Olivia M. arrived at group therapy at Long Beach park Wednesday morning feeling anxious about her future.
She had spent the last fourth months at a sober living facility while undergoing treatment for addiction and mental illness at Roots Through Recovery, an outpatient program in Bixby Knolls that specializes in trauma-focused care.
Now, she was ready to look ahead, with plans to return back home to the East Coast in the next couple of weeks. She was prepared to turn the page on a new chapter in her life.
Still, her mind couldn’t help but wonder: How would she be affected if, after doing so much work on herself, everything and everyone else around her remained the same?
“It’s going to be hard to go back,” Olivia told the Post. “I feel ready, but I also feel like I’ve been in a little bit of a bubble.”
Olivia has struggled on and off with mental health issues and addiction since she was 19 years old. It’s a battle that resulted in her being arrested for assault in 2017 and got her kicked out of her first college, she said.
“When I was 19 … I kind of just skated by, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine, I’m still invincible,’ even though everything was showing that I wasn’t,” Olivia said. “So it’s nice exploring, like, ‘Why did I need that coping mechanism? And why didn’t it work for me?’”
Now 25, Olivia is working to understand the root of the problem. Following a couple of unsuccessful stays at facilities in New York and Arizona, Olivia suddenly found herself in Long Beach last year after hearing about Roots Through Recovery.
“Mental health is tricky,” she said. “I kind of held myself back before because I was like, ‘I know everything. I’m not an addict. I’m not mentally ill, whatever.’ But you have to go into it completely like, ‘I need help.'”
At Roots Through Recovery, the goal is to help people, like Olivia, heal and build the resilience they need to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues, substance abuse, co-occurring disorders or chronic pain, according to the company.
“When we first opened Roots in 2016 in Long Beach, our goal really was to look at everything through a trauma lens,” said Noah Warren, the program director at Roots Through Recovery and one of its founding members. “When people come in and they’re dealing with depression or anxiety … alcohol, drugs … we look at those as symptoms of trauma that haven’t been resolved.”
‘We wanted to bring something different’
Located within a strip mall in Los Cerritos, there’s nothing particularly eye-catching about the business from the outside.
But inside the facility, patients are greeted by the soothing sound and images of a crackling campfire next to a gently flowing river. Plants have been meticulously placed around the waiting room, where the ceiling lights shine against the floor like the moon reflecting onto water. Vivid artwork decorates the white walls with serene scenes of nature.
“We really wanted that calm feeling,” Warren said. “It is very soothing to be around these natural elements.”
Warren said his passion for helping people, especially those with mental health issues, comes from growing up around his own family members that suffered from mental illnesses.
In college, Warren studied psychology, and upon graduating, he found a job working with children who were struggling with their mental health.
Eventually, Warren found a team of people who wanted to build “something” that would improve the lives of Long Beach residents, so they spent over a year planning and building what Roots Through Recovery would look like.
Although Roots Through Recovery was the first name the team came up with, they sat around for nearly eight hours throwing out different names, Warren said.
The group, however, kept coming back to the name “Roots Through Recovery” because it went along with their mission of finding the root of the issue for whatever people are going through, Warren said, adding that it’s also a place where people can ground themselves and find their roots.
“We wanted to bring something different to the city of Long Beach,” Warren said.
While there are a lot of different treatment program options available to patients, many programs really only offer traditional talk therapy, Warren said.
At Roots Through Recovery, which sees roughly 45 patients a day, each person is placed in a program that is specialized around their needs and goals.
“If we can’t treat them, then we can refer (patients) somewhere where their needs are better met,” Warren said.
Additionally, many of the programs are integrated together, so patients are typically participating in more than one type of treatment, Warren said.
One of the more novel treatments offered at Roots Through Recovery is the use of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
TMS is a non-invasive procedure where short electromagnetic pulses, similar to an MRI scanner, are sent to parts of the brain as a way to influence neural activity, according to Warren.
It’s most commonly used as an alternative for patients who have tried different forms of antidepressants and either find that they don’t work for them, or they’ve had side effects that are too severe, Warren said.
According to Warren, most patients that are treated using the TMS machine report feeling a difference about two to three weeks into their treatment.
“One of the things that has helped us over time is that we are open to anything that will help end people’s suffering,” Warren said. “There’s a lot of room for innovation.”
Not all of that innovation, though, has to be technological. It can also be seen through the weekly music medicine therapy offered each Wednesday morning at a local park, which Olivia attends each week.
