In Recovery: Becoming an Addictions Counselor - How to Succeed and What to Consider
If you’re in recovery, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll at least consider the possibility of working in the field of substance abuse and addictions.
Roughly two thirds of all addiction counselors are recovering addicts and alcoholics. For many, it’s simply a passing thought as they consider the benefit that they’ve experienced in a rehab, Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) or counseling center. For others, it’s an exciting new career and a chance to pass on what they’ve learned.
What does it takes to enter, maintain, and prosper in the field of addictions counseling?
First Things First
There’s no defined amount of time that a person should be in recovery before they enter the field. Depending on what you need for education and training, you might be entering the field fairly quickly or years from now. Having at least a couple years under your belt makes sense. Having stability in your daily life before taking on a new challenge is suggested.
While it’s not a requirement, I highly recommend that if you have not experienced individual counseling, that you do so before pursuing a career in the field. It’s an invaluable experience in humility and it will provide a great deal of insight into what the process looks like. The best things I learned about counseling were not in college or in seminars. They came from sitting on the other side of the desk and they taught me a great deal about myself, about healing, and how to let go.
To work as an addictions counselor you will need to earn a license issued by the state within which you’ll be working. There is great variance in the amounts and type of education required from state to state. You can earn an entry level counseling position with an associate’s degree in most states. Check the website of your state government for requirements. Please ensure that the school you plan on attending is accredited. (non accredited “colleges” do not usually qualify you for licensing).
If you already have an associate's or bachelor's degree, you might consider going on for a master's.
- Earning a master’s degree makes one eligible to do dual diagnosis treatment (mental health and addictions/substance abuse).
- Degree programs in addictions counseling, psychology, education and social work make one eligible for licensing as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).
- Managed care companies are progressively showing a strong bias toward masters level clinicians.
If College Isn’t for You
Some states have provisions that allow people who work in front line positions in the field to use cumulative experience in lieu of education. In some states, a person who works entry level jobs in a rehabilitation or detox center under clinical supervision for two years full time can test for an entry level counseling license. More so than any other professionally licensed field, addictions counseling values inclusiveness. This is further evident in the fact that our field is one of the very few that are notably forgiving of past criminal convictions.
What College Can’t Teach You
There are personality traits that a person either has or they don’t. Empathy, compassion, and respect for the dignity of others cannot be taught. Patience and tolerance are absolutely necessary. The intangibles of intuition and instincts are key skills that I look for in the addictions counselors I hire.
If your recovery has not taught you sufficient lessons in powerlessness and humility, counseling people in recovery will. We bear witness to the suffering of others. We fight against a disease. We offer support, skills, knowledge, and we work hard to promote and empower. We come to care for those we serve and we are at all times in the midst of both transformation and destruction.
The most common concern I hear from those considering entering the field is that they will “take it personally.” I can assure you that it’s manageable because those we serve are not our friends and family. We learn to take nothing personally. When things go well we know that we are simply catalysts for growth and when they go badly we know that we are not responsible for our client’s choices.
Keys to Success as a New Clinician
As a new clinician, you will almost certainly be working for an agency until you earn licensure that allows you to work independently. You’ll be under the supervision of an experienced clinician who has been trained and earned standing/licensure as a clinical supervisor.
- The importance of high quality clinical supervision cannot be overstated. This person is a mentor, a teacher, and an important support through a difficult learning curve.
- Understanding the commitment a potential employer has to the quality and quantity of clinical supervision should be part of every job interview.
Throughout the landscape of social service agencies, one finds a wide array of professional pitfalls. Please don’t be discouraged, but know that organizations often behave like dysfunctional families. Common sense and the professional standards that apply throughout the business world will serve you well in the average nonprofit establishment. Clear and consistent boundaries are absolutely paramount to your success. Remember that we are all wounded healers.
Bottom Line - It’s a Great Job
Ours is an honorable profession. We serve people who have incredible resilience and drive. We are invited into the most sacred of places – a person’s heart, soul and psyche. We share our experience, strength, and hope. The job is never boring and it’s always challenging. There’s never been a day I went home wondering if it was worth it. Touch one life – touch a hundred. Ripple effects are the best benefit of our work.
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