Interview with Brent Canode
Brent Canode is the guy behind the scenes conceptualizing and effecting change on the recovery landscape on a local and national scale.
Nationally, he holds leadership positions with Facing Addiction, Faces and Voices of Recovery and Association of Recovery Community Organizations. His advocacy work has been recognised by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Institute For Recovery Advocacy and Viacom’s Here to Listen Campaign.
Over the past decade, as the Executive Director of the Alano Club of Portland, he has grown the organization into the largest non-clinical recovery support center in the United States. With over 10,000 visitors a month, the Club serves as a national model for a modern, multi-dimensional recovery community organization, applying the latest evidence-based supports within a community setting. The Club recently was awarded the Joel M. Hernandez Award, the highest honor a recovery organization can receive in the U.S
In Oregon, Brent has been a visible champion for recovery. Most recently he co-founded the Oregon Recovery High School Initiative, a coalition of recovery advocates, educators, health system professionals and business leaders committed to launching a “gold standard” recovery high school for students impacted by substance use disorders. Brent has also been a contributor and resource for online recovery sites and articles and has been a featured guest on top-rated recovery blogs.
Brent’s proudest accomplishment is simply being an individual and father in long-term recovery.
Interview with Brent Canode
Liv: Let’s kick off with a food question: What have you had for breakfast today?
Well, I’ll tell you, its miles away from the pre-recovery days of quad lattes and cigarettes I used to consume first thing in the morning, typically after no sleep, right before crawling into my office in City Hall. Like most aspects of my life over the past 13 years in recovery, my approach to personal nutrition has continued to grow and adapt based on new experience and knowledge. I was a competitive athlete as a young person, and my program of recovery has allowed me to engage in those activities again, which gave me so much fulfilment and pleasure during my youth. Today, like most days, I fuel in the morning in preparation for running or strength training. That usually translates into an early breakfast of oatmeal with walnuts, a smoothie with greens and protein and Lacroix, the beverage of choice for almost every recovering person!
Liv: Moving to your story: in September 2004, you were arrested on charges of buying drugs in Old Town-Chinatown. You were 31 years old and leading a successful career as assistant to the bureau director for Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement. How did you manage your contrasting life of serving in a highly functioning role professionally, but using crack cocaine in your personal life?
Well, in short, I did. Until I didn’t. My life, going back to my early teens, was the classic Jekyll and Hyde story you hear about in recovery, with mounting consequences and collateral damage along the way. As a young person this involved excelling at sports and then being asked to leave teams because of my substance use. Being accepted into honors programs in school, and then being asked to leave because of my substance use and the behaviors that came along with it. This pattern played itself out through college, graduate school and into my professional life. I lived two lives, and most of the time I was able to keep the two separate, with the occasional run-in with law enforcement or other authority figures, like coaches, teachers, school administrators, etc., that threatened the delicate equilibrium and charade I was trying to maintain.
I certainly had many people close to me over the years try to intervene and get me help. Before my arrest in 2004 I had been through private treatment programs three times. And each time I chose to go back to using shortly after graduating. I say chose because I believe there is an element of choice in this disorder. I think acknowledging the choice aspect allows us to take responsibility for our disorder and also empowers us to make positive changes. As one recovery advocate recently told me, if choice wasn’t an element of this disorder, how would we ever chose to stop! Another element that factored into my addiction was stigma. In a major way. I often say that if drugs had ultimately taken my life (a number of overdoses almost accomplished that during my last year of use) than stigma would have been an accomplice to the crime. I had so much shame around my substance use, which was internalized deeply, based on the heavy stigma around addiction in our society. In fact, 4 days before my arrest, a senior director who reported to me, asked to go to coffee, and then attempted an intervention on the spot. She said she had friends in recovery she could put me in touch with, who could help me navigate the EAP at work, and get me into treatment. I scoffed at the idea, my exact words being “Fuck that, if City officials find out I’m an addict, I’ll lose my job for sure!” Looking back now, it certainly wasn’t much of a secret, and my arrest days later ensured that it wasn’t.
Anyways, I had been juggling, with diminishing returns, this double life, when it all came crashing down one fateful night in September of 2004. I had gone out to celebrate a major promotion, which made me the youngest Deputy Director of an agency in the City of Portland. After my colleagues went home, I got back in a cab to score drugs, because my dealer wasn’t available, and I ultimately ended up in a sting in a neighborhood known for open air drug sales. I was pulled from my cab, thrown to the street, and I remember with amazing clarity, the way the gravel felt against my cheek, and the strange mix of relief and terror I felt at knowing the game was up for me. That was the moment everything changed. I was tired, completely exhausted by addiction, and fed up with letting myself and everyone else close to me down. It was the first time I remember feeling like I wanted something different. But I had no idea what that was or how to get it.
