As a course instructor in an addiction counseling program, I’ve had several students ask if you need to have experience with an addiction to become an addiction counselor.
The field of addiction recovery originally developed in 12-step circles throughout the twentieth century, and the vast majority entering this field had a history of addiction.
Today, the addiction counseling field has expanded beyond the 12-step model, integrating lessons from the field of psychology. With this shift, there has been an increasing number of professionals in the field who are not in recovery themselves.
Many people now wonder whether or not counselors without a history of addiction can be effective in treating addiction. This leads to the question: Do you have to be an addict to be an addiction counselor?
You do not need to have a history of addiction to be an effective addiction counselor. Also, there are both benefits and risks to entering the field after having personal experience with addiction.
Addiction counseling is one of the few professions where personal experience with the issue has often been conflated with competence in the role.
For example, psychologists can be effective without having experienced depression, personal trainers can be effective without ever having been unfit, and gynecologists can be effective without ever having been female.
This does not take away from the power of personal experience. Perhaps you may want to find a peer who has overcome depression, commiserate with a friend who also struggles with their fitness, or talk to another female who also struggles with similar gynecological issues.
Talking to someone who has been through a similar personal experience can be powerful, especially early on, but is not equivalent to seeking professional support. Professional competence in addiction counseling can be attained, independent of one’s personal background.
Let’s take a closer look at how this idea of experience being required for competence developed in the addiction field, then I will share my own unique path into the field.
History of the Addiction Field
The modern culture of addiction recovery began in the 1930s with the development of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1954, Narcotics Anonymous was also founded, stating:
“The ultimate weapon for recovery is the recovering addict.”
These fellowships developed out of a sincere desire to reach out and help others who have been through similar experiences.
Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century, persons suffering from addiction were largely stigmatized and harshly judged as morally bankrupt and weak-willed. The mutual support, sense of open and honest connection, and the sense of direction provided by the Twelve Steps were—and continues to be—life-saving for persons with addiction.
The 12-step approach was likely far superior to psychological approaches throughout the early and mid-20th century when psychology had a crude and rudimentary approach to addiction treatment.
During the latter part of the 20th century, with the development of cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing, the field of psychology became better equipped to effectively treat addiction, and the field became professionalized.
Now, the addiction recovery field exists as a hybrid between 12-step approaches and psychological approaches. Many residential treatment programs exist somewhere on the spectrum between these two frameworks.
Also, persons in recovery may seek support from a variety of different sources, often blending 12-step peer-support with the additional support of a psychologist, social worker, or addiction counselor.
Benefits of Being a Counselor in Recovery
Because of the 12th step’s focus on carrying the message of recovery to others, many persons who enter roles as addiction counselors have a history of addiction.
There are benefits and risks from becoming an addiction counselor while in recovery. A significant benefit includes being a personal role model that recovery is possible, offering hope and inspiration to persons feeling stuck.
Another benefit includes the ability to rapidly develop trust and reliability, allowing the other person to not feel alone in their experiences.
In addition, a person in recovery may be more familiar with the culture of substance use, allowing them to comfortably discuss usage, effects, and experiences.
There are moments when someone seeking recovery may want to talk to someone who has been through recovery themselves. Although they can pursue this kind of peer support without a counselor in 12-step programs, a counselor who also has this experience can be helpful during moments when this kind of support is required.
Risks of Being a Counselor in Recovery
Although having experience with addiction has its benefits, the experience alone does not necessarily make someone an effective counselor. Also, there are several risks involved when someone in recovery enters the professional addiction field.
According to a study titled, Recovered Addicts Working in the Addiction Field, important areas to consider, include the following:
“Potential risks for relapse… the ex-addict’s motivation for entering the addiction field, [one’s ability to anonomously seek] personal help from self-help groups… over involvement with clients, over involvement with work, over identification with clients, and the repercussions of relapse.”
Being stable in one’s own recovery is essential before entering the field to help others. Counseling conversations may put someone in early recovery at risk of relapse.
Another study titled, Former Substance Users Working as Counselors, looks at the subjective experiences of persons in recovery who entered the addiction field. They identified several areas to consider, including the limits of self-disclosure, the counselor’s objectivity, and the risk of losing credibility during a potential relapse. Regarding self-disclosure, they state:
“The issue is relevant for all kinds of professional and paraprofessional staff, but the therapeutic interventions of the paraprofessional staff will often be based on their own experiences into treatment and recovery (e.g., rock-bottom experiences).”
