In 1987, I celebrated 20 years working in the addictions field. During those years, I perceived myself as a laborer rather than a “leader,” but an incident occurred in fall of 1987 that forced me to confront the role that was emerging for me. The incident in question involved the issue of smoking.
Like most of my professional peers and my clients, I had continued to smoke heavily throughout my career. I brushed off comments about my need to quit with the bluster that addicts have long made into an art form. Here’s the incident that changed that.
A training participant—a spunky, young woman who looked like she was in high school—marched up to me as I was smoking during break at a workshop that I was presenting for a hundred addiction counselors. She said the following:
As much as you apparently know about addiction, I can’t believe that you smoke. Do you know that every smoker here loves to see you smoke? Seeing you smoke is a powerful affirmation of their addiction. Whether you smoke or not is more than a personal issue. To smoke as a role model, given what you do, is to enable addiction among hundreds of professionals in this field. You should think about that.
Not waiting for a response, she turned and walked away. I wanted to write her off as one more overly rabid anti-smoker, but her words wouldn’t go away. They haunted me!
I had been able to justify my own potentially self-destructive smoking behavior, but was haunted by the thought that my behavior could so profoundly and negatively influence the lives of people for whom I professed great respect and affection. Within days, I no longer smoked publicly. I snuck off into bathrooms and back corners! Within a month I had made a covenant with myself to quit and within three months smoked what I hope was the last cigarette of my life. During the weeks between this trainee’s intervention and my last cigarette, I gave serious thought to how the addictions field had failed to confront the devastating issue of smoking. At this time I was writing my book, Pathways from the Culture of Addiction to the Culture of Recovery, and wrote these words in the weeks BEFORE I quit smoking: “Treatment professionals must boldly recognize nicotine as an addictive and highly lethal drug. It is time the field stopped burying its leaders, frontline service practitioners and its clients, who achieving abstinence from alcohol and traditionally defined drugs, have their lives cut short as a result of drug‑related (nicotine) disease. Day‑by‑day, month‑by‑month, the field must stigmatize and sever its continued relationship with this drug.”
I knew when I wrote those words with a cigarette burning in front of me that I could not be a smoker when those words were published. After repeated attempts, I smoked my last cigarette a few months later. I owe a debt of gratitude to this unknown trainee who taught me a lot about what it means to be a role model in this field. And the point is: we are all role models.
Are there toxic habits or other behaviors that stand as gross incongruities between your aspirational values and the life you are living? Work in this field doesn’t require perfection, but it does eventually demand congruity between our words and the lives we are living. Living your life as a role model doesn’t mean you have to lose your true self in the process. Our field has long been filled, not just with personalities, but with true characters.