Biking the Road to Recovery

When Leanne Sharkey entered an inpatient rehab program in March, she was miserable.

“I hated the word,” she said. “I didn’t think I could be happy sober.”

But less than a year later the 35-year-old is clean and content, crediting a renewed love of cycling for her success.

Soon after Sharkey arrived at the Interim House in West Mount Airy to begin her residential treatment program, she started working with Gearing Up – a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides guidance to women transitioning from abuse, addiction or incarceration on safe cycling and bike maintenance techniques.

At first, Sharkey saw the program, which also works with the Joseph J. Peters Institute, the Gaudenzia Washington House, CHANCES, and the Riverside Correctional Facility, as a way to get out of the facility for a few hours and burn some energy.

But her outlook soon changed. "I started being more open to being in treatment. I was more relaxed," Sharkey said.

Having that outlet can aid in the recovery process, said Erin Goodhart, a clinical supervisor at Caron Treatment Centers who specializes in women and addiction.

Getting outside and exercising is a good way to manage some of the symptoms associated with post-acute withdrawal, like irritability, difficulty regulating mood and difficulty with sleep, Goodhart said.

Sharkey, a self-described tomboy, hadn’t been on a bike since she was 18-years-old, but quickly attained Gearing Up’s 10-mile goal, receiving a water bottle for hitting the milestone.

“When you come from nothing and it just didn’t really feel like I deserved anything,” Sharkey said, “just having a water bottle that you earned is cool.”

The program has more incentives – like t-shirts - for participants as they increase their total biked mileage.

“We talk about self-efficacy a lot,” said Kristin Gavin, Gearing Up’s executive director.

Completing small objectives like riding up a hill or mastering how to use brakes shows participants they are capable of attaining goals, Gavin said.

“It reinforces the belief that you can accomplish things,” she said. “Those skills reinforce for women that they can get another day clean.”

In March, Sharkey will be free of drugs and alcohol for a year – a huge milestone for the cyclist who began doing drugs as a teenager.

“I wouldn't be sober if it wasn't for Gearing Up,” she said.

Women earn their own bike from the nonprofit once they tally 100 total miles from the group rides, which range from three to eight miles, Gavin said.

Of the approximately 350 women who enrolled in Gearing Up since it began in 2009, 85 have earned their own bike, she said.

Sharkey got her bike about 40 days after her first ride and has since moved on to a blue-and-silver Trek road bike. “It is my baby,” she said.

Aside from Sharkey’s love of cycling, Gavin was impressed by how quickly she embraced bike culture. “Leanne boldly dove into the women’s cycling community,” she said.

Sharkey began riding with Sturdy Girl Cycling while still living at Interim House and started working for Wash Cycle Laundry in August.

Immersing herself in the community likely played a key role in her recovery, Goodhart said. Women most often find themselves using and drinking in isolation since addiction can be shame-based for females, she said.

“If there is a healthy way for women to connect with other women -- that is great in helping in their recovery,” said Goodhart, who added forming those bonds in the first year of recovery increases their chances of staying sober.

“They have become like my second family,” Sharkey said.

“Women who are in recovery are often times looking for a way to connect to new people, places and things,” Gavin said. “And a bike does all of that.”

Sharkey, who secured her own apartment in October, rides year-round and logs nearly 30 hours biking for Wash Cycle Laundry each week.

“It is so neat to be out and be free and not have anything hold you back,” she said. “That sense of freedom.”

Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.

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