For any counselor, including persons in recovery, sharing one’s personal experiences should be focused on benefiting the other person and should not take the focus away from them. Distinct from an A.A. or N.A. meeting, self-disclosure in a counseling session is generally briefer and tailored to the specific situation.
Sharing one’s recovery story can have benefits, as previously described, so long as it does not distract from a client-centered focus.
Another risk for persons in recovery involves their experiences potentially distorting their view of the client’s situation. The previously cited article states this is:
“…[the ability] to interact with the client without letting his own experiences or perceptions distort his judgment and intervention. Counselors with a history of addiction often have a personal history, which in many ways is similar to the history of the client. This can impede the counselor’s ability to be objective in assessment and treatment planning, and there is a risk that the counselor may impose his own standards or criteria for success upon the client, omitting to evaluate the actual complaints.”
Any counselor—whether in recovery or not—who makes assumptions about a client and rigidly imposes their own standards sacrifices a productive therapeutic relationship, further alienating a client by making them feel misunderstood.
The article goes on to point out another risk persons in recovery may need to consider when entering the addiction field, regarding relapse:
…a counselor’s relapse is not a private matter as long as he or she is employed in a substance or alcohol-user treatment service—especially not when the counselor’s main qualiﬁcation is a history of recovery.
I would disagree with the point that this is a person in recovery’s main qualification since counseling skills are independent of one’s background. Despite this, relapse does pose a genuine professional concern. The authors go on to state:
“A minimum of two years’ abstinence is usually requested prior to employment in substance or alcohol-user treatment services… [persons in recovery] represent a hope for a better future, and if they relapse, they risk losing their credibility as counselors. If the counselor’s recovery status is the core of the therapeutic relationship, relapse is a potent issue for clients, and the agency must deal with this reality…. Their personal success in maintaining recovery then determines their professional identity, and as a consequence, their ability to maintain a job and regular income.”
The article goes on to share the personal story of Charlottle who works in the addiction field and has a history with the Twelve Steps of A.A./N.A.:
“I am still linked with the Twelve Steps program. But I have also moved away from it—in the job that I have, and all my different kinds of colleagues. I’ve learned a lot from that. I have found out that I am not that different. . . the ﬁrst few years [of being abstinent] you think you are so unique. And that it is only us [former substance users] who can’t manage.. . but mostly it’s things that everyone has a hard time handling. This has helped me not to feel different. I actually forget that I’m an ex-addict.”
This highlights the importance of seeing beyond whether or not someone has been through recovery themselves. Everyone experiences difficult thoughts and emotions and copes with these things differently. Rather than making in-groups and out-groups, it is important to evaluate a counselor by their abilities rather than their experiences.
My Own Story
The more extended version of my long and winding path into addiction counseling is shared here. For the purpose of this article, I can share a brief overview.
I have never experienced addiction, nor was I motivated to enter the field due to the experiences of family members. I fell into working in problem gambling prevention by accident since I needed an income to supplement my part-time teaching position at Eastern Michigan University.
In the problem gambling prevention role, I ended up learning quite a bit from the people I listened to. I also developed counseling skills from extensive training in motivational interviewing. Over time, I became increasingly passionate about the area and continued to grow through two of the most crucial counseling skills: empathy/understanding and meeting people where they are at.
Although I never experienced exactly what the other person is going through, no one else necessarily has either. Each person’s situation is unique, and the most effective thing I’ve found is to make no assumptions and stay curious. At its core, addiction is a way of coping with emotions that all of us experience. My role is to be with that person, collaboratively working through mental barriers.
I’ve learned a considerable amount of technical skill from books and training, but the human component can’t be learned from a book. It requires genuine humility and compassion. Working in the field, I’ve seen persons with a history of addiction and persons without a history of addiction make the exact same mistake: making assumptions and having too much of an ego. This results in an ineffective authoritarian interpersonal style, causing shame, alienation, and resistance.
Just as someone with a history of addiction may impose their experiences on others, a person who learned these skills from a book can impose a rigid theoretical structure onto their way of working with a client. This is something I’ve been working through over the past few years.
