Diversity Career Stories Healthcare

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.