I’m not an addict. I’ve never intravenously administered anything into my veins or chased any proverbial dragon or pawned something of value for desperate pocket change. I’ve never conjured stories for pain medication prescriptions or dreaded a urine test for work. I don’t know what it’s like to live in motels, hustle the streets, or sell my body for sex. I can’t imagine the physical, crawling-out-of-your-own skin sensation of opioid withdrawal and the terrifying hallucinations that may come from prolonged stimulant use. I also can’t imagine sitting in jail or trying to apply for jobs with felonies on my record.
And finally, I don’t know what it’s like to share a story of shame, trauma, and the roller coaster of addiction in front of a bunch of fellow addicts.
I am the fascinating creature my clients call, “normie.”
I fell into this population at the start of my therapy career, when I needed an internship in my counseling graduate studies. At first, I stumbled around, limited with textbook techniques designed for highly-motivated, highly-functioning clients. I took it personally when clients left treatment, and I took it even more personally when they relapsed.
I had to do what we have our clients do: humble myself, starve my professional ego, and get creative. I had to learn how to connect on a very primitive human level. I had to use a lot of trial-and-error and a lot of humor.
Since those amateur days, I’ve done individual, family, couples, and group therapy with “addicts” of all levels, from detox through outpatient. We have celebrated thirty-day chips and sober birthdays. We have mourned overdoses and fatalities. I sat with clients as they processed divorces and arrests, as they weaned off medications, as they started new jobs. Even more poignantly than marriage does “through sickness and in health” apply and, in extreme cases, so does, “to death do us part.”
We all know the societal stigma surrounding addiction. Even health professionals turn their noses against such people. In fact, I was frequently warned in “therapy school” to avoid addicts because they are the manipulators, liars, and essentially the worst possible candidates for getting help.
Funny enough, I couldn’t imagine a more rewarding career.
I suppose it helps that I truly believe nobody on this earth is above or immune to addiction. Certain life circumstances just make it easier for some to fall into it than others. Addiction is insidious, a complex process that doesn’t necessarily entail a certain kind of formula or makeup. I believe everyone, even the normies, even myself, are all just a few poor decisions or unsuspected traumas or injuries away from developing a potentially dangerous habit.
Naturally, most of my clients ask me if I’m in recovery. They tend to assume I am. Many are surprised when I tell them I’m not. When you work in this field long enough, you adopt the “recovery language.” The treatment field is generated by staff in recovery; people who achieve sobriety often want to give back. In a few jobs, I’ve been the only mental health professional without a personal addiction background.
Being a normie has it’s own challenges. I don’t have my own recovery to base an experience on. Clients and staff equally question my ability to relate. Everything I know has basically been self-taught through live experience, consultation, and research as even my masters-level graduate program didn’t prepare for the language and etiology of substance.
I’m convinced that being a normie also has it’s own advantages. Because I don’t have a recovery background, I’m not pigeonholed with any belief that one method works better than another. I treat every client as an individual, rather than a stereotype, and I’m constantly assessing, asking questions, getting clarification as I grow in my work. I look beyond the “addiction,” because to only look at a person’s drug history is limiting and generalizing.
The depths of therapy so often entail more than just the foundation of layer of addiction. We get into the traumas, the depression, the anxieties, the insecurities, the self-destruction and the impulses that predate and, oftentimes, stubbornly remain long after the substance is removed.
Most “normies” don’t understand, and I validate clients who have faced the stigmatization and humiliation that comes with addiction. Everyone deserves to be understood, to be heard and valued, to be praised and respected. I am privileged to be that person for my clients.
I can’t pretend to“have been there” because it’s dishonest, but I also note that nobody has been “there.” No two addictions are the same just as no two recoveries are the same. Generalizing is the downfall of therapeutic success, and stereotyping only perpetuates shame. We don’t need the same background to walk on a journey. We just need someone willing to walk with us.