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A Social Worker’s Substance Use and Mental Health Recovery Journey

A Social Worker’s Substance Use and Mental Health Recovery Journey

Wendy Linebrink-Allison, MSW, MBA, program manager of the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line, has been in recovery for over 15 years. She says she was jolted into sobriety when she witnessed her husband having a seizure in their front yard. He was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.

Linebrink-Allison was familiar with alcohol use. She’d worked for years as a bartender and, at the time, thought she understood alcoholism and how it impacted people, observing customers become happy or woeful when they drank in excess. What she didn’t know, she says, was the rest of the story until she met her husband. When he didn’t have alcohol in his system, he’d experience convulsions and tremors, withdrawal symptoms she’d been unaware of. “I quickly realized I wasn’t far behind him, and I didn’t want my children to find me in the same condition.” Linebrink-Allison decided to take control of her life and find better ways to manage her depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress without the use of drugs and alcohol.

There were clear markers that it was time for her to make a change, she says. Over the years of substance use, Linebrink-Allison lost a home to foreclosure, a car to repossession, and went from job to job. “When my kids were born, I made a promise to give them a better childhood than I’d experienced. It was a wake-up call that I wasn’t.” Seeing her husband have a seizure due to alcoholism was a turning point in both of their lives. Her husband said, “I don’t want to die but don’t know how to stop drinking.” He had just returned from a 72-hour detox program, and the waitlist at the longer-term facilities was between 30 and 60 days. Linebrink-Allison began making calls and found a place four hours away in southern New Mexico that could take him that day. “That was the beginning of our recovery journey. It was a crossroad where I either stepped into this new phase or continued to damage myself and others.” 

Navigating a Culture of Substance Use

Linebrink-Allison says substance use was heavily integrated into the culture of her family and friends. On the drive back from visiting her husband at the treatment facility, she called a close friend. The experience had been stressful, and she needed to talk. The friend suggested she come to her house and have a glass of wine. Linebrink-Allison was surprised because she’d told her friend about her decision to stop drinking. The friend said, “Oh, he’ll never know. He’s in inpatient right now. You’re fine.” “I said, ‘But, I’ll know.’” That’s when she realized she had to change everything. “I had to stop spending time with family and friends for a while, and get a new job because bartending wasn’t conducive to recovery.” 

Linebrink-Allison decided to have a clean slate, not sharing her challenges with new colleagues and friends. It was isolating. When her colleagues invited her to Friday night happy hour, she would say she was busy, not wanting to explain why she wasn’t drinking. Looking back, she says there were missed opportunities to share her story with people on their way to recovery. “There are unintended consequences of staying in the closet about your experiences.”

The Benefit of Helping Others 

Recovery is a layered process, notes Linebrink-Allison. She had to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol and discover who she was without them. They’d also been her coping mechanism for anxiety and depression, which meant that she “had to find other, healthier ways to manage her mental health.” Linebrink-Allison’s entry into working in behavioral health was a critical moment; it provided a space where she learned alongside other people in recovery, which allowed her to slowly start sharing her own experiences. “My language changed from, ‘Oh, no, I’m not drinking tonight’ to ‘No, I’m in recovery. I have a problem. I can’t participate in it.’” That said, she shifted what she said depending on who she was speaking with. “There’s still a great deal of stigma within the general public and in behavioral health. I saw career limitations for people who shared their diagnoses.” 

What pushed Linebrink-Allison to be more open about her experiences was when, in an all-staff meeting, the CEO of the organization where she worked shared her own recovery journey. “I thought, if the CEO of a multi-million dollar managed care organization can do it, then I can.” It shifted Linebrink-Allison’s mindset from worrying that sharing her story could limit her career to how doing so could broaden it. The benefits of talking about recovery are multifold, not just at work, but also in every aspect of the person’s life. “The sooner a person can talk about their experiences, the easier it is for them to be successful in their recovery.” Personally and professionally, Linebrink-Allison wanted to help others. She became a certified peer support specialist to pay it forward for the people she’d encountered along the way who had supported her in her recovery journey. “Professionally, it allowed me to make a difference in people’s lives.” 

Personal Loss

Linebrink-Allison was diving deeper and deeper into the recovery field when her father died of suicide in 2012. The loss created another pivot in her career trajectory. She became driven to ensure that more people understand how to prevent suicide and recognize the signs and symptoms. “I don’t want anyone to feel the pain I did, not knowing how to help someone and not knowing the questions I should have asked when he was struggling.” This prompted Linebrink-Allison to expand her focus from talking about mental health in relation to substance use to mental health, generally, helping people identify warning signs in the lives of those they care about. “Together, we can make a difference by having a conversation and letting people know they aren’t alone. It’s also about a commitment to help.” 

Change isn’t easy, but Linebrink-Allison says it’s been entirely worth it. For her, it wasn’t as simple as just deciding to stop using drugs and alcohol. Finding her husband in the front yard was the final impetus, but she’d tried to quit before. “I always went back to my comfort zone, and so did my husband. But in 2004, it was the first time we did it for us and not for somebody else.” After distancing herself for a time, she was able to reengage with family and friends. Linebrink-Allison’s mother decided not to drink or use drugs in front of her daughter anymore, and her father, before he died, was thankful that she’d “finally gotten there.” “I began incorporating suicide prevention in my messaging. Beforehand, I was focused on helping people manage their mental health without the use of drugs and alcohol, but my father’s death created a full picture for me. If you don’t support your mental health in a way that feels like you can live day by day, you will contemplate suicide.” 

Why Non-judgmental Conversation Matters

As Linebrink-Allison navigated her career, she became increasingly aware of the need for comprehensive crisis services, particularly the need for a call center in New Mexico. The New Mexico Crisis and Access Line helps people know they aren’t alone, but it’s also inclusive and not marketed as a suicide hotline, which has been “a beacon of light.” “When I was struggling, a designated suicide line didn’t feel like an access point. While I’d thought about suicide a couple of times, I really needed free access to mental health services because I didn’t have insurance.” In her darkest moments, turning to family and friends wasn’t an option. Linebrink-Allison’s mother and friends would suggest she forget her worries and imbibe with them. Her father was judgmental and frustrated by her life choices. While often surrounded by people, Linebrink-Allison felt alone. She says a behavioral health crisis line is what people need now and was what she needed back then—a number she could call and figure out next steps. “I needed to speak to someone who felt safe and who didn’t know me.”