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Connection is the Antidote to Addiction - A lived experience analysis of peer support

“We [people in recovery from addiction] do not need others to speak for us. We can share our own stories without the need for professional translation. For generations, others seeking to help or control us spoke on our behalf while we remained closeted from public view. Politicians spoke for us. Physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers spoke for us. Addiction treatment specialists spoke for us. Police, lawyers, and judges spoke for us. The media spoke for us. What they shared were their perceptions and their stories, not ours. We do not need interpreters.” William White

Why Am I Here Today?

I am here to today to talk about peers, to talk about their value, to try and convince an audience that has been trained to think in scientific terms how addiction is abated through human connection. How Peers, especially in early recovery, are major recovery capital components that are vastly underutilized.

My Credentials

Credentials are important they give us credibility. My credentials are as follows, Mom, future Clinical Psychology masters student, BA in Psycholgy of Addictions, in the process of getting my Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor credentials, AA member, certified recovery mentor, sponsor, friend, partner, autodidact, Alanon member, ex-wife of the father of my 19 year old children who is still very active in his addiction, niece to Robin who passed in 2020 due to Alcohol Use Disorder, Oregon Recovers program director, recovery advocate. Traveling since 7/16/2019.

I say traveling as I believe that recovery is a continuum, we never fully recover, we are a work in progress, an ongoing journey of healing and self discovery.

Categories, Spectrum, and Science

Humans look at things in categories it is natural human tendency, Stanford Biology professor Robert Sapolsky claims that humans look at things in categories that it is natural human tendency, he said “...when doing science (or perhaps when doing anything at all in a society as judgmental as our own), be very careful and very certain before pronouncing something to be a norm - because at that instant, you have made it supremely difficult to ever again look objectively at an exception to that supposed norm.” clinicians to some degree we are taught to do this.

When we evaluate and assess SUD we are taught to categorize. So I am the patient let’s look at my SUD from a clinical perspective.

Stage of develpment - Middle aged

Relationship Status - Divorced

Gender - Female

Race - White

Socioeconomic Status - Middle class

Social Class - White Collar

SUD Diagnoses - Moderate/Severe

Trauma - Moderate CPTSD

Other Diagnosis - Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

I recognize this is very watered down and diagnostics and assessments are much more complex than this. But the point is I have layers upon layers of analysis all of which are spectrumed on cannot be categorized. You can’t put me in a box a label it with a sharpie - right?

I know some of you in the room are writing up case management plans in your head, have reosurces in abundace to throw my way, have therapists cards in your back pocket, have medication samples to temper my anxiety, have advice on yoga and meditation practices for trauma healing. If she quit smoking, changed her diet, stopped hanging out with loser men who take advantage of her kindness. STOP. Take note and we can come back to this later.

Human are complex and so is SUD

Addiction research over the last 20 years has discovered so much, neuorpsycholgy, epigentics, trauma research, and more is helping us to understand they who’s and why’s of addicton. But recovery from addiction is another bag of chips it is as complex as the human themselves.

My point being is that when it comes to recovery from an SUD there are so many overlapping systemic social and intersectional issues, cooccurring issues, multiple potential diagnoses, and all are on their own spectrum. But in the health care field it is only natural that we try and solve them with science, that we categorize and lump them together to create some kind of algorithm for change. I will come back to this but lets set the context first.

Why I Tell My Story

It’s simple I know my story better than any other recovery story, it’s incredibly nuanced. I won’t subject you to my trauma history though that is certainly a piece of my story but my lived experience is an important part of my recovery, of all peoples recovery. I tell my story because it can help others, I believe that one way to help cure the addiction epidemic is for people in recovery to speak up. We don’t recover in isolation we recover through connection. Storytelling is one of the great foundations of civilization – it’s how we build community and create connections. When we recover loudly, we keep others from dying quietly.

