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National Recovery Month spotlight: Sean Doesburg learns to love again

Sean Doesburg

EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of National Recovery Month, we’re spotlighting employees of Cornerstone of Recovery who found a way out of addiction and alcoholism at our facility, and have returned as employees who now do the same for those who follow in their footsteps.

Somewhere along the way, Sean Doesburg forgot how to love himself.

Scoured by trauma and scarred by grief, he found solace in the false pretenses offered by addiction, until the substances he thought were his only friends eventually drove a wedge between him and his family. Five years later, he’s a counselor in the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) of the drug and alcohol treatment center where he emerged from those long shadows, and now his life’s work is to help others do the same.

“I love the fact that I get to give back to what Cornerstone did for me,” Sean says. “I get to show how my life has changed since I’ve been in recovery, and I get to help others start this new journey, move forward and live a happy, fulfilled life and see them grow and be happy again.”

It’s not always easy, but having the encouragement, support, kindness and guidance of a guy who’s been there, as Sean has, makes it a little bit easier. That’s one of the reasons Cornerstone made such a difference in Sean’s life, and why even on a gloomy, chilly fall day, he shows up to the Polly Bales Building on the Cornerstone campus with a smile on his face.

“Even on a crappy day like today, I know it’s going to be a good day because I’m coming to work,” he says. “Being around patients and coworkers, I know that when I’m here, I’m doing something bigger than myself.”

Sean Doesburg: What it was like …

sean doesburgSean is one of the fortunate ones: Not everyone who needs help for a drug and alcohol problem gets it. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [1], in 2018 alone, “an estimated 21.2 million people aged 12 or older needed substance use treatment in the past year.” However, the survey also reveals, only 3.7 million of those individuals actually received any.” What’s more, according to a 2016 report in The CBHSQ Report for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) [2], “the majority of people aged 12 or older who needed substance use treatment in the United States do not receive treatment at a specialty facility.”

Sean, fortunately, found sobriety through Cornerstone of Recovery, but he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the addict or alcoholic who grew up in circumstances that might seem tailor made for addiction or alcoholism. He was an Army brat, and when his father retired from the U.S. Army after 35 years, he did so at the rank of major general. Sean’s childhood included time in North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Hawaii (twice), Alabama, Pennsylvania and Maryland, but he didn’t mind it, he says.

“It was actually kind of fun,” he says. “I got to live in Hawaii and see a lot of different places and do a lot of different things, especially as we drove across the country. You kind of make home wherever you are. Yeah, you technically don’t have a home, but you get to live so many different places and do so many different things, and your family unit always makes it worthwhile.”

There were never any expectations for Sean to follow a family military tradition, but his parents did expect him to attend college, which he did at Valdosta State University in Georgia. He didn’t start drinking until he was 21, and for the next 14 years, it was a recreational habit more than it was a problematic one. It’s actually a point of pride, he adds, that despite a learning disability that held him back in school, he completed a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in human resources.

But things changed when life threw him some unexpected curveballs.

“In a short amount of time, I lost my grandfather, my dad’s father; my mom’s mother; and my beloved dog,” he said. “Then, I moved down to Florida to live with a girl, and that turned out to be very hostile and violent. And then my best friend died. It seemed like that spiral kept going and going, and that brought me into active addiction.”

What happened …

Sean DoesburgAlthough he went to work for Disney while living in Florida, his mental health continued to deteriorate. Eventually, it got to the point where nothing mattered except drinking.

“Waking up and going to the bar was my main focus, every day,” he says. “I drank until they wouldn’t serve me anymore, and then I would go to another bar.”

He suspected he might have a problem, but in the light of day, he always rationalized with excuses familiar to so many addicts and alcoholics: “I’m just a heavy drinker.” “I can stop any time I want to.” His parents, however — always his biggest supporters — began to worry about the changes they saw in their son, especially when he started taking money from them to support his habit.

“My dad and I got into an argument, and the elephant in the room came down,” he says. “I remember I said the words, ‘Maybe I should just go to rehab.’ And they were like, ‘If you think you need to do that, then let’s do that.’ So I got on the phone with my psychiatrist, and that’s how I wound up coming to Cornerstone.”

