The warning messages that addiction treatment professionals often share with patients in early recovery can start sounding like the cries of a Little League parent from the stands, says Recovery Unplugged's Paul Pellinger. The more times the young hitter hears, “Don't be scared, you've got this!”, the tighter the bat is clenched.
In general in clinical practice, “We focus on telling [patients] what not to do, vs. what to do,” says Pellinger, chief strategy officer of the music-driven outpatient treatment program with locations in Florida and Texas. “We play way too much defense.”
Addiction Professional spoke with Pellinger and Jamie Hazelton, vice president of Turnbridge in Connecticut; both are leaders in young-adult treatment and recovery support programs with a significant foundation in encouraging recovery-affirming activities. At Recovery Unplugged, music serves as the catalyst for client engagement in all other aspects of a life in recovery. At Turnbridge, an early focus on the benefits of mixed martial arts and music has expanded in recent years into areas such as organized athletic teams and art therapy as well.
Both individuals believe treatment and recovery support programs would be well-served to focus more on affirming the benefits of a sober life and less on the dire consequences of returning to using. Pellinger terms it as emphasizing “recovery triggers” rather than “relapse triggers.”
Adds Hazelton, “If we continue to talk about the disease as something negative, we will never surpass the stigmatization that's out there.”
Pellinger takes it a step further when talking about how young people in early recovery tend to react to warnings about consequences: “They don't care,” he says.
At Recovery Unplugged, then, affirmation gets at least equal attention to confrontation. Pellinger says he considers music to be the only form of expression that consistently communicates to the soul, and he has come to believe this in part because most of Recovery Unplugged's patients are not musically inclined before admission but respond strongly to music's power while there. “You don't necessarily get it—it gets you,” he says.
Pellinger adds, “This is the first facility I've worked in where I didn't have to hire somebody who just worked on preventing AMAs,” departures from treatment against medical advice.
Recovery Unplugged has been working for about a year with Nova Southeastern University in South Florida to collect patient data that will help it define an evidence-based model for the organization, Pellinger says.
Hazelton indicates that at Turnbridge, finding lasting replacement habits for the unhealthy coping mechanism of using becomes an exercise in repetition. “If we're successful, we're helping these men and women build something for themselves that's worth protecting,” he says.
If these young adults are able to get their lives back on track in important domains such as school, work and social relationships, they will ultimately conclude, “I don't want to use drugs or alcohol—look at all I've gained,” Hazelton says.