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Recovering Addicts Face Extra Challenges Around The Holidays

Joe Palma
Ryan Denham
Joe Palma runs Sober Bloomington, an advocacy group that supports people in recovery who are searching for a job.

For recovering addicts, staying sober can more difficult around the holidays. Alcohol is as pervasive as gingerbread cookies at holiday parties. And as families come together, the pain of past relapses can linger even if a person is newly sober.

Joe Palma runs Sober Bloomington, an advocacy group that supports people in recovery who are searching for a job. Palma is a recovering addict himself—alcohol and drugs. He battled for over a decade, going in and out of recovery. He’s going on six years with no mind-altering substances in his body.

For those first two years, Palma couldn’t be around alcohol, which made social gatherings tricky. WGLT asked his advice for planning inclusive holiday get-togethers, especially for those who might be early in their recovery.

"If you truly want these people around during the holidays, I'd say come down to their level."

“I’d just respect their wishes. I’d ask them, ‘Hey, are you OK with this here?’ And if they’re not OK with it, be willing to have a dry party. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re showing support to these people,” Palma said.

“Why not have an alcohol-free family gathering? What that does is it reinforces that you guys love him, and you support him, and you’re being there with him,” Palma said. “If you truly want these people around during the holidays, I’d say come down to their level. Be 1-on-1. Say, ‘We love you and we want to support you in any way we can.’”

It’s more than just whether or not alcohol will be present.

“This is the time of year when families and our relationships need to just really learn to listen, learn to forgive, and learn to just be there. And if you have to, love from a distance,” Palma said. “Because sometimes really crowding a person does more damage than anything. You want this person to change so much, and you do so much, and that’s only affecting it in a negative manner. Sometimes pulling away and just saying to yourself, ‘I will love this person. But I won’t support this person’s addiction and behavior.’

"It’s a hard thing, especially this time of year.”

Sober Bloomington

After a couple years of sobriety, Palma said he felt the itch to give back. Sober Bloomington was born.

From his own experiences, Palma saw a need in the employment space. Restoring work ethic is key.

“After years of running around, not holding a job, scraping by, stealing, whatever means possible to support your habit—that becomes your norm,” Palma said. “You don’t know how to work anymore. You don’t know how to wake up in the morning.”

Palma said there is a huge transparency gap between employers and job applicants in recovery.

“We’re gonna hide that. And yet the whole point of recovery—a basic core—is to be honest with yourself and to others. There’s a bridge that needed to happen,” he said.

Sober Bloomington reviews and accepts client referrals that primarily come from recovery coaches. The organization does not charge services for clients, businesses, or third parties. It's a donor-supported nonprofit organized under His Harvest Ministries.

To participate, a person must be actively participating in a 12-step program, working with a sponsor, and be sober for at least three months.

“That’s when those hands need to get busy. Because the devil has work for idle hands. And that’s very true,” Palma said. “If we’re bored, what do we do? Especially if we’re in the middle of a battle.”

Palma said he’s built relationships with a few businesses who are willing to “take that risk” and hire his clients. Accountability and transparency are central to Sober Bloomington, he said. Participants must agree to random drug testing, check in weekly with their mentor, and fully disclose their criminal history to Sober Bloomington and their new employer.

Palma cited one recent client who had a bachelor’s degree in marketing—but also three felonies on his record. He applied to 100 jobs, got 25 interviews, but couldn’t land a job even in fast food. He came to Sober Bloomington and got a job.

“His whole life changed. His whole demeanor about life shifted because of this job. ‘I am worth something. I’m not a piece of garbage. I can do this.’ It was hard work. He’s an office guy, and he was put in an assembly line. So you gotta be humble throughout this process. There’s some training and some soul-searching that goes on,” Palma said.

And his clients know this first job isn’t necessarily the forever job.

“This is just to get you to that next step,” Palma said.

Sober Bloomington is now recruiting clients and mentors, as well as employers that are willing to take the leap and offer a job or two to the organization. The group will also work in 2020 to open a sober living home in Bloomington-Normal.

Learn more at SoberBloomington.com.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.