When Treatment Professionals Relapse: Shattering the Stigma

By Tessa Torgeson 12/18/18

We are treatment professionals: we are trained to help our clients navigate addiction and mental health crises. We aren’t supposed to relapse and have crises ourselves.

Woman in hospital scrubs sits on floor, head in hands, treatment professional relapse
We can help clients precisely because we have done the hard work of tunneling from the trenches of addiction to the light of recovery. PC

In my last article about helping professionals who struggle with addiction and relapse, I wrote about how 37 to 57% of addiction treatment professionals are in recovery and 14.7% relapse over their career lifespan. After readers inquired about my story, I decided to write a follow-up.

“The Blind Leading the Blind”

It was a sunny July day when I started dual diagnosis inpatient treatment for alcoholism and mental health issues at a psychiatric hospital in Fargo, North Dakota. If there was a What Not to Wear: Rehab Edition, I would’ve been a damn good makeover candidate. I was clad in yellow scrubs and those dreaded teal slipper socks, the glass slippers of the mad. My chin-length blonde hair was matted, my wrists bandaged, my face puffy from drinking and binge eating. Shuffling to the pop machine, I ran into a colleague.

I tried to avoid eye contact, but he saw me. I was mortified, ashamed. I had just resigned from my social work job at a drop-in center for at-risk youth. Later, I kept replaying the incident in my head like a ticker tape and longed for Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Unfortunately, I encountered something even more awkward two days later.

The scene of this awkwardness was “nursing group,” which sounded to me like a class for breastfeeding mothers. Instead, we learned about the health consequences of drinking, using, and addiction. During the group, I spotted a former client from the YWCA domestic violence shelter. As soon as the group ended, I rushed off to the bathroom, hoping she wouldn’t see me.

I smelled her before I saw her: a familiar alchemy of Estée Lauder perfume and menthol cigarettes. We met while washing our hands.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” she said, applying a coat of peach lipstick.

I wanted to tell her that I was also surprised I landed here, that at only 24 years old I hadn’t yet worked through my trauma and struggle with mental illness. Instead, I said: “I know, it’s probably weird for you, too. I won’t tell anyone how I know you. I ask that you do the same, please.”

They don’t teach you how to handle this sort of situation in social work school. We are helping professionals: we are trained to help our clients navigate addiction and mental health crises. We aren’t supposed to have crises ourselves.

When I told my last supervisor that I was struggling with alcoholism and needed time off to go to treatment, he said, “I support you, but I really need my social workers stable, or else it’s like the blind leading the blind, right?”

After feeling ashamed for days, I imagined a role reversal to have more compassion for myself. What if I saw my former therapists in rehab? Would I really think they were less qualified to do their jobs because they were getting help? After all, I’d rather run into a therapist in rehab or 12-step meetings than drunk at a bar.

Second Chances

Even though I resigned from my social work position, I didn’t want to completely leave the profession. I was still deeply committed to helping others and working towards a more compassionate, equitable society. I was also idealistic, thinking that I would be an even better social worker once I worked through my demons. I imagined myself returning to the profession with renewed passion and vigor.

As a licensed social worker, it was my ethical duty to report my substance abuse and time in rehab to the Board of Social Work. I admit, I was tempted to hide it; I didn’t want to send my addiction and psychological evaluations to complete strangers on the Board of Social Work. After an anxious month of awaiting their consensus, I eagerly ripped open the letter with the state seal. Since I had completed treatment and had an addiction counselor vouch for my sobriety, I was approved to continue practicing as a social worker, so long as I maintain my sobriety and attend 12-step meetings.

While I was grateful for getting a second chance at the profession, I still felt humiliated that I had to turn in all of my psychological records, not just my successful completion certificate. I also wished for some sort of formal support system for people in my situation. I felt so alone in this battle, although I knew there had to be other professionals who had experienced relapse.

You’re Not Alone

A 2013 New York Times article called “Addiction Treatment with a Dark Side” featured the stories of social worker Melissa Iverson and addiction counselor Travis Norton. Both professionals relapsed while working in the addiction field.

According to the article, “Iverson first requested anonymity, like most other professionals interviewed, some of whom have never acknowledged their problem to their families, primary care physicians or even insurers.” Later Iverson contacted the New York Times to “come out of the closet,” saying, “The stigma needs to be tackled by real people with real names, or else it will haunt us forever.”

Back in 2014, I interviewed Norton, who was open about recovering from heroin addiction and owned his own practice adjacent to a Suboxone clinic in a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Norton said, “I was on methadone successfully for many years, then switched to buprenorphine (Suboxone). I’ve been on it for almost three years now. For ten years off and on, I have worked in a variety of settings that incorporate harm-reduction and have used the resources personally as a using addict. Because of relapses while working in the field, I am being monitored by my licensing board and am subject to random drug screens.”

Sadly, three months after I interviewed Norton, he died of a heroin overdose. His mother Michelle Norton gave me permission to share his story because she knows that her son wanted to fight the stigma of addiction. He also deserves to be honored for the all the people he helped and inspired. Norton’s death is part of the national opioid crisis. At least two-thirds of the 72,000 overdose deaths in 2016 and 2017 were linked to opioids.

Hope after Relapse

There is hope for those of us who are helping professionals who also struggle with addiction and recovery. Norton and others who wrote to me shared that social work and counseling licensing boards are typically supportive of those who relapse, so long as they follow through with treatment, counseling, or medication assisted treatment like Suboxone or Naltrexone (a medication used for opioid addiction and alcoholism). An increasing number of treatment centers are offering specialized tracks for medical and helping professionals.

Each one of us can work to support this societal shift from stigma to acceptance of our friends, colleagues, and loved ones who work in the addiction field. If you have relapsed, you are not alone. We are not the blind leading the blind, we are strong people who have a special understanding of our clients because we know what it’s like to go through hell and come out the other side. We’ve had a more valuable education than what can be taught in textbooks. We can help clients precisely because we have done the hard work of tunneling from the trenches of addiction to the light of recovery.

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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.