Alcohol and Drug Counsellor Profiles: Kathleen

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 - Kathleen - and learn more about why she become a counsellor.

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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 who are struggling with substances 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.

This is the first entry in a series to help you get to know some of our counsellors: why they decided to become an alcohol and other drug counsellor, and what it means to them.

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Meet Kathleen: What set me on my path to be an alcohol and drug counsellor?
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Meet Kathleen

What set me on my path to be an alcohol and drug counsellor?

I knew I wanted to help people and understand why people do the things they do and think the way they think, so I began a Science Psychology degree. At the time, a life in drug and alcohol counselling was not on the agenda. Getting into drug and alcohol was a fortuitous accidental journey via a lecturer at Victoria University. She suggested I volunteer at Family Drug Help as I “had a lot of knowledge” and personal experience that could be used to help others. I am sure this suggestion was a ‘roundabout’ way for me to get support while I struggled with two teenagers who were experimenting with substances at the time.

Family Drug Help allowed me to share my stories and my concerns with other people who (surprise, surprise) were also walking a similar walk to me. Of course, these ‘walks’ can’t be compared as each and everyone of us is unique in our experience. Yet, I felt I was acknowledged.

I was not ‘on the outer’, I was not being told to chuck my kids out — I often heard, “if they were my kids, they would be out on their own”, “my husband would …” or “they are so horrible, how can they treat you like that?” and similar sounding advice.

This type of advice is not at all helpful. I was already second guessing my parenting skills along with my mothering skills. The best advice I received, from Family Drug Help, was a question: ‘Kathleen, do you think you have done the best you could have, given the tools available to you at the time?’

Such a loaded question.

Yet it was not at all loaded. I didn’t have to think about my deficits or my abilities. I didn’t have to think about other people’s life’s choices or their judgements. No, I only had to think: have I done the best I could given my circumstances? The answer of course is yes. Any and all of us can only do what we can, given the tools available to us at the time.

Family Drug Help taught me that there are no needs (as in, he/she needs to stop), just wants. I want the person to change to my way (societies way) of thinking as then I will feel better. Instead, they taught me how to build boundaries so the other person’s behaviours would have less impact on me. They taught me how to return the other person’s responsibilities back to them as they were not mine to have, to own or to hold.

The freedom this brings is amazing, even if it butts against all of societies’ expectations. Societal expectations can be so limiting and shame ridden.

As the mother and parent of substance-using misbehaving teenagers, societal norms say I should be ashamed that they are misbehaving. I should be ashamed. I should be feeling guilty that I am less than perfect parent. As I discovered, these sorts of moralising comments do result in shame, guilt and the feelings of being a crap parent. My self-esteem was below the mat on the floor. Practically non-existent. The lack of empathy was cutting to my core.

Empathy was something I hadn’t really thought about, or how to use it to its maximum benefit.

The best advice I learned was to be able to say to my teenagers, “I love you but I don’t like this part of your behaviour.”

Separating the behaviour from the whole person sounds such a simple and easy thing to do. Why don’t we all know to do this? Moralising society has no place for such simplicity. We are taught that we are shameful and guilt-ridden, a theme that seeps through our lives from childhood.

When we do stuff up we internalise moralising judgments to be our truth — that we are not good enough — so we stay stuck often within the very same behaviour society is judging us for, leaving very little space for change.

A by-product of the lessons I learned about boundaries was that my teenagers were given their power back. They learned that their choices of behaviours had consequences that were their responsibilities to fix. Of course, when they needed extra support I was there. I could empathise with them.

Family Drug Help taught me to understand that the behaviour is the behaviour, not the person being the behaviour. Yet Family Drug Help stabilised me through empathy. I felt seen and understood. Their support of me helped me to support others which in turn bolstered my sense of self.

A change in my journey came when Family Drug Help were renovating their buildings and the service was relocated to Turning Point. We were providing our service to family members among counsellors who were providing a service to the people using substances. This was an eye opener. I was listening to conversations related to the substance user and their substance using behaviours. This journey of mine started to make better sense.

I was starting to get some balance back into my sense of my life experience. On the one hand I was experiencing first-hand the results of the behaviour of somebody using substances — the fall out that I was expected to fix. At the same time, I was hearing how it was for a person whose substance use is problematic trying to deal with their loved ones or significant others and their needs. Wow! What a different perspective to learn that a person could use and not be judged. All of this was delivered within a harm minimisation framework. Authenticity is the backbone of being a counsellor.

When a paid counselling position became available at Turning Point I was encouraged to apply by my then supervisor at Family Drug Help. She coached me, she encouraged me. She enabled me to regain my sense of self and self-esteem. For that I am so very very thankful. This has in turn allowed me to be authentic when I am speaking with callers whether they be the anguished parent, the anguished friend or the anguished substance user. I get it now.

My teenagers’ friends would open up to me about their experiences. I was able to refer them to Family Drug Help, DirectLine or youth services.

I completed further studies in the AOD competencies furthering my understanding of what help is available. My Science/Psychology degree gave me additional understanding of the effects of drug use, trauma and grief on mental health and the physical body. Human Bioscience offers insights into the effects of other hormones apart from dopamine and other chemicals reactions’ and effects on the body and mind. Life experience from a teenager myself and binge drinking have allowed me to jell on an authentic level with clients.

First-hand experience as a significant other has enabled me to be authentic with significant others. Having knowledge of how the body and mind work has enabled me to understand substance misuse differently from what we are taught as part of diploma courses.

Knowing we can only be good enough as members of society has allowed me to withhold judgements during conversations. Understanding that moralising is ingrained into us from when we’re very little people enables me to enlighten callers as to why they feel like they can’t belong to families because of their behaviours.

Working within my capabilities and knowing when I need outside support has allowed me to be present with my callers so that they don’t feel alone too. Overall, being authentic and on the same level as the caller whilst at the same time withholding judgement, offer empathy, being supportive yet realistic enables me to be a good enough counsellor. What’s next in my future? Who knows. Maybe it is further study if that was offered to me, continuing in the same way I do now or fixing the unfixables, I really don’t know. What I do know is I generally love my AOD clients and the work I do. I feel blessed.

Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

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What can I do next?