This issue of the Exchange features John Baltzer, alcohol and other drug counselor/instructor at Millersville University.
Q: How long have you been working at Millersville University?
A: I began in the spring of 2005.
Q: What made you choose Millersville?
A: I was working at Wellspan at the time and friends of mine brought me the newspaper ad and told me that this job was a perfect fit. I have been very glad that I took their suggestion.
Q: What was the first job you ever had?
A: I’ve been working with adolescents and families since 1976. Beginning in 1984, I ran a residential program that evolved into a Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Problems (BDAP) licensed inpatient non-hospital treatment facility for adolescent males and their families with alcohol and other drug problems.
Q: Where did you attend college? What degree(s) did you earn?
A: A bachelor’s degree from Mansfield University (then Mansfield State College). I later became a Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC) in Pennsylvania and later an International Certified Addictions Counselor. Last year they were both renamed Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC).
Q: Why did you choose to become an addiction counselor?
A: Like much in life it was a process. In about 1985 while poring over some data, we realized that 90 percent of our clients and families had significant alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems. Not surprisingly, I began to see the impact that my family’s history of AOD issues had on me and became actively involved in recovery and therapy. Some time ago I found myself resonating strongly to Robert Bly talking about the derivation of the word ‘genius,’ which translated as “where our wound is.” It became clear that I was being groomed to do this work all along. Several years later, at the urging of a colleague, I pursued certification for the work I had been doing for some time.
Q: Do you know how many people you’ve helped throughout your career?
A: After a very quick mental accounting I’ve worked with more than 1,500 – there were those that I never reached. The remainder moved along the continuum of change to improve their understanding, intention or behavior and, as a result, the quality of their lives.
Q: What’s the hardest part about being an addiction counselor? What’s the most rewarding?
A: One of the most difficult things is caring about and watching those whose addiction has progressed to the stage where it is causing significant pain and unmanageability for themselves and those around them, but who are too sick to see it or those who aren’t ready to accept the help necessary to be whole and healthy. They invariably spiral into the abyss, dragging those that they love along with them. I have learned to accept that as a part of powerlessness, and it hurts much less than when I was the one responsible for saving everyone, every time.
The rewards may be as small as a watching a new insight flicker across their face, watching someone smile red-cheeked as they heard their distorted thinking spoken out loud or hearing about a first success with a new tool. I am deeply honored to frequently be the first person in the lives of those I work with that they have trusted. When people trust, they get down to the real deal. The hard work begins when they take two steps forward and one step back. They begin to blossom. I get to see them adjust or radically alter their paradigms. I delight in the many celebrations of risk taking (large or small). I see folks reduce their drinking to healthy levels; many chose abstinence and, with support, succeed. They gain the ability to trust others and to understand, as well as set, healthy boundaries. They learn to let go of toxic shame, hopelessness and their failure identity. They see how previous trauma, stress and their unresolved issues with their family of origin are causing pain; that they have learned to medicate with substances, food, sex, work, gambling, spending, etc. Many discover other DSMIV disorders that need treatment. This helps remove triggers that exacerbate their problems with AOD and make harm reduction difficult. Lots of folks that I work with find and learn to cherish their authentic selves. It is one of my many blessings, to be a part of their journeys.
Q: What is your role as Millersville’s alcohol and other drug counselor?
A: Many call me the AOD Guy. The secondary gain of my role is raising GPAs. I was hired to facilitate or consult in AOD “Harm Reduction.” Along with others I run an experiential “alcohol 101” program designed for freshmen called CHOICES. Most of the students I see in my office are there for Code of Conduct violations. Some of those are seen in BASICS groups with a follow-up session and most of the others in two Motivational Interviewing individual sessions. Students who are struggling with changing their AOD habits or those working on long-term sobriety come weekly or biweekly. Some students self refer. Others come at the suggestion of people who care. Some are levered by family, faculty, coaches, employers and the courts. My goal is to have each of these students take an honest look at their relationships with alcohol and other drugs, evaluate how well that is working out for them and, if necessary, how they can reduce harm, both in the short and long term. When appropriate I recommend and refer out for outpatient, intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment, as well as encourage reaching out to others for support. I frequently refer to others here on the Counseling Center team for other Axis I and II issues. I am a big supporter of AA and other 12 Step groups and a long time friend of Bill W. I act as consultant and do outreach for the University, parents, faculty, community and high risk groups like Greeks and athletes. Additionally, I do interviews or write articles for Student Health 101, the Snapper, Stall Talk, the Parent’s Newsletter and local media. I serve on several student health-related committees. I look for and accept any opportunity to spread the word. And, for those who chose to drink or use and still have the ability to do, I am here to help them discover how to get all of the good things out of a relationship alcohol and other drugs and none of the less good things.
