A Crock of Clean Time Crap

The requirement that recovery coaches have a predetermined amount of “clean” time before they become eligible for employment is a crock of… crap. I think I understand the reasoning for this. If I’m not on point here I’m sure people will let me know

1. Proponents want to assure that recovery coaches are stable enough for employment. After all, in early recovery, we are super fragile human beings and need to be treated with the utmost delicacy (Note: I fear some readers may not perceive the heavy sarcasm in the last sentence).

2. They want to assure quality of service. They must feel that having recovery coaches clean and sober for a period of time will do this. What do you think?

3. Potential employers are fearful of relapse that could cause human resource problems.

4. They want potential recovery coaches to focus on their own personal recovery. Working in the field would be too much for them. (Yes, people actually believe this).

There are a lot of assumptions, generalizations and stereotypes in the thinking described above. There is an impressive amount of objectifying going on too. Let me dive into this. Here’s why I have problems.

1. Most everyone agrees that lack of meaningful employment following an addiction history is a significant roadblock to long-term recovery. An inherent role of recovery coaching is to serve others. This is an underpinning of recovery. So if you want to become employed in this, most places say, “No, no, no. You have to wait (usually two years). McDonald’s is hiring.”

Does this make sense to you?

2. I don’t think you can legally require sobriety and/or clean time as a requirement for employment. Yet people do it all the time. If you require someone to be in recovery, you are probably guilty of discrimination.

3. How do you know when a person’s recovery started? How are you going to check? How are you going to determine if they are maintaining recovery? You could have your people piss in a cup once in awhile. At the worst, it’s humiliating and perhaps illegal. At the best, it breeds distrust. Recovery status gets even trickier to determine when someone is in recovery from alcoholism. What happens if they imbibe on their own time? It’s perfectly legal you know.

4. What’s magical about two years (or one year)? According to this deep thinking, people who have maintained recovery for 730 days (two years), go to sleep on the evening of Day 730, wake up on the morning of Day 731 and the sobriety fairy visited and sprinkled magic dust. Now they are sparkly, shiny and new. Even more miraculous is they are suddenly eligible for employment.

5. During keynotes, I often describe the absurdity of the clean time requirement. I use an example of someone with 20 years of recovery who drifted away from recovery for two years. The person now says they have maintained recovery for the last year. My question to the audience is

“Does this person have one year or twenty-one years of recovery?”

One time, after I delivered a particularly impassioned talk at a peer conference, a woman approached me while I sat at a table. In whispered tones, she said,

“That was me you described. I had more than twenty years in recovery and have worked for the same agency all that time. I relapsed a few months ago. I don’t dare tell my employer. They’d fire me. It’s tearing me up inside.”

I replied, “I guess it depends if you personally look at recovery as consecutive or cumulative. In other words, those twenty plus years still count, don’t you think?” I don’t know what happened afterwards, but I also encouraged her to be honest. Honesty is always the best policy. Another gentleman I know in recovery says that when he’s asked about his recovery status, he says I’m three weeks short of ten years. The back-story is he had three separate lapses with each one lasting about a week. How would the system categorize him? Would he be eligible?

It’s complicated, isn’t it?

6. Hey! Peers in the mental health field have no such requirement. Have you ever seen a job posting that says you must be symptom free for a minimum of two years? Yet, administrators often say people with substance use disorder and people with mental illness are all the same. Except when hiring us, then there are differing rules of engagement. I have seen peers experience an intense recurrence of symptoms and in many circles they are applauded when returning to work. This doesn’t happen too often with an addiction relapse, does it?

Ok, rant finished. In full disclosure, I do have internal bias. Back in 1987 when I first started my recovery I attended a new Tuesday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (AA). When I inquired about chairing the meeting, I was told you needed three years of sobriety. That was required. I waited three years, chaired the meeting and then the “rule” was rescinded. They had made the rule just for me to incentivize me. I have grown to appreciate what they did. But I still have a lingering resentment (I’m not completely well yet). I believe I was capable enough to chair the meeting, but they made the decision for me. I did not like being treated like an object.

