Shandelle Friedman of Cloquet had been sober for 21 months when she brought a local chapter of Sober Squad — a group of people supporting each other through recovery — to the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation.
“I see miracles everyday with people who are excited about recovery,” Friedman said of the group.
Sober Squad centers itself around the idea that the opposite of addiction is connection, while recognizing that paths to recovery and connection can take many forms, Friedman said. That could include attending ceremony, diving into helping other people, focusing on family or going to college and finding a sense of purpose that way.
The group’s role is to encourage healthy connections in order to build healthier communities and to provide support as soon as someone asks for it. Anyone struggling at any time of day can reach out in one of the Sober Squad group chats through Facebook.
“Any time of the day someone says to me, ‘I want to go to detox’ or ‘I want to go to treatment — help me,’ I'm willing to help them no matter what I have going on the next day,” Friedman said. “Someone's life is more important than me sleeping.”
Sober Squad started in Mille Lacs in 2017 under founder Collin Cash, who noticed Friedman’s involvement on the original Facebook page and in 2017, encouraged her to start a group for people in the Cloquet and Duluth area. Chapters have popped up around the state and nation.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, members with the group host talking circles at the Fond du Lac Tribal Center. During the colder months, the group often goes bowling at the Incline Station Bowling Center in Duluth.
Group members take pride in tying their public identity to their recovery because it puts a face to sobriety. It’s a deliberate approach mediated out of an awareness that the fear of being alone in sobriety often prevents people from seeking recovery — something Friedman experienced herself.
Natalie Smith of Duluth said she did, too. Smith was four months into her sobriety when she joined Sober Squad after noticing it was helping people and continuing to grow. Now, she’s a co-mentor alongside Friedman.
Smith said Sober Squad takes a different approach than one would find at an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
“We’re trying to show people that yes, there are people in recovery out there and that there is help outside of those (AA and NA) rooms,” Smith said.
That doesn’t discredit AA and NA meetings. As Friedman pointed out, many people want to conceal their substance use disorder for fear of stigma and repercussions in their professional lives and anonymous meetings allow people to do that in a way Sober Squad doesn’t.
“For someone like me,” Friedman said, “my identify is that I’m in recovery. Everything I do has to do with recovery. Being visible in the community makes it that much easier for someone to reach out to me and say, ‘I need help.’”
While most people who join the local Sober Squad chapter have gone through some form of treatment, Friedman and Smith both hope to reach more people who want help getting into treatment or don’t know what resources exist.
“If I want to keep my recovery, I’ve got to give it away,” Friedman said. “I’ve got to share about where I've been so that others can see it's possible, that they can do what I've done.”
A few weeks ago, Friedman and Smith attended a retreat in Pinewood for Sober Squad chapters around the state. One of the workshops Smith attended asked participants to imagine what a recovery friendly world would look like.
“I had said people with drug crimes wouldn’t be looked down on,” Smith said. “I have a felony on my record and am really passionate about working with at-risk youth, but because I have that it’s harder for me to get a job that works with kids.”
Friedman didn’t attend that workshop, but said a recovery friendly world would mean stigma around recovering addicts would disappear.
“There’s this stigma that surrounds people in recovery — that they’re not trustworthy or they’re going to steal from you or they’re not worth anything — and really that’s not true,” Friedman said. “It’s quite the opposite. Once we get into recovery we get our values back and we’re pretty useful.”
Allies and people in recovery interested in taking part in the group should send a message to the Duluth & Cloquet Sober Squad Facebook page or leave a post on the main Sober Squad Facebook page expressing interest.
“You’ll get hooked in right away,” Friedman said.