Turns Out I Don’t Hate Addictions Counselling

By: Laura Oviedo-Guzmán

Years ago (wow, “years”), I started the Addictions Counselling program on the advice that it would “help me get into grad school easier.” At the time, I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree to become a private practice therapist. So, when a professor who had hired me as a research assistant stated this, I took it as a sacred decree. Big mistake. Big. Huge! Or at least I thought for the two middle years of my program. Most recently, I’ve become largely neutral about it. Call it senioritis–’cause I’m just interested in finishing my last semester without burning out–or maturing, or whatever, but I’ve grown to feel largely neutral about the program and even have some gratitude for it. Seeing as I’m, at the time of writing this, 15 Mondays away from completing my Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned throughout my time in this program. If you’re in the program or considering switching to it, this might help inform your decision.

Honesty is the Best Policy

I mean this in a few ways. In the early courses for this program, students are required to journal about their experiences. The prompts are usually to get you to process how you feel about reading a chapter of a book or about the content of a class. Sometimes you will feel like you got emotionally run over by a semi after you read a text that delves into the harrowing realities of others; other times classmates will share a lot about their own harrowing experiences (more on that later), and other times, you may not want to be in class at all. Whatever your experience is, and if your prof is asking you to recount it without leaving out important details, type it out honestly in your journals. These are opportunities for you to explore any resistance towards the material and can help inform your areas of interest. For example, I once wrote I preferred to be at work than to be in class for a journal assignment. From the initial confession (which is more for you than for the instructor), I launched into a discussion of the real, underlying reasons I did not want to go to class that day, which included my discomfort with the topics we were discussing in class. Writing about my state of reticence helped me, firstly, to accept it so I could then process it and navigate away from it. I think, too, these journals help inform instructors of the wider context in which their students live, making them more sensitive to certain responses from students, as well as having a better understanding of why a student might need an extension. This brings me to my next point.

Be honest with yourself and your instructor about a deadline. Barring emergencies, if you suspect you won’t be able to meet a deadline due to wellness reasons (think heightened anxiety) or work reasons, or you’re swamped with other coursework, request an extension. Follow the rules outlined in the syllabus and reach out to them via email. In my and my peers’ experiences, most addiction counselling profs provide flexibility relatively often. They understand that life happens and are more interested in seeing your work and supporting your well-being than having you sacrifice your well-being during dire times to meet a deadline. Always check the process for requesting an extension on your syllabus. When you reach out to them, be kind and provide enough context for why you are requesting the extension and how long of an extension you might need. Remember, your instructor has the ultimate say on whether or not your request is granted and how long of an extension they will provide.

Go to Office Hours

I’ve had numerous instructors tell me that they sometimes sit in their office during their scheduled office hours and not a single student comes by and that this happens week after week. Now, I’m not saying that to make you feel obliged to keep your instructor company. I say it because I know that often students are hesitant to ask questions about course material or ask for help completing an assignment. Office hours exist, largely, for that reason. Your profs understand that you’re starting out on your studies and are blocking out these times to help support your learning and your progress through your program. Sometimes this support may look like explaining a hard-to-grasp topic from class, and other times they might provide resources that can help you move through an assignment more effectively, such as the Research Help Desk or the Writing Centre. Office hours are especially great if you prefer a smaller setting to ask questions, as opposed to a larger class.

Even if you don’t need help with anything, it’s never a bad idea to make yourself known to your instructor. Introducing yourself and talking about something you enjoyed in class is often enough to separate you from the sea of faces they see every day, which is helpful when you are seeking references for employment or studying and an extension (see above). You also never know what opportunities come out of meeting with your profs and expressing genuine interest in what they teach or what they research. For example, I took a great interest in one of my professor’s areas of specialization, and they nominated me for a research award. My final tip here is don’t be a bootlicker. People can tell when someone is being disingenuous and using them solely to advance their interests. It’s opportunistic. Bring up their research only if you’re genuinely curious about what inspired them to pursue it. Otherwise, it comes across as flattery, which will get you nowhere.

Nothing Lasts Forever, And Thank Goodness For That

My final tip for you requires a little self-disclosure right off the bat. One of my most significant displeasure with the Addictions Counselling program is that some people seem to think that it’s an opportunity to participate in what they think is group therapy. What I mean by that is that a lot of people are very comfortable sharing their stories, sparing no details, about difficult and potentially triggering topics. I personally had a hard time with that, even though none of the topics discussed in class were triggering to me. It’s really taxing to study topics like abuse, discrimination, and trauma day in and day out. There would be times I would break down and cry during assignments from the emotional exhaustion that succeeded this learning. The repetition of these responses on my behalf is what caused the two-year hate-stint for me. I was awash with accumulated grief and trauma that was not mine (in counsellor-speak we call this “vicarious trauma”), and I wanted to give up my degree in Health Sciences. However, I completed the work to the best of my ability and processed my feelings the only way I could back then, which was by privately complaining about the program with my friends and family. I thought I would always be an Addictions Counselling program hater, but I’m happy to accept I was wrong.

So, what changed? I did. And what changed me? Time and the distance it provides. When I was in the midst of my passionate hatred, I didn’t consider that this degree would, in fact, come to an end at some point. I didn’t consider that my emotional response to my classmates’ disclosures would, in fact, not last forever. I coiled around a point in time, making it and my suffering eternal, without any real need. Granted, I can now classify that coiling as “needless,” thanks to the passage of time and the impermanence it provides. That impermanence–the knowledge that nothing lasts forever–helped me separate myself from the initial experiences, allowing me to hold them at a distance, to “zoom out,” as I like to say, and see how it fits into the wider context of my degree and my life. Truthfully, the initial experiences themselves understood only as what they are, are inconsequential to me. However, the lessons and awareness extracted from them over time become integrated into and invaluable to the bigger picture that is my life. 

I’ll give you one last example: during my Addictions Counselling program hater era, I began to consider different career paths from the one I had initially forecasted for myself–counselling. I mourned the loss of my desire to pursue these studies only because I thought, “why the hell am I in Addictions Counselling if I’m not even going into counselling?!” I moved through my program, struggled, cried, and learned. I reflected on the skills I had acquired that I could transfer to another field: active listening, communication, writing, and research–and focused on the topics and classes I had enjoyed, like Ethics and Health Promotion. My desire to bolster people’s wellness and make the world a better place for us hadn’t dissipated. It was still very much present, just under a rough layer of silly expectations and frustrations. The experiences that constituted my hate-stint helped me do away with the cruddy layer to remind me of my calling and to reveal to me the different paths I can take with the skills my degree necessitates from me that will help me fulfill it. Maybe I’ll go on to become a public policy analyst, or a lawyer, or maybe something else. Whatever it may be, I’m happy to know that I will get to use the sensitivity, compassion, and oratory imparted to me by the Addictions Counselling program at the University of Lethbridge.

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