Ryan Burke: Addictions Counselor and Endurance Athlete Spreading Motivation

“Perceptual barriers are a huge thing to overcome, bigger than any mountain. The people I work with every day have a huge influence on me when I’m in the mountains. If they can get through the everyday challenges of addiction, then I know I can get through this day. That kind of inspiration gets rid of any hollow excuses not to try.” Ryan Burke

Ryan Burke is an endurance mountaineer and full time addictions therapist who lives in Jackson, Wyoming.

He is currently developing The Mindstrength Project which works with athletes and survivors of addiction in risk composure education. He teaches his clients at Curran-Seeley -

"...with addiction it's about getting through the next day and reminding one's self you have gotten through similar days before and have the strength to do it again." Ryan Burke

These similarities of what gets him through the mountains and what helps addicts stay clean, are why Burke started the Mind Strength Project, a program that physically and mentally trains athletes and addicts side-by-side.

Emy Digrappa (00:00):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwhy.org.

Ryan Burke (00:16):

And all these mood altering drugs, alcohol or marijuana, are basically get-rich-quick schemes of, I don't like what's going on around me and I want to change that.

Emy Digrappa (00:32):

Hello, I'm Emy Digrappa. This is What's Your Why. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why.


Today we are talking to Ryan Burke. He is an addiction therapist and an endurance athlete. Welcome Ryan.

Ryan Burke (01:24):

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Emy Digrappa (01:25):

Absolutely. I wanted to talk to you about your work as an addiction therapist because of the opioid addiction and also the fact that you've combined extreme athleticism with addiction, and how you're working those two things together and working them out.

Ryan Burke (01:42):

Yeah, the whole process for me has been kind of intertwining these two worlds that I really love, the outdoor world and the addiction world. Seeing people kind of recover from addictions work has kind of become my life's purpose at this point. But I love adding in the side project in my mind, the hobby, and then just seeing how that can be a replacement therapy for other folks as well.

Emy Digrappa (02:03):

Where did you grow up?

Ryan Burke (02:04):

I grew up in Maine, originally East Coast, and moved out this way in 2004.

Emy Digrappa (02:09):

What was the reason that you moved here?

Ryan Burke (02:12):

I always had kind of an attraction to Jackson, but from a distance, it seemed so extreme. I thought it would be out of my pay grade. And when I was biking across the US I came across Tioga Pass and saw the Tetons and at that point thought they looked impossible to climb, and then just slowly over time figured out a way to make them my own. So yeah, it was a multitude of factors that got me here.

Emy Digrappa (02:36):

You are an extreme athlete. Do you call it an extreme or endurance athlete? What do you call yourself?

Ryan Burke (02:41):

I mean, extreme is used. I wouldn't say that fits me. Endurance athletes seems to fit more. Extreme signs more of on the edge, gripped all the time, and that's not how I feel. I don't feel like my life is on the line that often. It's really just pushing myself harder and further than I have gone before.

Emy Digrappa (02:59):

And how did you make the journey in terms of entering into the world of addiction counseling and addiction treatment?

Ryan Burke (03:06):

It somewhat fell in my lap after a long trip. I never thought I'd go into this world. I thought it was a little too complicated and the outcomes weren't that great. Relapse rates are very high, so I wanted to go into something that was a little more feel-good. But what I've found is quite the opposite, that I love the complexity of it, and every person has a different knot to untie. So working through that and partnering with people has been truly rewarding.

Emy Digrappa (03:33):

So you started something called the Mind Strength Project, and it was kind of in answer to help people overcome addiction. Tell me more about that.

Ryan Burke (03:44):

Yeah. I work at Curran-Seeley Foundation, and it's a substance abuse treatment center. And at most outpatient treatment centers, the main strategy is group therapy, which is an incredible resource to have a shared experience with other folks. But I saw something that was missing and I wanted to add a little bit to it. People were learning skills, but they weren't practicing those skills under pressure. So the Mind Strength Project brings the skills you learn in a group and puts people under extreme duress in the outdoor world to see how they can stay composed under pressure. And hopefully that will relate to how they feel when they're dealing with their cravings or dealing with intense situations in their own lives.

