The System Does Not Define Us

By Ruth Riddick

“In some states, I am not welcome to become certified, or even apply for certain jobs,” writes CCAR’s Stacy Charpentier in a recent blog post. You’ll remember that Stacy openly shared her personal experience in a moving testament to the power of both the problem (SUD) and the solution (recovery). It was a generous opportunity to get to know her beyond our interactions with this knowledgeable and committed colleague; a demonstration of that very intimacy we look for in relationships. Thank you, Stacy!

But it was her statement quoted above that really got my attention – and not in a good way! Frankly, I’m alarmed.

One of our core principles is summarized in the slogan: “You are in recovery when you say you are” (CCAR Recovery Coach Academy©). What a manifesto! This slogan gives teeth to our attractive-sounding bromides: meeting people where they’re at; strengths-based practice; etc.

We’re all signed up for these clichés, until we’re not.

As a CCAR-Recovery Coach Academy student, I chafed when this inclusive principle was presented. “Hey,” I said (or did I shout?), “I earned my seat the hard way. What’s with this kinder, softer approach?” Stronger language colored the air on that occasion, as I’m sure it does in many classrooms nationwide at just about this point on Day 1. As an authorized trainer, I now tell participants “we’re not the sobriety police.” This is not always a well-received message, but it is your recovery (not my – fabulous! useless! irrelevant! well-meaning! conformist! – ideas for your recovery) that we’re talking about in our practice as recovery coaches and, in New York State, as peer advocates in the public health system.

Stacy Charpentier is in recovery when she says she is.

There’s another fundamental principle at stake here, and it was first articulated in 1976 by Professor Thomasina Borkman of George Mason University. Early in a distinguished career, Borkman wrote that the legitimacy of recovery coaches/peer advocates arises not from traditional career preparation but from: “experience coming from a personal history of, or exposure to, substance use disorder, the process of change, and recovery; and expertise requiring application of that knowledge to the skill of helping others establish, and live in, their own definition of recovery.” (See William White papers; text slightly updated by this writer)

Again, Stacy has no difficulty demonstrating that she meets these criteria. In which case, why wouldn’t she be welcome to apply for jobs in the recovery coach/peer advocate role?

It’s truly shocking that our core principles would be so threatened by what is essentially human resources myopia. In NYS, there’s a disturbing trend emerging whereby the understanding of “lived experience” is being degraded to mean only the individual’s active using story and baseline survival beyond; no mention here of expertise or skill. This is a distortion – and one, surely, of doubtful legality. Can it possibly be acceptable to set such a narrow “lived experience” limit to job opportunity, especially when that limit is based on health status? (You are in recovery when the Human Resources Department says you are.) What happened to anti-discrimination laws? The Americans with Disabilities Act? Parity?

Meanwhile, health status (mental, physical, spiritual) is irrelevant to the twofold purpose of professional certification which is simply to confirm that the certificate holder (i) has the knowledge, skills and abilities formally predetermined as non-negotiable requirements for the certified role; and (ii) is bound by, and answerable to, a professional code of ethics attached to the role and enforced by the certifying board.

Thus, when applying for certification, candidates offer proof of having completed and mastered practice-specific education, as demonstrated through independent testing, together with role-specific work experience, when required, and an attestation to their profession-specific ethical code. I remember the application process for Certified Addiction Recovery Coach being technical and tedious, but I wanted that certification to confirm to the public that I’m a qualified and accountable professional. Which I am. And so is Stacy Charpentier.

Any additional personal or practice criteria demanded for any reason are beyond the scope of professional certification.

In conclusion, it seems to me, to judge by Stacy’s reporting, that we have a lot of – yes, advocacy! – ahead if we are to promote and protect the foundational precepts of our field: we are in recovery when we say we are; our legitimacy comes from our experience and expertise; our role-specific certification confirms our readiness to work.


Certified Addiction Recovery Coach, Ruth Riddick, is an experienced recovery and personal development educator living in recovery. She also serves as Community Outreach for the New York Certification Board ( Find her at; connect on LinkedIn and Facebook.

9 thoughts on “The System Does Not Define Us”

  1. Some may say I am an independent thinker to a fault, and that I am always going against the grain. While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with these sentiments, I will admit my views and stance insofar as recovery tend to be unique and somewhat controversial. For example, “you are in recovery when you say you are in recovery” does not at all resonate with my way of thinking. Anybody can say anything at any given time, but I have learned the hard way man/woman is judged by his deeds and not by his words.