Quality over Quantity

I have been in recovery for almost 3 years however I don’t look at my recovery in the typical milestones, I see my recovery as a subjective look at the quality of expereince and not my time. Time is a construct that humans have built to categorize. So try and erase the bias from you brains that my time has anything to do with the stage of my recovery, it does not. Don’t look at my sobriety date as anything other than what it is, a number with absolutely no value, at least to me.

I very wise friend of mine, my partner in life, my recovery companion, once told me something that has stuck with me. After a judgmental experience at an AA meeting by a women with 30+ years of recovery I was upset, she was putting a value on my recovery based on my time. My partner simply said Sher, recovery is not about quantity it is about quality. That has stuck with me. What I share is anecdotal, it’s qualitative and it’s very important. When we study recovery qualitative analysis is very important, I would be so bold to say more important than quantitative data. However we absolutely need and integration of both.

My Lived Experience Perspective

I have opinions, I like to call them perspectives, because I have a history and my history includes experiences and those experiences have shaped my beliefs. So as I see it no persons beliefs are either right or wrong they just are. We all have different beliefs because we all experience life from our own unique perspective, that’s what makes being human so cool. We are all right in our own right, are truths are valid.

The first 40 years of my life wasn’t special, though my Mom will tell you otherwise. I was a people pleaser, a codependent, a perfectionist, and an accommodator. I kept my desires inside and I allowed the world around me to use me and abuse me.

By my mid 30's adversity had struck me hard and I had not developed any healthy coping mechanisms for the unexpected twists and turns in my life. I turned to alcohol to cope. I won’t subject you all to the trauma and turmoil that ensued over a five year span but I will say that I wouldn’t be who I am today had it not been for every experience in my life, the good and the bad. And I love who I am.

I have been sober since 7/16/2019. Sobriety has given me my power back maybe a power I never had. Systemic social structures lead me to believe that drinking would make me powerful, allow me in the “boys club” and end the constant inadequacy I felt as a women.

Well it did the exact opposite. Before recovery I was in a long term abusive relationship after I left that relationship grief stuck me hard and it is safe to say that I had fallen quickly down Maslow’s hierarchy. My needs in life quickly became overwhelming and my life unmanageable. My recovery story, still in the making, on the other hand is quite extradorinary.

Cleaning my system of alcohol was the first step the step where I became a traveler and a maker of my own life. I got sober through AA. I have a strong feminist ideological backbone and there has been some bumps in the road. The AA program was developed in the 1930’s when the “White Male System” was not being criticized, heck it was the only system. AA was intended for white middle class men and the program’s literature, philopshies, and rhetoric hasn’t evolved a stich in the last 90 years.

(To be clear I am speaking of a SYSTEM, I am not stereotyping, or stigmatizing white men)

This means there are hurdles I come across in AA. For one the Big Book’s (official literature of Alcoholics Anonymous) language is outdated, the patriarchal undertone alone has made my blood boil at times. However, these and other hurdles on my path have all lead to each new awakening. I deeper understanding of myself and the world in which I live.

I talk a lot about AA, the 12 Steps, and the fellowship as it is integral part of my recovery. I criticize and infantilize then I come full circle and eulogize. AA is imperfect just like humans and I think that is its draw, at least I think that’s what draws me in. It’s a safe place to make mistakes.

I’m not sure how to tell my story I have written hundreds of pages over the last three years but they all have different perspectives. My first awakening the day I decided to get sober was followed by another and another and so my story changes. I think that is what is so freaking cool about the self actualization process, we get to write and rewrite our own stories, we get to decide the impact of the events of our lives.

My Experience with Peers

But I digress I am here to talk about peers. Where are the peers in my story? How will I convince you all that connection is the anecdote to addiction. Let me tell you, all of my “awakenings” are paired with symbiotic connections I have made with others in recovery.

I have been blessed with the most amazing peers, some professional and intentional and some that were cosmic and unexplainable.

