At the age of 26, I found myself, someone with a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling who had been employed as a substance abuse counselor, sitting in a rehab facility -- as a client. In just a few short months, I had gone from someone who had been working in a rehab to being in rehab.
I wasn’t quite sure how I had ended up there, as my world had seemed to come crashing down around me so quickly -- but had it really?
There’s a joke about people who go into the mental health field, that we’re really looking to fix ourselves. If that was true for me, it was on a subconscious level. I ended up choosing my major in college (psychology) because it had the least number of math requirements and I’d taken an intro course in high school and found it to be incredibly easy.
If you know anything at all about addicts, this shouldn’t surprise you. I never really knew what I liked because everything seemed to suck, and I preferred to do the least amount of work possible to get by at all times.
My drinking started in college and I thought I was doing what everyone else was doing. But from almost the moment I started drinking, it began to interfere with my ability to function. My first semester of college I almost lost my academic scholarship because my grades were so bad.
From there on out, I did the bare minimum necessary to get the grades required to stay in school. I also had a little help from my next love (after alcohol) -- Adderall. The pills allowed me to pull all-nighters and, it turned out, I really liked the feeling the amphetamine gave me. This made it a natural transition to cocaine when my then-girlfriend laid out a line for me.
When I found cocaine, I thought I’d found the solution to my drinking problem. Up until that point, I was always blacking out, falling down, and waking up places I had no idea how I’d gotten to with people I’d never seen before.
When I used coke, I was way less embarrassing and I didn’t black out anymore. It was around the time I graduated college that my preferred pattern of use was cemented: Adderall during the day, alcohol in the evening, and cocaine by my second drink. I didn’t drink every day but when I did, I stayed out for days at a time on benders that made me so sick I often went to the hospital for fluids when they were over. I began to have sinus problems and I lost a ton of weight.
During this time, I was getting my Master’s Degree to become a counselor. I’d found a program with classes that started at 4 PM and ended at 10 PM, which was a perfect schedule for my lifestyle. I’d sleep all day, show up to class, and leave just in time to head to the bar. I hung out in places with no windows, where everyone was doing what I was doing and therefore I was able to tell myself it was normal. I told myself that I was having fun.
And then I was pulled over at 5 AM. I had been driving straddling lanes, with no lights on. When the cops opened the door to my car, I literally fell out onto the pavement. I was unable to stand.
When the police searched my car, they found my textbooks and asked me what they were for. I told them that I was in school to become a counselor. They said that they didn’t want to “ruin my future” (and, let’s be honest, the fact that I’m a pretty white girl helped immensely) and called my parents to come get me.
I was not arrested or charged with a DUI. Instead of this being the wake-up call that it should have been, I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d gotten away with it and went along doing exactly what I had been.
After completing my degree, I found a job as a substance abuse counselor at a 28-day program. I used to joke, while sitting at the bar, that my job as a substance abuse counselor drove me to drink. I never for a second considered the irony of this.
But instead of waking up and seeing that I had a problem, I spent each day finding all of the reasons that I was nothing like the woman sitting across my desk from me. She’d tell me her story and I’d compare instead of identify. She’s an IV drug user. She’s been arrested. She’s from a different state. I clung to whatever I could to prove to myself that I was different than she was.
But by this point, I was barely staying afloat. I was calling out once to twice per week because I was either on a bender or too hungover to go in. I would show up after being up for two days. I was doing lines off the back of the toilet and then going to run “relapse prevention” group. I was stealing controlled medication from the closet. I also didn’t see anything wrong with any of this.
Nine months after I started, I was let go for “excessive absences.” Instead of seeing this as the wakeup call it should have been, I thought I was finally free.
That was the beginning of the end. Within four months of losing my job, I found myself homeless, broke and despondent. I was sitting on my friend’s couch. It was 9 AM, I was still up drinking wine and doing cocaine. I hadn’t showered in two days. And I realized that something had to change.
I don’t know what it was about that moment, but I consider it a moment of grace. In a moment of desperation, I agreed to go to treatment. I didn’t mean it, but at that point I needed to get my family off my back, so I went. I didn’t intend to stay long.
The experience of completing intake paperwork from the other side was surreal. My first few days in treatment I didn’t want anyone else there to know that I was a substance abuse counselor, but I also wanted everyone there to know because I needed to continue to assert that I was better or different than they were.
One night, after I’d been there about four weeks, I opened a book that had been left in my room by a previous client. And in the front cover was written the name of a woman who had been my client (twice) at the program where I had worked.
In that moment I was given the final piece of humility I needed to admit that I was no different from anyone, including the women I had worked with as a counselor. I was, in fact, so much like them that I was literally sitting in the same room, in the same program, that one of my clients had sat.
With recovery has come freedom. I’ve run into many of my former clients since finding sobriety, whether it’s at meetings, on “commitments,” or just around town.
One of the greatest gifts that’s come with recovery has been the ability to truly be helpful to women that I had been unable to help before. I get to meet them as a peer, as an equal, and as my authentic self.
When I was a few months sober, I ran into a former client at a meeting and she looked at me and said, “You know, you’re not angry anymore. You always used to be so angry.”
I thought I had been doing such a good job of hiding it but it turned out the only person I’d been fooling was myself. And she’s right -- I’m not angry anymore. I’m happy, peaceful, content.
I tried to make amends to the program I had worked in, but I wasn’t allowed back on the property. I sent a letter to HR instead but never heard anything back. And that’s OK.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in recovery is that I can’t make everything right, no matter what I do. It’s a little bit of constant humility every time a friend goes to treatment there and I can’t go visit them because I’m still not allowed on the property. And since I lack any humility whatsoever, the universe gives me exactly what I need.
I’m a social worker now and I still work with many women who are in various stages of addiction and recovery. I’m so much better at my job today because I’m no longer pretending to be someone that I’m not. I consider myself lucky to have been on both sides of the desk -- it gives me a perspective that many people will never have.
I disclose my recovery status to clients if it feels like it will be helpful to them, and oftentimes it is. I know that when I was getting sober, it took someone who’d been where I had to really get me to listen. I knew that they really got it, and that mattered.
Part of being sober, for me, is helping other people get and stay sober and if I can be an example that it’s possible to live a sober, happy, and stable life, then there’s nothing better than that.