3 Life Lessons I Learned While Working at an Addiction Treatment Center



When I accepted the internship I felt like Cinderella. My fairy godmother Marilyn, the Director of Marketing, replaced the rags of a summer working at a call-center with the glamour of an internship that qualified for college credit. And because I was Cinderella, I decided to celebrate my transformation by going to a party and in the process losing an iridescent, glass-slipper-like Kate Spade earring. When my alarm struck 9 the next morning to wake me up for class, I was brought back to reality by the gut wrenching feeling that I knew absolutely nothing about recovery.


Cue the Nausea.


So I am not sober. A fact that made me nervous when accepting the job, because how do I market something I can’t relate to? I haven’t had an addiction and neither has anyone in my family. The term “on the job learning” has never been more relevant. Luckily my worries were subsided on my first day, after embarrassingly driving around attempting to find the office. But once I found Sanford House I felt at home. The people at Sanford House are bright and brilliant and I was lucky enough to learn from them. This internship has taught me more than any class ever could. While I could write for days on the statistics of social media, SEO phrases and rich media principles I am going to tell you the life lessons I picked up while at Sanford House for the summer.


So here they are the 3 life lessons I have learned from working at an alcohol and drug treatment center.  


I. We start validating alcohol in the media too early.

Dad you can skip this one. I didn’t start drinking until senior year when high school inevitably happened and I was crying over a boy alone in my room. I thought that’s how you were supposed to handle a breakup, because that’s what the movies showed. They show watching endless episodes of Gossip Girl with endless bottles of wine and crying to your dog because your two buck chuck from Trader Joe’s isn’t Chuck Bass and you aren’t Blair Waldorf.


You know you love me xoxo Pinot Grigio.


It wasn’t until my first day at Sanford House when Rae Green went over the neurobiology of what alcohol does to the brain, that I thought maybe this is actually super unhealthy. Now I never took my drinking to an unhealthy level of alcoholism. But I was unhealthily looking for validation to drink. Every show worth watching glorified drinking. My social media feeds propelled me into drowning my insecurities with an onslaught of crummy vodka that was left forgotten in the basement.


Now I’m not saying getting rid of alcohol advertising is the answer. Let’s be honest, I buy wine based on two things: the color and if the label is cute. What I am saying is, the dangers of drinking and relying on substances need to be more widely discussed. Not just the dangers of drinking and driving, but the deep psychological and physiological damage that could be caused by relying on excessive drinking to ease pain. It’s not a shameful conversation. It’s a necessary and safe conversation.


II. The Stereotypes we have of addiction and recovery are wildly false.

I am an outgoing person who cannot leave the house without my hot pink Starbucks water bottle. I also believe that an outfit is incomplete without a statement necklace. So when I told people I was working at a recovery center for the summer, they imagined me hanging up my usual J Crew garb for a red and white striped pinafore. They thought I would be shut in an eggshell, white basement with fluorescent lighting, surrounded by drug addicts (which in their mind looked like extras from The Walking Dead). This was far from the working conditions at Sanford House.


On any given day, I could be found either at my cozy desk adorned with my lucky bamboo; walking around Grand Rapids taking photos; or playing with Santino the therapy dog.


The problem was that my friends’ minds were enveloped in the addiction stereotype. They could not get past the stark, institutionalized image or understand that addiction is not a choice. Period. Nobody wakes up and thinks “You know, I am going to become an alcoholic today.” Sanford House is the complete opposite of what you think of when you think “recovery center”. It looks straight out of HGTV, has amazing food and a top notch, caring staff. Sanford House is changing the conversation of addiction and I am so grateful to be apart of it.



III. A person’s struggle is not their identity.

My life was literally the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Except instead of not knowing a thing about fashion and working at a fashion magazine, I knew nothing about recovery but was working at a recovery center. Also my boss was crazy nice and nothing like Meryl Streep’s character, but she does wear a lot of black.


Because I knew nothing, I was wracked with nerves about my first day. How would the women in the house respond to me? What should I talk about? How will they react? My fears were lifted when I stepped into the house and had a resident greet me with a warm hello and a compliment on my shoes. A thing that bonds all women.


In the coming months, I got to know the women that came to Sanford House for help. Conversations never consisted of pasts or troubles, but of our admiration for
Target and Mediterranean food. That was when I realized our lives are not our struggle. Our struggle is just something in our life. I think what’s really important to understand about addiction, is that a person battling it is not lazy or lacking in motivation. Being addicted is hard and a daily battle –  sometimes for your life. So we shouldn’t shame or belittle those who are in recovery. Don’t judge someone just because their battle is different than yours.


No I’m not crying, you’re crying…

Spending my summer working for Sanford House is something that really changed me. The bravery and commitment I have witnessed first hand this summer has inspired and moved me. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to have worked beside a staff that is changing lives in the most remarkable way. How fortunate I am to have learned business and marketing from the bright, and kindness and graciousness from the most humble.


I am so proud of the work that I have accomplished this summer and I just want to say thank you to Sanford House. Thank you for welcoming me. For being my home for the summer, and also for not making me do acupuncture because I hate needles. You guys rock (insert intern exclamation point here)!




Would you like to take the next step and get help?

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Monica Bussell is a Senior at Alma College with a major in Marketing and New Media Studies. As the visiting marketing intern for Sanford House (she began her tenure as a Sophomore), she is responsible for social media updates, graphic design, photography, videography and dog walking... She is the President of Alpha Zxi Delta sorority and an avid hot yoga enthusiast...