Emy Digrappa (04:21):

What have you learned about the opioid addiction and how it's affecting people?

Ryan Burke (04:27):

In my mind, opiate addiction and all addiction is really just a symptom of some deeper root causes, and that's what the Mind Strength really tries to get at. Whether that's impulse control, ability to delay gratification, self-esteem, self-conscious problems. I feel like the opioid epidemic in general stems from Americans being addicted to comfort, wanting the quick fix as soon as possible, and the root cause dealing with just basically how people deal with stress in their lives.

Emy Digrappa (04:56):

I think that's really an excellent way of explaining the opioid addiction and epidemic is that we are so used to comfort and we don't want any pain. But is a lot of it caused by depression?

Ryan Burke (05:12):

Yes and no. I feel like they call addiction a disease of disconnection. And I think when you break it down to its core, that's what you really see happening. People disconnecting from the world around them, from their family and friends, and more connecting and attaching to things that are just in their minds more predictable, that will always get them high, that will always be kind of more controllable than say, a relationship. So people are reaching out to these things like social media and opiates that just, in their opinion, just seem more within their control.

Emy Digrappa (05:45):

And are there differences between, say, alcohol addiction and narcotic addiction and opioid addiction? What are the differences there?

Ryan Burke (05:53):

Yeah, there's a multitude of differences as far as their long-term consequences and short-term, but in the end it all boils down to the same thing, that people want to avoid pain and seek pleasure as quick as possible. And those synthetic ways of doing it are replacing the natural ways in their life.

Emy Digrappa (06:10):

What is the cure rate for those?

Ryan Burke (06:14):

It depends on, well, what we're talking about. The relapse rates are very high for all forms of addiction. In my opinion, it's often called a disease, and I'm taken aback by that a little bit because I really believe that it's a really a learning disorder, if nothing else. It's the brain doing what it's supposed to do. It's just hyper-learned an activity or a habit, and it kind of takes away the control from the person and puts it in your brain's hands, and your brain will make it happen if it thinks it's important to its survival, which when you do enough of a drug, your dopamine levels are affected and you literally believe it's important for your survival. So you'll do anything. Lie to family, steal, cheat, make some bad decisions just to get that drug of choice.

Emy Digrappa (06:53):

What kind of studies and research have you done so you can further help people and understand what are the remedies that you can put in place with families? Because obviously families are very affected. Even if one person in their family is addicted, everyone is affected. What do you do about that?

Ryan Burke (07:13):

Absolutely. Well, and this goes against some part of the mainstream treatment program. A lot of the treatment programs focus on the problem. We'll just stop them from using drugs. But the solution is usually something different. Connecting them back with the family instead of punishing them. And I talked about it being a disease of disconnection, and the hope is to connect them back. So family therapy, focusing on things that help increase their positive identity, that create their identity as, say an athlete, for instance, instead of being just an alcoholic or someone with an addiction, making people understand that that's a slice of who they are, but it's not the whole person.

Emy Digrappa (07:49):

In your program, the Mind Strength Project, what exactly do you do that helps people mend and heal in their mind?

Ryan Burke (07:58):

Absolutely. So a big part of our program is intermingling them with other athletes in town. So they start to realize that they can be a valuable member of the community. If they see themselves rock climbing next to a professional climber and they're doing just as well on a workout or a physical and mental task, they can start to see themselves through a different lens. And that helps them regain that self-esteem that they once lost. So with the Mind Strength Project, we do things like having people tie knots underwater, do sprints or suicide sprints while doing a memory task. And a lot of that comes down to the neuroscience of basically when you're exercising, your brain is primed to learn and new brain cells are forming, so you have to attach that to new information or those brain cells will die off. So we try to get people energized into a maximum heart rate and then teach them things like meditation or mindfulness that will teach them how to react when things seem outside of their control.

