Bill White, a colleague and friend, first introduced me to two ideas that resonated deep within me.
When I first heard this, I instantly compared these concepts to a disease model and how illness spreads (a long time ago, I majored in biology at UConn and I recall a few things, very few). We all understand about airborne pathogens, about how bacteria or viruses can be transmitted by contact. We take steps to not spread disease by covering our mouths when we cough and washing our hands. But with recovery, we don’t want to prevent infection, we want to promote it.
So what makes recovery contagious?
I know when I sit with others with long-term recovery, I catch something. I feel something positive. What specifically do I catch? Do people become infected, or as Bill says “affected” because of our experience, hope and love? I think so.
This transmission is intangible, dare I say, spiritual in nature.
Let me offer an illustration. I believe all people are born with light in their souls – the light of life. Let’s envision the source of that light to be fire – an ancient concept.
Ever gaze into the eyes of a newborn or an infant? The light in their eyes transforms lives. The birth of my daughter, and the power in her gaze, permanently disrupted the bond cocaine had on my life.
As a child grows the flame either brightens or diminishes. Environmental factors and personal experience influence the flame. For me, from my late teens to my twenties, addiction sought to extinguish me. I plied my system with drugs and doused the flame with fear, doubt, denial, arrogance, self-hatred, shame and guilt. Addiction, along with my attitude, nearly snuffed my fire out. With my body often cold and my eyes dull, death loomed nearby.
Then a brilliant gaze from a newborn daughter stoked a dying ember deep within. Soon thereafter, the light in the eyes of people with many years of recovery caught my attention. I sat amongst them and basked in their warmth. Their fires encouraged my own.
That’s the contagion. That’s what we carry. Fire.
Like real fire, the more our internal fire blazes, the more our countenance warms and our eyes brighten. We awaken. People naturally gravitate to us. When in the presence of a fire carrier (or Firestarter*), another person draws from that fire.
In a profession where we tend to complicate matters and overthink solutions, our greatest gift we bring to an interaction with another person is our presence. Period. Here are some questions to ask yourself concerning your ability to be present.
- Do you genuinely care about others?
- How comfortable are you sitting with someone in pain?
- Do you find that listening, just listening, to someone comes naturally to you?
- Are you sincerely curious?
- Do you have the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”?
Answering yes to these questions reveals a solid foundation on which to serve as a recovery coach.
From my work with hundreds of recovery coaches, I noticed that people successful in the role possess some common characteristics – warmth, kindness, respect, curiosity, compassion, empathy and love. To me, they have tended to their internal flames well.
That’s why self-care is vitally important. In order to coach recovery for extended lengths of time, we must take care of ourselves. Wouldn’t you agree?
Today, the recovery coach profession faces many challenges; accountability to an agency that misunderstands the role; specific certifications to meet funding requirements; delivery of the service in recovery-hostile environments and others. I hear discouraging stories far too often. Encounters with “the system” often lead recovery coaches down an alley toward confusion, frustration and fear. Doubt creeps in about their ability to conduct the work.
Sometimes a well-timed question helps turn the tide.
“Can you be present with the person you’re helping?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Then focus on that. It’s the most important aspect of our role.”
Be present. Be warm. Be you.
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 that sacred time, 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 January 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 one way for me to share lessons learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. When I engage with others, I present the same messages repeatedly. It’s time to write them down.
Phil “Right Click” Valentine
Recovery established 12.28.87