There’s something about the backgrounds of chemical dependency counselors that draws them to the counseling profession. There are 23 million recovering people in the United States, and they do not all choose to enter the treatment field. Some people enroll in addiction studies training convinced that their life experience is the only tool they have to make a living because they have no other legal employment background. Drawing from a sponsorship model is not a sustaining motivation, and over the years I have observed that these counselors frequently don’t complete their studies, or they don’t pursue the counseling work over time. Becoming a counselor represents a lot of academic work, and it requires us to collect more than 4,000 hours. This level of commitment, without a large paycheck, can be discouraging. For example, I might have 100 people start a semester and will graduate 25 students two years later. It is the 25 who complete the two years, and then the 20 of them who take their certification exam who are in it for the long haul. Who are these 20 people?
They have been affected by the disease of addiction and have survived.
There is a level of patience and tolerance required to work with addicts and alcoholics going through early recovery that the average person doesn’t possess. When people are loaded they demonstrate BAD behavior like lying, conning, cheating, manipulating, scamming, intimidation and stealing. They throw up on themselves, pee on the couch, forget to shower, smell like chemicals, slur their speech, have nasty mood swings, disappear for days and can be unpredictable. These are not necessarily permanent character traits. We also know that when people get clean and cognitively clear, they can make better decisions and cooperate in their recovery. We know because we entered recovery and we’ve seen so many others do the same thing.
We can also tolerate the chaos because we learned to manage emotional unavailability and emotional volatility early in our lives. We learned coping skills at the knees of the adults in our lives who may have been under the influence, clinically depressed, criminally active, unfaithful, physically and emotionally absent, or physically and sexually abusive. We are RESILIENT. However, our coping and resilience came at a price, a price our bodies may still be paying years later. It’s a price that makes us vulnerable to chronic illness without intervention and support.
There are a variety of formal definitions of resilience, all of which focus on our capacity to bounce back from, or even grow, in the face of adverse circumstances. Rather than a set of characteristics, I would propose that resilience is a quality, and seeds are there even when we feel most broken or injured. This is a strengths-based perspective. I would acknowledge the scar tissue from trauma and early attachment disruptions, AND see the places where we continued to function well – even excel. Our potential resilience can be developed or impacted by: nature, the quality and amount of attachment relationships, the availability of other resources for interpersonal support, temperament, the capacity to regulate our emotions, and prior experience of trauma.
Because our potential to access our resilience is impacted by the internal and external resources we have available to us, we do not have to shift the stressors in life, which may not be possible, but we can increase our resources and even support or neurology to operate at our best in the face of the challenges in our life. We can create new neurons, make new synaptic connections, promote new patterns of thoughts and reactions, bring under-connected areas of the brain back online and reset our stress response so that we decrease the inflammation that makes us ill.
We can develop our capacity for connection and attachment; we can address the physical trauma that continues to interrupt our immune system, and we can develop self-care strategies that increase the odds that we will thrive in our addiction counseling careers.
A place to Start: The Importance of Emotional
Kennedy-Moore and Watson, emotional theorists, suggest that there are at least three ways in which emotional expression may ease our distress.
It can reduce distress about distress ( e.g. doing it and surviving it reduces fears about feeling in general).
It can facilitate insight (e.g. vague feelings became clear, thus deepening self-knowledge and opening up possibilities for how to respond).
It can enhance interpersonal relationships (e.g. though improved communication).
Emotional expression also signifies to others one’s state and associates need (e.g distress and the need for comfort or help or anger and need for a boundary) and releases resources, including adaptive strategies.
It is crucial that Chemical Dependency counselors continue, and even increase, their personal recovery efforts. Working in treatment is NOT the same as working a recovery program, and making sure that someone hears you instead of always listening is key to workforce retention and emotional health. Put the oxygen mask on you first!