How I Went Back to School for Addiction

By Anna David 05/02/13

I accidentally joined an addiction counseling program at UCLA. It's been amazing. It hasn't just filled my mind with facts, but broadened my mind on what recovery—with or without AA—can mean.

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I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I showed up for the orientation to earn an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Studies Certificate at UCLA one Tuesday evening last year. I wasn’t entirely certain why I was doing it.

I was only there because the previous Sunday, I’d been with a friend who owns a Sober Living house. We were casually discussing new projects when he said to me, “Hey, you should get your CAADAC.”

“I should?” I asked, buying time. Like many, I’m immediately impressed and intimidated by acronyms I don’t know.

“Sure,” he said. “UCLA has a great program. And more and more treatment centers are requiring their counselors to have a CAADAC.”

I had no plans to become a counselor at a rehab. But he shrugged and said that a CAADAC program would be a way to learn more about addiction and recovery than I could even imagine.

Now, I’m someone who doesn’t read the directions to appliances or the fine print of contracts. This has gotten me into more trouble than I’d care to admit. I’m also someone who believes the universe speaks to me through the people in it, so when somebody suggests I try or do something, I take that as a sign that I’m meant to do it.

I didn’t suspect that my views about recovery would change; I didn’t know that my views about recovery even needed to change.

This has also brought on its share of problems.

I looked up CAADAC on the UCLA Extension site and learned what it was (California Association of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Counselors). Then I discovered that orientation was in just a few days and decided this was all meant to be.

I expected to either learn some new information or to discover that my ADD had grown so extreme over the years that I simply wouldn’t be able to sit in a classroom for three hours at a time. I didn’t suspect that my views about recovery would change; I didn’t know that my views about recovery even needed to change.

This wasn’t my first go at adult education, and I figured my new commitment wouldn’t be too challenging. During all those years when I’d been too scared to sit down and write books and submit them to agents, I’d done my time in a series of writing classes where embittered-seeming, exhausted teachers who’d been published in two or three literary journals would feign enthusiasm for showing frustrated wanna-be writers the ropes. Each class was more depressing than the last.

So I was shocked when I rolled in late to this orientation to find a roomful of inspired-looking people, fluttering around and asking questions with more energy than those who’ve been in work and traffic all day have any right to. It was immediately obvious they were sober: Not only did the requisite tattoos (and cigarette smoke outside) clue me in, but the group as a whole had that frantic, excitable energy that surfaces when those who once consumed lethal amounts of alcohol and drugs are stone-cold sober and focused.

I felt at home and immediately committed to taking a class each quarter and some weekend courses, meaning I would earn my certificate in two years. My first class—Social and Pharmacological Aspects of Alcohol and Other Drugs—immediately taught me that I’d miscalculated when I’d assumed this would be easy. The teacher, who had double-digit sobriety and had worked in the treatment industry for nearly as long, rattled off facts about the “old brain” (which, she said, contained the limbic, or emotional, part) and the “new brain” (which included the prefrontal cortex, where logic and reasoning take place). Words like "nucleus accumbens," "Ventral Tengmental Area" and "amygdala" tumbled out of her mouth.

I took out my glasses and struggled to keep up.

But it’s turned out to be one of the most rewarding educational experiences of my life. Soon I started devoting my free time to reading the hefty textbook (Uppers, Downers and All-Arounders, not exactly light bedtime fare) and getting to know my classmates. Most were a lot like me: in their middle life years, sober, and realizing that what they were doing for a living was less rewarding than they’d hoped. Some already worked at treatment centers—one at Promises, one at the Salvation Army and a lot in between—but most did not. Some, like me, weren’t sure that they ever would. And throughout that quarter and the next (where I took a class in Co-Occurring Disorders) and the one I’m in now (Bringing Recovery to Diverse Populations), I’ve grown closer to my classmates, which has helped me to learn about addiction in ways that I never could have otherwise.

Some of them are pretty hardcore: Never once has a drug or drug combination arisen that someone hasn’t tried. When we discussed bath salts, many people shared their experiences of that particular high. When we were studying the antagonists and agonists that help people get off opiods, our teacher told us about Vivitrol, Buprenorphine and Suboxone, and one of my classmates—not the kid from Brentwood who likes to show off a bullet hole from his drug dealing days, but the one next to him—told us what it’s like to be on all three at once. (In a word: gnarly.)

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Anna David is the New York Times-bestselling author of multiple books about overcoming difficulties and coming out on the other side: the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009), the non-fiction books Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011), By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and True Tales of Lust and Love and the Kindle Singles Animal Attraction (Amazon, 2012) and They Like Me, They Really Like Me (Amazon, 2013). Find Anna on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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