"Dopesick Nation" Shows Reality of Treatment Professionals Who Struggle with Addiction

By Tessa Torgeson 11/28/18

Dopesick Nation explores addiction treatment and the thin line between interventionist and client, recovery and relapse.

Dopesick Nation's Frankie and Allie sitting next to each other on a concrete ledge. Addiction treatment on TV
Like Frankie in "Dopesick Nation," I realized that I couldn’t take care of others until I took care of myself.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Dopesick Nation

As a former social worker in recovery from addiction, I was initially skeptical of the VICELAND Series Dopesick Nation because I thought it would follow the familiar formula of A&E’s Intervention and TLC’s Addicted. I was wrong. Dopesick Nation is different from these other shows for many reasons, but it's especially good at illuminating the unique difficulties of being a recovering addict while also working with and helping other people struggling with addiction. Dopesick Nation explores the thin line between interventionist and client, recovery and relapse. This is a common struggle, as 37 to 57% of professionals in the addiction field are in recovery themselves. Due to stigma, there is sparse data on how often people working in this field relapse, but I found a preliminary study that found 14.7% of addiction treatment professionals relapse over their career lifespan. I can relate: I’ve relapsed twice while working in the field.

Let me start by saying that I commend all people working in addiction and recovery treatment. While I have mixed feelings about Intervention and Addicted, I have deep respect for the interventionists who have made it their mission to help people with addiction while also navigating the daily struggles of their own recovery. The traditional interventionists of Addicted and Intervention appear so stable; each of their stories follow a typical trajectory from drug addict to helper. On the opening montage of Addicted, interventionist Kristina Wandzilak says: “By the time I was 15, I was addicted to drugs and alcohol. I robbed homes, I sold my body, I dug in dumpsters to pay for my habit. Today I am an interventionist…”

Yes, Wandzilak and the other interventionists’ stories are all inspiring to people like me in recovery, but the reality is that many of us relate more to Dopesick Nation’s leads, Allie and Frankie. Both are candid about the difficulty of working in the field and later Frankie is open about his relapse. But we’ll come back to that.

Addiction Treatment on TV: Intervention, Addicted, and Dopesick Nation

One of the first stark differences between these shows is the more relatable, down-to-earth way that Allie and Frankie approach their clients. From my experience as a social worker with eight years of experience in the field, I know that the first step is building rapport and earning the trust of vulnerable people who are skeptical of helping professionals. Allie wears yoga pants and hoop earrings, Frankie is covered in tattoos and wears a backwards black hat and a t-shirt with the logo of his nonprofit, “FUCK HEROIN FOUNDATION.”

This may seem surface level, but first impressions matter. Trust should be earned, not expected. I had a client who refused to open the door to staff for weeks, in part because she felt social workers were elitist and unrelatable. When she finally let me in, she said, “You’re not one of those preppy ass bitches.” My boss joked that all the staff should get tattoos, a lip ring, and blue hair like me even though technically it was against dress code policy.

In Addicted and Intervention, the interventions are staged in the carefully controlled environments of beige hotel conference rooms. Wearing business casual clothes, neatly ironed polos and chinos, the interventionists sit on comfy chairs in a U-shaped circle, then conduct a carefully orchestrated, seemingly scripted intervention.

In Dopesick Nation, Allie and Frankie meet their clients where they are, which is a foundation for building a helping relationship. The show takes place in sunny, touristy Florida, where glimmering sandy beaches are dotted with tourists in Hawaiian shirts playing shuffleboard next to the swirling tides of the turquoise ocean. But Allie and Frankie don’t meet on the beach. Instead, they talk to clients on park benches, and curbsides in bad neighborhoods, braving torrential downpours and scorching heat. This method of “meeting people where they are at” is supported by years of social science research and was a cornerstone of my work as part of an outreach team to help people with severe mental illness and addiction. We left our office bubble, braving blizzards and arctic cold, because we knew clients were more likely to go to detox or another facility after a course of meetings in their homes.

Fast forward to Frankie admitting he’s relapsed and is taking Suboxone, a medication to deal with opioid cravings. Wringing his hands, itching his sweat-glazed skin, Frankie tells his sponsor Gary: “90 to 95% of my day helping other people find their recovery. Sometimes I’m not taking care of my own recovery. And how am I gonna help other people get something that I don’t have? A lot of people rely on me, that pressure weighs on me.”

Gary encourages Frankie to go to detox. “When you’re working in treatment, you’re around sickness all day long and you’re absorbing it... You need to work a righteous program.”

Treatment Professionals Who Relapse

I want to tell Gary that even though Suboxone is sometimes shunned by the recovery community, many studies support its efficacy. Suboxone is a valid form of recovery. I want to reach across the screen, hug Frankie and tell him he deserves the same care and compassion that he gives to clients, that it’s okay to take a break from the field to take care of himself. I want to tell him that I admire him even more because he let his guard down and was honest. I want to tell him that more of us relapse than he may realize and assure him that he is not a hypocrite for relapsing and taking Suboxone. I want to tell him my story.

Three years ago, I was working at a day center with people who had struggled with homelessness and addiction. I remember one day when a client who was an IV heroin and meth user told me about his struggles to get clean. My years of experience taught me the art of self-disclosure, specifically if and when it was appropriate to disclose to clients that I too was in recovery. Since I’d known him seven months and even been trusted to store his dead cat’s ashes (a story for another day), I told him about my addiction as though it was in the past tense, although it was very much in the present tense. Steeped in denial, I told myself that my nighttime and weekend benders wouldn’t bleed into daytime. Looking back, I feel ashamed, but I know that denial is also a powerful drug. For a while, I thought I juggled my work life and secret life well. I thrived at my job, until, surprise— the benders bled into my work days.

One day this client told me he was worried about me. He’d noticed my weight loss, blue circles under my darkened eyes, and change in personality. That’s when I knew I needed help. It was time to take a break from being a social worker. I went to detox for five days, then resigned and decided to move home. Like Frankie in Dopesick Nation, I realized that I couldn’t take care of others until I took care of myself.

Eighteen months later, I miss social work and helping people. I hope to one day return to the profession, but in the meantime I’m using writing as a means to fight the stigma of addiction and shame of relapse. The reality is that relapse rates vary between 50 to 90%, and even treatment professionals are not immune to the realities of addiction. My hope is that one day more helping professionals like me can come out about their relapses and be commended for our honesty.

What are your thoughts on Dopesick Nation and Frankie and Allie? How should people who work in addiction treatment make sure they're taking care of their own recovery? Let us know in the comments.

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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.