2020-01-15 Connie-Cole.jpg

A Conversation with Connie Cole and Ryan Potter

“Some trainers have one way to do something. But every client is different. Each body is weak and strong in different ways. I see that uniqueness in the residents who stay at Driftwood.”

"Everything Was Preparing Me to Be Right Here, Right Now"

This is the fourth in a series of posts introducing the people who make up Driftwood Recovery’s community of caregivers.

Through these conversations, you’ll get a chance to meet the people on Driftwood’s team—from its executives to its care coordinators. You’ll learn about the programs they facilitate, and about how their work serves Driftwood’s overall treatment philosophy. You’ll learn about the various paths that brought them here. And you might pick up a book or Austin restaurant recommendation.

In this post, Kuraĝo editor Matt Williamson talks with Driftwood’s Wellness Director, Connie Cole (CPT, CHC, CYI), and Ryan Potter, a health coach in the Wellness Center.


Matt Williamson: Connie, you’ve been at Driftwood from the beginning, right?

Connie Cole: I was here before the beginning! This place was a bed and breakfast. And I helped design the Wellness Center.

I was working as a personal trainer, and one of my clients was the woman who was building this place. I mentioned to her that I was in the process of selling my studio. And she was like: “Oh, I'm building a gym. You should train your clients out there, and you can train me, too. We'll work out some deal.” I had no idea that she was building this beautiful facility. She was in the process of turning a raccoon-infested house into a state-of-the-art gym, building it up. I ended up working out here as a trainer for four years. And then she decided to sell the place.

When she sold, I was like, “oh, no—what am I going to do?” But then Driftwood Recovery’s founders came out, and I happened to meet them. They had several months of preparatory work left to do, and they said: “you don't have to leave. Just keep meeting your clients out here until we open. It’s no problem.” They didn't know me from the man in the moon.

Then I started training them. They discovered that my specialty was working with people with disease and disability: chronic pain, bad shoulders, a bad back, bad knees. So they hired me. For the first year and a half, I helped them develop Driftwood’s wellness program. And then we hired Ryan because we were growing so fast. I'm here full time, and Ryan comes in from one to five. That's when a lot of the activity happens—in the afternoon.

MW: Ryan, what were you doing before you came out here?

Ryan Potter: I was at UT, studying kinesiology. While I was a student, I worked for the men's basketball program. I was a strength intern. I facilitated and administered training regimens. That could mean something as simple as changing weights, or it could mean workshopping an entire strength program with a student athlete. During the summer and offseason, we did a lot of stretching. I found out that stretching the leg of a seven-foot-tall athlete is a three-man job.

The guys that were our strength coaches there have gone on to bigger things. One of them is coaching for the Philadelphia 76ers. Another one is an associate professor at a university. So even outside of class, I was learning from highly accomplished, deeply knowledgeable people.

A lot of that work at UT involved rehabbing injuries, teaching people how to work around injuries. That all became directly relevant to the work I’m doing now at Driftwood.

MW: Connie, what got you interested in working with people in chronic pain?

CC: I started out as a martial artist thirty years ago. And my master was hurting people. We were using our body weight to train, and he was popping Achilles tendons, breaking shoulders. I kept thinking: there's got to be a way to do this without injury. That’s how I initially became interested in training: I wanted to become a better athlete without hurting myself.

But when I started working as a trainer, every client seemed to have a bad back, or some other ailment. Because I wanted to help them, I started studying ways of training people for function, training them to feel better. The transition to my current chronic pain specialization was very natural.

MW: I had this personal trainer a few years back who was a former Big Ten football player. And this guy did not understand my limits at all. He wanted me to do all of this stuff that I wasn’t comfortable with. Even if everything was safe—I’m sure it was—it didn't feel safe. I kept trying to make him understand that I wasn’t hoping to compete on American Ninja Warrior; I just wanted to be in slightly better shape! I wish I’d worked with you two instead.

CC: Some trainers have one way to do something. But every client is different. Each body is weak and strong in different ways. I see that uniqueness in the residents who stay at Driftwood. We get people who are extraordinarily conditioned—over-conditioned, even. We get people who are in wheelchairs, or who have been run over by cars, who are in pain in ten different places in their body.

My background has helped me deal with that variety. In a way, I feel that for my whole life, I was training to do this job—like everything I did was preparing me to be right here, right now. I'm doing my dharma. This is what I love.

MW: What do you mean by “over-conditioned?”

CC: You’ve heard of cross addiction. We have people out here, sometimes, who are addicted to exercise. They’re not necessarily bodybuilders, and they don’t necessarily have body-image problems; they just have to exercise every day, to an unhealthy degree. You should exercise every day! But that doesn't mean you should do CrossFit every day.

MW: Why not?

CC: If someone took a bat right now, and lightly beat you all over your body, your body would produce free radicals. A lot of inflammation happens. Your body would be in disrepair.

Something similar happens with your entire body is overworked through exercise. Did you get that soreness from being beaten up, or from overexertion? Your body doesn’t know the difference. Many of the same physiological results happen.

