the snow, and that was a trip to me. I started to get that feeling again with physical activity. They gave us a gym membership so we could work out every day, and I started to see that I could be active again. When I got out of treatment and started going to my 12 step meetings, the counselor told me that I would find the same camaraderie there that I found in Palm Springs, so I did that. And for me and my life, they were right. The 12 step meetings are not for everyone, but they were definitely for me. I’ve been able to build a community which I feel like is family in a lot of those meetings.

However, I had a loved one who was suffering from drug addiction. They were living on the streets, and over the last several years, their physical and mental state deteriorated rapidly. It was hard for me to watch as a recovering alcoholic and addict, knowing firsthand how incomprehensibly demoralizing addiction to drugs and alcohol can be. It was unfortunate that I could do absolutely nothing for them if they didn’t want the help, but I always had hope…

I hoped that my loved one would surrender to the pain they were inflicting on themselves and others through their drug use. I hoped they would be ready to make the first step towards a new life in recovery where I could support them. So I did 30 in 30, climbing Mailbox Peak, a local mountain with over 4,000’ of gain in less than three or over five miles depending on which route you take, 30 times in 30 days.

The reason I did 30 in 30 is simply because I needed to put my energy into something else or I was going to go nuts, so I just took it out on the hill. I hiked Mailbox Peak regularly, and I would share this story with the other regulars at Mailbox Peak. I got some of my closest friends to do that hill on a regular basis and I would be with them talking about my loved one. And when you start to talk to people about your loved ones and their dilemmas, they start to open up about theirs. And that’s a thing that I never could get a grip on when I was a young man. I always thought that I was different. I always thought that my problems are because I’m different and these people, they don’t experience any of that. And that was wrong. I was so dead wrong. I went up and down that hill with judges, police officers, you name it, and so many of them seemed to have a family member that’s struggling with drugs and alcohol. So that’s when I thought of a 30 day challenge to represent the first 30 days of recovery, the first 30 days of inpatient treatment which were the most difficult but the most crucial in early recovery.

So I thought, it will emulate the experience that I had those first 30 days in treatment, doing Mailbox Peak 30 times in as many days. I’m a Mailbox maniac, but the 30 times in 30 days just sounded nuts. But I thought, I got to try this, I can do this now. I have to do something nuts.

I didn’t do them in a row. I had to do repeats to make up for days I couldn’t make it to the trail. I did two double ascents, two triple ascents, and even a five-peat in under 24 hours during this process. I spent eleven consecutive days at Mailbox Peak. From March 21 - April 11, 2022, I clocked 185.66 miles and 130,460 feet of elevation gain. Those numbers also reflect a Mailbox/Teneriffe/Si trifecta that happened somewhere in the middle of all this.

And in all that time, I thought about my loved one. I cried so many times on that mountain, so many tears. And it was nothing new really, because Mailbox Peak has been a place where I can just lay those burdens down. I can go up there alone or with a packed Saturday mountain, it doesn’t matter. Once I get to a certain elevation on that mountain and I start to open up, the tears are going to flow. It might just be gratitude. I remember not too long ago when I ran up it on the mountaineer’s route in an hour and three minutes, and there’s guys that do it in 51 minutes, but for me, that was insane and when I got to the bottom and I checked Strava and I saw that, I sat right down in the middle of the parking lot and just wept. People are walking by like, is this dude okay? I’m just sitting there crying. It was like a silent prayer. There’s a lot of silent prayers, things that I just can’t put into words to send up because it’s just, that’s the way it is now. I could get lost into the Mailbox madness and just take my mind somewhat away from my loved one, get a little bit of a reprieve. But all the while still trying to find them, still checking the places.

Over those 30 days, I had time to reflect upon my own first 30 days in recovery a decade ago. There were some distinct parallels between those days and the 30 days I spent climbing. There were certainly moments of pain and struggle followed by moments of great release, and even moments of triumph!

There’s a lot of replacement going on in a life that used to be centered around drugs, and now it’s centered around other things. I guess I notice the celebration in all things now, as corny as that may sound. And a lot of the celebration today has to do with laughter. I laugh hysterically at sometimes the wrong time, but I laugh. I tell a story sometimes in my 12 step meetings that when I used to laugh in active addiction, after the laugh, there would always be the voice in the back of my head that would say, But you’re a piece of shit, you know that, right? I don’t care who’s laughing or even if you’re laughing, let’s not forget you’re a piece of shit. That voice was always there. That voice is no longer there, and so I’m able to laugh, to truly laugh hysterically like I love to do. The celebration, it just can be found anywhere, at any given time of the day.

Just being able to know that it doesn’t take any extracurricular substance or party perks or whatever to have the celebration - I can just sit in the moment with whatever achievement, whatever breakthrough that I’m experiencing, and I can just experience it. I can feel it. And I have to have hope that this will happen for my loved one, so I will, because if I can recover, anybody can recover. I am the crack head that ran in the park!

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