I walked into my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous on July 17th, 2019. I rushed in hot, with a scowl on my face feeling exposed and humiliated. I don’t remember much of that meeting doubtless because I was so self-centered at that time. I assumed everyone was focused on me and that everyone knew what an awful person I was, the self stigma was strong. To my surprise however, even with my unapproachable insolence, people were warm, welcoming, and humble. I walked into that meeting with a cold broken heart and walked out with a tiny little flame burning inside me. The people in that room that day gave me hope. I kept going to meetings every day to stoke that little flame of hope. That was my first experience with peers in recovery.

I met my sponsor Marilyn at about 30 days of sobriety and about 50 meetings in. Jude my smoking buddy after meetings introduced me to this wonderful, strong, sober woman. We all met at a café after a meeting and Marilyn explained to me the program of AA. She described in detail a 12-step recovery process and if I wanted to get well and moreover, if wanted the obsession to drink to cease, I needed to work these steps.

She contended that is what she did and that it worked for her. She explained that if I wanted what she had she was willing to help me, if I was willing to put in the work and the commitment. Marilyn is statuesque, confident, full of laughter, funny, compassionate, and no-nonsense. When Marilyn walks into a room you notice her; Marilyn is the kind of woman that I strive to be. We meet every Wednesday at 3pm for a year at her humble yet beautifully decorated apartment in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

On 8/1/2019 I met miss Patty Katz, my first real peer mentor in recovery. It was not a professional meeting. It was as the AA world calls it a “god shot”. This women, where do I begin. I had just started my recovery journey I was alone in my big house, no job, and selling my belongings to pay my mortgage. I was too prideful for treatment or to move to a sober living home, at this point I was doing this recovery thing with sure will power and lots of AA meetings.

At risk of foreclosure I was desperate and put an add out for a roomate and little miss Patty Katz knocked on my door. We toured the house Patty following along with me with an energy and sprite of a young women she was 72 at the time. We ended the tour on my patio chatting like friends. Under my breath and with hints of shame explained to Patty that I don’t do drugs or alcohol and don’t want my roommates to bring it in the house. She blurts out - "no problem I am a heroin addict." Patty had almost 20 years of recovery, I had less than 30 days. Patty was sent to me by God, a Higher Power, the universe, who knows but there is no doubt in my mind that it was spiritual.

Over the next 9 months Patty became my housemate, my sober mentor, and my friend. She gave me the recovery crash course and continued to teach me without asking anything in return. She showed me what recovery was, what service to your community is, she opened my heart to trust others again, she gave me hope!

At my 3 month sobriety date she gave me a key chain with the “Key to the Kingdom” on it, I carry it with me everywhere. At my one year sobriety date, in the midst of the pandemic she came to an outdoor meeting to celebrate with me and gave me her 20 year coin to keep safe, I carry it with me everywhere.

Without this connection I would not be where I am today, 3 years of quality recovery on July 16th. Patty Katz showed me what love was, unconditional love. Patty Katz passed away of a sudden and aggressive cancer on June 27th, 2021. She will forever be remembered as an advocate of advocates, a recovery warrior, and a beautiful soul. The Oregon recovery community lost a force however her legacy lives on in the thousands of lives she touched including mine. This is the value of peers.

My story continues. I have met the most wonderful people on my travels. I have had email conversations with William White the foremost writer on addiction recovery, in school I have met others in recovery and we support each other with compassion and non judgment. I work for on nonprofit organization focused on inclusive and integrative recovery for all, with an ED, staff, and board members who are all in recovery and all impact my recovery in a positive way. I found a trauma informed therapist. I threw away the benzos an emergency room Dr. presecribed me to detox from alcohol (yeah that happened). I found yoga and started a practice through in a chance encounter with Ravi Dass. I still go to AA meetings. I still talk to my sponsor. I have Psychologist Mentors in recovery to mentor me through Grad School. I am a certified recovery mentor. And all because my recovery peers gave me grace.

