Rich Knutson calls them his “friends with a capital F”—a tightly knit group of men and women who in 1980 went through treatment with him at a small center that has been closed for years.
“When you go through treatment with someone, you learn a lot about them,” says Knutson, who drives trucks for a living and on this day has taken a moment to talk from a fast-food restaurant with wireless access. “I knew more about these people than I did about my close cousins, for example.”
What the Minnesotan might not have been able to predict then was that much of the group would still be in touch more than three decades and many life changes later, sometimes meeting for group outings and other times just for one-to-one communication. And who could have imagined that a core group that grew to around 15 people would be able to say that it experienced not one serious relapse or return to treatment over that entire period?
“This happened for a reason,” says Knutson, 64. He now wants addiction treatment centers around the country to facilitate this concept in other communities, by spurring the formation of alumni organizations that would be self-managed and self-supporting.
That was the model for the group to which Knutson belonged. It never had a formal affiliation with the center where its members had received treatment. It started simply because a small handful of alumni were interested in helping one another find opportunities for sober fun.
“We were going to the same [12-Step] meeting on Sunday nights, and people started noticing that we were doing fun things together,” Knutson says. At the time, some who joined in were single; there also were couples, as the program that Knutson attended had treated both partners in an alcoholic or drug-addicted household.
The group started organizing fishing trips and other activities, including service-oriented projects in the recovery community. Some individuals attended the outings frequently, while others participated less often. If someone completely disappeared from the group for a while, however, the others would take it upon themselves to regain contact.
“We really kept an eye on each other,” Knutson says.
Knutson imagines that recovery without an outlet for enjoyable sober activities would be precarious indeed. He considers a network of sober friends as offering something that a sponsor or a helping professional does not, despite their very important role.
“If you don’t get hooked in with somebody, I can see where it would be easy to slide back into old patterns,” he says.
He adds, “One of the women in the group recently told me, ‘If it hadn’t been for you guys showing me that there is a fun life after sobriety, I don’t know if I would have made it.’” Knutson says that today, that woman organizes “one party after another for the newcomers” in her own 12-Step group.
Knutson said he is looking to identify a handful of treatment centers that could pilot an effort to create self-governing alumni groups. While the establishment of alumni organizations for treatment centers hardly represents a new concept, Knutson’s vision is for groups that the centers would help to organize but would not have an ongoing role in managing.
He admits that “the wheels turn very slowly” on his idea, but in the meantime he also has been instrumental in other alumni-related initiatives, such as creating an informal think tank on alumni issues that includes William White and Treatment Professionals in Alumni Services’ (TPAS’s) founding member Lorie Obernauer, PhD, among its participants. This group also is working with a University of Georgia researcher to take an inventory of existing alumni-related pursuits across the country.
Those who would like to learn more about Knutson’s efforts are encouraged to contact him at (320) 237-6760 or firstname.lastname@example.org.