What Makes an Experienced Counselor?

By Wendy Adamson 12/09/15

What really qualifies me for the job is my own personal research with mind-altering substances.

An Experienced Counselor

I’m a drug and alcohol counselor and have been for nearly eighteen years. What that means is, I jumped through the required hoops, and after passing a written and oral exam, I was honored to receive my CADC II (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) certificate. 

However, what really qualifies me for the job is my own personal research with mind-altering substances. I have a lot of ‘in the field, hands-on training,' which most therapists and physicians can’t claim. I’m not bragging, mind you, but who knows what it’s like to self-destruct better than another addict? 

Not something you typically put on a resume, but hey, it worked for me.

One thing I have learned in my 23 years sober is that when we put a plug in the jug, as they like to say, sometimes alcohol’s extended family will show up uninvited to the supper table. Without any substance to soften the sharp edges of life, addicts often find themselves struggling with over-eating, gambling, stalking ex-lovers or mainlining episodes of Breaking Bad, just to name a few. 

Why aren’t we ever satisfied, one might ask? Why do we always want more?

While browsing the self-help aisle of Barnes & Noble, I came across David Thomas’ book Narcissism: Behind The Mask. 

Inside its pages, I found some behaviors that hit a little too close to home for me:

React to criticism with shame or humiliation. Check.

Preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal love. Check.

Have unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment. Check.

Have obsessive self-interest. Check.

Pursue mainly selfish goals. Check.

You mean we get sober only to discover how self-absorbed we truly are? Well, that doesn’t seem fair at all, if you ask me. However, as I flipped through the book, I also learned that underneath, these feeling of grandiosity is a sense of self-hatred that we are merely trying to mask. 

Then what exactly is the answer for this finely-tuned torture device that others might call a brain? 

Maybe I was lucky, but when I was newly sober, I fell into a group of inspired people who swooped me up. One day, an enthusiastic woman asked me if I’d be willing to go to a juvenile hall and tell the kids my story. 

“What do you want me to say?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just tell them what it was like,” she said. 

Against my better judgment, I said yes.  

When the day arrived, my friend drove us out to the very edges of San Fernando Valley.  When we pulled up, the security guard recognized her and let us in.

After the gate creaked open and we rolled forward, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had been in that same juvenile hall as a young girl. It felt like I was returning to the scene of the crime. 

Once inside the lobby, a pretty, dark-haired correction officer greeted us. With keys jangling from her hip, she led us through a caged corridor until we came to a door that took us outside. My eyes scanned the familiar surroundings as we walked down a sidewalk hemmed in by razor wire fences until finally we came to a drab, cinder-block bunker. 

When the officer opened the door, we entered a brightly-lit dayroom with pee-yellow walls. There were about fifteen to twenty mostly black and brown girls sitting in rows of metal chairs, looking us up and down with arms crossed over their chests.

My heart raced. Part of me wanted to turn and leave. I wasn’t so much afraid of them as I was about talking about my past. As the door closed behind me, I heard the hollow thud of the lock. I knew there was no turning back, and sat down in an empty seat up front. 

My trusted leader went first because she was familiar with the drill. Honestly, I was so nervous, I don’t remember a word she said. 

When it was my turn to talk, I stood there looking out at those girls who appeared hardened by their extremely short lives. I found myself not knowing where to start.  

As I opened my mouth, I stumbled and stuttered over barely audible words. At one point, I had to stop and take a deep breath, just to collect myself.

Finally, I looked up and said, “As a ward of the court, I was in here many times when I was a kid.”

They all shifted in their seats and perked up.

I went on to tell them how, as a kid, my mother was a schizophrenic and we weren’t suppose to talk about it to anyone. That when I was 7 years old, she killed herself and I always hated her for leaving me like that. I explained how my dad became a bitter alcoholic who drank himself to death and how I hated him as well.  

“While blaming my parents for my screwed up life, I turned to drugs and crime,” I said.

Looking out, I saw a couple of heads bob up and down. 

“But when I finally got sober, I realized I had to forgive them or I’d never be able to live my life.”

When I saw a tough looking girl in the second row begin to cry, tears welled up in my eyes. For some strange reason, it felt like I was not only speaking to them, but reaching back through a portal of time, to the teenager I had abandoned all those years before.  

Could it be that simple? I wondered. To get out of my own head? To help someone else?

All I can say is that when I walked out of juvenile hall that day, I could breathe a little easier. I felt a sense of freedom like I hadn’t felt before. 

Perhaps in the telling of my story, I realized that I am not my history. It’s the broken places in me that can help reach the brokenness in them.

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