Dr. Robert Simpson – Working with Fellow Professionals Experiencing Difficulties

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Ask The Expert – An Interview with Dr. Robert Simpson reveals some practical advice for working with fellow professionals experiencing difficulties

By Elisabeth Escobar MA M.Ed

Dr. Robert Simpson was born in England, though he completed his medical training at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. He graduated from there, with honours, in 1997 and went on to complete his internship and residency in Internal Medicine at Baylor University Medical Center. In 2000 he moved to Utah to train in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Utah. He remained there as faculty before retraining in Addiction Medicine. He is board certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine and joined Cirque Lodge in 2014. Dr. Simpson has a passion for recovery and for helping others find freedom from the suffering of addiction. Particular interests include acute detoxification, residential treatment and the treatment of impaired professionals.

What issues arise for Professionals with Addiction or other mental health Issues that may differ from the general population? 

The biggest difference is that many professionals over-identify with their profession. Getting into recovery helps clients develop a healthier relationship with their professional identity, we also work on helping clients understand that the disease is the same…addiction doesn’t care where you came from. Professionals who are in the fields of medicine, law, education, clergy, law enforcement, CEO’s – they will all be affected by this disease like the rest of the population…about 12-15 %. We help people embrace recovery. The job comes back, but now, people can hold the whole thing [professional life] in a healthier way.

Do you see many Addiction Professionals in treatment?

Yes, we do. It is a bit of a “classic set up” and by that, I mean that these professionals often have their own life-changing event when they get into treatment. They want to become an addiction counselor so they go into the field. They get busy and listen to client’s problems and they may not understand that working in treatment does not equal their own recovery work…they become, ‘compulsive helpers’ which is another way of saying extremely co-dependent. This can cause burn out.

What are some of the major themes that people who are in Recovery themselves and who work in the field, come into treatment with?

Often, the primary focus is others and not their own recovery…it is so easy to move into unhealthy helping behaviours! They forget to take care of themselves and get busy taking care of others…..we use the airplane analogy here, ‘be sure to put the oxygen on yourself first before helping others’……this is so important to work in field of addiction for anyone.

How do you help people realize that they have become Compulsive Helpers?

This is a disease that is waiting in the wings for us. We become ‘in demand’ ….when what we need is to be ‘egoless’ and serve as a conduit to help others get into Recovery….or else we become puffed up….We become too busy to look after ourselves, and it is a mistake and can be a short fall from grace…..Then we become reluctant to ask for help. People who work in the field sometimes forget they are as vulnerable as anyone else and maybe more so.

I had a colleague and friend whom I worked with in a treatment program and after 20 years of sobriety, he relapsed. He was asked to leave but I was surprised at the reaction of some of my colleagues. They were angry with him; they refused to talk with him. This is coming from people who are also in Recovery and working in the field. Is this common?

Blame and Shame become rampant when Love and Tolerance needs to be our code. We need to monitor each other without being Co-Dependent. We have Team Meetings three times a week to discuss our patients and, and this is very important, our transference issues…..that must be discussed. Clients can trigger us. Shame is predictable-as night follows day. If we have blurred boundaries, we are more likely to get into trouble. Being in Recovery means attending meetings, meeting with your sponsor and reading the literature……whether you work in the field or not. If you don’t do these three things, it spells trouble for any one of us.

Is there a particular issue that is slippery?

Yes, as already mentioned, the compulsive helping and also, sexual issues. Sexual relationships can be a bigger problem than a relapse from chemicals. I would like to see, say, more retreats for professionals who work in the sector…I think this is a good idea… perhaps a two week refresher course every few years.”
There is a great paradox here….folks get a great life through Recovery then life becomes demanding and we lose the Recovery……a good treatment programme will address the stress in their employee’s life so that this doesn’t have to happen.

Any parting thoughts?

We are baffled by our own behaviours and most people don’t understand that these behaviours are symptoms of their disease. I feel it is not a horrible secret I have to keep. I see it as my responsibility [as a person in recovery]…. to have the freedom to put it out there – it is one facet of who I am and not the whole package. I am more than willing to share, especially if it helps others understand the disease of addiction.

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