Everyone’s Welcome + Peer Support
We talk about the “recovery community” as if there is one—when, in fact, there are many. The recovery community is as diverse as humankind. Substance use disorder doesn’t discriminate based on age, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation and neither does the recovery community, which tries to offer help and hope for everyone. But, within the larger recovery community and “everyone’s welcome” groups, many people in recovery find it helpful to also find a small group of peers with whom they share more in common than just substance use.
For this story, writer Amy Paradysz gathered insights from professionals who work with some of the branches of the recovery community family tree—people who have experienced incarceration, elders, adolescents, mothers, and the LBGTQA+ community. These professionals talked about challenges and successes, and provided tips for empathizing with others in the recovery community to better support their needs.
When Bruce Noddin volunteered with Catholic Charities prison ministry and saw the same people appearing back in the system repeatedly, he stirred up some good trouble—asking what more could be done to reduce recidivism.
From that conversation with five people in June 2017 has evolved a Maine Prisoner Re-entry Network (MPRN) connecting a statewide web of people interested in helping make the transition to life after prison more successful.
“The excitement is contagious,” says Noddin, founder and executive director of MPRN. “We’ve had 60 or more people show up some weeks.”
Zoom calls connect Maine Department of Corrections staff and residents, faith-based organizations, mental health and substance use professionals, and nonprofits that can help with everything from housing to job training to financial literacy.
“The really cool thing that’s going on is the level of cooperation and collaboration that we’re able to do with the Department of Corrections and with Sheriffs’ Departments,” Noddin says. “We had this idea of going into prisons prior to release and introducing the residents to community resources. And everyone involved has embraced and included us in everything that they can.”
While COVID-19 protocols have meant that meetings with residents are on Zoom, being remote has made it possible for MPRN to help even more residents.
“We’ve had 350 meetings with residents since April 1 of last year,” Noddin says. “Imagine being a person in prison who has been out a couple of times and been back and never had any support, really, and then having seven people in a Zoom meeting with all these people interested in you and your success. That’s pretty cool!”
Noddin, who is in long-term recovery himself, says that the vast majority of people in Maine prisons have struggled with substance use. As a result, the goals of re-entry and recovery are tightly linked.
“A peer support or a recovery coach can be huge,” Noddin says. “It amazes me how receptive these folks are to a stranger who wants to be their recovery coach. Recovery coaches are critical. It’s that human contact, that one-on-one—and typically that lived experience. If it’s somebody like me who has the lived experience of recovery, and you add to that the lived experience of incarceration, and the connections that are made are just amazing.”
Idea to build on: Noddin says, “One of the biggest things that we fight all the time is stigma. Try to get to know the folks around you have been in prison or jail. It just takes one conversation at a time to knock down these walls. You find out over time that these are people who have experienced immense, sometimes devastating, trauma and they’re engaging and intelligent and funny. Give them a chance.”
Mary Menard, 76, is a substance abuse counselor with a private practice based in Scarborough and focused on the elderly. When she meets with a new client, she asks about wedding photos or recipes or hobbies—dipping into comfortable conversations about family and spousal relationships, activity level, and even whether they’re eating well.
“Aging is a condition of losses,” Menard says. “We have to look at what’s going on and why they want to numb their feelings
Consider the experiences of aging—leaving behind a professional life, downsizing and giving up decades of collected possessions, making do in a body that doesn’t work as well as it once did, or, after decades of marriage, managing without their spouse. Imagine being in this stage of life and having your own children telling you what to do—and what not to do.
“Children of alcoholics do the wrong things for the right reason,” Menard says. “Shaming them doesn’t work. Taking control of their life doesn’t work. I don’t tell people to stop drinking; I talk about the consequences and what they have to lose.”
Elderly people may need help accessing websites such as MyChart or organizing their prescription caddy and keeping track of what to take when. But when family members try pouring alcohol down the sink and think they’ve solved the problem, Menard has seen some quite determined and creative behavior from older folks.
Or they try to hide the problem.
Menard says that people in their seventies and up are not from a generation that grew up talking about “trauma” or “substance use disorder,” and may not want to think of themselves as an “addict” or “alcoholic.”
But, often, they do want to talk.
