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How Sober Support Networks Aid the Treatment Provider

Jay Brothers, CAC Primary Therapist

When young people enter treatment, whether for the first time or a return after relapse, they begin establishing relationships with their program peer, program support staff, case manager or therapist right away. Their opinion is molded by what they see and hear. Is there an age difference? What are they dressed like and what do they sound like? Most often the opinion is filtered by their acceptance of the circumstances leading to treatment. They are often attempting to find the differences in their surroundings, exclusive rather than inclusive. What I have encountered in my history of working in treatment over the last 20 plus years is that there has been a shift away from mandating or even simply encouraging clients to attend a 12 Step Support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and establishing a sober support network. “Back in the Day” every individual leaving treatment was given a meeting schedule and directed to attend a “90&90” or a meeting a day for a minimum of ninety days.

What is a sober support network? Generally, it consists of a sponsor and a group of like-minded individuals sought out by the client. Usually the criteria for obtaining this group is based on previously stated opinions. What they see and hear. My question is how does this work if a newly sober person doesn’t attend these meetings? In most outpatient programs, there is an acknowledgement that 12 Step Support meetings are beneficial and are encouraged, but, is almost TABOO to say you have to attend. One of the most impactful approaches that Turnbridge takes is that, as a Phase 1 resident, you are asked to attend a meeting daily. Even the day you arrive! You are taken out in the community and are exposed to others that are trying to do the exact same thing as you, stay sober and make changes to their lives.

As you have experienced from your loved ones addiction and what we as treatment providers know is that there has to be a degree of external pressure to aid in the internal desire to make changes. The “ism” in alcoholism and drug addiction attempts to convince the newly sober man that he truly don’t have a problem. “It’s just because of this or that, it’s not because of me!”

If the only message about getting help comes from the “enemy” it becomes watered down because:

A. my parents/caregiver are just trying to control me

B. the treatment center is getting paid to tell me I have a problem

The biggest contradiction to this thinking is the people that residents are exposed to in 12 Step Support meetings because, for all intents and purposes, they are in the same position. There is no perceived pay off. In fact, most of the time they will simply extend a hand and say, “Welcome.”

At Turnbridge, it is required that our clients acquire telephone numbers of sober men attending 12 Step Support meetings that they go to. Actually, clients are asked to get up to five phone numbers a week for the first six weeks in Phase I. What this does, simply by the math, is give clients up to 30 phone numbers available to reach out to for support. A sober support network. Out of this pool of individuals, clients then choose a specific person to act as a sponsor. A sponsor is not a professional caseworker or counselor, but simply a volunteer guide. Sponsors assist the newly sober to understand the in’s and out’s, how to’s and more importantly the what not to do’s.

From a treatment provider’s stand point, the use of a sober support network is paramount in adapting addictive thinking to one of sober, safe and strategic decision making. When dealing with my clients experiencing difficulties, I will often ask whether or not they have discussed the matter with their sponsors or anyone in their sober support network. There are times when residents will report to me that some of the best advice they received came from their sponsors.

Another benefit of this is that clients have the ability to develop or redevelop interpersonal skills with people sans the guilt, shame and remorse associated with their addictive lifestyles. They get to practice healthy communication skills and experience successful sober decision-making. Thus, opening the door to examine the damages of past relationships. This triad of a healthy relationship, the young man, the sponsor and the therapist assists the newly sober man with the confidence to face his new recovery lifestyle and not feel like he’s the only one stuck between a rock and a hard place.