Donna Mae Depola
Substance Abuse Counselor
CASACs (Credentialed Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselors) often go into the industry with the goal of helping people with their addictions. Addiction can be an amazingly difficult problem to treat. It often takes a strong minded, experienced counselor to help patients find their way through this sort of issue.
Donna Mae Depola’s story comes from a place of trauma, abuse, broken trust, and substance abuse. It is a story of coming from rock bottom to a tale of victory and success. Her story is not only very inspiring, but it has provided many people dealing with addiction with a sense of hope and guidance that only someone with a background like Donna’s can offer.
This inspiration, in combination with a lot of hard work, led to Donna becoming a CASAC and eventually founding the “Resource Training and Counseling Center”, a school that teaches others how to become addiction counselors themselves.
Can you tell us a little bit about your story that lead you to become a Substance Abuse Counselor?
In 1985 I realized I was addicted. Now I say that because as I used $4,000.00 a week in cocaine I never realized I was actually addicted. I thought I just used drugs to get through my day. At that point I was making a lot of money in the Restaurant business and all my staff and friends used drugs. The Restaurant happened to be in a local Hospital so I had access to Doctors etc.
There was a point in my life when my mother had a heart attack. I found myself sitting at my desk with a pile of cocaine crying about my mom.
I suddenly looked at the pile and said “If I care about my mother why am I down here getting high”. So I said, “That is it…I am not doing this stuff again.” I guess you can figure out what happened with that decision. I couldn’t stop and that is when I knew I had a problem. So I started to use only Monday to Friday and the weekends I only drank. Well that didn’t work either. So to make a longer story longer I tried therapy, but that didn’t work either, so I was sent away for 30 days to a psych hospital as I had cocaine psychosis.
I came out and started therapy again. I relapsed a few times but finally on November 25, 1987 I got clean. My therapist said to me “Donna Mae you would make a good counselor.” I realized I had a gift for talking to people and as my father would always say, “I could sell the Brooklyn Bridge if I thought I could use that gift to help others.”
As I picked up my first drug at the age of 9 and stopped doing drugs at the age of 35, I knew drugs and was very familiar with the use of them. To pursue this career I left my job. I went from ½ million dollars a year to $18,000/year working as a paraprofessional at a local Junior High as I was going to school. Money at that point didn’t mean a thing to me. At least that is what I thought. I was actually quite addicted to drugs, money and power.
What kind of education is needed to become a substance abuse counselor? Approximately how long did it take you?
In 1987 and to this day all you needed is a High School Diploma to get into CASAC School. At that time it took me 2 years to complete. Things have changed now you can get your CASAC (Credentialed Alcohol & Substance Abuse Counselor) in 6 months. Which by the way, I don’t agree with.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do as a Substance Abuse Counselor? How are you able to help people?
I feel being a CASAC is not only a job but a life style. How you present yourself to the client has a lot to do with your skills as a counselor. Being upbeat, friendly and engaging on a personal level helps me. I am able to help people because I meet them at their level and I don’t judge them or get annoyed at them and I don’t beat them up over relapse. What I do is not only counseling it is far greater than that. We have to be a mentor and advisor to our clients. We have the power of being examples for them.
What are some of your greatest day to day challenges as a substance abuse counselor?
I find the day to day challenge is getting the client connected. Meaning the first 5 visits are just getting to know each other and helping the client see there is hope. It is almost like a relationship. You go out with a person and you’re just not sure about them. There is no trust developed yet. Same as how the client feels. They want to trust you but can’t yet. When you’re nice to them they question it.
Where are substance abuse counselors usually employed?
Most counselors work in the outpatient world. But there are so many different facets to to this field. Therapeutic communities are a big factor also. I started off in outpatient then I worked 14 years in Marketing. I worked for a company that owned and operated many facilities. Many counselors also work in outreach and community based organizations. I think as a CASAC there are many opportunities.
Do you have any particular stories that you can share that have been rewarding moments in your career as a counselor?
Luckily I have many but one sticks in my mind more than others.
I had a women with 6 children that lost them to foster care due to her addiction. She was in prison for some time and came out with not only a bad attitude but still using. It took her 4 years to get clean but when she did she got her children back, graduated college, and now works in the field. There are so many miracles in this field. I try and concentrate on the successes we see and hope that the clients that are still using will come back and get help before it is too late.
If a student was interested in becoming a substance abuse counselor, what kind of advice would you give him or her?
Not only am I a counselor but I am the President/Founder/CEO of The Resource Training and Counseling Center. We are a CASAC training school since 1994. We have trained over 4 thousand individuals. So this question is very easy for me to answer. I first say “Recovery does not a counselor make.”
I realize it is not proper English but it gets the point across. Education is the key here. I always ask “Why do you want to become a counselor?” Almost 99% of the time they say “I want to give back.” I say that is not enough. It is a life style and a career. It is not only about giving back it is about pushing forward towards a life of recovery for our clients. Unfortunately everyone or almost everyone thinks in recovery that they will make a good counselor.
Not true at all. Just because you lived it doesn’t mean you have what it takes to be a counselor. It takes education, dedication and empathy to help others. Every drug is different, every experience is different, and every individual is different. So many people going into the field think because they were addicted that the person has to get recovery like they did.
Any final words for people interested in this career field?
I think this field has it’s frustrations, however it is the most wonderful field to work in. Realizing that, people should know a couple of things. One of course is paper work. Your writing skills have to be excellent, or at least good. Burnout is another issue in this field you have to learn not to take things personally, meaning if a person relapses it is not your fault.
The last thing I want to stress is supervision. Without proper supervision you are doomed. We are sitting in a group or with an individual alone and if you want to learn and be a better counselor you need to put yourself out there with a possibility of improving. I find one of the biggest road blocks for a new counselor is there recovery. I know people will not agree with me (mostly recovering people) and that’s ok, it took me over 25 years in the field to realize that myself.