By Dave Roberts
This piece is dedicated to a much maligned and misunderstood group of individuals, those whom have experienced challenges due to excessive alcohol and other drug abuse. I count them amongst my greatest of teachers.
I have discovered many teachings that have helped me embrace a peaceful perspective and find renewed purpose due to the challenges presented by the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Jeannine, in 2003.
However, life teachings can sometimes emanate from sources that seem incongruous with personal growth or awareness.
Prior to retiring to a new chapter in my life in 2012, I worked for twenty-seven years as an inpatient addiction counselor for the state of New York. It was a career path that found me, when I was working in a totally unrelated field. In retrospect, this was also my first introduction to the world of serendipity.
I soon discovered those individuals with alcohol and other drug problems were viewed as,” drunks,” “druggies” and “junkies”, among other things. These labels did not remotely define the man or woman who were substance abusers. I worked with many creative, intelligent, loving and passionate individuals who danced with addiction. With proper medical treatment, therapy and support, many were able to embrace a life of both long –term recovery and service to others. I also encountered many individuals who relapsed after a period of sobriety. Sadly, many of them were still viewed negatively. Life is a series of moments characterized by both good and bad decisions. Many in society judge the substance user’s life by their last bad action or choice.
I have been recently thinking about the interactions that I had with substance users and how they influenced my current self- awareness. As I continue to look at my past, I realize the importance of honoring those whom I believed played a role in my current metamorphosis.
I have a large envelope with cards and letters from individuals who expressed appreciation for my role in their treatment. When I worked in the addiction field, I would pull a random card or letter on days when I questioned whether or not my efforts were truly making a difference. What follows is an account of my interactions with one such individual, what she taught me and its significance in my life today. To preserve confidentiality, her name and other identifying information will be withheld.
The Need for Something Different
In 1989, I worked with an intelligent and intuitive female whom I will call J, who had an extensive history of substance abuse treatment. Traditional chemical dependency treatment (i.e. group therapy, relapse prevention education) did not help J achieve long-term sobriety. During one of our first meetings, she told me that she felt a strong connection to Native American traditions and wanted to find an aftercare treatment setting that utilized these principles. Her commitment to embracing this path in her recovery and her passion was clearly evident. J requested referral to a long-term residential facility that utilized Native American traditions. In order to be admitted, she needed to be at least fifty per cent Native American and have written proof of tribal affiliation. J was only twenty-five per cent Mohawk Indian. Because she had so genuinely embraced her Native American lineage prior to inpatient treatment, I wrote an extended letter, advocating for her admission to their facility. She ended up being accepted and successfully completed treatment. During the latter part of 1989, I received a letter from J. She was sober, active in Alcoholics Anonymous and gainfully employed.
The below passage from her letter reflects her appreciation for being referred to the aforementioned Native American treatment program. Her words resonate with me to this day: “You saw that I needed something different, away from the usual rehab (rehabilitation) environment, something that I’d grasp at and keep. Thank you so much for everything. ”She also ended her letter with Nia Wen (thank you in Mohawk).
Respect, Empowerment and Self-Determination
J was one of the first people who taught me about the importance of respecting a person’s unique needs, even if I could not readily identify with them. She was instrumental in helping me discover the importance of empowering individuals to find their own voice, and to honor the right of self-determination. Empowerment and self-determination are the values that guide my bereavement support work today. J also made me aware of the importance of Native American traditions and how they can promote ongoing healing.
Today I have embraced their culture’s teachings of animals and nature to achieve a greater level of awareness and peace in the aftermath of Jeannine’s death. Twenty-seven years ago, I could not have envisioned that J’s recovery journey would have had this degree of serendipity for me. Embracing our past is crucial to fully understanding our present reality. “Every single life is valuable in ways that you cannot imagine or figure out when you are alive. Every single life is a gift”– The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan
Dave Roberts, LMSW is a retired addiction professional and an adjunct professor of psychology at Utica College. He is a Huff-Post contributor and a speaker on grief and loss locally and nationally. Dave is also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. Dave may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org