Taylor LaValley and Alex Chmiel at Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Alex Chmiel.

Buckley hikers tackle Pacific Crest Trail to raise awareness for opiate addiction

The Pacific Crest Trail spans from the California-Mexico border to Manning Park, Canada. It’s a 2,650 mile-long odyssey though the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. That’s close to 14 million feet, or 5.6 million steps. And White River High School graduates Alex Chmiel and Taylor LaValley are planning on taking each and every one of them, starting at the end of this month.

The Pacific Crest Trail spans from the California-Mexico border to Manning Park, Canada.

It’s a 2,650 mile-long odyssey though the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.

That’s close to 14 million feet, or 5.6 million steps.

And White River High School graduates Alex Chmiel and Taylor LaValley are planning on taking each and every one of them, starting at the end of this month.

This excursion requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental grit, which is exactly why they accepted the challenge.

But Chmiel and LaValley aren’t just hiking the trail “for the awesomeness of it,” they said.

For them, this journey is about showcasing another challenge that millions of Americans face every day, one that can be just as exacting but undeniably more dangerous – addiction.

“We both have been affected by people struggling with opioid addiction,” LaValley said. “We’ve had friends rob our houses, family members in jail, friends overdose and pass…”

“It’s a personal cause for us,” Chmiel said. “We’re trying to build connections with people. We’re trying to build a network of hope.”

To do that, the hikers have started fundraising with Shatterproof, a national non-profit organization that provides information about addiction and advocates for legislation that promotes effective education, prevention and treatment programs, rather than incarceration.

The “Hike for Hope,” as their campaign is called, has raised $1,200 out of a goal of $10,000.

While they’re on the trail, Chmiel and LaValley plan to update their Facebook page with their progress and maybe even start a blog.

They can also be contacted through their email at hikingforhope2017@gmail.com.

THE OPPOSITE OF ADDICTION

Chmiel and LaValley don’t have all the answers for dealing with addiction.

They said they wouldn’t know exactly how to stage an intervention for a family member, or how to talk to high school students about the dangers of drugs.

But they were sure of one thing — that fighting drug use and addiction, and the negative stigma those come with, is only effective when people have open, honest conversations.

“Obviously, the ‘Just Say No’ campaign doesn’t work,” Chmiel said, referring to the anti-drug campaign started by first lady Nancy Reagan in 1986. “That’s apparent, looking at any city street, any high school.”

Chmiel and LaValley used themselves and their friends as prime examples.

“Neither of us have been addicted to hard drugs, especially heroin,” Chmiel said (“Or even touched it,” LaValley chimed). “But we were both high schoolers who were curious.”

They experimented in high school, but while Chmiel and LaValley drew a line at the more serious drugs, some of their friends did not.

“They got sucked down into the hole. We could have easily been sucked down in the hole,” said LaValley. “But I think we knew where the line was, where other people didn’t necessarily.”

Chmiel wasn’t so sure, though.

“I can look back at my life, and it’s very clear that I did not know where the line was,” he said. “There are things that I have done that, if I had kids, I’d be like, ‘holy crap, you are making big mistakes.’

“But do you admit that?” Chmiel asked LaValley. “Or do we pretend we’re angels?”

“No way,” was her emphatic reply. “Just being real is the best thing.”

At the end of the day, Chmiel isn’t sure why he and LaValley didn’t make the same choices some of their friends made that led them down the road of addiction.

“Maybe it’s family nets. Maybe we just got lucky,” he said. “Maybe we just were smarter, but it’s hard to say without being biased.”

But Chmiel does have a theory about drug addiction in general and why some people get addicted and others don’t —“because the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but connection,” he said.

THE RAT PARK EXPERIMENTS

The quote isn’t a Chmiel original. He borrowed it from Johann Hari, author of “Chasing The Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs.”

In his June 2015 TED Talks, titled “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” Hari argues that addiction may be caused more by social isolation than chemical dependency.

For proof, Hari points to a 1981 study published by psychologist Bruce Alexander called “Rat Park.”

Alexander was part of earlier experiments testing the addictive qualities of different drugs. The experiment involved putting a rat into solitary confinement and letting it press a button, which would inject drugs into its bloodstream.

Many rats were recorded consuming large amounts of the drugs, which Alexander and other scientists first thought meant the drugs were highly addictive, his website summary of the experiments reads.

But then he remembered that rats are “highly social, sexual, and industrious creatures,” and putting them in solitary confinement is not their natural state.

“Putting such a creature in solitary confinement would be the equivalent of doing the same thing to a human being,” Alexander wrote. “Solitary confinement drives people crazy; if prisoners in solitary have the chance to take mind-numbing drugs, they do.”

Alexander then repeated the drug experiments, comparing the drug intake of rats in solitary confinement to rats in a relatively normal, social environment he called Rat Park — a large box filled with wood chips, tin cans, running wheels, and rats of both sexes.

There were two sources of water for both the solitary and social rats. One was clean tap water, and the other laced with morphine.

Solitary rats consumed much more morphine than the social rats, Alexander wrote, which meant rats don’t consume morphine because it’s an addictive drug, but as a response to isolation.

“You go from almost 100 percent overdose when they’re isolated to zero percent overdose when they have happy and connected lives,” Hari said in his talk. “What if addiction isn’t about your chemical hooks? What if addiction is about your cage?

“Humans have a natural and innate need to bond. And when we’re happy and healthy, we bond and connect to each other,” he continued, citing psychologist Peter Cohen, who has written about the positive effects of decriminalizing drug use. “But if you can’t do that because you’re traumatized, or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. That might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis. But you will bond and connect with something, because that’s our nature.”

Other studies have been done to try and replicate the results of the Rat Park experiments.

One, a 1989 experiment performed by the Department of Psychology at Concordia University in Canada, found that after multiple weeks of social and isolated rats self-administering heroin or cocaine, the two groups self-administered similar levels of the drugs.

A 1996 experiment by the psychology department at New Mexico Tech was also unable to replicate the Rat Park results, concluding that their experiment may have been skewed by drug-resistant rats.

BUILDING CONNECTIONS

Beyond completing this five to six-month long hike across the country, Chmiel and LaValley’s real goal is to create connections and start dialogue about drugs and addiction.

“There’s such a negative stigma on drug addicts,” LaValley said. “We’re trying to bring awareness that they’re sick, and they really need help. Not just seeing a person as their disease, but seeing them as a person.”

The hike, Chmiel added, will hopefully be seen as symbolic gesture by those who are directly and indirectly affected by addiction.

“We want to make this sacrifice to show people struggling with drug dependency are not alone,” he said. “We’ll be struggling right along with them.

“And if you are excited, come join us on the trail.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, total overdose deaths in the U.S. topped more than 52,000 in 2015. Graphic by Ray Still.

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