Like most treatment neophytes, Sean’s expectations of drug and alcohol treatment came from what he saw on television and in the movies — mainly that it would involve a lot of sitting around, talking about feelings and willing away the desire to drink. What he found was a new life, with people from across the spectrum.

“They were from all walks of life, but I still had something in common with them,” he says. “We all cared about each other, and we all worked on ourselves — not just to get rid of the drugs and alcohol, but to work on our health, and in particular, my mental health, which meant a lot to me, because I had let that slide. But most of all, it was about being around all these people who even though they just met you, cared about you like you were family.”

That started at the top, from the administrators and therapists and counselors, and trickled down to the patient population. One particularly poignant moment was when Sean said his name at his first 12 Step recovery meeting, and then acknowledged that he was an alcoholic.

“I said it, and then I started crying,” he says. “The moment I said it, I knew it was a new life. I felt that the thing that was pushing me down and taking me to the lowest part of my life was now gone, and that I could start rebuilding my life and loving myself again.”

Sean Doesburg: What it’s like now

Lin Rankin

Sean Doesburg (center) talks with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs (left) and former Cornerstone IOP therapist Lin Rankin (right) at the facility’s 30th anniversary celebration in September 2019.

After completing inpatient treatment, he transitioned into the IOP program, where he slowly began easing back into the “real” world. He got a job as a chaperone for an autistic child, and it felt good, he said, to be of service to another human being, which is at the core of most recovery programs. And, he added, he continued to attend voluntary Aftercare meetings on the Cornerstone campus, which is when Chris Brewster, Cornerstone’s associate director of extended care, approached him about an open position.

“They were looking for someone in the Aftercare program to be an IOP counselor, and my name was the first name Chris thought of,” Sean says. “I applied, the next day I had an interview, and I was hired. I remember I walked out and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m a counselor!’ Originally, I didn’t want to be a counselor, but when the opportunity came up, I thought, ‘Why not?’ Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Today, anyone who knows Sean — from the patients in his IOP groups to his peers on the Cornerstone staff — knows full well what a lover of pop culture he is. Few things bring about a smile more than watching him wax ecstatic about a planned trip to Walt Disney World, or a new “Star Wars” film, or a movie poster he’s added to his collection. While his affinity for popular culture has long been a part of his life, sobriety has greatly increased his enjoyment of it, he says.

“It became a lot more fun when I was clean again,” he says. “I could go to the movies and not be drunk. I had money to buy my toys. I got to meet people here that like the exact same things as me. This place gave me friends, which was something I didn’t have — good friends who actually care about you.”

He’s even found ways to work in his affinity for pop culture into his therapeutic groups: Rather than lecturing about Schemas (character traits and life traps that often present as stumbling blocks to personal growth), he designed an exercise in which patients play a favorite song so that the group can identify the Schemas exemplified in the lyrics.

“Instead of me lecturing about Schemas, they actually get to learn about them and relate to them, and they get to relate to their peers by hearing what music their peers like — and get exposed to new music themselves,” he said. “I like to throw in movie references or tell them to watch this show or that movie because it talks about recovery, and they get to see it in a way other than me just telling them about it. They get to put a face and understand recovery more than being told what recovery is.”

He’s working on his Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor credentials, and his education and work experiences make him an invaluable part of the Cornerstone team.

“My background, especially at Disney, taught me to be more open and friendly to people,” he says. “The customer service I learned while working at Disney is something I can bring to the patients to keep things fun and light-hearted, because I want them to see that I enjoy what I do.”

Because he truly does. And no matter what happens — whether it’s lousy weather or the delayed release of a much-anticipated film due to COVID-19 — Sean has learned not to sweat the small stuff, because the big stuff is what really counts, and he has those things in abundance.

“I’ve been able to just live this happy life again,” he says. “I feel better, and I wake up every morning thankful that I’m sober. I get to go to a job that I would do for free, because I go to work happy every day and glad that I’m coming here.”




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