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They’re everywhere: Thousands of Hazelden Betty Ford graduates call the Twin Cities home

“The healing community that exists here it is really wide and deep,” said John R. Engebreth, Hazelden Betty Ford director of clinical operations for St. Paul, Chaska and Maple Grove.

Hazelden Betty Ford
An aerial of the Hazelden Betty Ford complex in Center City, Minnesota.
Courtesy of Hazelden Betty Ford

There are days when William Cope Moyers can’t shake a stick without hitting a Hazelden Betty Ford alumnus.

Moyers, who himself entered an inpatient program at the Center City-based addiction treatment mecca in 1989, doesn’t mind a bit. He’s been a proud Twin Cities resident, minus a disastrous three-year sojourn to Atlanta, since he left Hazelden, and seeing other graduates of the program when he’s at the grocery store or the coffee shop or the airport feels somehow reassuring.

In the Twin Cities, Moyers said, Hazelden alumni take comfort in the fact that other people in recovery are everywhere.

“We see each other, we interact with each other, we know each other’s lives in a way that is very affirming,” he said. “Addiction is an illness of isolation. When you have a community of people like us in an accepting, tolerant community like the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota, it is just more apparent and acceptable. We’re everywhere. And that’s great.”

Moyers, the son of award-winning journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers, was a journalist in his own right until his addictions spun out of control and he ended up at Hazelden. He earned his sobriety in Center City and, later, at a transitional sober house program in St. Paul.

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After his time in treatment was over, Moyers landed a job at the Star Tribune, which led him to CNN in Atlanta. In Georgia, Moyers’ grip on recovery began to unravel. At his lowest point, his father had to fly in and physically remove him from a crack house. Moyers was then admitted to an Atlanta detox center, where he had an epiphany.

“It was a whisper in my ear,” he recalled. “It said ‘St. Paul.’ ”

William Cope Moyers
William Cope Moyers
It’s a story he’s told many times, but for Moyers it still carries weight. “I didn’t know anything about the story of St. Paul the saint. What I did know was that whatever was whispering in my ear was telling me, ‘If you are going to find sustainable recovery, you need to move back to St. Paul, Minnesota, the recovery capital of the world.’ ”

Moyers returned to Minnesota and eventually took a job as a policy analyst at the Hazelden Foundation. Now he is vice president of public affairs and community relations at Hazelden Betty Ford. He revels in the fact that in his adopted home state he is surrounded by Hazelden Betty Ford alumni — 45,444 in Minnesota, with a significant concentration of 31,351 in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Nationally, there are some 270,000 Hazelden Betty Ford alumni.

John R. Engebreth, Hazelden Betty Ford director of clinical operations for St. Paul, Chaska and Maple Grove, said that the strong sense of community that has been established over the years in the Twin Cities makes settling here after completing an addiction treatment program feel like a logical next step toward lifelong recovery.

John R. Enggreth
John R. Engebreth
“We have this magical network of people in and amongst us the Twin Cities,” he said.  “Our graduates come for the initial treatment experience and have opted to stay because of the network of meetings and social groups. The healing community that exists here it is really wide and deep.”

For Moyers, swimming in that wide and deep pool of recovery feels healing. Running into other alumni wherever he goes, he said, is a constant reminder of what he sees as the “life-saving” experience of addiction treatment. It reminds him to stay grateful, to live in the present, to stay sober.

“The first word of the 12 steps is ‘we,’ ” Moyers said. “Recovery is all about community: It keeps you safe and secure. In this state, it’s hard to avoid the recovery community. And here in the Twin Cities, that’s especially the case.”

‘I felt like I actually belonged somewhere’

Minnesota is known nationwide for its concentration of addiction treatment programs. While Hazelden Betty Ford isn’t the only game in town, the 70-year-old behemoth is the largest and longest-running treatment program in the state.

Some Minnesota-based Hazelden alumni, like Moyers and celebrity culinary expert Andrew Zimmern, are visible public personalities who speak openly about their addiction and recovery, but others prefer to be quieter, blending seamlessly into the fabric of the community and living ordinary, sober lives.

