Addiction therapist pulls from life experiences to help his patients

In this interview with a psychologist in the addiction field, he shares how his experience as a child with family members who abused drugs made him keenly aware of the destructive nature of substance addiction. After struggling to make ends meet, and needing to take a full-time job, he dropped out of school. With some encouragement from an unexpected place, he mustered up the determination to go back to school and he dedicated his life to helping others overcome their addictive illnesses.

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. I have been working in that 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 troubles 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 and it 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 because nowadays very few patients understand the real damage their illness causes, and why they have to take some medication, also there’s a lot of prejudge toward 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 8; 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 with alcoholic father, I had no choice to live on this kind of reality. I lived in one of the most drug addiction disease suburb in my city. Many friends of mine and classmates were immersed in drug’s world, so I was lucky not to have fallen into drugs, but my brothers weren’t so lucky. My sister, five years older than me, and my big brother, the same age as her, both started using drugs when they were 17, and becoming 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 into 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 through 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 at fifteen years old, sharing my studies with work and free time. High school materials were expensive, especially in arts class, where I had to purchase highly specialized equipment. That was one of the most important reasons for which 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. Because of this, my high school psychologist suggested I was under too much stress, advising me to stop studying for a while, so I did.

Family debts made me look for daily job. 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 suddenly I had a small talk with one of the nuns. She talked to me about 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 by the way, decided to touch the “Las Meninas” painting, one of the most important ones. When I saw it, I didn’t know what to do because it is 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 that 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 also to plan a variety of programs with patients and their families. I always try to improve. I unusually face any challenge that I 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 any 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?
My rough salary is 25,000 euros/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 is enough, a lot of people in the world would pray to have just 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 kept 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 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, of a variety of specialties, like medicine or biology degree students. I also got my first exposure to SPSS that semester, now I am grateful for that 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 that, 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.


  • avatar

    military frontier March 26, 2012, 9:38 am

    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 also planning a variety of programs with patients and their families. I always try to improve. I unusually face any challenge that I consider interesting or appropriate.

  • avatar

    military frontier March 26, 2012, 9:40 am

    Guillermo Ponce. While there, I was primarily responsible for entering data from a survey we were conducting of drug disease prevention

  • avatar

    Danielle Renee Cobos July 5, 2012, 4:29 pm

    As an education amjor I have always wanted to help guide those students who need extra help. I am interested in teaching special populations such as at-risk, drop outs, and pregnancy’s. After reading this article I have thought to go even futher into counceling or a position where I can help students who have addictions or struggle with substance abuse.

  • avatar

    Susannah Prater August 1, 2012, 12:58 pm

    Being able to overcome a childhood and family life of substance abuse is a great feat indeed! I often think that the best counselors are the ones who have experienced in some form what they are counseling others for. It makes you human and believable to others.

  • avatar

    Stephanie Cerda August 2, 2012, 2:44 am

    The beginning of my high school career dealt with the business of illegal substances. It is not something I am proud of, but I can relate to this article because I caught of glimpse of addiction. It was a scary awakening, and I quickly left before my position got any deeper. I appreciate what you do for those suffering. There are many people in desperate need of help with such illnesses.

  • avatar

    K.lee August 15, 2012, 6:53 pm

    Similar to the psychologist in the article, I was affected
    by childhood events that consequently led me to choose my desired profession. I
    have found that there is no higher reward than when helping others. Though life
    experiences can be heart-wrenching and traumatic, I believe they can be
    transformed into a positive vocation, where compassion and understanding are
    deeply rooted.

  • avatar

    chad vasquez October 31, 2012, 6:20 am

    People deal with abuse everyday, It is sad to know that there are so many people with this issue. Finding the real underlying problem is key. The person may be attempting too hide a feeling or secret and choose to become numb by doing drugs. It is sad, but there are many people in the world who decided to fake reality and choose drugs to do it.

  • avatar

    rrodriguez December 14, 2012, 1:03 am

    When reading about his gender and ethnicity I related how most people I meet assume that since my last name is Hispanic that I automatically speak spanish and that is not the case.

  • avatar

    Chelsea Padilla-Frankel December 18, 2012, 12:04 am

    As a twenty year-old Hispanic female who has battled addiction since I was fifteen I have so much respect for what you do. Since my sobriety I have tried to give back as much as I can, since I have been as lucky I as I have to receive help from so many great professionals such as your self. I currently volunteer at the women’s prison and jail in my city helping women with alcohol and drug dependencies.

    There are people of all ethnicities that suffer from addiction, this disease is absolutely colorblind. However, in my experience I have noticed that a great deal of the women I work with, and the people I encounter in Alcoholics Anonymous are Hispanic. This is a huge problem for the Hispanic community, and being that I am part of this community it hits me very hard. I do not fluently speak Spanish, which I believe would enable me to reach more of the women I encounter, but I’m currently taking classes at the university I attend.

    The job you do is truly amazing, and makes such a difference to the people you help. I commend you for your dedication and the help your provide.

  • avatar

    Jesus Saavedra December 31, 2012, 9:03 pm

    Many people don’t think about what will make them happy, they only think
    about the money – sure, money may make some people happy but not
    everyone. When choosing a career, we must focus on something we love
    doing, or on his case something we want to fight against, and that will make us thrive everyday to give it our best.

    He is a strong man, overcoming all those challenges along the way,
    at the end of the day is what made him stronger in life. I have thought
    sometimes, “why is it so hard?” but now after knowing that other people
    might be struggling more than I have I know I can make it.

    I think he is a great inspiration for everyone around him, we could
    all learn something from his experiences and the way he keeps fighting
    for his dreams. I certainly did, I will keep working hard in my career
    to make my dreams come true.

  • avatar

    ryannquick21 January 1, 2013, 2:18 am

    This article hit close to home due to my father being an alcoholic. My father’s alcoholism affected my family in very negative ways. He was an abusive partner to my mom and did not provide or take care of me and my sister. The alcohol instigated my father to cause hurtful emotional pain and his death affected our life. My father attended rehab three times and each were unsuccessful. Like the counselor in the story her biggest frustration was when patients shut down or refuse to work any longer. I wish he was able to be successful in the programs, but I am grateful that the counselors at the rehabilitation center were willing to give him a chance to succeed. My father’s death inspired me to pursue the public health field because I want to make a difference in people’s lives and prevent their family pain. I value health promotion because our community members are falling into addictive behaviors, unhealthy lifestyles, and disease.


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