The whole thing, Arthur Wills figured, was going to be one big straight drag. There he was, miles from the city streets, in the middle of the woods on the banks of the cold, churning Stanislaus River, about to take off on a raft. "No alcohol, no drugs," recalls Wills, a 26-year-old former heroin addict. "I thought it was going to be a complete bore. But then I got on that raft, and all the way down the river I felt light; I was singing, hollering. I was gassing."
Wills, a muscular, handsome man with almond-shaped eyes and a moderate natural hairdo, was looking back on his nine months at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Inc., a drug addiction treatment center headquartered in an old mansion in Berkeley, Calif. His course was different from most. The Bridge believes that risk sports—river running, parachuting, skin diving, rock-climbing and skiing—combined with more traditional counseling, tight supervision and education, can wean heroin addicts and other drug abusers away from dependence on chemicals.
In the case of Wills, who came to Bridge after a run-in with the law on a charge of heroin possession, the approach worked. Sports, he says now, did more than help him stay clean. "Better than that, sports provided me with natural highs and challenges to supplant those I had been getting from involvement with heroin.
"I didn't think there would be anything to river running," he continues, talking on the campus of the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, where he is training to counsel other drug addicts. "But when we finished that run I was eager to get off on more adventures. I had enjoyed the challenge of the river more than that of running the streets looking for a fix. I had never been in the ocean before—or even underwater—so snorkeling became another test. I was frightened, but I dove down. I got involved.
"Maybe parachuting, though, was the greatest experience. My stomach turned in that plane when it was my turn to go out the door. I almost lost control of myself, my bladder. But when I stepped out of that plane, there was the tremendous rush, the fantastic natural high just before the chute opened. And it was beautiful coming down."
Wills stops for a moment. "Now I'm working with some 8-to-13-year-old minority kids in a community center here," he says. "I took them up to Mount Baldy for rock-climbing, some of the things I had never gotten to do before Bridge. I found that I could really relate to them. It was out of sight."
The sports program that intrigued Wills developed almost accidentally. Bridge's founder and executive director, Jack Goldberg, is a stocky man with curly hair, intense eyes and a full black beard. "I was a garbage can for drugs for 10 years," he says. "I was smoking and shooting opium, I was taking LSD. I snorted heroin. But one of the things that kept happening in my life was that I really dug skiing. I really liked horseback riding, too, and it became a conflict for me between taking drugs and doing all of the other things."
Goldberg gave up drugs. But even after he had also given up what he considered a sterile career in the aerospace electronics industry to work full time with addicts, it did not occur to him to give his wards the same choice of sports or drugs as a source of highs. That others with drug habits might be turned on the way he was occurred to Goldberg only after he had taken some of his heroin addicts parachuting as a publicity stunt. A friend, noting Goldberg's constant search for money to support the fledgling program, had suggested that a dramatic event—say, a parachute jump by some of the addicts—might draw attention and encourage someone, preferably a governmental agency, to offer immediate and long-range financial support.
"Everyone went because it was going to be a lark," Goldberg says. "But it turned out to have fantastic therapeutic value. When they started their jump training, learning about the equipment, about possible malfunctions and what to do about them, when they saw the teamwork and the kind of concern they had to have about each other, you could see attitudes begin to change."
Encouraged by the parachuting expedition, Goldberg decided to take his crew on further adventures. "A lot of the people, the blacks especially, didn't want to go skiing," he recalls. "Or they said they would go, but they would just watch. Or that they would stay in the cabin. In the final analysis the reactions were coming down to, 'I don't want to look foolish. I don't want to be the black spot on the hill.' But once they got out there, they were the ones who didn't want to come in for lunch. They found out that they could learn it, that they could do things they didn't feel they had the confidence to handle, that they had the ability to develop entirely new alternatives for themselves.