Liv: Fortunately, you avoided criminal penalties by successfully completing treatment under the guidelines of the STOP Program. Did that program form the basis of your continued recovery, or has it evolved through another modality?
Honestly, I owe my life to Oregon’s drug court program. In the past, treatment programs I attended were 30, 60 or 90 days, with little accountability. In contract, STOP is a nationally recognized program in Multnomah County for repeat offenders, which includes a year of intensive treatment and recovery support, with the added accountability of having to report to a judge every week on your progress. I was also enrolled concurrently in a private year-long treatment program too, because at this point I was doing everything humanely possible to try and make recovery stick this time around. I can remember times early in my recovery, where I may not have made it, had it not been for the looming specter of a dirty UA and an attendant criminal sentence.
I have never believed that “you have to want it” in order for recovery to work. In fact, I think most of the research shows that programs like STOP work remarkably well, especially for people like myself, who may have had some ambivalence around their recovery in the first year. I don’t think STOP formed the basis of my recovery, but more accurately, pushed me to find the true basis of my recovery, because the type of recovery support it encouraged – 12-step programs – didn’t feel like a perfect fit for me for a variety of reasons. So, while programs like AA and NA formed the basis of my recovery early in the game, I took an unconventional path later on, based on a lot of soul searching and research into alternative recovery supports. Initially, Tommy Rosen, originator of Recovery 2.0, had a huge influence on my expanded sense of the types of modalities and services that could constitute recovery support. From there I began to network with other researchers, advocates and recovery professionals to build a program that felt right for me.
The Alano Club of Portland
Liv: You then took on a role at The Alano Club of Portland, where you have served for over a decade. The Club is the largest non-clinical recovery support center in the United States, which serves as a national model for a modern, multi-dimensional recovery community organization. You said, “I credit this organization in large part with saving my life”—how so?
Well, when I left the private treatment center I was at after my arrest there was a sign on the wall that said if you didn’t make a recovery support meeting within 72 hours of leaving your chance at being sober one year later was less than 10%. Now, I have no idea if that is accurate or supported by any legitimate research but it did make me leave my house where I wanted to hide from the world, after returning home. So, in that sense, my recovery program, and the sober life I live today all goes back to the Alano Club of Portland and the community of people there who welcomed me into their world. It was here that I learned to socialize as a sober person, including how to laugh and have fun without drugs and alcohol. It was also here that I was exposed to recovering people using supports outside the 12-step paradigm, like mindfulness, yoga and exercise-based recovery. Later, when I became director of the Alano Club, I made expanding recovery support services at the Club a top priority, because I knew personally, anecdotally and most importantly, empirically, that most people require more than a 12-step meeting to stay sober and experience optimal health and wellness outcomes.
Liv: The club receives over 10,000 visitors a month. Why do you think it is so popular?
Because the Club is AMAZING of course! Well, I think it has to do with a couple things. First, we have arguably the most beautiful setting for recovery support in the nation. In 1967 we inherited a 9,000 square foot Neocolonial Estate, which has served as our recovery center ever since. The building is beautiful and well-kept and has earned a place on the National Registry for Historic Places. It is also the largest non-clinical recovery center, in terms of sheer physical space, so we can accommodate a lot of people. And we do!
Also, the Club is fairly unique, in that we offer a diverse program of supports not typically found at recovery centers, and moreover, not typically found for free! Because of the generous support of regional foundations in the NW who believe in our work, we’ve been able to build an annual program of alternative recovery supports, and offer it free of charge to whomever wishes to participate. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard a participant in the Recovery Toolkit Series tell us this program really jump-started their recovery or took their recovery program to a whole new level. I believe continued personal growth in recovery is essential and this program is one avenue towards that. Another reason we are so popular is our large sober social events that we offer throughout the year, including our Artists in Recovery Series with major regional artists of all types, our Recovery Art Walk, where we turn our facility into a gallery for a night and feature the works of over 75 artists in recovery and our Recovery Talent Show, which draws major industry talent along with homegrown acts of all persuasions! A recent Harvard study showed that the social components (new sober social networks and sense of confidence to remain sober in social contexts) were the most important elements of recovery support groups, so we’ve really tried to take that research and create regular opportunities for prosocial skill development and fun in recovery.
Liv: I love how the club provides a plethora of support and resources for visitors from 12 step meetings, Refuge Recovery, yoga and meditation classes, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction & Relapse Prevention training, health and wellness seminars, exercise-based recovery groups, recovery skills workshops, advocacy projects and large-scale sober social events. What is your philosophy here in the provision of such a wide-range of workshops, which seem to be geared toward well-being and mindfulness?
My philosophy is simple: For many people, recovery requires more than just a meeting.
