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What It’s Like to be an Addictions Counselor

There are a lot of things you get good at as an addictions counselor because if you don’t you will lose your damned mind. The biggest of these is powerlessness. You will ache to the core of your being, desperately trying to help counteract the insanity of an actively addicted mind.

You will either grow spiritually and allow a power greater than yourself to guide your every action or you will despair at the inevitable truth:

You’ll never be the tiniest fraction as powerful as the disease of addiction.

All of your knowledge will fail you. All of the techniques and methods you were taught will be proven largely ineffective. You must persevere and have a willingness to bear witness to suffering. The most important aspects of helping to facilitate recovery cannot be taught to you in a classroom.

They will be taught to you by those with personal experience. If you are willing to put your ego aside, if you are willing to respect that not everything is “evidence based”, then you will be given countless opportunities to learn from those who know far more than the “experts.” Be humble and receptive. Know that NA and AA’s literature contains more wisdom than most any books you can read.

The adage is “Nobody is better at helping us than us.”

This is why the overwhelming majority of addictions counselors are themselves recovering addicts. It’s okay if you’re not. Experience has taught me that if you’ve been through hell, it really doesn’t matter which form you went through – you can help others get out of theirs but you must be willing to see through the eyes of those you serve.

You will have the same conversations with the same clients countless times with a surreal and sometimes infuriating sense of deja vu (red flag: this is not about you). You brain will make the sound that Bugs Bunny made every time he ran into a tree.

You will see that addicts and alcoholics have built in forgetters. There are truths that must be spoken a minimum of 500 times to ensure that they are heard because when we see that the truth is too painful or too scary to accept, we forget it. This is not done consciously or maliciously. It occurs as the disease strips away logic and reason.

You will come to have profound respect for 12 step programs. You will be confronted with simple and obvious truths:

– They are millions. You are one.

– They are free. You charge money.

– They are available multiple times a day, every day, you are not.

– They will go to any lengths to help a brother or sister – you will sit in an office

You will see that there is often a deep valley between what we know and what we accept. You must be willing to help us experience and express the emotions that fill that valley and you must help us learn how to let go.

If you are a good counselor you will be wary of ideas. You will see that they have very little value in and of themselves. Ideas do not help people. Applications of ideas do.

“Letting it go” is an idea. Now teach me how to do it:

It starts with mindfulness – which is a nice word for “pay attention to yourself – the person they ignore and abuse – pay attention and be kind and patient with them

We move to identifying – help me to identify what I feel and to notice the thoughts and memories that I try to block out

Help me to understand that I must not judge what occurs internally. I need to stop telling myself that I shouldn’t feel this way or shouldn’t be this way because until I accept at least for today that this is how I am I am powerless to change it.

Help me to learn how to experience and express what occurs within me in as many ways as possible. That which I cannot speak holds power over me. I must speak it, write it, draw it, paint it, and if necessary scream it from the fucking mountain tops. Pain has to be expressed and released.

Finally, help me to make a conscious choice that what I have expressed can be released. “Letting go” is not a one time event. It is an ongoing process. I can only let go to the degree that I have grieved.

Help me to integrate – to put together the pieces of myself so that I can be whole. Help me to understand that no matter how much I may not like some of my pieces I cannot reject them or discard them. I must heal them. You have the remarkable honor of helping me to do this.

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