A Sober Gym for Those in Recovery – Ian Acker (POY 06)

A Sober Gym for Those in Recovery - Ian Acker (POY 06)

Ian Acker founded Fit To Recover, a nonprofit sober gym, to unite former addicts. His story is one of redemption, and he is using it to change lives.

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This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

This is The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.

Ian Acker is an entrepreneur and the founder of Fit To Recover, a nonprofit sober gym that provides an outlet for people in recovery from addiction. Ian started training a few friends at a park in Salt Lake City, Utah a couple of years ago, and a tight community of both former addicts and non-addicts has formed around him. Now he’s opened a facility that’s part gym and part community center, and is using lessons from his own recovery to expand his vision for helping others.

I talked with Ian recently via Skype. Reading his website and seeing his story in Salt Lake City media left me with a strong impression that I just couldn’t shake. This is someone who is clearly passionate about his mission, and I’m in awe of how devoted he is to helping others. Plus, it’s not every day that I get to ask someone what a sober gym is, so talking with him was a real treat. I’ll play our conversation in a moment.

I grew up in the Deep South, where addiction is almost as ubiquitous as college football or church on Sunday. Everyone down that way either knows someone who has experienced addiction, or they have dealt with it themselves. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with alcohol, and that includes a lot of men in my family. It’s one of the reasons I pursued sociology in college, because I wanted to understand why so many people can lose sight of themselves due to their compulsions.

Growing up, I was taught that addictive personalities ran in my family, and I worried for years that I would spring some awful, genetic trap if I ever took one sip of alcohol. Because of that, I didn’t drink or do anything remotely fun until my late twenties. I’ve since learned that genetic fatalism is one of many interpretations for addiction, and that I don’t have to be afraid of drinking a beer once in a while.

Addiction is tricky like that. Its researchers divide themselves into many camps, and advocates for each camp would argue that theirs explains the causes of addiction better than the others. Some favor medical theories, many of which consider addiction like a disease that can be managed. These tend to treat addiction as an irreversible condition. Some favor sociological and psychological theories, which emphasize factors like personality and environment. These tend to see addiction as reversible with changes in behavior or social setting. Still others use theories that explain addiction as a syndrome or as a combination of both sides from the nature versus nurture debate.

From my perspective, addiction works differently for everyone, and no one theory gets it right. I’ve known people who kicked drinking or drug habits cold-turkey. I’ve known functional addicts, I’ve known a few that have lost their minds because of their habits, and a couple that have died. For some, no amount of support will help, but research suggests that most who want to recover can do so with positive social influences in place.

That’s why I admire what Ian is doing, because not everyone has that social safety net to fall back on. Like you’ll hear Ian say in our conversation, the fate of an addiction eventually comes down to an individual’s will.

The moral history behind all of this is fascinating, too, because chronic drinking, drug use, and other behaviors that are now believed to be addictive weren’t always bad. Writings on the effects of alcohol and drug use date back to ancient Greece, but addiction science didn’t exist until the seventeenth century.1 That’s when the Industrial Revolution and colonialism began to take off.1 Prior to that, drinking was a daily ritual in most of Western Europe, and drug use was either casual or sacred in many pre-colonial societies.1

Once worldwide trade and finance ramped up, governments felt pressured to whip laborers into shape, so addiction’s early researchers identified it as a moral problem.1 They introduced the idea that chronic alcohol or drug use came from a lack of self-control or moral character, and they wrote about these substances as if they could corrupt people just by existing.1 As you can see, some of this early research influenced the shameful, sinful, and destructive notions that we have of addiction today.

The problem with equating people experiencing addiction to stereotypes is that it dehumanizes them and stunts our willingness to help, but sadly it’s a common practice. People deal with addictions across all social classes, age groups, races, and so on, and dismissing them as selfish or as products of bad choices is the worst possible response. Instead, the compassionate response would be to look at what the person is coping with and try to help them manage it instead of criticizing them for not knowing how.

If it helps, think of it this way: according to journalist Johann Hari, the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s human connection.2

That’s what Ian is providing with Fit To Recover. Ian reminds me of a few people I’ve known who have died or I’ve lost contact with, so in a weird way I found it comforting to talk with him. He spoke with me from his office at the gym. He surprised me with a few questions of his own, which got me to open up a little about my own life, so I hope you don’t mind that. Anyway, I think you’re going to like him. Here’s Ian Acker, founder and leader at Fit To Recover.

