Imagine this scenario, if you will.
How would you react if you knew that your addiction counselor, who will, undoubtedly, become a central presence in your substance abuse rehab, was once an active, intravenous heroin addict, but they now have over 15 continuous years of sobriety under their belt?
Would you, in some way, be concerned to hear this, even shocked, or would you be of the opinion that the counselor is going to be far better equipped to help with you, simply because they know exactly what it’s like to walk in the shoes of an addict, and how you are feeling right now?
There is a long-standing concept within the world of addiction therapy, known as “The Therapeutic Alliance” (we’ll be discussing this in more detail later in this article). Suffice to say, according to Deborah L. Cabaniss, MD, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, and the lead author of “Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Clinical Manual,” this alliance can be defined as:
The level of trust that continually builds between your counselor and you, allowing you to work together effectively. It’s what enables you to conclude that your therapist is both trustworthy and is looking after your best interests. Therefore, even if you become angry or disappointed with your counselor because of what they say or do, you continue to believe you will carry on working together productively.
In fact, many addiction industry experts (using relevant studies to back up their opinion), say that the therapeutic alliance is actually the best predictor of treatment outcome. As we said, more of this later, including, primarily, why the alliance is so essential in your recovery chances, and why knowing that your counselor was once a substance addict, too, can become a foundation of its development.
Why Do So Many Recovering Addicts Choose to Work in Addiction Treatment?
Many executives, counselors, therapists, admin staff, other rehab staff, and even the clinic’s janitors working in the field of addiction treatment have their own personal recovery experience, and it is believed by many that this direct experience can enhance their effectiveness in their work, for example, and in particular, those who become clinicians.
So what actually prompts these recovering addicts to either go back to college and gain a degree in a relevant discipline, or to study with an organization that will, at the end of a course, accredit them with a relevant professional qualification?
It literally comes down to this:
The addiction recovery community thrives on the simple ethos of “giving back.”
Giving Back: The Sponsors Within Your AA Meetings
Take, for example, a typical Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In fact, so universally acknowledged is the concept of this need to be “giving back” within the recovery community, you’ll never see it more clearly displayed than the verbatim system of “sponsorship” within a particular fellowship. People who choose to become “sponsors” have had, normally, zero recognized training or qualification to take the position, because it’s allowed to be a natural process.
What is important, however, is this. With no therapy training, no qualification in a recognized academic discipline – just the simple fact that they have experienced an addiction to alcohol on a personal level. The therapeutic alliance discussed above has become the only training, and the only qualification to hold such a position, yet the trust between the sponsor and the “sponsored” is relatively immediate.
It’s as simple a concept as that.
So why are people prepared to sponsor a relative stranger to them, to become an unofficial guide through another’s recovery process, when, usually, the only thing they have in common is the desire and will to stay sober?
The answer is equally simple.
Giving Back: Addiction Rehab Founders, Executives, Counselors & More
Many recovering drug addicts and alcoholics get to the point in their new, sober lives when they feel an often undeniable desire to do something positive for someone who is right at the beginning of their own recovery. It may be based solely on the type of person they are, with the natural gift of empathy, it might be because of their personal pride in their own recovery, and wishing to share what they’ve learned, or it may just be that they feel they can do some good for someone else.
The same concept of giving back, then, now taken a little further, motivates and inspires recovering drug addicts and alcoholics to literally hit the books, go back to college or university, and learn all they can about the chronic disease of addiction itself, the various therapies for its treatments, and even how to successfully counsel another recovering addict.
If you consider that recovery from substance addiction is simply a clinical process, a different viewpoint to the “life experience” many addicts choose to view it as, then anyone’s recovery journey is then a case of following a set of well-considered directions, one that actively pushes you towards abstinence and sobriety. Who better, then, to provide those directions than someone who has traveled the same route, and successfully, too?
Taken even further still, the idea of “giving back” inspires and motivates some of those who are in long-term recovery from substance addiction to first imagine, and then to actually realize an addiction rehab center of their very own, or another, similar place or source of treatment, such as the one-office therapist, to be run exactly how they perceive it would work best.
These recovering substance addicts write the business plans, they source, and then secure, the necessary finance and investment, and, then, they start to build their business, with the sole aim of providing important treatment for active drug addicts and alcoholics, far away from the side of life they knew so well themselves.
