Sometimes grief can sap a person’s energy, but it can also inspire a passion for change or justice. That’s what happened to Gloria Englund, a recovery coach, psychotherapist, author and advocate.
Three years after her oldest son, Aaron Watson, died of a heroin overdose, Englund learned about Minnesota Recovery Connection (MRC), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that provides advocacy and support organization for people in recovery. Inspired by what she saw as the organization’s hopeful, “open” approach to recovery support, she jumped in, signing up as a volunteer and taking part in the first-ever Walk for Recovery around Minneapolis’ Lake of the Isles in September 2010.
The walk was a turning point in Englund’s process of coming to terms with her son’s death. To see members of the recovery community making such a public show of support and pride and then learning about MRC’s many offerings inspired her to devote her professional life to supporting people in the process of turning away from addiction.
“It just felt great to be somewhere where allies of the recovery community like me, as well as people in recovery and their family members and friends, could participate and walk together in support and pride,” she said. She has participated in every Walk for Recovery since.
Five years later, Englund runs Recovering u, a consultancy that offers recovery coaching, grief support, presentations and workshops. This month she’s also self-publishing “Living in the Wake of Addiction: Lessons for Courageous Caregiving,” a book that offers navigation techniques thorugh the murky waters of caregiving vs. co-dependency.
When Englund and I spoke earlier this week, she was making plans for this year’s walk, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at Lake of the Isles.
MinnPost: Clearly the Walk for Recovery is a big part of your life these days. What inspired you to participate in the first event?
Gloria Englund: I first heard about MRC in 2010, through a friend. My oldest son had died of a heroin overdose in 2007, and I was thrilled to learn about an organization that supported people through all stages of their recovery.
While I knew a little about MRC, I didn’t know anything about the walk at all. I heard about it, and just showed up to the first one. It was very, very small, only just a couple hundred people, but we walked together anyway. It was inspiring. I’ve been there every year since.
The idea of a walk for recovery was so novel to me. I just loved the whole idea of people in recovery coming out of the church basements and saying, “I’m in recovery. Look at me. Recovery works.” Every year the number of walkers has risen. This year they are expecting 4,000 people.
MP: Not long after that first walk, you got deeply involved with MRC in a number of ways, including working as a volunteer recovery coach. Why was that?
GE: When I first heard about the concept of a recovery coach, a trained support person who guides people through recovery from addiction with support and information about resources, I was excited. I didn’t know anything like that existed. Minnesota Recovery Connection wasn’t even around when my son was alive. I knew they were really on to something with this recovery-coach thing: My son always failed over and over in getting sober. It seemed he could never get the right kind of support in his recovery, and this seemed like what he had been looking for.
Right away, I became enthralled with the organization and did everything I could to help and support them. I did the MRC recovery coaches’ training. I spoke at Recovery Day on the Hill representing MRC. I’m not shy. I’ll talk about this organization wherever I go.
MP: How did your son fight his addiction?
GE: We did everything you could possibly think of to support his recovery — everything that was available up to 2007. At one point, I even tried to be his recovery coach, in a way. That didn’t work, but what other options did we have? He’d come out of treatment and have this pink slip that said, “Go into therapy, get a job, find a place to live, find recovery support.” He had no way to accomplish these goals by himself. He was always overwhelmed. That’s why a recovery coach is so important. My son didn’t have anybody else to do this for him other than his mom, and that just didn’t work.
When my son died in 2007, after a 20-year battle with addiction and a 10-year battle with heroin, we felt so defeated. We didn’t know where to turn, but now I’m trying to help others to avoid the same fate. That’s where my work with MRC comes in.
MP: Are there other ways you have responded to your son’s death?
GE: Well, I wrote my book, which is a direct response to Aaron’s death. Most of the book is about what I learned from his life and death, the lessons I learned from dealing with opiate addiction for all those years and dealing with addiction in general.
Addiction crosses all socioeconomic classes. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Aaron was a bright, creative, vivacious, incredibly wise soul. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book: I wanted people to see that about him. He felt like his whole life was so purposeless because he could never conquer his addiction. He’d say, “This is all I do: Try to recover. I have no purpose in my life.”
