Editor's note: This commentary was written by Dr. Mehmet Oz and Scott Strode.
Addiction traps sufferers in perpetual darkness. The road to recovery can be long and lonely and the struggle to find light at the end of the tunnel daunting. Combine these feelings of hopelessness with the social isolation and the uncertainty of a global pandemic, and you have a perfect storm of despair.
In fact, the AMA recently reported that since quarantine began more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder.
The problem is clear. But to really understand how we can help those struggling, we need to talk with people who have faced and conquered the demons of substance use firsthand. Scott Strode started sipping alcohol at age 11. By 15, hard drugs entered his life, thus beginning a nine-year battle with substance misuse. He had become one of the 20 million people across the country suffering from substance use disorder, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
In Scott’s words, “At 24, after using cocaine for nearly 24 hours straight, I lay curled up on my bathroom floor. My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest and a whirlwind of thoughts raced through my mind. “What if this is how my story ends?” I thought to myself. I imagined my mother, shocked and devastated as the police delivered the heartbreaking news that her son had overdosed on a bathroom floor.
Unsure of how to begin my journey to recovery, I came across a local boxing gym. Being out of my house and engaging in physical activity became a weapon against battling my substance use disorder I had not anticipated.
I poured myself into physical activity, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to help others find the clarity I had found.”
After celebrating his ninth year of sobriety in 2006, Scott founded The Phoenix, a sober active community that has helped nearly 40,000 people in recovery over the last 14 years. His story is featured in Believe in People, a new book from New York Times bestselling author and entrepreneur Charles Koch and the chairman and CEO of Stand Together Brian Hooks. Earlier this year, Stand Together Foundation committed up to $50 million to The Phoenix to help fight addiction across America bringing the recovery programs to 26 new cities by 2025, serving one million people.
As pandemic-related shutdowns forced gyms across the country to close, The Phoenix has used digital approaches including on-demand and live streamed virtual programs to keep people from relapsing during these trying times.
As the Phoenix moved its programs online, offering everything from yoga, strength training, and meditation classes, their reach has increased in all 50 states and internationally. Amazingly, 80 percent of active participants in The Phoenix are still sober three months later.
Too often we keep our struggles in the shadows. The Phoenix is helping bring light to those who don’t see a path forward. They do this by believing in people. And our nation desperately needs these bottom-up solutions, despite our top-down world, and social entrepreneurs like Scott are closest to and understand the problem
According to data collected from ambulance teams, hospitals, and law enforcement, overdoses jumped 18 percent within the first month of the COVID-19 shutdowns. In April, that number rose to 29 percent. In May, it increased to 42 percent.
So, innovation is needed now more than ever before in this space. The Phoenix works hard to lower the barrier to entry, making every class free – the only price of admission is 48 hours of continuous sobriety. Each activity is centered on a culture of inclusion and encouragement. Community and human resiliency are core to recovery, and the Phoenix model shows us people successfully battling addiction while encouraging each other both inside and outside the gym. They’re harnessing their internal strength and the self-reliance to stay sober.
Scott’s story brings hope to those who may not see a way out of the darkness. It reminds everyone that no matter how dire the situation may seem, especially right now, there are so many reasons to believe in people and their ability to break from their pasts.
Dr. Mehmet Oz ( @DrOz ) is an attending physician at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the host of The Dr. Oz Show.
Scott Strode is founder of The Phoenix, a 501(c)(3) gym and support system for those recovering from substance use disorders.