Jeff Zacharias Social Worker of the Year

Jeff Zacharias

The following is an interview of Jeff Zacharias, New Hope Recovery Center President and Clinical Director, by Triggr.

Q&A with Jeff Zacharias, Owner & Psychotherapist at New Hope Recovery Center in Chicago

New Hope Recovery Center is an alcohol and drug rehab treatment center in Chicago that provides Partial Hospitalization, Intensive Outpatient treatment,Aftercare and Individual Psychotherapy Counseling. They also have a LGBTQI-specific addiction treatment program entitled "New Hope With Pride.” Below is a conversation with Jeff Zacharias, the owner and one of the psychotherapists at New Hope.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your counseling background.

I’m the owner, Clinical Director and a counselor at New Hope Recovery Center. We bought New Hope over 6 years ago but I’ve been working in the addiction treatment field since 2005 in inpatient and outpatient settings. I’m an ACSW, LSW and a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor.

What drew you to working with people in recovery?

This is a second career for me. Before starting in the addition treatment field, I was in marketing and finance. What drew me to change careers was my own experience in recovery - I’m sober 15 years now. When I went to treatment in 2003 as a gay male and having some trauma related to that, I felt like some things in my treatment were missed. So when I went back to school, I had a drive to help people like me. I felt like there was an opportunity to not only help LGBTQI stay sober but to also deal with the trauma associated with being gay. Because I saw that when I was looking for treatment, there really wasn’t anything available targeting people with this mix of needs. So that’s been the biggest driver for me, providing something for this community.

Tell me more about your work with the LGBTQI community in particular.

One thing that is challenging is that there are different treatment needs within the LGBTQI community. Each designation has unique issues with power, sex, gender, identity and we cater our treatment to the needs of the individual. But one commonality within this community is that there is often trauma associated with shame, fear and oppression that a hetereosexual treatment framework doesn’t really touch on. We have have a framework that directly addresses the needs of people in the LGBTQI community. Because for a person struggling, it’s often not about the substance - that’s a symptom of something deeper. Our clinicians are extensively trained in providing a space where we’re going to talk about everything that’s going on in your life rather than only the specifics of substances. We’re going to talk about things that make people uncomfortable like sex, relationships and money. And I think there is something very powerful about being in a safe space where people feel empowered to talk about not just their substances, but their lives.

How has treatment changed in recent years?

The biggest change I’ve seen and that I’ve been passionate about from the beginning is the move away from the idea that 12-step treatment is the only path. New Hope is not a 12-step treatment center. Because being a 12 step treatment center isn't treatment, it’s using a framework and then just forcing people into that framework. I knew from the start of my career that I wanted to integrate more clinical work. I wanted to make sure we were considering all pathways. We were the first treatment center in the Chicago area to host Refuge Recovery meetings. We also brought in SMART Recovery, which was pretty new in Chicago just 5 years ago when we started hosting their meetings. We did get some shit about it because when we started, the 12-step model was so revered and was treated as the only path to recovery. I just don’t believe that 12-step is the only way and many studies since that time have shown this to be true. Plus we know that in the gay community there is so much spiritual abuse. So, many people just don’t want the religious associations common in many 12-step programs.

The other change I’ve observed is the growth of medical assisted treatment. I’ve seen firsthand the value in using MAT to allow people to heal and have some agency in their recovery process. And to that end we’re big believers in harm reduction and so everything we do is geared toward that. We were early leaders in Chicago in supporting MAT as part of our treatment program.

Another change is there is now more recognition of addiction interaction disorder. For a long time, the treatment community didn’t appreciate the complexity of addressing the interactions of multiple disorders. This is one of the reasons we focus on addressing not just the substances, but other mental health needs and behaviors of our clients.

What would you say are the biggest barriers you see to someone starting treatment?

The biggest barrier is often a person’s financial or insurance situation. I really wish there were more options for people that are unfunded or don’t have access to resources, but sadly the options are limited in Illinois.

Another barrier can be people’s mistrust of treatment based on their negative experience with a past provider or based on a general distrust of governmental, social, financial or other systems. In the LGBT community in particular, this distrust comes from a sense that the unique needs of this community aren’t going to be understood, let alone met.

How would you describe New Hope’s care philosophy?

It’s very personal and individualized and feels like a close community. Our groups are kept at only 8 people tops. We also take a holistic approach and treat the whole person - the mind, body and spirit are treated as equal. This ends up meaning that we’re very open and creatively work to find whatever treatment path is going to work for each individual. We have an “all avenues to wellness” approach.

One of the things we tell people when they call us for the first time is to come in and talk to us. We are very open and honest in talking and listening so we can work together to find the right path for each person, even if it’s not New Hope. We’re very ethical in how we approach treatment and never pressure people into any option that isn’t right for them.

Can you describe what a group session in New Hope’s IOP program is like?

First and foremost our job is to have a place that is safe because we know how vulnerable people feel during recovery. Everything you say here is confidential, it’s anonymous and we hold that sacred. In our groups and just generally in our practice, we work hard to help people feel warm, welcomed and cared for. It’s hard to put a finger on why, but one thing we hear time and time again from people that come here is: “it feels better here” and “I feel comfortable here”. I think mostly this is because they have a family of people here that love being here and have our clients’ best interests at heart.

Our groups are engaging and fun. Our clients often tell us they have never laughed so much in treatment. We tailor our groups for the particular people in the group at that time. We are very open to modifying our planned topics based on suggestions from the group members about what they feel they need most at that moment and based on our observations of the group.

And so with groups, I think the best thing I can recommend to someone is to come in and give our program a try, they can just listen. And I can’t think of one time ever where someone came in for their first session and left because they were anxious or uncomfortable.

How much 1:1 counseling does New Hope do with people in the IOP program?

By the nature of us being small, we may not be doing a formal meeting every day, but we all know every client by name and so there is a constant checking in. People may just check in for 15 minutes, but generally there is some 1:1 interaction nearly every day. And then on top of that, we also check in more officially once per week.

Who would you say is a good fit for New Hope’s program? Who tends not to be as good a fit?

I don’t think there are many people that we can’t assist, but there some constraints. We don’t serve people 18 and under, for example. We do also ask that people are sober while they are here and if they aren’t ready to give up their substance of choice, they may not be right for New Hope. But other than that, there really aren’t any barriers.

Do you have an example of a recent patient’s experience at New Hope? What was their background, and how did New Hope work with them?

There are so many examples but I’ll share about one person I just met with today. He had used since he was a teenager and now is in his early 50s, and in that time never had any significant period of sobriety. He’s also HIV positive, is in an open relationship with someone who also has substance issues and has a mentally disabled son. So he never felt there was treatment that could help someone with his complicated background. But he came to New Hope about a year and a half ago after a suicide attempt. He’s been with us since (seeing an individual counselor here), sober the whole time and doing great. He just expanded his business and has undergone meaningful, lasting life changes. He stood out to me since I think he’s really proof that anyone can overcome difficult obstacles and life circumstances, and make a change, and succeed.