I had the pleasure of interviewing Vonnie Nealon, Clinical Director for Warriors at Heart
How have your personal challenges informed your career path?
I wish I could tell you that I had absolutely no personal knowledge of addiction or alcoholism prior to becoming a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor; however, because of the program I live by I choose to tell the truth.
As a young adult I learned very quickly that when I did not like the way I felt, I could drink or drug the feeling away. I recovered from my addiction and went to college to become a nurse however, like many who suffer from the disease of addiction, I relapsed after nine years. I’d like to say my addiction to alcohol and drugs were the only issues I had, they were not. I also believed there always had to be a man in my life, and that included those that were abusive. During my relapse, I met a man who would change my life. He was my drug dealer. He taught me that love doesn’t have to hurt, that abuse is wrong.
Like many in treatment, I was given a second chance, I was shown love and grace by others who could have been merciless.
Many of those with addiction issues end up with legal issues, and I found myself in a relationship with a drug dealer. Without going into all of it when we got in trouble with the police, he cut a deal and I was given another chance to change my life. He traded his freedom for my freedom, and I committed myself to recovery. When I was allowed to speak to him following the trial, he asked me to make three promises to him, the first that I would take care of my children, the second that I would give something back, and the third that I would never attempt to contact him, I would walk away. I made those promises, and I could not think of a better way of keeping the second promise than to work with other addicts and alcoholics. I returned to college, and became a licensed chemical dependency counselor.
In the words of Viktor Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” I made the decision to change myself. Since 2002, I have worked as a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and as a clinical director for several treatment centers, including Warriors Heart, where I currently work. I have found that because of my past I have the ability to reach out to others who suffer with the disease of addiction. Warriors Heart is a facility for our military, veterans and first responders, and I have found that my past allows me to help them put purpose back in their lives, to overcome their addictions and their PTSD.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I became a counselor/clinician”
- Practice what you preach. Listen and internalize what you say to your clients or, simply put, follow the same instructions you give to your clients. Clinicians tend to spend a great deal of time with their clients in intimate relationships because we listen and learn all about their lives; however, we frequently don’t take care of ourselves. We struggle to maintain our own intimate relationships as our work becomes our lives and we tend to neglect those that are most important to us. After spending our days listening to others in session after session, we frequently close ourselves off from our loved ones as we simply do not want to deal with our own issues. We seem to forget that we have the same needs as everyone else and that we have to nourish our relationships and ourselves in the same way we teach our clients too. Self-care is extremely important and at times I have to remind myself to do things outside of work — spend time with family and friends and read good books about things other than psychology. I work my own recovery program so that I have something to offer to others.
- There are times when you will feel helpless that you can’t help someone.Sometimes you work with clients who get better very fast, and sometimes it takes a long time for them to start to improve, even worse sometimes they don’t change, don’t improve and the disease of addiction will kill them. It’s heartbreaking to work with a client and know that you’ve done the best you can, and yet, they return to using time and time again. They tell you they are hurting, and all you can do is tell them, “I hear that you are hurting, I’m listening, and I’m committed to working with you.” We do not have magic wands to wave away all the pain they are feeling, we are not magicians. We are not curing anyone, and if we believe that we can cure someone then we may be sorely disappointed, as no one can change another person.
- Be authentic! You will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and we learn from each mistake. When you make a mistake admit to your client that you’ve made a mistake, or you don’t know the answer. When you give yourself permission to make mistakes, you give yourself permission to grow and learn. You learn to trust your own intuition and to grow and develop your own style of therapy. Letting your clients know that you don’t have all the answers or that you made a mistake models your vulnerability and willingness to grow and connect with them.
- Client’s sometimes die or kill themselves and it will never get easier. No one toldusthat as a counselor I’d lose clients because they would either take their own lives or the disease would kill them. On one hand, I know it is a fact of life everyone dies. On the other, I didn’t know that I would try to take the blame when it wasn’t mine to own. The first time I lost a client I was devastated, and I questioned what I had done wrong, what had I missed. No one told me that it would not get easier to lose a client, that in fact for me it actually seems to hurt more. Even knowing that I’ve done the best that I could do, shared all the knowledge I’ve ever had, some will die. I believe that the day death no longer matters to me is the day that I will need to walk away from this career. I don’t save lives, clients have to save their own lives, and they make the decision to change or not to change.