Interview with Ian Acker

JM: Hey, Ian. I know you’re a busy guy, so thanks for doing this.

IA: No worries, man. No worries at all.

JM: You told me the other day that you were recording something this afternoon. What were you recording?

IA: We have a music studio. We have a music studio that’s part of Fit To Recover—kind of the creative process that we’ve developed here. A treatment center actually came in and they recorded. Our topic today was relationships, so we did a rap. Six people did a rap about their relationships, what they struggle with, and where they’re at with their life.

What it was was an audio recording for people in treatment just to kind of get the creative expression of music across to them. That was from 2:00 until 4:00 today. We’re running classes from 5:00 to 9:00 tonight.

JM: That creative aspect, that’s part of your program?

IA: Yeah. We have a creative writing class, as well. My whole life—I don’t want to say I’ve done things differently, but I’ve kind of molded them in my own sense. That’s why I just want this place to be whatever you want it to be as opposed to this is how it has to be.

JM: Yeah, that’s great.

So tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

IA: Oh, man.

JM: It seems like you’ve been all over the place.

IA: Yeah, man. I’m 29 years old. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. That’s where I spent the first 23 years of my life. I graduated from Wittenburg University on a soccer scholarship.

JM: Where is Wittenburg?

IA: That’s in Springfield, Ohio.

I got heavy into drinking in high school. I felt like I didn’t fit in, kind of like I had to wear a bunch of different hats just to impress people. I always fit in, but I never quite felt like I fit in, if that makes any sense at all. So I started drinking and partying in high school. I had a buddy who died, and that escalated my use.

In college, I kind of held it together a little bit just because of soccer—it held me accountable. I graduated with my business degree while taking a bunch of stimulants to try and focus and get my grades.

I thought I could change everything and change my demographic, so I moved to Hawaii. That’s where I thought if I changed scenery, then my addiction would leave me behind, and it just got worse. I lived in Hawaii for a year and a half just doing side jobs and surfing—really miserable, man. It was a really low time in my life. Lot of cocaine, lot of amphetamines, lot of alcohol, lot of pills.

I came back to Ohio, and my parents sent me to Utah for treatment for drugs and alcohol. That was at 26. It took me four or five treatment centers to kind of make it stick that drugs aren’t the solution, they’re more of the problem, and I’ve been out here ever since.

JM: Why Utah?

IA: We just Googled treatment centers.

JM: So I guess you made friends while you were in treatment and that’s why you stuck around?

IA: Yeah, and it’s a slower pace for me, which is good. It’s not so quick, and I like the mountains, I like being outside, and the people here are really nice. It’s kind of a combination of a lot of things, and what you said is very true. I found people in recovery and the tight-knit group that they have here. It seemed like a good place to stay.

JM: Do you have family nearby?

IA: No. My mom and dad are in Breckenridge [Colorado]. My mom commutes from Breckenridge to Ohio.

JM: So I’ve never heard of a sober gym before. Where did you get the idea for that?

IA: It happened in rehab. I would just train people for free because part of recovery is helping other people. Even though you’re at their service, it still does something for you, so it’s kind of that give-take. I think that’s the importance of service and of the early stages of Fit To Recover. It was all, “How can I help you?” In turn, I saw people getting results, and I saw people that were happy.

I kind of played off the training and treatment, and one day I said, “I’m going to do something different.” I got a boombox, and I went to the park. I announced on Facebook that we were going to do a boot camp once a week for people in recovery.

At the first one, there [were] three people, and it’s grown to about sixty-five. There will probably be about sixty people here tomorrow.

JM: Wow, I had no idea.

IA: Yeah, and it was out on a limb. A little bit of the backstory was, in treatment, I found a place called Phoenix Multisport that does similar sober activities. I did an internship there. I learned what they had, and I kind of just created my own in Utah.

JM: I know you mentioned you were involved in soccer. Have you always been involved in fitness other than that?

IA: Yeah, I’ve always made it a part of my life. I have really bad anxiety and ADHD, so it slows my brain down. Running is one of my biggest coping tools today—any type of physical activity. Whenever I’m in a conversation, I’m usually walking around because I can’t sit still. Like, this is hard for me to do. [laughs]

JM: [laughs]

What makes your service different than other addiction treatment programs?

