From Client to Coach: A Journey of Recovery

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Mark Wiitala, Recovery Coach, offered the following powerful testimony about his recovery journey at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Advocates Community Counseling in Harvard.

"I was introduced to Advocates as a participant in the Ayer Drug Court Program in 2012. One of my biggest obstacles to recovery prior to this point was not knowing where to start.

The Drug Court program requires participants to meet with a judge once a week, attend three recovery meetings in the community, and three groups at Advocates. You must also have an individual therapy session once a week, comply with random drug and alcohol screens, and do community service every week.

My first experience with Advocates was when I entered the door and was shown around the facility by a counselor who said to me, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you do what you want with it.”

I shrugged it off, because obviously I knew everything at that point. Later on it became much clearer and has resonated with me ever since.

Afterwards, I met with the recovery coaches. A recovery coach is someone with first-hand, lived experience who has overcame obstacles. They advocate for individuals’ best interests when it comes to treatment, as well as what is in our best interest for long-term success and recovery. They help lead groups, and they help individuals in recovery navigate resources and find meetings in the surrounding communities.

Recovery coaches work individually with participants on exercises to strengthen our recovery. They help us to own our mistakes and look at the thinking that leads to them.  Ultimately, they empower us to make sound choices moving forward.

One of the biggest benefits and vital to individuals’ success is that recovery coaches are available just about 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

I’m sure everyone has been in some sort of unexpected crisis at one point or another in life. As you know, you can’t typically schedule a crisis for a specific time when you’re able to talk to someone that has the abilities and understanding to be able to help.

That is ultimately what recovery coaches are available to do. They become a point of contact that if something should arise, they will understand the struggles of not only the program you’re involved in but also the real difficulties someone on the pathway to recovery will encounter.

I had many experiences in Drug Court that have changed the way I think, the way I act and the way I respond. One group in particular helped shape a new understanding of myself as well as how I interacted with others. I joined a group Advocates offered called Helping Men Recover. It is a trauma-informed, gender- responsive, strength-based group focusing on substance use and the criminal justice system. It addresses many issues men encounter, including feelings, expectations, identity, family, and how we interact with them and society.

I graduated Drug Court in the summer of 2013 and I started working as a recovery coach for Advocates in early 2014. Since then, I’ve worked with individuals and participants in the Drug Court program. I’ve been trained in the Helping Men Recover curriculum and have facilitated and co-facilitated numerous groups.

I was able to attend several Drug Court conferences and learn about best practices and integrated care within the criminal justice system.

I’ve worked with the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health services Administration) GAINS Center, and I’ve been an active participant in the peer learning community for almost three years.

I’ve attended the CCAR (Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery), a recovery coaches’ academy, and am working on a national certification as well as a certification in telephone recovery coaching.

I created an 8-10 week relapse prevention curriculum that we use in weekly groups in both Worcester and Harvard.

One of the most rewarding parts of doing this work is watching individuals gain strengths and skills, allowing them to become empowered and confident in making the right choices for the right reasons. This happens through time and personal growth. Having access to Advocates and its resources is a tremendous advantage. Having the ability to come down to the office and have someone available to talk through issues or discuss possible solutions to problems is pivotal in making those changes.

During a discussion I was having with a colleague about a few individuals in a group I was running, I was told a very true statement: “If you’re not challenging someone you’re not helping them change.”

The reason this is so important especially as it relates to recovery is that there are so many solutions and different treatments options out there. You can fine-tune your individual treatment plan to fit with your schedule and lifestyle.  You can choose where you would like to receive it and from whom. You can follow your own path on the road to recovery and personal freedom.

Although, like in most things in life that are worth it, it is a tough journey. You will feel uncomfortable at times. You may feel a hopeless feeling that you just can’t win. You may become discouraged by the real work, self-discipline, and dedication it takes to stay the course.

Recovery is much bigger than just stopping the use of substances. It’s a complete metamorphosis, where you change major pieces of your life, sometimes even the people, the places, and things you’re most familiar and comfortable with. You have to search deep inside yourself for what is truly important and how you will achieve it.               

Through the process of learning and exploration of this new way paired with the support of those individuals at Advocates who work to inform and empower individuals, individuals in recovery rise to these occasions daily and overcome obstacles. They may not welcome these challenges initially but are better equipped with the skills and tools they have collected to achieve success.

This has been an incredible journey. Not only learning as much as I have, but also being able to pass it on to those in need and being available to help my community.

I have matured and gained a new perspective on life. I’ve become a better son, a better brother, a better friend, and ultimately a better person. I’ve accepted my past as that, and I look to the future for the amazing things it has to offer."