The road to recovery has its ups and downs, and it’s not a sprint - it’s a marathon. Those concepts are central to The Chris Atwood Foundation, an addiction stigma-killing outreach and support group formed earlier this year by Ginny Atwood and her parents Anne and Mark. They created the foundation shortly following the premature passing of brother and son Christopher from an accidental heroin overdose.
As a first major fundraiser, Ginny and three other members of "Team Chris" lived and breathed the foundation themes by training to run the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon and soliciting sponsorship donations. Ginny and the foundation plan to put the funds to work by transforming the way addiction treatment resources are disseminated in Fairfax County, reaching out to and supporting recovery groups, and ultimately breaking down the stigma associated with addicts in general.
They refer to their marching orders by the acronym F.R.E.A.K.S, which stands for Friends and Relatives Embracing Addiction and Kicking the Stigma. Appropriately, the concept came to Ginny spontaneously during a training run.
"I would not call myself a born runner by any means," said Ginny, an Oak Hill resident and graduate of South Lakes High School and George Mason University. But in the fall of 2012, she accepted a friend’s challenge to complete a "couch-to-10k" running program together. "I enjoyed pushing myself and realizing that I could slowly keep achieving increasing goals," she said.
THE FORMER HIGH SCHOOL field hockey and lacrosse player had ended a period of relative inactivity by getting a YMCA membership together with her brother Christopher at the end of 2011. By that point, he had already been in and out of five different addiction rehab programs after coming clean to his family four years earlier. He was 15 when he began using the drug.
The physical activity agreed with him, and for Ginny it was a welcome opportunity for sibling bonding. "A lot of addicts find that working out is really good for recovery because it gives them that endorphin high that they’re used to, but it’s in a positive way," she said. "And of course it made him look better, and feel better in so many ways."
An enduring cycle of rehab and relapse is common, according to Ginny, who became an expert on addiction along with her parents while the family dealt with Christopher’s disease together. "My mom has bookshelves worth of material on addiction," she said. "She reads everything that comes out."
Christopher’s drug use started recreationally at the age of 13, Ginny believes, with marijuana and alcohol. But connections to older high school friends afforded him the opportunity to try heroin. When the Atwoods finally confronted Christopher about his increasingly thin frame and behavioral changes, he was up to a $50 per day habit. His parents promptly enrolled the 16-year-old in the Caron Treatment Center for drug and alcohol addiction in Pennsylvania.
The cycle continued through numerous rehab centers, Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and relapses. Christopher’s final attempt at recovery was at the Sagebrush Treatment Center of Northern Virginia in January of 2013. Within a week of his release in February, he suffered an accidental heroin overdose.
"It’s a really common story, unfortunately," said Ginny. "His tolerance was down. He didn’t realize. There wasn’t that much in his system -- certainly not enough to be intentional."
An extension of that common story is the surge in heroin use being observed on a national scale. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of Americans ages 12 and older who said they used heroin in the past year increased from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.
Diane Eckert, executive director of the nonprofit organization Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County (UPC), said, "Around the country, law enforcement officials are seeing an increase in the number of people buying and selling heroin, while treatment folks are seeing more people addicted to heroin."
WITHIN A FEW DAYS of Christopher’s passing, the Atwood family and friends and supporters gathered at Ginny’s house, attempting to find a foothold. "So what do we do now?" recalled Ginny. "Honestly it just immediately came to us and we all knew. My dad said, ‘We have to do something. We’re starting a foundation.’"
After that decisive move, their first thought was to simply fund scholarships for addiction treatment. But the group knew something else was necessary to appropriately honor Christopher.
"His spirit was so fun-loving," said Ginny. "He would always say there needs to be more fun in recovery. He wanted to make that something that was more enjoyable. NA and AA meetings are incredibly meaningful and they’re a lifeline for a lot of people -- he wanted to bring more life and laughter into the recovery community."
"He’s the anti-stigma, really," she continued. "He had everything: He was good-looking, hilarious; he was so good at reaching people. Even though he was that fun guy, he would still have this incredibly deep part of him. He helped so many of his friends that were struggling with addiction. He really did want to pull himself out of this and then turn around and help other people do the same thing."
Bringing down the negative stigma of heroin addicts — "skinny, emaciated junkies crouching by a dumpster somewhere in an inner city," said Ginny — is one of The Chris Atwood Foundation’s primary objectives. "He was skinny when he first started using," she said. "But later you would look at him and you would never know. He was buff, he was extremely fit."
But because of stigma, "Christopher said he always felt like a freak, even though he was so not," Ginny said. "Like he was never going to be normal again."
That was the basis for the FREAKS program. "We want to reclaim that word for a good thing," Ginny said, and "reclaim recovery as a positive thing. Not as a shaming and stigmatizing thing."
The outreach program they’re envisioning includes working with the UPC to develop a comprehensive guide from the vast yet largely inaccessible Fairfax County resources for addiction treatment. According to Ginny, most of the people tapping that information have gone through the judicial system and have their treatment court-mandated. Others are left to fend for themselves, largely in the dark.
A kickoff event is being planned for January that will feature a special guest speaker and a screening of the film "The Anonymous People." And future goals include forming recovery communities on campuses in the vein of "Rams in Recovery" at VCU, and finding different ways to support families.
"My parents and I are not addicts," said Ginny. "We don’t fully — we saw what it was like for Christopher, we’ve learned as much as we possibly can about it, but we’re not in that mindset. What we have lived through and what we do know so well is what it’s like to see a family member dying in front of you, and what do you do about it."
TO SET OUT REACHING the foundation’s goals, they needed to establish a financial base. One thought to host a 5K charity run was quickly redirected by Ginny’s cousin, accomplished runner and blogger Dorothy Beal. She encouraged them to actually run a race themselves and acquire sponsorships. "What kind of race?" Ginny recalled them asking. "A marathon," Beal had said.
Ginny decided to form a team with fellow South Lakes graduates Amanda Thoburn, Katie Ernst and Allison Byers. They initially set a fundraising goal of $10,000, but Beal stepped in again with constructive feedback. "You really need to put your heart in it and pick a meaningful number," Ginny recalled her saying. "So we then thought 21 because that’s the age he was when he died. We kind of braced ourselves for what we thought was going to be failure. $21,000 — are you kidding me?"
They set out training and raising money through the website StayClassy, with inevitable speed bumps and obstacles in the way. Byers ran the same marathon in 2010, but had recently sustained a calf muscle strain. "If I wasn’t running for this, with them, I would’ve just said next year — I’ll defer it," she said. "But it’s something that’s been completely inspiring. OK, I have a calf strain and this is setting me back, but there are always going to be obstacles. Chris has been helping us get through all the training. It’s been powerful, a bit of a roller coaster experience."
As of race day, Ginny and company had raised over $27,000.
"Honestly we had no idea we were going to be this successful," Ginny said. "It just goes to show, even though it’s such a hush-hush and taboo subject, how many people care so deeply about it and are affected by it."
To find out more about The Chris Atwood Foundation, visit www.chrisatwoodfoundation.org. For more information about UPC visit www.unifiedpreventioncoalition.org or www.facebook.com/unifiedpreventioncoalition.