Finding Sober Support in a Feathered Friend
A Q&A with Amethyst Recovery Homes co-founder Derek Johnson, whose Instagram-famous pet duck, Ben Afquack, is also a swell recovery companion
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
The most famous duck after Daffy and Donald just may be Ben Afquack. Seriously. The Minnesota duck with his own Instagram account has 101,000 followers, a level of popularity that earned him a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records. And behind this interesting duck is an even more interesting owner, Derek Johnson, whose viral video of Ben playing the snare drum launched an ongoing effort to document their lives together. It’s all in good fun, of course. But Ben is also a beloved pet and, as it turns out, a valuable sober companion with incidental marketing appeal — helping Derek attract attention to the business he and his best friends co-founded, Amethyst Recovery Homes, after escaping the opioid epidemic and establishing new lives and relationships together in recovery.
Derek, what was addiction like for you, how did you turn the corner, what does recovery look like for you today — and how does Ben Afquack fit into the story?
Addiction, for me, was not unlike how it is for many others: it was miserable and unmanageable in every way possible. Even after I came to the realization that using wasn’t fun anymore, I remained stuck for years. Homeless, without money, relationships damaged, and in a constant state of anxiety, I’m grateful to say I finally found recovery. Although, it did take a couple attempts to get there.
Recovery has been the exact opposite of addiction for me. I now have a career, an amazing wife, a relationship with my family, more hobbies than I have time for, and way too many pets, including … **drum roll please** … a duck! To be more specific: a duck that does drum rolls!
On the surface, it might be hard to imagine how a pet duck could represent recovery, but he is actually a very strong reminder of how far I have come in this process. When I was using, at one point I acquired a pet duck. I was not in a stable living situation, at some points living out of my car, and was not in any place to care for myself, let alone another living creature. But even so, we became very close over the couple of years that I had him. So I was heartbroken when I had to find a new home for him. It was the right thing to do, given my life situation, but it really did break my heart. I decided that one day, when I got my life together, I was going to get another duck. So when that happened, I did! And I was determined to “do it right” this time, giving him the best life possible.
The Instagram account was initially created as a joke to make fun of Instagram, and we gained a lot of followers by making fun of different trends and posts on the internet. And while a joke-Instagram was fun and made us laugh, it didn’t really serve a purpose. I saw an opportunity to also speak about addiction and recovery, so we began to use it as a platform to share stories and resources. It’s just a drop in the ocean, but the response to our posts is always overwhelmingly positive with so many people sharing their stories in the comments. We still joke around most of the time, but it’s nice to be able to sprinkle in some substance as well to reach people who may not otherwise be exposed to recovery content.
You and several friends who initiated recovery around the same time maintain very close relationships today. In fact, you married someone you first met in early recovery, and you two later bought a house with a friend and his family. Tell us about your recovery relationships and how/why they’ve been so important to you? What’s life is like in your house, and how does the arrangement serve you and your recovery?
Most of my best friends today are people who I met in early recovery, some of them more than 10 years ago. And yes, I even met my wife during that time (although we were just friends back then). We had a large group of friends that would always go out and do things together. Many of us had met in treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford or at various recovery events. We were all broke, so it was usually things that didn’t require much money, but it was some of the most fun I have ever had in my life. It seems a higher-than-average number of people in our group sustained our recovery long-term, and I really think it’s because of the fun we had and the relationships we built in those early days/weeks/months of our recovery journeys. Not only did our time together show me that recovery could be fun (much more fun that active addiction), but it also provided space and time for me to really work on myself — something I had never been healthy enough to do in the past.
I still see most of the people in our group regularly today. I married one of those people, started a business with three others, and am in frequent contact with others that live further away now.
Our house is usually the hangout spot whenever there is an opportunity to get together. Some of our friends in recovery are there several times a week, and others come when we host a Super Bowl party or Halloween get-together. But no matter how often I see these friends, it always feels like no time has passed, and we are all family. I have so many people that I would do anything for, and I know the same is true of them for me.
You experienced the national opioid crisis up close and, like so many, experienced a lot of loss even as you found a way out. How have those losses affected you, and what are your thoughts on the crisis today as it rages on in its latest phase — the fentanyl phase?
Last year, I unfortunately experienced devastating losses in a very short period of time. In a five-month period, I lost my brother and two cousins — all from the same side of the family, and all from fentanyl overdoses. I have lost a lot of friends in the time that I’ve been in recovery, but this hit me differently. In addition to the pain of losing them, I have also dealt with feelings of guilt. It is something that I am still working through if I’m being honest. When I see my sister or my aunt, I can’t help but feel guilty that I got out and those three guys didn’t. But those losses have also made me more determined to do whatever I can to help other families not have to go through what my family did. I have spent even more time working on my business (Amethyst Recovery Homes) and the nonprofit I co-founded (Amethyst Recovery Solutions). Amethyst is a stone that serves as a symbol of sobriety and recovery, and at my desk where I work on the organizations named after this stone, I have a piece of amethyst that contains my brother’s ashes, as a reminder of why we are putting in so much work and effort to try and combat this disease.
