Episode #66

Finding Peace in Nature

Featured Guest: Adam Marion

For today’s show, I’m joined by Adam Marion, CEO of Black Bear Lodge, a residential program for substance use and mental health disorders in north Georgia. An avid outdoorsman who started his career leading wilderness therapy programs, Adam shares why Black Bear’s tranquil mountain setting helps patients focus on what matters and how nature can serve as a valuable teacher during treatment. He also shares how the system of care at Black Bear helps patients walk through a non-judgmental stages of change approach based on where they are in their journey.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted. I’m David Condos and this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network.
For today’s show, I’m joined by Adam Marion, CEO of Black Bear Lodge; a residential program for co-occurring disorders in North Georgia. An avid outdoorsman who started his career leading wilderness therapy programs, Adam shares why Black Bear’s tranquil mountain setting helps patients focus on what matters and how nature can serve as a valuable teacher during treatment.

He also shares how the system of care at Black Bear helps patients walk through a non-judgmental stages of change approach based on where they are in their journey. Now, here’s Adam.

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I’m here with Adam Marion. Thank you for your time today.

Adam Marion: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

David: All right. So, first, let’s have you tell us a bit about your personal story and the journey you took to the world of recovery.

Adam: Yes, absolutely. So, first of, I’m actually not a person in recovery. I am an adult child of an alcoholic and I come from a family of long– just this huge long history of alcoholic destruction.

So, when I was an infant, my father walked in the rooms of AA for the first time. So, I grew up in this world of recovery where I didn’t know that everybody’s daddy didn’t go to these meetings a few times a week. I just assumed that’s what everybody’s life was like and that they talked about alcohol and drugs and they knew about addiction and genetic pre-disposition versus behavior, all these. I just assumed that everybody did because that’s how I grew up.

In elementary school when you learned to write a five-paragraph essay and you can pick whatever you want to write about, I remember writing about AA because it was such a prevalent conversation growing up. I got kind of a first hand, witness, if you will, from hearing stories from my dad and from his sisters about what their lives are like due to their parent’s alcoholism and just the destruction and all up on the chain.

David: Yes, I’ve seen that kind of family cycle.

Adam: Yes, this family cycle, this cyclical process that it has or abuse and then emotional destruction and families torn apart and really everything you can imagine all that happened in their childhood.

So, while I didn’t experience that myself, I have this very intimate experience of seeing them go through these processes as adults, trying to reconcile what happened with them and just bond together and constantly processing life. They were very open with us, my generation, about that. Actually, my older brother is in recovery.

So, quite literally, I’m the first male in my family that doesn’t have to do it because of how I grew up. I just knew from an early age as Marion’s, that’s my last name, we don’t mess with that. So many people have this long family– kind of family momentum, if you will, of substance use and abuse and addiction. So, to turn that tide is incredibly difficult and I really believe in that family momentum.

Really, what I try to bring and offer is a message of hope, in particular to parents with young children saying, “You can do this because I’m a walking breathing example of when parents do that.”

David: Yes, of stopping the cycle.

Adam: Yes, stopping the cycle and it’s not easy and there’s a lot of hard work and it’s not perfect and it can happen. I would really say in a lot of ways, owe my life to that because I see every day what it could have been and I don’t have to. Since I don’t have to, I dedicate my life to helping other people pull out of it.

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David: So, now you are serving as a CEO of Black Bear Lodge and I know you have experience with some other Foundations Recovery Network programs as well. How did you get started with FRM and then eventually come to serve at Black Bear?

Adam: So, by training, I’m a social worker. I’m a licensed provincial social worker and I spent most of my 20’s working with high-risk adolescents and then really felt drawn towards working with adults with substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders.

So, I’ve been with foundations for about five years and originally helped open Black Bear as a clinical director. I was there for about two years and then left to open Skywood Recovery as the CEO and help bring Lori Ryland who, of course, is an incredible CEO there now.

I have circled to Black Bear as the CEO. So, I’ve been on this a little bit of a journey but Black Bear is a very, very special place to me. I’m from Georgia so it’s in Georgia and I have that connection. But a lot of people know about me that I do have this big outdoor background, the work that I do with teenagers in my 20’s. I did wilderness therapy basically.