Over the years, we have processed the length of sobriety concept deeply here at CCAR. It’s not considered when hiring employees. We don’t know how long they have, we don’t ask or really care, but often people volunteer the information. When interviewing, we are looking for other things. I look for gratitude. Another person on our staff looks for a servant’s heart. Another looks for the appropriate skills. Another factors in the experience. We are a well-balanced team. I think we have the right question now, especially when interviewing people “newer” in recovery.

“Can this person differentiate their own stuff from the recoveree’s stuff?”

That’s the real question. It has nothing to do with length of clean time. It does not matter if you are in personal recovery or not. To emphasize this point, I recently read the following excerpt in Bill White’s most recent book “Recovery Rising”.

“Each of us brings to each helping encounter a smorgasbord of life experiences, attitudes, beliefs, character traits, emotional baggage, knowledge, and skills. The skilled self-aware therapist and recovery coach learns to actively manage these dimensions. They find a way to keep their “stuff” out of their client’s “stuff” (pardon the highly technical language here).

I have witnessed people with multiple decades of recovery not be able to keep their stuff out of the way. Haven’t you?

Finally, CCAR has a young person we hired as an Emergency Department Recovery Coach. TJ was just over a year in recovery when we hired him. He is a natural coach. He is skilled, professional, humble and eager to learn. He has gratitude. He has a servant’s heart. He is able to keep his stuff (yes, he has some) out of the client’s stuff. He has prospered. His recovery has amplified. And he has touched, guided and helped save the lives of dozens of others.

Thank goodness we didn’t create a policy that would have made him ineligible.

If you have a clean time requirement in your agency, lose it. Please.

Phil “Right Click” Valentine
Recovery established 12.28.87

Phil Valentine
Phil Valentine

In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots. During all that time alone with my Creator, my purpose in life became more precisely defined. I am, simply, to coach recovery. Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life. I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in 1999. I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004. I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula. I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is a way for me to share things I have learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. I find that when I speak I present the same messages over and over. It’s time to write them down.

23 thoughts on “A Crock of Clean Time Crap”

  1. I respectfully disagree. People new in recovery need time to experience life in recovery, to face challenges and work through them. How are they supposed to offer support to others when they are still learning the ropes of their own recovery? It’s not a matter of years as status; it’s a matter of years as maturing, learning what works and what doesn’t for your recovery, and yes, becoming emotionally stable.
    Clean time isn’t something to brag about, but that doesn’t mean it has no value.

  2. At our AA group we have a 6 month rule of sobriety for chairing a meeting and I think that it is too much ! I push young people in the program to start looking for sponsees as soon as they have finished 11 and 1/2 steps no matter how long it took them, Why ? because that person in early recovery can identify with a fellow traveler, he or she cannot comprehend how the hell someone has 10 years like I do.

  3. I full concur with your statements and beliefs. We have a rule that a person must have 6 months of sobriety to chair a meeting and that is too much ! let them chair at 60 days. I also want youngsters in sobriety to reach out for someone to sponsor after they have completed 11-1/2 steps, because it is a 12 step program.

    The person who has the most sobriety in a room is the person who woke up earliest this morning !

  4. What about people like me on suboxone. Ten years no drug use but always being judged that I am still on a Opioid.
    I totally agree with what you are saying.

  5. I love this post, Phil. I’ve had this conversation many times over the years, approaching it from the perspective you describe above. I hope you have some trail time planned for the spring. I’m headed to backpack in Iceland this summer in August. Take care.

  6. Hey Phil,
    How are you my friend?
    I totally agree with your point, even objecting to the judgment-laden term, “clean” (versus “dirty”). Recovery. like alcoholism is a self-diagnosed process along the continuum of wellness. At Exponents, we are proponents of “Therapeutic Harm Reduction”, meeting folks where they are, but not leaving them there. Employment is a definite benchmark of health. To establish arbitrary and irrelevant time frames with no rational basis in fact, does more harm than good. Exponents has never had a ‘clean time requirement’, nor will we…

  7. Absolutely true.”Clean”is everyone’s estimate of themselves.I’ve seen people drunk last year who are demanding a 10 year chip today. I actually smoked pot & popped some pills in my early years that I count as sober.