Now, with this book, I think Aaron’s life will have a purpose. I wanted to share with other people my mistakes and my wisdom and my son’s mistakes and my son’s wisdom. I think a book like this is really needed. An opiate epidemic is going on in this country, and so many people are dying because of it. I’ve had many people behind me saying, “Get this information out. It needs to get out to people.” I had to write it.
MP: Can you tell me a little bit more about your son’s life and death?
GE: Aaron was 33 years old when he died. He started messing around with mushrooms and pot and alcohol when he was 13. It escalated from there. He was in and out of treatment many times between the late 1990s and his last treatment in the spring of 2007, right before he died. Traditional 12-step recovery groups just weren’t working for him, but I think Aaron would’ve loved MRC.
I’ve been interviewed a lot of times about my son, and too often the focus of the interviews has been on the drama of his death. I believe that a focus on the salacious details does nothing to defeat the stigma around addiction. Aaron died a horribly tragic death. My life will never be the same again. But I want any publicity about my book to focus on recovery rather than death. That is more helpful.
MP: What do you mean when you say you’d like to “focus on recovery?”
GE: There’s this concept of “recovery capital,” where people turning away from addiction seek out and build up sources of support and encouragement that help guide them to true recovery. I think more people in the recovery community are beginning to understand the importance of building recovery capital, of supporting yourself and finding the support of others. That’s why the Walk for Recovery and Recovery Month have become such important events in our community.
There are not a lot of places where people in recovery can come together and celebrate their accomplishments. It’s great for people to see us all out there walking together. Maybe they’re asking, “What are all these people doing over at Lake of the Isles?” When they find out it’s the Walk for Recovery, maybe they’ll think, “Wow! I never knew so many people are recovering from addiction.”
The media always focuses on who’s in recovery or who has died from an overdose. We rarely hear the success stories.
MP: It sounds like you are focused on emphasizing successes over failures. Am I right?
GE: Yes. There is so much stigma and shame when people relapse, because we look at it as a failure, rather than as another step toward recovery. When Aaron relapsed, nobody was ever cheering him to get right back up on the horse again. Instead he’d get all wrapped up in the shame of relapse and he’d slip back into addiction.
Toward the end, my husband and I started making a point of emphasizing all the positive things Aaron was doing. We’d say, “You got back in the game again. We’re so proud of you.” I believe we lost Aaron because unfortunately his disease had progressed beyond the point of recovery.
MP: Can you tell me more about your work outside of MRC?
GE: I also work as a professional recovery coach. I am a psychotherapist, not a licensed psychologist.
Recovery coaching is about helping clients make realistic steps toward recovery, helping them find a job, helping them find housing, find a way back into treatment, to repair relationships with loved ones that have been damaged and helping them find resources that will aid their long-term recovery.
Clients pay for my professional recovery-coach services. My cost is about half the cost of therapy. I don’t meet with people for months on an ongoing basis. My goal is to get them back on track.
MP: Sounds like you are you are part guide, part cheerleader.
GE: Believing in somebody else is the most powerful thing that a person can do for others. If a person in recovery just has somebody rooting for them, someone in their corner encouraging them, that’s just so powerful. It’s amazing how just a little tiny bit of support can help build a person’s recovery capital.
MP: If Aaron were alive today, would he take part in the Walk for Recovery?
GE: Aaron walked everywhere. He didn’t own a car. This walk would’ve been right up his alley. I also think that MRC would’ve been important to Aaron. He felt like his recovery support was so narrow and limited. He was a square peg in a round hole. He didn’t fit the traditional approaches to recovery and sobriety.
MP: What are your plans for this year’s walk?
GE: I usually bring the grandkids because they have all kinds of children’s activities. They love it. They have birds of prey, pony rides and a food truck. It really is a family event. It’s a great place for somebody in recovery to be able to bring the kids in their life and let them see that recovery can be fun. It isn’t all this serious illness stuff, this doom and gloom.
To me, the growth of MRC shows how much more people in recovery are willing to come out and say, “I’m in long-term recovery and this is what recovery means to me.” It’s great that 4,000 people can get together and just go for a walk. You know how much hope that gives me? It’s an amazing feeling.