Black bear is in a pretty rural part of Georgia. If you know the area then you know it’s not quite as rural as it seems. There’s a pretty strong private community there but it’s on the side of a mountain and it’s got a lot of big beautiful trees and its cabins and lodges. I really feel connected to it because of my outdoor background.

But I also feel like I can help patients connect to the nature part of it because of some of the things that I’ve done and really help them see the beauty in that. Not the loss in that and they are away from cities and away from distractions and feel like that’s a loss but feeling like it’s such an opportunity and something they can gain.

David: Right. Yes. I was actually going to get into the outdoors because I know you have a lot of familiarity there, just as a personal pursuit and then as you mentioned, you have a lot of experience with kind of wilderness therapy programs. Can you tell us about some of the experience you have of that?

Adam: Yes. I’ve done wilderness therapy all over the country. I primarily did it in the Southeast, then the next probably a little bit in the Northwest. So, I’ve worked with primarily adolescents but also whole family groups on wilderness trips, so the whole family for out for a week.

I did some week-long trips with some veterans that were returning back from theatre of war. It didn’t matter as much the population; our goal was really to help them have the experience. There’s a lot of things you can gather. On the surface, yes, it’s hiking and paddling, a physical challenge, but when you dive down below, it’s really getting away from this very distracted world we live in and being able to slow down in your mind, in your heart, in your soul, and try to find a little bit of peace around you.

A lot of times, for the people we took out, and a lot of times they are people we work with now, telling somebody to find peace within is not really a safe thing to do yet. There’s not really a lot of peace within so we really work to help them find peace outside of them with nature, slowing down and notice things like the birds, the animals, and the different trees and the flora and fauna, all those, the sound of a creek as you’re going to sleep; things that if you’re really distracted, you’re not going to find but there’s a lot of peace in that.

There’s a rhythm in nature that I really believe when we connect to it helps us slow down and settle. The connection of Black Bear is that in kind of a simple way, we have a great front porches and we have a lot of beautiful trees. There are animals that are around; birds or whatever it may be.
So, beginning to teach that process of unplugging from the world and sitting for a minute and beginning to build these really authentic relationships.

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David: Like you mentioned, Black Bear’s kind of in the mountains, Southern Appalachian region. What are some ways you do incorporate the outdoors there? I know you have some adventure therapy.

Adam: Yes. Some of the activities we do, we go on hikes. Sometimes, we go on trail rides on horses through the mountains. Probably the best thing that we do is we’re right at the base of a mountain; it’s called Mt. Yonah. From where we are, it’s about a two-hour hike up.

Of course, patients have to be cleared medically in order to participate but what they do is they have to have done some therapeutic work leading up to it. So, they do some work with their therapists about what’s the purpose of going on the hike for them; what are they letting go, what are they achieving, what are they dealing with through this hike.
Without fail, once patients have gone up, done a bit of the ceremony, done a bit of a group process and come back down, they truly do come down transformed because at the top, it’s in the mountains what we call a bald knob, which is basically there’s nothing on top and you just have these fantastic views of basically Southern Appalachia; the whole county and up into the mountains and it’s really just a spiritual experience, being up there knowing that you got yourself there, it’s hard, makes your legs burn, you probably got a little bit sweaty, you’re out of breath, and you did it and you did it for a purpose.

When they come down, they really do come down different but it’s because of that experience, it’s not because of what we did and stuff, it’s because of what they did and what they got to go through and quite literally walk through.

David: Yes, so you’re showing them that they can do it as well?

Adam: Yes, they can do it and then they have a therapeutic focus of why they’re going up; it’s not a hike that we do as just for fun hike or for good exercise, it is definitely a primary therapeutic activity.

We’ve had things everywhere from parents who have lost children, who have written a letter to them and gone up and read it aloud or read it to themselves and burned it. We’ve had people do something where they carried a backpack and had rocks in it and as they went up, they took rocks out, symbolically leaving resentments behind or whatever weight they’ve been carrying, they’re putting it out.

So, by the time they get to the top, they’re burden-free and it builds a bit of a community in and of itself for people who have hiked up Mt. Yonah.

David: Yes. So, kind of in your view, what is it about nature and being in nature, being on the top of a mountain like that that can be so powerful for inspiring healing and then connecting with yourself and with others?

