Working With Recovery: A Counselor's Take on Addiction

By Christa Brennan, LCAT, ATR-BC, CASAC
Edited By Christopher Heide

Three years ago I was out to dinner with some graduate art therapy classmates. We started to talk about what we thought were the most challenging populations to work with. Some said borderlines, some said autistic children, I said addicts. “I don’t get it.” I said. “If you can detox in a few days from heroin why not just do it? Yeah it’s painful, but isn’t it worth going through if you can get your life back? They have no excuses. I don’t feel bad for them at all”. My friends were shocked at my lack of empathy and made me promise that I would never work with addicts. I heartily agreed, not knowing that sometimes your “population of choice” isn’t a choice at all.

A few months later and strapped for cash I agreed (begrudgingly) to take a per diem job working with? You guessed it, addicts. The first group I ran was a bereavement group with ten clients each at different stages of recovery. Some were mandated some were there voluntarily but they all had this in common, they needed someone to listen to their story.

And as I sat there surrounded by strangers who were willing to be vulnerable and share the hurt and broken parts with me, I struggled to fight back my own tears. Something shifted for me in that moment, it finally clicked. I realized these aren’t strangers anymore. These people are just like me. I came to understand that people abuse substances for many different reasons and that there’s more to recovery than just sobriety.

Two years after I began working at an outpatient substance abuse rehab I earned my drug and alcohol counselors license. And every day since I have been learning from my clients what school couldn’t teach me, humility.

But it’s not always a positive and encouraging interaction. Sometimes there are clients that treat me like an enemy, they curse, mock, and attempt to manipulate me. When I tell people where I work, they cringe and say “oh wow that must be really difficult”. Even my coworkers ask me how I stay so positive. To which I reply, “the people I’ve met here are some of the most resilient I’ve ever known. They understand what it means to hit rock bottom and then open a trap door leading to even deeper despair. Many of them have lost everything they once cared about and may never get it back. But they don’t give up. They fight against all odds, and they have hope. If I were to experience what they have gone through, I know that if they can get through it than maybe I could too.”

Every human being has this in common, we suffer. Why then should we let it separate us and make us turn against each other? Ridiculing someone else’s suffering does not magically protect you from it. It is not something to be protected from. It is something that we can all identify with, and if we can love our fellow human we will find hope in despair.

So, why do I love people who are in recovery? I love them because they remind me to take life one day at a time, to keep it on the “I”, to rely on my higher power, and have a healthy fear of the negativity that is trying to take me down. If I can do that, then at the end of the day I as a counselor and as a fellow sufferer will surely have more hope than sorrow.

Christa Brennan is a licensed art therapist and substance abuse counselor. She works with adults who struggle with addiction and co-occurring issues at an outpatient treatment program. She writes about her art therapy projects on her blog,