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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 9-16-22 – Ten Years on the Job

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else's path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else's way, you are not going to realize your potential.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life & Work

It is uncommon to stay at the same job for long or even in the field of SUD service for an entire career. It is typically a second career for people like me as we get into recovery and want to help others. Many non-recovering people leave their first jobs in SUD and move on to higher paying work in some other human service area. For decades, our field averaged a turnover rate of around 25%. Recent estimates place it as high as a 44% every three years. We have a deepening chasm of institutional memory in a field where such things matter a great deal. In part because degreed professionals could earn more working retail or driving a truck. While the work is incredibly rewarding, there are significant administrative burdens. It is a system of care not centered around long-term healing, but instead on acute care, provided for shorter durations at lower levels of intensity than people need to heal. A field with a host of challenges, a dark point in the forest indeed, but one I would not trade for any other, despite all the challenges.

My career in the SUD service system started at the lowest entry level position. I advanced through experience and education, of which I have found the former at least as valuable as the latter. That manner of advancement provided me a deeper understanding of how programs actually run. This is in contrast to a career trajectory in which people come into it in more senior positions. Top-down management that does not know how things actually work on the ground is a risky venture. What looks good from the tower may not work well on the ground. If I was to design a workforce, I would ensure it was diverse and included a lot of people who came in as clients. It is a valuable perspective, but I digress.

Ten years ago, much to my surprise, I determined it was time for a change. It was a big step. I had run a long-term residential treatment program for 14 years. Before that, an outpatient for 10. Clinical work and program management is so very difficult and rewarding all in the same breath. Something that the general public just does not understand is how profoundly difficult we have made it for publicly funded SUD programs to serve their missions in any meaningful way. That is at the heart of why we have such devastatingly high turnover rates as I noted above, but I keep drifting here.

I went to a job interview because I knew the interviewers and I respected them. I had no intention of taking the position. In the interview, I was candid about my ambivalence. Much to my surprise, some of the things they said about the position resonated with me. It was a growth opportunity. One of the recovery lessons in my life is that if we are not growing, we are decaying. When I reflected on the opportunity after the interview, I realized that although I loved the position I was in, the one I interviewed for provided more opportunity to learn and grow.

I was offered and accepted the position as the ED of the statewide recovery community organization of Pennsylvania. It was a steep learning curve. I was way out of my comfort zone. There were days I woke up and thought seriously of quitting. It was my first agency level role. I thought about what it would be like for a ship captain with his first commission to go over the side into a lifeboat when the ocean got a little rough. I have learned in life in the most painful way possible that failing to try is far worse than trying and failing. I knew that I needed to lash myself to the helm and get through the storm because it was the responsibility I had accepted. I am not just a fair-weather seafarer.

Today, I am in DC to celebrate recovery. Next Monday, NYC. There will be an exciting announcement. I will serve alongside some of the most respected names in the nation. Opportunities forged out of the challenge I accepted ten years ago. It is a path that I could not have foreseen. The constant lesson is that trying never yields failure if you just keep trying. There are days I still feel lashed to the helm as I navigate through the maelstrom. It can all be very frightening and beautiful at the same time. It is my path; the way is not cleared for me. If I had not accepted this position, I would have never learned so much about myself. Difficult situations yield powerful lessons. I have been gifted a lot of learning experiences.

Salute to those of you who do some of the most difficult and rewarding work there is, helping people recover. I see you. I am grateful for those early pioneers who started when there was nothing. As a result of their efforts, I was able to walk through the front doors of a publicly funded treatment center in the mid-1980s. It saved my life. They were recovering people who refused to take no for an answer so that they could save lives, including mine. If they could endure what they faced to get those doors open, I can carry on. I am grateful to all who walk this path despite the challenges.

It is recovery month. Recovery is not a platitude to give lip service to even as we make it more difficult for people to heal. Our system does that far too often, and its words do not match its actions. We must change it if we are to move it forward. We must. Lives depend on us. I am grateful to do my part.

What are you grateful for today?

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