Recovery Isn’t Fair

My story is incredible, I recognize that I have been extremely blessed, I have privilege and that privilege has afforded me the connections that I have made in recovery. Those most effected by the war on drugs don’t have this privilege. Those who live rural communities are at high risk for isolation. However their connection to recovery can arrive in many forms. The pathways into recovery are endless and we need peers on all those paths. Peers should be available in all healthcare settings and promoted by the nurses, admissions, doctors, and psychiatrists. Do you know how to connect a client with a peer?

Where are the Peers?

I have the answers for you. The Oregon Recovery Network is your source for Peers, we can connect anyone no matter their drug or alcohol use status to a peer mentor. Healthcare is a pathway in to recovery, it’s a major pitstop for the most vulnerable. Instead of sending a patient out the door with a long list of resources why not connect them to a peer?

What is a CRM?

Certified Recovery Mentors (CRM’s) serve an important role as a guide, support, role model, and advocate for the newcomer in recovery or simply someone curious about making a change in their life in regard to their drug or alcohol use. A CRM is someone with lived experience, someone who has successfully traveled the path of recovery and can help others without judgment and with humility, care, and generosity.

What do Peers Do?

Peers are part of the recovery capital of a person in recovery and help build recovery capital. They serve as the person to call when adversity strikes or the person you can share your wins with. Peer relationships are unique; some may help in establishing recovery housing, and employment, others may be a support in navigating healthcare, and still, some are a meeting buddy and a confidant to openly share your struggles without judgement.

Peers are invaluable part of relapse prevention as they mitigate the stigma that is still very prevalent in our communities. The majority of recovery processes take place outside of the traditional model of healthcare or treatment, peers help provide healthy environments for people to pursue their desires for a better life. They are a safe place for hearts to heal and minds to grow.

Peers are a force of revoltionary love. They approach each indivual with curiosity and wonder, meeting them where they are at. This is a type of compassionate love ethic - when we wonder about others and truly believe they are a piece of us that we do not know yet. It is about empthay, compassion, and understanding. Peers are able to sit with others in their pain - and there is no doubt that suffering is abridged when there is a compassionate observer.

Heres the Data!

I room full of scientitists and healthcare workers I hope I have not lost you. I now come back to the quantitative data. Two rigorous systematic reviews examined the body of published research on the effectiveness of peer- delivered recovery supports published between 1995 and 2014. Both concluded that there is a positive impact on participants (Bassuk, Hanson, Greene, Richard & Laudet, 2016; Reif et al, 2014)

Taken as a whole, the current body of research suggests that people receiving peer recovery support may experience: Improved relationships with treament providers, increased treatment retention, increased satisfaction with the overall treatment expereince, improved acces to social supports, decreased emergency service utilization, reduced re-hospitalization rates, improved access to social supports, reduced substance use, reduced relpase rates, greater housing stability, and decreased criminal justice invlivement. (SAMHSA).

This type of social ecology needs to be fully integrated into our current fragmented and disjointed world of addiction treatment.

Oregon Recovery Network Partners

Our partner Peer Organizations: 4th Dimension Recovery Center, ROCC, Bay Area First Step, Centro Latino Americano, Aware Consulting,

What can you do?

Share this resource with all your professional contacts who may work with someone suffering with an SUD

  • Refer your clients and patients

  • Support you local recovery organizations

  • Come to the Summit - or sponsor a peer by providing a scholarship

  • Walk for Recovery!

Closing Statement from William White

“There would be no talk today of recovery definitions, recovery prevalence, recovery capital, recovery management, recovery-oriented systems of care, recovery community organizations, recovery coaches, stages of recovery, varieties of recovery experience, or culture of recovery if the core concept of recovery had not been pushed into central prominence within the addictions field. Similarly, the progress we have made confronting addiction-related stigma has rested on the centrality of the recovery concept. This is our first and foremost achievement.” -William White

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