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Addiction Therapist Pulls from Life Experiences to Help his Patients

In this exclusive interview, an addiction therapist shares how his childhood experience with family members who abused drugs made him keenly aware of the destructive nature of substance addiction. 

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
I work as a psychologist in the field of addictions, and I have been working in this field for seven years. If I had to describe myself I would say: sensible, impulsive, and rational.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
I am a Hispanic male. My name and last name—both Arabic—have created a few problems in my life, especially when I came to the United States. I always faced them with my best smile and kind intentions. I speak Spanish, which helped me to communicate with different cultures.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
I work helping others; I teach them to understand their illness and how to carry on with it. I work with patients and their families. There are a lot of misunderstandings about addictions, especially nowadays because very few patients understand the real damage their illness causes and why they have to take some medication; also, there’s a lot of prejudging people with addiction diseases.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
I’d rate my satisfaction as an eight; it could be very interesting to develop more therapeutic groups where patients could learn from the interaction with other people to know more about their illness and how to solve it.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you! found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
I need to help others; I strongly believe this is one of the main objectives in my life.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
There’s no better way to relate to someone and help them than to have experienced that situation in your own life. Coming from a family devastated by drugs and an alcoholic father, I had no choice to live in this kind of reality. I lived in one of the most drug addiction disease suburbs in my city. Many friends and classmates were immersed in the drug world, so I was lucky to not have fallen into drugs.  My brothers, however, weren’t so lucky. My sister, five years older than I am, and my big brother, the same age as her, both started using drugs when they were seventeen and became addicts. The problem of living with someone with an addiction, like many other young people in my neighborhood, became a real and devastating part of my life. The problem doubled in my family. My sister went to prison a few months later. I was eleven and I hardly learned how addictions could destroy everything. My prevention interest woke up inside of me after living those kinds of experiences.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
Personally, I wouldn’t change anything at all because looking back and changing things would break the personal experiences I have had and would change who I am today.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
I learned to separate my personal experiences from others’ experiences. I must support others from an objective point of view, training myself not to project my experiences on others.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
I started working when I was fifteen years old, so I shared my studies with work and free time. High school materials were expensive, especially in art classes in which I had to purchase highly specialized equipment. This was one of the most important reasons why I started working so young. I started working as a waiter while going to classes from Monday to Friday. Because of this situation, my grades dropped. My high school psychologist suggested I was under too much stress and advised me to stop studying for a while, so I did.

Family debts made me look for a daily job, so I started working in a butcher shop in downtown Madrid. One day, something strange happened to me. I was doing a delivery in a convent and spontaneously had a small talk with one of the nuns. She talked to me about the drawbacks of not going on studying. It was a magical moment because those words were the first ones that she had spoken to me. It gave me courage and strength; actually, I felt something waking up inside of me after that conversation. When my mother and I both managed to save the money that we needed to pay family debts, I decided to give myself another opportunity to go back to school.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
The institution that I work for was visiting one of the most important museums in Madrid, which is called Prado Museum. One of the patients, a very conflictive one, decided to touch the “Las Meninas” painting, one of the most important ones in the museum. When I saw this, I didn’t know what to do; doing this was nearly a sin! So we had to end the visit.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
There are a lot of people who unfortunately need me because of their illness. There’s nothing more rewarding than having the skills to help people change their lives. I personally feel very proud because of that.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
One of my main challenges is to share my free time as a volunteer and plan a variety of programs with patients and their families. I always try to improve. It is unusual for me to face a challenge that I don’t consider interesting or appropriate.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
I work eight hours daily, so it’s not really stressful. It’s very important to get a healthy balance, so I usually go jogging when I have free time and then go back to the hospital. Also, I try to do biofeedback and breathing exercises before facing a stressful situation, such as talking to a very conflictive patient or family. I believe I keep a very good stress balance.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
Roughly, my salary is 25,000 euros per year, which is good, especially nowadays. I can afford to live with it, and I’m pleased to have this opportunity.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
One month a year. I believe it is enough; a lot of people in the world would pray to just have half of that.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
I enrolled in a Psychology degree program. With every year that passed, I enjoyed my studies and the field of psychology even more. I passed each year while I going on with my restaurant job.

I received scholarships to pay tuition and expenses each year, but I had to work hard to get good scores. Fortunately, I got a scholarship to spend a semester in Lisbon for my last degree year. Also, I got another scholarship to take a course abroad, an English as a Second Language course in Toronto.

I soon learned how important it is to get researching experience, so I decided to enroll in Neurosciences Doctoral Graduate Program directed by Dr. Guillermo Ponce. At that time, I was primarily responsible for entering data from a survey we were conducting of drug disease prevention. After my experience, I knew for certain that I would attend graduate school to study Drug Disease and Prevention.

One of those things I most appreciated about the researching field was the interaction between other graduate students from a variety of specialties, like medicine or biology. I also got my first exposure to SPSS that semester; now I am grateful for this because it gave me a bit of head start in learning how to use statistical analysis software.

I continued my studies, so I enrolled in a postgraduate program, Expert in Drug Disease and Prevention. I found this field very important and interesting to specialize in. Thanks to this, I got my first job as a therapist.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
Absolutely yes 🙂

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I’d love to spread my knowledge in other places in the world and fight against addiction disease, developing new strategies and skills to beat the illness.

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