Story by MASON ORR
Kevin Thole was in St. Louis in April 2019, about to get onto the plane that would bring him to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake, he was then supposed to go to Cirque Lodge, an exclusive drug and alcohol recovery retreat in Sundance, Utah.
As he walked down the aisle to his seat, he saw a woman, most likely in her 20s or early 30s, sitting in the seat next to his.
Thole sat down, sweating and shaking uncontrollably, and looked over at the woman who was opening up what appeared to be a bible of sorts. “I’m like, oh my god, I don’t want to hear any of this crap, here I am going to Utah, she’s probably Mormon, God knows what she’s going to try and tell me,” Thole said in a phone interview.
Thole said his thoughts were interrupted as the young woman looked over at him and said, “Are you OK?” Thole said he told the woman, “No, I’m not. I ruined my entire life and I am about to lose everything.” The woman simply responded by asking, “Can I pray for you real quick?”
The woman prayed for him, and then Thole said she did something pretty incredible. “There was a 50-50 chance that I was actually going to go to treatment. There was still very much the possibility that I would get off of that plane, go somewhere else, and ruin my life completely,” he said.
At this point, the flight attendant was making her way down the aisle with the refreshment cart, which Thole said he was aware had alcohol. “All I needed was three drinks to feel better,” he said. The flight attendant stopped and asked, “What can I get for you?” Before Thole could respond, the young woman said, “He doesn’t need anything, just water.” That was the story Thole told about the woman who saved his life.
Thole started abusing drugs and alcohol at a relatively young age. “It started as medicine to numb my anxiety and uncomfortable feelings I had,” Thole said. However, it quickly escalated to a point where he was gambling, drinking and using drugs every day.
Thole said it finally got to a point where one day three people who loved him — his wife, a business partner and a former pastor — had an intervention for him. In short, they gave him an ultimatum: Get sober or risk losing these people who loved him forever. He chose to get sober.
James Pehkonen works as a life architect in Salt Lake City for his primary income. This job requires him to talk to his clients as a therapist would and act as their coach through life. He said he is a life architect in the way he helps people rebuild their lives after experiencing trauma or hardship.
Pehkonen has dealt with trauma as well. “Life happens to everybody,” he said. He has experienced the deaths of loved ones and sexual assault, which led to his own struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. “I have lived a life that has not always been easy,” Pehkonen said. However, he said it is this trauma that has best prepared him to coach others through difficult times now.
Pehkonen also works for Cirque Lodge, where he does workshops and meditations in group and one-on-one sessions.
Thole had a roommate at Cirque Lodge for a short time, who told him, “Hey, you’re really going to like this Jim guy. He’s kind of new age and has an unusual approach, but give him a chance.”
With that in mind, Thole said he went to a couple of workshops with Jim Pehkonen and then decided he wanted to do some one-on-one sessions with him. “I had some pretty major trauma in my childhood, sexual trauma, that I had never dealt with, but when I met with him, I threw it all out there, telling Jim things I had never told anyone in my life,” Thole said.
Thole pretty quickly had what he called a “radical acceptance moment.” He didn’t know if it was the things Pehkonen was saying to him, but he said there was a moment where he was able to accept his life for where and what it was. “At that moment I realized this is not God’s fault, not my fault, it just is. It happened and now I have the choice to feel relief and accept my life for what it is,” Thole said.
Since Thole and Pehkonen met through the recovery retreat, there were very strict rules about when they could be in contact afterward.
It wasn’t until leaving the recovery retreat that Thole said he decided to look up Pehkonen and reach out. Once the time was appropriate, they began working with each other. Pehkonen acted as Thole’s life coach and friend, which led them to start their podcast, “Sobriety Elevated.”
Pehkonen initially proposed the idea of a podcast. However, Thole said at first he felt that people wouldn’t want to hear what he had to say because he isn’t an expert. However, he said he quickly realized it would be a waste of his recovery to stay silent. Both he and Pehkonen said the most significant goal behind this podcast is to give people hope and empower them in their sobriety.
The podcast is a way for Pehkonen and Thole to tackle different topics related to sobriety and the recovery process in a way that is easily accessible for people. This podcast was ultimately created in the hopes that it could act as a support system for others going through the same thing, Pehkonen said.
In October 2021, the podcast had 802 downloads, averaging 200 downloads a week. The men said they hope the podcast will only continue to grow and reach the people who need it. The podcast can be found on a multitude of platforms, including Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic and Reason.
Both Pehkonen and Thole said they feel empowered due to their own recovery and sobriety. Their recovery from past trauma has freed them from any shame or guilt they once felt.
They have both found ways to move on with their lives. Pehkonen has created his own business centered around helping others and Thole is a successful businessman who owns five Servpro franchises, a company that cleans up after disasters. Now they said they hope to help others feel this same empowerment in their lives. This is what “Sobriety Elevated” is all about.
Just as the woman on the plane saved Thole, he and Pehkonen hope to save many other people as well.