Peer recovery group having positive impact on local inmates

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By Mike Wade
NRVCS Community Relations Specialist

“It takes one to know one.”

Most of us have either heard or uttered this phrase at some point, often in a context that evokes some kind of negative connotation.

That idea of being relatable to another’s issues, however, could perhaps be the key to providing effective treatment to individuals battling addiction. Time will tell, but it certainly appears that the opportunity to interact with someone active in recovery has had an impact on two small groups of inmates at the New River Valley Regional Jail (NRVRJ) in Dublin.

Chris Alderman, a Peer Recovery Specialist with NRVCS, recently completed a series of 12-week peer recovery groups at NRVRJ – one with a small group of male inmates and a second one with a group of incarcerated women. Called, “Freedom to Change,” the program is based on a curriculum developed by Alderman, which he says borrows from the evidence-based “Living in Balance” curriculum used in NRVCS’ Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), commonly referred to as “Stepping Stones.”

“It’s a structured program but one that’s very flexible,” says Alderman. “You have to consider who is in the room and that flexibility helps with individualization of not only the person, but the group as a whole.”

The groups meet for two 90-minute sessions each week and there is often homework. Participants are challenged to do a great deal of writing while coming to terms with the consequences of their addiction, including writing apology letters to family members and even their own obituaries.

“Those writing exercises can get really intense,” Alderman notes. “It’s the first time that most of them have taken time to write out their thoughts and feelings, or to consider those who would be left behind if they died.”

Alderman also brings the “peer” component to the group. A recovering addict himself, Alderman knows his lived experience gives him a level of credibility with the groups.

“I share my story with them on the first day,” Alderman explains. “I may go into a lot of detail or not – just depending on the feel of the room – but I want to be sure they know that I’ve walked in their shoes and I’m not some facade or that I’m perfect, or that I’m cured.”

The program is voluntary for inmates who have been sentenced for a drug-related offense and individuals selected to participate are screened by jail staff. The conclusion of the most recent groups means that nearly 40 inmates have completed the program.

“A lot of what we try to work on is self-esteem,” adds Alderman. “By the time they reach this point and they’re behind bars, they hate themselves and are usually beating themselves up because their mistakes have taken them away from their families, their jobs and their homes.”

Alderman, who has become well-known in the region for speaking out publicly about his own addiction, says he can’t guarantee that all of his program graduates will take what they’ve learned and use that once they are released from jail. Still, for those who do, the potential is endless.

“If they do well when they get out of here and take their recovery seriously, you’re talking about people’s lives being changed,” he continues.

“The seed’s been planted, whether they continue their recovery immediately after being released or not,” concludes Alderman. “In the end, it’s all about hope. And everyone deserves to have hope.”

“It’s taught me that addiction is a disease and not a choice. I never considered that before.”

“I’ve learned to open up better and talk to people. It’s also helped me with forgiveness – forgiving myself and waking up to the fact that I could have a better way of life.”

“It’s good to know that there are people who actually care about you and that are looking out for you.”

“I’m learning coping skills, parenting skills, and how to set goals for myself and my recovery.”

“You can live your life sober.”

“I can relate to Chris…If he can do it, I can too.”

“This program has helped me realize that I have a disease but I’m not powerless toward it. I actually have a choice.”

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