Recovery Rising Excerpt: Use of Self in Service to Others

The point here is not that I was unique, but that we are all simultaneously unique and the same. None of us are perfectly equipped to facilitate the process of addiction recovery. We will all find ourselves mismatched to those with whom we seek to help if we add enough qualifiers. We will all encounter others who make us feel like impostors posing as helpers. The key is to find a way to use what we have to build avenues of connection. We have to find a foundation of experience from which we can reach across whatever barriers separate us from those we serve. The emotional core of addiction is a mixture of isolation (in the end, only the drug exists), desperation (over rapidly fading power and control), and shame (over the loss of control of the drug and ourselves and the damage we are inflicting on ourselves, our loved ones, and the world). Each of us must reach into ourselves and find the imprinted memory of such feelings if we are to enter into relationships with our clients from a position of moral equality and emotional authenticity.

The issue is not whether we share or don’t share an addiction history or a particular drug choice; the issue is whether we can connect with our own experiences of isolation, desperation, and shame with the hope that infuses all communities of recovery. The issue is whether we have witnessed parts of ourselves die so other parts could be born. The issue is whether we can reach into our own broken state as passage to accept the woundedness of others, and then reach again to find the hope that today burns within us that others so desperately need. What I thought was my uniqueness turned out to be the ground upon which I would connect with people across the recovery spectrum. That is the ground that each of you in your own way must find.

For those who do bring recovery experience to the field, my story underscores why it is advisable for people in recovery to have a few years of recovery behind them before they enter the professional service arena. I entered the field early in my own recovery, which was common at that time. The reason that this first chapter is more about me than the clients I worked with is that the opening chapter of my career was focused more on me than anything else. This is not to say that everyone working in this field cannot grow personally through what they experience in the professional arena. But it does suggest that one must have sufficient maturity to separate one’s own needs from the needs of individuals, families, and communities. Like many of my peers in communities around the country in the 1960s and early 1970s, I used what was available to me in an era when Narcotics Anonymous was unavailable in most communities, when AA meetings were closed to “drug addicts,” and when few other resources were available for long-term recovery support. The enmeshment of my personal life and work life sometimes created problems for me, my clients, and the organizations for which I worked, but I was fortunate to have supervisors who gracefully and skillfully guided me through these difficulties. Many others in that era who tried to mix these personal and professional journeys were not so fortunate.

What I know today is that we must build our service to others on a foundation of personal healing, if not health. I also know that only a few bring such optimal health when they enter the addictions field and even fewer continually sustain such health throughout their careers. This is not about recovery experience or the lack of it. No one enters this field without personal wounds that they bring to their helping relationships with others. Our wounded imperfection is the very source of the empathy, authenticity, and moral equality that is so crucial to our work with others. We all bring some past or current relationship with alcohol and other drugs that creates blind spots and distorting filters. We have all experienced breakthroughs of self-perception, unexpected windows of opportunities, crossroads, and turning points of profound significance.

The ideal helper is not a therapist or recovery support specialist with a blank slate, but a person who recognizes the nature of his or her woundedness, understands the healing process, and separates his or her own experiences from those with whom they work. The goal is not perfection, but assurance that our imperfections do not injure those we are pledged to serve. We achieve that by entering clinical work at a time (and only at a time) that we are ready for such responsibility and by seeking outside-of-work professional help to manage issues that could impede our therapeutic effectiveness. We also achieve that goal by seeking supervision to help us stay grounded in our service work, and by continually self-monitoring our own health and its relationship to our helping activities. The latter includes removing ourselves from helping relationships or work with particular types of people during periods of heightened vulnerability or impaired effectiveness. Each of us brings to each helping encounter a smorgasbord of life experiences, attitudes, beliefs, character traits, emotional baggage, knowledge, and skills. The skilled, self-aware therapist and recovery coach learns to actively manage these dimensions. They find a way to keep their “stuff” out of their client’s “stuff” (pardon the highly technical language here.)