I had a great deal of practice working through this during my employment in a withdrawal facility. When I started, I immediately assumed everyone knew I didn’t have a background using substances. This insecurity soon faded away as I became swept up in the intensity of the role and the need to be completely client-focused.
I found myself doing a lot of listening and very little talking, noticing that clients rarely ever asked questions about me or my experiences. A few people had asked and were surprised I did not have experiences with substances, but the vast majority didn’t ask.
While in acute withdrawal, the clients generally only cared about what I could do for them and whether or not I cared. My personal life, my extensive educational background, and my complete lack of experience using substances seemed irrelevant. Some of the most in-depth interactions I had with clients ended with them knowing nothing about these things. Instead, I focused on keeping them as comfortable as possible, collaborating on a treatment plan, and listening more than talking.
Becoming an Effective Counselor
Let’s make a comparison to being a good salesperson. The experience of being sold can make you better at sales, but being sold doesn’t necessarily make you good at sales. You can be excellent at sales without drawing on your experiences of being sold to, but drawing on one’s personal experience can contribute to further growth.
If you are inspired to enter the addiction field, but have no personal experience with addiction, it is of course not advisable to go out and start a meth habit for “learning purposes”. Rather, draw on the emotions of transferable experiences.
Several emotions are involved in addiction, including shame, isolation, and dispair. Draw on moments when these emotions became overwhelming.
There are also several thoughts commonly involved in addiction, including the thought that you are not good enough, the thought that you’re a failure, and the thought that there is no way to get out. Draw on moments when these thoughts became overwhelming.
Listening to someone from a truly empathic place means accurately understanding what they are saying, logically and emotionally. In other words, listening with your head and your heart.
You don’t need to experience the exact issue someone else has experienced. Instead, you can pull from an experience that draws on the same emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. In terms of addiction, I haven’t experienced anything destructive, but I’ve dealt with something close to learning addiction where I tend to develop an obsessive focus on narrow areas, at the exclusion if other things. If not kept in check, it could for sure take over and become distractive.
Beyond listening from your head and your heart, I believe being an effective counselor requires both confidence and humility. Whether you have experience with an addiction or not, it is easy to feel like an imposter in the field. The “counselor” mask is a way to bolster yourself against insecurities, taking your focus off the client, and putting it on yourself. Clients can immediately sense this and shut down.
No matter your background, addiction counseling is an art. An effective counselor blends empathic understanding with carefully targeting the psychological processes that lead to change.
Now, teaching within an addiction counseling program at a local college, I’ve tried to share this same message. Since about a quarter of students don’t have a personal history of addiction, many of them wonder if they can be effective counselors.
Whether someone has personal experience with addiction or not doesn’t seem to make a difference in their potential to be an effective counselor. Either way, the barriers to human connection are the same. Here are a few barriers I’ve encountered that apply to anyone in the counseling field:
- Making assumptions
- Assuming you know what is best for someone
- Applying rigid recovery frameworks
- Seeking validation for your abilities/ professional identity
- Trying to “save” someone
- Not meeting someone where they are
- Doing things for someone rather than supporting their autonomy
- Too much talking and not enough listening
- Confrontation rather than collaboration
There are likely several more, but the point is that whether or not you are in recovery, these barriers are universal. Persons in recovery may be more likely to violate some of these, while persons who are not in recovery are more likely to violate others.
If you have any other suggestions for barriers to connection, I’d be happy to add them. Leave a comment below, and we can engage further!
If you are interested in reading my recent article on motivational interviewing—a foundational counseling skill—you can find it here: How Does Motivational Interviewing Work?
In that article, I take a detailed psychological look at the mechanics of this powerful technique, showing how and why it works.
Whether or not you have a history of addiction, you can become an effective counselor. Having a history of addiction has the benefit of offering a different type of connection and inspiration, but also has certain risks involved.
I’ve personally found that my background has not been relevant and have learned that counseling skills are independent of one’s own personal experience.
Although technical learning helps ground your approach in evidence-based practices, the most effective counseling skills cannot be learned in books. They must be developed from humility, compassion, and experience in client-centered interactions.
This has been something I have been thinking about for several years now, so hopefully, this article helps inspire others who are entering the field, wondering if personal experience with addiction is necessary.