We know from the research that only 25% of people in recovery utilize the 12-step model to sustain their sobriety. As an organization, we are interested in making sure we are relevant and useful to the other 75% who need support, too. In terms of the origin of our expanded recovery support services, it all goes back to a tiny resentment! There is a common adage in 12-step groups that all it takes to start a meeting is a resentment and a pot of coffee. Well, it turns out that’s all it takes to diversify recovery supports, too!
I remember someone walking into my office early in my tenure at the Club and saying something to the effect of “hey, you don’t go to many meetings, why don’t you feel like you need to work a program of recovery.” After practicing some breathing exercises I learned in my emerging mindfulness practice (which by the way IS an effective form of recovery support) I attempted to correct this gentlemen and explain that there are many different ways a person can support and maintain their recovery, but at the time he was having none of it. So, that literally began my period of deep exploration and research into alternative recovery supports, culling through the emerging academic research on programs like MBSR and MBRP, trauma-informed yoga, exercise-based recovery, mindfulness supports like Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindful Eating, digital recovery, and much more. All of this work coalesced this year into a formal program called the Recovery Toolkit Series (RTS), which is gaining national recognition for its innovative approach to recovery support.
The Oregon Recovery High School Initiative
Liv: Moving on to another great initiative that you are involved in: you are the Founder and Vice-chair of The Oregon Recovery High School Initiative (ORHSI). Its mission:
to provide a safe, sober and supportive gold standard education for youth in recovery, where they can develop the skills and strengths needed for personal, academic, vocational and community success. The ORHSI will bring together education, healthcare and youth treatment and recovery support to build Oregon’s first high school exclusively for students impacted by substance use disorders.
What is your hope for the children attending this school, both in terms of continued recovery and when they leave?
My hope in the broadest sense is that these students will have the opportunity to live up to their highest potential at our school. These are special, bright kids with amazing minds and the capacity to change the world. All they need is the right type of support and educational environment to thrive and succeed. That is exactly what we will give them starting in 2019-20!
Oregon ranks nearly last in terms of access to treatment services for adolescents. That is unacceptable and we aim to fix a severely broken continuum of care in Oregon for our young people suffering from SUDs. Here’s the bottom line. We know that when you return a young person from treatment to their school of origin they only stand a 30% chance of being sober a year later. Conversely, when you put that same child in a recovery high school, there’s a 70% chance of being sober a year later. That’s a huge variance and one that should motivate every community in Oregon and across the nation to launch a school like ours.
Many of us in recovery have been sent to “those schools” or “those programs” districts devise to ostensibly serve struggling students. Often these programs are highly stigmatized and the content is remedial at best. That won’t be our school. We have put together a team of leaders from across sectors in Oregon, with the goal of building a school that is attractive, vibrant, and academically rigorous – in short, a school a young person and their family would be proud to be affiliated with and honored to attend! As one mom and recovery school advocate in NJ recently said, we wouldn’t send a newly sober adult to go sit in a bar 5 days a week, 9 hours a day, so why would we do that with our children? Graduates of
Oregon’s first recovery high school will be the new ambassadors of sober living for youth and catalyze a new youth recovery movement in Oregon that will reverberate across the state and equate to countless lives saved from the ravages of substance use disorders.
The Physical Aspect of Addiction Recovery
Liv: Moving on to your physical recovery. Can you tell me how your relationship with food has evolved since being in recovery?
In short, I have one now! Seriously, eating for me was a perfunctory exercise that rarely involved any awareness or mindfulness about what or how much of what I was putting in my body. I often skipped many meals, like many alcoholics and addicts are prone to doing, and when I did eat it was only to meet the bare minimums to survive. Today, my relationship with food is functional and healthy. Over the past couple years I’ve had the opportunity to take Mindful Eating workshops (something we now offer at the Club), which completely re-wired my relationship with food, down to the granular level, including how many times I chew my food to optimize the nutrients I’m taking in. That level of care and mindfulness would never have happened were it not for recovery and the amazing wellness professionals I’ve met along the way!
Liv: What do you do to keep physically well?
Physical activity is one of the cornerstones of my recovery program. I honestly can’t imagine recovery without it. As a child I grew up playing competitive sports, and it was one of the few areas in life where I really thrived. That and academia. And then later partying, which decimated the first two! The mountain is a very spiritual place for me, and a good portion of my free time is spent on Mt. Hood in Oregon, snowboarding, backcountry snowboarding (climbing mountains and riding back down them) trail running and backpacking. I also enjoy strength training with friends, yoga, and running daily. I just feel like a better human being, father, partner, friend etc. when I have a healthy dose of physical activity in my live, daily.
Liv: Last, what are your top 5 recovery tools?
- Physical activity