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April 16, 2021

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Many hats to wear as recovery coach for Vancouver treatment center

Peer support critical for those struggling with mental health issues, addiction

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
Ethan Gonzales works as a recovery coach and peer support for Lifeline Connections. He uses his lived experience with drug and alcohol use to help people navigate their own recovery.
Ethan Gonzales works as a recovery coach and peer support for Lifeline Connections. He uses his lived experience with drug and alcohol use to help people navigate their own recovery. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Ethan Gonzales, 47, shuffles through many roles in his work for Lifeline Connections in Vancouver.

Motivator. Hope-dealer. Advocate. Role model. Problem-solver. Confidant. Mentor. His job as substance use disorder outpatient recovery coach and peer support isn’t necessarily hard to define, it’s just very all-encompassing.

“You almost can’t do it justice. It’s such a big topic,” says Gonzales, a Kalama resident.

Peer support and recovery coaches are growing more common as a form of treatment for people struggling with addiction or mental health issues.

As knowledge around addiction and mental health evolves, those with lived experience are finding larger and more active roles in the formal treatment process of recovery.

Last year, Washington set up a certification process for those in peer support like Gonzales. Lifeline has Gonzales and one counterpart in those roles.

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Maria Calvert, Lifeline’s director of the outpatient substance use disorder program, and Gonzales’ supervisor, said recovery coaches and peers bring a needed element to recovery treatment.

“Professionals are one part of what is needed, but there is something valuable about having an individual who has experienced those same things and is doing well in their recovery,” Calvert said. “It’s more of an equal relationship.”

When Gonzales, who is sober from years of drug and alcohol use, first meets a peer that he’s going to help, Gonzales likes to hear about their life and journey. He’ll share his story, how he was raised in a rural area and started using drugs and alcohol at a younger age.

He likes to ask open-ended questions such as “What do you want out of recovery?” and “What do you want your recovery to look like?”

Some people want the life they had before addiction. Some people want to be better parents. Some people just want to be happier.

Gonzales might ask a peer what happiness means to them. He says people needs to start with a first step, a goal they can achieve.

“To listen to somebody is probably the easiest way to help them,” Gonzales said.

Once they’ve established a goal, the peer has something to work toward, something Gonzales can help them with.

Each peer needs a specific type of help. That might mean Gonzales will take a call from someone on the verge of using substances again. Or maybe he’ll help someone find clothes for an interview. Or maybe he’ll help someone find housing. Or maybe he’ll help someone with all three of those things.

There’s no one-shoe-fits-all approach. Gonzales, who generally works with peers for about 10 months, says his job is about empowerment, not enabling.

He’s not doing the hard work of recovery for others. He’s showing peers they are capable of doing the hard work themselves, but will need some help along the way.

“They have the answers. They just don’t know that they do,” Gonzales said. “You don’t help them. You help them help themselves.”


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