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Recovery lessons click when they're camouflaged, says NCAD presenter

October 3, 2012
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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In a gripping presentation on the closing day of this week’s National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD), Turning Point founder and CEO David Vieau urged an audience of addiction treatment  and recovery professionals to offer the kind of client-centered services that took him three treatment stays and numerous setbacks to find.

Vieau, 42, whose New Haven, Conn.-based recovery residence program for young men employs activities from music jam sessions to mixed martial arts training as the “peanut butter” that camouflages the “pill” of recovery work, recounted the startling contrasts he experienced in his own treatment history. The son of a rock-solid middle-class family in New York, he was sent to treatment at age 17, only to find that the closest resident in age to him was his 40-something roommate.

Vieau would return to treatment at 21 and again at 23, consistently hearing about the “people, places and things” he needed to avoid upon discharge but wanting no part of that—and never really knowing what those “things” referred to anyway. Only after a severe downward spiral in which he found himself homeless, gaunt, and frostbitten did he find his way to a program that took the kind of approach after which he has modeled his own efforts in the industry.

“I was 30, and my roommate was 30,” Vieau said. “We started the day with a spiritual group, then we walked up a mountain. Then I met with my counselor, and then we played Frisbee. Then we had more treatment, and then we went to play basketball.”

He emphasized, “They weren’t pounding it in; we weren’t having lectures all day.” He clarified that the point of the kinds of activities he has integrated into Turning Point’s program has nothing to do with the activities per se. Rather, it’s about the bonding that takes place among like-minded clients, the sense of belonging that this engenders, and ultimately the act of getting outside oneself that eludes so many individuals pursuing recovery. “It’s all embedded in giving more than you take,” Vieau said.

While insisting always that the core clinical services that addiction professionals offer matter to the highest degree, the one take-away he sought for the NCAD attendees (regardless of their program content or target population) was simply stated: “Just sweeten it a little bit.”

Vieau and his team at Turning Point learned this again in the early years after the organization’s 2003 founding. A protracted zoning battle with the local community forced Turning Point to operate lean, which played out in success rates of only around 30%. After winning the court fight, Turning Point was able to redesign the program using a phased reintegration model that allows young men who already have been in primary treatment to continue to build their assimilation skills in a safe and supportive environment.

Choosing a “brand” of peanut butter for the program became easy when looking closely at the target population. “We asked, ‘What do 28-year-old guys do?’ Then that’s what we need to provide. Why? Because they’re going to do it anyway.” Whether the activity is attending a rock concert or making music in a studio, Vieau said, “We create a controlled environment that helps shape the way they do it”—substance-free but not free of fun.

Turning Point in recent years has earned a national reputation for its post-treatment work with young males, and now routinely sees repeat referrals from some of the country’s biggest names in primary treatment.

Vieau’s remarks came in the morning plenary session on the final day of the Sept. 28-Oct. 2 conference, which for the first time this year featured a parallel management-track curriculum under the Behavioral Healthcare Leadership Summit as well as a grouping of main conference presentations focused on recovery topics.

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