Spencer Brothers raised funds for the Chris Atwood Foundation by hiking along the Appalachian Trail.

He 'Walks the Walk' in Memory of His Friend

By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor

There are approximately 22 million Americans in recovery, which makes it inevitable that most of them have lost someone they know to overdose. It’s hard to know exactly how many people are grieving the loss of someone while working on their own recovery challenges and goals. There is no simple path through the labyrinth of recovery and loss.

Back in 2017, a young man named Spencer Brothers took matters into his own hands and embarked on a journey “of remembrance, self-discovery and hope,” explaining that he was tired of losing people to the opioid crisis -- including his best friend, Chris. After six long years in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and high-risk behaviors, he decided to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail in Chris’s memory (as well as in memory of all the others lost to this tragic epidemic). He also wanted to help raise money and awareness of the opioid crisis.

A recent update on Spencer’s blog says that, after 875 miles, and several attempts to complete it, he officially ended his hike in July due to “illness, injury and wildfires.” Despite his disappointment in not completing the hike, he still managed to raise almost the full projected amount of $20,000 for the Chris Atwood Foundation, a non-profit organization started by Chris’s family that “strengthens the addiction recovery movement through education, stigma reduction, and free recovery support services.” 

Reading Spencer’s story reminds us that sometimes the way through grief is to do something that empowers yourself or others. According to his father, “he's showing us that day by day and step by step recovery can help you achieve things you never thought you were capable of.” In essence, he blazed a trail through his own recovery and grief to do something meaningful for himself and for others.

It is so easy to feel hopeless when you lose someone close to you, and it can be hard to find renewed meaning in your life. Recovery is a fragile place, and setbacks are inevitable. The way people choose to deal with their loss can make or break their recovery. 

A 2,200-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail parallels the most challenging moments in recovery — with the most exhausting physical, mental and emotional obstacles one moment, and spiritual renewal the next. It’s a perfect reminder of Jim McKay’s description of the Olympics competition “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” 

Spencer’s choice to challenge himself while working through his recovery and his loss reminds us that doing something positive in the face of tragedy can help refocus us and  feel that the person's death was not in vain. Raising awareness of the disease of addiction, stigma, resources and challenges in Chris’s name provided an opportunity for Spencer to educate and inspire so many others -- including himself.

Whether a person is in recovery or not, finding something meaningful to help make sense of an overdose death and prevent the loss of someone else’s loved one can form the core of a new purpose. No matter how large or small the effort, the ripple effect that begins inside the heart can reverberate out into the world around us.