IA: It’s community. We’re selling community. It’s not to say that treatment centers don’t care, but [this is] a place where you can find resources to people who have struggled and have gotten out of it and are now bettering their life. It’s the step after treatment. It’s one more thing we can use in our list of skills in recovery to try and benefit. I guess what we’re doing is—it’s not any different, but we’re a nonprofit community.

JM: What are some examples of things you do with the people who come to you?

IA: Saturdays we run a boot camp, and then we run a process group afterwards—process group meaning we talk about how we’re feeling, where we’re at. Mondays we do a process group with a run. Again, a process group is not a therapy group. It’s just individuals talking about their day. Maybe Joe’s struggling with a relationship, or anxiety or he’s depressed. We try and reach out and nurture him and guide him to the right place. Then we go on a run.

We’re running three classes a day, Monday through Friday: 7:00 AM, 5:00 PM, and 6:00 PM. Those are circuit training classes, so they’re more geared towards the weights. On my website, this is all kind of detailed. I do a boot camp, and then we have an AA meeting on Monday. We now have a hip-hop, Jazzercise class.

It’s really what the community wants. It’s evolving as the community starts to take place. We have movie night tonight. It’s whatever is in demand, we will provide.

JM: That’s so cool.

Now how did you write a business plan for a gym that’s also an addiction treatment center? How did you get funding?

IA: It’s not an addiction treatment center.

JM: Oh, it’s not. Okay.

IA: It’s a 501(c)(3). It’s a nonprofit. The business plan was—I have background in business. The business plan was helped by a group called SCORE. They’re in Utah. One of the employees there is now on my board of directors. He kind of helped us through the lingo of the nonprofit language, kind of what we need to place where and where we needed to place what. Then we just built it like a regular for-profit business model and changed it to his liking.

JM: What types of addiction do you help people with?

IA: Drugs and alcohol, mainly. We’re getting an influx of—we’re not specialists. That’s the thing to remember is we’re not telling people with eating disorders what to do or people with heroin addictions what to do. We’re just here to support, saying “Here are options,” or sometimes all [they] need is a phone call to reach out to. We’re not licensed substance abuse counselors.

JM: I imagine you have a good staff in place, so what does it take to work at your gym?

IA: It takes a minimum of a year recovery, and then certified in either Crossfit, rec therapy [or similar]. Right now, the nucleus is very small. It’s three people. We’re adding credentials and different things as the time changes, but as of right now, it’s really focused on your recovery and your personal certifications when it comes to training.

JM: You’ve only been open for three months. Is that right?

IA: Two months yesterday.

JM: Two months, okay. How’s it been so far?

IA: It’s been hard. It’s been really hard, but it’s been good. It’s been both. I’m 29, and I’ve never done anything like this. It’s a lot of moving parts, keeping people happy but trying to sustain my own recovery, and learn and grow as a man.

We have about fifty-five paying members right now. We work with three treatment centers, hopefully to be five by the end of this month. We’re doing well for the first two months.

JM: What do the treatment centers help you with?

IA: The treatment centers bring their clients in. We put them through some type of workout and let them know that this place is available when they leave treatment. If you know anything about recovery, it’s all about support. That’s what Fit To Recover really is for people in recovery.

They get a session with us for an hour twice a week. They use us like a gym, but they also bring their clients for the audio recording and the different training and the aspects of the movie and the yoga and everything else. We’re kind of just another place where, once they leave, there are resources available.

JM: I know you’ve only been open as a gym for two months, but I wanted to ask: In all of your work with people who are dealing with addiction, are there any success stories that you’re proud of?

IA: I have a lot, man. A guy that moved down to Saint George and just came back, he has a year and a half of sobriety.

JM: Is Saint George in Utah?

IA: Yeah. Another woman, she’s been clean for two years. She just got her kids back.

JM: Oh, wow.

IA: Yeah. Another gentleman that’s working right next to me just got three months. He’s been a big part of being consistent and staying with it.

We see them all the time. We see them all the time. That’s what makes it worth it, you know?

JM: Do you feel like you’ve always had an easy time helping people or is it something that you’ve learned in your own recovery?

