Local treatment program encourages recovering addicts to become part of the solution.
Sonny Drain, an adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, was 41 when he signed himself into treatment for addiction to alcohol and drugs, cocaine being the one that “probably brought me to my knees.” He’d been using since he was 12 years old.
“I had $2 left in my pocket, and I was stranded, and it was either get help or die,” he says. “I had nowhere else to go ... Everything was falling apart.”
Once in rehab, being around other people who understood what he was going through helped him cope with the pain. “There was a spiritual awakening that came over me. I can wait for people on the outside to fix this, but it has to come from me,” he says.
Drain, now 60, speaks in recovery slogans, the result of years of reminding himself, and his students, how to continue to “have sobriety.” He now teaches students in the same program that trained him 20 years ago.
While receiving treatment at a facility in Roxborough, Drain first thought about becoming a counselor, but was aware that almost everyone else seemed to have the same idea. “It’s almost like another euphoria,” Drain says.
He says that as he began to get control of his life, he felt an undeniable need to give back. “You all of a sudden want to become a counselor … Looking back at myself, I had an awful lot of remorse for things I’d done. I wasn’t sure I was worthy.”
Self-transformation, for Drain, meant pursuing a higher calling.
After he graduated from the treatment facility, Drain enrolled in classes in the drug and alcohol curriculum at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). The Behavioral Health Human Services (BHHS) division of CCP, offers a certification program that trains people to work in addictions counseling. Since 1968, the program has targeted adults in treatment for substance abuse, aiming to convert current addicts into counselors who use their experience to help others recover from addiction.
About 120 of the 600 students in BHHS are currently pursuing a certificate in Addiction Studies, a credential that can easily transfer into an associate’s degree in Behavioral Health.
As the total number of graduates rises, with increasingly strict state regulations overseeing the expansion of the health-care field, so too does the number of students who are also in recovery.
That’s partly because the faculty, seven full-time and nearly twice as many part-time professor-clinicians, regularly recruit at inpatient and outpatient treatment centers in Philadelphia.
Horizon House and Gaudenzia, two community-based rehabilitation programs, help clients suffering from mental illness and chemical dependency; treatment plans are designed to help them manage their symptoms, learn practical living skills and connect with the community around them. The BHHS staff regularly goes out to inpatient and outpatient treatment centers like these and hold workshops on the value of a college education and invite patients to attend recovery rallies on campus.
Drain admits he was nervous about going back to school at “the ripe old age of 41.” But soon, he realized he was far from alone. Between one-third and one-half of the students in the class, he discovered, were also in recovery from addiction. On his first day of class, he met a fellow student who was nearly the same age. They shared a hot desire to succeed, a quality most noticeable among older students in a class where the average age was late 20s.
Classes are brought to the facility premises, usually at night and on weekends, so that patients can study “in cohorts” on the recovery site while continuing to work a full-time job and, in many cases, support a family.
“We’ve set up courses that they want to go to college for,” says Dr. Pat Scoles, the program coordinator of Addiction Services at CCP. Foundations of Addiction Studies, for example, provides an overview of the psychological, physiological and social effects of substance abuse, the pharmacology of drugs and a description of various treatment options.
What interested Drain the most was the behavioral causes for addiction. He soaked up the real-time experience that instructors actively working in the field brought to class. “They weren’t just teaching you theory, but they were also bringing, you know, true life experience, and I just found it so invaluable.” It’s a method he tries to use in his own classes.
Despite holding close to a 4.0 GPA, Drain doubts that he could’ve done so well at any other time of his life. “If I’d gone to college when I was 18, there’s no way in the world I would’ve accomplished what I accomplished … I don’t even know that I would’ve finished.”
Students tend to place below minimum proficiency on placement tests in basic math and English, having disappeared into addiction for up to years at a time. So the college offers “co-requisites,” a remedial class taught alongside one of three major-related skills training courses. As Scoles explains, there’s always the danger of losing their interest if you burden them with courses they consider unimportant. Students are impatient to start “giving back,” a central tenet of spiritually focused programs like 12-Step.
But after earning a 12-credit Proficiency Certificate in Recovery and Transformation, which qualifies one to work as an associate addictions counselor, the majority of students have built up enough confidence to stay on the academic track, Scoles says. Most go on to complete an Addiction Studies certificate, and eventually walk away with a two-year associate’s degree.
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