We need a village: Why I help people with alcohol and drug problems
Our counsellor Natasha explains why she became an alcohol and other drug counsellor.
At Counselling Online, we know it can be intimidating to approach a total stranger about what’s going on in your life. Meet one of our alcohol and other drug counsellors — Natasha — and learn more about why she became a counsellor.
Alcohol and other drug counsellors are all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of our counsellors are just starting out, while others have been working with people with problematic substance use for decades. Some have personal experience with the struggle, or have been through it with family or friends. Some have just been touched by the journeys they see in the world around them. The one thing they all have in common is: they’re here to help.
What set you on the path to becoming an alcohol and other drug counsellor?
Empathy and a curious mind
One day when I was 18, I was at the beach with friends. We had music on and we were having a great time.
I couldn’t help but notice a girl on the rocks facing the ocean. I could see her sobbing. I didn’t know what she was crying about. I kept asking myself: Why is she crying? Why is she all alone? What brought her here?
I really wanted to ask those questions. Not just of her, but of others too. I wanted to know what was behind the covers, the closed doors, the skeletons in the closet. I never believed in judging a book by its cover because I too was once judged. I felt others never really ‘got’ me. It could have led me to all sorts of destructive paths, but for some reason I found my way.
I never got to ask her the questions that were so loud in my head, but that was the turning point for me and the beginning of a journey of endless study in the area of social work, counselling, addiction and mental health.
My own story
To be honest, the main reason behind my passion for the field is my love/hate relationship with my father.
I grew up with a father who had mental illness and problematic drinking. My childhood was chaotic to say the least. I have always been open about it. My experience has made me who I am today. It’s the reason I choose to work in the Alcohol and Other Drug sector. You don’t choose to have an addiction, but it is your responsibility to get help. I have experienced firsthand what it is like.
I wanted to be there to empower and help others grow and make changes — not only the person with the problem, but their families as well. In my experience problems with drugs and alcohol are a systemic issue that effects and is effected by family and other social factors.
My approach to AOD treatment reflects my own experience of living with someone with an addiction. I learned firsthand what it was like, and the impact of addiction and mental health. I also learned about change and empowerment, both are possible but they take hard work. It is easy to ‘give up’ and give into the addiction. Even though the road of continuing addiction is ultimately harder, it is a real struggle to fight it.
Building the village
Every day I feel honoured to be part of the journey in people’s lives. I feel strongly about community. The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ really resonates with me as I never had that growing up. I use that mantra in my work: it takes a village to support someone, and it everyone’s problem, not just the person with the ‘actual’ problem.
I started working in the sector as a volunteer at a service called Family Drug Help. It was in February 2004, just under a year after my father ended his life to end the combined pain of cancer and alcohol related illness.
I remember the time like it was yesterday. Family Drug Help — now Family Drug and Gambling Help — is the most amazing service. They not only helped me on my personal journey, but started my professional one too. The service is run by people with family members of people affected by drugs/alcohol (and now gambling) to provide support to other affected family members. They have professional services like groups and counselling, as well as a great volunteer-based helpline.
I started on the helpline. I’ll never forget my first day of training, wondering what am I getting myself into?
I connected with one particular colleague instantly. She made everything ok. I knew I was where I needed to be. She is the one that encouraged me to apply for the job at Turning Point Telephone and Online Services four years later. 13 years later still working together on important Turning Point services like Counselling Online, and we’re still friends. That’s the beauty of likeminded people.
It is a privilege to hear people’s stories and see their vulnerability. It always amazes me how honest people are and the rawness of been part of their journey. One of the pivotal points for me in my AOD counselling career was when I was working as a social worker in London, doing case management for London Probation services. I was assessing people for funding for treatment for committing drug related offences. Whenever I went and completed a funding review for someone in treatment, I would speak to the counsellor and I remember thinking I want to be on that side of the table. I wanted to be part of the therapeutic process, not the bureaucratic one. That was the turning point for me. When I returned from the UK I started working at Turning Point as a counsellor. I set off on my counselling journey and studied a Masters in Counselling.
The emotional triangle: Connecting with the body
During this time, I was also dancing. I used my love for movement to help me through many of my past struggles, through exploration, expression, connection and release. I always found dance to be a great way of connecting and exploring my body, mind and soul.
Another pivotal moment for me in my career was when I was doing an assignment, I was looking though the ACA journal and found an advertisement to study Dance Movement Therapy. I couldn’t believe my 2 passions were rolled into one. I went on to study Clinical Training in Dance Movement Therapy, where I learned how to use different ways of working with people and helping people connect more with their bodies. I went on to work in drug and alcohol and mental health using my social work and counselling skills in combination with movement — offering support in both verbal and non-verbal ways.
I am still working offering both verbal and non-verbal ways of supporting people. I work in a private hospital where I offer Dance Movement Therapy and Mindful movement sessions, as well as offering talk therapy groups. I find the two really complement each other and give people the option to relate in ways that suit them. I find that even when I speak to people over the phone or online with the Counselling Online team, I offer ways that they can connect with their bodies and access the knowledge and power that the body holds.
I will always remember working with someone who had been ‘clean’ for three months who told me, “Wow, I can feel my feet for the first time!”
Often when someone is influenced by drugs or alcohol they lose connection with others, the world around them, and most importantly themselves, physically, mentally and spiritually. It has been so powerful to work with people over the phone and help them connect with their whole self. One way is really looking at where they feel the cravings and urges and where they identify their emotions. Exploring what emotions are, where they are in the body and how to work with them. There is a very strong link with emotions and the body and it’s great to be able to work this way, even over the phone.
I often use the idea of the ‘emotional triangle’: the emotion is at the core of the triangle, and then at each point of the triangle there is the body, the mind and the behaviour. I work with clients around how each of those three areas can be impacted by emotions. In my experience this resonates a lot with clients, particularly with addiction.
It is vital that clients see and understand their whole self, and all aspects of their addiction. The addiction is one part of them and not all of them. We have to support people to look at themselves as a whole and to examine the context of their environment.
We need to help people to be able to explore emotions and thoughts and identify them through the body. This is a powerful way of creating awareness of the self and then in turn looking at what needs to be done to move forward in one’s journey.
This is why it is so important to me to be able to offer clients the opportunity of mindful movement as well. I find I often do breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) over the phone and that has been helpful. It is a great tool in general and particularly great for people experiencing anxiety. I like to combine PMR with grounding exercises, to feel the feet firm on the ground.
What comes next?
I have thoughts to one-day branch out on my own into private practice, although to be honest I quite like the support of been held in an agency and working with others and being part of a team.
I see myself continuing in this same journey, of combining my talk therapy as well as body-based therapies and using the importance of working with the connection of body, mind, spirit as my mantra. I always say to clients, “If it’s working, then stick to it!”