Olds addiction counsellor’s story brings hope to others

Jody Tomm is an AHS addiction counsellor with Community Addiction & Mental Health in Olds. (Photo supplied.)

By Tracy Kennedy

In her lived experience, Jody Tomm appreciates the value of being vulnerable and open about struggles with addiction and mental health. Today, as an Alberta Health Services (AHS) counsellor, she’s paying it forward to help other vulnerable people with challenges of their own.

Tomm, an addiction counsellor with Community Addiction & Mental Health in Olds, recently shared her personal story of addiction and trauma, joining others in the community in The Conversation Has to Happen, a local virtual conference on mental health. While she’s received ample praise for her courage from colleagues, her main driver for sharing has been her desire to help others.

“I was willing to share my story in the hopes it could help somebody feel change is possible, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. So it feels good,” said Tomm.

“Clients often say to a counsellor, ‘well, you don’t know what I’ve been through,’ and I can honestly say ‘yes, I know exactly what it’s like, because I have been there.’”

Tomm was diagnosed with depression in her teens, and throughout her life went on and off medication, and consumed drugs and alcohol. At the age of 36, she experienced sexual trauma that led to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a downward spiral.

Then she met a psychologist who made her feel valued, with a non-judgmental approach who adapted each session to her needs, depending on where Tomm found herself that day in her journey.

“She never turned me away if I was high. She never turned me away if I was detoxing. She just accepted me, and that compassion was a pivotal thing for me,” she added.

“Her showing me that kind of harm-reduction approach, it grew my passion for meeting clients where they’re at,” said Tomm. “I leave expectations at the door and help them reach their individual recovery goals, rather than me telling them what success is. That experience shaped how I am as a counsellor today.”

Tomm stressed it’s not critical for an addiction counsellor to have lived experience to be good at their job. Her manager Carmen Baumgarten, also with Addiction & Mental Health, agrees — but adds that such experience can forge a unique connection to clients.

“I think clients see that she’s authentic, that she truly does understand them, and has walked in their shoes,” said Baumgarten. “I’m a very firm believer that, in order to do this work, you have to be real with clients. The fact that she can be open about her life just helps her be her authentic self.”

At a time when one in five Canadians experience a mental health issue, Baumgarten says Tomm’s candour plays a particularly important role in breaking the stigma.

“Usually people don’t talk about it. I think her story offers hope.  It’s very encouraging for clients to see her now counseling people when she was in their shoes a few years ago. They can always make improvements, they can always move on from depression or substance use. Jody is living proof of that.

 “It’s very important for people to acknowledge their journey. I’m really, really proud of her.”