We have all heard this before pertaining to Substance Abuse Counselors: The expectations are high but the pay is low, the paperwork is excessive and often torturous, the work itself is often frustrating and disappointing, and with high relapse rates it can easily be perceived as unrewarding especially when considering how many people that we try to help do not achieve the desired goals they set out for themselves. In addition, we have to get used to being lied to, tricked, scammed, manipulated, etc. None of this is new as it is well documented that working with those who abuse substances is quite challenging to say the least.
For those unwavering counselors who stick with it year in and year out, why do we keep coming back to work every day? Once again, it certainly is not for the paycheck and it definitely isn’t for the glory or the recognition. What is it that draws us back in to work with this arduous population time and time again?
The simple reason that many counselors keep moving forward and pressing onward in the substance abuse treatment field can be summed up in one word: Sincerity
Sincerity is the virtue of one who speaks and acts truly about his or her own feelings, thoughts, and desires
A dedicated substance abuse counselor will figuratively “dig” through mountains of broken promises, diversions, rationalizations, unfulfilled goals, and often sad outcomes associated with addiction in search of those treasurable moments when one of our clients honestly speaks their mind about something positive and we can sense that he or she really and truly means it from the heart. Some people refer to these moments in therapy as “Aha! Moments” or an “Epiphany” however in reality as counselors, we often have to hear plenty of meaningful-sounding statements from individuals whom we are helping that later turn out to be just empty talk. Every counselor can testify to the experience of having someone in a group, individual, or family therapy session seemingly having a “breakthrough” and saying all the right words, then afterward finding out that the same person who was spewing out all of that wisdom and insight was actually using all along and knew it was a matter of time before we would all find out. By contrast, true sincerity actually goes deeper than these unbridled “moments of clarity” that we may skeptically hope and believe we are witnessing. Experienced substance abuse counselors are too smart to get excited about statements like “I really know what I need to do now” or “I finally feel like I got this now!” or “I am not even thinking about getting high anymore!” because we have heard them too many times before to no avail.
The sincerity that we substance abuse counselors truly crave is often expressed in a much a more subtle, honest and less demonstrative manner by our clients. A true sincere moment can occur when a young person in treatment who argued about the endless virtues and benefits associated with smoking an ounce of marijuana a day suddenly looks at us and says “you know, I miss smoking weed but I do feel a lot more clear-headed now that I stopped” or when someone we have been working with in session for weeks who repeatedly challenged everything we recommended finally says; “You know I have been working on what you suggested and I have to admit it actually is helping”. A sincere moment can be as simple as someone acknowledging the struggle they are facing in honest and realistic terms such as “This is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be” or “I know that I need to stop and I know what I should be doing but I am having trouble actually doing it” or “I am really glad that you did not give up on me”. As counselors, when it comes to witnessing moments of sincerity, we don’t even care if we get the credit. Rather, we appreciate that wonderful sense that someone we are working with is making a sincere effort to get better. For example, most counselors have had the experience of making a suggestion that we know is helpful a thousand different ways to a client with no impact then that same person hears the same thing from someone else and finally decides to try it. In that case we are just happy that the person took the positive suggestion no matter who or where it came from. We aren’t looking for credit or appreciation, we just crave the joy of being a spectator for those moments of sincere change no matter where it originated. The “high” experienced with sincerity feels good no matter how it comes about.
So if you are a counselor reading this, then like a fisherman, keep on fishing in the sea of addiction patiently waiting for a nibble when someone expresses sincere change talk. Then keep on practicing skillfully reeling people in during those precious teachable sincere moments. You know it’s worth the wait, otherwise we would have all packed up and gone home by now.