Wrestling With Re-Hab


October 2, 2010 by David Gillaspie

(make a difference when it makes a difference)

What do you say to someone a month out of rehab?  I asked them what they were in for.

What do you say to someone who rehabbed for meth and heroin?  Good luck?

The man in the sauna looked twenty-five; maybe a young thirty.  Scenes from a life on hard drugs rolled through my imagination:

–     Abandoned by family, rejected by friends, he finds comfort in a shooting gallery with others on the nod.

–     New friends have all done time for manufacture and distribution; the women all have records for solicitation.

–     He got busted for a small amount and took a plea bargain of probation and rehab.

This is what I learned from TV crime shows.  It was all wrong.  If I was in the recovery movement, or worked in rehab, I’d have a better idea what it’s all about.  Instead, I’m a former wrestler and a writer on things wrestling can do, and it’s enough.

Here’s why:

The guy in the sauna wasn’t twenty-five; he was seventeen.  He used meth to get up and heroin to get down.  He was a poster child as a future face of meth before he overdoses on black tar and everyone wonders what really happened.

When people screw up their lives and snap out of it enough to realize how far down the drain they are, they talk.  You can hear their story at bus stops and train stations across the country, which is where they go for their next score.

You don’t often hear the drug story in the gym sauna.  It’s usually not from a seventeen year old guy starting his senior year of high school.

Most of all, you don’t hear rehab-guy say he’s going out for wrestling.  Why would they?

“You’re going to wrestle?” I asked.

“I played football last year.  This year I’m wrestling.  I do it every other year,” said the kid.

“So you’ve wrestled before?”

“Two years ago.”

“How did it go?”

“Not easy.”

“From rehab to the wrestling room, huh?”

“Not exactly, but that’s the direction.”

“You weigh about one-eighty?”


“Cutting to 171?”

“Gonna try.”

The recovery movement guy, or rehab veteran, knows the territory.  All I know is the story of the last guy to make the news as a rehab wrestler.

ESPN ran a famous story about a local guy in his thirties, Richard Jensen, who came out of prison and wrestled for a community college.  The video showed him on the Hawthorne Bridge between the west and east side of town.  His emotional voice over explained how he used to work.

This man invaded homes and held hostages for the money he needed to get high.  He said he hurt people; said he was sorry.

I believed him.

I saw him wrestle in a junior college regional.  My niece’s boyfriend was wrestling and my folks were there.  It was a different sort of crowd when the ex-con’s cheering section showed up.  They were an all-age group of hard bitten characters who looked like extras from a Mad Max movie, different from the family and friends of kids a year or two out of high school.

Would the young rehab wrestler benefit from knowing the old rehab wrestler’s story?  Maybe.  I didn’t throw it out there.  Maybe an experienced counselor would have.

Instead, I told the kid, “Go out on the mat ready to win.  If you’ve done the work, you have a good chance.  Shake hands with your opponent and give silent thanks for the privilege of being there.  Win or lose, walk off the mat the same.  If you learn to control your emotions in wrestling, you’ll have a better chance of making the right decisions on how to live your life.

“When you feel that emptiness you get that being loaded cures, take a run, hit the gym, pound out a hundred push-ups.  Fill the emptiness with the sort of stress and strain that adds more life to living, not something that will snap you off.

“Last thing kid.  I went to funeral for a woman, maybe twenty-two.  Beautiful girl in her best clothes lying in an open coffin.  She’d been in the life, getting up on one thing and down on another.  Met her boyfriends in jail.  DEA agents jumped the fence into my backyard once thinking they had her on the run.

“This woman fixed her life, did her time, then got bored and took one last ride on the needle.  She needed more help than she got.

“Wrestling might save you.  It’ll give you context.  You know what context is?  Say you’re having a bad night struggling with your past.  Maybe you see old friends who want to do the old things.  You wrestle with the idea.  It feels like you’ve got one arm barred, with a half sunk in on the other side.  You tilt one way, then the other, but you won’t roll.

“Wrestling gives you a base,” I said.

The kid shakes my hand and says thanks.

“Don’t thank me,” I told him.  “You’re a wrestler; you’ll be fine.  If you want to show thanks, find someone else who could use a push in the right direction.  Can you do that?”


“One more thing, kid.”




2 thoughts on “Wrestling With Re-Hab

  1. David Gillaspie says:

    Thanks for coming in, Phil. The power to carry on comes from so many places if you keep looking. Eventually you find it in the mirror. You ask yourself who you want to be and measure it with who you are, then start closing the gap.

    The kid I met was not a kid I’ve seen before, but his story was pretty stark for one so young. Wrestling will make a difference for him. That’s what it does.

    Keep a steady hand on the steering wheel, Phil.


  2. Phil Kennedy says:

    That is a gteat story. There are a lot of of people that struggle with sobriety everyday but Richard Jensen chose to attack it. I have a similar experience with an addiction to meth and stories like his are what keep me going sometime. I know what he is going through. I tell myself no every day. I have to. He is an inspiration to everyone who has to make that decision. Thank you for telling that story.

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