Being a substance abuse counselor is one of the few professions where having a “checkered” past can actually be an advantage. While it isn’t like it was 30 years ago, when most substance abuse counselors were in recovery, there are still a significant number of addictions professionals, who identify themselves as recovering addicts or former drug users. I continue to have clients who express an interest in using their life experiences to help and encourage others in their recovery. This may be in the form of a sponsor or mentor, but some wish to make a career out of helping others with similar backgrounds. Some states now have a Peer Counselor credential that seems to be designed for those in recovery, who may not meet the formal education requirements of some of the other credentials. There are certainly some advantages for a counselor who has life experiences that can help them relate to those they are counseling, including an understanding of what they are going through and showing them an example of success in recovery. If you are in recovery and are interested in becoming a substance abuse counselor, there are a couple of points to remember.
- Respect differences.
Our tendency is to assume whatever has worked for us will automatically work for someone else. In some situations it will, but not everyone is the same. While I believe that recovery is not complicated, people in recovery are. If there were a “One size fits all” way to recovery, then we probably wouldn’t need professional counselors. Everyone goes through recovery at a different rate, they have different triggers for relapse, different things that motivate their recovery and there are many other variables unique to each person. This is why we stress the importance of individualized treatment plans. Don’t expect someone else’s recovery look just like yours.
- Use appropriate disclosure.
Sharing the story of your path to recovery can be inspirational and informative to others, but you need to use some discretion. Remember that your relationship with your clients is not about you, but about them and their recovery. I personally believe that self-disclosure is most effective in small doses that specifically relates to the topic at hand. I think that we must continually ask ourselves if what we are sharing is beneficial to the clients.
- Develop your counseling skills.
Having firsthand knowledge about addiction can be invaluable, but it isn’t a replacement for effective counseling skills. Use your life experiences as an asset, but don’t skimp on the training. It is important to learn things like motivational interviewing and teaching skills. Counseling skills are what set you apart from their sponsor.
- Don’t neglect your recovery.
This is the most important point. Don’t risk your recovery trying to rescue someone else. Helping others in their recovery can be therapeutic, but it can also be stressful and frustrating. It is important for every counselor to separate themselves from their job and work on their own health and well-being.
The need for qualified addictions counselors continues to grow and honestly, there are not a lot of people who have the understanding and compassion to do the job. Who could better understand what an addict is going through, than someone who has been down the same path?