“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.” Those words had become my end-point, I was living my dream.
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 the ask.
When I found myself between jobs I fell into an opportunity to volunteer with newly incarcerated women. Every Friday for two years I went “behind the wall” and lead a group on goal-setting, instilling as much hope for women who had none. About 80% of those women, and later, in a part-time job where I also worked with men newly released from prisons all over the country, were drug addicts or in prison for drug related crimes. In addition, my best friend at the time was struggling with a 3-year crystal meth addiction, a drug so insidious that he became a completely different person. It was in my orbit everywhere I looked and it was then that I knew that what I wanted to be was a substance abuse counselor.
I am not an addict but that didn’t stop my wonderful new boss from taking a chance on me, seeing my passion and understanding of the challenges that this population faces every day. I now have a caseload of 15 men in a sober living residence, a place I look forward to going every day. The cycle of their lives are almost always identical–overdose, detox, halfway house, relapse, overdose, and on and on. In the process, they’ve lost sight of whatever dreams they’ve had. They’ve become too clouded, murky, shrouded in despair.
One of the most compelling men on my caseload, a 27-year old rough-around-the-edges but completely soft on the inside, had wonderful and candid conversations with me on Friday afternoons when he’d come home from work, covered in dirt with a single hammer hanging from his tool belt. He was wise and without delusion about where his life was and where it was going. He had been through our program before, had achieved almost 2 years of clean time before he was sucked back into the vortex of abuse. In theory he knew what he had to do to avoid the suck of addiction, how he had to stay away from his ex-girlfriend. He had helped raise her daughter, now 6 who he absolutely adored. After 42 days out of the 180 days it would have taken to complete our program, and a day after one of these conversations, he left to go back to her. Right before he went into detox his probation officer let him call me. “This was the conversation I was dreading the most,” he said to me. I’m so sorry.”
During several conversations I told him what I wanted for him. I wanted him to have a wife, some children, a family to come home to and eat dinner with. A wife to cuddle up next to on the couch when their children were finally settled. My dream is to secretly walk by a cute little house with a big tree that I can duck behind in the yard, look in a big picture window, and see him hoisting his child over his head, making faces, and having this be his dream realized.