Why You Probably Shouldn’t Become a Drug Counselor

By Bobbi Anderson 02/17/14

Here's a numbered list of reasons why it would be a bad idea.

You're not cut out for this. Shutterstock

Hey homeslice, I was there. Three months of shaky sobriety under my belt and ready to save the world, a community college catalog in front of me. I knew more about drugs and alcohol and addiction and recovery and life skills then than I do now with six years clean. The counselors who walked me through rehab still exist in my memory as larger-than-life angels with bright hazy halos of light behind them. You know I looked up to them. But I probably shouldn’t have gone on to be an AOD counselor. And you probably shouldn’t either. Why? I’ll tell you why.

1. You’re probably not ready. Recovery is lot of hard work that you need to invest in yourself before you try to save somebody else. Many counseling programs don’t allow students in without a good chunk of documented sobriety, ranging from six months to two years. Ginger Olsen, a professor and veteran counselor, teaches in California where there is no such waiting period. She says that most of her students are “two steppers: one, they decide they’ve seen the light, and, two, they’re going to save the world. Very few make it all the way through.”

Take heart though, Olsen says that even the dropouts usually get something out of it.

“Whether it is the intervening 10 steps or cognitive awareness or a combination, they grow in their sobriety and become productive citizens moving on to more satisfying endeavors.”

2. School is hard. There are a few totally legit reasons why it’s a good idea to wait a year or so after your clean date before deciding on your life’s work. One of them is Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, a set of symptoms including anxiety, depression and cravings which persist months into early recovery. The most common phenomenon I saw in myself, my clients and my fellow students was a desire to do everything right away in an effort to make up for lost time. Five months ago we were lying in a gutter trying to figure out who to hit up for enough cash to make another score. Now we’re sober and bright-eyed and we need to get a job and reconnect with our family and find a girlfriend and start going to the gym again and go to school and.... It’s a lot to handle. You shouldn’t take it all on at once, because you’re going to burn out and you could relapse. I should have. Sixty hour work weeks plus being a full-time student plus every service commitment that came my way? The stress almost killed me. I was a dumbass. You don’t have to be. 

3. You’re a jerk. Let me rephrase that: you’re going to find out some unpleasant things about yourself, and on the job is a lousy time to find them out. I found out that I’m kind of a jerk. And I found that out because I went to school instead of going to therapy. You probably need to go to therapy first, otherwise you’re going to process things through your clients, which is bad for everyone. This is known professionally as counter transference. Every demon from your past will show up in your clients—your abusive ex-boyfriend, your cold father, your drunk mother—and you need to have your shit squared away so you can actually help them instead of staging a reenactment of your childhood. 

4. The people you work with will be jerks. The people you work with will actually be angels, except when they’re not. I had a professor warn me that every office is a dysfunctional family, and boy was he right. There are a lot of people with varying levels of emotional sobriety in the recovery field, and some of them are really going to challenge your patience. In any given counseling program there will be the cranky hardcore old-timer who thinks he’s a cop, the guilty codependent who lets her clients get away with everything, and the dry drunk deadbeat who’s making shady decisions. Some counselors relapse. Some counselors sleep with clients. Report that crap. But I’m mostly talking about the people in our profession whose ideals and techniques run completely counter to your own training. The most frustrating thing is that they usually have clients who love them, and they get results. Different strokes for different folks. Working with people you don’t agree with is part of life, period. In counseling it just happens to be magnified times ten.

5. You will not be paid what you deserve. The exception being if you have an advanced degree, like a masters in social work or a PhD in psychology. But the starting salary for most recently-certified counselors in my region is just a hair over minimum wage. Treatment is a low priority for funding. It’s not easy to get hired, either. School is just the first part of the process, and after that another few thousand hours of on-the-job training and an expensive certifying test are required. Considering that back in the bad old days people began “counseling” with just sobriety alone, these requirements are a good thing. Just know that in order to get the degree and the experience you need to level up to a better-paying gig, you’ll probably spend a few years making close to nothing and/or accruing student loans.

6. You will probably not be able to give your clients what they deserve. There are some golden moments in this field. When the light comes on in someone’s eyes, when a group starts to bond, when a client comes in and proudly shows you their nine-month chip. They make all the crappy things about the job worth it. They do. But the moments of heartbreak far outweigh the moments of joy. You will be working with a population of people whose natural state is drunk, loaded or dead. They will arrive with a history of co-occurring disorders you’re not trained to handle. Everything about the world, from their family to the correctional system to sometimes the very program you work for will stymie their efforts to change. You will hear things and see things that will keep you awake at night, wondering if you did the right thing. You will obsess over a client for months, put them in a special place in your heart, work with them to get clean, watch them progress and cry for happiness. Then they will show up for group drunk and you’ll have to kick them out of the program. They’ll disappear back into the correctional system and you’ll feel like you’ve failed.

A friend and former colleague put it like this:

“Look, if you build a house...if you are a construction worker...you see an empty space on the ground and a few weeks later you see a house. You feel the floor, appreciate the shape, smell the labor and wood. It is very concrete. You know what you accomplished. Same with a cook, same with you, the journalist. But at the end of my day, I wonder what I accomplished and I am not certain of much.”

I’m not including my colleague’s name because her speaking publicly on the subject could endanger her career and her credentials. That brings me to one of the final things that you need to know about becoming a counselor...

7. You will need to change everything about your life. I have about a month before my certification expires in California and I’m not sure whether I’m going to re-up or not. Becoming a writer has kind of decided the issue for me. A client who web-searched my name would be sure to find some unprofessional material. To be a good counselor you have to have excellent boundaries. That means that you don’t let clients into your personal life, you carefully guard your social media presence and you don’t carry a public persona that will endanger your reputation. HIPAA privacy guidelines for counselors are some of the strictest in the mental health profession. I have sat with clients as they told me their deepest, darkest parts of themselves. I’m not allowed to hug them. We cannot be friends. If I see them on the street I can’t acknowledge them first. If they go to jail I can’t visit them. If they die (and many do) I will have to mourn them privately. These are good, good rules established for good, good reasons and I’m grateful they exist. I’m a better person for having been a counselor, even for a brief time. But I had no idea what I was getting into when I started. I hope that now you do. Think hard.

Bobbi Anderson is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about Facebook etiquette.

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