And if they’re losing control to substances, in the midst of losing control in so many other ways, regaining control can be a motivator for recovery.
“Some come in for a session once a month for an atta-girl or an atta-boy,” Menard says. “Others come to a point in recovery where they can take a break and contact me again when there’s a triggering event in their life, like the death of a spouse, or one of their children going through a divorce.”
Idea to build on: Menard says that she’d love to see recovery meetings in elderly housing facilities—with coffee and time to socialize, sweetening the prospect for people who may have never before considered attending a recovery support group.
At the other end of the age spectrum, teens also face challenges with independence, free will and internal motivation.
“One of the hardest things that I see my kids struggle with is a sense of personal autonomy,” says Molly Ramirez, a recovery coach employed by Portland Recovery Community Center. “When you’re under 18, you already have a lot less opportunity to make decisions for yourself, let alone when you’re in treatment.”
Ramirez, 23, went through the six-month Day One program when she was 16 and is now celebrating seven years in recovery. Since January 2020, she has been meeting virtually with teens in the Day One residential programs in New Gloucester and Hinckley.
“One of the challenges is navigating what recovery actually looks like and what it means to them,” she says. “So many of them are sent there because they don’t want to go to jail or because their parents said they had to go.”
Digging deeper than the substance abuse, girls often acknowledge past sexual trauma or have patterns of physical relationships dominating their lives. Some girls admit they’ve never had a stable, supportive friendship. But this often changes as the girls build their recovery skills and connect with one another.
Four young women who recently went through the Day One program stay in touch through a group chat, and one of those girls told Ramirez that she’d never had friends before.
“To see them come together in friendship,” Ramirez says, “is the sweetest thing I’ve seen.”
Idea to build on: Ramirez, whose own life was changed by a rehabilitation program for teens, wants to see more of those programs, less youth detention.
The Crossroads Children and Mother’s Program in Windham can be a godsend for a woman who needs residential rehab and has one or two children under the age of five. But that’s not to say that the 60-day program is easy.
“They’re getting sober—maybe for the first time or for the first time in years, so their emotions are right on the surface,” says Beth Caron, a licensed clinical social worker and Crossroad’s director of residential programs. “Some of the women who come to this program haven’t been with their children for some time.”
The focus is rehab from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, while the kids are in licensed daycare. The rest of the time, the women are on mom duty and practicing parenting skills.
The program also welcomes women in any stage of pregnancy.
“We had a woman who was in our program when she went into labor, and she came back with her little pumpkin with her,” Caron says. “It’s awesome, because she’s sober, and she has her child with her. ”
And that’s a happy beginning.
Idea to build on: Caron, who is a mother in a long-term recovery, encourages people to share the word with young mothers who are struggling with substance use disorder that there are options for recovering WITH their children. In addition to Crossroads, where Caron works, another option in Southern Maine is The McAuley Residence.
Queer Folx in Recovery
Dani Fazio, an alcohol and drug counselor in private practice, facilitates a virtual twice-monthly drop-in group called Queer Folx in Recovery that she founded in
Because the path to healing relies on feeling safe, Fazio says, Queer Folx is intentionally respectful and inclusive of not only all gender identities but also all paths of recovery—12 steps, abstinence, harm reduction, spirituality—whatever works.
“The intimacy of this small-group format helps in developing safety and trust,” Fazio says of her group, which is typically attended by three to six Mainers via Zoom. “Building community and connection is really important. You start to develop sober friendships with other queer people in recovery. And personal accountability goes up when we know that other people care about our recovery and how we’re doing.”
Idea to build on: To learn more about creating an LGBT+ safe zone, she recommends The Safe Zone Project (thesafezoneproject.com).
Everyone’s Welcome + Peer Support = Best of Both Worlds
Professionals in all five branches of the recovery family tree explored in this article—people who have experienced incarceration, elders, adolescents, mothers, and the LBGTQA+ community—say that peer support and shared lived experiences are crucial. Facilitators of “everyone’s welcome” supports, like 12-step meetings, work hard to understand the diverse needs of people in the recovery community, and an “everyone’s welcome” mindset is fundamental to the recovery family.
Many find that a specialized, small and closely connected group of peers makes all the difference.