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Sober living with a kick

February 1, 2011
by Gary A. Enos
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An extended care center immerses young men in life experiences

A mid a pounding beat in the close quarters of a storefront fitness studio, a dozen young men pair off to practice the moves and holds of mixed martial arts (MMA). The students are engaging in serious competition, but supportive words from the instructor keep the tone friendly. On this fall afternoon, some students will leave with scrapes to show for their effort, but the real takeaways from this class aren't about drawing blood, mastering a takedown, or subduing a combatant.

These young men share one common adversary: addiction. And it is through use of MMA and other activities popular in this age group that an innovative extended care program in Connecticut has delivered a hard body blow to typical expectations about sober living.

From their arrival in the program after a primary treatment stay, the young men residing at Turning Point in New Haven attend a weekly MMA class supplemented by sparring sessions at a local gym. The writing on the wall of the studio they visit every Thursday reads “Team Strength.” If this squad wore team colors, they probably would be dressed in camouflage, because hidden behind the enjoyment of a sport that captivates the young male demographic is the attainment of life skills that will help promote their long-term recovery.

“In MMA you have to identify a threat and neutralize it,” says Al Samaras, vice president of Turning Point Foundation. “Sometimes you experience two or three threats at once,” just as one does during everyday life in recovery.

“This is not about learning how to throw a left hook,” adds Samaras. “It's about managing your anxiety, your fears.”

You won't easily find an MMA program in treatment or recovery organizations serving young men; Samaras says most administrators like the concept but can't get beyond their liability concerns. You also won't find a fully equipped music studio in many programs, but Turning Point integrates that activity into its program as well. MMA and music, respectively, were instrumental in the recovery journeys of Samaras and of Turning Point founder and president David Vieau. The activities are but two possible pursuits that can help a young person build a network of sober friends.

“A guy will often ask, ‘What am I going to do if I don't drink?’” says Vieau. “I say, ‘Everything else.’”

Program transformation

Turning Point was established in 2003, but the program looks much different today from its beginnings. Vieau says he ran the program much like a traditional sober-living site at first, but as the average age of the client population decreased, it became clear that a program offering little more than a roof over one's head was destined to fall short.

“Originally we were just the housing,” Vieau recalls. “What I found was that about 15 percent of the clients made it with little oversight if they had to do everything on their own,” from finding a job to establishing a sober social network.

A new direction became clear to the Harvard-educated Vieau when one young man had to return to Turning Point for a third stay. Committed to the success of this person's recovery, Vieau decided the third time around to step in and do all the things he had originally expected the young man and all the other residents to handle themselves. He was asking this of residents who were barely removed from adolescence and were just emerging from the controlled environment of a treatment center.

As Samaras puts it, “After four weekends clean, you're told to get a job, get a sponsor, get an apartment, your girlfriend just broke up with you, and oh, don't get high.”

From this realization was born a service model that Turning Point refers to as “phased reintegration,” generally unfolding over a one-year period. The first of three phases resembles an extension of the young man's primary treatment experience (residents range in age from 18 to 24). The residents have regular meetings with a therapist at this point and attend a couple of groups each day, but they also are immediately integrated into gym visits and other recreational activities. That can serve as the hook to keep the young men engaged, or the camouflage to the meaningful work that's actually happening through these activities.

Phase 2 still has aspects of an orientation, with the residents still living in the restored Victorian mansion that houses up to 18 individuals. But here the young men start taking the steps that will facilitate the move to the next phase, from landing a job or volunteer activity to establishing linkages with New Haven's active recovery community.

Turning Point president David Vieau
Turning Point president David Vieau

Turning Point vice president Al Samaras
Turning Point vice president Al Samaras

For example, once the resident receives cell phone privileges, he is required to collect the names of at least 15 sober contacts whom he can access when needed.