Another thing I have put a lot of time into is volunteering with overdose prevention groups. A few months ago, our nonprofit teamed up with another organization to have a huge volunteering event. We hosted it at a location large enough to hold more people than what their office was capable of holding, and as a result we were able to pack more overdose reversal kits than they had ever done in one event before. Volunteering right next to me was a friend who in the past had administered naloxone to me, saving my life — eight times. It was a very powerful, full-circle experience. I can’t bring my family back, but I can absolutely do things that might help others in similar situations.
I don’t know what the long-term, bigger solution is. If I did, I think this article would have a different title. But I do know that treatment, sober living, recovery relationships, and other resources greatly increase the chances of people establishing and sustaining long-term recovery. I also know that shame and stigma reduce the likelihood of people finding those things. So for now, until we have additional information and/or solutions, all we can do is try our best help in these areas.
Tell us all about Amethyst Recovery Homes and related ventures, the plans and dreams that you and your co-founder friends have, and what it means to you to help others and advocate for recovery? How does your own experience of recovery community inform your work?
Amethyst Recovery Homes started as a concept long before we opened our first home. Amethyst is owned and operated by four close friends who have all known each other for years, and all four of us were in that group of friends having fun in early recovery. We had talked for years about what we wanted to do and how we were going to do things. Our “brand” is not the houses we have; it is the culture and the experience that happens while people are living in our houses. Our mission statement is “Providing a culture of unity in the homes of our residents to help strengthen their support systems in early recovery” because that is what worked for us, and what we experienced in our group of friends who met in early recovery.
While providing structure to our residents, planning group activities, and hosting service-oriented events, we have also discovered a desire to do these things in the broader community beyond our homes and residents. This paved the way for the inception of Amethyst Recovery Solutions. Our goal is to take the experience of living in our homes and make it available to anyone/everyone regardless of their living situation.
You are a drummer, like Ben Afquack. How has recovery affected your love of music, if at all?
Music, in a lot of ways, is like a drug, but without all of the negative aspects. These days I do a lot more listening than I do playing, but I think that is mostly due to time and where my focus is at. I also enjoy being home today and enjoy what I do in my daily life, so the thought of touring and traveling all the time no longer appeals to me. Someday, I will play again, but I played so much in my earlier life that I think having this break from it will make me appreciate it all the more when I eventually make my way back behind the drum kit.
Listening to music, however, is still my most commonly used coping mechanism. If I’m sad … there’s a genre for that. If I’m happy … there’s a genre for that. If I’m angry … well, metal is one of my favorite genres, so that’s an easy one. But either way, regardless of what I’m feeling, finding the right soundtrack is crucial for me to navigate those feelings and experiences.
Working out has also had a huge positive impact on my recovery and my life, and music sure makes that easier to do. So, I would say music has also had a positive impact on my physical health as much as it has on my mental and spiritual health.
What’s one wild and one sweet story you can share about Ben Afquack? And — all fun aside — what has your feathered friend meant to you and your recovery walk?
My friend made a joke instagram account for my pet duck and called him a “fitness model.” It was just a few of us taking pictures and videos, sneaking him into trendy gyms and coffee shops, and making posts to poke fun at Instagram. We thought we were funny and had our laughs, but never really expected anyone other than us to see it. Fast forward to a year later and I received an email from Guiness Book of World Records asking if they could put my pet duck in the book. A couple years later, I’m getting flown to Hollywood (with my pet duck in the seat next to me) to be on TV. We took him for walks in the hills under the Hollywood sign, and random people on the trail asked, “Is that Ben Afquack?” Not only did we get flown to the other side of the country so he could be on TV, but he was recognized by random people there — in the city with more famous people than anywhere else in the country. I still can’t wrap my head around that.
I had a pet that, at the time, I was not in a place to be able to give the life it deserved. Years later, I got Ben Afquack and got to have a second chance and give him an awesome life. We go on trips with him, ride a moped to take him swimming at parks, take him paddleboarding and biking, let him play with his best friends (our dogs) in the yard, and keep him safe and comfortable — he even has a heated floor in his insulated/heated house.
In many ways, this is a metaphor for recovery and life: I can’t undo my past, but I can learn from it and do better today. When I see him, I can be reminded of where my life was versus where it is now. He is just one example of how I get to live differently today.