After working with chronic drug addicts and alcoholics for the last 13 years, I have learned a few things. Mostly, I’ve learned that I don’t know much. | Addiction Professional Magazine Skip to content Skip to navigation

The longer I work with addicts, the less I know

June 26, 2014
by Heidi Voet Smith
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“What do we do if our grandchildren start using drugs?!” This coming from a frantic mother of a chronic relapsing drug addict during a family program workshop I was facilitating just this past week. The desperation and confusion was evident in her voice as she peered at me with anticipation. My answer surprised most in the room, and honestly, surprised me as well. “You do the same thing you’ve done with your son. You get through it. You pray a lot and you find them the best help you can. That’s all you can do.”

After working with chronic drug addicts and alcoholics for the last 13 years, I have learned a few things. Mostly, I’ve learned that I don’t know much. I wish I could say that I’ve cracked the code of addiction, but I haven’t. My experience, more often than not, tells me what works and what doesn’t work. Just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it turns out I’m dead wrong. Working as a professional with drug addicts and alcoholics, their families, and other addiction professionals, I am acutely aware of how much God has used this career to humble me.

The list of questions that family members ask me seems unending. What should they have done differently that could have changed the outcome for their loved one? What can they do to prevent this in a younger sibling? What should they do if their loved one relapses? This list goes on and on. While I always try to point families and clients in the direction of recovery, al-anon and boundaries, the truth is, a lot of times my answer is “I don’t know.” I don’t think there are a lot of right answers in the disease of addiction. It’s a really messy and unfortunate disease. I think most families are doing the best they can with the information and resources they have at any given time.

Having my own child 2 ½ years ago changed everything for me. It was much easier for me to sit in judgment of the actions of a “sick” family member of an addicted individual. It seemed easier for me to tell them what they should do or what they should have done. But I honestly don’t know that I would or could do anything differently than a lot of these families. Even after all my professional experience, I’m certain I would do a lot of controlling, enabling, rescuing, and throwing money at the disease. I’m sure I would try to “love him” sober. I am no different.

Of course I point family members toward experienced professionals and respectable facilities, I encourage them in the effectiveness of the 12-steps and the 12-step fellowships, and I help them see their own insanity and how their enabling behaviors are contributing to the addiction. But at the end of the day, despite all my training and education, I have no idea what really causes this disease or what, if anything can prevent it. On most days, I have no idea how to “get” someone willing to accept help. I am acutely aware of my powerlessness, and as a result, acutely aware of my need and my client’s need for Divine Intervention. I believe my most important job as a counselor and an addiction professional is to help others see their desperate need for God. And in doing so, I must admit my own desperate need for God. So next time you ask me for advice about your addicted loved one, I will point you in some good directions, but above all else, I will tell you to pray.

A lot.



Heidi, this is a very thought-provoking post. You definitely hit a nerve with your comments on this "messy" disease that lacks simple answers. Do you think this holds the addiction field back vis-a-vis the rest of healthcare, since everyone is looking for concrete outcomes and cost savings but it may not be easy for the addiction treatment community to articulate how to get there?

Honestly, I'm not sure the addiction treatment field is all that different from physical healthcare. I have a friend that is struggling with debilitating vertigo and migraines, and after having an MRI and seeing tons of specialists, the answer she has gotten is "We don't know what's wrong with you." She is incredibly frustrated and is coming to accept that she may have to live with this chronic condition that doesn't have a lot of answers.

It is very hard for the addiction treatment community to give solid answers all the time, but I believe this is also true for physical medicine as well. After being diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia in 2012, my world was turned upside down. I had a 7-month-old son, a career that I loved and a lot of plans for my future. After prescribing the medication that would potentially save my life, I asked my oncologist a million questions . . . What is my life expectancy? We don't really know . . . Can I have another baby? We don't reallly know. We'll have to wait and see . . . Will I have to have a bone marrow transplant? Hopefully not, but maybe . . . What if the medicine quits working? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it . . . Am I going to die? Yes, someday, but maybe not from leukemia . . .

I was looking for concrete answers and unfortunately there were none. Such is life. Such is addiction. Again, I just don't think we have a lot of answers to much, yet we live in a society that demands answers. I am grateful for the answers I do have and I am grateful that my leukemia medicine is working . . . for now.

No professional counselor should ever tell a family "I don't know". if you do say that, it's because you probably should get a different job. We should tell desperate families the truth- their addict will remain so until some experience provides more pleasure than drugs. recovery is the search for that something. A counselor's job is the constantly present new options for experience.

I think you have to read between the lines of this article. She is speaking her truth, and this is a professional journal... I can tell you as a professional, and as a person in long term recovery -31+ years sober... that I often do not know why , or how or when someone is going to recover or NOT recover. I agree that options for experience need to be presented, and I think this author was continuing to do just that, but expressing her inner thoughts in a very vulnerable way.. Where to you go and what do you do when you feel that way??? Hope that you could be less judgmental of an experienced and well trained counselor and fellow professional...

Heidi Voet Smith

Clinical Director Chapter House Counseling Center

Heidi Voet Smith


 Heidi Voet Smith, (LPC-S, MA), is the Clinical Director and Co-Founder at Chapter House Sober...

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