The Recovery Friendly Community

Tom McHale, MSW

Unless you personally know someone in recovery from alcohol and other drugs (AOD) it’s highly unlikely you would know anyone in recovery at all. Recovering people seem to vanish into thin air, never publicly disclosing this part of their life and known only to those in close orbit. Open disclosure comes with real world consequences, especially if they’re seeking higher rungs on the social or occupational ladder. Disclosure means the doors are shut to multiple careers and social attainments. Newly recovering people are told not to disclose their recovery on first dates or job interviews, disclosure can be like throwing the proverbial wrench into the spokes. Keeping that part of life tucked away is a good idea and considered a “must do” for social advancements. But when recovering people operate by the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”, it comes at a huge price. A sizeable part of their identity must remain secret. This is damaging on two levels: the first is personal and carries the mark of shame, and the second is social and has significant consequences for the entire community. Facelessness at the public level has created the impression that no one really recovers, hence low community support and understanding of addiction/recovery. But it doesn’t end there, the same stigmas that drove recovery underground have also rendered communities completely oblivious to all the benefits that come from openly supporting recovery lifestyles.

There are an estimated 25 million people in long term recovery and they are America’s best kept secret. On average, people in long term recovery out perform their neighbors in many of life’s domains, such as the following:

Research has shown that people in long term recovery…

  1. Seldom see the inside of a court room or experience brushes with the law

  2. Eat heathier and exercise more

  3. Increase education and job training

  4. Show up for work more often and with clear heads

  5. Increase family participation

  6. Increase disposable income

  7. Volunteer at twice the rate of others

  8. And much more

To most of us in long term recovery the attributes above make sense, we see people acquire these on a regular basis. And, these attributes are just the beginning. The logic goes like this: if you are not spending time and money escaping reality then you are more likely investing in it. Making the best of reality is a common pathway for people in recovery and one of the fundamental reasons why people in stable recovery cost communities less and contribute more.

Recovery lifestyles are adopted by people who no longer engage in the harmful use of alcohol and other drugs: which just happens to be over 30% of the population and a growing trend. The number of sober friendly vacations, bars and activities continue to increase across Europe and in the US. The negative consequences of drinking and using drugs has created a sizeable population who prefer to live without artificial enhancements. They want the real deal, and they are willing to spend money to experience life without alcohol and drugs. Articles describing these new social scenes have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CBS, and other national news platforms. Exposing the value of recovery lifestyles and promoting to businesses the superior job qualities that recovering people possess should be for all intents and purposes an easy sell. Communities must first however, learn how to recognize the value of recovery lifestyles.

In Emmet County there are an estimated twenty-one hundred people with undiagnosed substance use disorders. We know that around 70% of them are employed, come from all social, religious and occupational backgrounds, half of them are unaware of their disorder; while the other half are too terrified to admit it and for good reason. To openly admit an AOD problem means undergoing a drastic change in the way they think and behave, and more importantly, the way they are socially viewed—a scary proposition when you’re standing at the fork in the road with a decision to make. Opting for the familiar path, in light of all the risk, is the one most commonly chosen. The recovery path is not well understood, has few options, stigmas and too many unknowns. Plus, admitting the problem could really damage social standing and social connections.

Eliminating substance use disorders completely will never happen, especially in a country that consumes 80% to 90% of the world’s drugs even though it’s comprised of only 5% of the world’s population. The best way forward is to focus on small incremental doses of healthy change in an area of addiction/recovery likely to have the biggest impact. For the twenty-one hundred people in Emmet County their only option is to work toward acquiring recovery lifestyles. Lowering barriers and reducing stigma gives them the best route out of their situation.

Living a recovery lifestyle is becoming more of a health trend, it’s the la mode of up and coming trend setters and health conscious people. Promoting the lifestyle will have a far greater impact on reducing AOD problems than all other prevention strategies combined. Communities should be places where recovery flourishes, where it’s valued, celebrated and elevated as a desirable attribute. Communities with accomplished recovery friendly environments will capitalize on all the benefits that come from full recognition of this population group.

Group formation

Purpose and Goals

A guided discussion group to define recovery friendly community criteria and make recommendations for community promotion of recovery lifestyles. Group goals:

  1. Identify characteristics of Recovery lifestyles and identify methods for reaching this population segment within Emmet County
  2. Define a Recovery Friendly Community and develop measureable criteria
  3. Develop strategies for educating communities about the value of recovery lifestyles
  4. Develop community presentation highlighting improvements in community wellness and economic sustainability for supporting recovery lifestyles

Group Composition

Senior & Mid-level members from following areas and have an interest in becoming a change agent.

  1. Public Health
  2. McLaren Behavioral
  3. News Media
  4. Marketing
  5. Harbor Hall
  6. Recovery Community Alliance
  7. Recovery & Prevention Groups
  8. Law Enforcement/Sobriety Court
  9. Chamber of Commerce
  10. City Council
  11. Ecumenical Association
  12. Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation
  13. North Central Michigan College
  14. North Country Community Mental Health
  15. NMSAS Recovery Center
  16. Bear River Health

Group Size

8 – 12

Group Sessions

Beginning Oct/Nov 2019

Session Length:?? min

Number of Sessions:??

Location: Petoskey- Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation

For more information and to request a seat at the table please contact:

Tom McHale, MSW

600 Arlington, Unit 1

Petoskey, MI. 49770



Tom has been a tireless advocate for addiction recovery services for 31 years. His career began on the assembly line at General Motors Truck Assembly in Flint, Michigan in 1973 He soon became a journeyman electrician but left the trade to become the Work-Family program administrator for his remaining 20 years with General Motors. Tom earned a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Michigan, he has helped countless employees and their families find and maintain recovery, he also was the founder of the annual SoberFest, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer and attracts over 3,500 attendees.

Tom has served on the boards of national and state associations. He helped to establish the nation’s first advocacy organization for recovery in Washington D.C., called the Faces and Voices of Recovery, and served on its board of directors. Tom was chosen to serve on a National Public Policy Panel at the Boston University School of Public Health to provide state government with policy recommendations to improve the way state’s organize and deliver services for substance use disorders. In 2005 Tom was presented with the America Honors Recovery Award at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

In 2006, Tom retired from GM and moved to Emmet County starting a second career at NMSAS Recovery Services in Gaylord, MI. He was the project developer for Recovery Coach Services and trained 300 Recovery Coaches in 31 counties in Northern Lower Michigan to help others with the recovery stabilization process.

Tom has 31 years of recovery and lives in Petoskey with his wife Carol.