DENISE: I was talking to a lady and it just broke my heart. She was getting ready to be released. And oh, we were happy and we were just so joyous, and she was crying.
So, I said, "These are happy tears, right?" She said, "No, I have nowhere to go." And I said, "What do you mean?" She says, "I burnt my bridges with my family. They don't trust me right now, I have to earn that back." She says, "and I'm so afraid that I'm going to go out, get back into drugs, get back into my old lifestyle, and come back again." And that broke my heart.
Welcome to Redefine U, a podcast that explores what happens when we’re challenged to change our beliefs, our thoughts or even who we think we are.
Few areas are more synonymous with transformation than Human Services, in particular addiction counseling.
I’m Dan Baum and in this episode we’ll talk to two amazing women. Denise Akers is a recent Human Services graduate pursuing the call to serve those suffering with addiction. Dr. Nicole Williams was one of Denise’s professors and chair of AACC’s Human Services department. Both will candidly share what brought them to the field and reflect on the care they’ve learned to provide – to their patients and to themselves.
DENISE: So, hi. My name is Denise Akers, and I was a previous student at Anne Arundel Community College.
DAN: Right, you recently graduated.
DENISE: Yes, yes.
DENISE: Three weeks ago!
DAN: So, what is your previous degree in and what were you doing before?
DENISE: I have a bachelor's in Healthcare Administration, and I have a master's with a concentration of Public and Community Health.
DAN: Tell me a little bit about your decision to go back to school.
DENISE: Even though I have a degree, I've found that that degree really was not getting me to where I really wanted to go, which was my purpose and my passion. And so I decided to look at a program where I could get a certification or a degree in addictions counseling, and it's been something that I wanted to do for a while.
DAN: Tell me a little more about that passion. What fuels that passion? What's behind that?
DENISE: Well, addictions runs in my family. Even though it did not hit me, I have loved ones that suffered from addictions. It was hard sometimes for them to get help.
Also, besides addictions, re-entry or I guess incarceration has fit my family as well.
And so I wanted to say, “where could I help? Where can I do something and make a difference for people who are suffering with this?”
DAN: So, you have multiple degrees and you have experienced with college. What was it like coming back into the classroom as an adult?
DENISE: Very different.
DAN: Tell me a little bit about that.
DENISE: It was a little hard because, of course we know with community college, the age is much different. I wasn't a lot of time older. I felt a little, I don't want to say ashamed, but I guess a little uncomfortable in the beginning.
DAN: What was it like with the other students, those relationships?
DENISE: We were able to build relationships. We were able to, I guess, piggyback off of each other, which was good. Sometimes, the seasoned ones could give a little advice, and sometimes, we could be quiet and receive a little advice. So, it was good.
DAN: That's very good.
A lot of people come to human services in these programs because they themselves have had addictions. Did you find that to be the case with some of your fellow students?
DENISE: I did, and it's funny that you asked that because, there were times I felt a little uncomfortable because that was not my story.
One thing that I admired about a lot of my classmates that were in recovery, they weren't ashamed. They would just come out and tell their story, and I would put my head down and say, "Mm-hmm, mm-hmm."
But they were like, “it’s OK. We all have a past. We all have a story.”
One day, I just opened up and I was able to share. And I was in a non-judgement zone. They just allowed me to be me, and it made me feel so much better.
My story is not me personally; but again, I've had family members, very close family members, that suffer from addiction. Even though I'm not the person that did the drugs themselves, I suffered through some of the things that they went through. Some of that, it affected me.
DAN: Do the family members also have to go through that process of acknowledging that they might need help?
DENISE: They do. A part of one of my classes that I took, I learned about the different roles that a family member takes on when they're dealing with another family member that has an addiction and one is enabler. I even found out with me that I went through the journey of being an enabler. Also, there's another stage called the hero, where that's the person that feels like they have to save everyone, and that was me. But as I was saving everyone, I was losing myself. And how could I help others if I could not help myself.
DAN: You spoke to having some family members who have had these experiences that you're focusing on. What have you learned from that experience that helps guide you as you go forward?
DENISE: You have to have a support system, and support is very, very important. You have to be very resilient. Sometimes, you have to be like the Energizer bunny rabbit. You have to keep going and going and going, even when things don't turn out the way you want. You have to believe that even though you've made these mistakes and you took a detour, you can start over and things can be more positive.
DAN: Let's talk about helpers. I suspect you've had some helpers along the way. Tell me about what kind of support help you've had in your journey.
DENISE My mother, who is my support system and my rock. My husband is another supporter. But here at Anne Arundel, Dr. Williams really played a pivotal role in my life.
Denise had two degrees and a successful career, but saw a need she felt called to fill. That call came at a critical time.
Last year, there were more than 1,000 opioid-related overdoses in Anne Arundel County alone —166 of those were fatal. As a practitioner, how do you process that level of loss and need? What support do practitioners themselves need? And what can the process of recovery teach us about transformation?
For answers to those questions and more, we talked to Dr. Nicole Williams, professor, Human Services department chair and social psychologist.
DAN: Typically, what draws people to the field of human services?
