All About Addiction

Helping addicts get their lives back

Stigmatized to Stop Drinking...Again

Why are helping professions stigmatizing those they purport to help?

Those of you not following All About Addiction on Facebook (you should) or paying attention to our updates on Twitter and such might not have known that yours truly was recently informed by the California Board of Psychology that in order to become a psychologist in California (actually, to get registered as a Psychological Assistant, which allows one to get experience towards becoming a fully licensed psychologist) I was going to have to submit to a three-year probationary period of drug and alcohol testing. I was completely sober for almost three years between January 2002 and about September 2004 following an arrest and jail stint for drug possession and sales (see here for part of the story). In the summer of 2004 I decided to take on the classic “AA Experiment,” meaning that I wanted to see if having an alcoholic drink would bring me back to drug use as so many in my 12-step groups told me it would. I am happy to report that, eight years later, the answer is still no—I’ve been drug free since 2002 but have been drinking alcohol socially since 2004.

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Aside from staying drug and crime free, I also went back to school and received my Ph.D., published dozens of articles in academic journals related to addiction, set up All About Addiction, started writing for Psychology Today, and had my convictions set aside by my judge after completing five years of probation without a single dirty drug test or violation of any sort. But the California Board of Psychology wanted more, so they told me I had to test if I wanted to move forward. I was offended, consulted with many other professionals I know about what I should do, and threatened to request additional hearings before eventually succumbing. The bottom line is that the board is essentially all powerful and can ask licensing applicants to do pretty much anything they want. Besides, I am a nine-felony ex-convict asking to become a psychologist—maybe I’ll never live down my past no matter what I do (for my take on stigma, read here). So I have a probation officer again and I have to stop drinking.

So in Spetember I stopped drinking alcohol—having a final glass of wine with my wife who is being nice and joining me (for now) in not drinking. Ironically, I stopped at that time because I believed that my meeting with the probation representative was imminent—it took more than two weeks for our eventual meeting and another two weeks for my actual testing to begin last week. Apparently I was so concerned about not drinking any more that I only drank half of my glass (my wife didn’t actually touch hers). Still, I have been drinking a drink or two three to four times every week for a while now and had gotten used to my glass of wine as post-work stress relief. So I’m wondering what the experience will feel like having to give up one of my coping tools for at least two years.

I talk to addicts and alcoholics on a regular basis and my own social drinking has come up as an issue many times before. I always said it wasn’t a problem and many others have told me I’m wrong—that I am either in the midst of a relapse or that I was never really an addict. The latter point is moot and I can’t prove that at all, but I know that this little experience might be an interesting experiment (the reverse of the initial one if you will) to see if returning to drinking was indeed a cop-out. This ruling obviously also ignores evidence regarding moderate drinking as an option for non-dependent alcohol users, but again, moot point.

Having this website and all, I decided I am going to write about it. I'm summarizing some initial impressions from the first weeks in this piece. I’d love to hear your thoughts as comments here or on our Facebook page. For those of you who don't care, I understand and urge you to read a less personal article here on All About Addiction.

Eliminating drinking–coping with stress and social interactions

I have to say that realizing I won’t be able to have my near-nightly alcohol serving after stressful work was a bummer. I had that thought a few times throughout my longest workdays (6 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and on the way home. I know full well that for me, stress is a trigger for alcohol use. Thankfully, I was not actually tempted to open up anything and drink once I got home. I recognize that I am still early on in the process, so obviously it does not mean that I won’t be tempted soon, but I was happy to find that resisting a drink was not a difficult task even when I would have usually had one.

Also, I realized that my weekly (or so) friendly get-togethers with a couple of guy friends are either going to have to change venues or I’m going to be the only guy not drinking at a happy hour. We’ll see. I’m sure they won’t mind but I’m not sure how I will feel. Lord knows some of my clients frequent bars without issue while others are triggered constantly. If I’m right about my lack of alcoholic drinking issues, it shouldn’t be a problem. However, it certainly brings up the fact that so many of our social ceremonies involve alcohol and whether I like it or not, those notions are part of my view of social interaction.

