Reprinted from "Concurrent Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (1), p. 23
People with concurrent disorders are first and foremost, people. Although they are frequently people with serious mental and sometimes physical health issues, they are also grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours. They are—or once were—someone’s child, husband, wife, partner or companion. Sometimes people with concurrent disorders are homeless; sometimes they are live in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods. Contrary to what many people believe, people with concurrent disorders are found in every socio-economic group, and across occupations. Anywhere you might find a person, you might find a person with a concurrent disorder.
Over the past several years, I have worked primarily with people who fall into the category of concurrent disorder clients. I have researched the latest best practice guidelines, and reviewed recommendations from leading professionals in the field. It has been validating to discover that while each government body, agency, or individual has their own unique way of saying it, the bottom line invariably includes a caution against losing sight of the person in the service of ‘treating’ the disorder.
In spite of this, I find myself occasionally sitting in rooms listening to conversations about ‘schizophrenics,' ‘addicts’ and ‘alcoholics.’ Sometimes this comes from the people suffering from these disorders, sometimes not. Always, I am left wondering what kind of person the ‘schizophrenic,’ ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’ was sent into this world to become. Although the label gives me no clue as to the answer, the labeled person when asked, often can.
The explanations that people provide to justify or make sense of their suffering are typically heart-warming and inspiring. I have found a depth of compassion, understanding, empathy and humility in the stories of the people I work with. At times, this is the only bright spot in a work day that revolves around trying to make too little go too far. The people I work with tell me they look forward to helping others, to finding a place for themselves in the world, and to finally feeling a sense of belonging. They also tell me this is sometimes quite a challenge, as labels once applied, are not easily seen past. But for the most part, the people I work with persist. They keep coming to appointments, keep working on the changes they’ve decided to make, and keep taking the risk of looking to others for support when the burden becomes too great to carry alone.
The people I work with are amazing. They are people who suffer the double stigma of mental illness and addiction. They are also people who have had experiences that would make most ‘normal’ people shake with fear, and they are people who have moved through those experiences with an inherent desire to survive—and ultimately to live. I have worked with multi-talented people who sometimes have little left to lose, but still much to offer. From these people, I’ve learned about acceptance, courage and wisdom, and when I’m in their presence, I am inspired to become the best person I can be.
These days, in addition to working with people with concurrent disorders, I am responsible for training others in this work. I am fortunate to spend my days surrounded by colleagues who also see the strength, courage, resilience and wisdom in the people we work with, and who strive to deliver the best possible service in the face of sometimes-daunting odds. Working with concurrent disorders is not a task for the faint of heart, nor is it a task for the easily discouraged. But the people we work with have always known this. To be allowed to travel with them on their journey is a privilege.
About the authorDebbie is a Concurrent Disorders Therapist at Tri-Cities Mental Health Centre in the Lower Mainland