IA: No, I think I’ve been good at helping people. I used to do Special Olympics back when I was younger, and it always made me feel good. I always kind of felt bad for the person that didn’t fit in. This gym is a direct reflection of helping people try and feel like they fit in, because they don’t feel a part of [something].

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to run with a crowd that thinks they’re quote, unquote cool, even though I probably wasn’t. I look at that as I’m a leader. I can take that to the next level and start helping people because they’re looking up to me for the different things in my life.

Really, this leadership position has kind of trickled in through the past six months. It’s when I realized that I can really start being effective.

JM: That’s great.

I imagine you get people that come in. It’s a new setting and maybe they feel like they don’t belong. How do you help them feel like they fit in?

IA: What’s your favorite color?

JM: Red.

IA: Pick a number, one through ten.

JM: Six.

IA: What’s your favorite state?

JM: The first one I think of is Alabama but it’s not really my favorite. [laughs]

IA: [laughs] Perfect. I just broke you down. What do you want to accomplish in this session, you know? Where do you see yourself in this community? It’s small, simple questions like that that, if I engage someone and actually ask them how they’re doing and actually caring about someone, it works magic. Asking someone what their favorite color is breaks down a whole wall of insecurities and everything else.

JM: I never thought of that.

IA: Why is red your favorite color? It’s just small talk, but it means so much to someone that’s never gotten any attention.

Really, it’s focusing on the new person and making them feel as important as possible: helping them with their form, asking them what they’re doing after the workout, just really tending to them.

JM: You’re blowing me away right now, Ian. That’s so simple. [laughs]

IA: Well good, man. That makes me happy.

JM: So what made Salt Lake City a good place to open a sober gym?

IA: I think a lot of is—religion either works good or bad, you know? I shouldn’t get on a tangent too much about this, but the Mormon religion is very prevalent here. Don’t do drugs, don’t do drugs, don’t do drugs, don’t drink caffeine. Either they stick with it, or they rebel. If they rebel, they’re going to do whatever they want. Antidepressants are the highest in Salt Lake City, in Utah. That’s not the only factor. It’s a young town. For some reason, there are a lot of treatment centers here, maybe because it’s scenic. When I started this journey, I put on a map where every treatment center was. There’s twenty in a ten-mile radius of this gym.

JM: Wow, I had no idea. I’ve spoken with Elizabeth Buehler. I don’t know if you know her, but she’s the Homeless Services Coordinator in Salt Lake City.

IA: We’re going to be with them tomorrow.

JM: Really? Doing what?

IA: We’re going to help feed the homeless.

JM: That’s great, man. In talking with you and you mentioning so many treatment centers, she gave me an impression of the city that I had no idea of, with all of the homeless shelters and what-not.

IA: You wouldn’t expect it either. That’s the crazy thing. There’s a lot of homeless people and a lot of drug use. Lot of heroin, but it’s everywhere. It’s an epidemic. It’s getting—it’s taking over. You go to any state, you go to the right place, it’ll be flooded.

JM: So this may be an odd question, but I wanted to ask how you’re doing with your recovery. Are you at a good place?

IA: [laughs] That’s a good question.

JM: Maybe that’s not the best way to ask, but I’m wondering if you’re okay with yourself.

IA: No, that’s a good question. I’m not. I’m not. It’s a day-to-day process. Addiction is serious. As long as I’m maintaining and doing the right things and helping people and going to my meetings and talking to my therapist and staying current, then I’m okay. If I let any of that stuff slip, I’m out the door tomorrow and this place is closed down.

It’s not just that you go to rehab and get fixed.

JM: Right.

IA: It’s everything in between that and working on yourself tenfold every day.

JM: What would you say is a common misconception about people dealing with addiction that the public gets wrong?

IA: That they don’t care about other people and they’re ignorant.

JM: How do we educate people away from that?

IA: It’s power in numbers. We just have to keep proving ourselves because, when you’re in the middle of your addiction, everything that people say is true. I didn’t care about my family, I didn’t care about my friends, I didn’t care about anyone, and I would do anything to get a fix. When people see people in the midst of their addiction, it makes sense.

If you actually follow someone on their journey and you see how hard they’re working, and you see the countless number of hours that they fight this disease—it’s just like telling you that you can’t have sugar anymore and watching you deal with it. It may be a little bit more extreme, but it’s taking away something that you love and telling you to deal with life without it. Your coping mechanisms go out the window. It’s facing yourself every day, and the anxiety, the depression, the obsessive thoughts, the whole deal.

