Making the choice to give up alcohol or other destructive addictions can be extremely hard. Ruth Riddick, an Irish addiction recovery coach, says the benefits are worth it, and she’s living proof.
What's your addiction?
Is it a fixation with exercise? Work? Maybe you’re a shopaholic? An obsessive reader?
Or is it something that’s life-threatening, like alcohol or drugs?
Can you manage it? Does your addiction make your world better, or is it tearing you to pieces?
We’re human beings, so we’ve all got something we can’t get enough of. One of the keys to life is how we manage our compulsions…and knowing when to seek help when the destructive ones take control of us.
That’s the hardest part for many who find themselves in the throes of alcohol or drug abuse. Reaching out for a lifeline has benefits that might not be obvious at first but will unquestionably last beyond all the anxiety and difficulty that’s part of shedding the addiction.
Ruth Riddick, a native of Co. Dublin and a certified addiction recovery coach and educator based in New York, knows all about moving from rock bottom to a life well lived. She’s been alcohol-free for 15 years now. She’s lived through the initial intensive detox – which for her was a facility in Maine – and the aftermath of when a rigorous program ends and the realities of life once again need to be dealt with.
“I tell the story that I was in treatment in Portland, and it was a great experience therapeutically and personally. I made deep connections there,” Riddick told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
“Then the day came when it was over and I was out of that safety bubble. And I didn’t know where the bus stop was. I had to think about how I was going to get from the treatment center into town. That’s the real-life stuff that my work is about.
“So many people who have come into the field as recovery coaches have had that same experience and thought at the time if there had been someone to help put them on the bus, or sit down and have breakfast with them, or help with opening a bank account, how much easier it would have been.”
What is day-to-day recovery from an addiction like, and how does it unfold once the therapeutic/clinical work – detox, rehab, perhaps hospitalization – is well underway or complete? While there are common threads, each person’s path to wellness will be different.
“And that’s what my work is focused on,” Riddick says. “What is a recovery? How do I get there and what does it look like? What is this recovery thing and why would I sober up in the first place?
“We are all familiar with the present epidemic, and of course we talk about it because it’s such an ugly disorder. It affects everyone – family, friends, community. We are familiar with the toll, but we are less familiar with the treatment.”
There are no magic wands, Riddick cautions. Her clients have been through the mill and are eager to emerge on the bright side, but recovery requires 24-7 commitment, long after clinical treatment is over.
“People might ask, is there anything more to recovery than just giving up my drug or behavior of choice? Am I just going to feel miserable and deprived for the rest of my life, or is there something more to it? These are real questions,” Riddick says.
There are 24 hours in a day, and for many with severe addictions, a large chunk of those hours used to be occupied with the drink or drug of choice. Riddick, given her own background, has specific experience with alcohol addiction, but she also assists those emerging from the throes of gambling and sexual addictions.
“What to do with your day is a real question for people on the brink of coming into recovery,” she says. “Recovery is a process, not an event, and there are tasks that need to be undertaken.
“And the absolutely great thing about being in recovery is eventually realizing that decades and decades of a great life are there, just waiting to be lived.”
Riddick is open about her past alcoholism without dwelling on it. There’s too much to look forward to, and revisiting “the wreckage,” as she calls it, no longer serves a purpose in her life.
“Suffice it to say I’ve been through the wars. I am that person who surfed couches when I came out of treatment. I am that person who had to figure out what kind of work I could do to earn money to pay the rent,” she recalls.
“In the first year of my stabilization my health was so shot to ribbons and my mental capabilities were so low that there was no question of thinking about some sort of high falutin’ career. What I was good for was an entry-level position that didn’t take up too many hours in the week. That’s all I was able for physically or mentally. So the challenge of re-entering society, that’s something I’ve lived through.”
Riddick acknowledges that the first step, committing to recovery, is hugely difficult. For someone in the midst of addiction seeking a change, Riddick’s first two words of advice seem simple but can be the hardest to act upon: reach out.
“There’s no need to over-think who to reach out to. Google is our friend. It can connect you to places offering help. Or maybe the person can seek help from a family member or a friend or someone at work,” she says.
“Just reach out. There is so much experience in the world. Connect with it and you will find your place.”
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery as a “process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” The definition is one that Riddick bases her practice on because of its firm focus on how change can lead to a future lived in a satisfying, productive way, once the addiction is no longer at the core.
