What is the life cycle of a movement? When does it go from being a movement to being mainstream? What are the benefits/consequences when it does? Is there a way to avoid sacrificing passion for professionalism?
When I started in this business nearly 40 years ago, most people working in direct care were also in recovery themselves. In fact, it was not uncommon to find that their own long-term recovery constituted the primary quantifiable qualification they brought to the table. Oh, they brought charisma, and counseling skills, and they could satisfy the rudimentary paperwork requirements of the times. But the main thing they brought to the job was their passion.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was barely 35 years old, President Nixon had just “declared war” on drugs, therapeutic communities were starting to gain traction, and methadone programs had been around for just under a decade. Most programs (except methadone) were residential. Many had administrators (hospital) who weren’t in recovery. But members of the front-line staff believed in their work, mostly because they lived it.
Today we have made it much more difficult for people in recovery to enter the recovery field. First off, we now have regulation that demands a certain level of qualification—either a higher education degree or licensure that has a significant education component. People entering recovery often do so in middle age, and with responsibilities they had avoided in their period of insanity, such as families and jobs. Going back to school, particularly full-time, proves difficult.
In addition, we’ve excluded many people from eligibility as a result of past behavior and criminal records—in some cases systematically disqualifying them for life, depending on their crime.
Many of the pioneers in our field would be barred from working in it under today’s rules.
Why the change?
Expectations and qualifications for this field changed. Why? Well, mistakes certainly had been made. Some people went right from treatment to working in treatment, and there were instances of insufficient supervision, client abuse, questionable tactics and counselor instability.
Like we do in response to so many problems, we addressed those issues with more regulation, supposedly to prevent them from recurring. We changed things systematically and effectively punished the good with the bad, because the system was too overworked, too lazy or too inept to go after the actual offenders.
Another factor that contributed was that many individuals in recovery supported enhanced qualifications and regulation. Some went on to get advanced degrees and essentially became “Judases” for arguing that everyone should do what they did. Perhaps this occurred because these individuals believed the additional education really did increase their competence and professionalism. Perhaps it was because they thought it would result in higher pay, or possibly they did it simply to justify the expense.
Others supported licensure and similar initiatives because they saw the handwriting on the wall, believing that if they didn’t participate in the process, someone else would enact it without their input. Many times these processes included a “grandparenting” provision to preserve the employment of good counselors too old to go back to school. But eventually those people all retire or die, and access to their ilk becomes severely restricted.
It’s about quality
Your credentials don’t legitimize you—your clients do. The best counselor I ever had had dyslexia and barely finished high school. It’s not about how many books you write or how much you earn in speaking fees. It’s about how many people credit you for positively influencing their recovery.
I’m not one to believe that you need to be in recovery to provide high-quality recovery services. But it does strike me that those who are in recovery believe much more in the efficacy of what they are doing. For them it’s not abstract.
I haven’t done the research, but I’m guessing that the degree to which we are adapting to the ideas and whims of those outside our field directly correlates to the reduction of recovering people in it. It is much easier to buy into the concept of “harm reduction” if you’ve never experienced the varying levels of harm and come out the other side. It is much easier to buy into the efficacy of medication-assisted recovery if you’ve never experienced it and later achieved abstinence. It is much easier to see dual diagnosis less as an anomaly and more of the norm if you’ve never seen addiction and/or mental illness, either individually or together from the inside.
And it is much easier to rely on the quantitative aspects of the research, if you’ve never experienced the qualitative.
When we professionalize the field to the point where the passion is gone, we’re in trouble. I don’t support a return to days gone by, but I do think we are dangerously close to moving too far in the other direction.
Dan Cain is President of RS Eden, a Minneapolis-based agency that operates chemical dependency treatment programs, correctional halfway houses and a drug testing lab among its services. He has 39 years of experience in the chemical dependency field as a counselor, clinical supervisor and administrator. In 2007 he received Hazelden’s C.A.R.E. Award for continuous service to the recovery community. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.