Interviews BLOG

Donna Mae DePola is a child abuse survivor and former addict who has become a substance abuse counselor and founded the Resource Training Center, a school that trains substance abuse counselors and serves as an outpatient counseling center. Donna Mae is a recognized leader in the field of substance abuse and substance abuse education with over 25 years of experience. Throughout her career, she has been a keynote speaker for various public schools and organizations in the substance abuse field. She has served as the keynote speaker for the annual New York City Criminal Justice Conference, an adolescent and trauma conference in Vermont, received the Counselor of the Year award in the United States in 1991, and received the Rosalie Cuva Outstanding Services Award in 2012. She was recently recognized, along with 32 other women, by the Office of the Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hines, as one of Brooklyn’s Extraordinary Women of 2013.

In addition to opening the largest training center of its kind in New York, Donna Mae has also written a book about her experience with child abuse titled “The Twelve Tins,” available for purchase as a Kindle edition from, or in trade paperback from where you can also learn more about Donna Mae and her work. We were able to connect with Donna Mae and discuss addiction, addiction counselors, and the debate about the legalization of marijuana.

TestCountry: Donna Mae, thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to speak with us today. Since you are the founder of a training center for substance abuse counselors, can you talk to us a little about what makes a quality counselor and what a person should look for when selecting a counselor?

Donna Mae: If you are talking about a Substance Abuse Counselor, the first thing you should do is ensure that the facility the counselor works for is a licensed substance abuse treatment facility. I feel it is much better to have a substance abuser go to a substance abuse facility. They are structured, have a group and individual counseling, and they can also relate to their peers in treatment. We are lucky to have the internet, where you can search places and see comments about that place. I think what people seem to forget is that the counselor works for the client, not the opposite. As a client/patient, you are a consumer and have a right to find a counselor you feel comfortable with. Also, look at what credentials/certification the counselor has, and be sure they have the experience with substance abuse. I also think there is a place for social workers; however, I feel if they are not trained in substance abuse, they may not be the best choice.

TestCountry: You have a lot of experience working with trauma victims. How does trauma connect with addiction or substance abuse?

Donna Mae: Counseling sometimes takes several visits to even have that trauma identified. I am not saying people don’t come in and talk about trauma immediately but most clients take time to feel comfortable with you at first. I really don’t know accurate statistics, but I have found most of our female clients have had trauma on some level, usually sexual, and that is why they use drugs and ultimately became addicted, to try and forget. Drugs and alcohol work. If you want to forget, get high! The only problem is when you try to stop. Several people have read my book and they will call or email me and I have a referral list of counselors who are specialists in that area.

TestCountry: Is there any advice you would give to someone who has experienced a traumatic event and is struggling?

Donna Mae: Once they admit they are struggling then you are getting somewhere. Treatment, such as individual counseling really can work. If the person is addicted, then the addiction should be addressed. A person can’t identify feelings if they are using. The feeling they have high will be totally different when they are sober. That is why you will find a lot of PTSD in addicted individuals. Once they start to feel, they can feel stuck. Not everyone can talk with a client about trauma. They are, in many cases, afraid nobody will believe them and are afraid to share that information. Trauma victims need to be counseled in a safe, controlled environment, because often, as they go deeper into the trauma, they can begin to feel as though they have relived it all over again.

TestCountry: If a family member or friend thinks that someone is struggling with substance abuse, what can they do about it in order to help?

Donna Mae: Address them and actually ask them “it appears to me you are using and I am here to help.” Or give them places to call or ask them if they want you to call. They are only as sick as their secrets. You need to be prepared for denial, as the saying goes, the answer to “when is an addict lying?” is “every time they move their lips.” The best time to approach them is when they come off of a drug or alcohol binge and are feeling their worst. Always have an action plan so you can be prepared for a possible “moment of clarity.” A planned intervention is also helpful. Being in the field for such a long time, I find consequences do work if you stick with them. If you give a substance abuser a way out and go back to your first consequence that could be a problem. That is why maybe the family member should seek out help first on how to help the friend or family remember.

TestCountry: What more could be done on a governmental or policy level that could help people dealing with substance abuse and addiction?