Probation supervision–indirect discrimination?

While the not drinking alcohol part has not proven to be an issue for me, I have been finding that there is a specific aspect of the experience that really gets to me nearly every time I have to check and see whether I have been called to test on a given day.

Here it is—I am going into a helping profession, meant to support those in our society that need help, a group that for many years included me. As psychologists are meant to play such a supportive role, I understand the need for training and scrutiny, including extensive education (five years), supervision (3,000 hours), background checks and testing. However, it seems somewhat ironic that as part of the quest for licensure those with a troubled past are saddled with additional burdens including daily call-ins for random testing during work hours and extraordinary costs.

Let's get specific—each test is going to cost between $50-$75 and supervision initially includes four to five monthly tests for a total of $200-$375 per month or $2,400-$4,500 per year! And that doesn’t include the $1,000 per year in probation costs! In my specific case that means that for a crime I committed 12 years ago, spent time in jail for and served five years of probation time, the CA Board of Psychology will now ask me to spend another $10,000-$14,000. Now, I should be able to afford the cost (barely) but here’s the rub the way I see it: These sorts of limitations and expenses present an extraordinary difficulty and likely nearly impossible hoop for a whole slew of people to jump through. By placing these sorts of demands on people with a troubled past, no matter how distant, the California Board of Psychology is essentially squeezing out possible clinicians who may have dealt with drug, alcohol, or other relevant issues in the past. I would think that the field would encourage, though obviously not overlook, those who may bring personal experience and empathy to the field. Even my board-assigned probation monitor told me that she thinks such punishment is excessive, but as usual there “isn’t much [she] can do about it.”

Why am I getting so bent out of shape about this, you ask? Money is the instrument by which we control people in this society, and that issue comes up again and again for me when I listen to rich politicians (yes, including certain prominent presidential candidates) telling us that if we all just tried harder and if the government stayed out of our lives and spent less money then we would all be better off. But that’s a lie—government provides services specifically for those of us who can’t afford to provide them for themselves. Romney may be able to build a private road to any of his many houses, but the rest of us need the government to build those roads otherwise we’d only be able to drive where the rich paved—and they wouldn’t let us drive on their private roads anyway. So government helps the rest of us with education, transportation, food, and health care because its job is to equalize the playing field a little bit. That might seem like a digression, but here:

If people with an addiction or criminal past are made to pay $10,000-$15,000 in addition to satisfying every other requirement to become lawyers, psychologists, physicians, therapists, and more, then aren’t we in essence saying to them that we don’t want them in these jobs? Aren’t we telling them that because to their past they are now damaged goods and aren’t really welcome where the rest of society lives? And if we’re telling them that when they try to become part of the helping professions, aren’t we also saying that they are either unable to help or that we simply don’t want their help?

If that is what we’re saying, then I think our system is screwed up. If we’re telling a portion of our society that even if they achieve everything others have, they are still not worthy of the same recognition, then I think we need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Society survives and thrives because its members play together and help each other out—when we start drawing lines indicating what people are worth and what they’re allowed to strive for, we disenfranchise exactly the portion of society we pretend to want to rehabilitate.

So I’m going to walk through this, proudly and successfully. I am going to stop drinking and I am going to pay the exorbitant fees. But I am also going to keep speaking my mind and making sure that the injustice and absurdity of the whole thing is heard, even if only by a few thousand dedicated readers. I’ve worked too hard to just turn the other cheek and say thank you. This is my life, I’ve earned the respect they can’t seem to find for me, and I’m going to claim it. For those of you who have been in a similar situation, you can claim your respect too.

© 2012 Adi Jaffe, All Rights Reserved

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Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., is the executive director of Alternatives Behavioral Health and a lecturer at UCLA and California State University Long Beach.

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