Friday, April 20, 2018

For Spring Hill family, an unconventional trail to recovery


Heidi Jorg finally tracked down her daughter, Elly Jorg-Weyde, as Elly wandered down an empty street in Spring Hill on an afternoon in late April.

"She was totally not lucid. She thought people were following her," Heidi said.

Elly, 18, who had once spent hours in front of a makeup mirror, "was filthy," her mother said. "Her teeth were disgusting, and she probably weighed 105 pounds."

And even after a two-week methamphetamine binge, Heidi said, Elly didn't want to get clean.

"She told me she was a junkie and she liked drugs," Heidi said.

So, it was clear, the family interventions hadn't worked. The Narcotics Anonymous meetings weren't enough. And the "tough love" that Heidi had reluctantly tried — locking Elly out of her own home — had backfired.

But just as Heidi realized that she had to do something to help her daughter — something drastic — she realized there is only so much the parent of an adult addict can do.

She couldn't make Elly want to get better or stay in a recovery program.

She could only guide her away from drugs and toward some sort of refuge.

The solution she latched onto, the one that seemed to best suit her unconventional family, was inspired more by the 2014 movie Wild, about a long, soul-cleansing hike, than by her training as a registered nurse — and most of all by the desperation of sleepless nights.

The only way to rescue her daughter, she decided, was an extended backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail,

"I don't want to be one of those mothers who do nothing," she said, a week after finding Elly and three days before leaving for Georgia.

"And I don't want to sign a $60,000 loan for a program and then have her walk out. . . . My hope is, we go away for 30 days, and she comes home clean. Then maybe she'll be willing to go to a real program and actually work on her stuff."

• • •

Hiking-as-therapy is not a new idea or necessarily a crazy one.

Several companies offer wilderness interventions for troubled or addicted young people, said Christine Martens, the head guide for the Blue Ridge Hiking Co. in Asheville, N.C. And during Martens' end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2010, she met several military veterans using it as balm for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"People definitely seek that kind of adventure when they are lost in life in some way," she said.

Dr. Theo Carroll, a Sarasota psychotherapist and an adjunct professor in the department of rehabilitation and mental health counseling at the University of South Florida, said recovery requires removing addicts from their drug-using friends.

Exercise is beneficial, as is a sense of accomplishment. Extended hikes are worthless if addicts return to "their same, old toxic social network," Carroll said.

"But it could be a decent jump-start."

• • •

The Thursday before departure, nylon sacks full of gear and neatly labeled Ziploc bags of food were stacked on the kitchen table of Heidi's sparsely furnished double-wide in Spring Hill.

On the front porch, she, Elly and her brother, Jakob, 20, talked about the long path they had already taken, their journey to this point.

Heidi said people who know her probably wouldn't be surprised by the impulsive pursuit of her plan — quitting her temporary job at the Oak Hill Hospital emergency room; scrambling to buy a camp stove online, cases of Ramen from Walmart and sleeping bags from Target; enlisting Jakob to join them on the "Hike to Recovery," as she called it on a hastily built GoFundMe online account; setting a departure date for only 10 days after finding Elly — Mother's Day.

"I'm kind of a crazy, free-spirited person," said Heidi, 48.

In the driveway were the motorcycles she and her fiance, David Lowe, like to take on long weekend rides, images of which — Heidi in jeans and a leather jacket, bandana and mirrored sunglasses — dominate her Facebook page.

Because she valued the freedom to move from town to town and the higher wages, she has spent most of her career working as a contract nurse.

She kicks herself because she doesn't have insurance or savings.

She has never been good at discipline, she said: "I've fought myself a lot about that because I was very permissive. I was a caver."

And the 12-hour shifts she worked left her kids free to explore new towns.

Jakob skipped a lot of school and experimented with drugs but never slid into addiction. Elly started drinking with a camp of homeless people in Madeira Beach when she was 15. She later moved on to pain pills and, in step with a tragic national trend, heroin.

Elly, who is "a super, super smart kid," her mother said, graduated a semester early in December 2014 from Weeki Wachee High School.

But she also started stealing money from her mother and, Heidi suspects, pain medication from the Spring Hill home of her father, John Weyde, Heidi's former husband. Elly sometimes slept for days and disappeared for weeks, including in April, when she was introduced methamphetamine.

But the way of living that left Elly vulnerable to addiction also made her receptive to the adventurous cure her mother had in mind.

Elly and Jakob grew up swimming and fishing rather than sitting in front of video screens. During middle school, they spent a year in Key West, where their mother worked in tiny community hospital and the three of them lived in a television-free "1963 flat-end Bluebird school bus," Elly said.

"It was the best year of our lives."

