Working with young adults a meaningful connection
Here’s the challenge: Call your family from treatment, and have a conversation without asking for anything.
“When you’re in addiction, all your phone calls are about what you can get from someone else,” said J.J. Potts, a weekend counselor at Oxford Treatment Center.
“Our patients can be so manipulative towards their families — and their families buy into what they’re selling,” he said. “So I encourage them to call home and say, ‘I just want to tell you I love you.’”
A young man reported to Potts recently that when he did that, his mom began to cry on the phone. She said, “This is the first time you’ve ever called home without wanting something or needing to be bailed out of jail.”
“It’s exciting for me to see those relationships begin to change and heal,” Potts said.
Potts plays a first-hand role in that process, spending time with patients and their families during Sunday afternoon visitation. He also helps them process their experience from the Intensive Family Therapy Program. The family program, which takes place on the last Saturday of treatment, includes a powerful time of therapist-led sharing among patients and their loved ones.
“I ask them, ‘When is the last time you’ve seen your mom or dad look this good?’” Potts said. “I have them visualize what their addiction did to their family — to remember their tired eyes and wrinkles, the physical stress they caused them. Recovery demands we take responsibility for what we’ve done to others, and learn to think about someone other than ourselves.”
“This is my way of repairing my past — trying to help someone who’s where I was 20 years ago.”
Potts got clean for his children. He is a father of seven. He decided they deserved better than a dad who used drugs, went to prison, and kept on using.
He went to treatment, and had his moment of clarity about two weeks in.
“I realized at that time I had to do something different from what I had been doing,” he said. “I could have continued down that road of pain and misery, or I could change. Fortunately, I was able to make a clear decision for the first time in 35 years.”
Potts spent 42 days in primary treatment, followed by four months of secondary treatment sober living. He credits the latter with giving him a strong start in recovery.
As he rebuilt his life, Potts went back to school for a degree in architectural engineering. It was a natural step, having worked in construction all his life. But his work at Oxford Treatment Center has since eclipsed that goal.
“In the beginning, this job was just to get me through school,” he said. “But something happened over the last four years. I don’t plan on going anywhere. I feel like I’ve finally found my place in life for the first time in 41 years.
“For so many years, I destroyed everything I came in contact with. I guess this is my way of repairing my past — trying to help someone who’s where I was 20 years ago.”
“It’s amazing to see them come to life over the course of their stay.”
Potts’ initial role at Oxford Treatment Center was as a clinical assistant. He was promoted to a therapeutic specialist, working with groups and individuals. Today, he focuses chiefly on working with young adults as a weekend counselor.
“I’m drawn to the young adults, and they seem to relate to me because of my past,” he said. “They trust me, and I don’t pull punches with them. That’s what a lot of them need — somebody who’s honest with them that cares about them.”
In the group sessions he leads, Potts focuses on spiritual aspects of recovery. He also emphasizes the choice each patient has to make.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” he said. “Do you want to be labeled as a drug addict who doesn’t care about life? Or do you want something different? They have a choice, and they don’t realize how fortunate they are. When I was growing up, there were 12-step programs, but it was real quiet. Addiction was a hush-hush deal. Now, everybody in the world knows about addiction. They have opportunities for recovery that didn’t exist back then.”
As someone who spent his youth in addiction, and now as a father of young adults, Potts finds it easy to relate to what patients are going through. His colleagues credit his skill at building a rapport with even those who are most resistant.
“When I was their age, if somebody would have told me, ‘You’ll never be able to drink or smoke another joint again,’ I wouldn’t have known what life was going to be like,” he said. “Yet it’s amazing to see them come to life over the course of their weeks with us. You see them arrive beat down, and then grow daily and get more interested, then ultimately become leaders in their group.
“Because with everything we can give them, it’s still up to them to do the work. They’re the ones who’ll mend the relationships with their families. They’re the ones who’ll have the A-ha moments. They’re the ones who have to own that hope: Things can be better this time.”