What, exactly, is the role of a recovery coach? “It depends on who you ask,” said Matthew Johnson with a smile. Johnson, the recovery coach supervisor for CHD Outpatient Clinics on Park Street in West Springfield and on Pine Street in Springfield, pointed out that because the recovery coach field is still developing, the role can vary from state to state, agency to agency, from program to program within each agency—and even from coach to coach and the individuals served, spending on their needs.
The Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR) defines recovery coaches as people in recovery with lived experience “who have been trained to help their peers with a similar experience to gain hope, explore recovery, and achieve life goals.” They maintain “an equitable” relationship with those they coach.
“At CHD, a recovery coach is a person in recovery who acts as a guide and a mentor to help somebody navigate their own recovery,” said Johnson. “We share our personal experience with recovery, we use coaching techniques, and we meet people where they’re at to allow them to develop their own pathway to recovery.”
CHD recovery coaches have completed a week of Recovery Coach Academy (offered at locations across the country), which fulfills 30 of the 60 educational hours required to become a Massachusetts Certified Addiction Recovery Coach, and they must have a minimum of two years of recovery behind them. They also receive additional training once in the role.
Johnson is quick to point out that a recovery coach’s role is different from that of a sponsor or therapist in that recovery coaches are not aligned with any particular method of treatment or recovery. A recovery coach adapts to whatever that individual wants to do to achieve recovery, whether it is abstinence, moderation, harm reduction, or participating in a medication assisted treatment program—whereas a sponsor typically uses a 12-step recovery process.
Unlike a therapist, a recovery coach also doesn’t go back into the individual’s past and address trauma. “If somebody wants talk about their past, and feels that it will help them, I’m not going to say, ‘No, you can’t tell me that because I’m not a therapist,’” he said. “Still, I don’t have the same tools that a therapist has to address those traumatic events.” While therapists are concerned with past unresolved issues, recovery coaches focus on the present and future, asking the recoveree where they want to go in their life and how they plan to get there.
He said peer positions are all about being empathetic and connecting with the individual. “I strive to be present with the person, and being able to say, ‘This is where I’ve been before, too—creating that connection based on that shared experience,” he said.
CHD recovery coaches also connect individuals to community resources and recovery community groups—any kind of recovery resource.
Recovery coaching involves a partnership model. “While clinical relationships and other types of helping relationships can sometimes be hierarchical, recovery coaches and peer positions in general try to reduce power differentials as much as they can,” said Johnson. “I treat someone as if they’re their own resource for their own recovery. I’m not the expert—they’re the expert. I, as a recovery coach, ask, ‘What do you want to do? What will make your life better? How can I help you with your recovery?’ For the most part, they’re the drivers, and I’m in the passenger seat, here to help.”
He said many of the people recovery coaches work with are in early recovery—or are trying to achieve recovery. But even individuals in long-term recovery sometimes seek out recovery coaches. “I might work with somebody who has been in recovery for three years, but is having a hard time—he wants to get involved in a supportive community or wants to change something about his recovery,” he said.
Johnson, a native of Palmer, MA, has been at CHD for two-and-a-half years, and has been in recovery for seven-and-a-half years after being addicted to many different substances and experiencing periods of homelessness, as well as overdoses. “I eventually reached a point in my life where I knew that I was either going to come into recovery or I was going to die,” he said. “I had plenty of people, including doctors, tell me that over the years, but I finally realized it, and so I went to treatment a few times.”
He lived in the Marlborough, MA area during the first five years of his recovery, and had picked up a trade: refrigeration. “My family had always been telling me that I should be in the recovery field, but I had always been very resistant to it because I didn’t want my whole life to be defined by my recovery,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something else. And I did that with the trade I picked up. I was very successful at it—I made a lot of money—but it wasn’t fulfilling to me. I moved back out here so that I could go back to school to do this type of work, and I discovered recovery coaching.”