September 20: Eyeball-to-eyeball recovery

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Tiny White Box newI am not opposed to education. That’s hardly a controversial stand, hardly likely to raise a single eyebrow hair. Education is fine with me.  

I am not opposed to certifications. I’d like to know my plumber has demonstrated she knows what she’s doing before opening up the sewage line leading to my septic tank. Certifications are fine by me.  

The rest of this column may convince you the above two paragraphs are lies, that I am anti-education, anti-training, anti-certification and, for all I know, antivivisection. Still, I stand by those paragraphs.

Except when it comes to recovery.

As a veteran, I’m very familiar with hierarchies, and not opposed to them in principle. To use my simple, peacetime, example, as an enlisted soldier with a rank of E-5, I was near the bottom of a weighty chain of command:  my company commander, my division commander etc., etc. to the secretary of defense and finally the president. (For persnickety vets, I was in a division headquarters company, hence the lack of battalion or brigade commanders.) Additionally, anyone who outranked me was, in most senses, above me in the pecking order. The military is an example of where hierarchies make sense. If an army is going into combat it’s imperative to know whose orders to follow and to obey them as soon as possible.

Another hierarchical system is the clinical model of recovery.  The doctoral level clinical psychologist outranks the MLADC who outranks the LADC who outranks the CRSW. (Please forgive the alphabet soup of the previous sentence—their translation isn’t necessary for understanding the hierarchy.) In clinical settings, different levels of certification mean varying amounts of power and authority. This may make sense, but it never did for me. Let me explain.

Before I came into recovery, I’d seen a dozen or so therapists of various kinds, always about my drinking, which tended to be a problem for those around me.  I lied to all of them to a greater or lesser degree, all based on a simple formula consisting of two parts:

  1. I’ll be completely honest about anything that doesn’t involve my drinking or drugging and my access to those practices.
  2. Everything in the whole darned universe is connected to my drinking or drugging and my access to those practices.

Given that second part, I never told the truth, the whole truth or anything approaching the truth to those therapists. And they never called me on it. Maybe they knew I was full of crap. Maybe they just didn’t care about me. Maybe I was such a skilled yarn spinner they couldn’t see the wide gaps between the buttons of verifiable facts.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

When I finally found recovery, it was not through the clinical route. There was no diagnosis. There was no treatment. There was no prognosis. Instead, I was introduced to a bunch of folks who had been where I was, had felt what I felt and knew what I knew about my drinking. They were unbullshitable.  Recovery was made up of a bunch of clowns like me who had figured out a way to stop drinking and drugging. If the clinical model was a hierarchical pyramid, recovery was that pyramid after a dinosaur had stomped it, then ground it to dust. The hierarchy was not just flattened; it didn’t exist.

I needed peers, not professionals. I needed to be surrounded by folks who knew and understood me almost instantly—and who still seemed to like me. I did not need a DSM diagnosis of Alcohol Use Disorder. I did not need to explain myself to someone who’d never been within a thousand psychic miles of me. I needed recovery, and recovery was all around me.

Hope is a peer-based recovery center, but many (most?) folks don’t understand what that means, thinking those of us who work here are “counselors” or “therapists” or “clinicians.” Absolutely not! A peer is someone who’s of equal standing to another. Hence, a jury of one’s peers or peer-reviewed journals. Employees of Hope are no better or of higher status than anyone who comes to us for support. We are comrades and allies and friends and companions with no special gifts or skills. 

Every person at Hope is in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse.  Our experiences during active use and in recovery are what make us effective. Like trail guides, we may be able to help folks see where the path to recovery may get rocky, suggest alternative routes and cheer folks along in their progress. As an example, look at the picture at the top of the page—the only piece of paper I keep on the wall in my office—which provides the necessary evidence for me to hold my job. 

Do I have an advanced degree? Yes. Am I a Certified Recovery Support Worker? Yes. I went through a 40-hour class, followed by a few follow-up days of training and passing a multiple-choice test. Do those two achievements have anything whatsoever to do with my ability to establish rapport with the person new in recovery? Absolutely not, no more than playing the piano well increases your ability to train a dog. College degrees and certifications are fine, in their way, although that way can be filled with hot air, empty pride and meaningless accomplishment. 

I can’t say what will work for you or you or you. I know what worked for me and people like me. That work took place in the loving palm of a group of fellow recoverees, joined by common experience, common solution and common purpose: to help everyone there taste life before it dries up or slips away. Come to Hope for New Hampshire Recovery and see what I mean.

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