This post was originally published on November 23, 2016.
Right up there with pug therapist and chakra analyst, sober coaches get lumped into the kind of posh assistance that only celebrities and scandal-prone politicians can afford. Yet according to a new CNN story, peer recovery coaches are currently popping up all over hospitals in the Northeast. The wisdom is that addicts will have a better chance of staying clean if they get help from people who’ve been there.
Personally, I’ve always had sniper-like precision when it comes to finding my people. Whether it was locating other third graders obsessed with sticker books and Olivia Newton-John or fellow high school students who liked to drink vodka and shoplift, my tribe was pretty easy to sniff out. Later on, I found fellow sad disasters who liked day drinking and being bitter as much as I did. But when I got sober, all these people suddenly vanished. Luckily, I eventually found sober people who knew what the hell they were doing. I was like a baby learning to walk (or at the very least how to walk without swerving) and I needed all the help I could find. Sure, getting help from my peers worked for me but I didn’t pay for them and besides, can it work for states where heroin has devastated entire communities?
Calling All Coaches
Listen, I don’t love the term “coach.” It evokes either a terrible Craig T. Nelson sitcom or abusive gym teachers in ill-fitting shorts. But the thought behind recovery coaches is a decent one. Here’s how it works: Patients who OD’d are introduced to peer recovery coaches in the hospital. Through a series of one-on-one meetings, these state-paid coaches share their personal experiences of getting sober while helping the clients come up with a recovery plan and navigate things like court appearances, housing and job hunting. Unlike those super fancy celeb sober coaches with the super fancy hourly wages (peer recovery coaches make around $40,000 a year as opposed to private coaches who can make upwards of $1,900 a day per the Daily Beast), most of these programs are covered by hospitals or government programs. In Michigan, peer recovery programs are part of Family And Children’s Services and in New Hampshire, the Public Safety Department in Pembroke is currently considering a peer recovery coach program for teens. Rhode Island, Maryland and Pennsylvania, among others, are also experimenting with ways to train and fund these coaches. Washington state is already on board. Over the summer, Rhode Island led the way by assigning peer coaches to every hospital emergency department statewide. Early reports are positive and have inspired other states like New York to adapt the model.
The Bumps in the Road
Alas, the coaching solution isn’t without its concerns. First off, what exactly do coaches do and how well does it work? Do they get a special uniform? A whistle, perhaps? Admittedly, I’m a little fuzzy on what their work day would look like or how effective it is. State governments are, too. Although places like Maryland are currently conducting studies, there’s virtually no data which proves the effectiveness of peer coaching. Naturally, state governments are itching to find out if these programs will help cut down on drug-related crime and deaths. Insurance companies, on the other hand, are curious if they’ll save money by covering this coaching model. Until the big guys know if this is an idea worthy of an investment, it might be a while before we see coaches taking off on a national level.
Finding people to be these elusive coaches is another issue. The truth is most sober addicts have baggage—say, criminal —that hospital administrators don’t exactly salivate over. “We want to hire people with lived [addiction]experience, and the reality is most people with that will have a criminal record,” says Dr. Sarah Wakeman, the medical director of the substance use disorder initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Community Health Improvement. There’s also the issue of finding authentic candidates who can be professional. Somebody too preachy wouldn’t exactly appeal to a person coming out of detox. Likewise, a flighty former drug addict prone to disappear into the desert wouldn’t be ideal when a newly sober person is having a meltdown. The qualifications are incredibly specific which is tough when most states need dozens of coaches.
Lastly, it could be argued the very idea of peer coaches is an unnecessary one. With the halls of recovery filled with sober people willing to help other addicts for free, those new to recovery might be reluctant to pay for virtually the same services. Which I get. Like I loved my first sponsor but I don’t know if I loved him enough to help out with the payment on his Lexus. Also, outside of 12-step programs, many US cities have free treatment and drug counseling programs. With these kinds of resources readily available to many who want to get sober, the existence of coaches is questionable.
A New/Old Idea So Crazy It Just Might Work
Despite these obstacles, peer coaching isn’t the worst idea ever. Folks like the National Coalition for Mental Help have long touted the benefits of addicts helping one another. And why wouldn’t they? Sponsorship, accountability partners and now peer recovery coaches are all really the same thing. It’s support from people who know how much it sucks and know that it’ll get better. By now, I think we can all agree that getting sober alone is a terrible idea. So maybe peer recovery coaches could throw a lifeline to addicts who might not otherwise find their people.