At what point does someone in recovery see light at the end of the tunnel? Obviously, that varies. The recovery process is a multi-faceted one that doesn’t move in a straight line.
Riddick is a big believer in the five stages of recovery – stabilization, deepening, connectedness, integration, and fulfillment – developed by the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery. It’s a life-long process and one that she continues to live every day, now in the fulfillment stage – understanding where she came from, and grateful for where she is at.
Riddick started her education and coaching business, Sobriety Together, in 2005. She is a certified addiction recovery coach and educator of those people who seek to be the same. When she got to the stage in her life where she wholeheartedly embraced living in recovery, she wondered how her experiences could mesh with her long-standing vocational interests as an educator.
“I thought there must be some value to the experiences of living in recovery that would be relevant to an experiential education practice,” she said.
Those who have been through the substance abuse wars, as she says, have many lingering emotional issues, but that is not Riddick’s expertise. Instead, she helps her clients build their lives back up again, many times from scratch.
Addiction equals chaos, “and many times when people wake up from that, they discover that they don’t have a marriage anymore, or their kids or they’ve lost their jobs,” Riddick says.
“They have resumes with holes in them like Swiss cheese. They don’t have credit ratings. And they need help with things like that.
“This is where recovery coaches can bridge the gap. I can say, ‘Okay, I’ve been there as well,’ to a client, and it’s not just that I’ve been in the depths of the misery of the illness. I’ve also been there for that waking up, for that ‘what now?’ question. What do I do with the wreckage of my life, how do I repair things like my housing situation, my credit, my work life.”
Her sessions with those she coaches revolve around the firm premise of conversation with a purpose. “What I will want to know is what the person is looking for. What is he or she looking to achieve in life? Not necessarily the big picture, but rather today or tomorrow. What’s going on today, and how can I help in your recovery today?” Riddick says.
“At this point, I know how to put together a resume. I know how to pay the rent. I know when to show up when I’ll say I’m going to show up. I know how to live my life. But all of that was challenging at first. All the different layers of putting a life back together…I’ve been there. I have experience that is useful, relevant and practical.”
Riddick has no expectations or requirements of those she coaches. If the person wants to develop specific targets or a comprehensive plan that’s fine by her, or maybe a client simply wants to have a conversation about how difficult it is to get a job interview. Perhaps they’re interested in teasing out the possibilities of a new vocation.
And sometimes, she says, she coaches clients about moderation management, which for some – a minority, for sure -- is a road to recovery.
“I’m not the sobriety police. It’s not up to me to say what your pathway is,” Riddick says.
“For many people who find total abstinence is the only solution, they would find this scary. But some people fall into a feeling of scarcity when you feel your substance of choice has been removed from you and there’s nothing else in life and it’s unfair. The scarcity model never works.”
She cites one client who was preparing to go a friend’s wedding and wanted to take part, at the very least, in the Champagne toast. Together they worked on a plan to get the client safely through the day – three drinks, one during the reception, one for the toast and another at dinner. Riddick made sure the client had someone at the wedding who knew of the plan and would help implement it.
Having an exit strategy in case of distress was also essential. Riddick kept her phone on for the duration of the wedding, just in case.
“And she stuck to our plan and it was fine. That’s an example of moderation, but of course that doesn’t work for everybody,” she said.
Riddick teaches in a number of educational institutions around New York City where people are preparing for jobs in peer recovery. She also has a private teaching practice for those wishing to enter the field.
“Living in recovery is fundamental to who I am, and to borrow a phrase, I’m out and I’m proud,” Riddick says. “It’s who I am and I consider it to be an enormous gift.”
She cites one example of how far she’s come on her journey. Last year, her best friend of 45 years passed away in Ireland from lung cancer. It was a deep friendship, and Riddick vividly remembers their last phone call.
“I thought, this is it, I’m never going to speak to her or see her again. We told each other that we loved each other. When I put down the phone I thought to myself that this is one of the most terrible things that has happened to me, ever,” she recalls.
But the urge to salve loss with alcohol wasn’t there. When Riddick put the phone down she didn’t think about alcohol. Instead, her first thought was gratitude.
“I thought about how privileged I was to have known her. So when we talk about the tools of recovery, this is a dramatic example for me,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel the loss. But it shows how the process works. I used the recovery tools that are automatically a part of me now.”
(For more information on Riddick’s work, visit www.sobriety-together.com)