Editor’s Note: Alumni have traditionally played a significant role at traditional residential treatment programs by helping to reconnect newly treated patients with the recovery community when they return home. Because Kolmac patients remain local, the helping role of alumni needs to be modified. AJ Mitchell has been working to make these adjustments, and his persistence over the years is now paying off.
After years of work in traditional clinical roles, AJ launched the alumni activities at Kolmac and also serves as our first patient advocate. Perhaps more than any other single person, AJ Mitchell has been responsible for building bridges for our patients between Kolmac and the recovery community.
In recovery since 1988 when he first came to Kolmac, AJ Mitchell, the Kolmac alumni coordinator and a counselor for more than 25 years, knows how isolating addiction can be. “One of the things that addictive disease does is separate people from society,” he says.
Once in treatment and then in recovery, people have to rebuild their social networks. To maintain their sobriety, they often can’t socialize in the same places with the same people. Formed in 2008, one of the goals of the Kolmac Alumni Association is to provide continued support for persons who have completed one of clinic’s treatment programs.
AJ Mitchell, who once served on the Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Advisory Council for Montgomery County, talked with Modern Addiction Recovery about the importance of enhancing fellowship opportunities for people in recovery.
Modern Addiction Recovery: Why is it important for those in recovery to participate in the types of fellowship opportunities that the association offers?
Mitchell: Addiction drives us away from family friends. We have to learn how to interact with others again. You can’t go back to your old haunts and drinking buddies. If you do, you’ll end up back in treatment.
We hide our addiction, and then we hide our recovery. It’s not socially acceptable to be in recovery. Also, people in recovery get really busy with life, work and other things. They think, “I want to get this addiction thing out of my life. If I act ‘normal,’ I can get on with my life.” This attitude often leads to relapse.
MAR: What types of activities have drawn the interest of Kolmac alumni?
Mitchell: We’re trying a variety of programs. For example, the third Saturday of each month we show a video. It’s sober cinema. People are also interested in learning about meditation. And we’re trying to get family involved because we know how important that is. We also have a private Facebook group for Kolmac alumni, and people are encouraged to post questions there. Alumni were also in high attendance at social events such as Recovery in the Park.
MAR: What other kinds of support do members provide to one another?
Mitchell: One way alumni stay involved at Kolmac is by serving as guest speakers in our outpatient rehabilitation program. I don’t prep the speakers at all, but they must be at least one year sober. However, in general we stay away from having people who’ve been sober 30 years speak. Alumni experiences have to be relatable.
MAR: Are any members of the alumni association currently serving as mentors to those beginning the recovery process?
Mitchell: When people in recovery attend in-house AA meetings at Kolmac, that’s usually where the connection occurs. The relationship that we want them to have is personal and intimate. There are several mentoring relationships that began right there in the Clinic. It’s very rewarding for me when that happens.
MAR: What commonalities have you observed at meetings?
Mitchell: Most people today abuse more than just alcohol. You introduce yourself as a drug addict, alcoholic, or a person in recovery. In every meeting that I attend, people are apologetic about discussing drug use, but they find that others can relate.
Similarly, membership in the alumni association is granted regardless of length of recovery, substance used or level of recovery support. We do not judge any member’s approach to recovery.
MAR: What kinds of experiences have you had in role as a counselor at the Clinic?
Mitchell: There have been instances when patients wanted to leave treatment. I encouraged them to stay because the longer people stay attached to a structured program, the better the outcome usually is. I’ve never been able to turn anyone around, but I can let them know that we care. If you’re thinking about dropping out, I want to know why you’re leaving treatment.
MAR: What’s been most rewarding about your work with Kolmac alumni?
Mitchell: Since beginning my involvement with the alumni and my other duties at Kolmac, I haven’t gotten drunk. I am totally immersed in the recovery process and community. I have this unbelievably broad group of people in my life, and I see that as a gift. I just turned 74, and I know that my activities with Kolmac alumni keep me young, involved and engaged.