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In the seven plus decades since AA was formed, the recovery industry has grown by leaps and bounds. While the stigma associated with addiction and alcoholism has not disappeared entirely, society has become much more compassionate toward those who suffer from these afflictions, making it possible for substance abusers to step forward and ask for help without fear of rejection or recrimination.
Treatment for addiction is not a panacea, and only those who are serious enough about recovery to put their hearts and minds and every ounce of energy they have into the process can expect to achieve lasting results. But there is no question that drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation centers have provided immensely beneficial services to millions of afflicted souls across the planet, people who might have lost their battles with addiction without the selfless and invaluable assistance of dedicated and highly-trained recovery support networks. There are more than 100,000 people working in the US recovery industry as counselors, administrators, social workers, rehab technicians, and support staff, all of whom made the admirable decision to share their talents, insights, and training with desperate individuals looking to break the chains of chemical dependency.
But what motivates those who choose to work in addiction treatment? Is it just a compassionate attitude in general, or is there another reason for their decision?
From Patient to Counselor: A Chain Reaction of Compassion
Of course the answers to questions like this are always complex. But for many of the 100,000 who have chosen to enter this field, personal experience was apparently a major factor—studies show that more than one-half of all addiction treatment center employees have their own history of substance abuse problems, and this number includes thousands of addiction counselors who, following their return to sobriety, elected to undergo training that would qualify them for work in this blossoming field. Pulled back from the brink by caring professionals, these recovering addicts and alcoholics elected to become counselors themselves, allowing them to “pay their debts forward” by helping others trying to overcome substance abuse find their way back into the light of sobriety.
No one would suggest that direct experience with drugs and alcohol must be a prerequisite for anyone considering a career as an addiction counselor or therapist. Regardless of specialty, a strong knowledge base, good listening skills, and an empathic soul are the essential elements that define an outstanding therapist. Counselors who know first-hand what addiction does to a person’s life and how it actually feels to be inside the addict’s skin may be able to connect with substance-abusing patients on a level that surpasses the ordinary doctor-patient relationship.
In ordinary medical circumstances, the forging of such a bond would not be a priority—few patients going in for cancer surgery would be likely to care whether their surgeons had ever been treated for cancer, for example. But with something as personal and sensitive as addiction or alcoholism, where embarrassment and shame are still often lurking just beneath the surface, the situation is more complicated. For a substance abuser determined to find sobriety, revealing every sordid detail about a history of addiction to a counselor can be incredibly difficult, no matter how much he wants to change. But it is a necessary step, and if an addict in therapy for chemical dependency knows the person he is speaking with has traveled the same path and is unlikely to judge or make unreasonable demands, it could make it much easier for him to open up and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what he has been thinking, feeling, doing, and experiencing.
The doctor-patient relationship in a therapeutic setting develops through conversation, as mutual trust and understanding are built up gradually over the course of multiple sessions. While any obstacle that appears could disrupt the development of a productive working association, common life experiences on the other hand can help facilitate a deeper connection, and the addict who has a recovering substance abuser as a therapist will know he is speaking with someone who is equally well-versed in the theoretical andexistential aspects of substance abuse and will not be surprised by anything the addict might reveal. A shared history of addiction can help the patient and the doctor create an atmosphere of healing that is comfortable, relaxed, and controlled, where everything that has happened or that might happen as recovery unfolds can be discussed and evaluated honestly and without hesitation.
Onward and Upward
It is important to emphasize that a highly-qualified addiction counselor with no personal history of substance abuse is preferable to a therapist in recovery whose intentions are honorable but whose skills are lacking. Nevertheless, the desire of many recovering addicts and alcoholics to pay it forward by spreading compassion and healing across the broken landscape inhabited by substance abusers is highly admirable, and it has helped dramatically expand the available pool of talent from which treatment and rehabilitation centers can draw when looking for committed and motivated employees.
Without the eagerness of so many recovering addicts and alcoholics to enter a profession that threw them a lifeline when they were on the verge of drowning, there would not be enough qualified addiction counselors to meet the needs of all the substance abuse victims who want to overcome their problems. So in this case the ‘pay it forward’ concept is clearly working, and in spectacular fashion.
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