The first thing people want to know about me is, “Are you in recovery?”
Sometimes, they ask me directly, and other times, they don’t (but I usually know they’re wondering about it). But what they really want to know is, “Will you be able to understand me?” People usually feel insecure about coming to counseling, and it’s even worse for people struggling with substance abuse problems.
I’m always careful when this question comes up because I know it’s a LOADED QUESTION!
If I say “no”, then they will immediately dismiss the possibility that I could help them.
If I say “yes”, then they want to know what I was addicted to, but that leads to another problem.
If I said I was addicted to alcohol, then they would think “well you won’t be able to understand what it’s like to be addicted to heroin, or cocaine, or meth, etc…..”
If I said I was addicted to heroin for 5 years, then they would say or think “well I’ve been addicted to heroin for 10 years, so you probably can’t help me”.
Funny memory: One time in session, this guy asks me, “Do you have kids?” I said, “Yes, I have a son.” He says, “Well, you’re not a real parent until you have at least two kids.” There’s just no winning these kinds of questions!
The disease of addiction wants to disqualify me, so no matter how I answer this question, then it won’t be the RIGHT answer. They’re expecting me to judge them, so lots of times my clients are looking for any reason to discredit me. It’s a defense mechanism to protect against shame.
If you are an addiction therapist and you’re not in recovery, you have to be twice as good. At least if you’re in recovery, then you immediately get some credibility with your client. But if you’re not, you gotta earn it and it’s gonna be hard because your client will be looking for every possible reason not to trust you. I don’t have very much time to prove myself to my clients so I gotta bring my A-game.
Once I get past this obstacle, the next question is, “Why in the world are you an addiction counselor if you’re not in recovery?” Now this is a GOOD QUESTION! I’ve often wondered it myself.
Here’s my best guess…
I grew up in a VERY addicted family. Pretty much everyone in my family has some sort of addiction problem, but for the most part, they’re an awesome family. I think this gives me a unique perspective on addicts and alcoholics. While I realize that my clients have drug and alcohol problems, I’m still able to see their positive qualities as well. In my mind, a person can have an addiction, but still be a totally awesome human being!
For example, I always thought my mother was pretty, smart, charming, and lots of fun despite the fact that she had a pretty serious problem with meth (which eventually killed her). Growing up, I thought I had the best parents ever! They were friendly, hard-working, and non-judgmental (did I mention FUN?). In fact, my parents were always way more fun than me.
When I was a kid, I never liked going to my friends’ houses. I always had my friends over to my house, because they had regular parents (which was intimidating to me). There seemed to be all these rules and stuff, which made me nervous. So, we always had a house full of friends.
My Mimi (paternal grandmother) was an alcoholic FOR SURE! I don’t have a single memory of her without a mixed drink in her hand. I can remember (lots of times) waiting in the car while she went into the ABC store to get a “handle of vodka” (alcoholics love vodka because they think it doesn’t smell and it gets the job done quickly). However, she was still a fantastic grandmother. She always had my back. My parents often had a hard time helping me financially, but my Mimi always made sure I had what I needed. Most of my favorite memories are of spending the summers swimming in her pool.
Funny side note: My Mimi was scared to death of water, but she had a fabulous in-ground pool. It even had a diving board and a curvy slide! If Mimi got mad at me or my sister, we would tread water in the deep end of the pool and refuse to come out until she promised we weren’t in trouble.
Strangely enough, although my sister and I grew up in a house where there was lots drug and alcohol abuse going on, neither of us drinks alcohol or do any sort of drugs. I think maybe when you’ve seen the “not so fun side of partying”, it doesn’t look nearly as appealing. As a teenager, I can remember stepping over people passed out on our living room floor so I could get to work, plus I always knew I would turn into the worst drug addict ever. Just ask anyone that knows me…I’m most definitely an addict (just minus the drugs! Hahaha) I’m over the top with everything.
Embarrassing confession: You know how teenagers always rebel against their family values at some point? I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I’m not going to be like you guys… I’m gonna make GOOD DECISIONS!” OMG, this makes me roll my eyes at my own self! How lame is that?!
Back to the question:“If you’re not in recovery, then why in the world would you be an addiction counselor?”
There are some “deep psychological theories” about people being attracted to others with emotional rhythms that are similar to the people from their childhood. So, if you think about it this way, I’m just comfortable being around addicts and alcoholics. In fact, “normal people”make me feel awkward.
If you’re from the south then you could say “bless her heart, she just don’t know no better”!
Coming from an addicted family makes me have an affinity for being around addicts and alcoholics, but it didn’t make me good at my job. Becoming a good addiction counselor required A LOT of learning!
I went to Clemson and got a master’s degree in counseling, so I had the standard counseling license/credentials, but I needed more than that to deal with the complexities of helping people (and their families) with addiction, alcoholism, and co-occurring mental health disorders.
When I was in school for counseling, I had no idea that I would become an addiction specialist. It just sort of happened.
My very first internship was in an adult IOP (intensive outpatient program) for substance abuse at the Carolina Center for Behavioral Health. After I graduated from Clemson, the Carolina Center hired me for a full-time position. Because I had previously been a high school teacher, they thought that because of the combination of my doing an internship in the adult IOP program and my teaching experience, I would be good at doing an IOP for teenagers, so they asked me to start an adolescent IOP.
While this was my most favorite thing I did in my (almost) 10 years at the Carolina Center, IT WASN’T EASY. I was still young and honestly didn’t know anything about addiction. I was treating TEENAGE DRUG ADDICTS and I was in WAY OVER MY HEAD!
It was most definitely a sink or swim situation, so I set my mind to learning everything possible about addiction. The first thing I did was apply to a yearlong program called the Addiction Fellows (which was VERY helpful). Then I got my CACII (Certified Addiction Counselor level 2), followed by getting a national certification called a MAC (Master Addiction Counselor). Eventually, I also got a license to supervise other counselors who are trying to get licensed or certified as LPCs (Licensed Professional Counselors) or CACs (Certified Addiction Counselors).
As time has passed, I’ve become a total RECOVERY NERD! If you’ve read anything on my website, then you’ve probably figured out I love the science behind addiction. You have to be careful because I’ll whip out a whiteboard with markers and start giving a lecture about the addicted brain in a skinny minute.
It’s the combination of my family background, emotional attunement, and intellectual understanding of addiction/alcoholism that generates my passion for the subject. Even though I just sorta fell into this line of work, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
If I won the lottery today, I would still work. I’d probably just open a bunch more treatment centers.
So to answer the question… I am not in recovery, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. But, I’ve spent my life being around addiction and alcoholism, learning about addiction and alcoholism, and treating it.
Amber is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Master Addiction Counselor (MAC), and a Licensed Professional Supervisor for both LPCs and CACs. She has been working with individuals and families struggling with addiction since 2004 and has worked as an inpatient counselor and in every level of outpatient care. She has a passion for the work she does and considers herself a “defense attorney” because she is able to see things from the addict’s point of view.