Tales From a Substance Abuse Counselor

By Gayle Saks 11/12/15

When addiction entered my orbit, I had no idea that it would lead me to a career that would change my life. 

Gayle Saks

"I'm a substance abuse counselor."

When I heard those words come out of my mouth when someone recently asked what I did for work, I said it assertively, as if I had been one for my entire career, simultaneously thinking to myself, "Oh my God, I'm a SUBSTANCE ABUSE COUNSELOR."  

I am a substance abuse counselor, but I am not an addict.

It wasn't until about five years ago that this career was even on my radar. For 20+ years I was a non-profit fundraiser, spending the majority of my time asking rich people for money. I burned out, got lazy, and found that I really hated the lack of authenticity when I was in front of the wealthy, having to make small talk that had such transparency that they were just waiting for what’s known in the business as “the ask.”

At the age of 42, I fell into an opportunity to volunteer with newly incarcerated women. About 80% of those women were addicts or in prison for drug-related crimes. In addition, my best friend at the time was struggling with a three-year crystal meth addiction, a drug so insidious that he became a completely different person. Everywhere I looked, addiction was in my orbit and it was then that I knew that somehow I needed to turn this genuine interest into a career.

I networked myself into the field with an unrelenting zeal I didn’t even know I possessed. After my volunteer stint in jail, I was hired to work with recently released federal and county inmates in several different reentry programs in the Greater Boston area. It was there that I heard countless stories from men, women and juveniles of all ages, races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, of the fallout from their addiction on everyone in their paths.

I was always slightly concerned that these men and women viewed me as yet another bleeding heart white woman paid (very little) to throw out tired terms with widened and sympathetic eyes. I’m proud to say that that image was dispelled very quickly as they got to know my lack of judgment, my genuine caring, and my ability to be just as candid and raw as them.

For the past six months, I have been a case manager in a 30-bed, all-male residential program for recovering addicts. It’s a six-month program that maybe 20% will complete without relapse or non-compliance. I have a revolving caseload of 12 men. I experienced my first death by overdose not too long ago. I have had my heart ripped out by guys who have tried so hard only to sabotage themselves by relapsing and beginning that never-ending cycle of detox, program, relapse, overdose, detox, and on and on.  

I am one of only two staff members (and the only case manager) not in recovery. I am very upfront with the guys about that. Some of them think it’s a good thing. Others, not so much. I’ve heard people in recovery say that this field is not something you can learn from a book or college classes, that unless you’ve lived it, you have no right counseling people. A member of my family recently asked me what made me think I was qualified to do this work. Maybe I’m not technically “qualified” but I have never been more passionate about anything I’ve ever done in my life.

Last month, in a group that I run weekly with the men, I started by saying that I wanted to be able to share my story, that despite the fact that I’m not in recovery, that I have experienced pain and trauma of my own. I went on to tell them that when I was 21, my mother committed suicide, part of a suicide pact with a man she was dating. I told them that she was in-and-out of psychiatric hospitals my entire childhood and adolescence and that after my parent’s divorce when I was 13 (and my father’s subsequent move to Los Angeles), I was charged with “parenting” my parent.  

The men listened to me as I told my story for 30 minutes. I could tell that their opinions of me, whether positive or negative, were shifted by my story, my history. I could sense that the bubbly and slightly kooky middle-aged woman who they enjoyed being around every day, had turned a bit less kooky. When I was finished, many came up and asked permission to hug me.  

There is one man in the house, a hardened 38-year old who doesn’t have an inch of his body unmarked by a tattoo, bullet hole or scar, who has taken a very long time to warm up to me in the four months that I’ve been there. Not on my caseload, he essentially would ignore me, act up in group, and really push back at me. Slowly, he’s softened, watching how the guys who know me best say nothing but positive things about me. He’s also seen that I’m no pushover in times of necessary reprimand. He came to my office after I told my stories and said, “I was one of those people who thought that if you weren’t in recovery you shouldn’t be a counselor. Now, I think I’ve changed my mind.”

I love moments like these. Not only do they prove that a mind has opened, but it validates my point a little bit. I have learned immeasurable things from these men, the countless tragedies and pain they’ve endured, the horrors of sticking a needle in your arm leading to endless numbers of overdoses and what sounds like the nightmare of detox. I’m beyond grateful that the woman who hired me trusted that not only was I equipped to do this work, but that I might just be perfect for it.

Gayle Saks has written about everything from her mother’s double-suicide, online dating, a failed colonoscopy, to her work with male, female and juvenile inmates, with deep honesty, candor and humor. A piece about her best friend’s addiction to crystal meth was chosen as an Editor’s Pick on opensalon.com, the sister site of Salon.com. 

She has recently begun to speak publicly about her mother’s experiences as a Holocaust Survivor, and her role as a second-generation survivor and how the torch is now being passed to her teenage daughter to keep that legacy alive.

Saks grew up on Long Island, New York, and lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter, two cats and a dog, or as her husband says, “Too many beating hearts.” She blogs at mylifeinthemiddleages.wordpress.com.

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Gayle Saks has written extensively about her work as a substance abuse counselor from the unique perspective of someone who is not in recovery herself. Her blog, My Life In The Middle Ages, was voted one of the Top 20 Recovery Blogs for 2016 by AfterParty Magazine. She has written on the subject for The Fix, HuffPost, mindbodygreen and Thought Catalog. She has also written about being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the eventual suicide of her mother. Her pieces on the subject have appeared in kveller where she is a regular contributor, The Jewish Journal, and MammaMia. Saks grew up on Long Island, New York, and lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter, two cats and two dogs or as her husband says, “Too many beating hearts.” Follow Gayle on Twitter.