  8. It is crucial for an individual to spend time once they have made a commitment to recovery that they keep the focus on themselves. A great amount of work is needed to discover the underlying reasons which have been driving our addictions and to shed those so that we may be free from the obsessions and compulsions of the addictions.

    Many people new to recovery seem so quick to latch onto the idea as the all-important purpose in life is to ‘help’ another with addictions and enter into recovery. One reason for this is it so much easier to focus on others rather and avoid looking inward and changing one’s unhealthy belief system which has contributed to driving the addictions. Without uncovering those beliefs and replacing them once they have been discovered, so that they then may be discarded and replaced with a ‘new’ healthy belief system which will free them from addictions one day at a time. That’s what I understand as ‘managing our stuff’. Without spending the time with the commitment to keeping the focus on ourselves and suddenly leapfrogging to the suggestion of helping others who are still suffering is to ourselves a disservice. That is why it is suggested that recovery is at first a selfish program which requires effort, commitment and work which an individual would much prefer not doing and put all of their efforts into ‘helping’ or ‘coaching’ others when they have not done the prerequisite work of keeping the focus on one’s self to change as they often say which is ‘everything’.

    The whole process is one of finding the healing and relief from the addictions through looking inward as Dr. Carl Jung has said that doing so one awakens. Recovery is at first a selfish program as we ‘keep the focus’ on ourselves rather than looking outward and attempting to help those still suffering. As they say, you can not give away what you do not have. That would be the need to developing a healthy sense of oneself, learning to love oneself for if one is unable to develop that sense of self-love, self-forgiveness and self-respect how can one possibly give away something which they have no experience with such as self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-love, which is essentially admitting one has an unhealthy ego (unsubstantiated) and it is not so much as eliminating it and overcoming that ego, that it is rather in development of a healthy ego (substantitated) which is so vital to coming to be recovered though not a cured person in recovery. It is at that point that then one is able to truly be selfless in ‘coaching’ or ‘helping’ others.

    It takes time and it is suggested that we give time, time for the process to happen which with our efforts as our primary focus is in growth into health and wellness, that recovery to begins to work towards achieving one’s potential with a commitment to being able to give words to what are is our purpose here in this life which is that everyone seeks true and authentic happiness and to live an authentic, genuine life of integrity.

  9. Thank you for this well-argued piece, Phil! I wholeheartedly agree. The objectification of those of us in (self-proclaimed) recovery is part of that pattern of stigmatization and labeling which operates as a real barrier to entry. Your advocacy is most timely.

  10. Wow! Good points Phil, I have never really looked at it that way. I guess there are pros and cons to all of it.
    Personally I feel like a person needs to be grounded in their recovery, the employment piece I will not comment either way on.

  11. I worked as a staff member for the center of drug free living, and at the friendship house overnight, now I work in home health, I have over 80 college credits, trying to become a case manager, I got an a in that class. I work with clients that have mental handicaps as well as dementia and diabities. Yes they do have a lot of requirements to work in mental health. My mother just died in a house fire on 1 Jan and my dad lost everything, my mother had every sign of bi polar disorder and a rare case of scizoprinia, she could not get out because she could not walk. She got sick when I was 12, I went into the service in 1979, 25 yrs, still that is not enough to get a job in case management? I have two disabilities myself, but still work ft, I have never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I easily could have been. I believe it takes a team, just like at any other job, people just need to get along.Ok

  12. Phil did you ever see a chef take a perfectly good cheesesteak and add french fries and then mozzarella sticks and then buffalo wings and then chicken fingers and then bacon and add, and add and add until they think they’ve made the perfect fat sandwich? Problem is, that it’s so big now, no one can eat it or recognize the original cheesesteak or in our world recognize the original concept of a recovery coach…to enhance one’s ability to care. Point being, one cannot improve upon perfection and time should never a prerequisite for one’s ability to care!

  13. Awesome! Thank you Phil. Your insight and topics are always insightful and I love learning from them. Grateful to have met you, and been taught by you.

