The Faces of Recovery Project

Faces of Recovery
By Carolyn Wiger

Carolyn Wiger

About four years ago I had my interview for a chemical health social work position at Washington County. I debated whether or not I should mention that I am in recovery from drugs and alcohol. Previously, I was working as a counselor in treatment centers where the majority of my coworkers were also in recovery. They weren’t just in recovery, they were open about their recovery.  It was something to be proud of and celebrated.

I entered the interview room as stiff as a board because I was so scared that if I moved a certain way my tattoos would be revealed.  When asked what brought me into the chemical health field and why I wanted to work at the County, I felt my eyes begin to water. I couldn’t help but think about how just six years ago I was waiting to complete my Rule 25 Assessment and get into treatment. Now here I was, interviewing for a job where I would be giving the same type of help that I received at the beginning of my journey into recovery.

As a counselor, I always admired the County workers.  I knew that someday I wanted to be at the County. When I was offered the position, I bawled my eyes out. I felt so incredibly grateful.   On my first day of work I mentioned to a coworker that I was in recovery. Her response? “How did you pass the background check?” I paused for a second, but awkwardly laughed it off because yes, it was a legitimate concern. That didn’t stop me from talking about recovery, but I quickly realized that talking about my sobriety seemed to make my coworkers uncomfortable. “We don’t really talk about that here,” I was told. Well, why not?  It shouldn’t matter if I’m working at a treatment center or the County, both can be places where recovery can be openly discussed and celebrated.

In a 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that Americans were more likely to view people with substance use disorders more negatively than those with mental illnesses.

  • 22 percent would be willing to work with someone with SUD.
  • 62 percent would be willing to work with someone with mental illness.
  • 64 percent believed employers should be able to deny employment to people with SUD.
  • 25 percent believed employers should be able to deny employment to people with mental illness.
  • 43 percent opposed giving individuals with SUD the same health insurance benefits as the rest of the public.
  • 21 percent opposed giving those with mental illness the same health insurance benefits as the rest of the public.

I’m sure all of us can say we have been affected by addiction in some way. According to a recent report by the Surgeon General, 21 million Americans struggle with SUD but only 1 in 10 ever receive treatment.  The American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease in 1956 and did the same for drug addictions in 1989. Despite this recognition, SUD remains one of the most stigmatized diseases. The behavioral symptoms of addiction are so baffling that it’s hard to understand and even harder not to have an opinion. Even among professionals, SUD doesn’t get the same respect that other chronic diseases do, such as diabetes and cancer.  All too often treatment and services are discontinued due to the belief that someone hasn’t “hit rock bottom,” suffered enough consequences, tried hard enough, or “just isn’t ready.” How many other diseases would we treat that way? I have never seen another disease be subjected to so many people’s opinions.

I knew I had to do something and that’s when I decided to create the Faces of Recovery posters. I selected 10 incredible people. Most of whom have been instrumental in my own recovery.  I wanted to showcase people doing what they love and thriving in recovery.  My goal is to change the way others view addiction by getting a glimpse into the stories of recovery.  I want to help create a work environment that celebrates recovery. I also want to inspire people who are struggling that recovery is possible. Often times we see addiction publicized at its worst. We don’t hear the stories of recovery.  We’ve seen enough of the Faces of Meth posters to know that drugs are bad, but that doesn’t mean these are bad people.  The truth is, “these people” are nurses, construction workers, social workers, attorneys, moms, dads, husbands, wives, children and friends.

If I had to be judged forever by the things I did while actively addicted, I would have never recovered. The stigma of this disease keeps people sick and if we do recover, many of us are too ashamed to share our story, for fear of being judged. I easily could have shut down when I didn’t feel my recovery was accepted.  Instead, I used it as an opportunity to educate. I put my story out there because I believe when we are vulnerable and share who we are, we have the ability to truly connect with people. Those uncomfortable conversations about my recovery have turned into acceptance and understanding.  On May 20th I celebrated 9 years of sobriety. My coworkers invited me to lunch in honor of my sober birthday and we openly talked about recovery. I felt loved, accepted, and worthy and that’s the way it should be.

Kris Kelly from Minnesota Recovery Connection facilitates a Recovery Ambassador workshop for Washington County staff members.

For Recovery Month I hosted an event where I was able to showcase my Faces of Recovery posters and educate over 100 of my coworkers about SUD and recovery.  The response I have gotten from this project has been incredible.  The emails and calls I’ve received from coworkers and the community have been so encouraging. I plan to continue speaking about the Faces of Recovery and will add additional posters throughout the year.  It’s not just about hanging up a poster. It’s about the story behind each one.  It’s about talking openly about recovery and spreading hope. We learn from stories and we connect by stories.   We all have a story to tell and we can help defeat the stigma by sharing it.

About the author:
My name is Carolyn Wiger and I have been in recovery for 9 years. I have been in the Chemical Health field since 2010 and have been a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor since 2012.  As a counselor, I worked in both residential and outpatient treatment centers. Currently, I work at Washington County as a Social Worker. My personal struggles are what led me into this field and my recovery is what keeps me going today.  

Sober Squad Sets New Record at Walk for Recovery

Randell Sam, Gary Benjamin and Colin Cash of Sober Squad

The annual Walk for Recovery is testament to the strength and generosity of the recovery community. Those of us in recovery from different recovery pathways, our families, allies, and the professionals who serve us come together to remember loved ones, celebrate recovery, and show the world that recovery works.  Each year, MRC is humbled by the outpouring of support and community strength that the Walk generates.

