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Substance abuse counselor overcomes grief and age discrimination

In this interview with a substance abuse counselor, she shares how she has overcome overwhelming grief at the loss of her mother that changed her career path and lead her to this rewarding field. She also tells about her experiences of looking too young for the job, and how she juggles her professional career along with caring for her 3 children, one of which has special needs.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
I am a Masters Level Counselor of Substance Abuse Recovery. I am currently finishing up a year long internship in the area of professional counseling working with children who have been affected by the drug and alcohol abuse of their parents as well as working at a drug treatment facility. I would describe myself as caring, funny, and patient.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
I come alongside of people who are struggling physically, emotionally, and spiritually due to trauma, abuse, and chemical dependance. While I am alongside of them I guide them, educate them and sometimes push them to dig deep within themselves to find healing and hope for a clean and fulfilling future. My work entails; understanding, being non-judgmental, being patient, a lot of listening, and a caring spirit.

One misunderstanding that I would like to correct about counselors/therapists/shrinks, we are not all trying to figure everyone out (analyzing) when we are off the clock, that is just what we do at work. We are like any one else that when we leave work, we like to leave it at work.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
I am Caucasian and a female. Being a female has helped somewhat because many of the children I have worked with had been exposed to violence by men, so there was a better sense of trust being a female for the children. The discrimination that I faced was based on my age, I look younger than I am, so people are not sure I am old enough to hold the degree that I do. I responded to the discrimination by just proving myself and being the best that I could be and giving the best service that I could. I do not speak any other language, only English.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
I would absolutely rate my job satisfaction a 10. I love what I do. The only thing I would change, and that I am working toward, is opening my own practice. This will come with time.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
This job absolutely moves my heart everyday! I love getting up each day working with people who have found the courage to fight addiction, to face their past traumas and heal their gaping wounds. I feel privileged to come alongside these people and help them pick up the pieces of their lives. I feel honored that for the first time in many many years they are choosing to trust again and I am the person they are trusting. This is my calling, no doubt.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
Growing up as a little girl, age 7 or so, I always told my mom I wanted to be a heart surgeon. Well, life happened and I married young and had three children. My youngest child has special needs; Cerebral Palsy, Seizure Disorder, Hydrocephalus, and other issues. I tell you this to say that I never made it to medical school.

However,  I did go to college and began working on my classes towards my nursing degree. I have always wanted to help people. I finally applied to the 4 year nursing school of my dreams, so excited, I was placed on the waiting list, now very excited.I was on the wait list for about a month and then my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal brain cancer, she was given 2 months to live.

Two days after that diagnosis, I was called and told a spot opened up at the school and I was next on the list. I turned down my spot, I chose to care for my mom in her last days on earth. She only lived 5 weeks after diagnosis. My spot at nursing school was gone. My mom was gone. I was devastated.

I chose just to finish my bachelors in psychology because it was easy. I then began counseling for myself after the death of my mom and soon saw how this wonderful woman was helping heal my mutilated heart. I started working on my masters a year after my mom passed away.

I feel like a heart surgeon, working every day on broken hearts. They are bleeding and they have huge gaping holes in them and I get to help mend the broken-hearted. I’m doing what I wanted to do as a child, just not in the way I thought I would be doing it.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
I learned that human nature can be so evil. I learned this through listening to the loss, trauma and pain that other humans inflict on others.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
That there is always someone in every place a person works that will try to overtake you, or be little you, or bully you. I need to stand up for myself be assertive and not allow others to dictate my future or how I will respond throughout the day.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
The strangest thing for me is when a fight broke out between a women and her nephew in the office.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I get up and go to work everyday because I love what I do. I really love when a client who never laughed out loud or hardly smiled for months finally laughs with a big belly laugh, and then does it weekly after that.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
Resistance, when a client just shuts down and refuses to work any longer, especially when they are so close to critical issue.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
My job could be stressful if I took home the troubles of the clients. I have had to learn that when I go home I am in the moment with my family, they are what is important.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
$50,000 is a rough range. I am happy.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Three weeks a year, I do feel it is enough right now.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
Some places require a 2 year degree to counsel at treatment center, however I am planning to have my own practice in few years so I have my Masters. One must have at least a Masters and a License to have a private practice.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
It takes a lot of study, commitment, and you really need to be called to this line of work. I cannot imagine doing this and not liking people, or not having patience. Really think it through.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
In five years I would have my own practice on my own property specializing in adolescents and young adults struggling with addictive behaviors.

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  • Very good story. I love how she is determined to make a difference in others lives despite her own tragic happenings in her life. Her mom passing was a hard situation for her and she took that hurt and put into helping others. Not doing exactly what she wanted to do as a child, but definitely doing good helping others.