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Bethany Otuteye is a good example. A little over eight years ago, she arrived in Minnesota for a job at a major corporation. Back home, in New York, Otuteye struggled with addictions to alcohol and prescription medication, but the successful corporate marketing manager figured that “pulling a geographic,” or making a fresh start in a new state where she didn’t know a soul, could be the perfect opportunity to put her addictions behind her.

It didn’t work out that way. About seven months after moving to Minnesota, Otuteye was arrested for driving under the influence. She had been so inebriated at the time of her arrest that she didn’t even know where her car was impounded. It took two days to find out.

Bethany Otuteye
Bethany Otuteye
“When they let me out of jail,” Otuteye recalled, “I had to walk home. I walked past everyone else going into my place of employment. That put a whole new spin on the concept of ‘the walk of shame.’ ”

Otuteye’s sister, on the phone from California, tried to persuade her to sign up for residential treatment. Otuteye resisted, but finally agreed to go. Her therapist insisted she try Hazelden. At first, she only went through the motions of following the Twelve Steps (“I thought it was a lot of hocus pocus,” she said, “but the more I did the things they suggested, the better I felt.”). Before long, she became a committed adherent to the program — and a solid participant in the local recovery community.

Otuteye knew that Minnesota was her new home six months after completing treatment. She had a job offer near family in California, but when she traveled west to check it out, she started to feel that she wanted to turn around and go home — to Minnesota, that is. Her AA group was holding a monthly medallion ceremony in a few days and Otuteye didn’t want to miss it.

“I realized that I didn’t want to leave this community of like-minded people where I was finding support and solutions and a path forward,” she said. “I felt like I actually belonged somewhere for the first time in my life. I was around people who understood me and the craziness that went on in my head.”  

Chosen family

Otuteye’s family of recovery grew to become her chosen family. Because they’d lived through similar experiences, they understood her struggles in a way that others, even her closest relatives, could not.

“I realized that my support network was in Minnesota,” she said. “This new family that I’ve found, these new relationships that I created, were so important to me. My family of origin was a little bit skeptical of me, but they weren’t.”

At an AA meeting Otuteye even met the man who one day became her husband. The two had been attending the same meeting for a long time, and as they both approached two years of sobriety, they decided to go on a date. “We fell in love,” Otuteye said, simply.

Once married, the couple, both firmly committed to maintaining their sobriety, assumed full-time care of Otuteye’s husband’s son. With her years of addiction in the past, Otuteye reveled in the opportunity to parent her new stepson.

“We were able to provide the stability he needed,” she said. A few years later, the family expanded when Otuteye gave birth to the couple’s son, now 3 years old.  

As Otuteye puts the dark years of her addiction and early recovery in the past, her intense need to attend regular AA meetings or check in with a sponsor faded for a time, but she’s back attending meetings, and her connection to the local recovery community remains strong.

“When I look at my support network today I have a lot of friends who are not associated with the program,” she said, “but some of my closest, most important connections are from that time.” When Otuteye’s son was born, for instance, his first babysitter was a friend she met through AA.  

“There are so many ways in which the benefit of being a part of and connected to the Minnesota recovery community is integrated into my life,” Otuteye said. “It has gone so far beyond AA meetings. I’ve built out those relationships and let them become even more meaningful than they were before.”

Sweet spot

It makes sense geographically that some Hazelden Betty Ford alumni would decide to settle in Minnesota; it’s easier to stay here than to venture far afield. But there has to be some larger reason so many choose to settle in the state for good.

Moyers, who’s lived in other, larger cities, believes that there’s something to be said for the Twin Cities’ not-too-small, not-too-big demographic sweet spot. The metro area is big enough to provide variety, culture and diversity, but small enough so that a person in recovery won’t feel lost.  

“There is without a doubt a center of gravity of recovery here in the Twin Cities that’s greater than it is anywhere else,” Moyers says. Even though there might actually be more recovering people in larger cities like New York or Dallas, he added, “in those other places they are absorbed into a population of many millions. Here in the Twin Cities, there is a larger pool of recovering people within a smaller overall pool of population.”

For Otuteye, some of that closeness has to do with geography.