Adam: So, I often use nature as a go-to when people come in and they’re struggling with the idea of a higher power, for whatever reason. So, I often invite them to contemplate nature.

In nature, there’s weather, there’s trees and animals, and all these things that we just can’t control. You look at nature and you think it’s just these things but these are all living, breathing things and kind of like I mentioned earlier, I believe you can get tapped into a rhythm that’s there and pretty naturally, will begin to soothe us.
At first, it’s comfortable for people that are used to noise, lights, and all of that, but as you begin, it connects more and more of that and your need for that distraction goes down. You begin to notice things around you, whether on campus.

Every once in a while, we have a mama and a baby deer pass through. Well, if you’re distracted, you’re probably not going to see them but if you’re tuned into that, you’re probably going to see them and it’s an amazing thing.

So, I just believe there’s a rhythm there that we get connected to that just help soothe us.

David: Yes, and there’s a lot of lessons, like a lot to learn?

Adam: Yes. I mean, everything from the seasons. In winter time, sometimes people look at trees and say, “They’re dead.” They’re not dead, they’re dormant and it’s not like they’re coming back to life, so to speak, but they’re coming back into their next cycle.

I’ve used that with people that struggle with depression. When they see the world as bleak inside, “You know, let’s look at it at a different way. Let’s look at you at a different way. You’ve been dormant but it’s time to start bringing in the sunshine again, allow yourself to bloom.”

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David: I know a big part of what Black Bear and all the foundations treatment programs kind of based their care upon is meeting patients where they are and then taking stages of change approach. Could you tell us a little bit about kind of what the stages of change are and how they relate to motivational interviewing specifically?

Adam: Yes, absolutely. You have stages of change. You have pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. The model says that relapse is in there and I know that there’s a likelihood of happening at some point. I also choose to somewhat separate it when we teach and we talk about it.

We really focus on the others. Really, in residential treatment, we’re really looking at pre-contemplation, contemplation, and preparation. It’s pretty rare that we have somebody show up that absolutely a hundred percent honestly does not believe at all that they have any kind of issue.

More often than not, what we see is people who know there’s something going on and could kind of acknowledge that but they see no reason to change. They’re still in a place where they’re saying, “Well, I can just do it less. I can control it”. It’s exactly what it sounds like; pre-contemplation.

Those folks, with their motivational interview, we really try to just engage in a dialogue. We try to make it very clear that it’s not our job to tell them who and what they are. My job was to process with them and have a dialogue about, “Well, how did you end up here?” And try to really make an open space where they can have an honest dialogue without feeling like we’re going to pressure them into anything or pressure them into owning a title they’re not ready for.

So, for example, it’s not our job to tell somebody that they’re an addict or alcoholic. As a clinician, I might assign a diagnosis of a substance use disorder. I actually see that a little bit different. I think somebody has to say, “You know what? I am an alcoholic and I need a body and a brace, what that means, and where I need to take my life because of that.”

So, if people are checking in a group is that I’ll say, “Well, are you? You have to figure that out for yourself.” But that’s a lot of what we do and motivational interviewing is a non-pressured approach to dialoguing and help them, hopefully, creating motivation towards challenge.

David: Yes, it’s kind of to get them thinking about it themselves because that all stick better than just you telling them what to do.

Adam: Yes. A lot of times, the process, they’ve been in so far is people saying, “You have a problem. You need help.” The “you,” “you,” “you,” “you.” Of course, when that happens pretty much to all of us, we get pretty defended. We’re not able to have an honest dialogue about what’s really going on with our lives because we’re too busy defending ourselves.

Then, we go to contemplation. Those are people that are pretty marked by ambivalence or our fits riders. In the morning, they’re thinking, “You know what? I really do need change. I got this issue in my life. I need to change.” Then, in the afternoon, they’re thinking, “You know what? It wasn’t actually that bad.” Most people have at least one DUI, things where they’re trying to justify.

So, with these folks, it’s a pretty similar process; we’re still just dialoguing, talking about pro-cons. If you continue to use, if you stop, what it will look like? You have reasons to use or reasons to stop. We continue that process but it’s contemplative. They’re thinking about it. They’re kind of doing that back and forth; am I? Am I not?
Then, we move on to preparation. Preparation people are really marked by, “I have a problem. I need to change. I really don’t have a good plan yet and I’m kind of freaking out about it. I need a good plan.”

