Rehab Alumni: Stay Close and Stay Sober

By Rich Knutson 02/24/15

Our counselor told my group that if we wanted to stay sober for any length of time, we needed to hang out together, learn how to have "sober fun," and look out for each other.


When I kept hearing these statistics about the poor success rates for treatment, I started thinking more about my alumni group. After going through treatment in 1980, a group of us took our counselor's advice. He told us that if we wanted to stay sober for any length of time, we needed to hang out together, and learn how to have "sober fun." And if anyone started to "slip away," give him or her a phone call to see what was going on.

Our alumni group had "outsiders" come to us and ask if they could participate because they saw us having a lot of fun.

I'll jump to the end of the story first: Today, all 15 of us are still sober—no one has had a single case of relapse. So, you can understand why I was confused by the statistics that I was hearing. Most of the numbers I kept hearing or reading about were in the 15% range—meaning a patient coming out of treatment has a 15% chance of staying sober (or straight) longer than one year. Remembering some of the things I learned in my math classes, this meant my alumni group was off the charts, statistically speaking.

About 10 years ago, I started thinking about this a lot—maybe something could be learned from my alumni group that could be passed on to the "recovery industry." But where to start? The first thing that came to mind was research. I knew there must be a research field in the addiction area so I started researching the researchers (Thank goodness for the Internet!). After emailing a few of these researchers, I started to get a sad picture of what was going on in this field. All three told the same story—researching addictions and recovery is very expensive and for this reason, very little research work has been done on long-term recovery. About 98% of the research had been done on the first year of recovery, but hardly anything had been done after the first year. To me, this did not make any sense. If you want to find out how people are staying sober and straight long term, shouldn't you be studying what they are doing differently?

The researchers that I started visiting with on a regular basis (both by email and phone) all agreed, but their hands were tied. It takes a long time to design studies that can get the grant funding and since long-term recovery studies are even more expensive, it would take even longer to get the funding for them. Lee Ann Kaskutus (Univ. of California, Berkeley) said it would take her a long time to design a study that would have any meaning and it would take about $3,000,000 to effectively study alumni organizations on a long-term basis. Alexander Laudet, another proponent of long-term recovery research, agreed with Lee Ann and even volunteered to co-research with her on such a project.

These two researchers also spoke of the difficulty in obtaining research money for anything very new to the industry. This gave me the idea of calling a few treatment centers to see if their alumni organizations were having the same success as mine. On my second phone call to New Beginnings in Waverly, Mn., the owner of the treatment center said they had discovered the same thing I had. They had so much success that he had hired a full-time staffer to be in charge of their alumni organization. With my excitement at hearing this, I decided to call a big treatment center. So, I phoned Hazelden to see what was going on in their part of the industry. In short, they felt they were having a lot of success, but declined to put a number on it because, like New Beginnings, they did not have any direct follow-up research to state the amount of success. When I told them about my small group having 100% success, they were not surprised.

A study's follow-up work is the most expensive part about research. What is the definition of "expensive" in regards to a disease that is costing our country billions of dollars and millions of lives annually? Three million dollars is a drop in the bucket when we are looking at billions of dollars and millions of lives!

After getting to know a little about the research field, one name kept coming up and was recommended for me to contact. Alexander Laudet told me if I wanted to get something done on the subject of alumni organizations, I should go to Bill White. After contacting Bill by email, we started a conversation around the subject of alumni organizations and their role in long-term recovery. He said, "This area needs research and is such virgin territory right now."

I told him of my surprise that alumni organizations would be such a new area when it was easy to find a lot of non-scientific evidence and what seemed to be a lot of success within them. He reminded me of how slow the wheel of progress turns, but agreed to help get more focus on this subject. He knew of someone who was putting together a "survey" type of research on alumni organizations and would see if we could get piggy-backed on his study. Paul Roman, Univ. of Georgia, also had an interest in alumni organizations and is awaiting the results of his survey.

There have been other signs of progress regarding learning more about alumni organizations. Lorie Obernauer started an organization for alumni organization professionals, like the full-time staff person New Beginnings had hired. Treatment Professional in Alumni Services (TPAS) has grown over the past four years since its inception. They have annual meetings to discuss successful tools they have discovered and share new ideas.

Even though alumni organizations are relatively new, much has been discovered. There are basically two types: (1) the treatment center connected organization and (2) the self-organized, self-supported organization (like the one I am a member of). Once more had been learned about the subject in general, Bill White suggested that it would be very interesting to see if one was more effective than the other. Of course, the primary problem with studying the self-organized, self-supported type is finding out where they exist.

I feel one of the most exciting areas of study around alumni organizations will be—why do they work? I have been asked what my theory is and the only thing I can come up with revolves around the subject of unconditional love and organized support. People (mostly researchers) ask me, "What is the difference between AA and alumni organizations?" I have seen case after case of people coming out of treatment who have been given the suggestion that they go to AA if they want to stay sober. They may try AA on their own for awhile but that first year after treatment is very critical. If they don't get connected with a good sponsor in AA, they are basically left to go on their own and before long, are back to their old ways.

In our alumni group, if you started to stray away, we jokingly said you would be getting a phone call to be put on the "hot seat." This meant you would be invited to meet for coffee and "explain" what was going on—why were you slipping away? Without fail, these people would be back and telling everyone how good it felt to be cared about enough to be put on the "hot seat." I saw this as unconditional love working at its best. I have started to say that unconditional love is just as cunning, baffling, and powerful as the disease. We just have to have a chance to love that person back to health before they slip away.

As far as how they work, most of the alumni organizations that I have come in contact with all seem to have several characteristics in common. They all seem to have that "learning how to have sober fun" aspect. Doing social things together, getting families involved, such as picnics, holiday parties, sporting events, pot luck dinners, movie nights, etc., seemed to be one of the biggest commonalities. It's pretty easy to see how bonding with fun involved is attractive. From my personal experience, our alumni group had "outsiders" come to us and ask if they could participate because they saw us having a lot of fun.

Another commonality would be the communication aspect—there needs to be an open means of communication between all members, whether it be something as simple as a phone list or an email list. Depending on the size of the organization, there are some logistic hurdles to deal with and this is why it's important to have easy access in reaching people at any time of the day. Hazelden, for example, has alumni groups located all over the country so in order to bond physically, it takes a little more organization. My small independent group was geographically located in the Minneapolis-St Paul area.

It is difficult for a treatment center to require attendance to the alumni organization after "graduation" from treatment, however, they are learning that if the alumni program is introduced early in treatment, talked about a lot, and "advertised" enough before "graduation," there is a high level of participation. Today, the industry is talking about the need for longer periods of treatment in order to have better results. To me, it seems like the alumni organization is the perfect answer, not only because of its effectiveness (which still needs to be scientifically proven) but because it costs very little.

My hope is that the slow wheel of progress will be able to pick up a little speed with more exposure of the subject, not only to the professional field, but to the general public. My feeling is that if the general public knew about an effective tool that didn't cost very much, there may be more demand for more research on this subject and soon.

Rich Knutson is from Willmar, Mn., Retired from tour bus driving, Over the road semi driving, and Medical/Surgical Sales Rep.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix