Do You Have to Be In Recovery to Help Someone with a Drug Problem?

5 myths about getting help for addiction

No.

That is the unequivocal answer, but I am happy to make my case with another 956 words. There are a few other foolish assertions that should be addressed as well. Over the years, I have heard the following statements out of numerous Twelve Step members, paraprofessionals, and licensed therapists:

  • Only you can decide if you are an alcoholic;
  • No one shows up to a Twelve Step meeting by accident;
  • Only an addict can help another addict;
  • If you haven't lived it, you don't know it;
  • People in recovery are better at working with substance use disorders and others in recovery.
Let's address these one at a time.

1. Only you can decide if you are an alcoholic

This is a ridiculous assertion. We don't allow individuals to diagnose their own depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, HIV, or heart disease. One of the most common defense mechanisms that people with alcohol and/or other substance misuse disorders use is denial. A common form of denial is blaming others: I had a rough childhood; my girlfriend is mean; marijuana should be legalized; the cops were out to get me; school/work cause me a lot of stress. Another major form of denial is minimizing: they will say I've never been arrested. If they've been arrested, they'll say I've never been to jail. And so on with prison. We can play this game with alcohol, then pills, then heroin, then needles and then sticking needles in the neck. Waiting for a person to admit they have a substance use problem is a poor plan, whether you are a family member, friend, a Twelve Step group, or professional counselor. Licensed medical professionals are trained in assessing and diagnosing. Some are clearly better at it than others, but they can do an excellent job at getting past denial.

2. No one shows up to a Twelve Step meeting by accident

I showed up to a Gambler's Anonymous meeting by accident once. The GA members welcomed me, asked me 20 questions in the middle of the meeting and then eventually said, a bit disappointedly, "You don't have a gambling problem." Over the last 10 years, I have sent hundreds of nursing, pharmacy, communication, social work, and law students to open Twelve Step meetings to learn more about addiction, recovery and the power of communities. Courts have forced people to attend meetings who made a mistake or committed a crime, but don't meet diagnostic criteria. There are dozens of young people I've met whose parents forced them to attend meetings because they caught their son or daughter smoking pot or were outraged that they came home drunk. People show up to meetings by accident, and they are sometimes sent to one when they don't have a problem.

3. Only an addict can help another addict

I got clean and sober at 19 (I'm 40 now). When I went to treatment, every counselor and paraprofessional there was in recovery themselves. They talked about their own experiences a lot. Because of their openness, I felt both less alone and less like an outcast. I thought everyone that worked in the field should be in recovery. I had a psychologist who was not in recovery. He helped me with improving relations with family members, discuss college life, navigate job conflicts, point out my faults in romantic relationships and generally become a better version of myself (and better person). After graduating from Rutgers, I took a job in a long term treatment program. Every counselor and paraprofessional was in recovery. Many didn't attend Twelve Step meetings outside of work, most had a lot of countertransference issues and there were several with real boundary problems. I remember thinking, "Man…people in recovery really shouldn't be in this field." I left that job for an outpatient program where less than half of the clinicians were in recovery—I found there were some really good therapists in recovery, really good ones not in recovery, not so good ones in recovery, and not so good ones not in recovery. I am going to belabor my point. We don't ask suicidal people (or formerly suicidal people) to work with those with current suicidal ideations. Most cardiologists are not in remission from heart disease.

4. If you haven't lived it, you don't know it

I figure I've used over 2,000 toilets around America and in 21 other countries on four different continents. I can't fix toilets for @#$%. This is the kind of folk wisdom that you might hear in a Twelve Step meeting sometime, but I turn it on its head by claiming ignorance in the face of experience rather than expertise from experience. Experience with a problem can be helpful in dealing with an issue or treating someone else, but it isn't a requirement. I have never had depression, been bullied because I was gay, gotten cancer, overdosed on opiates or lost a child, but I've helped people with those problems over the years. And I've been very effective at it. I find that people that claim an expertise because of their own recovery most likely don't have other knowledge, education, training, or skills that they can utilize to help people.

5. People in recovery are better at working with substance use disorders and others in recovery

I used to believe in this. Then I worked at that aforementioned program where everyone was in recovery and many of them were terrible at their job. If someone is in recovery, they might be able to use their personal narrative to connect with someone. But there are people who are not in recovery who have stories that can also connect with others and help get them to open up and consider making behavioral changes. I've known a number of great clinicians who are not in recovery, and the statement that people in recovery are better than them is not only offensive, it is false.




 Frank Greenagel, MPAP, LCSW, LCADC, ICADC, ACSW, CJC, CCS, is a clinical social worker who specializes in addiction & recovery treatment. He is licensed in NJ, NY and PA. Frank is an adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work and an instructor at the Center of Alcohol Studies. He worked as the Recovery Counselor at the Rutgers Recovery House for 5 years, and they won the NAADAC Organization of the Year Award in 2011. He writes a blog at greenagel.com. He conducts trainings and delivers keynote speeches around the country. He completed a Master in Public Affairs and Politics in 2015. He has served on the NJ Governor's Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse (GCADA) since 2011 and was also the Chairman of the NJ Heroin & Other Opiates Task Force. In 2014, 10 years after he was granted an honorable discharge, Frank was directly commissioned into the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as a First Lieutenant. He helps soldiers that have experienced PTSD, substance use issues and tries to point them all in a positive direction.
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