Addiction: The Population I Never Knew I Wanted to Work With
Many people are drawn to this industry because of personal experience or a passion for working with substance use disorders. Some people find recovery for themselves and then want to share the gift with others, while some people focus their studies on this population while in graduate school.
When I was nearing graduation, I vividly remember telling a classmate that there were only two populations that I did not want to work with: children and addiction. Fast forward to today where I’ve focused my career on working with people struggling with addiction and I’m so grateful that this population found me. I was a naïve newly graduated mental health counselor and got my introduction to this population at an outpatient methadone clinic. I regret being close-minded when it came to this population and hope that my experience can encourage others to be more open-minded than I was.
There are real reasons that this population can be challenging. Addiction often brings out the worst in people. Early on in treatment, we see a lot of manipulation, denial, and cravings. If you can shift your perspective as a therapist and understand the symptoms rather than viewing them as character defects, you’ll set yourself up for success with this population. The old shame-based approach breeds negativity about addiction, but using a strengths-based approach can drastically impact your experience in working with addiction.
There are a few reasons that I’ve come to really love working with addiction that I believe are often overlooked:
- Often quick, observable change
When people start in this industry, they are often shocked to hear the amount of trauma that patients typically report when entering inpatient treatment. The stories that are told between the walls of a therapist’s office rival things that people see in movies and the comeback stories are even more unbelievable. This is what makes working with this population so powerful. The resiliency that patients we treat possess is unmatched. Have you ever met someone who didn’t even have a pair of shoes and had no family left who would speak to them? I have. It’s inspiring to watch someone overcome so many obstacles and it’s an honor to be a part of that journey. At Lakeview Health and Stepping Stone, we have a team of patient advocates whose primary function is to assist patients in removing barriers that would keep patients from being able to remain in treatment.
Let’s talk about intelligence – patients who we treat are usually some of the most resourceful people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. To survive in active addiction typically requires a lot of energy and creativity. The task in treatment is to figure out a way to use those strengths and to redirect them into something that is positive. While at Lakeview Health and Stepping Stone, patients are assigned a primary therapist who assists patients in finding a new direction. Contrary to the stereotype that seems to be attached to addiction, many of our patients are incredibly intelligent people who live and work in our communities. We routinely treat physicians, lawyers, flight attendants, pilots, nurses, etc. Having a professional’s program that addresses topics like professional monitoring, ethics and how to navigate returning to work helps to set professionals up for success. This doesn’t mean that all the patients we serve are even employed, but it’s important to highlight the capacity for insight that patients struggling with addiction often have.
When it comes to progress in therapy, I’ve never seen change occur so quickly and consistently than I have in treating patients struggling with addiction. Treating persistent mental health can wear on clinicians as progress can sometimes be slow. I’ve worked as an outpatient therapist where weekly sessions felt more like a check-in to update me about everything that occurred over the last week. In inpatient treatment, we get to work closely with our patients daily which gives us a unique opportunity to witness change frequently. We get to be a part of the community that they are recovering in which also gives us unique insight about behavioral patterns that we otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to see. Although we know that relapse is a common part of recovery, patients make meaningful and measurable progress daily in inpatient treatment. It’s refreshing to see how quickly the change can occur and then to see peers impact each other in a positive way.