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So You Want to be an Addictions Counselor: Embracing the Cliche.

Rick Baumgartle CADC II

Several years ago a good friend of mine in recovery who was in school for addictions counseling summed it up quite nicely when she said, “I just never saw myself as being the cliche, but here I am.”


I work with a few people, who after getting some time in recovery under their belts, start pondering their future and take a look at addiction counseling. So before you plop down your money, or join the rest of us in the world of drowning in school loan debt that we may be paying off even after we're dead, I thought I'd discuss from my viewpoint of going on 10 years in the field, how to get there, why you would want to go there, and staying there once you've arrived.


1. Do You Even Want to do This? AKA: Are You Some Kind of Masochist?!


Just kidding, however, being an addictions counselor takes a lot of things in order to be a good one. Wanting to help others is a good start but it won't keep you in the field for long. I can count on both hands the number of people I know who stayed in the field of addiction treatment, as counselors, for over 10 years (almost there myself). So why is that? Addiction counselors have a crazy high burnout rate. Several people completely leave the field for another career entirely. Some move into positions of administration or management (Which we need. I am not knocking admin at all. I don't want that job and am grateful for the people we have that do). Sometimes, sadly, some of them return to addiction and we don't see the again.


Wanting to help people isn't enough. At least not enough to stick it out for any period of time. One the reasons, in my opinion, that counselors burnout is because they themselves got into recovery a certain way and have the idea that their way should work for everyone else. When it doesn't work, and they haven't taken the time necessary to learn other ways of approaching addiction, they get frustrated, and start that spiral of burnout.


Temperament is probably the biggest predictor of success for people working in addictions. Think you have patience? We'll see about that....How are you with handling someone, who time after time, despite every conceivable reason not to, returns to self destructive behaviors. How about 50 of those people or more at a time?! How about people who sit in groups and just aren't nearly as excited about that topic you have spent the last 6 months researching to present to the group. Your excitement gets met with yawns, looks of boredom, and silence. Are you going to take that personally? If you're human, the answer is probably yes. Is that going to stop you from trying again? If you want to be one of us, it'd better not.


How flexible are you. In order to be good at this you better get flexible. You also need to get whatever preconceived notion you have about what it means to be successful in recovery out of your head, or you are going to go crazy in no short period of time. Working in addictions can be at times like wrangling cats. They are not going to go exactly where you want, or think they should go. You can herd them in the right direction, but even that is no guarantee that they aren't just going to head in the opposite direction, leaving you to start all over again.


How's your self esteem? I ask because you aren't going to get much direct thanks from the people you work with. Ten years of this, and like most counselors I can count on one hand the number of people who have come back after leaving treatment, or that I saw after they left, and who said thanks. AND THAT'S OKAY! That's not their job. Their job is to work on their own recovery and life, not to thank you for doing your job. You are going to be insulted, told to “get bent” (in not so nice words), that you don't know what your talking about, and blamed for everything conceivable, including their relapses. This will happen infinite times more then you are going to hear something nice. Again, not their job. People in their active addiction are doing their jobs, they're surviving as best they know how. In the words of my first supervisor, “Somebody got to be the counselor.”


A great tool that people can use to decide if this counseling thing is for you is ONET online. The website is run by the US Department of Labor and has a ton of resources as well as a personality tests that can give you some ideas of careers that might fit with your personality. I encourage everyone to take it before making any major career choices. If you take it and find that addiction counseling isn't in your wheelhouse, personality wise, that's fine. I know people who are amazing accountants and love their job. I'd go insane inside three days. It's not a job that fits my personality. But...somebody got to be the counselor....


Still think that somebody is you? Alright....moving on.


2. Educate Yourself.


There are a number of programs available to people for addiction counseling. Here in Oregon, Portland Community College (PCC) has an addiction counseling program in which you can get a certification or an associates degree. Both of them will enable you to have the basic information and skills needed to get your CADC I. PCC also does a good job partnering with local agencies in order to help get the on the job hours needed to get that certification.


There are online courses you can take as well; schools online that provide the education needed. If you want to know what education you will need, I highly encourage you to contact your local licensing board. They can help you identify what's needed to get the certification you want. Here in Oregon it is the Addictions Counselor Certification Board of Oregon (ACCBO). Through their website, and in talking with their staff, you can find out what you need to do to get to where you want to go.