NICOLE: Sure. So what draws people to the field of human services is their direct experience they have had with mental illness, homelessness or addiction. They know what they have experienced, what they needed, what they didn’t get and as they begin to overcome those obstacles, now they want to give back in the field of human services.
DAN: I assume that’s not a prerequisite.
NICOLE: Absolutely it’s not.
So, even myself, my decision to go into the field was not based on my bad experience, it was based on my good experience. So I was raised in a two-parent family home. Mother and father who worked very hard. Father who was very loving. Living in an affluent part of Baltimore City.
So for me, it was about wanting to give to people what I got.
DAN: Right. Currently we're experiencing an opioid crisis.
NICOLE: Yes, absolutely.
DAN: We also see veterans returning from war. We see more and more mental health issues in the schools and in the workplace.
DAN: How are those issues affecting what you teach or what you see of the students and their interests?
NICOLE: There is a growth in the interest, especially in addiction counseling. So what has happened with the field of addiction counseling, especially with the rise of the opioid crisis, is a need to have trained addiction counselors who have credentials and who have degrees in that field.
We're seeing a lot of people who are second careers coming back. I have people in my program who have PhDs, who have law degrees, who have veterinarian degrees, who have master's degrees.
DAN: What's drawing them into the field now?
NICOLE: Probably two things. Their own personal experience maybe with addiction or sometimes coming from a family where they're seeing it. So their children are dealing with addiction or their grandchildren. So in some way shape or form, they're in it. And then as they are looking at retirement, they're looking at doing something that is more meaningful.
DAN: What have you seen over time? I'm assuming that the issues that you're dealing with have been increasing, but that's just my perspective. What do you see?
NICOLE: It is. It is. Because we’re going to continue to see students that come into the program that are dealing with those issues of addiction and mental health.
But the unfortunate thing that myself and the professors in my program have had to deal with that is probably unique to our program is we've lost probably about seven or eight students. So whether or not they have died from an overdose, or they may have died to illnesses related to addiction or suicide. It might've been one semester where we lost three students in one semester.
DAN: That must be really difficult.
NICOLE: It was, it's tough.
DAN: We often focus on the person in need, person with the addiction and so on. But they're surrounded by friends and family. What are they going through? What do they need?
NICOLE: The family and friends? They sometimes need that support as well. And they may not do that for themselves because they see themselves as the person that's helping the family member or their plan.
DAN: They're the support network.
NICOLE: They're the support and then they forget to get help for themselves. And then also what we see is codependency, which is not good. So codependency is when the helper helps to the extent where they are now internalizing the issues themselves. Codependency happens when they enable the person, because they want to help so much, but they enable to the detriment of themselves and the person that they are trying to help.
DAN: The issues you're dealing with are pretty heavy issues.
DAN: What about the support needed for the practitioners?
DAN: Tell me a little bit about that.
NICOLE: Absolutely. So one of the things that we require of our students is self-care. Because what we will see is our students in our program will not not succeed because they're not studying. They will not not succeed because they are not coming to class. They will not succeed because they're not taking care of themselves. So we integrate self-care into the curriculum. We have conversations about what does self-care look like. Because you are in a field where you are dealing with persons issues every day and then you have your own issues. So we do encourage students to seek out their own therapy to make sure that they have a self-care plan of action into place.
DAN: That's great.
NICOLE: And I can even share personally, when I got to AACC probably about my fourth or fifth year in, when I'm hearing the trauma stories of my students, I had to go to therapy. Because it was just too much, it was too much.
DAN: If you don’t mind sharing, what sort of things did you find you needed to do more?
NICOLE: Well, I went to therapy, and that helped me to really look at, uncover some other issues that I was dealing with. So once again, sometimes there's a layer issue, but there's some other things that is under that main issue. So it helped me to deal with those things, number one. Number two it helped …
DAN: And this is coming from a person who describes herself as having the perfect background.
NICOLE: Exactly. Right. But you know what? Those issues are there. So it really helped. It gave me someone that belonged to me. And what I mean by that is when you're in the field of human services and a professor, you're always giving. You’re always giving. And you're constantly doing this and sometimes nothing is coming back in. So what it means is when you have a therapist that means for 45 minutes, she belongs to me. And she can listen to what I'm going through, help me to process it and to put action items in place. So going to therapy, number one and number two, self-care. Making sure that when I get up in the morning time, I have about two hours that I am in my sun room. I'm meditating. I'm praying. Reading my journal. I read lots of self-help books.
So I'm intentional every morning with self-care. I'm intentional every weekend with self-care. The weekend is not the time to do all the things that we could not do during the week. The weekend is my rest time.
DAN: So you're immersed in this, you have degrees in this. What do you say to a person that's not their inclination?
NICOLE: You try to encourage them to get support for themselves. And even if they're not open to therapy, there's bibliotherapy which means there are books that you can read about what it means to be a helper. There are other self-care strategies that you might empower them with. Meditation, really seeking spiritual counsel, going to the spa. Taking a walk — sometimes it's really the simple things that matter. And then hopefully with those things, eventually they might see the need. If they need therapy or counseling they'll do that.
DAN: Right. What techniques do practitioners use to help people get through these challenges that they face?
