There’s been a lot of coverage in the news and social media about opiate addiction, and rightly so. It’s an epidemic that knows no boundaries. Addiction impacts rich people, middle class people and poor people. People who live in the city, in the suburbs and in the country. Teenagers, adults and even grandparents.
The medical profession recognizes addiction as a disease because once you are addicted, your brain is forever changed. It’s permanently rewired and you cannot change it back. So when we talk about a recovering opioid addict or a recovering alcoholic, it’s important to use the “ing” form of the word—recovering—to indicate that what’s happening is a process. Recovery is a not a destination, it is a journey.
People who are addicted can learn to walk the path of recovery, but how does someone get onto that path—and continue to walk it every day? One way people get started is with the help of another addict. You heard right: another addict. That person is called a recovery coach and CHD has several on our staff. These people receive special training and take their role very seriously. While each recovery coach is well along their personal journey of recovery, it’s critical that each one has the lived experience of being addicted. It’s critical because this fact enables a recovery coach to connect, immediately and meaningfully, with the people they are assigned to help.
Abbi Cushing is an addiction recovery coach for CHD. She is in long term recovery from addiction to heroin and other substances. She’s been clean for more than seven years and her life is going well. She is a business management major in the renowned Isenberg School at UMass in Amherst. She doesn’t use drugs anymore, but she is and always will be an addict. I asked her about the work she does helping people in early recovery and she shared a lot with me. Let me share some of it with you.
“Recovery is hard to describe in concrete terms that apply to everyone,” Abbi said. “There are no numbers associated with it, no hard and fast rules. It’s about people lives and everyone has a different story. There are a lot of misconceptions that recovery means getting the needle out of your arm and getting off street and into an apartment and a job. Those things matter—you have to be stable to begin walking the path of recovery—but the real work of recovery happens on the inside.”
Abbi explained that the stuff you can’t always see looking from the outside is what matters most. “It’s the feelings we have about ourselves,” she said. “It’s the things we do that make us more productive so the negative self-talk disappears. It’s developing respect for self and love for self. It’s developing the desire to help other people so we are not so self-centered. It’s hard to put a picture to it, but you can hear it in people’s stories. I hear it in people’s stories.”
Abbi said that recovery is about giving people a different way to look at things. I asked her for an example.
“OK, yesterday I had woman call me up crying, freaking out,” Abbi said, matter-of-factly. “She lives in Two Rivers.” In case you don’t know, CHD’s Two Rivers Recovery Center for Women is a 25-bed facility that provides treatment and early recovery within a structured, therapeutic environment. OK, back to Abbi. “At Two Rivers they require you to do a lot of writing about your past to face up to the next phase of your life. It’s triggering. It can bring up awful memories of trauma and people can get emotional and upset. So I met with the woman and we talked. I said your past doesn’t define who you are today, so get over beating up yourself over your past. We talked about the process of building relationships and building a network. I reminded her that it takes time and you have to be gentle with yourself. A lot of it comes down to thinking about the solution versus thinking about the problem, of looking at lessons behind the thing that happened instead of how horrible the thing was. That way you can learn and grow from it.”
Because Abbi walks her own path of recovery on a daily basis, the people she’s assigned to—people who are just beginning their own journey of recovery—can relate to her right away. “People who aren’t addicts don’t have that life experience,” she said. “You actually don’t know what it’s like, you just don’t. But I am an addict. I am in recovery and I know the issues associated with addiction. When you’re at the bottom and looking the devil in the eye, it takes a person who’s been there to help you start down that road of recovery. It creates immediate trust and comfort with each person I’m assigned to, and that is why it works.”
Abbi doesn’t want anyone to think that this makes recovery easy. “The bottom line is the person I’m coaching has to want it,” she explained. “I can’t do the work for them. I can guide them and make suggestions, and I will, but they have to want it. They have to be willing to work on their recovery every day for the rest of their life. If I can help one person get started on their recovery, I feel it’s a success.”