Building Momentum

A new program in North Carolina focuses on relationship-building, purpose, service and experience as a solid foundation for a successful life of sobriety.

David Neal

Nestled less than 10 miles off the Atlantic coast in Wilmington, North Carolina, Momentum Recovery is transforming the lives of young men struggling with addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions.

Founded in 2016 by Rick Barney, a master addiction counselor and certified trauma therapist, and David Neal, certified substance abuse counselor and a master guide of wilderness therapy, Momentum provides individualized, all-inclusive programming with a focus on forging connections among residents and the larger community.

Its continuum of care includes services such as ongoing outpatient therapy with therapists that specialize in working with young adults, personalized case management, involvement in the local 12-step community, family programming, adventure-based therapy, financial skills development, vocational and academic support, nutritional support, and a host of activities that create a bonding environment. The goal is to instill in these young men a sense of purpose, community and direction — elements that were lost before they reached adulthood.

Barney and Neal conceived of Momentum Recovery while working together in adventure-based residential addiction treatment. Barney, Momentum’s CEO, had experience in working with young adults and their families emerging from the grasp of addiction, treating individuals with mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders, facilitating wilderness expeditions for young adults with co-occurring disorders, and creating experiential programs for at-risk high school students.

Rick Barney

But he saw a gap. “One of my frustrations as a primary therapist was the lack of resources for effective transitional options for young adults in the Southeast,” Barney says. “I was preaching that relationship is the antidote to addiction, but then I was sending clients 2,500 miles away from home and telling them that that was the best transitional option I could find.” Enlisting Neal’s assistance, he started exploring areas in the Southeast to start a clinical transitional option for young men.

Charmed by the Wilmington community, the presence of two strong institutions of high learning — the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College, the outdoorliving programs Barney and Neal started creates a new life-changing perspective on the worldviews of young men seeking a future of sobriety.

Recovery Campus caught up with Barney and Neal, Momentum’s COO, to talk about their approach to transitional living, which blends relationship-building with an emphasis on purpose, service and experience.

Recovery Campus: Describe the philosophy behind Momentum Recovery.

Rick Barney: We designed the program to exist as a marriage of a highly specialized clinical approach and a hands-on experiential approach. It’s important for young men in early recovery to have that clinical attention but also to be engaged in a life that’s fun and can hold their attention. We operate a continuum of care that goes from extended care to sober living to independent living with outpatient supported services. However, each client’s progression through that continuum looks vastly different. By offering multiple levels of care in the same program, we can provide clients with different experiences while allowing us the opportunity to respond directly to the clients’ individual needs. So, in essence, we attract clients and then create a program tailored specifically to them.

RC: How many clients do you have at any one time, and what ages do you serve?

David Neal: We have 18 beds and a few clients who live independently but still come for outpatient therapy or case management. Our clients range from 18 to 30, but we can have people a little older because age is more developmental than a chronological number.

RC: How long do clients stay at Momentum?

DN: Many of our clients come to us from 60- to 90-day programs, then stay with us for nine to 10 months on average. Our goal is to get them to the 12-month mark. As a field, we are beginning to recognize that longer treatment is better. Research shows that people’s chances of success in recovery go up exponentially when they get to that one-year mark.

RB: When clients demonstrate accountability and responsibility, we step them down to a sober living program, which is about six months. Here, they have a bit more autonomy but still meet with the same therapist and case manager, attend group therapy with the same core group of guys, and join in the recreational activities. When they leave, they tend to stay in the local area and transition to independent housing like an apartment or house. We continue a few months of outpatient monitoring, therapy or case management to knock the rough edges off the transition. This is the point in recovery when things can go sideways for most folks: When there is a major change, we tend to revert to what is familiar.

RC: What challenges do you face with new clients?

DN: Helping these guys realize there is life beyond drugs and alcohol is a challenge. That concept might seem obvious, but many of these young men began using substances at an early age and thus have never been sober adults. They don’t know what life looks like sober. They have been taught that early adulthood is all about partying and hanging out at bars or being in fraternities that encourage heavy drug and alcohol use. Our goal is to help them believe that there is another way to experience life. This is why we rely so heavily on the recreational component of the program.

We are blessed to have a solid community in the greater Wilmington area of young adults in recovery who are having a lot of fun and doing cool things. Their life experience shows our clients that there is an exciting life in sobriety.

Another major obstacle is family-related. We operate from the perspective that addiction is a family disease and that effective treatment should involve the entire family. After treatment and then spending about nine months at Momentum, our clients change the way they look at the world. But if the family hasn’t likewise shifted its perspective, there is a risk the client might revert when he is reinserted into the family environment. So, we are attentive to the family process and facilitate change there as well.

RC: What challenges do you see clients face when they arrive at Momentum?

DN: Some clients come from programs that heavily encourage involvement in follow-up aftercare. This doesn’t mean they are excited about coming here, but they accept it as part of their new reality. We seek to move them from this place of, “OK, this is what I have to do to get on with my life” to a place of knowing that this work is beneficial. This changes their manner of thinking about recovery. Then, their new challenge is recognizing the areas in their life that still need some work.

RC: What can clients expect on a typical day?

DN: We start a typical clinical day with a morning meditation, then clients meet with clinicians for group therapy. We encourage healthy eating and fitness, and everyone enrolled in the program is given a gym membership so they can work out in the afternoons. In the afternoon, time also can be spent working on employment applications, going to a job, volunteering or spending time in schoolwork.

RB: All the clients are encouraged to maintain a service commitment in the Alcoholics Anonymous community and a structured time commitment within their first 30 days. They must spend 20 hours each week pursuing one of the following activities: working, volunteering or engaging in academic endeavors. The goal is to instill in them a sense of meaning and purpose. This time is in addition to the 15 or so hours a week they spend engaged in clinical services and is intended to mirror a typical workweek that most adults experience.

RC: How do you assist clients with furthering their education?

RB: There are a lot of academic options in the Wilmington area. We have two excellent colleges close by that clients can attend: the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which has a growing collegiate recovery program, and Cape Fear Community College. We also assist students with earning their high school diploma or GED.

RC: Activities are a hallmark of your program. Tell us a little about what clients do.

RB: Residential and outpatient clients are engaged in the group activities we have twice a week. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, we do activities that are lighthearted and fun with a team-building approach, such as flag football or laser tag. It’s wonderful to see our alumni, who largely remain in the area, return to participate in these recreational activities. Other activities we offer include surfing, fishing, overnight camping, kayaking trips, paintball, yoga and martial arts.

DN: Everyone — from extended care to sober living to outpatient clients to alumni — is invited to participate in activities.

RC: Describe your approach to co-occurring mental health conditions.

RB: There is a level of complexity that clinicians are seeing in young adults with substance use disorders that is exasperated by overlapping mental health diagnoses. Our philosophy is that to really experience recovery and develop a lifestyle that makes recovery sustainable, mental health must be addressed. We have a medical team that assesses clients and provides medication management as needed, working closely with their primary clinicians to address specific mental health issues. We have several clinicians on staff who are dually licensed in both mental health and substance use.

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