Q: Is there one piece of wisdom or advice you try to impart to your students or patients?
A: To learn who we are at the core of our beings and we are capable of unimaginable change and acceptance. That we are each valuable, beautiful, loveable and capable. That we are created with everything that we need to not only survive, but to have a life of quality and grace, regardless of what has happened and what we have learned thus far in our lives. That we are neither dependent nor independent but inter-dependent. I guess that is more than one piece of wisdom. Consider it a four-fer.
Q: Your profession in particular must take an emotional toll at times, how do you cope?
A: Believe it or not, this work actually nourishes me. The stress comes balancing the number of clients, outreach/Harm Reduction Work and the paper work. On weekends and over breaks I do what I love to do. This is a great job! I probably shouldn’t put this in print but, in addition to all this good stuff, they actually deposit money in my bank account every other Friday. What a deal.
Q: Do you do any work as a counselor outside of the University?
A: For the last 11 years I provided counseling for a group home of 15 adolescent females that recently succumbed to the economy and cutbacks to social services.
Q: If you’re having a bad day, what’s the one thing that can turn it around?
A: I take a deep breath and look for the truth and beauty around me, then remind myself of something that came to me relatively late in life; something that my wife has long believed, and had tried to convince me of for years: “John Ray, it all works out just the way that it is supposed to.” In much the same vein I will often recite the Serenity Prayer aloud.
Q: What’s one thing most people on campus don’t know about you?
A: That coming to see the AOD Guy, as a result of leverage or sanction for an AOD violation is not only “Not as bad as I thought” but that folks usually learn something, are never judged and that we will likely spend a fair amount of our time together laughing and crying.
Q: If you weren’t a counselor what would you want to be?
A: It would likely be more nature-oriented like fishery/wildlife management and research, but I never really thought about it.
Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the counseling profession since you began your career?
A: That there has been a long, painful coming together of the medical, mental health and addiction fields. We now deeply understand the dynamics of addiction and what impedes and supports recovery. Historically it was a turf war that harmed our clients. The mental health worker would address only the underlying DSMIV diagnosis, the doctors would utilize a medicinal cure and the addiction folks thought that the alcoholism itself was the only or most important aspect of presenting symptomology. We now know that both depression and alcoholism are Axis I disorders and that remedying one doesn’t cause the other to disappear. That while medication is often an integral part of recovery some drugs are addicting and when administered as the only treatment modality, rarely result in long-term sobriety. Like other important things on this planet, it takes a village.
Q: If you were to create a bucket list, what would be one item on your list?
A: To have a few dear friends climb aboard a float plane that had canoes lashed to the pontoons, land on a river that I couldn’t pronounce without help and catch salmon longer than my leg until the drag on my fly reel screamed UNCLE!
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life? Why?
A: I thought about this question a great deal. There is no single influential person. I have been loved and supported and have learned much from family, friends and caring colleagues. I have read, listened to or talked with Tom Feldman, Gene Hill, Salvadore Minuchin, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, Ann Smith, David Treadway, Pia Melody, John Bradshaw and Bill Wilson, Thom Hartmann, Ed Hallowell and I am very grateful for their contributions and how it allowed me to help others, as well as improve the quality of my life.
Q: Do you have a favorite weekend activity?
A: I am a lover of family and the great out of doors (year round). That and activities with our grandbabies are tops on my list of what to do on the weekend.
Q: Would you rather stay in and read a good book or go to the movies?
A: Go to the movies. I read on vacations.
Q: What one thing in your life has been the most memorable?
A: Attending the birth of our two sons.