Gail Lewis-Williams, 65, has been an addiction counselor for most of her 32-year career. She began as a case manager at Women in Need, a nonprofit helping homeless women and their children. Realizing that an underlying reason for these women’s homelessness was addiction, she worked to become a certified addiction counselor. After almost eight years with Women in Need, she moved to the Addiction Institute of New York, where she still works today, counseling 15 patients a week.
WHY ADDICTION COUNSELING?
I like to say it found me, … because I didn’t go out and pursue it like, “Oh, I’m going to be an addiction specialist.” I just followed my footsteps and it led me to Women in Need which is where it all began. And then I just continued on this journey in addiction.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE?
It can be a case conference, it can be writing letters to courts, doing paper work, individual counseling, group. … Then someone may come in with some kind of crisis that’s going on. Each day is different. Each day is totally different.
FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE JOB?
One of the amazing things that has kept me here is to watch how they are when they come in, and then watch what they become. That’s the only way I could have stayed as long as I did. Because if I couldn’t see that transition, it would’ve been too hard to stay because all you would have been seeing is how the disease just keeps destroying people’s lives.
MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF THE JOB?
We’ve had some that have actually died from this addiction. You know, because they think they can go back out and handle it. And you can’t. So that’s the hard part.
WHAT HAS CHANGED IN THE PAST 30 YEARS?
It’s changed completely. In the beginning, you would see a lot of people of color. And now that’s not what’s happening. We find people come through our door that are lawyers and doctors and professionals. … It’s a little world here, a little bit of everybody, it’s not just focused mainly on one segment of the population.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO CHANGE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
Sometimes insurance companies don’t actually really know addiction. So, if we feel like someone needs to spend maybe 28 days in inpatient rehab, they’ll say “Oh, well, we’re only going to pay for 14.” And that’s hard because it takes a little while just for them to physically get themselves together before they can begin to start learning and getting education about the power of addiction. … It’s like, you have a cucumber and you make it into a pickle, can you take that pickle and turn it back into a cucumber? No. So that’s why you have to give clients time.
Look at a person who has an addiction problem not as their addiction, but as a whole person, that has an addiction problem. … No one wakes up and says when I grow up I want to be an addict or alcoholic. No one does that.