Despite the immense challenges of working in the addiction field, I feel so blessed to have a career which allows me to integrate my passions into the work I do. I love to expose the people I work with to fly fishing oriented activities, including actual fly fishing and fly tying as a set of self-care tools they can use in their daily lives and recovery. At The Redpoint Center, we provide outdoor-based skills to help our participants to take the leap to explore Colorado’s unmatched backyard as an element of their recovery process. From personal experience, I believe that spending time outside in one’s body is necessary in all aspects of recovery and well-being. My story below illustrates how fly fishing has been an integral part of recovery from my substance abuse and addiction, and could be a part of your recover, too.
Deep in the depths of a forested canyon, I stood on the bend of the Blue river, gazing out to where the flowing gradient flattened and the shores of the river widened. It is on this bank that I routinely feel grounded and connected to my recovered spirit. On this day, I could hear the power of the water and could see the calming riffles steady into a slow, spiraling eddy. Watching intently, my eyes caught flashes of rising cutbow trout, and slurping, emerging mayflies that were preparing to take flight from the water’s surface. It was early June and I had just walked two miles down a steep graded trail lined by red willow, pines, and bright orange algae-covered granite rocks. The birds sang a taunting song of laughter that only a true, humbled angler can really appreciate and rise to meet. The birds are the true fishermen of the canyon, but allow for the rarely skilled two legged to impress.
I opened my fly box and reached for a reliable dry fly pattern, a size 22 parachute adams. I gauged the distance to where the trout were feeding. I measured about ten feet of leader from what I was holding in my hand to the eyelet of the rod and pulled out an extra fifteen feet of fly line. I began taking cautious casts with my right hand, back and forth over my left shoulder, paying mind to the ponderosa pines to my rear and the red willows to my right. I allowed the line to release organically, dropping the fly approximately in the riffle between where the fast moving oxygenated hydrogen flowed into the eddy. There was a slow rise five feet to the right, a few moments passed and then another two feet to the left. I re-casted. I watched nervously for a moment and then I felt the line go taught in my index finger.
In an instant, I am connected to the natural world in a way I can never quite predict. The fish jumps powerfully out of the water. I see the brown, yellow, and red mosaic tattooed on the fish’s left side. It is a German brown trout. I allow the fish to make a run and as soon as I feel him begin to slow, I begin putting opposing pressure on him and reeling lended line in. He makes one more tremendous run, but I patiently pressure the brown back toward the slow water I am standing below. I approach cautiously, holding my rod high, and as gracefully as I can, slip my net under him. I gently remove the adams fly from the fish’s upper lip which is considerably worn but intact after its three minutes of submerged exposure and immediately notice the fish’s radiant beauty. I hold him up for a moment and take a mental snap shot of the browns and reds painted perfectly across the body, matching the rocks and willows on the shoreline. I gently move my thumb over a glossy blue spot just tucked behind the eye of fish as I lower him back into his aquatic abode. The fish and I share one last moment as I rock it back and forth, moving water back into its gills. The fish builds strength and returns into the run where his comrades continue to feed.
I sit down on the side of the river, feel a wave of sun on my face, and let go of a breath that I have been holding in for what feels like month. My attitude shifts to one of gratitude. I appreciate that just yesterday I was a crustacean on a barstool drinking mercilessly in spite of the world. By the river I feel at home, full of pure, un-adulterated joy. These moments on the river are what I spent tireless hours chasing while staying up late into the night pounding whisky, doing cocaine, and funneling pills into my gut.
Fly fishing has been a saving grace for my recovery in a number of ways. In my thirty years on this planet, it feels like I have participated in almost every sport or outdoor activity under the sun. However nothing has inspired and focused my mind like the visceral pursuit of connecting to the natural world via rod and reel. Fly-fishing disconnects one from technology, disrupts the monotony of a daily routine, and stimulates physical, mental, and emotional health.
In 2008, Herbert Benson MD, a professor of medicine and director of the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that one of the most critical ways to reduce stress is “breaking the train of everyday thinking.” Benson’s theory studied cortisol levels before and after activities that provoke a relaxation response. He defined the relaxation response as “a purposeful initiation of a physical state of deep rest that changes a persons physical and emotional response to stress.” Benson, an avid fly fisherman, qualified fly-fishing as a “beautiful way” of evoking the relaxation response in the parasympathetic nervous system. Over the course of eight weeks, his research study monitored cortisol levels in people engaging in fly-fishing as a relaxation response. At the end of the eight weeks, he found that over half of the sample group actually had decreased cortisol levels. Much of this study seemed obvious to me, but the implications are paramount in how we, as addicted people, continue to improve our lives and the lives of newcomers who walk in our doors at the Redpoint Center.
As a person in “long term” recovery since 2011 (I still VERY MUCH feel like a beginner), I have been fortunate enough to study addiction and recovery personally and academically. In 2017, I received my masters degree in Contemplative psychotherapy, a program that studies the disciplines of Tibetan Buddhism and western psychology. Naturally, I was exposed to a lot of meditation and have spent the last seven years of my life practicing a vippasana style of meditation. What I have learned outside of the classroom is that, although sports and hobbies are not meditation, fly fishing is still a deeply meditative experience for me and evokes Benson’s “relaxation response”. The back and forth casting motion, the attentiveness required for learning river ecology, and the deep in and out breaths required for patience and persistence can help the fisherman to access the present moment if they are willing to humble themselves to the outdoors.
There have been a number of incredible fly-fishing inspired organizations which have caught on and are using the healing methods of fly fishing, including Casting for Recovery for women with breast cancer, and Project Healing Waters who work with disabled active military personnel and disabled veterans. However the door is still wide open for an addiction and recovery sponsored fly-fishing initiative. With overdoses rising nationally each year (70,237 in 2017 according to drugabuse.gov) any and all positive efforts are needed now more than ever. For that reason, we are beginning to incorporate fly fishing at The Redpoint Center.
There is incredible symbolism in fly fishing, and I use some of these lessons with adult and adolescent clients I work with therapeutically. Many who walk into the The Redpoint Center have experienced immense tragedy and feel a sense of failure. But in fishing, as in recovery, our failures teach us just as much as our successes. We try to help our clients see that if they accept some simple instructions and remain teachable they can hook into a new life pretty quickly.
The Redpoint Center not only does a remarkable job of supporting its clients to regularly get outside, but invites both staff and participants to bring all of themselves, the good, the bad, and the awkward. Please come work with our team and call our admissions line for questions regarding the services we offer.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, drug addiction, Mental Health problems, The Redpoint Center is here to help. The Redpoint Center treats both adults and youth struggling with addiction and alcohol. To learn more about our Longmont Drug Rehab, call 888-509-3153.