Emy Digrappa (08:55):

And how did you learn those techniques?

Ryan Burke (08:56):

Oh, that's a good question. Growing up in Maine and then spending time out here in Jackson, I've really realized the importance of the outdoors in my own identity formation. And as an alternative to getting drunk on a Friday night, I started to realize that my therapy time was running up and down mountains. And so I started to realize that I could use that time productively and kind of teach myself and messages to my brain that were helpful instead of detrimental. Instead of listening to my negative thoughts, I started to see things that I was grateful for, and started to realize that the outdoor was my way to connect.

Emy Digrappa (09:32):

And I do see going outside as a way to connect with nature. But at the same time, when you see extreme athletes or even people who enjoy the outdoors, they're still addicted to drugs.

Ryan Burke (09:45):

Yeah. So that is a common issue, is that you can have both. And what happens most of the time is that, say you live in a mountain town, and even living here affects our dopamine and serotonin levels. So you have people who get really high in the mountains during the day, and then they get super drunk at night, basically because they haven't figured out a way to temper the issue of their neurotransmitters. So with all type of habit changes, you can't just say, we're going to take away your drinking and not give you something else. So what I've tried to replace that with is meditation and being in that calm place, and being okay with the problems in your life. Realizing that the negative emotions that we call things are really just signs and symptoms that are telling you to pay attention. So we work a lot on labeling and integrating a little bit of Buddhism and meditation into a treatment plan.

Emy Digrappa (10:40):

I think it's interesting that you were able to figure that out for yourself. When you saw yourself drinking and decided you were going to put your energy in another place, was it who you surrounded yourself with? I mean, what was your inner discipline to make that decision?

Ryan Burke (10:56):

Yeah, absolutely. I had some great role models and mentors, and I really do believe it's who you surround yourself with. You become who you're around. So I had some great advocates that pulled me out of that world, not through even conscious discussion, but just by showing me that it's more fulfilling to summit a peak than to get wasted and ruin the whole next day.

Emy Digrappa (11:20):

So when you were biking across the United States, you obviously were an advanced athlete at that time. What was your desire to bike across the United States?

Ryan Burke (11:28):

I didn't feel like one.

Emy Digrappa (11:30):

Oh really?

Ryan Burke (11:31):

My buddies and I started a nonprofit to help raise money for cancer research, and we were riding mountain bikes across the US, which is not the normal way. So I didn't consider myself an athlete at that point. I had never really run over six miles. I had kind of just been like, let's try it and see how it goes. So I had an optimism, but I think my athleticism really didn't even bloom until I started to see people around me that I saw on the cover of Outside Magazine. And I was like, wow, they're human. Maybe I can do what they do. And then I just started pushing my limits a little harder and a little farther.

Emy Digrappa (12:09):

And what was your degree in?

Ryan Burke (12:10):

I had a master's in mental health counseling, but my undergrad was in psychology and sociology.

Emy Digrappa (12:17):

Those are two great humanity subjects.

Ryan Burke (12:19):

Absolutely. You get critical thinking at its best.

Emy Digrappa (12:21):

That's right. So I wanted you to talk a little bit more about how other kinds of treatments that people are seeing success in with addicts, and ways to help young people avoid addiction. What do you think about that?

Ryan Burke (12:41):

Yeah, I mean, I think education is a huge component of it. I just went in the eighth grade classroom today and we talked about the facts about drugs and alcohol, and I think people need to have the ability to make their own choice. That's what I believe drugs and alcohol take away, is people's power, their options. And so I believe the neuroscience education and just saying, this is what happens, is the best way to deal with that. Scare tactics haven't worked. I think people do get very curious about drugs and alcohol and that get-rich-quick scheme. So I think just showing people that there may be short-term gains to using drugs and alcohol, but the long-term effect of basically stealing your happiness from the next day is just important information. So just empowering people to make the right choice through science.

Emy Digrappa (13:30):

Is there quite a big drug culture in Jackson?