  14. Hi Phil, I think there are a couple of things here, “time” being a factor in selection re: one’s “recovery period” when obtaining employment, I am in agreement with is meaningless. What IS meaningful and important is what the person’s motivation is to live a healthy sober life, give to others, work on self issues needing adjustment, transition to a healthy way of thinking. What is that person doing to heal from life wounds or cognitions that have led to addiction. Has that person gotten honest with themselves and others? What about impulsivity? judgment and insight of that person? These are what I would look at as a potential employer rather than a timeframe.
    I am a foster parent of a family member with addiction whose daughter I care for and will not allow the person still using to see her daughter due to the addictive thinking and manipulation of her daughter’s emotions. This is more harmful than not. Her daughter doesn’t want to see her and her words to me are, ” I just want to be a 14 yo and have a normal 14 yo life and not have to worry about what my mother is doing with drugs/etoh, the problems she made for herself in marrying a man who is violent toward her and addicted to etoh.” I have seen damage to her daughter’s emotions that has stagnated her ability to experience a healthy, happy childhood. This said, to say the following: How much time will it take to allow her mother to see her again? I don’t know, that depends on her and upon her mother. It’s not a simple answer. Yes, I want to see her mother sustain a period of clean time that “has no number” rather her seeing her live her sobriety with improved emotional health, healthy thinking/cognition, self-care and efforts to work toward reunification with her daughter. It’s not a question of “number” nor is it one of having to be “perfect” in sobriety; rather one of “quality of health”. Secondly, re: employment that too would depend on type of employment and recovery stability. There are some areas of life that ARE “black and white”. I would not want a surgeon to operate who is recovering and recently relapsed to perform an operation on me. Has nothing to do with skill level, rather everything to do with mindset, emotional stability and focus. Each job is different and some in early recovery qualify for various jobs like anyone else. Thanks for posting.

  15. This is an important issue that needs to be discussed if change is to happen. The sarcasm and implication that I am an idiot if I disagree, make open dialogue difficult. I won’t be sharing my opinion in this forum, and I imagine there are others who feel off put by the tone of the blog.

  16. From a hiring perspective, how is this compliant with EEO & ADA? More than 70% of people with Substance Use Disorder are in the workforce. Many active in addiction. What about the professional who drinks “socially” but has a DUI and an assault against a family member but is being shielded by the employer (true story)? My profession, social work, requires licensure by an independent board. Services are offered for impaired professionals. Where I work, there is an Employee Assistance Program. RCPs should be on a level and equal playing field, not differentiated by an arbitrary label that has no standard definition. Like race, recovery is a social construct.
    I am also bothered by people with unethical and self-serving conduct who are hiding behind the label of RCP or Peer Specialist when their behavior is sick and exploitive. I view part of my role as a (per CCAR) RCP as to be a model of integrity and bring people forward and up. Not to be led by people who are talking the talk. Ethical behavior and professionalism are key elements of success which can’t be measured in time.

  17. Very interesting post. Thank you so much. I’m curious if you would suggest that any time “in recovery” is important before employing someone to support others in their recovery. Is it fair to treat everyone on a case by case basis or is it valuable to have some rules about “clean time” that apply across the board to certain types of opportunities. Are people in early recovery more prone to relapse? What is the potential harm from putting someone in early recovery in a “recovery coach” employment role?

  18. The reason for waiting before seeking employment in the ever growing and profit seeking industry of recovery, is that it takes at least two years before any recovering addict hears the popping sound of their head coming out of their ass. I suppose the author of this misguided site would fail to recognize that fact, stating that as a newcomer the request to chair a meeting was met with resistance. How dare the group members who have been sober for years tell a newcomer that their thinking may still be clouded by a degree of arrogance and ignorance nourished by their self-centered addiction!!! I would hope that every day we awaken having maintained our sobriety brings us closer to a humble awareness of truth.

  19. Mary Lou Kweselait

    Thank you Phil, your blog here has helped me to see the question I asked today in a different way. I liked how you equated it to ‘it’s illegal to ask a person’s age’ in an interview. I’m in the EDRC class for learning and exposure. I got both today, and your article added to that. Thanks again~

    Mary Lou

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