— By DAVID MAY
Substance abuse counselors like to say addiction does not have to be a life sentence. But sometimes it is, even if the counselor is also a recovering addict.
Last week, second-year students in Weatherford College’s Social Work/Substance Abuse Counseling program gave presentations about those substance abuse counselors who need help and support and to recognize early on the signs they are on the verge of relapse, and what to do when they do slip and fall on their sometimes long road to recovery.
The group presentations – given before other students and guests panels that critiqued the presentations – were part of the students’ final steps toward receiving a two-year counselor’s degree. For most after graduation, they will continue to work or begin working as substance abuse counselors, with several saying they plan to continue their education to obtain a bachelor’s degree and perhaps pursue a doctorate.
Clinical coordinator, licensed counselor and social worker Michael Webb said about 60 percent of the students are recovering substance abuse addicts – whether alcohol, drugs or both – who are serious about not only their recovery but helping break others free of their cycle of addiction. He said there is not enough support in place to help substance abuse counselors when they backslide.
Webb said the two-year degree these students will earn will help carry them toward the 4,000 hours they must log before they can obtain their Licensed Chemical Dependency Certificate.
Peer assistance is an important part of substance abuse counseling, to not only help the person who is addicted and help keep them from relapse, but also to help see it in their colleagues and support them and help them through their own rehabilitation and path back to sobriety when they relapse.
Evident in the group presentations was the individual admissions of their own past addictions, something that can be important in building relationships and helping those they are counseling.
One of the student presenters, Crystal Foster, noted that relapse can occur in counselors throughout burnout – which is common in the field – which can lead to “empathy for the disease.” She noted that relapse happens before a person picks up a drug, usually involving a process of personal decline such as changes in behavior and attitudes, added stress and social breakdown or isolation, among other symptoms.
Zoe Loth discussed barriers to seeking help for the person in relapse that typically involve fears of embarrassment, guilt or losing their job.
A recovering alcoholic, Candice Airheart delivered a personal, emotional presentation, admitting her relapse four months ago and relating it to Terry Kettering’s poem, “The Elephant in the Room,” which was delivered in a video presentation to the panel and students.
“I was one of the elephants in the room,” Airheart said, fighting to choke down her emotions as she spoke. “I’ve been hungry, angry, lonely and tired. I was going to save the world. I was going to get everyone else help, and I nearly lost it myself.”
Focusing on employee assistance programs, Richard King spoke about his past substance abuse addictions and how they adversely impacted his life as far as family, relationships and jobs.
Then King opened up personally, saying this semester had been a very difficult one for him, “not academically, but personally.”
Not evident through his speech or demeanor, King said he has been battling depression and denial.
“I know how to be a good friend. I don’t know how to let them be a good friend to me,” he said.
Once married and with children, King then acknowledged he is gay and HIV positive. It was something that, while it might not have come as a surprise to many who know him, it was a revelation he has only recently began to discuss openly. Much like admitting one is an alcoholic or a drug abuser, revelations openly like King’s signal the beginning of a healing process and new starting point in life.
“I realized that you can’t really have a real relationship if people don’t know you,” King would say later of his admissions. “This absolutely was an eye-opening experience to realize I can trust people.”
King has a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and Marketing. He earned an associate’s degree from WC 35 years ago, he said. With a series of personal setbacks and pitfalls, he said he decided to become a substance abuse counselor and return to WC to obtain his associate’s degree in this field and plans to go on earn a bachelor’s and doctorate’s degrees in counseling.
“It is what my passion is,” he said. “I’ve really always wanted to do this. I want to teach this program.”
Denise Heister is currently a counselor with the Wise County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, who said she has been free of an alcohol and drug addiction eight years. “ I can go and talk to women in the Wise County Jail,” she said.
For information on WC’s Social Work/Substance Abuse Counseling course offerings go to www.wc.edu/programs-of-study/behavioral-science/.