Let's get one thing straight: Some of the best addiction and mental health counselors I know do not identify themselves as people in recovery. They might or might not be in recovery, but they've managed to make it a non-issue.
For example, I once worked with a wonderful lady, Elizabeth, who would respond to the “Are you in recovery?” question in the following way. She'd simply say, “Honey, I'm recovering from life.”
Her response made it clear she wasn't going to disclose, one way or the other. It also reminded her client that we all have our demons, that life is hard, and that addictions come in all sizes and shapes.
The setting makes a difference
To be fair, one of the reasons Elizabeth didn't disclose was that she was working in a hospital inpatient detox unit. She was part of a treatment team consisting of doctors, nurses, social workers and addiction counselors. Hospital policy dictated that no one disclose whether he/she was in recovery-and for good reason.
The treatment team needed to speak with one voice and avoid “staff splitting,” a favorite pastime among more experienced patients. If some of the staff identifies as being in recovery, a patient might say, “I'll speak with her but not with him.”
In an outpatient setting, or where it is less likely that clients will play staff members against each other, the need for staff anonymity is less pronounced. So let's talk about reasons for self-disclosure.
In support of self-disclosure
It's no secret that self-disclosure can create an instant bond with clients. The fact is that many clients think counselors must be in recovery in order to be of any value. For sure it's a fallacy, but it's a perception, and counselors in recovery can use that perception to establish an immediate and effective connection with a client.
Further, counselors in recovery are able to tell stories they've heard at recovery meetings (or perhaps their own stories) to show a client that he's not the only person to have “those” feelings or to have done “those” things. Storytelling is an important foundation of 12-Step recovery. The stories have a ring of truth. They demonstrate the denial of the active addict, they reveal the insanity of embarrassing behaviors, and they shed light on the maddening mix of emotions one finds in early recovery.
Lastly, the self-disclosing counselor is sometimes able to guide the client through the confusing and intimidating task of making connections with safe, sober people at recovery meetings. Providing tips on getting the most out of one's 12-Step experience can go a long way toward fortifying the relapse prevention plan.
Pitfalls of self-disclosure
Despite assumptions to the contrary, the simple act of revealing one's status as a recovering addict will not buy instant and ongoing credibility. We all know counselors in recovery who are fairly ineffective in their jobs. Very often, they talk too much (read: preach) and never really understand the client's perspective. Sometimes these counselors use individual or group sessions as an AA meeting, showing off their knowledge of the AA literature as well as their oratory skills.
And what of the counselor who discloses his long battle with cocaine addiction, only to encounter a client who says, “Yeah, but you've never done heroin. You can't understand me.” One of the most difficult skills we must master involves giving the client time to recognize the discrepancy between his words and his actions. This Motivational Interviewing technique is not enhanced when the counselor is talking.
For counselors not in recovery
My first paragraph alluded to my colleagues not in recovery, or at least not disclosing their status. One of the reasons they are such effective counselors is they made a point of learning the language of recovery, particularly 12-Step recovery. These professionals went to AA meetings, read the literature, listened to the stories, watched the fellowship in action, asked questions, studied the steps of recovery, and grew completely comfortable with the program's jargon and spiritual aspects.
This is not something we can absorb from a book. It's more “organic.” It takes time and effort-and people who want to be addiction professionals must do their homework. Clients will quickly recognize the clinician who speaks their language and will become more trusting, more willing to participate openly in treatment.
I was interested in Addiction Professional's online poll last fall on the topic of self-disclosure. Asked whether it is generally a good idea for addiction counselors to self-disclose their recovery status to patients, 57 percent of respondents said yes. Yet judging from the accompanying written comments by many participants, there was general agreement that any decision about whether to disclose one's status should be made on a case-by-case basis. Many respondents said clinicians must know why they are disclosing, and that the motive must be for the client's benefit.
Some poll respondents wisely guarded against using the individual or group sessions as their own session. It's a trap that can ensnare even the most experienced addiction counselor. Our constant mantra should be, “What am I saying and why am I saying it?”
There is no simple answer regarding self-disclosure. It depends upon the setting, the client, and the reasons for the disclosure. Those of us in recovery should remain judicious regarding when (and how) to disclose.