Here’s an embarrassing and true story: when I was in graduate school I went on an interview for my internship; it wasn’t until more than halfway through the interview that I realized I was at a facility that specialized in treating substance use disorders!
I will never forget the look on my (soon to be) supervisor’s face when she told me that 75% of the population they served were teens trying to get sober and that she was surprised I didn’t already know this.
It was one of those moments where a million thoughts raced through my head in a matter of half a second. My first thought was “did I not read the fine print on the website like an idiot?” My second thought was “well now I look unprepared and I’m definitely not getting this internship,”
my third thought was “working with teenagers with substance use disorders? I don’t THINK SO!”
Let me tell you a bit about my personal history with addiction as it started many years prior to this interview. When I was a kid my older sister started experimenting with drugs at a young age. By the time she was in high school and I was in middle school she was already in full blown addiction; she was in and out of rehab several times and my family was a chaotic mess. Being the youngest child, I didn’t quite understand what was going on- I knew my sister was doing drugs and that my mom and dad were in a constant state of emotional distress- but the impact that this had on me and my family was something I would not process until years later.
My sister’s drug abuse continued for many (10+) years with short periods of sobriety here and there. I remember periods of time when we would have minimal contact with her, times when she was doing well, and the in-between. Her last stint in rehab was in 2010- and she hasn’t touched an opiate since then. She is now a healthy and productive member of society; she works full time, is a homeowner, and has a 5 year old son!
It would be easy to say that the story ended there, but anyone who has experienced addiction personally, or had a family member go through it, knows this is the furthest thing from the truth. Flash forward to my interview for my internship in grad school- I thought, Why would I want to put myself through that trauma again? Why would I want to be triggered on a daily basis by teenage addicts and their families, the very thing I experienced as a child?
When I explained this to my supervisor, she looked at me with a very straight face and said “this is exactly where you need to be.”
I know now that landing that internship was no coincidence. I needed to heal from the past and the only way to do that was to face my own unresolved feelings toward addiction. The thing about addiction is that it does not exist in a vacuum. People with substance use disorders have families, relationships, children, jobs, dreams, pasts, and hopefully futures. Part of my healing process was to recognize how patterns of enabling, codependency, and poor communication skills impacted my current relationships and way of being.
Since that internship years ago I have consistently worked with those with substance use disorders. I have worked in outpatient centers, Partial hospital programs, Intensive outpatient programs, and now in a private practice. Some of the things I have learned about myself and the disease of addiction from a family systems perspective are:
- I (you/we/anyone else) cannot save them- This can be one of those “hard to swallow pills.” The truth is that no matter how much you love someone or want them to be clean you do not have the power to make them stop. Likewise, their love for YOU is not enough for them to stop. An addict needs to want to get clean for him/herself first. (Sometimes called internal vs. external motivation).
- Enabling comes in many forms– enabling does not just mean handing someone money to purchase drugs or alcohol. Enabling is a complicated set of behaviors that protects the addict from having to face the consequences of his or her behavior. Some examples include: allowing an addict to live with you so that they aren’t homeless, lying to others to cover up their tracks, not expressing how you are feeling about their behavior out of fear of pushing them away, bailing them out of jail, etc.
- Hate the disease not the person– addicts are not bad people, in fact quite the opposite! Addicts are some of the most resilient, intelligent, kind, and talented people I have met on this Earth! When someone is in active addiction it is like they have an alternate personality, and when they get clean it takes time to unlearn a lot of the behaviors they have adopted. Be patient with them and remember that underneath their addiction is a human being struggling and trying their best.
- It’s not your fault that someone is struggling with Substance Use Disorder. You are not responsible for someone else’s disease. Addiction does not happen overnight and it is a complicated process that usually takes years in the making. It is not your fault that it happened. There is a difference between taking responsibility for how you have responded to the disease, and blaming yourself for it happening.
- Codependency is a normal response in a family with addiction- and you can unlearn these behaviors with professional help! A lot of times people do not realize their own codependent behaviors and how they play out in relationships. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to point them out to you.
- Seeing a loved one go through addiction can be traumatizing- and it often takes the help of a professional to process everything you have gone through and to start your own healing journey. If someone in your family is trying to get better and recover, I highly encourage you to do the same. Just because you are not the one using does not mean you have not felt depressed, anxious, or hopeless as well.
Looking back on my career and life up until this point, I cannot imagine working with a different population and feeling fulfilled. However, I needed to work on myself and heal my own past before I could help anyone else!
One of the most important things I did for my healing was go to therapy and talk about what happened. I am grateful to be able to hold space for others now and to be able to empathize with family members dealing with addiction. Whether it’s you who are struggling, a family member, or someone you are in a relationship with, I’m here to help.