“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
I’m a queer, middle-aged community support worker and educator who has struggled with drug addiction for many years as a result of childhood trauma. My drug use has affected my relationships, my finances, my health and my self-esteem. I carry a heavy burden of guilt and shame. I often work with marginalized youth and take this responsibility very seriously—I’ve managed not to let my addiction impact my work. I’m in therapy, attend support groups and have supportive friends. I’ve taken time off when I needed to. But I still feel so alone. There is so much stigma around drug use and there is a pressure to be “perfect” as a social justice community worker. I fear being judged and seen as not worthy of this work.
How can I begin to feel connected to my community? How do I meet others who are in this line of work and also struggling with addictions? How can I be open about my own struggles without risking my work, future opportunities and professional relationships? I feel like I’m hiding and disappearing into darkness. I want to be seen, to feel loved and accepted and to share those feelings with others. I think I need this in order to begin to heal and replace my current coping behaviours with more helpful ones.
Disappearing into Darkness
Thanks so much for your candour and courage asking this question. Having worked for over a decade in community services myself, it’s my experience that addiction, mental health struggles and burnout among front-line workers of all kinds are treated as “dirty secrets” in the helping professions. So many of us are struggling. So few of us are able to speak openly about it for fear of the stigma that exists in our supposedly open-minded, accepting field of work.
The proverb “Physician, heal thyself” is quoted so often in healthcare and social services that it’s become a harmful cliché. It’s true that in order to work safely with others, we must be aware of our own wounds and take responsibility for our failings. Yet there is also something deeply shaming (not to mention hypocritical) about a professional culture that places all the responsibility of “self-care” and personal wellness onto individual workers, while also creating conditions that are not conducive to mental health.
I am speaking, of course, of the staggeringly high burnout rates in the field of public health and social services: Research indicates that up to 67 percent of community mental health workers report experiencing burnout and depersonalization (a dissociative reaction associated with post-traumatic stress).
In her recent personal essay on social workers’ mental health, disabled writer and former social worker Shivani Seth writes that the profession “Privileges a very particular kind of body and mind, and leaves everyone else out in the cold… As if social workers are somehow supposed to be above all that. As if we don’t have some of the same problems as our clients.”
Seth points out the ableism inherent in this kind of workplace culture and calls for better accommodations. I would append to this that, in addition to ableism, there is a culture of elitism in the helping professions—particularly those that work with mental health, poverty and stigmatized groups.
As queer community workers who are also invested in social justice, it may be important to remember that elitism is deeply woven into the history of our fields. Much of it stems from European charity movements that began in the 19th century. These charity movements worked primarily to increase the social status of middle-class white women who were sent as “friendly visitors” to instruct the poor on “social hygiene” (meaning virtuous living), which was believed to be the cure for poverty (rather than, say, a living wage and universal healthcare).
As a result, there is a prevailing notion that helping professionals are—and have to be—somehow “better” than the people they serve, and that this is what qualifies them to be helping professionals. This, despite the fact that first-hand experience of struggle, oppression, addiction and mental illness are likely to make community workers more insightful, compassionate and relatable.
I imagine this is true of your work as well, DID—that your lived experience of trauma and substance use may in fact make you a better community worker, not a worse one. This is especially true because you have taken proactive steps—therapy, support groups, friendships—to ensure that your work isn’t negatively impacted.
All this to say, DID, I wish I could provide you with a solution to your question about how to be open about your experience with addiction without risking your professional standing. The truth is, however, that there is indeed a risk. The extent to which this may impact you will depend on the specific colleagues and workplaces you share (you may find that some are actually very supportive), but certainly stigma and ignorance are out there. Until more courageous individuals come forward to push for change in the field, as well as the general public, this prejudice shall remain.
However, DID, I imagine that you have likely dealt with discrimination and stigma before as a queer, middle-aged person. No doubt you have also helped many others struggling with stigma and shame in your line of work. These same experiences and skills can be applied to your current situation, which is to say: Coming out as a community worker coping with addiction has many parallels to coming out as a queer person. The risks are often high, but so, too, are the rewards. And the risks you take will likely benefit others who share your struggle.
As with coming out about one’s queerness, coming out about coping with addiction or mental health is not necessarily a short-term battle. You can do so at your own pace, strategically choosing when, where and to whom you disclose. It may be helpful to start with the colleagues you believe are the most likely to be supportive so that you gradually build up a network of support within your practice.
If you have the time and energy, you might also consider starting an anonymous support group specifically for community and social service workers who have experienced addiction and substance dependence. Models for anonymous peer support groups exist in programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, and you may already be familiar with them from your previous support group experience. However, there is an enormous need for such groups specifically for health-care and social service providers, since most providers are much less likely to attend groups meant for the general public.
Though it is difficult to find addiction and substance use organizations where workers openly identify as having personal experience with addiction, they do exist. In Toronto, one such organization is Pieces to Pathways, a queer substance use support program whose website states “All of our staff are queer and/or trans-identified and have their own experiences of substance use and recovery.” Though Pieces to Pathways outlines that it is focused specifically on LGBTTQQ2SIA youth, they may have some useful resources or tips to share when it comes to living, working and organizing as a community worker living with addiction.
Finally, DID, I want to return to the notion that your substance use somehow makes you “not worthy of this work.” It is true that there are those in our field who would look down on you for it. But there are also those who look down on workers who are racialized, queer, trans and disabled. The threads of elitism, gatekeeping and discrimination run through all helping professions, which is due to the legacy of the colonial values from which they were born.
But I do not believe that your experiences with addiction make you any less worthy of a helper, healer or educator. What matters is how you translate those experiences into the work you do: When we are lost in denial and isolation, our trauma hinders our work. With good self-reflection and external support, however, our trauma can strengthen what we do. Transformative community work never comes from helping from above or pretending that we are somehow different or better than the people we serve. True transformation comes about when we find solidarity in each others’ struggle.
Know that you are not alone, DID. Know that you are worthy of love and acceptance for exactly who you are. The world is unjust and the darkness is wide. Know that you are the light that someone is looking for.