By Stephanie Hazard
Portraits by ChiChi Ubiña
September is National Recovery Month. It is a national observance to promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the emergence of a strong and proud recovery community, and the dedication of service providers and community members across the nation who make recovery possible.
Stephanie Hazard is a Recovery Coach who helps people get well from alcohol and substance abuse disorder. In this article, Stephanie explains addiction and how a concerned family can seek help for their loved one with a problem.
LOOK: Tell us about addiction. Is a drug problem the same as a drinking problem?
Simply put, if drinking or drug use is causing problems in your life, you have a substance abuse problem. Alcohol is a drug, and severe alcohol use disorder is every bit as damaging as drug addiction. Alcohol addiction causes changes in the body and brain, and long-term alcohol abuse can have devastating effects on your health, career, and relationships. Furthermore, drug misuse or abuse can bring about co-occurring mental health disorders. The picture can get very complicated, and that is why I always recommend introducing a clinician and/or physician into the health and wellness equation.
Alcohol and drugs effect the same parts of the brain, but the problems and physical symptoms can manifest differently. Although there may be differences, at the end of the day, all addictions have more in common than what distinguishes from each other. It is their similarities and not their differences that the individual feels most acutely whether they are turning to pain pills or vodka to soothe their inner turmoil.
Addiction, whether to gambling, alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, you name it – hijacks a person’s logic, their best thinking, and has detrimental effects on their health, well-being and loved ones. It is a “rapacious creditor.” Beyond the actual problem is another set of behaviors: lying, stealing, hiding, sneaking, and manipulation. Those behaviors can create another set of issues and concerns. And often where there is a problem, there is denial so asking for help and getting help takes a lot of courage.
LOOK: What makes people turn to drugs?
I don’t believe there is one thing that makes people turn to drugs. I believe there are a lot of factors at play. People are very likely reaching for something to relieve their pain, their suffering. They are in fact self-soothing. More often than not, when someone is abusing alcohol and drugs they are looking to escape. The more delicate work is finding out what lies beneath. As Gabor Mate, a trauma and addiction expert says, “the question we should be asking isn’t what’s wrong with them, the question we should be asking is what happened to them?” It is hard to have compassion for a loved one who continues to use a substance that is harming them and/or others, but it is my experience that they are most likely in a world of pain about something we can’t see. Drugs are also highly addictive and damaging so while experimenting with a drug may seem like an innocent idea, you may light a fuse that is irreversible.
LOOK: What are the more common drugs that our friends and family might turn to that we should be aware of?
Common drugs might be what is in your medicine cabinet. For example, I was given Percocet after a knee surgery. I didn’t finish the bottle but remembered I had a few left. One morning, when I was horrifically hungover, I took a Percocet to help me feel better – that was a serious red flag for me. A lot of people are prescribed benzodiazepines used as tranquilizers such as Valium, Xanax or Ativan. Other folks are prescribed opiates for pain management and those include meds like Oxycontin and Vicodin. They can be highly addictive. In fact, in 2014, between 13 and 20 million people used opiates recreationally. Opiates can lead to heroin or fentanyl use, and then the risk of overdose and death increases exponentially.
Other common drugs may include ADHD medications like Adderall or Vyvanse which are stimulants. There have been tragic examples of college students who trade and share their stimulant medication, and then drink or smoke pot to come down from the stimulant. And then an ugly cycle can begin. Don’t even get me started about the legalization of marijuana. Vaping has become quite fashionable, and gummies and edibles have become party favors.
LOOK: What are some of the symptoms one might be on the lookout for?
As the person who might be questioning their own use, abuse, or misuse, you might ask yourself if you are making excuses for your behavior, hiding your behavior or if you are experiencing negative consequences. I have one client who hasn’t had a drink in over a year, but she just demanded her psychiatrist refill her prescription for valium. She insisted that she needs it just in case she is overwhelmed with anxiety. Might she be on the cusp of abusing valium now? We’ll have to get to the bottom of that together. If you are a concerned loved one, you might be noticing that the person is retreating from life, maybe stopping off at a bar on the way home. Maybe they are sleeping in more often or disengaging from family and friends.