3. You Don't Have to be in Recovery to be an Addictions Counselor.


Does it help? Maybe. Some would argue that it does. I would argue that some of the best addictions counselors I have known, weren't. You certainly are going to need to educate yourself more than someone who has been in active addiction to gain a better understanding of the why people with addictions do the things they do, but I do not in any way think that being in recovery is paramount for being a good addictions counselor.


You may sometimes hear from people, “I only want to talk to someone who's in recovery, people without addiction don't understand.” My time tested response to that is if you went to see a doctor about your chronic pain, would it be necessary that they came in hunched over in pain themselves in order to help you. Of course not. All that is necessary is that they have the education and knowledge necessary to help you. If people really want help, then they can get it from a person who is knowledgeable about their problem and has tools to help them. Period.


4. Once you're in, you're not done.


If you jump through all the hoops to get your shiny new certification and are finally plopped down behind that desk seeing people, it's far from over. Like most fields, addiction counseling requires ongoing education (called CEU's) to keep you certified. I think it's imperative for counselors to continue to educate themselves beyond that. You will burnout doing the same thing day after day. Learning new therapies, approaches and keeping up with the latest information will help keep you motivated and excited about what you are doing.


Having some of that patience we discussed before, helps immensely. Just getting out of school with head full of all the latest information is not going to translate into you being “super counselor.” It took me seven years before I was in a position in which I was able to put together my own curriculum's without going through the process of running it up the chain of command to make sure it was what it needed to be. Nine years before I moved into a position as lead counselor. I had to pay my dues. So will you. Which brings me to the next point.


5. Have a Mentor and Network.- I'm not going to lie. I hate networking. Our Medical Director, Dr Schwartz, does it like he was born to it, it's kind of a wonder to behold. But, if you want to be good, you need to move outside your comfort zone and do it anyway. I'm never going to be a Dr Schwartz, but I have learned to show up at the meetings, talk to other people, set up a get together, and then let the people who are good at it work their magic. I still expand my contacts and find more resources for the people I work with, and don't have to be “Mr Networking.”


In terms of a mentor, all of us need someone to talk to about what is going on. There are people who are simply better at certain things than we are. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. We all have days, especially in this field, that suck. That's when it helps to have someone you an go to, who is in the field, and talk to.


In this job, horrible things are going to happen. Not “might” happen; are “going to” happen. People are going to die. That person you thought was doing so well and making so much progress is going to slip and might not come back. If that doesn't affect you, you are able to brush it off, and get on with your day with a robotic like precision, then addiction counseling is not for you (maybe a career in surgery?). Get ready to hurt. Get ready to cry, sometimes even in joy. That doesn't mean you need to have a break down in front of a client, but it does mean feeling those feelings, and then talking to someone about them. I'm blessed to work with a whole staff of people I can go to. The reason our team is so freaking amazing is that we all do it. Even when we are mad at each other. We're like a family. Families argue, and then they make up. Happens all the time. If you can't or won't find someone to talk to about the emotions, feelings, frustrations, etc... that come with this job, then you aren't going to make it.


5. Last, But Not Least...Self Care.


I could write a whole article on the importance of this, and I might. However, Friedrich Nietzsche said it best with this quote “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster . . . when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”


Addiction is most definitely a monster, and one that those of us who choose to be in this field, fight everyday. If you don't take the measures necessary to take care of yourself, you will inevitably end up getting consumed by it yourself.


At Recovery Works Northwest we have a dedicated team of counselors, medical staff, and and administrative staff that have chosen to make fighting this monster part of their lives. We have decades of combined experience and we are amazing at what we do. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction issues please call us. If you are in recovery and want to be “the cliché,” or even if you aren't and feel a calling to join the fray, make sure you follow all the advice above. You can even drop me a line at I would be happy to answer any questions I can or at least direct you to someone who can.


Thanks as always for your continued support. #recoveryrocks.


What Our Patients Say

If you want a Dr. who will tell you what you need to hear, and not want to hear, then go to him. He will help you, but you have to want to help yourself! I give him TEN STARS! I appreciate him and his staff more then he will ever know.