JM: If someone was listening that wanted to help people dealing with addiction in their own area and they came to you for advice, what would you say to them?

IA: Stay consistent. I would tell them to stay consistent with whatever they’re doing as long as it has a good message. Do the footwork. Like I said, I started in a park with three people, and now we’re in [a] 5,500 square foot [facility]. It’s about not giving up and not getting discouraged.

JM: Have you found that there are certain tactics—me, for example, I haven’t dealt with the same issues you have.

IA: What are your issues?

JM: My issues?

IA: Yeah.

JM: I think mine are more issues of mental health, not so much addiction. I deal with depression a lot.

IA: So that’s serious.

JM: Yeah, sure.

IA: Suicide?

JM: In the past but not recently.

IA: Where does that depression stem from?

JM: I could give you my life story. It comes from my feelings of self worth, I suppose, but it comes and goes.

IA: Well, thank you for sharing that. Have you ever done drugs or alcohol?

JM: Recreationally but I’ve always had it in check.

IA: If you ever do speed, you will lose those feelings of self-doubt.

JM: Really.

IA: And that’s the problem. You find something that’s a solution, and then it turns into your problem. It’s good that you can check yourself before it becomes an issue, because then it runs your life.

JM: For people that it’s a problem for, how do you help them realize it’s a problem?

IA: That has to come from themselves. I had people telling me I had a problem for seven years, eight years. Until I was in jail, handcuffed again, I had to come to the realization that this wasn’t working, and I needed to do what I had to do to make it work.

I can’t tell you you have a drinking problem. You have to be the one to believe it and change it. You can get help from people to support you in your decision, but you have to make the decision. Does that make sense?

JM: Yeah, it does.

I know that you’ve had some positive experiences, too. What’s something you’ve been a part of that makes you smile?

IA: That my parents are proud of me, man. My parents are proud of me, and they believe in me.

JM: How did they help you get to where you are now?

IA: They coached me through it. My dad is a very smart gentleman. He has his PhD in Communications, and my mom writes grants for a living.

JM: Really?

IA: Yeah. My sisters both have their Masters’ [degrees] in Nutrition and Occupational Therapy. They’ve been there saying, “Keep pushing, keep pushing. Everything will be okay. Have faith. Trust. Keep doing your best,” and I believed them.

JM: What do you see in the future of Fit To Recover?

IA: The future is franchising in three years. The future is making this place sustainable; then, as we do that, franchising to different states.

JM: You’ve got it all mapped out, it sounds like.

IA: Yeah. Our three-to-five year plan has that in the business plan, but who knows what will happen. That’s why I have to continue to do my best.

JM: How can listeners follow you and Fit To Recover online?

IA: You can check out our Facebook page. It’s Fit To Recover, or you can check us out at www.fit2recover.com. You can follow us on Instagram, fit_2_recover [Instagram: This appears to be incorrect. —Josh]. Twitter is @fit2recover, and email is ftr at fit2recover.com

JM: Okay. Anything you’d like to add?

IA: No, just that it’s possible, man. It’s possible.

I want to thank you for reaching out, and hopefully that we can continue to inspire and help the next person out. I really love your mission.

JM: Thank you. I appreciate that. I’m really excited that you agreed to talk with me because I really admire what you’re doing.

IA: Thank you. It takes people like you saying that to keep me going every day, so I appreciate that.

JM: Cool, man. That’s all I have.

IA: Alright, Josh. I appreciate it, man.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in muddy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created our theme music.

Visit PluralofYou.org for transcripts, show notes, and other resources. Subscribe by searching for The Plural of You wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re listening through iTunes, please take a moment to rate and review The Plural of You so others can find it, too.

The Plural of You is on Facebook slash pluralofyou and Twitter at pluralofyou, and you can email me at josh at pluralofyou.org. Write me sometime and let me know how you’re doing.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

Think of a problem that you can’t solve by yourself. It can be something personal or something that you want to assist others with. Now think about someone who could help you solve it and ask for their help. The point is not to wait for solutions for your problems to just come to you, because they won’t, and that you can change something for the better when people have your back, just like Ian did.

That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.

Notes

  1. A few works inform this quick review of the addiction concept and its history.
  2. See Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.