For those two hours, patients are encouraged to disconnect from their everyday stressors through activities that are intended to ground them and reconnect them with nature.
“Most of the focus is on therapeutic rhythm,” said David Hickman, an independent contractor that coordinates and leads the therapy. “The nice thing about being out here is that you can let go of the thoughts, deadlines, any stresses that run through your mind.”
Hickman said he spent 25 years working in “chemical dependency treatment.”
During that time, he noticed that most traditional treatments only seemed to work in the short term, with many patients eventually relapsing.
“They’re stuck in the dark ages. If it’s substance abuse, (traditional facilities) will focus on sobriety,” he said. “At Roots, we’re focused on the underlying issues so we can treat the trauma … not just the symptoms.”
‘Nobody here is broken’
At the age of 60, Hickman decided to change his career trajectory, getting certified as a music medicine facilitator through a program at UCLA. For the last five-and-a-half years, he’s been using his experiences to help patients get a deeper understanding of themselves.
“Everybody needs a David,” Olivia said. “He just shows us to get connected with something outside of ourselves.”
Hickman knows how to resonate with his patients, engaging them in deep conversations and encouraging them to look beyond what’s in front of them at the moment.
“We’re not broken, nobody here is broken,” Hickman said to the group. “What we’re doing here is looking at the pain we feel and see what it reveals to us.”
For the first activity, Hickman asked the patients to take a five-minute walk around the park and bring something back to a small table he puts in the middle of the group.
On her walk, Olivia found a large palm frond that she said reminded her of the journey she’s taken so far and the next step she feels she needs to take in order to continue healing.
Later in the session, Hickman led the group through a drumming session where he asked each patient to drum up how they would like to be seen that day.
“Drumming has been found to self-regulate and help people,” Hickman said. “The rhythms are trauma-focused.”
Before the session was over, Olivia asked if Hickman could lead the group in one of their “screams.”
“The scream,” according to Olivia, has helped her uncover emotions that she’s previously repressed.
But because a full moon was expected on Wednesday night, Hickman instead had the group howl. After a few minutes of howling, Olivia felt a little more relieved than when she first got to her session.
“The scream just gets out things,” Olivia said. “It’s a healthy way that only affects you, and you’re not endangering anyone else. And what is it really doing? Besides, maybe other people judging you, but they probably want to scream. They probably want to.”
The Root of it all
For Olivia, the program has helped her gain a better understanding of her own experiences.
So much of her life, so many decisions she’s made, trace back to a pivotal moment when she was 7 years old. That was when her mother died.
“I never really think I realized how that maybe that affected me,” said Olivia, who started experimenting with substances when she was 16. “My sister and I just kind of ran wild, (my dad) was always gone, so I think it was just a rebellious streak that I had.”
The drugs and alcohol, she said, were a way of masking her emotions.
“That’s why I ended up getting arrested,” she said. “I was at such rock bottom.”
Following her arrest, Olivia was ordered by a judge to attend a New York state-run rehab facility, which she described as a “horrible experience.”
“They just heavily medicate you,” she said. “They don’t really care, so I never took any of (the treatment) seriously.”
Still, Olivia had some success in her recovery. She was sober from all drugs for almost a year.
But then, while she was in grad school, she decided to try using edibles and smoking weed as a coping mechanism. Instead of calming her, though, it made her paranoid, and “everything came back, all the stuff I never dealt with.”
After graduating with her master’s in social and emerging media, she decided to check into a residential rehab facility in Arizona. That program introduced her to Roots Through Recovery.
“What I like about Roots is that most of the facilitators have gone through the process of either addiction or mental health struggles,” Olivia said. “There are some things that they can’t teach in the classroom when it comes to mental health or addiction, so it’s nice to have people that actually experienced it.”
When she first arrived at Roots, Olivia treated it as a “full-time job,” spending several hours each day attending all the therapy groups she could. She recalled how it was a bit embarrassing to open up at first, drum along with people, or scream at the top of your lungs as part of a treatment.
Since then, Olivia has gotten more comfortable with her programs and discovered how events like her arrest and her mother’s death have been deep underlying issues that have fueled her substance abuse. She’s also been inspired to pursue a master’s in social work so she can also help others.
“I feel so blessed to have met the people I’ve met out here,” Olivia said. “Just you get to know someone on the soul level, I’ve never experienced anything like it. I didn’t think I would feel so connected to a bunch of strangers.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove the name of the park where group therapy is held. If anyone is interested in Roots Through Recovery, click here.