capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

The Normie Therapist & The Addict Client

I’m not an addict. I’ve never intravenously administered anything in my veins or chased any proverbial dragon or pawned something of value for desperate pocket change. I’ve never made up 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 don’t know what opioid withdrawals physically feel like nor do I know the feeling of paranoia and hallucinations that may with prolonged stimulant use. I don’t know what it’s like to show up in court for a drawn-out DUI case or sit in jail or try to apply for jobs with felonies on my record. And finally, I don’t know what it’s like to share my entire story in front of a bunch of fellow addicts in sterile rehabs.

My therapeutic work has primarily focused on “addicts” of all levels from detox to outpatient, through thirty-day chips and sober birthdays to overdoses and fatalities, through divorces and new relationships to medication changes and new living environments. I’ve worked with all drugs of choice, all dual diagnoses, from intake to discharge. I’ll I’ll never say that I’ve “seen it all,” but I’ve definitely seen a lot. Even more poignantly than marriage does “through sickness and in health” apply and, in extreme cases, so does, “to death do us part.”

It’s a population that society stigmatizes; it’s a population that even most health professionals turn their noses against. It’s a population that I love, because, to me, it’s a population that any one of us could easily slip into.

I truly believe that 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. This is because addiction is insidious, a complex process that doesn’t necessarily entail a certain kind of formula or makeup. There are absolutely similarities, and a lot of them, but, in therapy, generalizations are, at best, minimizing of individuality, and, at worst, biased and completely inaccurate.

Naturally, most of my clients ask me if I’m in recovery or an addict. 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. Yes, as a “normie,” I’m typically the exception in the workplace.

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.

And yes, there is undoubtedly a part of me that hopes to provide the corrective emotional experience many clients need. This is, simply, a normie being able to understand and empathize with the roller coaster of addiction and the dips and turns that recovery encompasses. This is a normie being able to admire, support, and validate their every experience. This is someone- outside of their sober support group, sponsor, or rehab roommate- essentially getting it.

I don’t think I’m any better or worse than a treatment professional in recovery. I simply have a different background and a different lens from which I look. 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. Each client is unique with his or her own story, and even though I may not have been there, I’m curious to know everything I can about it. In a sense, I do what is in my power to “get it.” This is because clients don’t need me to have the same background as theirs, but they do need me to understand where they have come from and guide them with where they are going.

Addiction is a symptom of underlying problems; it’s a complex cycle of maladaptive responses and emotional regulation struggles, but, at the core, this cycle is built from something. I like to know why it was built, how it was built, when we plan to break it down, and how we are going to do it.