By: Sarah Franklin
Being an addiction treatment counselor can be tough but incredibly rewarding. Here’s why.
Soon after I graduated from college, I discovered what I wanted to do with my career: become an addiction treatment therapist. I knew it would require more schooling to do it at the level I wanted, so I went back for my Master’s degree.
I’ve been in the field for nearly a decade, and I enjoy it more than ever.
For me, it’s a calling, for these six key reasons:
- You see people improve really quickly.
Not everyone, but most. The thing is, people with substance use disorder (SUD) enter rehab at a really difficult point in their lives. They’re depressed, anxious, physically depleted, and often sleep-deprived. Their brains are being held hostage by drugs or alcohol.
The only good thing about all that is, patients will show remarkable improvement sometimes even hour to hour, but certainly day to day.
Once the toxins begin leaving the body, with regular sleep and good nutrition, and maybe most importantly because patients know they’re in a safe place and getting the help they need, things can progress quickly.
Yes, the initial detox period can be very difficult, but with medication help and medical oversight, even that time can pass relatively quickly. By the time detox is complete, some people are almost unrecognizable from when they came in.
- It’s fast-paced.
Working where I do often reminds me of those job descriptions that have become cliché: Must be comfortable in a fast-paced environment. Looking for a problem solver. We need someone who can think outside the box. Check, check, check, and check. Being a therapist for people with SUD requires all those skills.
- You learn the power of honest relationship building.
A lot of people come into treatment full of denial, and they’re dug in. Many don’t think they have a drug problem and don’t want to be there. Others are just going through the motions until they’re allowed to leave.
In my opinion, the best strategy for a therapist at times like this is to start building the relationship. If you try and turn it into a power struggle with the patient—i.e. “it’s clear you have a drug problem, here’s what you need to do”—you’re likely not going to get anywhere. That direct approach may work eventually, once you’ve built trust, but it rarely does at first.
It’s often better to just listen, show the patient you’re serious about helping them, show the patient you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and resolve to be honest in your dealings with him or her.
Almost always, a breakthrough will happen. Once they trust you, they often become more open to the possibilities. They begin taking things on board and letting go of their fears and preconceptions. At that point, change can start to happen.
- It is meaningful work.
Working with my patients is an honor for me. They often put a lot of trust in me. They let me into their lives. I hear a lot about them, including some of the most challenging aspects of their lives. I never lose track of how hard and humbling it must be for people to do this.
As patients begin to turn things around, clear their heads, and figure out the way forward, I feel grateful to be part of that journey. It’s wonderful to witness their transformation. Sometimes, I even have a hand in it. That’s when it really hits me that I’m doing something worthwhile.
- You’re constantly learning about the complex illness of addiction.
Addiction or SUD affects everyone differently, and it can be so diabolical in the way it messes with people’s brains. It routinely makes people think that something bad for them (drugs or alcohol) is actually good for them.
Worst of all? Addiction is one of those rare illnesses that is able to convince you that you don’t have it! Like I said, diabolical. Soooo sneaky. Which just makes me all the more determined to outsmart it, and help my patients outsmart it as well.
- You meet some of the most resilient people on Earth.
To survive what many SUD patients have survived, sometimes for decades, takes superhuman strength and resourcefulness.
I lost track long ago of the number of smart, capable, incredibly tough people I’ve seen go through treatment. Many times, they don’t even realize they possess those kinds of attributes—resiliency being chief among them. They often think just the opposite.
But if you can help turn that negative mindset around and get patients to see what’s really there inside them, what they’ve had to deal with, the strength they have shown, and yes the bravery it took to get into treatment in the first place—that’s a great starting point for recovery.
If I can help them see all that, and help them harness their strength and hard-won wisdom, they can accomplish anything. At which point, the sky’s the limit. That’s what I tell my patients when they start to see their own resiliency and capability: “The sky’s the limit for you.”