Richie Tannerhill, left, and Phil Valentine in Waynesville, where Valentine took a brief pause from his walk on the Appalachian Trail.
Richie Tannerhill, left, and Phil Valentine in Waynesville, where Valentine took a brief pause from his walk on the Appalachian Trail. Phil Valentine is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, spreading the word that recovery from substance abuse happens. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

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<p>A hiker takes a break in Waynesville to speak out for recovery-based behavioral health care.

By Taylor Sisk

Phil Valentine is hiking home.

Actually, the Connecticut resident is hiking a ways past home, to Mount Katahdin, in Maine, the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus.

RuralRx: N,C, Health News coverage of rural health issues. This week: Along the Appalachian Trail

Valentine is a man on the move with a message: He’s hiking the trail, end to end, to spread the word that recovery from substance abuse happens.

He serves as executive director of the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, but for the next four months or so he’ll continue answering to “Right Click,” his trail name (because his right knee clicks when he walks).

Valentine took a pause 274.4 miles into his journey to speak to a couple dozen folks at Meridian Behavioral Health Services in Waynesville. Such stops are part of the plan: while walking the walk, to talk the talk, speaking of recovery.

Recovery-based care is founded on the belief that those with behavioral health issues should be helped to find their own paths back to good health, to themselves.

Six-pack and a quart

Valentine spoke of being filled with anxiety as a kid, of how alcohol became his “liquid courage.” The drinking life was launched at a high school dance, via a six-pack of Maximus Super malt liquor and a quart of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine.

He recalled standing, a few years later, in the birthing room of Rockville General Hospital, holding his newborn daughter, “wildly strung out on cocaine.” He spoke of overcoming shame, an essential element of recovery.

“Treatment is the initiation of recovery,” Valentine explained in a conversation following his talk. “That’s when you get that respite to say, ‘OK, I’ve initiated my recovery, I’ve got that stuff out of my system, the fog is starting to lift … I’m starting to see that there’s hope that I can build a life.’

“And when you start building a life, that’s when I think true recovery happens.”

A head start

Connecticut’s recovery-based care movement has been going strong for about 15 years, Valentine said. The Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery has a staff of 16 and some 400 volunteers. Many of them publicly share their stories of recovery.

Richie Tannerhill, left, and Phil Valentine in Waynesville, where Valentine took a brief pause from his walk on the Appalachian Trail. Valentine is thru-hiking the trail, spreading the word that recovery from substance abuse happens. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

Recovery advocates, Valentine said, are acknowledged in Connecticut’s health care discussions, including in the state legislature, as voices that “need to be heard.”

When the media comes to him for comment on the overdose death of a public figure – Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for example – he moves the conversation from, “Yes, there’s a heroin epidemic,” to, “Let me tell you what the solution is.”

Champions

“Every recovery movement needs a champion,” Valentine said, “a champion who’s really passionate.” And the Waynesville community has one, in Richie Tannerhill.

Tannerhill is a peer and family-support specialist with Smoky Mountain LME/MCO and a proponent of building “recovery alliances” in communities. He and Valentine met at the sixth-annual state “One Community in Recovery” Conference,” held last November in Clemmons.

That conference has helped raise the profile of recovery-based care in North Carolina. It’s led to more collaboration. Tannerhill said there are 23 million Americans in recovery, but that, “People get well and say, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to be associated with that anymore.’”

“So we don’t get to hear those stories,” he said. An opportunity for conversation is lost, and, consequently, those in recovery “don’t gain the support we really need from our community.”

Valentine is encouraged to hear of efforts here to open recovery community centers, which serve as a “sanctuary where people can come and work on their recovery,” he said. “It’s simple, but it’s beautiful.”

In Connecticut, he said, those centers are right on the most prominent thoroughfares: “Literally, Main Street, and there’s a storefront that says ‘Willimantic Recovery Community Center.’ Right on Main Street. So that’s kind of a theme, ‘Put recovery on Main Street.’”

Tannerhill is advocating for the same approach in North Carolina. By creating awareness, he said, communities overcome the stigma.

Phil Valentine and Curtis Schmidt are walking buddies along the trail. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

Reward

Valentine said he’s loving this journey. (“I didn’t get sober to be miserable.”) He rejoined his fellow thru-hikers after a couple days off, with another 1,910.6 miles, give or take a few tenths, to be traversed on the path to Katahdin.

He estimates the total trip at somewhere around five million steps, and regularly asks himself: “‘Can I take one more?’ And if the answer is ‘yes,’ I keep going forward.”

Valentine’s most recent hiking buddy, Curtis Schmidt (“Low Profile”), a Marine veteran from Maryland, has a standard practice for when the two have summited a hill. Just as they take that first step down the other side, he hollers, “Reeeward.”

Valentine’s prevailing reward for this walk he’s on, he said, is an “overwhelming peace in the storm.” There’s a metaphor there that he’s happy to share.

[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina. [/box]

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