- Learn all you can and then learn more. Focus less on obtaining your license, and more on learning everything you can. In college my favorite professor, Dr. Dorothy Newman used to frequently say, read, read, read, and then read some more. Spend time gaining as much knowledge as you can, absorb all you can. Learn your strengths and weaknesses. Listen to your colleagues, be willing to hear constructive criticism and to acknowledge your skills. Don’t miss out on the chances while in school to work with those you don’t really want because you will have missed out on an opportunity for growth. Once you have your license, you can choose clients, and where you want to work. I learned more in college while working with adolescents. Based on this experience, I had no desire to work with them, and that helped me as I work with young adults. Looking back now, I recognize that I learned more from the situations, and clients that I didn’t want to work with than in the classroom. I learned that it’s okay to be uncomfortable as a professional, and to work through the discomfort just like I have to at times in my personal life.
Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?
This is a difficult question to answer. I do think that if clients know part of my story, it gives me credibility with them, as it helps them relate to me. However, too much self-disclosure may cause harm to a client, as they may begin to believe the relationship is more of a friendship. Clients knowing that I have been in their shoes at least with their struggle with drugs and alcohol will allow them to feel a connection with me. Sharing my own recovery with them can and does give them hope that if I can remain clean and sober, then they can as well. With others such as family members or other professionals, I believe that having them know all of my history may in fact be harmful. My past may influence them to believe that I may not be objective when it comes to addiction. Unfortunately, with some collogues or fellow professionals, my personal story of recovery may limit my creditability with them as there is still a stigma associated with being an addict or an alcoholic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?
My favorite quote, “When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” Anonymous
My journey thus far in life has been a long and winding one. I’ve always told people I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and therefore the first time I went to college it was to become a nurse. I did not complete my degree for several reasons, and instead went to work as a nursing assistant. I then went to nursing school at a small hospital and became a nurse.
Later, I returned to college to become a drug and alcohol counselor. I decided to return to college to complete a bachelor’s degree I had started it in 1979. I would be returning to a university as a non-traditional student, and that required a lot of courage on my part. I was a single mom and worked full-time at a prison as a counselor while teaching part time at a Junior College.
Everyone told me to not try to go back to school, that it would be too hard, or I should just take online classes. My heart was set on returning to a University to prove to myself that I could complete the degree.
The University that I was determined to attend was a private Christian University, and in order to be accepted into the program I was required to write an autobiography. I wrote the autobiography, and turned it into my advisor, who turned white while reading it. She very calmly looked at me, and informed me if I really wanted to attend school, then I would rewrite it and take out the parts that discussed my being and addict, along with other parts that she deemed inappropriate for their students.
I remember going home after that meeting and agonizing over whether to give up or not. I live in a program that requires me to be rigorously honest, and I knew I could not change the autobiography. Every part of me kept telling me to just give up, I had one degree. I worked as a counselor, and I taught others to become counselors, but my heart was set on that degree. A friend of mine attached this quote to an email, and I resubmitted the autobiography without changing any part of it. I made the decision to simply hope that the university would look past my history, and see that I had recovered. Even though I was an addict, I deserved a chance to complete the degree. The university accepted me. And as a single mom to one grown son and one teenage daughter, not only did I earn my degree, I did so with a 3.54 GPA. And my daughter was able to walk with me at graduation. No matter what the world says there is always hope.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement that would bring about the most amount of good to the most amount of people, I would have the principles of the 12-step program taught in school. Schools are beginning to teach about financial responsibility in high schools, wouldn’t it be awesome if life skills and coping skills were taught in all high schools or in middle school? While everyone considers the 12-step programs to only be for alcoholics/addicts, the truth is they are simply a blueprint for a way to live your life on life’s terms. To learn to cope with all that you walk through in life. In the 12-step programs, we discuss the three dimensions of mind, body, and spirit. We believe that each problem we deal with are understood to present in each dimension. Working the steps is intended to replace self-centeredness with a growing moral consciousness and a willingness for self-sacrifice and unselfish constructive action.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m a pretty private person so I’m not on social media much. I can be found on Facebook at Vonnie Reid Nealon
Warriors Heart — private residential treatment center for “warriors only” (military, veterans and first responders)