When Tandy Slaton was 18 years old, she made a decidedly drastic change in her environment — moving from the very small town of Republic in northeastern Washington to Southern California. Her parents had divorced; she bounced around from Oregon to Washington, graduating high school in Colorado.
“I moved to Las Vegas, which is probably where the crazy stuff started. Then I moved to Los Angeles, and that’s where I say I kind of lost my soul,” she said.
With her eyes fluttering to another time and dimension, she added, “It was just really dark times. Really dark times.” She struggled with addiction for more than a decade, but at 32, about to have a child of her own, decided it was time to change.
Years later, Slaton, now 47, is a substance abuse counselor at Lifeline Connections with her own office at the VA Portland Health Care System, Vancouver campus. Lifeline Connections helps people claw their way out of the pits of addiction, which includes everyone from alcoholics to people who became addicted to opioids after suffering an injury and being prescribed pain medication.
“We’re a DUI-certified agency, and we are a nonprofit and we take state insurance. So we are definitely going to get a lot of people who are here attempting to resolve DUIs. We get a lot of Child Protective Services referrals. We get a lot of people from Department of Corrections and just from Clark County probation. We also get a lot of self-referred people,” Slaton said.
Location: 1601 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Building 17, Vancouver.
Funding: According to its 2018 annual report, Lifeline Connections received $13,878,777. That included $12.3 million in governmental program revenue; $1 million in patient fees; and $485,421 in contributions and other income.
Employees: In adult outpatient services, there are 10 substance abuse counselors.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: Employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is projected to grow 23 percent through 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth is expected as people continue to seek addiction and mental health counseling. The 2017 median pay was $43,300 per year, or $20.82 per hour.
For this week’s Working in Clark County, The Columbian caught up with Slaton to get an understanding of her job and how outside issues can impact it.
Tell me about what happened when you say you “lost your soul”?
Well you’re 18 and you’re in Las Vegas, right? So I don’t want to go too far into it. It’s just that I had a lot of childhood trauma and things like that. So you just carry that with you. I fell into addiction, I was just off and running.
What was your drug of choice, so to speak?
The reason I don’t want to share that … I can tell you why. For me as a counselor it’s really important for me to build rapport with people and use my skill, and not my recovery story. I’ve said this to a lot of new counselors, when I’m training new counselors and they’re using their recovery to build rapport with people to be like, “Hey I get you.” You’re not building skill, you’re relying on that (recovery story). So you’re saying you used meth for 15 years — what happens when you have a 65-year-old alcoholic in your group who says, “Yeah you can’t help me”?
When did you finally have the realization that you needed help and got out of it?
I was living in Los Angeles for 12 years. It was just really dark times. Really dark times. I always wanted out of it. You don’t want to live your life like that, you don’t want to do the things you’re doing and experience the things you’re experiencing, and just lost. But I was 32 and I was pregnant. I was just like, I have to do something different. So I kind of showed up at my mom’s in Oregon. Yeah, that was it. I just showed up, pregnant, and got myself together.
What did you do to find this job?
Well, I never intended to be an alcohol and drug counselor. It was nowhere on my radar. I was going to Portland Community College. I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to get that degree and transfer for a four-year degree. But … I struggled with math. I knew about this program and I knew at the time that you did not need to have the same level of math to go into it. So I kind of panicked, and I called the director of the program and I just went to an orientation and it was amazing. I was in the first class and I was able to exhale for the first time. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m with my people.”
When you say “my people,” what do you mean?
People who get it. Get what it’s like to be in that dark place, to walk that path of addiction, who either have family members involved in it and that’s what got them going in that direction or who have experienced it themselves. And just kind of speaking about things that I really got and understood and could connect with. And then I had somebody pull me over to the women’s prison at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore. I was doing a paid practicum-slash-internship, and I just fell in love.
What are some of the stigmas out there that inhibit progress on helping people with addiction?
Yeah, I could get on my soapbox with this one. Some family members that I have — even knowing what I do and that I have my own struggles in the past, and some of their family members very close to them have had struggles — kind of have a mentality of, you know, just they’re a drain on society and it’s not worth helping.
How do you combat that?
I think in my experience, you think about the media attention. The higher-profile things, the things you see on the news, sometimes addicts, their behaviors are appalling. There’s a lot of criminality that goes with addiction. There’s a lot of pain for family members. People aren’t always able to take care of their children because they’re stuck in active addiction and people are very judgmental and have a really hard time of understanding that this is a disease of the brain. It hijacks the brain, it takes over. I wouldn’t expect people to just excuse that, we want people to take accountability, we want people to get better. But I think the one thing that I would say to my family members is that when people go to treatment, when people get help, there are less children in the foster care system, less people in the criminal justice system. Everybody I work with, what they want, is they want to go out and be contributing members of society.
You mentioned that addiction is a disease of the brain — that’s still a point of debate among people.
There’s this wonderful movie called “Pleasure Unwoven: A Personal Journey about Addiction” that can explain it so much better than I can. But really it talks about how the substance hijacks the brain. It becomes the most important thing to you. It literally changes the way your brain works. It’s a tough one for people to wrap their mind around, because when we think of disease, we think of diabetes or cancer or something.