MW: How do you customize a fitness program for a new resident?

CC: Every resident that comes here—whether they're on the pain track, or on the chemical dependency track—gets an assessment by me. People in the pain program get a more thorough evaluation, because they need it. They also get evaluated by our medical director. They get evaluated by our nurse practitioner. They get evaluated by Dr. Melanie Somerville. Then we all collaborate on how best to get them out of their pain or get them functional without whatever substances they were using.

MW: What are you literally doing during that initial assessment?

CC: I jokingly refer to it as a Vulcan mind-meld. I try to find out as much as I can about their pain. Is it localized, or is it a systemic inflammatory pain, like Crohn's disease? A person might come in with pain from a traumatic brain injury. I ask where they're feeling the pain, and they show me.

At that early stage, we won’t use weights or anything like that. We’re just talking. Sometimes we will move. My goal, sometimes, is to see how I can shift someone from lying down or sitting to moving.

But it's very low key. It's copacetic. It's not scary. It's not hard. It's not threatening. It's kind of fun. “What do you like? What do you dislike?”

Later, when residents come here and start exercising, it's never intimidating. People can work out with Ryan and do some of the harder things, or they can walk, or they can ride their bike, or they can swim.

RP: Connie and I know that we have a limited window of time with all the clients here. Part of my job is planning an individualized program that will get a client to the goals that they want to achieve in X amount of time. In athletics, that's super important, because you have a start date on the season: here's where this athlete is, we need to get them ready by this point.

In certain ways, the situation is similar when it comes to new residents at Driftwood who will be transitioning out of here in one or two months. We want to get them ready for the next phase of their lives.

MW: How much time generally passes between the end of someone’s detox and the beginning of their sessions with the two of you?

CC: Most people who come here have about a week of detox, although that period varies, depending on how you feel, and how you are detoxing. During your detox, you may or may not want to participate in our fitness programs. If you don't want to move or exercise during that first week, you don't have to. But we might encourage you to move.

The phrase we use at Driftwood is “challenge by choice.” I'm not going to tell you that you have to do high intensity interval training with Ryan. You get to pick your challenge. If you can drag yourself down to the gym and put one foot in the door and do a little something, I promise that when you leave, you'll feel better. You'll feel better every time.

RP: Just to give an example of challenge by choice: lately I’ve been taking control of the afternoon group exercise. And over the course of the last two or three cohorts, it’s evolved into a full-fledged workout. But it changes from class to class. It's scalable. And you can always join a group exercise but work at your own pace.

We put a menu of exercises up on the wall every single day. If you can complete every single one of these, that's amazing. We're proud of you. But if you come in and just try a couple of them, we're happy with that too.

MW: Why is it important to have not just “a gym” but “a wellness center?” I’ve heard clinicians describe the work that you and Ryan are doing as fundamental to the broader recovery project here.

CC: Everyone at Driftwood believes that fitness, and being functional, is vital to being sober. If you're not moving every day, you're degenerating. On the other hand, when you move every day, your body starts to function better, your mind functions better, and you start to feel better. And when you feel better, you don't feel like you’re seen in the same way. Having a spring in your step, feeling strong and empowered, helps you stay sober and helps you in your life outside of recovery.

MW: Could you discuss the concept of aftercare? How can people sustain and deepen their wellness when you and Ryan aren’t around?

CC: Good question. While you're here, of course, you get to exercise every day. You have wonderful food every day, and meaningful clinical therapy every day. It's a healthy bubble, and you're scheduled in that bubble. But you’re also becoming equipped to stay healthy when you integrate back into the world.

Many of our residents transition to our Riverside extended care facility. Everyone who goes to Riverside gets a membership at the Y downtown, and our house manager Cassie encourages them, finds a way for them to exercise regularly. Ryan, on his own time, trains a lot of people who are in that community integration program. If he’s developed a strong relationship with someone, he’ll try to continue working with them after they leave.

MW: I’d like to finish with an open-ended question for both of you. Could you share something that you think people should know about the Wellness Center? Something, maybe, that I should have asked you about, but didn’t?

RP: One thing that’s great about this place is the fact that Connie and I have complementary skill sets. In addition to the background she’s already described—all of those certifications she has—she’s also a yoga instructor. I'm certified in a technique called foundation training, which is for lower back health and core strength. I'm one of the few people in Austin that has that certification. Between the two of us, we’re ready for almost anything.

CC: I said earlier that I feel I’m “doing my dharma” here at Driftwood. Dharma is about whether you’re doing what you were put on this planet to do. Are you living your dream? Are you doing what you're good at? One of our goals is to find that thing for the residents. Maybe they've lost it, or maybe they've never found it.

We've had people who have left here who have gone on to be personal trainers. They had such a positive experience with us that our work became part of their dream. Some people leave here and find their dharma by becoming therapists in the recovery community. A lot of the people who work at Driftwood are in recovery. They're here because they want to help people who have been in the same shoes that they've been in.

We work with people on this crucial question: what meaningful role are you going to have in the world when you leave here? And sometimes, people find that through fitness.