I met Rourke Weaver at Blackeye Coffee in Capitol Hill on a Wednesday morning in August. Rourke was running a couple minutes late because he had planned to ride his bike from his nearby apartment, but had run into bike trouble. As a regional manager of Phoenix Multisport, a sober active community on the cutting edge of the recovery movement in the U.S., Rourke is used to being active outdoors. He helps to organize trips like mountain biking adventures in Moab and ski weekends in Aspen for members of the Phoenix community. Rourke has also been in recovery for almost ten years, and recently had the honor of speaking at the White House about the need to address the epidemic of addiction in men across the U.S. We sat down to talk about his recovery journey and what advice he might have for those just starting down this path.
When I asked Rourke about life before sobriety he painted a picture of a life that was charmed in many ways but haunted by an underlying darkness. Born in Boulder, Colorado to parents that fell in love over a shared passion for skiing, his family was in the mountains at every opportunity. “We didn’t join the T-ball team because weekends were for skiing,” Rourke explained. “I had a great group of friends that I’m still friends with today.” But while on the surface Rourke seemed like an athletic, well-liked teenager, his inner world was much darker. “It was like I was just born wrong,” said Rourke. “As a kid, I remember being like 10 or 11 and thinking, ‘I hate who I am, I wish I wasn’t this person.’ I was so embarrassed about who I was; it ran so deep. It was like this feeling of being in a room of friends and I was alone… I was weak, I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t sociable. Everything that I wanted to be… it was just off. When I drank, I could be whoever I wanted to be. It was like replaying a track that just says ‘make it stop, make it stop, make it stop.’ And alcohol did that – it just turned it off.”
By the time Rourke was 21, he was drinking so heavily that his group of friends was deeply concerned for him. He remembers, “They called me and were like, Rourke, you can’t keep doing this to yourself. You’re killing yourself. And we can’t hang out with you and watch you die.” After a couple of stints in outpatient treatment and detox, Rourke found himself in the darkest place yet, a beer in one hand and a gun in the other, contemplating suicide. And it was from this “bottom,” as they say in the Twelve Step world, that Rourke’s commitment to sobriety emerged. He says of that experience: “If you have that moment of pain — like, I’m in pain right now and I’m willing to have help — you have to grab onto that. I had one moment, and if I hadn’t seized it… Five days later, I could have been like, well, it’s not that bad.”
While that experience was the spark that drove Rourke to get serious about sobriety, it was only the beginning of the journey. The early days of recovery were not easy. Rourke recalls of the early Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that he attended in Boulder, “I had totally given in to the fact that my life was over. My parents were really good to me and I didn’t want my mother to have to bury me. And that was the end of my plan: ‘I’m gonna sit in a room every day. My life is gonna suck, but I don’t want my mom to have to bury me. And that’s it.’”
Rourke recalled that at his second meeting with what would eventually become his AA “home group,” they asked him if he wanted to go to a movie. “I was like, how do you go to a movie sober? And they were like, ‘It’s a movie, dude. Everyone goes to movies sober.’… Except me.” He began to question why he enjoyed doing everything drunk so much and realized that it was because it felt comfortable, or safe. He decided to “flip the script” and challenged himself to do sober everything that he had done while drinking. He told himself, “If I’m going to do this sober thing, I’m not going to live in fear. I’ve lived my whole life in fear. I’m going to face fear now in getting sober.”
Talking about the community that surrounded him in his early sobriety, Rourke counts himself as incredibly lucky. “I first came into the rooms and I just did not want to be there. But I found this group of guys and gals and they were young and fun and they had about a year of sobriety ahead of me and they scooped me up pretty quickly. At the same time, there was a group of about 5-7 guys and gals that were just getting sober too and we bonded like metal. It was like welded together. Every night we were hanging out and talking shop.”
While he celebrates the fun aspects of being in community and that recovery need not be a drag, Rourke turns serious when talking about the hard work also required, whether in the Twelve Step community or elsewhere. “For the heavy drug user, there has to be some level of work. If that looks like therapy, great. If that gives you a sense of fulfillment, some direction, and some work – those are the three cornerstones… Work in the sense of going inside – looking at the past, dealing with trauma. You have to get to the root.”
I asked Rourke what he would say to someone new in recovery, or contemplating sobriety. “Life can be good. Not only can it be good, but if you’re driven, it can be whatever you f*****g want it to be. I just spoke at the White House. I’ve gotten to create my own job. I’ve done whatever I’ve wanted to do. And I never thought that was true for the longest time.” He chuckled. “It sounds like I’m a doofy motivational speaker at an Amway conference. But it’s unbelievably true. We have an amazing capacity if we’ve gone through the fire, to do things that we never thought were possible. And that spark will explode if given enough kindling. I always hate saying that because it sounds so dorky, but it’s true.”
He acknowledged that as an affluent white male, he was in a very privileged position to be making that kind of assertion, and that bringing that gospel to clients who may have experienced hardship and oppression their whole lives was not easy. “But,” he says, “I do think that we can spread that message, that regardless of color, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identification – Believe it. You have to fight for it constantly and it might mean a lot of sleepless nights, but you can do that.”
He adds, “It’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re gonna do this thing do it with everything you’ve got. And if it gets bad enough that it kicks that fire off, you’re gonna get it.”
Rourke is still involved with the Twelve Step community, attending meetings with his home group and sponsoring, though he says that with his job, relationship, and demands of life that he is not as involved as he once was. Talking about this, he adds, “That was the other thing. I used to assume I was going to be a monk for the rest of my life. But then I met one of the most amazing people…” He trails off. “I don’t know, it just keeps getting better.”
While Rourke has come a long way in his recovery to becoming a leader in the community, he says he still has a ways to go. He speaks fondly of his AA “home group,” in which he is the youngest and has the least years sobriety. Laughing, he describes that group as full of “mountain dudes who come out of the woods to yell at kids.” But in seriousness, he adds, “I make fun of them but these guys have sobriety like I want. There’s a peace and acceptance and ease with how they live their lives and conduct themselves which is really cool. It’s not about how many times you’ve gone through the steps or how good you did the amends. At the end of the day what it comes down to is, ‘How content are you with your life? Are you a person that really, truly contributes to the world around you? And that doesn’t mean in a big way. It just means, when you walk into a room, people are reassured by your presence. When you look at the world around you, you see yourself as kind of a steward of that area around you. These people are the embodiment of that. That’s what I want.”
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