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48 Hours — Michael Underhill

It’s not out of the ordinary for people to fear the first step. But when someone has the added weight of stigma on their shoulders, that step can feel like a marathon.

However, there are healthy and supportive places with genuine people out there to help those in need to cut the marathon in half. Of course, a half marathon is still a trek, but having someone by your side through the journey makes it a bit more manageable.

For Michael Underhill, just like for many others, sobriety had seemed insurmountable.

“It was a source of shame and I viewed trying to get sober as a sign of weakness,” he said.

But in August 2016, Michael showed up at The Phoenix — a nonprofit that provides free CrossFit, hiking, yoga, and more fitness programs to individuals recovering from substance use disorder. The Phoenix, according to their website, believes that “fostering human connections in mental, physical and spiritual fitness is a powerful way to rebuild wounded bodies and spirits, and restore hope.”

The Phoenix has one condition: 48 hours of continuous sobriety. Underhill showed up at their doorstep and he has “not looked back since,” he says.

“I was under the impression very early on in my teens that the more that I drank, the more relaxed and well-liked I became. I viewed my ‘ability’ to drink excessive amounts of alcohol as a major source [of] strength and my inability to function in social situations without [alcohol] as a weakness,” Underhill says.

Before this need for cover-up of his anxiety, Underhill was a child who took pride in his ability to be “competent and competitive in any sport” he was able to play. He admits that he grew up with privilege. But, Underhill fixated on a very simple principle: If he took care of everything himself, he wouldn’t need to ask for help from those around him.

This principle was strengthened over many years. It made it hard to “depend or rely on others,” he says. He followed this principle to the point where he was unable to create and nourish “lasting and meaningful friendships and relationships.”

This reinforcement led Underhill to many “regrettable decisions and rock bottoms.” He finally decided to see a therapist and go to meetings. These meetings, he felt, didn’t promote the reducing of stigma to the point where he was comfortable sharing his struggles with those around him.

Later on, he decided to give The Phoenix a try. It made all the difference for Underhill. There, he found a community that was “invested in promoting pride in recovery and reducing the stigma of sobriety in society.” The Phoenix did so in a “safe and supportive environment…where coaches are peers in recovery…and all feel welcome.”

Underhill took up CrossFit classes and began weightlifting. “I began to associate the same pride and strength I had for fitness with my recovery.”

The first 48 hours of continuous sobriety turned into another 48 hours, and another, and another. Soon, Underhill was deadlifting 300 pounds and found himself six months sober.

Besides being an avid CrossFiter and working with The Phoenix, Underhill also performs as a theater actor.

“The ability to chase my passion in the arts is a hugely healing and moving opportunity,” Underhill says.

Being well-versed in many areas has helped Underhill in his recovery. He also practices mindfulness meditation and continues to see a therapist.

The combination of these self-care practices has aided Michael in his recovery. He is currently two and a half years sober.

A common theme from Underhill was that he wished he would’ve known how much better life would be if he had reached out for help earlier. As a part of The Phoenix, Underhill is working toward destigmatizing mental health by creating a healthy path to recovery.

“For so long, I viewed my ability to ‘handle it’ by myself as a strength, when in reality I was compounding my issues and making it much harder to confront and unearth my struggles in later years,” he says. It is much easier to “talk about any struggles or difficulties…when it is shared with someone else.”

If you have questions about The Phoenix, or how you can bring programming to your community, don’t hesitate to contact Michael Underhill at munderhill@thephoneix.org.

What does “normal” mean to Michael?

“To me, normal is operating at a comfortable, instinctual level that is not affected by trying to ‘be’ something else for any external influence. Moving through my day and reacting to the ebbs and flows of daily life, unburdened by the pressures of ‘performing’ a role that I know inherently is not who I am.”

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