Max Hirsch – Co-Founder of Living Life in Recovery Interviewed

Max Hirsch co-founder of living life in recovery interviewed

Andrew: I have Max Hirsch, the co-founder of Living Life in Recovery, on the telephone with us today for Serene Scene Magazine. Max, thank you so much for joining us here.

Max: Of course, any time.

Andrew: Well I want to start out by finding out what got you involved in the recovery industry, what led you to this place in your life.

Max: Well, I myself went through treatment back in 2014. And during that process I kind of started to see some problems I personally had with the recovery industry. And one of the biggest things was not a lot of treatment centers stressed the importance of fun or finding a passion within your life. A lot of them were very focused on the medical side or working a 12 step program, which is very important. And it’s important that we understand what it is that is different about us. But at the same time, I wouldn’t stay sober if I didn’t enjoy it, if I didn’t have fun.

And so it was very important to me to try to give back to the recovery community by creating a business that not only educates clients on what it is that we’re going through. But also how to enjoy yourself while doing that.

Andrew: So that began the idea of Living Life in Recovery?

Max: So Living Life in Recovery was actually my partner’s idea. His name is Erik Spettel. And at the time, I was about a year and a half into my own personal sobriety, and I was in between jobs. And I had been working in a treatment center that utilized a surf therapy.

And growing up surfing all the time, that was a pastime that really helped me when I reconnected with it. My sponsor actually used to sneak me out of my treatment center at four in the morning and we would go surfing before 12 step meetings. And so I started to reconnect with having fun, and without drugs and alcohol.

And so I started to put together a business plan to create a surf therapy program that could contract sober livings and treatment centers. And do that as two hours a day for different centers. And I got hooked up with Eric Spettel who had started Living Life in Recovery on a community outreach basis. It was not for profit at the time. And we got together and realized we could combine the two ideas and create a for profit, fully insurable business. That could not only give clients an opportunity to enjoy themselves, reconnect to their passions, have fun. But also could provide therapeutic activities for clients to kind of get them out of the stereotypical four-walled, how are you feeling therapy scenarios.

Andrew: Now what types of activities are offered?

Max: So right now we offer plenty of different activities. We do surf therapy, we do hiking and repelling. We do indoor skydiving, we’ll go to a trampoline park and turn that into therapy. That one, it’s actually really fun. We do wolf therapy where we actually bring in a North American gray wolf, it’s about 140 lbs. And we do a whole three to four-hour program based around that. We do a high ropes course, and then we also utilize electric bicycles to ride through Trabuco Canyon to a monastery and that one is very interesting as well.

We’re currently creating more programs to better suit the amount of treatment centers in our area.

Andrew: Now you mentioned that these activities have a therapeutic component to them. I’m wondering how that works.

Max: So, what we do is everything, every event, basically follows the same framework. We meet for an hour and we do CBT therapy or process therapy based around some sort of psychological concept. And then, that psychological concept will apply to whatever activity we are doing that day. And so we talk about how we have utilized the negative aspect of that specific concept in the past and what that looks like, the consequences that have arisen from it. And then we discuss how to apply that tool in whatever activity we’re doing.

We do the activity where the client gets a practical application of an intangible psychological concept. So something like mindfulness is very intangible. It’s very difficult to just sit there and tell someone what mindfulness is. It really takes that person experiencing the process of doing something mindful to really understand what it is.

And so we create a situation where they can actually apply that concept. And so they go through that experience, they apply those concepts, and then we do another group afterwards where we process exactly what just happened and what that looks like for their future. So we talk about what it was like to be in the experience, whether they were really present in that moment or if they were thinking about the past or the future. And nine times out of ten, they’re very present in that experience. It’s very hard to not be present if you’re rock climbing or indoor skydiving. You’re not thinking about what you did yesterday or what you’re doing tomorrow, you’re thinking about not crashing. And so they’re able to kind of look at, okay, this is what I did. And it had a negative consequence while I was in there. And then this is what they told me to do and I tried that. And it was a positive experience. And so they’re really able to actually grasp whatever it is we’re talking about.

Andrew: Does each type of activity carry with it a different therapeutic focus?

Max: Yes, and every event has a different therapeutic focus. And we totally adapt to whatever treatment center we’re working with. So say a treatment center has been focusing very heavily on, I don’t want to use mindfulness again. But for some reason, that’s the only thing I can think of.

Say they’re focusing heavily on a specific psychological concept or there’s a certain client that’s dealing with something. We can adapt our programs to fit, to benefit, to enhance, the treatment team for that specific center’s focus for that week or that month. And so that’s something that’s very important and very unique about us, is that we work very closely with the treatment teams at each of our treatment centers to really help enhance their programs.