“I’ve heard that there are areas of LA where there are very strong recovery communities,” she said. “But LA is so spread out that to even find people and build a community is really difficult.”

Otuteye also lived in New York, but she said she felt that people there tended to move on. She’d meet people only to find out that they were headed on for the next opportunity.

“One of the things about the Twin Cities is the community here has a long history of stability,” she said. “This enables people to let their root system spread out. When your roots are strong, you can build strong connections and really settle in.”

The saintly city

In Minneapolis/St. Paul proper, the strongest recovery community is on the east side of the river, Moyers said.

“In St. Paul, you find more newcomers to the community and more old timers in the community all mixing and interacting and living and experiencing life than anywhere else,” he said. In fact, it was the image of the sleepier, homier St. Paul (remember that mysterious voice?) that really drew him back to Minnesota.

Moyers believes that his allegiance to the Capitol City grew out of his early experiences living in a sober house (then called as a “halfway house”) in St. Paul, and attending AA meetings at the Fellowship Club on West Seventh Street and at the Uptown Club on the southwest corner of Summit and Hamline Avenues.

St. Paul’s full acceptance of the recovery community is a breath of fresh air for people who are used to being shunned for their addictions, said Engebreth. In St. Paul, sober houses exist for the most part quietly and unobtrusively next door to family homes in residential neighborhoods, and people in the midst of recovery work, shop and socialize with everyone else.  

“St. Paul has rich numbers,” Engebreth said. For the most part, the city and its residents have been welcoming to Hazelden Betty Ford alumni. “One of the most helpful things in the work we do is when people transition from treatment into a sober house where they can live with five or six other people also in their first years of sobriety.”

Otuteye lived in a St. Paul sober house when she finished her treatment program. She still feels grateful to the business owners along nearby Grand Avenue who were willing to hire her housemates despite their histories of addiction.

“This is a profile where a lot of employers will say, ‘No thank you,’ ” she said. “But there is an openness there, an experience with people who are getting back on their feet and trying to turn things around. During that time I felt an embrace and acceptance that I didn’t always feel like I deserved.”

Contributing members

Not every Hazelden Betty Ford graduate wants to be the public face of recovery.

Moyers understands why many choose to keep that aspect of their past in the past. Choosing, as he has, to be a public advocate for recovery means that there are times when his privacy is limited, but he accepts that as a small price to pay for the unwavering support he’s received.

“You live your life how you want to live your life,” Moyers said. “Just because I wear my recovery on my sleeve and find it liberating doesn’t mean that other people have to wear their recovery on their sleeves. There is plenty of room for all kinds of ways live your recovery in the Twin Cities.”

That said, Engebreth feels that people like Moyers and Zimmern, who’ve used their public status as a way to promote recovery and sober living, play an important role in the state.

“I’m always grateful for people like Andrew and William who are willing to go out in front and talk about their recovery,” Engebreth said. Some alumni’s sobriety activism is less public, but no less important, he added. When regular people are willing to talk openly about their experiences with addiction and recovery, it makes it feel more accessible for everyone: “All over the state, there are people who are willing, sometimes quietly, to be examples for others. They are doctors, plumbers, mechanics, mothers. They are bravely telling their own stories.”

Moyers raised his three children in St. Paul. His youngest daughter, Nancy, a student at Augsburg University, was enrolled in the University’s StepUP sobriety program for a time. “She is the second generation of my family in recovery,” he said. He’s thankful that he was able to raise his children in a place that accepted their family and supported them in their struggles: “It is the greatest good fortune that a program like StepUP exists right here,” he said.

That general sense of thankfulness motivates much of Moyers’ daily life, and he thinks that many other members of the Twin Cities recovery community feel the same way.

“I think gratitude is the manna that adds a level of vibrancy to the Twin Cities through the recovery community,” he said. “Our members are alive and well and have not only survived the chronic disease of addition but are the better for it.”

Just as no person is perfect, no city is perfect, either. But Moyers thinks that he and the other alumni have a deep understanding that this is a good place to call home.

“My recovery continues to evolve,” he said, “and this community continues to provide a rock-solid foundation for people like me.”