The empty lot next to the Phoenix House drug and alcohol recovery center in Arlington called to Deborah S. Taylor for years.
Taylor, a trained nurse and the senior vice president and executive director of the Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic region, knows that daily exercise helps addicts manage the desire for drugs and their withdrawal from them.
Drugs drain the brain’s capacity to produce and absorb endorphins, she explains, while aerobic exercise helps restore a person’s ability to experience the good feelings that endorphins generate.
She also knows that the nation is caught in a growing opioid epidemic, with more people of all ages getting hooked on prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl, and overdoses spiking so much that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dubbed opioid addiction as the worst drug crisis in the nation’s history.
This year, for the first time, demand for opioid treatment outpaced the need for alcoholism treatment for male residential patients at Phoenix House. The overall number of opioid addicts seeking treatment at the organization also is growing.
It is against that backdrop that Taylor and the Phoenix House board decided to build a gym and expand its residential recovery lodge for boys on the irregularly shaped parcel at 521 N. Quincy St., next to one of the three residential treatment centers the group operates in Arlington.
After four years of fundraising, Phoenix House last week broke ground for a $3.3 million gym. When construction is completed in 10 months, its advocates say, the facility will provide a convenient and safe place for patients to pursue the physical part of their recovery.
Without an in-house gym, Phoenix House staff have been ferrying 14 patients a day — out of a total of about 80 — from their residential facilities in Arlington to a workout facility at a county community center.
There’s not enough time, transport vans or supervisory staff to do any more.
The limitation “discourages some of us from starting a workout routine,” said Robert, one of the four Phoenix House patients who spoke at the groundbreaking.
He asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy, and he also suggested — to the audience’s amusement — that having a fitness facility next door would benefit some of the counselors as well, “because some of them need it.”
Another patient, Myanna Bell, read a poem she wrote about her addiction titled “Monster” and said a gym will show addicts that there’s a healthy way to have fun.
“Monster, you abuse me raw, you have no heart at all,” she read. “You’re a soul snatcher, a spirit killer.”
Phoenix House, which has programs in 10 states and the District, is the largest nonprofit substance abuse treatment center in the nation, with more than 40,000 past and present clients.
The Mid-Atlantic program began in Arlington in 1962 as Alcohol Rehabilitation Inc., changed its name to Vanguard Services in the 1970s and merged with Phoenix House in 2010. In addition to the facilities in Arlington, the organization runs an outpatient treatment center in Glen Burnie, Md., and provides addiction treatment at the D.C. jail.
“The needs of our clients are constantly changing due to the chemicals they put in their bodies, due to the age at which they start” using drugs, Taylor told the attendees at the groundbreaking.
This year, 36 percent of the men who entered residential treatment at Phoenix House used opioids as their main drug, as opposed to 27 percent who primarily used alcohol. Overall, there’s been an 11.5 percent increase in residential and outpatient patients with opioid addiction in 2016.
The number of patients who have private insurance is also creeping up, to about 80 percent, Taylor said, meaning that many of those seeking treatment are relatively well off financially.
Teenagers used to be referred to Phoenix House because they were smoking pot daily, Taylor said. Now, those referrals have dropped, and instead, the nonprofit is treating young addicts who have moved from marijuana into harder drugs.
“We’re seeing people later in the progression of disease. We’re not seeing them at the earlier stages when it’s easier to fix,” Taylor said.
She blamed the change on a community that she said has “become acclimated” to adolescents’ overuse of drugs such as marijuana and prescription medicine.
“The longer somebody has done a chemical, the harder it is to stop,” Taylor said. “We’re playing Russian roulette with these kids, and they’ve got a bullet in their hands.”
Treatment at Phoenix House includes group and individual therapy, family education and support, and medical intervention as needed. A 12-step “framework” is used that in general is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model.
The gym, Taylor said, will be a welcome addition to these offerings, boosting strength and cardiovascular fitness even as patients try to put other parts of their lives back together.
“I see this as physical therapy,” Taylor said, “a necessary part of the treatment plan.”