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Taking care of their own

March 29, 2012
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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A treatment program steps in to help addiction professionals beset by codependency

Clinicians in addiction treatment centers consistently are reminded of the need to take care of themselves as they help others. But are treatment centers genuinely willing to act on the words when a staff member crisis emerges? Will they sacrifice an employee’s work time for that person’s long-term well-being? Would they even begin to consider some of the underlying dysfunction that might be affecting their entire clinical workforce?

Amazingly, in a human-services field so prone to what the individuals interviewed for this article call “compulsive caretaking,” professional treatment programs operated by The Bridge to Recovery, Inc. at its two residential campuses stand out as apparently unique examples. The Bridge to Recovery offers treatment stays ranging from 2 to 12 weeks for a range of health professionals seeking to become healthier staffers. Addiction professionals, many of whom are in recovery themselves and often exhibit numerous process addictions, are prominent among the programs’ clients.

“We need to be better at healing our wounded healers,” says John Stenzel, The Bridge to Recovery’s CEO. “If the staff is not healthy, how possibly can we deliver healthy programming?”

Stenzel says the organization’s efforts toward assisting practicing addiction professionals can be traced to the philosophical approach of center co-founders Paul and Carol Cannon. “Carol’s belief was that codependency is the underlying issue to all addictive behavior,” Stenzel says.

Many of the Cannons’ contemporaries in the 1970s had the same orientation to codependency issues, but then for a long time it seemed the word hardly was uttered in discussions of treatment in the field. Managed care had burst onto the scene in the 1980s, and codependency suddenly wasn’t a diagnosis that warranted reimbursement.

The Bridge now seeks to allow addiction professionals and other health workers to pursue healing at its Bowling Green, Ky. and Santa Barbara, Calif. centers by discounting its self-pay rates for professionals. A four-week stay for professionals costs $5,900 in Kentucky and $8,000 in California, Stenzel says, and for some individuals, an employer will step up to the plate and finance a staff member’s care.

Reaching a workaholic

That was the gift Adrianna Castellanos received in 2011 from her administrators at Pacific Coast Recovery Center in Laguna Beach, Calif. In recovery from alcoholism, the addiction clinician had been trying to cope with some shattering developments in her personal life, including the arrest of her ex-husband and his abuse of her son. She turned to the only approach she knew: Through that tumultuous period, she actually had taken a second job at a call center to fill her time.

“I’m a workaholic; that’s how I know how to shut the door on everything,” Castellanos said. Throughout this period, she insisted to herself that she couldn’t let any of her treatment center colleagues know something was wrong with her. Yet the façade disappeared on the day she says she “fell apart” in a meeting with her supervisors.

Fortunately, she says they asked her where she wanted to go and who she wanted to see, and she replied that Stenzel was the person she trusted. Shortly thereafter she boarded a plane heading to Kentucky (the California Bridge to Recovery program had not yet opened at that time). There she worked on issues surrounding her workaholism and destructive relationship patterns; she says much of the work was “inner child” rescue work, dealing in her case with the early childhood trauma of having contracted tuberculosis as an infant.

Today, Castellanos says she has a much more fulfilling work and family life. She says of The Bridge to Recovery’s program, “It empties you out so that you can fill yourself up with a positive, healthy way of living.”

To Terra Holbrook, LCSW, clinical director of The Bridge to Recovery’s California campus, it is clear that Castellanos’s story could have unfolded much differently had she not been working at a center with compassionate colleagues who acted quickly.

“When somebody relapses [to substance abuse], we know we’ve got to take care of the problem. But when a person is burned out, the reaction is often, ‘What’s wrong with them?’, because there’s no chemical relapse,” says Holbrook. “And we don’t know where to go for help.”

As part of her clinical training when she arrived at The Bridge to Recovery, Holbrook for two weeks was directly exposed to what clients experience at the Kentucky program. “That two weeks was life-changing for me,” she says. “I’m no longer living with the ghosts of fear from my past. It’s not that scary to go there anymore, because I’ve been there now.”

Trauma focus

As The Bridge to Recovery’s other clinical director explains it, the program’s clinical focus is not mainly on helping individuals simply cope with dysfunction. “Our primary objective is the healing of the traumas that have led us to a place of not being connected to our lives and experiences,” says Rawland Glass, LCSW, clinical director at the Kentucky campus.

Glass experienced this firsthand in the late 1990s when he worked as a mental health therapist in Oregon, grappling with feelings of emptiness even though it appeared he had a great life on the surface.

“I’m not chemically addicted, but my issues were as profoundly dysfunctional,” says Glass. “We’re told that if we are depressed or discouraged, then service to other people will solve that. But there is so much richness in serving people that we get lost in our own caretaking.”

Glass says he wants the professionals who complete anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks at his program to be more connected with their experiences in the moment, to have identified and be working on the key traumas in their lives, and to know where they can go to continue to do the necessary work.