The gym smells like rubber, chalk, and sweat, and it’s strangely soothing – despite the fact that my face is close enough to the black, shock-absorbing mat to get a better whiff than I would have anticipated. I’m barefoot, having expected to use the lack of workout clothes as an excuse to avoid getting involved today.  But Breaking Addictions CrossFit doesn’t like to listen to excuses; they make sure that everyone becomes an integral part of their community.

“I have no upper body strength!” Sara exclaims – like me, this is her first time at the gym.

“Yet,” corrects Jason Soukup, the ministry’s founder and lead trainer.  “And how do you get it?”

“Practice?” Sara offers.

Jason nods encouragingly. “Yep.”

Breaking Addictions CrossFit is not your typical gym

Breaking Addictions CrossFit (officially known as 18th Avenue Sports Club) is a ministry, geared especially toward individuals in recovery. The gym welcomes everyone without judgment, regardless of age, fitness level, or sobriety.

“I don’t require them to be clean. I encourage anyone to come, whether they’re still smoking, doing drugs, or drinking,” Jason explains. The only requirement? Those that come must be willing to stop.

Life at Breaking Addictions is compiled of a loose collection of very different events, from workouts to weekly potluck Bible studies.  At first, I can’t quite spot the connection, but once I arrive, it becomes clear – the people here are held together by grace, support, and cooperation.

Out for a ride

After a Paleo-approved breakfast of eggs and avocados, Jason and I drive into the tiny New Hampshire town of Derry, population 33,109.  It’s a small, faded town with wilting buildings, and a quick glance to the left and the right gives you an entire vista of “downtown.”  Everything seems to be privately owned, not a chain in sight – if I squint into the distance, I think I can spot a CVS.

It doesn’t seem that much of anything has changed in the past thirty years – much of anything, that is, except the number of drug-related deaths.  According to a recent study from the CDC [http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/], heroin use has more than doubled among young adults in the United States, and in Derry, the problem is even more pronounced.

Jason tells me that many people’s addictions developed when they were prescribed oxycodone for pain relief; when the supply was suddenly cut back, they had to turn elsewhere to get their fix.  Oxycodone might cost seventy-five dollars on the street; you can get a dose of heroin, plus the needle, for only ten. In New Hampshire, it’s more likely for a person to die of an overdose than of a traffic accident, and the problem has become so pronounced that police officers in Derry now carry Narcan, an antidote of sorts, to quickly combat poisonous doses. [http://www.unionleader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20150412/NEWS12/150419848]

“This town is small, it’s a town of 33,000 people,” Jason explains.  “It’s an old industrial, blue-collar town, but last year, sixteen people died.  Everyone has lost someone.” Sara mentions it when we’re talking to each other after cool-down.  “He went to our high school,” she says.  “I didn’t know him very well, but – but still. The funeral is this week.”

Jason mentions that the hardest CrossFit workouts are traditionally named for heroes, but he suggests something different.  “I’ve been thinking of naming the workouts after the people who have died of overdoses here.”  One of their members, Ryan, lost his brother to an overdose two years ago, and the first of these workouts carries his name.

Stretching during class

Lawmakers want to combat the problem by creating more treatment centers. “That’s the groupthink,” Jason smiles.  “And I don’t disagree – chemical dependency is so strong that you need to detox in a controlled and safe environment.  But these places will charge over $3000 a month for a term of twelve to eighteen months.  That’s like spending a year at an Ivy League college.  And addicts just don’t have that kind of money.”

“My experience has been that addiction is a disease, one that’s mental, physical, and spiritual,” Jason continues.  A recovering alcoholic himself, he found sobriety, and God, not in a church, but at Alcoholics Anonymous.  “Addiction is so strong, but my relief came from God. And that was a power that I can’t describe. You can’t fully explain it.”

We’ve arrived.  I’m surprised when I see the gym from the outside – it’s an old American Legion bar, but I think it looks a little more like a church.  When I tell Jason, he grins.  “We act a little more like a church, too.”

The inside has been completely remodeled as a CrossFit gym: the equipment fills the space, chalkboards and whiteboards hanging to document daily workouts and set times. There are even cubbyholes for members’ belongings, including their personal journals.  The first thing we do is to prop open all of the doors so that anyone who wants to can come in, and Jason steps out the back door, waving to the group of people congregated around the back of the neighboring building.

BACF crew

“Hey, Jason!” They call over.

“Headed to a meeting or can you make a workout?” Jason calls back.

“The meeting’s about to start,” one of the members, Chris, returns, putting out his cigarette

“Well just come on by whenever you’re finished, then!” Jason returns simply.  To my surprise, a few hours later, they all do.

The gym’s location is prime real estate in Derry – not only is it central to the city with 13,000 cars passing per day, but it’s next door to the Derry Friendship Center, which houses several different support groups for alcoholics and drug addicts.  With twenty-five meetings a week, there is always someone new coming through, and many of these people end up finding the Breaking Addictions gym, through invitation or sheer curiosity.

 

Although it’s a quiet day, there’s a slow, consistent activity around the building.  When the Soukup’s sold their house, Jason and his wife, Betsy, a pediatric surgeon, decided to put the money into Breaking Addictions CrossFit.  “We were tired of keeping up with the Jones’,” Jason says. “It wasn’t our money. We were called to give it to God.”  The gym was the very definition of a fixer-upper, but this is one of the things that Jason liked most about it.  “I work on it, volunteers work on it, and gym members work on it. There’s always something to be repaired, and people are always willing to help, so I let them learn.”

I see the enthusiasm that the gym’s members put into the property myself.  Breaking Addictions operates on a pay-as-you-can system.  Many of the gym’s members don’t have the money to pay for CrossFit, but everyone offers up what they can, and you can see the mark of dozens of individuals all over the gym.

