‘The opposite of addiction is connection’

Virtual training program creates a contingent of recovery coaches to combat substance abuse.

Islanders got a chance to be certified in substance abuse recovery coaching through an online course. — Screenshot

Those with substance use disorders on Martha’s Vineyard may feel more alone than ever in a time when social distancing and isolation has become the new normal.

The in-person support networks such as group meetings and one-on-one consultations with drug addiction counselors are rendered impossible, as people stay secluded in their homes to mitigate the spread of disease. 

The goal of the virtual recovery coach training program, presented by the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) in collaboration with a number of Island resources, is to keep those struggling with addiction tethered to essential services that work best for them.

Brian Morris is the mental health and substance use disorder access coordinator at Island Health Care (IHC). Morris, who was also a trainer in the course, said the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR), which recently held virtual training for recovery coaches in Connecticut, is the “gold bar standard” for everything related to recovery coach training. This year’s Island recovery coach training program saw 16 trainees who are now ready to enter the recovery coaching workforce.

Once CCAR started doing virtual training, Morris and the folks on-Island followed suit.

Although Morris said the virtual training wasn’t without its issues, the course instructors managed to adapt, and so did the trainees. “We know that this type of training is ideally done in person, where we can interact and speak face-to-face,” Morris said. “But we very quickly adapted and modified the template to adjust to the needs of our class, because we had to.”

Morris said the need for recovery coaches in the field right now is incredibly high. He has already seen a drastic increase in his caseload of people who need detox treatment. “One of the biggest parts of my job is to send people to detox for them to get treatment. I have sent three times as many people to detox from mid-March to mid-May this year as I did last year. Liquor sales are up 243 percent online, mental health issues are prevalent, and there are lots of challenges out there that need to be faced head-on,” Morris said.

According to Morris, people in the throes of addiction often feel like there is no one who can help them, and feel distanced from the rest of the world.

When the public health crisis began, that sense of distance and detachment grew even greater. “Many people who might have been in recovery have diverted back to their default mode, which is to use. And when someone who is addicted uses, they don’t just use, they abuse,” Morris said.

The intention of this new team of recovery coaches is to bring folks out of a detached state and provide them with comfort and resources. Coaches will provide access to support services for those who are in the dark, and will help those who are already in a recovery program stay tethered to that essential assistance.

“The opposite of addiction is connection, so we need to stay connected with each other now more than ever,” Morris said.

The recovery coach training program has been on-Island for four years, but it wasn’t until this most recent virtual training that additional Portuguese-speaking coaches were brought on.

“It is incredibly exciting, because up until this point, there was only one Portuguese-speaking coach to serve an entire community,” Morris said. “That is a marginalized population here, and they need our help just as much as the next guy.”

Morris said this year’s group of trainees is “ready and raring” to get out in the field and start helping people right away, and represent a diverse cross-section of the Island.

“We have the young, the old, most in recovery, some not. Some are big 12-step proponents, and others are more into multiple pathways,” Morris said. “One thing we try to impress upon our coaches is that there is more than one way to skin the recovery cat.”

Morris said that everyone’s path to recovery is paved differently, and recovery coaches must identify that path and support their clients with every step in the journey.

Some seek harm reduction, refuge recovery, smart recovery, or alternative medical routes to recover, but Morris said he hopes to “build an army of recovery coaches that grows stronger year by year.”

“If someone has cancer, you throw the best medical treatment in the world at them. This is a disease, and it’s bad here. Having been in those trenches, it only makes sense for me to help others out of them,” Morris said. “We don’t know what this summer is going to be like, so we have to be prepared.”

And in order to maintain continued communication with those who are addicted, PAARI executive director Allie Hunter said, she is excited to welcome those 16 newly trained recovery coaches to the field.

According to Hunter, PAARI’s central goal is to provide those struggling with drug use a nonpunitive path to recovery and success in life.

Hunter and her team work with police departments across the country to help people with substance use recovery, and have been working closely with Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee and Morris. Co-trainers also included Boston Police Officer Josh Delisle and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) recovery coach supervisor Eric Adams. 

Originally, Hunter said, the group planned to conduct an in-person recovery coach training program in March in order to build a substantial workforce of recovery coaches on the Island.

“There are very unique opportunities on the Island for helping people and sustaining them in their recovery. The resources on Martha’s Vineyard are often looking for new coaches who can maintain a rapport with those working through addiction,” Hunter said.

Once COVID-19 hit, Hunter said, the in-person training was called off, but she and her team adapted, and were able to conduct a meaningful and effective training session.

It was Dukes County manager Martina Thornton who suggested the course be virtual, and who funded the program through the county.

“We had 16 really amazing individuals in the class that all did great and graduated. This training is really the foundation, as someone starts their career as a recovery coach,” Hunter said. “I am lucky enough to lead these great people as the head instructor.”

The course is 30 hours in total, and teaches people the ins and outs of recovery coaching, including helping those battling drug use with making beneficial changes in their life, and maintaining the forward progress they make throughout their recovery.

Coaches also pair their clients with essential support nets like those offered by MVCS, the Vineyard House, or IHC.

But a good recovery coach is much more than just a medium for addiction recovery support for those fighting a substance use disorder — they serve as a friend, a confidant, and someone to connect with.

“Recovery coaches not only help people access essential services, but they show that recovery is possible, and become a friend, a supporter, and a cheerleader for someone. A good coach could mean all the difference between someone starting to use again and continuing on their path of recovery,” Hunter said.

Hunter said she was pleasantly surprised with how well the virtual content translated out of what would normally be face-to-face training. “I was a little nervous when we first set out that the content wouldn’t fully translate. But I was impressed with how much it resonated with people, even in a virtual format,” Hunter said.

The group grew close over the course of the training program, and Hunter said everyone got to really know one another and their reasons for wanting to become coaches. “We got to be a very close cohort. We were always on video chats, so we spent a lot of quality time together,” Hunter said. “The content we deal with requires you to be vulnerable and challenge your beliefs and values. Everyone in the program shared a lot of who they are and why they are here.”

This year’s recovery coach training graduates, Hunter said, exemplify the goal of recovery coaches everywhere: to effect meaningful change in someone’s life and make a positive impact.

“All the people in the class took the information they learned, and I think are really ready to get out in the world and start helping people. These are challenging times, but in particular for people with substance use disorders, because they might feel more alone now than ever before,” Hunter said.