Alcohol and food addictions can appear innocuous because they are legal, and you can overdrink or overeat or undereat in plain sight. Who doesn’t overeat during the holidays, and what woman hasn’t gone on a diet? Abusing or misusing prescription medication and cannabis is now commonplace. At my nephew’s wedding this summer, there was a “Weed Bar.” Half the guests migrated to this novel location– it’s legal and very in vogue to vape or try edibles. It can be hard to discern if there is a problem under the veil of what is considered socially acceptable.
LOOK: What is a recovery coach and how effective is this type of support?
A recovery coach is a trained professional who is a non-clinical support specialist who removes barriers and obstacles to recovery. The job of the coach is to meet their client where they are, and help them define for themselves what recovery and/or wellness looks like for them. For some it may be moderation, for others it may be abstinence from alcohol or drugs or other detrimental behaviors. A coach brings their own lived experience to the table, and their own individual personality, background, gifts, and strengths. Their training and personal experience are unique to them. When working with a recovery coach, there is an on-going connection that supports an individual.
More broadly speaking, a recovery coach is an ally, advocate, champion, resource broker, confidant, mentor, and guide. One of my clients defined the coach as a “lifeline.” Our lived experience is our most valuable resource, and we work with folks to help them grow wellness and increase both their internal and external recovery capital. Some individuals may already be seeing a therapist or psychiatrist which is great, but typically they are only meeting them once a week and clinicians do not self-disclose. Other people may have tried 12 step meetings or tried to quit on their own but continue to struggle. A recovery coach is like a river guide showing you the way, steering you away from the dangerous rapids and rocks, and introducing you to new skills and strategies for navigating a substance free life. We are not clinicians. We are not counselors. We are not sponsors.
When a recovery coach is engaged post treatment, there is a 78-80% chance of long-term recovery vs. 20%. Furthermore, research indicates that 94% percent of folks in early recovery who meet with a coach go on to recover (Killeen). Hello, can we please shout this from the rooftops?! If you haven’t seen Johann Hari’s TED Talk on addiction, I highly recommend it. He states, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.” Based on experience, I believe it’s the connection between coach and client that is the change agent which augments sustainable and successful outcomes.
LOOK: Do you ever consult with families who think they have a loved one with a problem before they even pursue getting them help? What do you talk about and what are some of your suggestions?
Yes, I consult with families all the time and our conversations are confidential. We talk about everything and anything. My job is to ask good questions, and to be an active listener. If they are looking for guidance, I may recommend a whole host of different resources, and point them in a specific direction. Any recommendations I make are based on my first-hand experience. But it depends on the family, and their current circumstances or concerns. I work with many different recovery support services providers like The Lighthouse, SBC Global, CiR and Sterling Recovery Services and work closely with a variety of clinicians, doctors, and treatment centers across the country.
LOOK: At what point does the recovery coach get involved?
A recovery coach can enter the picture at any point. I’ve been involved as early as someone’s first inquiry about where to turn to help, I’ve engaged after someone transitions home post treatment, and I might start working with someone who has just gone through detox after a recurrence (relapse.)
With my eating disorder client, Allie M., I began coaching her after twelve failed attempts at treatment. I had one client, a Google executive, who was determined not to go to treatment. She had a huge job, and three children under the age of ten. After multiple recurrences with alcohol, she finally agreed to go. We paused the coaching and then reengaged when she transitioned home. Re-entering your family and returning to your job post treatment can be very stressful and full of triggers. Having a coach helps you to navigate those choppy waters. Another client, John C., agreed with his wife and family that he needed to take a break from drinking. He did not go to treatment but had a wonderful therapist who specialized in addiction. We met in-person once a week, and John C. discovered for himself that being alcohol free agreed with him. He enjoys drinking non-alcoholic beer and wine and attends a weekly recovery support group.
