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The Next Frontier of Addiction Recovery: An Enlightening Q&A With the Alano Club of Portland

Increasingly, research suggests that instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery, individuals are more likely to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety when they have access to a specialized solution, or toolkit – for assistance in navigating stressors and situations that may lead to relapse.

While 12-step programs remain an important recovery tool, we now understand that a person-centered, strengths-based, community-involved strategy is much more likely to help recovering individuals stay that way; enjoying greater health, wellness and quality of life. This is a need that the Alano Club of Portland has sought to meet with the development of its Recovery Toolkit Series™.

That development led to the Club being awarded the Joel M. Hernandez Award – a prestigious national honor given to just one recovery organization each year – at the America Honors Recovery event last month, in Washington DC.

In this feature, I interviewed Brent Canode, Executive Director of the Club, to find out more about their pioneering recovery support model.

Q: How did the Recovery Toolkit Series™ (RTS) come to formation?

A:  Through a lot of hard work, perseverance, and courage on the part of Club staff and board members. As a long-standing organization with a historical orientation focused on 12-step support, making this pivot was no small undertaking. But, we knew in our hearts it was the right thing to do, if we wanted to reach more people in need of support in their recovery.

As a person in long-term recovery myself, who came to rely on tools and supports beyond the 12-step paradigm, I knew non-12 step based recovery was possible, and, most importantly, that I probably wasn’t alone. When I dug into the research, not only did I learn I wasn’t alone, I found out people like me who turn to alternative supports in their recovery are actually in the majority. In fact, the Recovery Research Institute at Harvard University estimates that less than 25% of people in active SUD recovery utilize the 12-step model. Once we learned that, it was game-on!

Over the past 2 years we’ve piloted over 35 workshops, classes, and seminars on recovery tools — ranging from mindfulness practices, yoga, to exercise-based recovery programs. Based on feedback and research in the field, we synthesized the content into a cohesive program we’ve come to call the RTS — the first recovery support program of its kind anywhere.

The response we’ve received from participants and community partners has been overwhelmingly positive. And this work is now being recognized nationally. In fact, we recently received the Joel Hernandez award — given to just one recovery organization each year — at the America Honors Recovery event in Washington, DC. Our award was based largely on this new, holistic orientation to community-based recovery support. Soon our RTS will be featured in a national campaign called Focus on Innovation by the Addiction Policy Forum in Washington DC.

Q: What led to the realization that a more person-centered, strengths-based, community-involved strategy, is more likely to help people in continued recovery?

A:  The idea isn’t necessarily new — it’s actually at the heart of the Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC) model continuing to take shape in the US, as well as the peer-delivered services movement that has taken off like wildfire in communities far and wide.

As a side note, the growth of the peer movement in the US is hands-down the most exciting and transformational development in our field in many years. I can’t say enough positive things about peer-delivered services and the need to expand them to every corner of our healthcare system where it intersects with SUDs.

Back to your question. What lead us to reorient our services in this way was simply the overwhelming amount of research that shows when a person is put in charge of charting their own course in recovery, and when they are empowered to make their own choices about the pathway and supports they need, they tend to enjoy longer recovery outcomes and a higher quality of life in recovery. Much of our work is informed by the concept of Recovery Capital (RC) and the work of William White and David Best. RC is essentially the breadth and depth of internal and external resources that can be drawn upon to initiate and sustain recovery. All of our programming is aimed at enhancing RC and increasing resiliency for the recovering person. This may include a mutual aid program, a trauma informed yoga class, a meditation practice, an exercise and nutrition program, or all of the above!

Q: What is your view of the benefits one can achieve when community is featured in a recovery strategy?

A:  I think community is everything in recovery. It’s the secret sauce — the magic that binds us all together and helps make us whole. There is an old saying in our field that treatment happens in a clinic, but recovery takes place in the community. This has always resonated with me. In other words, recovery does not happen in isolation (a place many of us who’ve struggled with addiction know all too well) – it is generally learned from other people who have gone down the same road and who model the methods and principles of recovery.

