I learned how to change my life — Meet the counsellor: Melody
Melody took what she learned as an AOD counsellor and used it to make positive changes to her own drinking and eating habits.
My own journey
I‘ve worked in addiction treatment most of my professional life and have benefited from what I’ve learned in my personal life.
My experience is that few families escape addiction in one form or another. My family is no different. Some years ago a relative of mine was beginning to face some serious consequences from his alcohol use — legal, family relationships, financial and mental health. Like most people with addictions, he continued to work, he was struggling and asked for some assistance to quit. While I was searching for resources for him, I discovered a program that helped me to address some things that were bothering me in my own life — I felt too much desire for alcohol, sugar and flour.
I was getting older and was finding that even a few drinks led to poor sleep and feeling a bit ‘blah’ the next day. I was also experiencing weight gain from the actual alcohol and the subsequent extra eating.
This came as a turning point for me because I had been working with addictions all my life but found social drinking very difficult to stop. Part of the problem was the thinking that I didn’t have a problem, but I had spent 40 years associating socialising with alcohol. I had thoughts like:
- “I don’t want others to feel awkward.”
- “People will think I have a problem with alcohol if I don’t drink”
- “It’s sophisticated to enjoy a pinot in a beautiful crystal glass”
- “It’s totally normal to have a drink with a meal.”
These were big obstacles to not drinking, and it took time and practice to learn to dismiss those thoughts.
I learned to sit with unmet desire by observing the feelings in my body instead of resisting urges (willpower) or obeying them (which just strengthens the neural pathway). The mindful acceptance of unmet desire was huge piece of the solution for me. Now I apply it to not eating flour or sugar, which has really helped with my health and weight management.
I feel really proud of the personal work I have done in this area. It is a challenge to change entrenched pathways. My work helped me reach this point. I have loved learning how others have made changes to their lives for the better.
I really believe in trying everything when wanting to make a change:
- professional help
- self-help tools
- peer support
- meditation practices
- time management and
- coaching skills that look to what you want in the future and acting as if that was already your identity.
Sometimes we want to find one perfect answer to explain our experience. There can be a divide between different models of understanding habits or addiction — eg, the biological model, the environmental model, the moral model. I find the divide completely unnecessary as all have a lot to offer to help us understand ourselves. Different models may be helpful at different times along the journey of change.
Doing my own work has taught me the gift of vulnerability which I believe has made me a better counsellor. I believe there are times when more of a counselling approach is beneficial and at other times, coaching techniques are more helpful. We need to be empathetic and explore the past but also look at goals for the future.
My relative is doing really well and out of this awful family situation, I made some great changes for myself. The world works in strange ways.
How I got here
My very first social work placement was in a community drug and alcohol agency in Footscray in 1983. I was 20 years old. It was a very warm, friendly agency with a multi-disciplinary staff of five. It’s no exaggeration to say that that placement changed my life. It began a lifelong interest in addiction — not just to substances but also to gambling and food. I am now in my late 50s. I feel forever grateful to have had that professional and personal grounding from a young age.
This agency was unique for the time because it provided services to significant others and professionals as well as people who use substances.
One of my first clients was a teenage girl who expressed feelings of shame and anger about her father’s drinking. The weekend before she came to us his behaviour had disrupted a family event. She wanted help to process this — or rather, space to vent her anger. I can still recall her feelings of powerlessness over his behaviour and her frustration at not being able to find the power to not feel demeaned by his behaviour.
I believe that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to minimise the negative consequences that substance use can have. It’s a painful truth to accept, but there is no way to make somebody else work on their addiction issues. Treatment is available and can work, but they need to be ready and willing. The best we can do is be willing to reach out and get help for ourselves.
I worked with the agency for a while after graduating, then moved on to a housing estate, where I worked with the Tenants Association as a community development worker. I then spent 6 years as a social worker in the UK, first in child protection and mental health and then specialising in HIV.
In 1999 I returned to Australia and began working as a telephone and online counsellor helping people dealing with drugs, alcohol and gambling problems. I’m still doing that kind of work with Counselling Online and other services.
I was confronted early in my career with substance abuse, but have seen its impact all through my work. In my experience excessive alcohol and drug use prevents people from showing up as the generally caring and loving family members they want to be. The consequences extend to so many areas of their life including mental health, physical health, finances, professional and personal relationships, and the people that love them.
Since 1983 I have also seen government policies create circumstances that mean alcohol is cheaper, more accessible, and even tastes sweeter, making it more appealing to young people. I see the harm this creates as regular drinking is normalised and encouraged to the detriment of community mental health. These social factors have created a huge increase in alcohol-related problems alongside rising profits in the alcohol industry.
In an environment where I can see how community attitudes and government policies have historically contributed to drug and alcohol use, it’s wonderful to be part of a sector that supports people to reduce or stop their drug use, rather than condemning or demonising them.
When I started my career, there were only a narrow selection of services available to help people. Some community counselling was beginning, but most services were delivered in an institutionalised, medicalised manner through facilities such as Gresswell Sanatorium or Pleasant View. Then there were 12-step groups to offer peer support.
Now, we have a huge (and growing!) range of different types of service delivery we can offer to helpseekers, including online communities, self-help websites, apps, podcasts, books with links to videos, non-residential rehabs as well as services that cater for groups with specialised needs — such as women with children, culturally and linguistically diverse or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, youth, or LGBTQIA+. We’re still dealing with waiting lists for some clinical treatment, but 24-hour support is available online through peers and clinicians alike.
What I’ve learned
Without a doubt, my professional and personal experience has taught me that anything and everything goes — basically, expect the unexpected.
As humans we often crave security but generally life just doesn’t work that way. I haven’t experienced all of the 4ds – divorce, disease, death and disaster — but I have come close. Many of the readers of this blog will have experienced these and more. It is also sad but true that hardship can make you more compassionate. Bringing lot of empathy to my work is important.
Between lockdowns I have the privilege of visiting detoxes and talking about how the telehealth services we provide at Turning Point, including Counselling Online, help clients to reduce or quit using altogether as well as how they provide support to significant others and loved ones. Many have used our services in the past and say that they would not be in detox or even still alive were it not for our telephone and online services.
I find these comments very affirming of the value of our work and the importance of operating from a place of empathy and support.
To be honest. I can’t really imagine my life without my social work bent. I will continue to work on myself and challenge the status quo in terms of what is “normal”. Substance use isn’t a problem people go through alone, and the solutions shouldn’t be theirs alone either. I believe we need to work on government policies when it comes to social harms as well as helping people at the individual level — not only through formal counselling but also by genuinely listening to the people in our own lives.
If you need someone to listen, our trained counsellors are here for you 24/7. Chat with us online.