She looked out through oversized glasses and from under bleached-blond dreadlocks. Her thin legs were in colorfully patterned tights, her feet in slate-blue, fresh-out-of-the box hiking boots. Her Marlboro reds rested on the coffee table next to her mother's green box of Kools.

She was excited about the hike and "100 percent committed to recovery. . . . Hopefully, we'll go away and we'll come back and be ripped," she said, ironically flexing her bony arms.

But, as her mother looked on warily, Elly also said she loved methamphetamine.

"That was a new one on me, and I just could not stop. . . . I kind of fantasize about how good it feels. I won't say I'm obsessed about it because I'm past it. But it's always going to be on the back burner."

• • •

They almost didn't make it to the start of the trail.

The day after arriving at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia, where Heidi parked her car, they set out on the seemingly straight-up, 1,900-foot climb to the Appalachian trailhead at Springer Mountain.

Heidi, whose hiking experience was limited to walks with her dogs in the dead-level Weeki-wachee Preserve, said every step felt like "doing a lunge" at the gym.

Elly, meanwhile, fell apart, leaning back against a tree, weeping and saying that she couldn't go on.

But Heidi realized the stakes and held firm.

"I figured if she didn't get clean then, she'd never have a chance," Heidi said after returning. "There was no way I could give in."

Their next big crisis was on Sassafras Mountain, 11 miles north of Springer, where they made camp as a thunderstorm approached and Heidi realized that the woods around them had been charred by a previous lightning strike.

"That scared the crap out of me," Heidi said. "I didn't sleep that night at all."

The next night, an icy rain poured through their tent, a "cheapo from Walmart," Heidi said.

They rested for a few days after that, drying their gear and finding antibiotics for Jakob, who had developed a stubborn sinus infection. A later detour, to find an animal shelter for an abandoned, tick-infested puppy they rescued, forced them to skip about 65 miles from the northern border of Georgia to Franklin, N.C.

And they never quit smoking, as Heidi had hoped. Some of their photos of the trail's trademark views — clear, rhododendron-lined creeks; the white-blazed trail tunneling through the solid shade of hardwood forests, vistas from bald mountaintops — include the incongruous sight of one of them enjoying a smoke.

Still, they covered more than 100 miles, and stayed away for nearly four weeks and on the trail for nearly three. They made it to Fontana Dam in North Carolina, stopping there only because of the expense and regulations required to continue north into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

They had fewer days like the climb to Springer and more like the one after their first layover. They hadn't expected to cover the 5.6 miles from Neels Gap to Tesnatee Gap until the evening, and were stunned to arrive before noon.

"We killed it that day," Elly said.

• • •

Their packs were lighter by then, thanks to a hiker they called "Bruce the Know-It-All," who dispensed sound advice — lose the heavy cotton clothes and the hardbound journal; replace the Coleman stove and its ballast-like propane canisters — with good-natured ridicule.

"He said, 'Heidi, you're ridiculous. Unforgettably ridiculous,' " she said.

And almost every night at the shelters, they found representatives of one of the "genres" of hikers they had identified: kids about the same age as Elly and Jakob, Heidi said, "who had been to college and done everything right."

A few of them drank warm beer they had toted for miles, but "they weren't pushing any hard drugs or anything," Elly said.

"There were a lot of genuinely decent people."

Especially a student from Alaska who was headed for the end of the trail in Maine, and who was caring and fun enough to earn the trail name of Mary Poppins.

Her pack was loaded with nature guides and colored pencils and pads that she passed out to fellow hikers during breaks.

"She was a very interesting creature," Heidi said.

Elly became close enough to her that they hiked together for several miles north of Fontana. She felt like a "pro" by then, she said, strong and skilled enough to continue through the Smokies. But she turned back because it felt too much like running away.

"I remember exactly what you said," her mother said, back on the porch after the hike.

" 'I know I have to go home and fix my life.' "

• • •

After returning to Spring Hill in early June, Heidi put off looking for a job and was forced to put her motorcycle up for sale to pay bills.

"I'm almost a 24/7 caregiver," she wrote in a June 18 email, "and it's not possible for me to live my life until I get her into something viable."

A week later, Elly had agreed to enter a treatment program when she received an offer of a job busing tables at a restaurant at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, near Fontana, where she had sent an online application.

Heidi drove Elly up to the center, an outfitter of rafting trips and other excursions, over the July 4 weekend. She was "very apprehensive" after turning her loose, she said last week, but "very hopeful" that her daughter would be influenced by new friends with healthy interests.

Elly, in a phone interview, said she appreciates everything her mother has done to get her to where she is now — not cured but better.

"I don't seem to have the same cravings," she said. "The people up here are really nice, and the vibe is really good."

And on her first day off from work, she didn't look for a way to get high — didn't hunt for a hit of heroin to snort or meth to inject.

She loaded up a day pack and went for a seven-mile hike.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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