Donna Mae: This is a hard question but my opinion is we need more money for treatment and vocational services. We also need to treat substance abusers not put them in prison. Many individuals need long-term treatment and housing. If they are using for 20 years they can’t get clean and stay clean with 10 days of treatment. Most of them are coming back to the same community where they got high and it is hard for them to stay clean. Now as everyone can’t move or go to treatment a good counselor can direct that client with identifying triggers and what to do when they come up. I have always had a theory. If every agency, counselor, a social worker in all of the United States takes on the person in for treatment once a week who has no insurance or money can you imagine how many people we could help?

TestCountry: There is currently a large ongoing debate regarding the decriminalization of marijuana use. Do you think legalizing marijuana would make things more or less difficult for people currently participating in substance abuse? (In terms of the way they are perceived by the public, the way they are handled in the court system, etc.)

Donna Mae: My mind has changed so many times about marijuana in the last several years. I think legalizing marijuana is a “cop-out.” Do I think people should go to jail? No, I don’t. If you drink and drive you can get arrested but if you smoke a joint and drive you to don’t? Obviously, someone who has smoked marijuana is impaired. Why else would they be smoking it if not to become impaired? As we all know, alcohol is the most abused drug, and it appears everywhere in people’s everyday lives. I feel like we are headed to the same place with marijuana. To me, it makes no difference whether they legalize it or not. I just think some laws should change in regard to age, driving and operating potentially dangerous machinery, just like alcohol. It is a gateway drug to some, and to others, it is not. Just like alcohol. As far as decriminalization, yes I believe that should happen. However, it should not be a “free for all”, but the laws should be the same as alcohol. Ex. If you are drinking in public you get a ticket if you’re smoking pot the same should apply.

TestCountry: Many people believe that marijuana is the slippery slope that gets people addicted to other substances in the long run. Would you agree with this theory?

Donna Mae: I would not agree with that entire theory. If you speak to anyone active or in recovery most of them have used other drugs first. Can we say they can get addicted to another stronger drug? I can’t answer that. But what I can say is why are you smoking pot to begin with? If you have that addicted gene it could be trouble, or if you are a child of an addict, your chances of becoming addicted are increased. Most people say Marijuana is not addicting. I disagree. It is very addicting. I have seen adolescents trying to stop and they can’t sleep thinking about anything else etc. Now I am a baby boomer and years ago everyone smoked cigarettes and they said they were safe, now they are saying 500 thousand people die from tobacco-related illness a year. Marijuana, years ago, was just the plant. Now it has all sorts of chemicals in that plant and is so much more potent.

TestCountry: Is it possible, in your opinion, for the legalization of marijuana to open the gates to other, more dangerous drugs becoming legal?

Donna Mae: I don’t really think so. Not in New York anyway. That is a hard question but what would be the next drug. Heroin I think not. Prescription drugs are easy to get and we have an epidemic already. People continue to go doctor shopping and get whatever they want. We need to hold these physicians who are giving our families these drugs accountable to ensure they are prescribing responsibly. We can walk a man on the moon, but we can’t keep track of doctors over-medicating our people. Also, to tell you the truth, Marijuana might as well be legalized. You can buy it anywhere.

TestCountry: What do you believe is the most important thing for someone being counseled for substance abuse to keep in mind in order to stay on the road to recovery?

Donna Mae: Several things. One, where there is breath, there is hope. It will get better if you hold on. That they are worth it to their families and themselves and lastly “they are too important to die”. 12-Step meetings work for certain people, and they can see where the where and where they could go. I think recovery starts with the desire to stop, whether it is 10 grams of cocaine, or one drink a day if it describes your life, you need to look at it.

TestCountry: If someone does not want to be helped with their substance abuse problems, what can be done to get them the help that they need?

Donna Mae: Not much at all, unfortunately. The desire to stop is what they need. You may have a bit more control if the addict is an adolescent, otherwise, you have to wait until the person shows a willingness to be helped. I am a firm believer of interventions. Some people either have to go to jail or institutions. Many will not make it at all. There is that expression “counselors are salesmen for recovery, but the person has to want to buy it”. Unfortunately, relapse is often a part of recovery. Both the addict and their loved ones need to know that so they don’t quit after their first slip. They didn’t become addicted in a day. They need time to get better.

TestCountry: Donna Mae, thank you for answering our questions today, and congratulations on all of your success!

Learn more about Donna Mae’s Resource Training Center.