Anyone who’s participated in sports has had a coach, for better or worse. If you were young, they were usually kind and warm and wise, and as you got older, they may have gotten a little tougher, a little more demanding.
More recently, we’ve come to embrace coaching in a number of different capacities. Business and Life Coaching have become big business and mingle around there amidst the consultants and the mentors and the more subject- or process-oriented experts to help organizations and people hone their skills and results in business and in life.
It’s a sensible model -- who couldn’t use an appealing coach on your side, cheering you on and helping you to to focus on specific goals to be your best?
In addiction recovery a coach is someone who tries to meet you where you are and wants to help you towards what YOU want life to look like, beyond addiction, and help you figure out how to take the steps to get there. They can support your efforts and cheer you on, while looking with you at where things went wrong. They can give you feedback and support and hope and belief in you, and hopefully help you see your many strengths and skills and the possibilities life has for you.
What is the role of Coaching in the Addiction Treatment Professions?
“Peer recovery coaches walk side by side with individuals seeking recovery from substance use disorders.” (SAMHSA)
It’s a relatively new concept. There are a number of professional helpers around addiction treatment already:
Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) certified doctors
Doctors for pain and other physical issues, short and long-term
Specialists in co-occurring disorders (when more than one issue is at play, like substance abuse and depression)
There are all kinds of complicated situations and people who are trained to help with various aspects of mental and emotional health and well-being today. Nonetheless, there are enormous gaps in accessing practical options available to people.
In spite of becoming a large industry, the pathways for successfully treating people with addictive issues are still not clear. There has been a huge broadening in evidence- and psychology-based frameworks in government agencies and treatment overall, although 12-step based methodologies are still the vast majority.
Medications are becoming more varied and show some promise. People are very open to exploring medications at the moment, which is great, but I personally think a support component can be a critical adjunct for lasting success.
Finding help, particularly with a range of related issues can be confusing. Navigating through the many transitions involved in various treatment models can be hard with known “pressure points” for relapse.
Finding others that we can look to as peers, perhaps mentors, coaches, and in AA and NA, they have sponsors. These roles all have similar goals, but vary in focus and requirements.
Peer Support Meetings
AA and NA
AA/NA and other Anonymous 12-step groups are the #1 most recommended suggestion to people asking for help with addiction to try out. They have abundant meetings, and are widely available. Many find the fellowship and reassurance that they are not alone in their problems invaluable.
Meetings follow a few general formats but often have a speaker who recounts their story and what they’ve learned and then allows people to share their own past experiences. Attending daily meetings for a significant chunk of time early on, usually 90 days, is encouraged. They have a series of 12 steps that you work through, optimally, in concert with a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who has some experience being abstinent and can guide the newcomer through the steps and their sober journey.
There is a religious orientation, although people can choose their own beliefs and substitute language in this regard.
About 30 years ago, SMART Recovery created an alternative to AA meetings based on psychological self-help practices from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), using evidence-based tools from CBT, REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy) and motivational interviewing to teach these concepts and allow people to practice and discuss. They are organized around 4 points:
Dealing with Urges
Problem-solving - Coping with emotions, behaviors, thinking
Their meetings allow everyone to check in, and then topics are pulled from the various situations, concerns, questions and struggles raised by participants. Tools to examine these are presented and applied in group discussion. Facilitators are trained and may be those with lived experiences, professionals (with their peer hat on), or others affected by addiction -- families and friends.
SMART’s local meeting coverage suffered during the pandemic (although do check for your location. We have a few here in the Cincinnati area), but there is an extensive network of online meetings.
Other meeting-based alternatives include:
and a host of newer offerings.
Peer Recovery Supporters
More official avenues certifying peer support designations have begun to grow as well, in the US. There are new roles being created within state, local and private mental health organizations and treatment programs. It’s a hybrid role that requires training and certification, but also “lived experience” with addiction or mental illness. It is housed under mental health and substance abuse agencies, and follows many best practices from social work and psychology in addiction treatment. Many principles mirror those from SAMHSA and SMART Recovery, and it is also a secular approach.
The peer support model specifically discourages a directive approach and encourages appropriate sharing of one’s own experiences. This is somewhat unique in both our concepts of coaching and in addiction recovery treatment.
There are many roles being created under this arch. In the State of Ohio (and elsewhere), Recovery Coaching falls under the auspices of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ Peer Recovery Supporter certification.
Addiction Recovery Coaching
The role of recovery coach fits nicely under the peer support rubric. There’s room for much flexibility, based on the needs of the person and the coach’s experience. There are commonalities across all addictions, but the individuality of people’s experience and the beliefs they’ve formed about the world are endlessly unique. It’s fantastic that in the peer support model, they have embraced the idea that there are multiple pathways to recovery, as well as respect and support for the individual’s unique goals and choices.
Good coaching can make a big difference for some, either in ongoing conversation, or in prompting one to find new paradigms and get started, and like peer support in general, it can fill in some of the cracks within and between all stages of a recovery journey.
Why might you want a recovery coach?
I think we used to have more informal sources of support in our communities for navigating through regular life difficulties. Ad hoc mentors and “elders” stepped up to teach and guide as we were learning. I think that’s shifted some as families and communities have become more mobile and transient.
The best aspects of coaching include having a neutral, somewhat objective person to chat with, run things by, bounce thoughts and feelings off of, so that they can walk with you through how you might approach various situations and issues and provide practice.
When trying to make a change, like set aside an addiction, having an addiction recovery coach can help you stay focused, remind you about what you’re trying to do and why, and talk with you about how you can cope with life in better ways than turning to harmful habits and addictive behavior.
We’re vulnerable during the early parts of the addiction recovery process, and the world can feel strange and threatening. Having someone to hold our hand for a bit and walk alongside us, encouraging us, can be a big reassurance.
I believe we’re generally stronger and better than we think we are. A coach can serve as a trusted advisor, a touchstone, someone who helps us see, learn and apply better strategies as we navigate new, unfamiliar terrain, and to reinforce realistic thinking and actions. The world is complicated. A little help can make a world of difference.
When it comes to talking about our personal worries and concerns, having a peer as a recovery supporter, someone who can listen and gently illuminate some areas to think about can be helpful, and those can be hard to come by in everyday life sometimes. And it can feel so hard to talk about substance use and misuse. It tends not to be a casual conversation. It feels very personal, and for many of us carries a lot of feelings of shame.
A good coach can help you accept that it’s okay to have your struggles. They’re something you can get past!
IMPORTANT: I feel it’s key that an addiction recovery coach’s goals for you should be a personal sense of well-being, independence, and belief in your ability to be in charge of your life, according to your own, self-defined personal values, choices, preferences and abilities.
To figure out if coaching or other resources would be helpful to you, get in touch, below. I’d truly love to talk to you.