Those people can be a lot of fun to work with but the focus there is really helping people create a really honest and authentic plan towards recovery. So, sometimes, those people might have say, “You know what? I got it. I got to change. I’m just going to go home.” But their home environment is not a healthy environment, it’s not a sober environment.
So, we’re challenging them on this plan. But those folks can be pretty inspiring to work with and a lot of fun to work with because they really want to get after it. Also, they can be inspiring to other people in treatment because they’re saying, “Hey, man. Three weeks ago, I was there but as I went through this process, I really had some realizations. I can tell you right now, I just can’t pick up again.”

So, through the whole process, we use motivational interviewing. What we can do is create an environment of motivation. I can’t give somebody motivation; it might tells us that we have to have motivation to make any kind of change or really to do anything.

I can’t create that for somebody but we certainly can create an environment that fosters motivation, through being non-judgmental. You are where you are and you’re allowed to be there but it’s not my job to tell you what you should be doing. Should is an awfully dangerous word.

So, my role is to be supportive and have some compassion and accountability. In processing with somebody, if they begin to contradict themselves, to compassionately say, “Hey, man. Do you see where these are kind of contradicting?” But do it with a very strong communication of non-judgment.

David: When they’re ready, you’ll have built that relationship?

Adam: Right. If they go out, if they leave and they don’t have an after plan and they relapse and they call us up and say, “Oh, man. You all were right.” And they come back in.

Often, they’re very embarrassed but one of the things that I’m most proud of about the staff of Black Bear is how often patients that were in that space that come back, say, “I was so afraid you’re all going to judge me but all you did was hug me, love on me, and tell me how thankful you all were that I came back.” We’re not here to judge you. You’re in whatever phase you’re in and we know that this disease is depressive and relapse is likely but it’s not our job to put you down if you come back, it’s our job to cheer you on. We’re having the courage to come to treat you.

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David: You mentioned a little bit about the family a part of all this and how that’s so important to you. Could you say about how you incorporate that into your work at Black Bear?

Adam: Yes. So, we run a family program every three weeks and it’s pretty intensive. So, the patients aren’t– they don’t join until a little bit after– right around lunch time.

So, the morning is all about teaching family so that everybody’s getting pretty much the same set of information but we also make it very clear that family program is not us inviting these family members.

So, family member, as we as staff, can sit around and look at the patient and tell them all the things they need to do now. It’s us, the staff, getting the family system together and educating everybody and challenge the entire system about how they’re going to move forward in a little bit more healthy manner, not just a person who’s at Black Bear, not just somebody else, the whole system, how they could collectively move forward.

Anybody that works in this area knows that when a family system is engaged and involved and committed, the healthy growth and good healthy boundaries, then the person does in treatment has a much better chance of long-term recovery.

David: Yes. It seems like there are still a lot of misconceptions out there about substance use, mental health disorders. I’m sure education is also a big part of that. What are some ways that you work to dispel some of those myths and then help patients and their families understand some of the science behind what’s happening?

Adam: Actually, one of the very first things we do is take on this idea of why don’t we save the disease of addiction? Actually, our medical director does that. Dr. Melissa Warner, she really breaks down; what does that mean in the brain? When we say the disease, why do we say it and how do we break it down in layman’s terms so they understand why we’re talking about as a primary brain disease and not a power of choice or, as the saying goes, “moral failure,” and really helping families to understand about how once a person’s really in most– that throws of addiction, that they really do lose power of control and power of choice.

That’s how we started out with the family program is really diving deep in education but trying not to be so medical and so technical that nobody understands.

David: No, you lose them.

Adam: Yes. We make it an open process. We give them research. We give them all of these things that, for the most part, families feel really bad afterwards about how they’ve judged the people. What we really try to reinforce that “Remember, we made the agreement we weren’t going to judge, especially ourselves? Do you want working with an accurate set of knowledge? Now you are, so it’s not about beating yourself up about before, it’s about moving forward now.

David: Yes. Well, I’ll wrap up with this final question. Everyone who serves in this field gives their life to this work, has their own reasons for wanting to further the cause of recovery. Could we end by having you sum up why helping people find recovery is so important to you?