In addiction, we isolated from our community and we built or found community in unhealthy or dysfunctional ways. In recovery, we have the opportunity to re-engage with community in ways that are positive, healthy and restorative. Also, while formal treatments help many people, the process of recovery will continue long after any treatment episode, and for most people that means back in their communities of origin.

The bottom line is recovery also takes a long time — for most people the pathway to stable recovery will take around five to seven years. That’s when you start to see abstinence rates above 85%. It takes a village to raise a child and the same goes for a person in recovery. But as “village builders” it’s critical that recovery community organizations do everything in their power to make sure that their villages are vibrant, diverse, and populated with elders from all pathways in recovery!

Q: The Alano Club is the first organization of its kind in the United States to pioneer this comprehensive and innovative approach to recovery in a community-centered environment — all free of charge. What is your experience of access points to holistic and well-being support for recovery? Did that influence your decision to make this model free of charge?

A:  Well, it’s largely a pay to play system when it comes to these types of programs, and they’re cost-prohibitive for many people in recovery. Most of the modalities we offer as part of the RTS cost hundreds of dollars in the community — not very accessible for someone trying to get back on their feet in recovery. And yet, some of these tools just may be the thing that makes recovery “stick” for that person.

Cost should never be the mitigating factor when it comes to making it in recovery. Everyone deserves choice and access to tools that align best with their own beliefs, principles, and strengths. I think there is a clear ideology underlying the RTS — one defined by a shared belief at the Club that access to recovery should never be contingent on financial resources or an allegiance to any one brand of support.

Q: The RTS works to integrate innovations in recovery support across a wide continuum of proven programs, from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), trauma-informed Yoga and Yoga Nidra meditation training, to nutrition workshops. What is innovative about these approaches to recovery support?

A:  The innovation isn’t necessarily in the approach, it’s really in the service delivery and design model. MBSR, trauma-informed yoga — these approaches have been around for years, some for decades. The real innovation has been in the synthesizing of these approaches into a cohesive and accessible program of support for people in recovery.

For many of these tools, cost is a huge barrier. For example, in Portland, it costs upwards of $400 to take an 8-week MBSR course. And most drop-in yoga studios have a sliding scale that starts at $5 to $15 a class. What we’ve done is reach out to content experts and leading practitioners in our market, and collaboratively designed programming in each of these modalities, and then underwritten the cost of that programming with private foundation funding. This has allowed us to offer all of these tools for no cost. It’s the FREE part that is the real revolution here!

The other innovation is the holistic model of support. Up until now, most recovery community organizations offered peer-support and a mix of mutual aid meetings — typically 12-step groups — and social events. We took that model and blew the walls out to make room for as many pathways to recovery as possible. It’s a research-driven design rooted in evidence and emerging best practices, with the aim of constructing a tent big enough to hold space for as many recovering people and approaches as possible. This includes everything from digital recovery workshops, Three Principles training, Mindful Self Compassion, art therapy, to advocacy training, and much, much more.

Q: How do you think this offering will impact recovery support in the broader recovery community?

A:  I’m a little biased but I hope the RTS becomes the standard model of recovery support at recovery community organizations everywhere! I think the recent awards we’ve won will help focus the field on our holistic model and drive more innovation in the area of recovery support services. And, the national exposure we’ve received, including a recent article on our approach in the Huffington Post, which was viewed over 500,000 times, should start some constructive conversations in other communities about how best to serve the diverse needs of the growing recovery community.

In all my experience in the field I’ve found two things to be true: for recovery to take root, a person needs the opportunity to connect — with someone, or something — and choice. The ability to choose what and who they connect with. When those two things are present it’s been my experience that a recovering person has the agency to then chart their course in recovery in a manner that is consistent with their values, beliefs, and strengths.

Q: At the moment, the RTS is available in Portland OR, what are your plans to make this more widely available in other states?

A:  I can’t say too much about this right now, except that we are about to begin an exciting conversation with a national funder regarding the development of a “toolkit for the toolkit”, to help other communities across the country develop and implement a similar multiple pathways approach to community-based recovery support services. In Oregon, we are already working actively with leaders in state and local government, and healthcare, to scale this program statewide.


Images Courtesy of iStock

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