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Swedish Medical Center and Advocates for Recovery Colorado peer recovery coach Laura Allem poses for a portrait in late 2021. (Photo courtesy of Tyi Reddick, Advocates for Recovery Colorado)

Talk to experts about substance use, and one saying gets repeated: The opposite of addiction isn't abstinence; it's connection.

It's connection that undermines the shame and loneliness that often perpetuate substance-use disorders. While that connection can take different forms, one of the most useful, experts say, is between current users and recovered ones. No one understands the disease like those who've experienced it, and the opportunity to build a connection upon that shared foundation is key.

This line of thinking isn't exactly new; it forms the basis for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. But it's undergone a shift and expansion in recent years, expanding beyond those groups and, increasingly, into the broader medical system. Englewood's Swedish Medical Center, for instance, has been piloting a peer specialist program for the past three years, said Don Stader, the program's coordinator and a physician at the hospital.

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If a person with a substance-use disorder comes into the hospital's emergency room, Laura Allem will get buzzed. Allem works for Advocates for Recovery, an organization that specializes in providing peer support to help support users onto a path toward recovery.

"I sit down next to them, hold their hand, talk about the struggle, how difficult it is, how there is a way out of this darkness," Allem, who is in long-term recovery, said. "And I leave them with our packet with info. I always give them an option: if they’re ready for detox or treatment, I can be in the room when they call. So many times, they're here by themselves." 

She'll then follow up: one and two days later, two weeks, then a month, then two. Stader said it's one of two programs like it in the state, funded until this summer by grant money from the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.  

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Allem and Advocates for Recovery don't provide treatment themselves. James Gannon, the program director for the organization, said the group wants to act more like a "resource broker," offering a helping hand to people as they begin to navigate treatment and healing. He, too, is in recovery, and he was drawn to the group by its approach of giving people agency in determining what treatment will work best for them.

Peer specialists provide key support on the social side, too, experts said. Often, people may have to change their social groups to get away from substance use. Losing your social circle, or being unable to get out of it, is one more obstacle on top of a pile for users working to get sober.

"The importance of that for me and my recovery - I thought for sure I was going to live a boring mundane life from here on out," Allem said. "And here I am running the Halloween party and doing karaoke sober."

"It's just letting them know life is way better on this side," she continued.

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Advocates for Recovery isn't new, but the number of people who've begun working as peer support personnel has jumped over the past 10 years, Gannon said. The integration of peer specialists into hospitals is new, too, Stader said. It's paid dividends elsewhere: One researcher in Rhode Island said the use of peer specialists in emergency rooms statewide there was a key part of that state's efforts to lower the overdose rate, one of the few states in the nation to successfully do so before the pandemic arrived.

"We play a resource role," Gannon said. "We’re an ally and confidant. Motivator and cheerleader, truth tellers." 

His organization focuses on the indigent community, Gannon said, though nobody is turned away. Peer recovery coaches run week-long groups with the purpose of setting patient-driven goals. An action plan is key, he said, as is helping users learn to talk to themselves.

Destigmatizing away from "I am an addict" into "I am a person," he said, is a way to "move away from seeing who you used to be to seeing you are and can be."

Health reporter

Seth Klamann is the health reporter for the Gazette, focused on COVID-19, public health and substance use. He's a Kansas City native and a University of Missouri alum, with stops in Wyoming, Omaha and Milwaukee before moving to Denver.

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