In the time I spend there, Eric, a recovering heroin addict, hangs a new punching bag in the gym before going outside and clearing brush with Owen to start building an outdoor shower.  Chris mixes up the protein drinks for the fridge, Alyssa brings dinner for the Wednesday night Bible study, and on her first day, Sara offers to donate a set of cups.  Everyone has something to bring to the table – or, in this case, to the mat.

The gym

When I attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with Jason, I immediately spot the connections between his ministry and the work that AA carries out.  The speaker says that addiction is a disease of selfishness and disconnection, and so I understand how vital this kinship is at the heart of Breaking Addictions CrossFit is.

The little community is bustling with life, the gym becoming an unlikely center for an equally unlikely family of individuals who are beginning to find healing together.  It’s a striking image – not only of a ministry, but of the body of Christ, the church itself.  In these moments of observation, I feel as though I have entered into something deep and ancient, a church stripped of its unnecessary parts until you find what’s at the center: a broken group of people who find their hope in Christ.

Although many of the members are recovering heroin addicts, the population of the gym is varied.  “We’ve got plenty of recovering alcoholics, myself included,” says Jason. “There are drug addicts, sex addicts, and people struggling with different mental health issues.” But the gym is truly open to all: “One of my friends from AA used to say, ‘There are two types of people – those who are in recovery, and those who need to be.’”

Hanging out on the med balls

When I ask how this community came to be, Jason tells me how it sprouted up on God’s terms. “Like any good invention, it started in my garage – in Utah,” he explains.  “When I came back from Christmas that year, I felt more depressed than I had in years. I knew I had to do something, so I fell back on my two go-to’s: work out, and go to more AA meetings.”

He made friends quickly at AA, offering rides to the addicts living in Halfway Houses, and invited them to work out with him.  He realized that there was a gap in their healing process. “No one was helping them through the twelve steps, no one was sharing the message of faith in God, and so I took the opportunity to do that.” The community grew, local pastors joining as well, and Jason saw marked improvement. “Once the inside is healing, naturally, our outsides become beautiful again.”

When the Soukups moved to New Hampshire and Jason began to attend AA meetings in Derry, he saw this same need in the population of addicts there.  “I wanted to work out with them, but I knew I had to bring it to them, to meet them where they were.” The idea for a CrossFit gym was planted, but he struggled with the setup. “By definition, those two people don’t really have a lot of money – pastors and people in recovery.  I realized that it was a terrible business – but it’s a great ministry.”

Jason Soukup riding a bike
Jason Soukup

“It gives me something to do every day,” smiles Chris, adjusting his glasses.  “It keeps me healthy, and it takes me out of my own head.” The stability and intensity of the workouts are helpful to each of the members, and everyone I speak with has something similar to tell me: the Breaking Addictions community is nothing short of life-changing.

Sara is struggling with both addiction and anger; the punching bag has been hung especially for her, and Jason lets her write the name of her abusive ex-boyfriend on it. She’s ready to move forward, and she’s been clean for over two months, now.

“How have you been getting through it?” Jason asks.

She squints up at him, nodding.  “Prayer.”

She and Chris are close, and he pipes up to say how proud he is of her.  Chris explains his own situation, recovering both from heroin addiction and a car accident that left him with reduced mobility.  “I expected to take a total beating when I joined this gym,” he says, “but Jason always adjusts the workouts to include me. It’s really nice.”

Later on, Ryan offers up encouragement, completely unprompted.  “You’ve been helping all of us – talking with people about our lives before and after workouts, drawing us into this community, giving us something to look forward to.”

Each workout, I learn, ends with a cool-down – the “cool-down,” in this instance, turns out to be one hundred sit-ups, which feels like a little bit of a misnomer to me.  It’s broken up into chunks, though, and between each set, everyone goes around the small circle in order to say what they’re grateful for and to brainstorm ways to help the people in their lives that week.

Breaking Addictions CrossFit crew

When asked what he’s thankful for today, Owen chooses the group at Breaking Addictions. Although he’s only been here for a week or so, he already feels more motivated, focusing on increasing his endurance. Owen isn’t an addict in the traditional sense, but he echoes what Jason told me earlier. “I think everyone is a little bit addicted to something.”

My final experience at the gym is the Wednesday night, potluck-style Bible study, where everyone is encouraged to participate, even if they’ve never opened a Bible in their lives. “We want to discover things together,” Jason explains.  “We do trust that the Bible is true, but we have a good, healthy debate on it.”  Everyone moves the exercise equipment around to form a circle of chairs, benches, and blocks, ready to study the gospels and be vulnerable with one another.

The passage for study is Mark 2:1-17, and I cannot think of a more fitting close to my time with Breaking Addictions.  There’s a lot to discuss, but the final verse resonates powerfully with the self-dubbed “rough-around-the-edges Christians”: Jesus tells the Pharisees that “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This is, ultimately, the message that Breaking Addictions CrossFit sends to every person who comes through its doors: you don’t have to be perfect, first. Jesus will meet you where you are. I realize there, sitting in this work-in-progress building among my fellow work-in-progress brothers and sisters, how beautiful a picture it has painted of an incarnational gospel.

Kristen O’Neal – For more information on Breaking Addictions CrossFit, you can find them at their website, http://www.breakingaddictionscrossfit.com/.

 

About Metcon

Metcon Media is headquartered in Southern California and is a media company dedicated to promoting a healthy and active lifestyle through functional training and proper nutrition.
Metcon Media’s functional fitness lifestyle specific agenda gives our readers a variety of training and nutrition related articles, podcasts and video from experts in the field on fitness and nutrition as well as other interviews including breaking fitness and nutritional news, product reviews and advice from certified coaches.

View All Posts