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.