Sept. 27: The magic of peer-based recovery

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Tiny White Box newHope offers peer-based recovery, but what the hell does “peer-based” mean?

I’ve tried to define it and describe it, but nothing really captures peer recovery. Every official definition sounds so highfallutin that you need a doctorate to even understand what is a pretty simple proposition:

I’m a drunk or an addict (or, more correctly but not as descriptively, “a person with Alcohol Use Disorder or Substance Use Disorder”). You are a drunk or an addict (ditto to the above). I’ve found a way to keep from using, but you haven’t. I ask you to tell me your story, then I share my experience during and following active use. When things work well, an almost immediate and strong connection develops between us and I offer to walk with you through the beginning parts of recovery. 

That’s not hard to understand, but many folks seem to believe there’s something more, something more scientific, something more magical, even.  To some folks, what follows is the “practice of peer-based recovery in a hospital setting,” but I thought it was just talking one drunk to another. Let me tell you a bit more.


Yesterday I picked up the Hope phone:

“Hope Recovery. This is Keith.”

“Hi. My name’s Donald. I’m in the hospital for the fourth time, detoxing off alcohol. A lady gave me your number. Each time I get out I tell myself I’m gonna stay quit but . . .,” the voice trailed off.

“But then that hunger builds,” I said, “and you convince yourself you can just have a few. Then you’re shit-faced again.”

“Yeah,” said Donald. “How’d you know?”

“I’m an old drunk named Keith,” I said. 

I chatted with Donald a bit more, then arranged to see him today at 11 in his hospital room. 

When I walked in, I saw myself, or at least a lot of myself. The important, eternal part. The sad, broken part that’s become a lot happier and patched together over the last 16 years.

Donald explained he’d been drinking heavily since he moved out of his house at 15, 24 years ago. The daily amount he drank may have gone down a bit (very rarely) or up a tad (regularly), but overall he drank between 20 and 30 beers a day. For the past four or five years, since he had a brain injury, the drinking has gotten more and more out of control. Now, he was in and out of the hospital, DT’s growing worse and worse.

“I make it on the outside about a week,” he said, “then I think I’ll just have a few and . . .”

I cut him off, “And then a few turn into the same old thing.”

“Exactly!” Donald said.

“For me,” I said, “it was as if I had a belt around my chest. Each day without a drink would tighten that belt a little more. Not literally, but in the way that really matters. Finally, I’d tell myself I’d have a few drinks, just to loosen things. Once I’d found that peace and comfort that comes between feeling the effect and actually being drunk, I promised I’d pace myself, just drink enough to maintain the buzz. And then . . .”

“You’d be shit-faced again!” Donald said with glee, the joy of finding someone who knew how he felt, knew how he REALLY felt.

A very nice social worker I’ll call Julia came in and watched us bantering back and forth. She listened to my nonsense and Donald’s openness, and, thankfully, didn’t use words like “bonding” or “establishing social connection” or “isolation.” She just listened to an old drunk talk with a younger drunk. Then, the tone changed.

“I was 48 when I finally got sober,” I said. “You’re just a kid—39 is way young to me. You can change. Life can change. Things can get better. Really.”

“I know,” he said doubtfully.

“Or you can go on doing what you’re doing. Check into a detox. Get released to go home and drink until you need to detox again. Finally, not make it to detox and die alone in your apartment.

“The choice is yours,” I concluded, “and I’m willing to walk the path of change with you if you’d like.”

We talked a bit more. I asked the social worker when Donald would be discharged. She thought Thursday or Friday.

“You still have physical strength, yes?” I asked.

“I work out between beers,” Donald said. “Doctors can’t believe what good shape I’m in.”

“Good,” I said. “And do you have a full dance card this Saturday, a lot of social engagements?”

Donald laughed sadly.

“I got nothing.”

“Good,” I said, and told him about Hope’s Recovery Festival this Saturday at Arms Park “If I send an Uber to pick you up and bring you to the festival, can you help us set up and tear down? I’ll introduce you to some other folks who’ve laid in this same kind of bed and are now living life. Sound okay?”

“Yes!” Donald said, a grin of helpfulness brightening his face.

That, my friends, is what the first steps of peer recovery look like, a person in recovery getting to know a person who needs recovery and offering a helping hand. That, though, is only a first step. These excerpts from the texts I received from Donald after I left are the true first fruits of peer recovery:

  • Thank you very, very much for stopping by, that meant a lot to me. I look forward to helping you Saturday. Have a great day man.
  • Last time I’ll bother you, Keith. Just wanted to say thank you for being real with me, I don’t run into that a lot at all. 
  • Keith’s Response:  If I had the ability to be phony, I might be. I don’t. Just who I am.
  • So am I. That’s why we hit it off. It’s nice to actually have plans with someone too. That girl Julia said it was like we knew each other for years. 
  • I felt the same. 
  • Thank you Keith. 👍  That was the last text I promise. I’ll leave you alone. Just excited to have a friend.
  • And so am I, Donald. So am I.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no transcript of the above conversation, so I’ve recreated it from memory, the often-faulty memory of even the recovered alcoholic.

Also, Donald is obviously not Donald’s real name. If you look for me at Saturday’s festival, though, and you’re very good, I may introduce you to him.

You matter. I matter. We matter.


About this Author

Keith Howard

Keith Howard is former Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box