    It’s not what you say that matters, but rather what you do (or don’t do) that counts. Sure words hold immense power and you can speak things into existence, but it’s what one does that really matters and/or creates that existence. Words or faith without action is dead. Or better stated, words and faith followed by inspired action are what really matters when it’s all ‘said and done.’ In closing, I would say to anyone willing to listen, “you are in recovery when you are in recovery.”

    Garrett Walker (GSW)

  2. I respectfully disagree with the sentiment “You are in recovery when you say you are.” Recovery is not just a word or a state of mind. Being in recovery means you are working at staying clean and sober; it’s an action, not a phrase. I, too, chafed when this line of thought was introduced at the CCAR training I attended. I have been employed as a full-time peer coach for six years, and have been sober for 35. Telling someone that all it takes to be in recovery is a wish and a phrase does them a great disservice. Recovery is work. Rewarding work, grueling work, humbling work, which yields miraculous results. But work it is. It is more than an idea.

  3. Jennifer Dean Oberholtzer

    ” A person is in recovery when they state that they are in recovery”, is a powerful statement that hit home many truths for me when I first heard it said in the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy in 2014. I am a person in long-term recovery who has remained immersed in my recovery community & advocacy efforts both individually and through active participation with organizations such as Facing Addiction, Faces & Voices of Recovery and Addiction Policy Forum. I have also been working in the Recovery Field with local Inpatient & Outpatient Service Providers. This does not make me an expert, but has given me additional experience & better understanding for my personal history with Substance Use Disorder (SUD), the long road to begin & continue my own recovery, & allows me to better assist others seeking their own recovery. I must maintain my disease daily, as a diabetic must maintain their disease of diabetes daily, through proven methods for healthier living as with any disease or disorder. I have gained true compassion with respect for every person’s individual personal journey with recovery from any illness, disorder, disease, or injury. I am not here to judge anyone’s recovery. Recovery is a continued path of action, with all of the ups & downs all our lives experience in order to learn & gain more understanding & even a little wisdom. It is a daily spiritual walk for me & to some who might judge, I may not look very successful because I don’t have the outward material appearance of societal standards for a successful person, but I know I am not the same person I once was when I was suffering with active untreated Substance Use Disorder & dependency upon prescribed opioid pain medication. I will not argue the point when another person states they are in recovery. If I did argue the point based on my opinion of what may not look like recovery to me, then I will have allowed my ego & pride to make it about me & I could no longer be of help to them. I respect that recovery is a personal journey that can’t be made alone, as we all need support, but no life journey ever will look exactly the same as another & this includes each life learning to live better with what we have been given to live with. I am in recovery because I say so & what anyone else thinks about it is none of my business. I feel any will find me a compassionate, thoughtful, considerate, passionate, energetic, creative, hard working, enthusiastic, fun loving & intelligent human being if they want to get past assumptions based on stigmas & take the time to get to know me. My recovery did not begin on the day I put down alcohol & drugs. It began on the day I realized I could not move beyond my suffering alone, took the action to ask honestly for the help I truly needed & accepted that help that was offered to me.

  4. Deb Pasco you missed the point. Your comment”…Telling someone that all it takes to be in recovery is a wish and a phrase does them a great disservice. ” suggests that you may want to revisit the RCA and core principles, namely that we don’t “tell” anyone anything. We offer guidance, help them explore their strengths, what works for them, what doesn’t. We offer hope and a helping hand. Telling is not among our core competencies. We believe Recovery is a Discovery process. “You are in Recovery when You Say You Are” should not threaten us, our sobriety, our personal pathway or our competence as Recovery Coach. It’s really that simple.

  5. You are truly an inspiration Ruth. Recovery Coaching has been amazing. Since beginning this amazing journey, many have looked down on coaching. Mostly in the Legal and Clinical settings here. Names such as,
    glorified sponsor, fake counselor, as well as others have been used. Since then, so many people new in recovery have accomplished so many things they thought they never would. They thought they had no one to support them and had no confidence.
    Now, more individuals are seeing the positive aspects of coaching and are requesting. They observe the individuals who have obtained the service and are watching them accomplish what may seem little goals, but are really big goals to those who never thought they would achieve anything. No one tries to define a football, basketball, or soccer coach. They are what they are, coaches.
    Guiding, empowering and supporting the next person to be better than they were yesterday.
    best regards,

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