Ryan Burke (13:34):

Yes and no. Mountain culture in general goes either work hard, party harder, basically. And so people say in high school, they see that all around them. They see people jumping off cliffs and then getting super drunk that day, and then going to do it again the next day. And that seeps in. We're all kind of products of our environment. So that extreme culture here goes both in the outdoors and to the bars.

Emy Digrappa (14:02):

Have you learned about the state as a whole in terms of what kind of drugs are going on in other communities around Wyoming?

Ryan Burke (14:09):

I don't know any specific statistics. I know obviously there's the big ones, alcohol and marijuana. Meth is also an issue in the state. Opiates and heroin are becoming more of an issue, and I see it more and more at Curran-Seeley, just people coming through the door that either they started on prescription drugs and then that led to harder drugs, and they don't want to do that. People, in my opinion, that have addiction are very smart, kind, loving people. They just get caught up in over their head too quickly. A smart person can convince themselves to do anything. And I think that's what I see happening. I think there's a misinterpretation of people with addictions being victims, and I really want to see that change, and have that kind of more convert to them as seeing themselves as survivors. Because getting through addiction is by far the hardest thing that I've seen anyone go through.

Emy Digrappa (14:59):

Do you see marijuana in this picture? Do people consider it an addiction? What's the conversation about marijuana right now?

Ryan Burke (15:06):

No. It's changing. With it legalizing in a few states, you started to see that it becomes just in the common language. It's just not even considered a drug sometimes. But in reality, any chemical you put into your body is going to have an effect, especially on your brain. And marijuana in particular affects your temporal lobe, so that's motivation, and your frontal cortex. It creates a lot of plaque buildup, which over time can destroy a person's potential. But it's not as dramatic as, say, doing meth, where you can see the physical side effects as quickly.

Emy Digrappa (15:43):

What do you think of that argument that people say that smoking pot is better than drinking?

Ryan Burke (15:50):

That's a good question. I mean, I would say they're at least equal in my eyes. One, you might end up on a couch, one you might end up in jail, but they're both kind of impacting a person's ability to move forward. And to me, that's not worth it. I consider suffering basically anytime you want the moment to be different than it is. And all these mood altering drugs, alcohol or marijuana, are basically get-rich-quick schemes of, I don't like what's going on around me and I want to change that. And so for me, I can't rationalize it as easy as I used to.

Emy Digrappa (16:28):

Okay. So you've really had to confront that issue, because I'm sure a lot of young people confront you with that.

Ryan Burke (16:34):

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And especially with marijuana, they say it's organic, don't panic. And true, it comes from a plant, but heroin comes from poppy plants. And what I try to tell people is that nowadays, the THC levels have gone up so high that it's almost a synthetic pill at this point. It used to be 5% THC, now is up to 30, 35, and dabs, which was a higher concentrate, is up to like 99% THC. So the old arguments aren't working as well, because you're starting to get botanists and people who know how to cross-breed plants and just creates a whole new animal.

Emy Digrappa (17:09):

So it's become so much more sophisticated.

Ryan Burke (17:12):

And the issue with all drugs, is that you're fighting against a natural system against evolution. Evolution wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and alcohol and drugs do both of those things. And that's why addiction is such an issue, because you're working against your brain, and that can be your worst enemy at times.

Emy Digrappa (17:31):

So have you traveled around the state much?

Ryan Burke (17:33):

Yes. Not for work, but I have.

Emy Digrappa (17:36):

Oh, okay. What are some of your favorite places in Wyoming?

Ryan Burke (17:39):

Oh, that's a good question. I love Lander, Wyoming. I'm a big climber, but spent time also in the southern parts, looking around Laramie, going Ten Sleep climbing as well. So I tend to go towards the more climbing areas, but the whole state is amazing.

Emy Digrappa (17:54):

That's good to hear that. I'm glad. Thank you for being here.

Ryan Burke (17:57):

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Emy Digrappa (18:04):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy Digrappa. This Think Why podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at thinkwhy.org.