Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Share

woman-public-speaking

In my job as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male sober living program, one of the first things I do when I sit down with a new resident on my caseload is ask for their “story.”    On a slow afternoon I have the opportunity to ask the guys who aren’t on my caseload, the same thing.  They never hesitate to launch right in:

“Well, my father beat the shit out of me from the age of 7 and I started using pills at 10 to numb the pain.”

“Well, when I found my mother murdered….”

“Up until last year I was living under a bridge…”

“My wife overdosed and died while I was sleeping next to her.”

This is their narrative, one they’ve undoubtedly told many times, in AA and NA meetings, intakes at every detox they’ve been to and every time they’ve gone to a new therapist.  The telling is an integral part of their healing, their recovery.

Last week it occurred to me that it didn’t seem fair that they didn’t know MY story.  Many professionals might be outraged by the boundaries this seemingly crosses.  When I worked with inmates I understood why I told very little about myself.  Most therapists would say that if a client asks a question like “Where do you live?” you should deflect it by saying something like, “What would it mean to you if you knew that?” or “We’re here to focus on you not me.”

At another job it was mandatory that we shared our stories through a collage and narrative with the participants of the program.  Yes, we didn’t have to tell EVERYTHING, but to me, and I feel very strongly about this, when you are working so closely with people who lay themselves bare to you, it’s only fair that the playing field is leveled.

I asked permission from my manager first.  He has been in recovery for 15 years and is one of the most dynamic men I have ever met.  When his son was murdered just three years ago, he managed not to relapse, but you can see the pain in his eyes.  The men here, some as young as 24, listen to him with rapt attention when he tells his story.  They’ve heard him share at meetings in the community.  His story is not one to keep inside.

In front of the group of 30 guys, I set the tone of what I wanted to say by letting them know that despite the fact that I am not a recovering addict, that I have experienced pain of my own.  Some in recovery firmly believe that unless you are in recovery you don’t have the tools or experience to be a substance abuse counselor.  I wanted to try to soften that opinion.

I began with, “On New Year’s Eve, 1985, my mother and a man she was involved with committed suicide and were found dead in her bedroom.”

Nothing silences a group of restless men than an opening sentence like that.  I told my “story” for about 25 minutes while the guys just watched me and listened with compassionate writ large on their faces.  Many of them came up to me after and hugged me, others shook my hand and thanked me.  The one who I have had the most prickly relationship with, came into my office and confessed that he was one of those people who thought that unless you were in recovery you shouldn’t be counselor.

When I finished sharing my coworker reiterated his true belief that all of us, despite being addicts or not, have pain that stays with us. As he so simply stated, “You never know where help is going to come from.”

P.S.  I wish I could put my hair in a bun like the woman in the illustration.

 

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Resisting the Numb

heroin

Last week one of the residents of the all-male sober residence where I work came into the main office, shut the door behind him and began to weep.  Still a few years from thirty, he grew up in one of the toughest, whitest projects in Boston, using drugs and committing crimes since the age of 14, so, seeing him in this vulnerable moment was a bit jarring.

At moments like these my coworkers and I are generally waiting for a confession of relapse.  Instead, he told us that he had just found out that his father, diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, had three weeks to live.

This resident was not used to having these sorts of feelings.  His impulse, and the impulse of almost all of the men in the residence, was to inject, drink, snort, smoke and swallow their feelings away.  That lure is always there, everywhere.  The immediate goal for their lives, is to resist that desire to be numb.  They have to learn what it’s like to “sit with their feelings.”

The first thing we made sure was that he wouldn’t use.

“I can’t do that to my father.  He has watched me my whole life as an addict.  Out of respect for him, I won’t.”

His vulnerability was so innocent, so childlike in a way.  He is well-loved in the house but doesn’t want the other guys to know what’s going on.  I’ve urged him to talk to a select few, but he hasn’t.  We as staff, though, continue to check-in on him, see how he’s doing and know that the worst is yet to come.

The past few weeks have been heartbreaking at the house.  One of the young men I got very close to, relapsed a day after graduating the program, after 180 days clean.  Another, only weeks from graduating was found with a needle in his arm, fresh blood drops on the floor of the bathroom, so fucked up he couldn’t stand up straight.  And then, the worst of them all, one of the guys on my caseload who got discharged for using less than a month ago, was found dead at his girlfriend’s house.

Coming into work the day after this young man’s death I talked to a lot of the guys to see how they were processing the information.  Each one, many who had known him and liked him, said that they had gotten so used to this, yeah, it sucks, but it’s the nature of the beast.  One went through the contacts on his phone and ticked off at least 15 names of people he knew who had overdosed in the last six months.  Many said that their Facebook feeds has become their version of an obituary, being their source of information like this.  The overarching theme was “Better him than me.”

Death shouldn’t be the norm for twenty and 30 year-olds.  People in their seventies and eighties are the ones who should be scanning obituaries, sighing and feeling a pang of sadness when they learn that someone they know has died.

I knew this job would be tough, but I couldn’t have possibly imagined how tough.  Death and relapse will be a part of my life.  I look at the thirty names of the guys left in the house and wonder how many will make it the 180 days.  I fear for them, for those who can’t resist the numb, the ones who need to escape the pain of feelings, feelings that most of us know how to process, sober, or with one glass of wine, with people who will listen and help to take that pain away.