From the Podcast: Nancy Spitzer: A Therapist’s Story of Loss and Hope
Nancy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), specializing in trauma, addiction, co-occurring disorders, and much more. She was inspired to shift her career to therapy after losing her brother David to a drug overdose. In Episode 28 of The Courage to Change: A Recovery Podcast, Nancy Spitzer shared her story of loss and hope. The entire interview is available here.
Nancy went to school for public relations and marketing, but did not find fulfillment in related careers. When she was 22, Nancy’s brother died in a drug overdose. She knew then that she wanted a career helping other families struggling with addiction. Nancy shared, “[she] wanted to help families because [she] felt like [her] family was so lost and didn’t know what to do. If they had some better education and some guidance, maybe things would have ended differently.”
Nancy grew up as an only child in New Jersey, in a beautiful suburban community. Her father had two sons from a prior marriage who were 17 and 19 years older than she is. Nancy said her dad would, “try to blend the families as best as possible with the age gap.” Age gap aside, Nancy had a very close bond with her brother David, who was 19 years older than her. David “would make me roll on the floor, laughing, just hysterical, very warm, loving, loving person.”
Nancy knew something was wrong when David would disappear for extended periods of time during her childhood. David went to treatment when he was 15, Nancy wasn’t born yet, but her father described it as humiliating: “they had shaved his head and did a lot of punishment and consequential treatment with him.” He ran away twice after treatment; the second time Nancy’s father brought him home. When he was home, he was extremely thoughtful, very creative, but he always had low self-esteem. Throughout his adult years, David had serious consequences that stemmed from his drug use, including developing testicular cancer from substance abuse while bodybuilding.
When Nancy was 16, her parents moved with her to Florida. David came to visit shortly after their move. Nancy remembers David being erratic the entire trip, he couldn’t sleep and was making bizarre comments. Shortly after David left Florida, he was arrested; his mother (not Nancy’s mother) bailed him out.
At this point, the family was getting a lot of calls to the house from David’s mother, as he was spiraling out of control. Nancy will never forget the last call. “My dad was on the couch and he had gotten a phone call and he just started crying. I knew at that moment that something was wrong, and he just did the air verbalization of David’s gone.”
Nancy struggled with her brother’s death. “I was angry that my family really hadn’t done more or intervened more,” Nancy says. “I felt like they kept just pushing it under the rug.”
Nancy started going to Al-Anon, which helped her navigate these thoughts. Al-Anon “taught me to have stable relationships with people. It’s not just about your experience with your loved one, it’s also about how you react to relationships.”
A Therapist’s Perspective
At the beginning of Nancy’s career as therapist, “11 out of 12 clients were opioid users and heroin addicts.” Most of her clients had chronic pain, had been in an accident, or something tooth-related, and they had become addicted and couldn’t afford opiates anymore, so then moved to heroin. “A prescription for opioids is a death script for some people. They get it and they’re gone,” says Nancy.
When counseling a family through addiction, Nancy usually looks at the family as a whole, and talks to each one of them individually. She likes to ask them, “who takes care of you?” It isn’t just the loved one who needs help, the family needs help as well.
After getting a loved one into treatment, Nancy says there will be boundaries that need to be set, and it’s uncomfortable because you’re “cutting off their air supply.” She says getting parents and family members on the same page is pivotal.
As a therapist, Nancy does four to five assessments a week, and remarks that all of her clients have some form of trauma. “This is a chronic thought disorder,” says Nancy. “No matter what drug or what substance you put in your body, it’s the thoughts that are connected to our trauma. If we can start to shift that to be more vulnerable, then we can really open up some pathways.”
Nancy’s passion is to not only help her individual clients, but to help families understand how to navigate the painful path of addiction. “I love seeing the clients grow, the assignments they do, and just seeing them really flourish. It just gives me a lot of hope.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity.