There are days when there seems to be a lot less energy than needed to accomplish what seems to be more. I have thought of that often the past week at my work as an addictions and mental health counselor: the eleven hour days, the pressure to produce billable hours and, concurrently, my desire to provide excellent services to my clients. There is the need for compassion that reaches people even with limited contact, hope despite the statistics for addicted persons, clarity of clinical judgment despite the daunting complexity of human beings.
At the end of each day I facilitate most of my educational and process groups. I spend a few moments alone preparing if I don’t have another appointment. And if I am tired out I start to brace myself for angry or listless clients (while knowing there are those who will be accountable, attentive). They may have received a DUII, a PCS (possession of a controlled substance), an assault, theft or menacing charge. There are those who are referred for treatment due to Child Protective Services intervening in their lives. Others come straight from prison. And there are some who come to addictions treatment of their own accord, sitting up front where they can better listen and put their stories on the table. They have had enough drinks and drugs, financial ruin, relationship failures, anxiety and depression. Enough bottoming-out unhappiness.
There was a moment this week when I was too weary to do much but pack up my tote and go home but I had more work to keep me. Something had once more jarred me from dreaming the night before. I had explored the contours of the dark, the scene outside my window (night birds fluttering and calling; clouds drifting past stars; rooftops; one lit square in the house next door) and the mostly mundane but occasionally inventive thoughts and images in my mind. Two hours or more had passed before sleep returned.
So, I picked up my clipboard with the group roster on it, checked again my materials, grabbed pens and erase board marker–orange this time–and trudged down the hallway. It looked longer than usual, hunched clients lining each wall, some eyes raised to greet me, others peering at their phone screens. My feet moved right along although my legs felt leaden and a dull headache threatened. I reminded myself I didn’t have to be wise, brilliant or a grand entertainer. I did have to be committed to the information I presented, open to hearing what was spoken to me in response (as well as holding steady under fire), and ready with caring and laughter. As I unlocked the door to the group room, I took a breath and welcomed each person with a smile. I was, in effect, “on stage” much in the same way I had once been when I played my cello, sang, danced, acted. Only now it was my intention to offer options for life in spite of the ever-present possibility of jails, institutions, and even death for any person who entered the room.
They chatted a bit as I prepared the board with information. And then I turned to them and said…nothing. I looked at the hand-out I had and tossed it on the table; it suddenly bored me as much as it would bore them. I had a small moment of inspiration.
“Let’s talk about the drug so many take for granted as an old friend, an easy fix, a perfectly legal drug–and it is not alcohol.”
No one responded at first, then I heard some chuckles and murmurs. “You mean, nicotine?”
There ensued a long discussion about how many times people had tried to quit, how two out of fourteen had managed to succeed in staying quit for many years. How they hated to love it, but love it they did. The first rush of nicotine entering the bloodstream as they inhaled. The feeling of relief after having waited for a couple of hours to enjoy one cigarette. Nicotine just went with alcohol, weed, meth–fill in the blank with your own choice of passion/poison. But there was the pain of withdrawal, leaving them sleepless, sweaty, anxious and agitated.
And then the words spoken by one woman in the corner: “But I’m not ready to quit yet. I’ve had to give up drinking and using the other drugs for this treatment but I can still smoke and not get arrested!”
Laughter erupted. Ah yes, the thrall and misery of addiction to nicotine, one more drug our culture somehow tolerates.
Then a young man called out, “But you wouldn’t know about that or any other drug, so how can you understand? How can you teach us about this stuff if you don’t know about it first-hand?”
Now, this was not a startling question. In fact, I hear it a couple dozen times a year. Some people want me to show my battle scars, my badges of survival of something big, trot out a sad story, one in which I emerge a brave heroine of sorts or at least a reasonably educated and seasoned survivor.
And the truth is, I could do that as well as many. I didn’t get to that room without a few side trips. I have spoken to larger groups about many things. So, I suspect I might be able to capture their attention. But my answer is always the same.
“What difference would it make in the long run? I’m not that interesting a person–this sure isn’t about me. It is about you. Your quality of lifestyle, your choices, your story. Your chances for a more deeply satisfying life. A life that includes more rather than less of all you love. And you know what I think about enjoying life–crucial! And possible, even when clean and sober.”
And then–I was just that tired, just that weary of one more client challenging me that I forgot my rule of privacy–I said, “Well, I did survive a heart attack at age fifty-one. And the only known major risk factor I had was smoking cigarettes for thirty-five years. That, and having once been very ill with a dental infection, which can also affect your heart, by the way. It can happen to you, too. Those nicely packaged, expensive cigarettes can get you when you least expect it. That moment can change everything you’ve ever known and counted on. And getting back up on your feet isn’t so easy.”
I almost kept speaking, so important to me was the need to communicate: Stay alive. Be careful what you fall into on bad days or adore on the others. But I was getting ahead of myself, in the process nearly forgetting my role. My tale belonged to me, not them. I sat down.
There was silence for a second with all eyes on me, and then came a few questions–what did it feel like? How did I deal with that? But quickly I regained control and the focus was returned to them. One man, looking much older than he was and not quite as fortunate in his prognosis, spoke simply. He talked about his heart disease, his continued use of nicotine and alcohol, and tears choked his voice. Sorrow filled that room and with it, kindness.
The group went well. As I said good-night I noticed they were easier with me. Some thanked me for letting them know something more of who I am. My headache had started to recede. I was still feeling the “pinches” in my body resultant of exhaustion but also, well, contentment. Someone in that room would think twice or more about the next smoke. Maybe finally quit. I was almost sure of it and that was good enough. So instead of working late as usual, I headed home. Tomorrow would bring more chances to learn or recall something good, like the enduring value of authenticity.