Many treatment centers now have coaches on staff and others are recommending recovery coaching as part of someone’s discharge plan. If a client is transitioning to sober living before returning home, they can be assigned a recovery coach during their stay. Many clinicians are recommending recovery coaches as well. We work in concert together, and the coaching augments the work that is being done in therapy.
LOOK: Once a coaching engagement begins, what is the job of the recovery coach? Is it a day-to-day commitment? How long does one stay onboard?
The job of the recovery coach is always to meet a client where there are and then focus on growing wellness. While a coach is present day focused with an eye toward the future, it is important to clarify what has worked and not worked for the client in the past, and what the client is willing to do or do differently to foster their envisioned wellness. The coach helps a client engage with recovery and wellness resources.
Every coaching engagement is unique, but there are a few common denominators. Most of my engagements typically lasts three to six months. That said, there is no magic timeline, and everyone goes at their own pace; timing is ultimately determined by the client. I have a few long-term clients who I have coached for over a year, and I have clients I have coached for just a month.
The coaching process is discreet, and we meet wherever the client feels most comfortable. Our initial “kick off” meeting typically lasts two hours. I like to learn about what has brought the client to this pivot point. We determine the time and place together which is always convenient for the client whether in their home, at a coffee shop, or meeting up for a walk. For the duration of the engagement, I generally recommend meeting twice a week, in-person or virtually, with daily check-ins. Video platforms like Zoom provide flexibility and reach which enables me to support clients whether they live in LA or Vermont. We also have daily contact, and check-ins via phone or text message. Clients will also share details for family members, emergency contacts, and other “care team” members like doctors or clinicians. These permissions are put in place so there is full transparency, and the ability to align and collaborate on behalf of the client. At the end of the day, my job is to put myself out of a job.
Using a strengths-based approach, I look for what the client can’t see or has lost sight of within themselves, and we work on strengthening their healthy selves. I begin each engagement using a Recovery Capital Scale which measures the breadth and depth of internal and external recovery resources. Coaches help build recovery capital, the building materials for initiating and sustaining long-term recovery. We also identify where the client needs the most support and what needs to be strengthened. Then we co-create a Recovery Wellness Plan which spans the eight dimensions of a person’s well-being. Thanks to my training, these tools provide my clients with a wonderful road map.
Working with a recovery coach helps a person to expand beyond their dependencies or maladaptive behaviors and move in the direction of their True North. By that I mean their best selves, their highest selves. One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is watching someone grow beyond the confines of their dependency or misuse and step up and into who they are. My primary objective is to help a client develop and build their own internal and external recovery resources so they will be empowered to make healthy choices for themselves.
LOOK: How would your path have changed if you had had a recovery coach?
I’m not sure how my path might have changed. I am eternally grateful for the 12 step path that I took. That’s how my sober journey began as a single mom with a precious eight-year-old boy and following that pathway has inexorably transformed my life for the better. Alcoholism is the only disease I know whose remedy enables you to become a better person.
With the success I have seen with my clients, and the rising popularity of recovery coaching, I have wondered how much less arduous my journey might have been if I had partnered with a recovery coach. I might have learned about other pathways to recovery, like Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery or LifeRing, and I might have added more ingredients to my overall wellness like yoga and meditation practice. I am certain of one thing. I would have felt a lot less alone. There is no doubt I would have benefited from having a guide, a mentor, a champion in all areas of my life. They would have been the bridge and shown me how to get across what felt like the Grand Canyon of my life step by step. I like to think that now I get to show up as the ally and advocate I wish I had had. Working with a recovery coach can be a game changer.
Substance use disorder, born out of pain and suffering, can have a vice grip on those who struggle and can damage, even fracture their families. Lives can be pillaged and changed forever. What I know for sure is that how we heal is what matters most. How we evolve from pain and trauma is what matters most. I hope sharing my experience will point others in the direction of health and wellness and illuminate that there is a way forward with a recovery coach.
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