We’re not here to try to say that we do something better, or that we’re different. Because of the situations that we have available to us, it gives us an opportunity to work with client s on a very non-authoritative level. We’re the cool uncles of the treatment centers that we work with, if you will.

The clients very much look forward to getting out of that house or that office or that treatment, that group room. And really being outside and enjoying the beauty that is Southern California. Because our programs range so drastically, we’re in so many different places, these clients get to experience things that they’ve never experienced before. I mean a kid from Ohio that has never seen the ocean gets to go surfing for the first time. And it’s an experience that just changes something inside of him, regardless of whether the therapy has an effect or not, which it always does. It’s very It’s very special to be able to get these clients out and teach them things that they’ve been taught in treatment before, but on a completely different level and a different level of understanding is achieved.

Andrew: How do you place people into the various activities? Is that up to the treatment center that you’re working with or is that something that you suggest according to the population?

Max: It is definitely something that is up to the treatment center. There are a couple events that we have a maximum number of clients on. But it’s completely up to the treatment center. We have one treatment center that does all seven programs that we have and then there’s one treatment center that rotates between three of them. It’s really up to the treatment center, the culture of the client population if you will. One of the treatment centers we work at caters to executive more mature type clients and so they’re not really interested in doing the rock climbing or the surfing. Some of the more high activity type deals or the ropes course if you will.

Andrew: So I’m really interested to learn from you, what the favorite activities are for you?

Max: I am an avid rock climber, so I love doing that one. I love introducing anyone I can to that sport. There are a lot of parallels between personal recovery and rock climbing in general. The least of which is being in the moment, when you’re 60 feet off the ground, hanging from a rope trying to figure out which next move to make. If you freak out or you think about what you have to do tomorrow or what you did yesterday. You’re not going to have a good day and so it’s very in the moment. It’s almost meditative for me and so rock climbing’s definitely one that I really love.

As far as the benefits that I’ve seen from working with people in treatment. I would say indoor skydiving is one of our strongest programs. It’s a very fun, unique way to kind of experience mindfulness and without giving too much away. It’s all about the difference between a reaction and an action. And how having a quick reaction will cause a negative consequence in your life. When you’re in a wind tunnel and the wind’s going 100 miles an hour underneath you, and you react to something, you’re going to experience a negative consequence on the spot. And so really stressing, the importance of thinking before we act. And focusing on taking the next correct indicated action is a huge part of that program, and it’s really fun to see kind of that light turn on in clients eyes when they get done with that program and realize, wow, that makes a lot of sense in my life outside of here.

So that one’s probably my favorite. And then, the wolf program is an amazing program as well. Just to be eligible to work with the Wolf Education Project out of Julian and to experience these animals is just a joy, and such a gratitude that I can’t express.

Andrew: So there are some obvious safety concerns here.

Max: Yes.

Andrew: How do you deal with an individual, they may not be in recovery very long, right? And maybe all of the neurotransmitters aren’t firing insufficiently just yet and they might be a little clumsy.

Max: Correct and so, all of us at Living Life in Recovery are not only first aid certified and CPR certified but were wilderness first aid trained. Were certified to be out 50 miles away from a hospital and understand how to deal with certain situations. We went through the Knowles foundation, which is a recognized foundation in the United States to certify people in those areas. We also have, we work with a bunch of different third party businesses to provide these activities in the safest possible environment that we can. We’re all trained in the activities that we do. We will never have an event that we are not knowledgeable in and that we haven’t learned what we can about the safety concerns. And also, everyone that we work with, we sit down with the treatment center beforehand, and we tell them these people need to be medically cleared for these events. We’re not working with detoxes. We’re not working with people that are one week into sobriety. We try to make sure, we’d rather lose the money of one client to maintain the integrity and safety of our program, than put ourselves at risk because somebody might get hurt. It’s very important, we have safety talks at every single event and we’re very, very focused and very aware of the safety concerns for each vet.

Andrew: Do you find that the clients really watch out for one another when they’re doing? Particularly maybe the high energy or the more high risk activities?

Max: It’s interesting that you say that, because yes that’s one thing that we tend to not stress. The whole team building exercise is overplayed and overdone. Especially with treatments, it’s like, I don’t know I’m tired of it. But at the same time, because of the activities that we do, that is an expected, or unexpected result of all of the events that we do and the comradery that gets built between them.