NICOLE: The general techniques are of course being empathetic. Being nonjudgmental, being open to what that person is experiencing, listening, giving feedback, but having a collaborative relationship where we begin to set goals. And we want to challenge our clients to do something different. So we want to help them to process the experience that they've had. Once they process that, what do I do with this? How do I retell this story? Then how do then empower the client to do something different? We want to empower them to action.
DAN: I want to ask what human services teaches us about transformation, but I feel like the entire field is about transformation.
NICOLE: It is, absolutely.
DAN: So maybe the question is what does it teach us about the process of recovery?
NICOLE: The process of recovery is ongoing. And I think that's not only pertinent to recovery but pertinent to life. Humanistic theory — which is Carl Rogers, Maslow — they look at the idea that transformation is ongoing. We're always growing and we're always developing. So whether or not we have issues or life is great, you should always be evolving. So recovery teaches that number one, you want to continue to evolve. Number two, recovery is not easy. So for those that are in recovery, there will be times that they will be in recovery, they will relapse, they'll go backwards. You have to keep pushing forward. Recovery is a lifetime process.
We’re always growing and sometimes that growth is hard. In those moments, we may need support from others, but we can also sustain ourselves through the practice of self-care.
In this episode, we’ve heard how personal experience — good and bad — can instill a passion that drives us toward a goal. That brings us back to Denise. When she went back to school, Denise was pursuing more than a degree. She had a bold vision.
DAN: You have a vision.
DENISE: I do.
DAN: Tell me a little bit about your vision.
DENISE: So, one of my goals and my visions is to open up an addiction center. I wanted to start with some recovery houses, which I'm still thinking about that. But honestly and truly, I think my vision is a little bit bigger than what I anticipate.
I love the reentry population, ex-offenders. And so a lot of them, the root of the problem is addictions. Whether the crime got escalated or whatever; but most of the time, the root is, and the root is not being dealt with. So, I would like to open up an addiction center where citizens can come in, and they can stay anywhere for maybe a year to 18 months, and just receive all the different wraparound services that they may need.
Whether it's substance abuse, whether it's getting their degree, maybe their GED, learning how to dress and prepare for interviews, learning things about themselves, just a whole bunch of wraparound services where they can receive, and then they will be ready to go back into society.
DAN: What do you see as the biggest challenge now to fulfill that vision?
DENISE: I know it's going to be a lot of hard work. I think funding is the biggest thing. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. So, just getting some people to believe in my vision.
It's not about what I want to make, it's about giving back and paying forward, and just helping some people that society has just shunned away from.
DAN: Are you already working with that population?
DENISE I do. I teach Bible study with my church in the prison system, and in this county, as a matter of fact, in Glen Burnie.
DAN: In the immediate, what do you see is that next step?
DENISE: The short part of the journey, to generate income to get to the next step.
I'm looking for a building. I'm hoping someone will come and say, "Just give me a dollar." I have a lot of faith, you know. Or, "You know what? You can use it for so many years for free." Again, it's not about me. I'm a firm believer, though, that if I don't accept this journey, God will use somebody else that is willing to accept it. So, I just want to accept it, and run on with it, and be able to be blessings to a lot of people that, again, have been forgotten about.
DAN: This is a bold vision. There may be some setbacks or there may be some challenges. What will your approach be when that happens?
DENISE Even though I may fall down… Of course, there's going to be some hurdles and some obstacles. I just have to kind of take a deep breath, step back, don't be ashamed to ask for help, don't be ashamed to tell my story — which I've kind of gotten a little bit better with that — and just say, "Look, let's revisit this plan and see what I need to do different to get to the goal that I want to get to."
DAN: How have you redefined yourself or are you redefining yourself?
DENISE I think with redefining, it never stops. Whether you're 60 or whether you're 18, you're always trying to do something to make things better, and to make this a better place. So, I'm still really redefining. Some days, you can look in the mirror and say, "Oh, I look good," and some days you can look in the mirror and say, "Oh, I don't look so good." So, that's when you have to reevaluate and go back and say, "Okay, what can I do different to make things a little bit better?"
DAN: So, it's a continuous journey for you?
DENISE: It's a continuous journey. Yes. Yes, it is.
DAN: Well, I wish you enormous success. Your vision is bold, but your energy is infectious. So, I have every confidence you'll be successful.
DENISE: Thank you. I appreciate that, thank you.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses every day. It’s a staggering number and one which human services practitioners are all too familiar. Social workers, addiction counselors, family members and college professors — are at the forefront of the epidemic. They listen, guide and do their best to empower those suffering to take the first steps toward change.
But it doesn’t stop there. As Dr. Williams noted, recovery is ongoing. The same can be said about transformation. With care and support, we can all grow to be better humans in a better world. It’s a continuous journey.
If you or a loved one is suffering with addiction we’ve provided resources in our show notes that might be of help.
Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College.
Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch
Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard
Others who helped with this podcast include Angie Hamlet, Alicia Renehan, and Ben Pierce.
Special thanks to Denise Akers and Dr. Nicole Williams.
Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website: aacc.edu/podcast.
I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.