Such an endeavor prompts this question, too. Apart from forming the foundation for a strong and rapidly evolving therapeutic alliance between the counselor or another addiction professional and the patient or the client, are there other tangible benefits to the staff at a drug and alcohol rehab center being in, and actively working on, their own longer-term recovery from substance addiction?
The Benefits of Addiction Rehab Staff Working Recovery, Too
Successful addiction recovery is highly demanding. It requires the addict, for so long in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of daily substance-using routine, to fundamentally change the way they live. This change, in reality, a series of changes, demands 100% compliance. Without this compliant change, you could say quite accurately that the newly-recovering addict is already well on the way to their first of many relapses.
However, change can be extremely difficult.
1. The Therapeutic Alliance
Have you ever tried to change the way you do something? It could be anything, you name it. If so, think about the actual experience of re-learning the task. No matter how motivated you were to change, and no matter how much you knew that it would help you in some way, you are giving up the old, tried-and-trusted way of doing something, and then trying a new, different way.
Yes, it’s difficult – primarily, because you are in a state of freefall. Additionally, the inherent anxiety of trying to change something as compulsive, complex and entrenched as living without the use of substances, often takes that free fall to another level (no pun intended).
The “Freefall” of Addiction Treatment
However, that’s exactly what you do when you enter addiction treatment. The trust you place in those telling you to follow their specific directions toward recovery, and not to worry about the plethora of negative emotions you’re currently feeling, such as your counselor and clinician, is pivotal and intrinsic to your chances of a sustained recovery.
Substance addiction counselors provide the necessary support system for those recovering from drug and alcohol disorders and issues. By forming the therapeutic alliance (previously defined above), the counselor provides the support, resources, and judgment-free guidance that patients can utilize on the road to their own personal recovery, and the help their patients may need with both crisis and long-term addiction management issues, which can range from immediate medical intervention, relapse prevention plans, and offer support in managing their recovery long term.
Remember, the decision to seek treatment for addiction is no easy one, and requires a high level of trust between patient and their counselor. Therefore, counselors should take care to create an immediate, strong bond – the therapeutic alliance.
Patients need to feel comfortable when speaking freely during sessions, feel the relief after an appointment, and, importantly, feel a desire to speak further. Apart from a shared addiction experience, strong therapeutic alliances can be further strengthened by:
- Ensuring patients know their counselor is interested in their well-being
- The counselor being attentive at all times during sessions
- The counselor must demonstrate that they can empathize with their patient’s issues and problems
- The counselor should both understand and communicate the foundational issues of a successful recovery
The Link Between The Therapeutic Alliance & Addiction Recovery Outcomes
A comprehensive study of available literature on the direct link between the therapeutic alliance and addiction recovery outcomes, undertaken and published in 2005 by Petra S. Meier and Christine Barrowclough, from the University of Manchester, UK, found that early therapeutic alliance “appears to be a consistent predictor of engagement and retention in drug treatment,” and “the therapeutic alliance plays an important role in predicting drug treatment process outcomes.”
Another research study, published in 2012 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, entitled “The Role of Therapeutic Alliance in Substance Use Disorder Treatment for Young Adults,” further found that “strong therapeutic alliance may be important in potentiating reductions in psychological distress during treatment.”
2. Compassionate Empathy & The Shared Experience
Those who work in the expansive field of healthcare do so for many reasons, and possessing the natural gift of empathy is one of these. People with empathy work in healthcare simply because they care deeply about those they are trying to help.
Empathy can be defined as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” When natural empathy is another factor in the growth of the therapeutic alliance, just as the shared experience may be the primary factor, the alliance itself becomes far stronger.
The Different Types of Empathy
Psychologists have defined distinct types of empathy, and these are cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy:
- Cognitive Empathy (also known as “perspective-taking”): The ability of putting yourself in someone else’s place, and seeing their perspective. However, cognitive empathy does not necessarily engage with the emotions of the other person. It is a much more rational and logical process, more empathy “by thought,” rather than by feeling.
- Emotional Empathy: The ability to literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them. Emotional empathy is also known as “personal distress” or “emotional contagion,” and is far closer to the usual understanding of the word empathy. It is also probably the first type of empathy that any of us feel as children. This type of empathy can often prove unhealthy, unless those that experience it take action based upon these emotions.
