AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you saw 34-year-old Adam Holt walking on the UT Austin campus where he goes to grad school, you might notice he’s fit, or that he has a well-groomed beard, or that he’s wearing a shiny Texas A&M ring from his undergrad years. But there’s a lot about him that you can’t see. 

You can’t see that he served for eight years in the Army with a deployment to Afghanistan. You can’t see that he battled an addiction to drugs (methamphetamine was his drug of choice) from his teenage years onward. You can’t see that the addiction drove him to be homeless, jobless and alone in his time after the Army. And you can’t see how his brain is now being rewired for a happier, healthier life — in large part due to exercise. 

You may not be able to see them, but all those things are part of him. 

Holt was born in San Antonio. He comes from a military family, his grandfather trained the soldiers that were on the boats at Normandy in WWII, his father was a Special Forces surgeon. 

Holt remembers struggling with alcohol and marijuana in high school, he said he first began using drugs because he didn’t feel like he fit in socially.  

He joined the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M. He didn’t want to follow in his family’s footsteps at first, but he remembers being in Maryland on September 11, and the love he had for his country crystallized in his mind. 

However, Holt admitted he also joined the Army as a way to escape the struggles he’d had with drugs.

“I hoped the military would get that out of me as well,” Holt said. 

At 19 he enlisted while still in college. Then he started working toward his commission to become a lieutenant in the Army, heading to army schools and undergoing basic officer leadership training.

Unfortunately, the whole time he kept using drugs. 

At one point he was an officer in the company that would schedule drug tests, so he knew when to avoid using.

“I was basically living a double life,” Holt recalled. “I was here in the Army and I’d figured out what it meant to be successful in the Army. I was Airborne certified, Pathfinder certified, I was a rigger, I was in the Army and when I was home I went to church and did all these things. But then this second life of sort of let me separate the two and still use.”

He was deployed to Afghanistan in August of 2010 as an aerial delivery officer, bringing vital supplies to thousands of soldiers. Holt served there for one year. While he found his work rewarding,  he also felt the pain and tension that comes with war. During his time in Afghanistan, 38 people died when missiles were fired at an Army helicopter called Extortion 17 and Holt had to send out the body bags. 

“The deployment was really hard on me, as they are for a lot of soldiers,” Holt said. “I came back and just fell apart essentially.”

Within four months of returning to the U.S., he had left the Army.  Sleeping was difficult for him, so he began drinking alcohol. He needed dental surgery, so he started taking painkillers.  After not using during his deployment, Holt was reminded of the escape drugs provided him.

“I didn’t have a plan for my life, that is when my life really started spiraling down, but the Army had taught me enough to remain functional,” he recalled.

During that time Holt lost a marriage, moved around, and wound up in a small “drug-filled Texas town” waiting tables.  He got to the point where he was an IV methamphetamine user, going to work either on meth or painkillers. Using drugs turned into missing work, which eventually turned into losing his job. 

At that point his disability from the VA kicked in, offering Holt a source of money. He explained the total amount was around 20 thousand dollars. 

“I put that in my veins within six weeks,” he said. 

He looks back at that chapter of his life and regrets encouraging other people to shoot up with him because he didn’t want to be alone 

Holt only began to consider rehab when he “hit rock bottom” when even his parents couldn’t help him and told him they thought he might have a problem.

After several tries at rehab, Holt was able to get a job and an apartment. He lived behind a gym, so he would head over to work out and over time he noticed he was feeling better about himself. 

“Once I started to struggle with drugs, every time would try and get sober, I would keep coming back to this fitness aspect,” Holt said. “I didn’t know why it took my mind off things, it made me feel better.”

Holt took the GRE, then applied to and got accepted at UT for his Masters in Health and Behavior Education. When it came time to pick something to research, Holt was drawn to the link between recovery and fitness. 

In studying the brain, Holt began to realize there was a reason why exercise improved his outlook so much.

“When we use drugs, especially drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine,” Holt said. “Our brain is flooded with the chemical dopamine.” Meth, for example, floods your brain with 1200 times more dopamine than normal, Holt said. This causes your body to shut down your dopamine receptors to protect against the overload of chemicals. 

“What happens when you terminate drug use is you have anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of those dopamine receptors still dormant, so this is why a lot of people relapse, because those first six months in recovery, those dopamine receptors are shut down,” he explained.

Holt said this means that for addicts in recovery, it can be physically impossible for them to feel pleasure, which leads to more relapse. 

“What we’re seeing now is fitness and exercise, anaerobic and or aerobic, lifting weights or running, any kind of intense activity will actually re-activate those D2 dopamine receptors at a much faster rate,” Holt said.

Essentially,  fitness can help people in recovery access the positive feelings their addiction has kept them from.

At UT Holt is now looking into grants to study how this effect continues in the brains of people in recovery over the long term, an area he says there isn’t any research on. 

Holt also wants to advocate for more exercise and healthy lifestyle tools being incorporated into rehab alongside other therapies.

Holt has also recently teamed up to start a gym that will open in Austin on December 1 called Outsiders ATX. The gym will be directed toward people overcoming addictions and injuries.

“We will teach people how to bring the body and the mind together to overcome addictions, injuries, and experience life beyond what they ever thought they could,” Holt said, adding that he will be the director of addiction programs at this gym.

For Holt, this discovery of the power of exercise has turned into something of a calling.

“The things that I have been through in my life, I wish on nobody,” Holt said. “I have been homeless and broke, I have hurt people and destroyed lives, I lived a lie for 30 years — and not just I didn’t tell lies, I lived a lie — of deception to myself and others for over 30 years.”

“It was full of loneliness and brokenness and pain and sadness that the only way I could cover it up was through drug addiction,” he continued. “Once I got addicted, I biologically and physiologically couldn’t be free from it.”

But Holt says he owes his sobriety today to things like Spartan races, 12-step meetings, and the recovery community. 

“I have found that freedom through fitness,” he said. “My goal, my purpose in life now is to help people get through things that I’ve been through.”

“Surprisingly my story is not that different from a lot of veterans,” Holt added. “It’s just a lot of them don’t have the opportunity to come through the other side like I have.”

Holt pointed to the high suicide rate among veterans, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives from 2008 to 2016.  A VA report shows that between 2005 to 2016 Veteran and non-Veteran suicide rates increased by 25.9% and 20.6% respectively and that substance use disorders are associated with an increased risk of suicide

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in a 2013 report, 1.5 million veterans over the age of 17 had a substance abuse disorder over the course of a year. More SAMHSA data from 2015 shows that 1 in 15 veterans has a substance abuse disorder over the course of a year.

“Especially in the dynamic we were in as veterans, the military is a great opportunity and it’s a great leadership training course, and its great for this country as well,” Hold said. “But it produces this culture a lot of times where you can’t ask for help, where you have to suck it up and where you’re only as strong as you present yourself to be.”

Holt thinks the VA is improving in how it cares for veterans who struggle with substance use, but he still believes in the U.S. the military, in general, is more focused on “the task at hand” rather than taking care of people after they’ve served.

“It’s a practical question: how do you get someone to come forward who doesn’t want to, especially when you’ve been telling them this culture of don’t-ask-for-help?” he said. 

Holt is quick to admit that staying sober is not easy. In the past year and a half, he says he’s used for one hour. For him, that number is incredible progress.

“Who knows if I’m gonna use again?” he said. “Today I’m not, but today I have the life a lot of people want, which is free from drugs and alcohol and full of joy.”

“So how are people going to know that exists if we don’t tell them, ‘hey this is where I’ve been this is what I’ve done and I’ve gotten through it,'” Holt said.