  • I share the grief of loss with you but my mother is still with us just not always sober. I feel I lost a part of my childhood due to her drinking and a lot of relationship time with her due to her addiction. I love your metaphor for the heart surgeon.
    I also want to start my own practice. I want half to be alcohol/drug rehab and the other half to focus on the poor families dealing with the addiction because we are often forgotten about. I have very strong passion for this area of study.

  • just like her , whenever i do something that is related to my profession, which i would love for it to be criminal defense law, it can be something as small as defending someone at the mall when the cashier doesn’t want to honor their coupon and there is a language barrier . it gets me all warm inside at the fact that i was able to help someone who was in need. just like her i want to get licensed within the next 5 years. and have my own profession up and running.

  • This is a great article! I really loved how the author took her own pain and transformed it to healing. She really is a healer. I felt proud reading this article. I also, Aspire to become a counselor for the very exact reasons, to help people find their happy medium and to live beyond the trauma life can bring.

    I have a mom who did drugs and who is now mentally ill and I aspire to help her through helping others. No, she has not accepted the fact that she has mental illness nor does she want help. Its inspiring to not give up. I’m so much more motivated reading this article.

  • The motivation that this Substance Abuse Counselor displays is reflective of my own motivation to become a Mental Health and Rehabilitation Counselor. As a young girl I too dreamed of becoming a physician because I was filled with the desire to help others. It was not until I was in college that I realized that mental health is just as important as physical health. Through both personal experiences and professional experiences with mental health I became determined to play a role in helping individuals cope with trauma and the psychological symptoms that result from their trauma.

    Similar to her experience I have also faced the challenges of discrimination and adversity. Being a young Hispanic female my competency has often been called into question. Additionally, I have been faced with the challenge of living with my own trauma. Working with children and hearing their stories I have been forced to open up my own wounds. Although it may be difficult at times I have learned how to cope with my own pain and never take any moment for granted.
    Despite these challenges and the adversity I have persevered and remained determined because I truly feel it is my calling to help others.

    Ultimately, I too desire to open my practice and work with youth. My experiences working with the youth in the schools in my community and in the Juvenile Detention Center has led me want to work with this specific population and hopefully make a difference in lives of those children affected by trauma.

  • This was a beautiful story. My sister is working at an internship as a substance abuse counselor as well, and her experiences sound so similar to yours. I hear the way in which she tells her stories and they are filled with passion and emotion. It requires so much of you and your heart but it is also a career that matters and has a purpose in life that is greater than you. This has provided me with greater insight into the field and whether this specific path is right for me as well.

    Counseling and therapy can often become more than just your job but bleed into your personal life. My main challenge in pursuing this field one day would be to find that balance and I think this substance abuse counselor puts it very well. Your priorities are different based off of where you are. Family is most important at home, and your client is most important at work. I really enjoyed this interview, it was honest and raw and provided great insight.

  • I like this article I like that it talks about different aspects of the job and clears up any misunderstandings about the job.

  • This is a really inspiring story! In reading her story, I realized that my studies in nutrition and exercise physiology parallel the work that she does in many ways. Although registered dietitians are often demonized as the “food police,” the client-centered nutrition counseling approach involves a lot of empathy, understanding, and open-mindedness.

    I also empathize with the misunderstanding that she wanted to correct! Friends and family constantly ask me what they should be eating or if a certain food is good or bad (which is my pet peeve because I subscribe to the philosophy that all foods fit in a healthy lifestyle and that we should not place judgment on food). Believe it or not, dietitians eat cake, pizza, and ice cream!

    I am very inspired by the resilience she showed in grieving her mother’s death and the gradual journey she embarked on toward healing. My mother died when I was 5 years old, so although I can’t say that her death was the catalyst toward a monumental career change, it has certainly influenced my path toward preventive care through nutrition and exercise. She was someone that did everything “right” – she lived a generally healthy lifestyle and had no vices. There are so many things in life that we can’t control. I am passionate about helping people do everything in their power to lead long, healthy, fruitful lives.

  • I am a very attentive listener and have had many peoples personal stories shared with me. Learning more about how to handle these situations and respond accordingly would be greatly beneficial.

  • I grew up with an alcoholic father, so my childhood did not consist of spending much time with him. As a child, I looked at people like him like they were monsters, but what I did not know, was that a lot of what was happening, was going to rub off on me as I grew up. I never knew that years of not having a father and genetics could make me the person I was. Many times events change the way we look at things and what we want to do. I like this story because that’s exactly what happened. I am also thankful there are people like this willing to help others.