Adam: For me, personally, at the beginning I mentioned my family history. On a much more personal note, I really feel like it’s a calling from God. I’m a faithful man and a believer. I really feel like it was put on my heart at a pretty young age, in college.

This is what I’m supposed to be doing, it makes it to where I have the energy and the focus and the care and compassion to do it because it’s sourced from something much bigger than me. That’s the other deep-rooted connection is that I feel like the people we work with don’t get the care and compassion that they are really worth out in society.
Sometimes, people say, ‘deserve’. I think deserve is a weird word because who deserves what? So, that’s why I say, ‘worth.’ I think everybody coming in has a worth; all of our time, all of our effort, all of our energy because they’re God’s people. They’re God’s children. They’re human. They have inherent value because of that.

I really challenge my staff to operate on the same motto that I do which is, “How dare I ask patients to do that which I’m not willing to do myself.” So, I challenge myself, I challenge the staff to approach what we do like that. That’s why I do what I do.

David: Yes. All right. Well, Adam, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Adam: Absolutely. Thanks, David.

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David: Thanks again to Adam for joining us. Now, we get to welcome back Stephanie Span, National Race Director for the 6K Run/Walk Series put on by Heroes in Recovery, a grassroots movement that brings together communities across the country to celebrate life in recovery. Welcome, Stephanie.

Stephanie Spann: Thank you, David. Glad to be back.

David: Good. How are you doing today?

Stephanie: I’m doing great. How are you?

David: Excellent. Let’s start real quick by having you sum up the mission of Heroes and the 6K Series.

Stephanie: So, our mission at Heroes in Recovery is to break the stigma with addiction, mental health disorders, and also let people know that there is help out there. There is hope. We bring people together through our Heroes in Recovery 6K Run/Walk Series and let people know they can come out and we’re there to celebrate them and their recovery.

David: All right. You have a race coming up this Saturday, June 30th, 8:00 AM in Atlanta. What can you tell us about it?

Stephanie: This is the seventh annual Heroes in Recovery 6K in Atlanta. We will be at Brook Run Park in Dunwoody; it’s a great park, it’s a beautiful course, double loop within a park, very dog-friendly, people-friendly, kid-friendly, stroller-friendly. So, come on out and join us.

David: Nice. I know Foundations has a lot of local presence. They’re in Atlanta, in Georgia with outpatient programs, Talbott recovery and then, also Black Bear Lodge where Adam Marion is CEO, is not too far from there as well. How are those programs involved with the race?

Stephanie: So, Black Bear and Talbott will both be set up at the race. We’ll be glad to help spread their words, spread their mission out there. So, yes. We’re excited to see Black Bear and Talbott at the race and we appreciate their support year after year.

David: I know for every race that you guys have, you have a different charity beneficiary that you’re helping to support there in that local community. What organization are you paired up with in Atlanta?

Stephanie: Our charity beneficiary this year is, again, Right Side Up and their mission is to offer long-term residential drug and alcohol treatment for women and also, women with dependent children under the age of 13. So, we’re glad to have them back again this year. They always have a nice big group coming out and we really appreciate their support. We’re glad to be there to help support them.

David: All right. Where can listeners go to find out more about these races? You have the virtual runner option for people who aren’t in Atlanta. So, where can people go to find out more information about what you’re up to?

Stephanie: They can go to heroes6k.com or heroesinrecovery.com and find the Atlanta race there and register. They can also do walk-up registration on Thursday and Friday at Packet Pickup or on Saturday morning on race day. If someone’s not able to make it on race day, they can still support Heroes in Recovery and also Right Side Up by supporting us as a virtual runner or walker, which means they just sign up, they agree to do the distance on their own at their own convenience and we still mail them a nice swag bag. So, at the Heroes 6k website, they can also see those virtual runner options.

David: All right. Well, thank you. Looking forward to a great race and we’ll see you back here for the next one.

Stephanie: We’re looking forward to it. Thanks, David.

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David: This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we’ve heard from Adam Marion, CEO of Black Bear Lodge. If you’d like to talk with an Admissions Coordinator about the treatment options at Black Bear and other Foundations programs, please call anytime at 855-823-2141. See you next time.