From dependence to connection in the battle against addiction
This fall, we are celebrating the progress and resilience of the 23 million Americans in addiction recovery and highlighting the stories of our nonprofit partners that work with them. Click here to learn more about #Sweatember, The Phoenix’s campaign for 23 days of recovery.
In search of freedom
Growing up in a chaotic household, all Mike Mielke needed was a refuge — somewhere safe to ride out the fights and forget about his family’s money troubles.
Mike was an athlete who broke records in football and track and field. He was on the cover of hometown newspapers and competed in the junior Olympics. He had incredible potential. Meanwhile, his anxiety and depression were mounting and his home was breaking at the seams.
Short of a permanent solution to his home life, Mike found that drugs and alcohol offered the easiest escape. It started with a bit of marijuana and some stolen beer bottles. By high school, he’d started using other drugs, and it shifted from a haven to a bad habit. Anxiety and depression encroached on his mental health, and he fought them back in equal measure — with mood stabilizers, sleep aids, and self-medication.
Mike moved to Denver for a fresh start when he was 18 years old, but his priorities remained the same. He took jobs where he could work under the influence or arrive hungover. He surrounded himself with people who made the same lifestyle choices he did.
“I didn’t have any of the legal consequences,” Mike says. “So I think that rationalized my use a little bit longer than it should have. But I was just lucky.”
When Mike turned 22, his luck ran out. His older brother and best friend, Matt, who he had followed on the path to substance use, passed away from liver failure as a result of alcohol and drug use.
Mike didn’t know how to process his grief, so he turned to the only relief he knew.
“My integrity had gone out the window, and I entered a place of complete dependence,” he says. “And the first thing I was reaching for in the morning was the pipe or the bottle.”
For the first time, he experienced the physical effects of dependency, including shaking and chest pain. He chose alcohol and drugs over food, losing 40 pounds in the process. He started lying and stealing to fuel his habit, and his future prospects narrowed down to two options, in his mind: a jail sentence or suicide.
Instead, at the lowest point of his life, Mike found the strength to pick a new path.
“I chose door number three,” he says.
A new purpose
Mike got sober on April 5th, 2013 and surrounded himself with other people recovering from addiction. Even though he’s seen initial success after joining a 12-step addiction recovery program, he knew he wasn’t digging deep enough to truly change his self-image. He still saw himself only as an addict and alcoholic and couldn’t see beyond that.
One day, while he was sitting in a recovery meeting, he heard people talking about a local gym that offered mountain biking, boxing, and other activities — all for free. Being the athlete that he was, that got his attention.
It was an organization called The Phoenix — a community that harnesses the power of physical activity and sports to create connection for individuals in addiction recovery. Suddenly, Mike’s door number three was the entrance to Phoenix’s flagship gym in Denver. Fighting back the fear of rejection and failure, he got himself to a boxing class and laced up some gloves. He hit the bags and never looked back.
“It was different than anything I’d ever experienced,” he says. “It wasn’t just a gym — it was a supportive community. And I wanted to be a part of that.”
Mike started coming every day, joining as many classes as he could, even sticking around until the gym closed. Over time, he found that he wasn’t only becoming more comfortable with new activities; he was also becoming more confident in his personal life.
“If I could do a boxing class the first day, maybe I could also crush a job interview the next week.”
“Maybe I could have the courage to call up my creditors and say, ‘I’m ready to start a payment plan,'” he says.
As he dove deeper into the community and continued to experience his own personal transformation, Mike was eager to pay it forward. He signed up as a volunteer for The Phoenix whenever he could, welcoming newcomers and showing them the ropes of a new sport.
After a couple years volunteering, Mike caught the attention of one of the program managers on staff, Dana Smith. She saw the value that Mike could bring to the team and asked him if he would consider working full-time for The Phoenix. On November 1, 2017, he began his new role as a fitness instructor.
A critical moment for community
Today, as a senior program manager at The Phoenix, Mike oversees the strategy and deployment of new programs across Colorado. In other words, it’s his responsibility to help The Phoenix reach as many people as it can — just like it reached him when he needed it the most.
By bringing people together, cultivating a culture of open discussion, and building self-confidence through physical activity and belonging, The Phoenix offers participants what so many people struggle to find: hope and resilience.
“The beauty of being around other people in recovery is that you empower others towards success,” Mike says.
The Phoenix’s mission has never been more urgent. The United States is battling an opioid crisis, and the number of fatal drug overdoses in the country has more than tripled since 1990. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic added isolation and financial instability to the equation, both of which are risk factors for substance use and relapse.
The Phoenix quickly rolled out a virtual program in March to keep its community connected, which had the added benefit of reaching new audiences who don’t live near a physical location. In Denver, its team started loaning iPads to local homeless shelters and community centers so that individuals without internet access could participate in virtual classes.
“We have a responsibility right now to continually innovate and find solutions to create a connection with people,” Mike says.
As The Phoenix scales across the nation, its mission remains focused on the individual needs of its community members, helping them transform their lives and learn to see their own potential — beyond their addiction.
To illustrate the power of The Phoenix’s approach, Mike doesn’t only point to his own story — he also talks about a father who started bringing his kids around to family climbing nights and movie nights after two years battling his addiction, getting sober, and securing a new job.
“I’ve seen him come in and basically rewrite his history and be a good father,” Mike says, “so that his kids get to see a dad who is healing and thriving. Seeing that type of transformation is the best part of my job.”