It started just after my first article about sobriety went viral. 

In May of 2014, I got an email from the Huffington Post asking me if they could re-publish a blog I had put on my free WordPress site. At first, I thought the email was spam or a joke but, once I replied yes and the process of being published started, I quickly realized it was not. Once they shared my blog far and wide and on many different arms of their website, I started receiving messages. People emailed me, sent me Facebook messages and Twitter DM’s asking me questions, telling me my writing had helped them, and they all wanted more. They wanted advice and guidance, and I felt wholly unequipped to give it to them.

I began writing more, sharing my experience, and talking about what worked for me but I always felt like I should be, or could be, doing something more. Creating content for addiction treatment centers became my full-time job but, in late summer of 2017, I unexpectedly got laid off. While I wallowed in the grief of losing my benefits and salary, I knew it was time for me to take a step into a new direction. 

That’s when I made the life-changing decision to I sign up for recovery coach and Life Coach training through the International Association of Professional Recovery Coaches. 

Since becoming a certified recovery coach, I’ve had to also shift my identity once more, and I’ve run into some interesting pushback along the way. 

According to the International Coaching Federation, in 2016 there were 17,500 coaches in North America who generated over $955 million. Additionally, almost 6 out of 10 coaches reported an increase in clients over the last year. Not only that but 10,900 managers and industry leaders used coaching skills in a professional setting to bring in $2 billion in 2016. Professional coaching is a new, but it’s a growing industry and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. Helping people doing what I love and making a living? It made perfect sense.

 I’ve learned that it is important to define clearly what a recovery coach does and doesn’t do.

I took my training, became certified, and began promoting my professional coaching services. That’s when I was once again met with questions, and this time, confusion. 

People would say things like, “What’s the difference between what you do and being a sponsor?” “You’re charging for services that are available for free.” “So basically you’re a therapist?” I have also been told that I must think I’m better than people that attend 12-step meetings (I don’t!), that my higher power must be me, and that I should “keep coming back.” I’ve also had many people assume recovery coach services are free.

I’ve quickly learned that I need to clearly say: No, I’m not a therapist or an AA sponsor, I’m a recovery coach. And yes, of course, I charge for my services. 

I’ve learned that it is important to define clearly what a recovery coach does and doesn’t do, and separate my personal feelings from the confusion I’ve come across. So, to clarify some things, here’s the deal: 

What a therapist does:

Therapists focus on relief of psychological and emotional pain and often work with a variety of clients who are in psychological pain or are currently dealing with trauma. Therapists have the education and licensure to diagnosis some mental health issues and some are able to provide medication and other behavioral health services and referrals. 

The idea behind therapy is to focus on past behavior and patterns and change self-destructive habits after analysis, leading to a happier and healthier future. They do charge for their services, often a premium fee, but sometimes you can find a great therapist through your insurance company. 

What an AA sponsor does:

AA sponsors, on the other hand, “work” for free. Basically, they provide a non-therapeutic approach to recovery. This is similar to recovery coaching, but 12-step sponsors only offer help in one recovery modality — the 12 steps. Sponsors don’t receive any formal training or invest in recovery education. They simply share their experience, strength, and hope with others who are struggling in a manner that has worked best for them personally. 

There is no right or wrong way to sponsor but most 12-step sponsors follow the steps as laid out in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Their goal is to heal what they believe to be a spiritual malady (addiction) by helping that person live the principles of the 12 steps in their daily life. This often requires a person to adhere to a rigorous step by step plan. 

This can be a good option for those that get sober through the 12 steps, but that’s not everyone. What I’ve come to learn after six years of recovery is there is also a stigma around recovering outside of the 12 steps, such as through alternative in-person or online communities or with recovery coaching. 

What a recovery coach does:

Recovery coaching has less of a stigma than seeing a psychotherapist for mental health issues and walking into the rooms of AA. It can be done virtually, allowing for privacy and flexible schedules, as well as having a safety barrier. Similar to therapists, recovery coaches invest in their training and education. Unlike therapists, they do not learn how to diagnosis or work through specific traumas. They also don’t provide clinical evaluation or focus on the past. 

The biggest difference between recovery coaching and therapy or sponsorship is that recovery coaching is future-focused. As a recovery coach, I help people focus on increasing their motivation, identifying and creating a plan to reach their goals, and help them remove barriers to their recovery. 

Recovery coaches listen, normalize feelings, and provide a strengths-based approach for a more fulfilling future. Recovery coaches can recommend resources like AA meetings (if a need arises) but they also can be versed in other recovery pathways such as Women for Sobriety, She Recovers, Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery, or Tempest*, just to name a few.

Because a recovery coach undergoes some training and certification, it is therefore paid and different than sponsorship but not as specific (in terms of mental health diagnosis) as therapy. It can also be done in combination with the other two, as a recovery coaching program is designed for the individual and can be tailored to anyone in recovery who is also in AA and/or in therapy. 

So next time someone says: “Why are you charging money for that? Aren’t you just a glorified AA sponsor?” I can say truthfully and proudly: No, I’m not a therapist or an AA Sponsor, I’m a recovery coach who’s just doing my job.

*Tempest is the parent company of The Temper. Founded by Holly Whitaker, Tempest Sobriety School is an 8-week course that includes weekly lectures, live Q+A calls, and can also include a coaching program.