Recovery Coaches Offer Nonjudgmental Support To Fill Addiction Treatment Gaps
Charlie Lopez and Susan Daley meet most Wednesday evenings at the Nest, a recovery meeting room in Belchertown, Massachusetts.
One afternoon this winter, as they waited for other members of their support group to arrive, they looked up at a wall of inspirational quotes.
“Always believe that anything is possible,” Daley read out loud.
“I believe in hope, and I believe in community,” Lopez said.
The two women consider themselves close friends — though officially, Daley is Lopez's recovery coach. They met through the Drug Addiction and Recovery Team, known as DART, a grant-funded program in which police officers connect drug users to community resources.
In many cases, the trigger is a 911 call either for an overdose or a drug-related crime.
Lopez first got involved through a domestic violence support group at her apartment complex in Ware. She was there to talk about a man who had abused her. She admitted she was using crack cocaine to get through the days.
“I was traumatized. I was just in tears, and I begged for help,” Lopez said.
A police officer visiting the group introduced the DART program, and asked Lopez if she'd be open to a visit — from him and a recovery coach. He explained that a coach is not a clinician. It's someone who has their own history with addiction, and supports others in recovery.
Lopez agreed. So the officer called Daley.
“We drove to Charlie's house, and we sat down, and we chatted with her, and found out what was going on with her, and how she had been using,” Daley said. “And she was ready to get the help that she wanted.”
“I welcomed them both,” Lopez said. “I had no problem telling them my story.”
And Lopez had no problem inviting a police officer to her house, even though she said some of her neighbors, who still use drugs, did.
“That's the first reaction. ‘Well, why are you bringing the cops around?’” Lopez said. “Well, that's none of your damn business.”
Daley knows this kind of fear, since she's a recovering alcoholic herself.
When Daley first got involved with DART, she was wary of even walking into police stations. One time she ran into an officer who had, years before, arrested her for drunk driving.
“I was humiliated,” Daley said. “But let me tell you, I got over it really quickly.”
Now she considers the police her partners. They show up together to the homes of drug users. On the one hand, going with an officer makes her feel safer. But she knows it can also be off-putting.
“There were people that turned us away,” Daley said.
Some people disappear after they claim they want help. Others ignore the coach's phone calls for months.
Often, it comes down to timing and luck.
“I’ve taken phone calls from police officers that are literally, you know, hot calls,” said Trevor Dayton, a DART recovery coach in Northampton, Massachusetts. “‘This happened less than 60 minutes ago. Can you call them now? They'd like to talk.’ Sometimes that's all it takes — responding in the moment to help somebody move forward from where they're at, and not sure how to move forward by themselves.”
'They don't turn their backs on me just because I screwed up'
Ideally, the relationship between coach and client keeps going.
Lopez said she was able to stop using crack without going into treatment because she knew she could call Daley any time for support. They fill out goal-setting worksheets together, covering topics such as how to deal with money or find spiritual fulfillment.
Daley drives Lopez to 12-step meetings or grocery shopping. And they do a lot of talking.
“She listens to me. She helps me when I need her,” Lopez said, her voice cracking. “And it's emotional for me because I never had this help before.”
“It's a huge compliment,” said Daley. “Thank you. Charlie, I appreciate it.”
Daley works full-time for an insurance company in Springfield, Massachusetts, then drives most afternoons to meet her recovery clients. It’s her way of making sense of the years she lost to alcohol.
And because Daley understands addiction, she knows relapse is part of the process. But that didn't make it any easier when, a few months after they met, Lopez admitted she was using crack again.
“I called her up. I said, ‘I did it. I lapsed. I’m sorry,’” said.
Daley took it hard.
“I felt devastated. And I was thinking, what more could I have done?” Daley said.
Lopez told her it wasn’t her fault, that she had done all should could. And she was grateful Daley wanted to keep working with her.
“They don't turn their backs on me just because I screwed up,” Lopez said.
'I keep calling, and I keep calling'
The coach-client relationship is important, but it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Outside factors like health insurance or a shortage of detox programs in western Massachusetts can make the job more difficult.
“I will call hospitals and see if they have any beds available,” Daley said. “And if they don't have a bed available, I keep calling, and I keep calling, and I keep calling.”
Daley remembered spending practically all night with one client. He'd been promised a detox bed in Greenfield, but by evening, the program still had no space.
“And I'm thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do?’” Daley said. “So the guard there gave me another list. So I started calling the hospitals on the list, and we found one.”
Dayton, the recovery coach in Northampton, had been coaching a family for months before their daughter was finally ready to enter detox. But there was a week-long waiting list for a woman's bed.
“And when you tell a person who wants to access services, and the wait is a week — it's criminal,” Dayton said.
In lieu of a detox bed, they had to send her to an emergency room, which released her that same night. Dayton said he never heard back from her.
Access to treatment is a problem for many programs like DART, according to Alexander Walley, a researcher at Boston Medical Center. But he said it’s a classic dilemma across the addiction field.
“That isn't going to undermine an entire program, but that is going to make working for that program frustrating,” Walley said.
And sometimes, no matter how much work a coach puts in building trust or getting a client into treatment, it doesn't end well.
“I went to four or five wakes last year for young kids who overdosed,” Daley said. “And that's really difficult.”
Fatal overdoses in Massachusetts jumped significantly over the last decade, after the opioid fentanyl entered the supply. Deaths declined slightly in the past couple years. But researchers say it's hard to measure the impact of outreach on overdose rates.
Nevertheless, Lopez said the program has made a huge difference to her.
“When there's nonjudgmental people, it makes me want to keep trying,” she said.
If Lopez can stay sober for a good stretch of time, she said, she'd like to become a recovery coach herself.