On Being a Social Worker in Recovery in the Highest Binge-Drinking City in the US

By Tessa Torgeson 02/16/17

I've seen treatment professionals take on patronizing, savior roles for clients. Stand by our side, not above us. 

Fargo North Dakota
Photo via Tessa Torgeson

Today, I disbursed rainbow-colored medications to patients, dropped them off at 12-step meetings in giant unmarked white vans and scrambled eggs. Together we colored fuzzy cat posters, painted birdhouses, and did puzzles of babies in giant tubs wearing cute costumes or nature scenes that inevitably had missing pieces. I tried to encourage patients to see the light in shadows.

I had been there, too. It wasn’t that long ago that I was the one who shuffled down the hospital hallway in slipper socks we christened “Detox Reeboks.” I stood in line for my own rainbow-colored medications. When they told me to, I peed in a plastic cup and set it on a metal tray with a buffet of urine for drug tests. I puffed up my cheeks and blew all my air into a little plastic straw attached to the breathalyzer machine. 

I have PTSD and have struggled with addictions. I desperately needed others to help resuscitate me, to help me fuse together the things I had broken. This influenced my decision to become a social worker. Navigating working in these stressful environments while also dealing with my own mental health issues and past addictions is difficult. I know there are thousands of others like me who have been on both sides of the equator. 

Regardless of whether or not we chose to disclose our recovery with clients, this experience deepens our empathy for those struggling with addiction and their friends and family. It can be difficult to decide whether or not to "come out" to clients and coworkers. Coming out as being in recovery is a deeply personal decision that can build rapport and trust with clients.

Helpers in smaller communities often attend the same support groups as clients, due to lack of options. While avoiding the dual relationship as much as possible, clients can unintentionally "out" fellow group members to other clients and staff.

Although typically supportive, sometimes policies and people within our profession perpetuate stigma, shame and judgment around addiction. Helping professionals often burnout and have decreased empathy because of the perfect storm of poor workplace conditions: being overworked and underpaid while facing stressful, chaotic, and tragic situations, ethical dilemmas, and bureaucratic red tape. As a result, those of us in recovery face ostracizing, triggering and hurtful experiences.

When I worked at a treatment center, I naively hoped that work dinners and outings would not be centered on alcohol. I was wrong. Social drinkers should certainly be able to enjoy drinks and it is not my place to judge them and binge drinking is embedded in US culture, I just felt pressured and a lack of consideration from coworkers who were trained in the psychosocial aspects of addiction and work with addicts all day.

I do not expect others to abstain from drinking or mind being at bars or parties, it is just more comfortable having other sober people in the group whether they are in recovery or abstaining that night. 

It is likely more difficult for me to find another sober person in the heaviest drinking city in the US. Home to three universities, my city of Fargo, North Dakota has consistently ranked high on national lists.

In 2014, Fargo was identified as the “drunkest” city in the US based on binge- and heavy drinking rates according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on Bustle.com. Nearly 28% qualified as heavy drinkers, meaning men have more than two drinks a day and women have one drink a day.

But the most difficult thing about being a social worker in recovery was hearing the condescending, derogatory remarks and attitudes, staff having a superiority complex, or having a divisive “us versus them” mentality.

I felt hurt and stigmatized by the very people that were supposed to advocate and take care of people with mental illness. This happens when staff take on patronizing, savior roles for clients, making decisions for them instead of with them. Some still see addiction as a moral weakness or lack of willpower. Clients are viewed as manipulative rather than just meeting their needs the best way they know how. Clients are usually frustrated with broken systems, red tape and how hard it can be to get help. 

I remember all the hoops that I had to jump through even though I had insurance and resources. When I moved to a new city, I had to go to the emergency room just to get my antidepressant prescriptions, because there was a six-month waiting list for psychiatrists.

Another time, I was told that I had a bed reserved at a world-renown treatment center. My parents and I drove six hours from my hometown to stay at a hotel the night before check-in. The morning I was supposed to check in, the facility decided their program was not a good fit for me. I felt deflated and hopeless. Luckily, my parents were supportive, helped call treatment centers and insurance companies and let me stay with them until I found a bed at a new treatment center.

If people knew what it was like to have to surrender your independence and privacy to complete strangers, they might have more empathy and compassion. Imagine if a stranger inventoried all of your personal belongings, told you what time to wake up, go to bed, shower, restricted your phone and Internet, distributed your medications, and had access to your confidential medical records. I remember feeling like a child when I received a gold star for keeping my room clean and making my bed. 

My vision is that helping professionals are stand by our side, not above us. Let’s stop opening old wounds and start healing them instead. 

Tessa Torgeson is a social worker and writer living in Fargo, ND. You may find more of her writing tessatorgeson.com 

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Tessa Torgeson is a collector of bad habits aka addictions, polka-dot stuff, and general awkwardness in Minnesota. Embracing alternative recovery, she is currently writing a memoir about addiction and recovery from a non-traditional, harm reduction perspective. If you want to hop on the feelings train, follow her on twitter @tessa_tito and read more of her writing at www.tessatorgeson.com.