Coaching: Another assist in recovery from opioid addiction
Note: This article, written by Devin H. Donohow, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on November 27, 2017.
Among the many tools used in response to the opioid crisis is one with roots in a well-known, peer-to-peer recovery program, Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1939. Recovery coaches have become part of the response to the opioid overdose epidemic, made worse by the rise in fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid analog.
While the opioid-caused overdose epidemic is the motivation behind the rise of recovery coaching as a field, this approach also works well for people struggling with all manner of addiction. Recovery coaches are non-clinical professionals who offer one-on-one support with a goal of tapping into people’s innate resiliency as they seek the recovery path that is best for them. These coaches work alongside other professionals helping people in emergency departments, medical units, jail, court, recovery centers, schools and various human service agencies.
Traditionally, addiction programs focus on clinical and medical treatment plans to help individuals. While many people respond to abstinence-based approaches, this doesn’t work for everyone. The drug-free expectations of sober support groups and treatment programs can be overwhelming for people in early and sensitive stages of recovery. For some, that goal can seem unattainable.
In addition, when people transition from detox programs to longer-term recovery supports, they can be vulnerable to relapse. When slots in programs do come open, there may be other barriers such as insurance and access to transportation that present additional problems.
These challenges can lead to people returning to drug use, sometimes to protect themselves against the unbearable effects of withdrawals. This is a preventable cycle. It’s also an example of how the network for recovery is not as simple as one might think. It is another area where recovery coaches can help: They are a resource with extensive knowledge of specific programs, support groups, wellness activities and other avenues to navigate a confusing system.
Coaches initially participate in a five-day Recovery Coach Academy offered by the state Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. To attain certification, they undertake additional trainings and accumulate field experience hours, which are supervised. Last month, a new, more intensive recovery coach training program began at Westfield State University. This program includes all course work necessary for certification, as well as a supervised internship.
More often than not, recovery coaches are also people in recovery, although that is not a requirement for the job. Coaches who have been affected by addiction share their experiences which can build meaningful connections with individuals who might otherwise feel isolated.
Depending on the setting, recovery coaches have varying job descriptions. In a hospital, they may encourage a person to seek treatment, offer transportation to treatment, or discuss the benefits of reducing use to reduce risk. They may follow up with the person a few days later, offering more support or encouragement, and help navigate roadblocks.
When working with people on probation, recovery coaches may accompany them to meetings, check in with a phone conversation or text, or offer suggestions about various recovery paths. Listening may be the most important skill a recovery coach has.
While treatment programs sometimes identify drug-related behaviors as symptoms that form the diagnosis, recovery coaches take a more holistic view. “Drug seeking behavior” is a stigmatizing and frequently used phrase, yet it has no clear definition.
Recovery coaches look at these behaviors and understand them as resourcefulness. This statement is ripe for misunderstanding, but what it means is that human beings, naturally resilient and creative, sometimes resort to creative mechanisms to cope with hardship. For some people, substance use, later leading to addiction, was a coping strategy or survival tool.
Recovery is frequently perceived as a linear process: You either move forward or relapse. A more apt description is that recovery is multi-dimensional. There may be times that after years of sobriety, perhaps due to a new stress or challenge in their lives, people in recovery experience a relapse. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are starting over from the beginning. Each crisis can offer a new opportunity to learn and gain different insight.
Recovery coaches support this process by helping people identify their strengths to maximize their resiliency and form stronger support networks.
As we respond to a nationwide addiction crisis, it’s important to have a holistic view of the spectrum of recovery. To address this epidemic, it is at times necessary to engage in conversations that will challenge our assumptions and biases. Addiction is not matter of will, nor is it black and white. There is a story behind every person who uses. We must ask ourselves if we are stigmatizing addiction.
There is no one-size fits all cure for addiction. As recovery coaches, we try to build relationships by not assuming anything. Instead of telling the people we are working with what we know about their addiction, we learn by asking them about their experiences. What happened to you? What is it like for you? How do you want us to help?
When a relationship is working well we also break the person’s isolation. After all, the opposite of addiction is connection.
Devin H. Donohoe is a recovery coaching program supervisor for Clinical & Support Options (CSO) and co-chair of Hampshire Hope’s Intervention, Recovery, and Treatment work group. He is one of several members of the Hampshire Hope opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department who contribute to a monthly column in this space about local efforts underway to address the opioid epidemic.
Resources for recovery coaching services
Hampshire County: CSO Northampton CARES recovery coaching: 413-586-5555
Northampton Recovery Center: 413-834-4127 www.northamptonrecoverycenter.org
Franklin County: CSO Greenfield/Athol CARES recovery coaching 413-774-5411
The Recover Project www.recoverproject.org
Hampden County: BHN The Living Room 413-310-3312
Gandara Recovery Coaching 413-781-2234