Even clients that may not enjoy each other’s’ company the most. We see them start to engage with each other in a level they have not before because again, they’re experiencing that they’ve never done before. And getting to see each other on a real level, on a level that people aren’t being fake when they’re getting licked in a face by a wolf, or they’re surfing for the first time or they’re again climbing a wall 40 feet off the ground. It’s a very visceral raw experience and so people connect on that level in a way that we haven’t seen in a typical stagnant group therapy and so that is a huge benefit that comes without program. That we tend to just let, we let the programs see that for themselves, because we can tell you that that’s going to happen but everybody’s just going to shake their head and say yeah okay.

But when you actually experience that and they come home that night or the next day in group and they’re just so excited about what they had done the day before, that’s the real win right there. People tend to group together more.

Andrew: I’m sure you would agree that there’s so many individuals that go through treatment, whether it be out patient or residential treatment. And they complete their treatment and they’re no longer using drugs and alcohol or acting out in inappropriate ways, but they don’t know how to fill that time. They get bored and they end up just couch surfing and playing video games, or something along those lines. And inevitably, over a period of time they’ll work themselves back around into high-risk situations, and will likely relapse.

So these kinds of activities have a tremendous therapeutic value in that you’re providing somebody with the ability or the experience to find something that they might like after treatment. So how many of the clients do you hear from that have really taken on some of these activities as healthy hobbies?

Max: That’s still one of the more basic parts of it is, I see clients at the rock climbing gym now. I talk to my wolf guy at the Wolf Education Project Jason and some of the clients have gone and volunteered at his facility. People are very, a lot of them have talked about going sky diving.

There’s a group of them that’s setting up a date in the next couple weeks to go sky diving. Many of them have purchased surf boards from some of my friends and have begun surfing on a regular basis. That was the original goal of my business partner, Erik Stettle.

Before Living Life in Recovery was to create a community outreach program that put on free events for clients to find something that they enjoy. Too many people that we see in treatment, they get to a sober living and then they waste away on the couch watching Netflix. And so it’s very important to us to continue to grow and continue to build and continued to create more and more programs, so that we can reach more and more people, and create situations where exactly what you said happens, where they find something to fill their time, something to create that fun and to reignite those neuropathways that we have just completely burned out with drugs.

And personally myself, I need something that’s high adrenaline, I need something’s that a little bit dangerous like rock climbing, like indoor skydiving, like something because my life was such a chaotic hectic mess for so long. I got sober and it’s boring, it’s dangerous. Boring is scary and boring will kill me.

And so I need to remember to enjoy myself, to have fun, to get out there and do something that’s fun and in doing so, I connect to people. When I go rock climbing, I can’t do it alone. I have to connect to another human being, put my trust in another human being, and in doing that I’m completely negating the need for drugs and alcohol.

That was my connection to the world for so long. Today I have the ability to connect to other human beings and a lot of times it’s through the activities that I do. So that is really important to us. Helping clients to find activities to create those connections.

Andrew: And are you operating in some sort of an alumni program or something along those lines to gather people back together?

Max: That is a plan for the future, right now there is only three of us. So, trying to run an alumni program would be extremely difficult. We’re already pressed with the business that we have now. But, that is in the process. We are currently speaking with other, old clients, and looking to hire new people for our business so that we can continue to grow.

And in the growing that would be one of the things that we focus on is creating an outreach program, probably not under the name, Living Life Recovery, but something similar. And creating a space for people to come and enjoy some of the programs without the therapy that they’ve enjoyed throughout their time with us.

It is important to us that people still have the ability to do these things once they’ve left the treatment center that we work with or however the case may be. We want people to be able to continue to have fun and if we can facilitate that then we’re more than happy to.

Andrew: And what else does the future hold?

Max: Gosh that’s a tough question. Currently we are trying to write a franchise handbook so that we might be able to spread to other areas of the state so that we can try to help more people. At the end of the day the goal is to help as many people as we can.

We’re very lucky to have found something that works, and found something that seems to be benefiting people in a way that haven’t really been achieved before. I don’t say that in an egotistical way. I just say that in a way of we welcome the competition. We welcome other companies to try to do what we’re doing, because we believe that, again, what we’ve found is very special, and we want it to reach as many people as possible.

And, I mean, the future for us holds more programs, like I said. More ways we can connect with people that may have different interests than us. Doing things like art, maybe not under the name of Adventure Therapy, but having programs where people can express themselves, not only creatively but artistically as well, and in those environments.

The dream is to have a space like a warehouse where people can come and do things like painting, cooking and having a rock wall there. All of these different events and things where people can come and be kind of a collective movement of sober people, expressing themselves in whatever area that that means to them. But that’s obviously years down the line.

Andrew: Max Hush co-founder of Living Life and Recovery. Thank you so much for joining us at Serene Scene Magazine today and I wish you the best in your endeavors.

Max: Thank you so much Andrew, it was my pleasure.

Andrew Martin