This year, our hearts were especially full of gratitude for a group of newcomers to the walk: Team Sober Squad. Led by Colin Cash, Sober Squad is a recovery community that originated on the Mille Lacs Reservation. One by one, Colin and other Squad members, such as Randell Sam and Gary Benjamin (featured to the left of Colin in the photo above), connect individuals to the hope of recovery. From accompanying people to meetings to Friday night pizza dinners to public parades, the members of Sober Squad are creating recovery in their communities. Through the efforts of Colin, Gary, Randell and others, Sober Squad now has chapters in Fond du Lac, Hinckley, Brainerd, and elsewhere beyond Mille Lacs.

Colin graduated from MRC’s Recovery Coach Academy in May of this year. The experience, he says, increased his confidence and gave a stamp of approval to the work he had been doing in Mille Lacs.  Wanting to give back to MRC, he decided to fundraise for the Walk and organized a team.

Team Sober Squad at the 2018 Walk for Recovery

All we can say is, WOW! Team Sober Squad broke the record for Walk Team fundraising and had a record 70-plus team members. Colin rented a bus to transport team members from Mille Lacs to Minneapolis on the day of the Walk and ordered special shirts for the day. “This is what I’m doing with the training you gave me,” Colin told MRC. “I wanted to give back, to say to the world, hey, we’re here, we are making recovery happen.”

When people ask us what authentic peer recovery support services are, or what a recovery community organization does, we now respond with two words: Sober Squad. “Never underestimate the power of someone in recovery who wants to give back, ” said Colin. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Sober Squad. You are what recovery looks like.

To learn more about Sober Squad, check out this blog post from our friends at Recovree or this recent article in the Brainerd Dispatch.

And, we just want to say to Randy Anderson, the Walk for Recovery’s perennial top individual fundraiser, thank you from the bottom of our hearts as well . . . and watch out for next year! Colin is on your heels! 

Recovery Shout Out: Let’s Hear it for Twin Cities Recovery Project!

Celebrating recovery at Twin Cities Recovery Project!

When Marc Johnigan moved to Minneapolis from Dayton, Ohio in 2010, he noticed something missing in his new community: a place to have fun in recovery, especially in the African American community.

Twin Cities Recovery Project President and CEO, Marc Johnigan

Marc knew from first-hand experience that connecting with people who have been successful in recovery is critical for sustaining long-term recovery. He saw how important the West Dayton Club was to his mother’s recovery journey, which she embarked on when he was in his late teens. At the Club, Martha Thompson found a welcoming environment where she and others in recovery could play cards, shoot pool, socialize, and support each other. When she didn’t yet feel comfortable at family functions, the Club gave her a place to feel understood and welcomed, especially during the holidays and other special occasions. Through the West Dayton Club, she built a new ecosystem that has helped her sustain recovery for over thirty years.

So in November, 2016, Marc opened the Twin Cities Recovery Social Club in South Minneapolis, his own version of the West Dayton Club. A person in long-term recovery himself, he wanted to create the kind of place where people in transition to a life in recovery could not only socialize, but could connect to other resources that developed the whole person. Two days before the Social Club hosted its grand opening, Marc also launched a Grief Support Group.

Marc lost his son to gun violence in 2007. “We are losing people left and right,” Marc said. “There are so many of us walking around today with unaddressed trauma and grief, with depression, fear, and feelings of hopelessness. People need an outlet to discuss the pain they’re living through. If we want to support recovery from substance use disorder, we also need to help people with the process of grieving – not just death, but also childhood trauma, broken relationships, loss of jobs, and other losses.”

Over the next two years, Marc added a Community Safety/Conflict resolution program, an HIV/AIDS Awareness Program, recovery outreach, and peer-to-peer recovery coaching to the menu of the organization’s offerings. Recognizing that they were more than just a Social Club, Marc and his Board of Directors decided to rename their 501c3 nonprofit the “Twin Cities Recovery Project” in time for their 2-year anniversary celebration last November.

Marc is a graduate of Minnesota Recovery Connection’s Recovery Coach Academy and worked as a Peer Recovery Specialist for MRC in the Ramsey County Adult Substance Abuse Court. As MRC got to know Marc and the Twin Cities Recovery Project (TCRP), it became clear to us that the organization’s mission, values, processes, and programs had all the makings of a Recovery Community Organization. It has been a great honor to work alongside Marc and his team, and we are thrilled to announce that on February 11, 2019, the Association of Recovery Community Organizations approved TCRP’s application to be designated an official Recovery Community Organization.

TCRP is the fourth new Recovery Community Organization recognized in Minnesota in the past year, bringing Minnesota’s total number of Recovery Community Organizations to six. The community-based, peer-to-peer support and advocacy provided by TCRP is a welcome addition to the continuum of care for people with substance use disorder, and we know that recovery is contagious. Thank you, Marc, and the team at Twin Cities Recovery Project for spreading recovery!  

The Twin Cities Recovery Project’s mission is to offer assistance and support to those suffering from substance use disorder in their transition toward lifestyles of health and productivity by offering a drug free environment as well as resources to develop the whole person. This will enable them to build healthy and positive relationships and to become productive members of society.

Visit their website  or follow their Facebook page to learn about upcoming programs and events.

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