- Compassionate Empathy: Finally, compassionate empathy is how we usually understand empathy: feeling someone’s pain, and taking action to help. Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone, but, additionally, coupled with an active move to mitigate such pain. This is the type of empathy, without a doubt, you will continuously see in those who have used their own recovery as the primary motivation of choosing to work in the field of addiction treatment. It is also the one that will strengthen the therapeutic alliance between addiction professionals and patients.
3. The Patient’s Motivation & Inspiration
Again according to findings by the NCBI, an addiction counselor, for example, plays the most pivotal role in the motivation of a recovering addict in treatment. In studying what motivates the patient in their treatment, the research found that:
- Motivation is a key to change
- Motivation is multidimensional
- Motivation is dynamic and fluctuating
- Motivation is influenced by social interactions
- Motivation can be modified
- Motivation is influenced by the clinician’s style
- The clinician’s task is to elicit and enhance motivation
The study reports that “the most desirable attributes for the counselor mirror those recommended in the general psychological literature, and include non-possessive warmth, friendliness, genuineness, respect, affirmation, and empathy.”
Furthermore, the clinician “assists and encourages clients to:
- Recognize a problem behavior
- To regard positive change to be in their best interest
- To feel competent to change
- To develop a plan for change
- To begin taking action, and
- To continue using strategies that discourage a return to the problem behavior.”
The value of the clinician’s and patient’s shared experience with the disease of addiction is, once again, a pivotal catalyst for this motivation, inspiration, and, ultimately, the desired change.
4. The Other Elements of a Complete Addiction Recovery Treatment
Lastly, the shared experience can assist the clinician or the counselor, as well as motivate the patient, with other important elements of treatment, such as:
- A relapse prevention plan
- Guiding the family members of the patient, and
- The promotion and need for outside support groups, eg. AA or NA, in the patient’s long-term recovery
The “Refreshingly Human” Rehab Center: SpringBoard Recovery
At SpringBoard Recovery, located in Scottsdale, Arizona (a short drive from the city of Phoenix), many of the staff members are long-term recovering addicts, having amassed a huge number of clean and sober years between them. For example, you’ll find long-term recovering addicts in high-level positions, including co-founders and directors, including:
- Jason Bordonaro, a former drug addict and alcoholic, with nearly 20 years of sobriety, and a co-founder of SpringBoard Recovery
- Laura Nuss, a former opioid prescription addict who transitioned to heroin before finding recovery, and a co-founder of SpringBoard Recovery
- Alexa Morgenroth, a former heroin addict, now with an MA in Developmental Psychology, and SpringBoard Recovery’s Executive Director, and
- Josh Lemieux, a former heroin and crack cocaine addict, an alumni who found his long-term recovery with SpringBoard Recovery, and who is now the Director of Admissions
- Steve Laats, a former addict and alcoholic, with over 20 years clean, and the Director of Marketing and Operations with SpringBoard Recovery
Throughout the center, several more staff are in addiction recovery themselves, but is this an advantage to those who arrive here at SpringBoard Recovery as new patients?
The answer, according to those working every day in the treatment of addiction, is a clear and resounding “Yes.” As Josh, the center’s Director of Admissions, explains, his poly-use addiction “brought me to my knees, 140 pounds, no fight left in me.” He cites the immediate “love, compassion, and empathy” given freely by SpringBoard the moment when he arrived at the rehab as a new patient as clear proof he was in the right place.
Appropriately, SpringBoard Recovery’s motto is “Refreshingly Human.” All incoming patients are treated like family – as mothers, as fathers, as sisters, and as brothers. As Alexa Morgenroth explains, we “treat everybody like they were our own.”
Clearly, all the levels of staff at SpringBoard Recovery – from its founders to its part-time admin – are exceptionally grateful for their own recovery, having made a life-long commitment to “give back” to the recovery community themselves. Helping others to find recovery, both professional and sincerely, inspires and motivates the center’s staff. However, they are not alone.
There are many more examples all over the U.S. of recovering addicts working in the addiction industry – from volunteer workers to new rehab center founders, from “recovery app”-builders to clinical ward cleaners – further definitive proof of this desire to give back, and to be a major part in the addiction recovery of others.