Alex Carroll comes off as an unassuming guy when you meet him, but his work is of dire importance, especially today. A native of Arlington, the social worker serves as a substance abuse counselor at a county mental health board.
But the 28 year old knows how to keep his work in perspective and to take pride in the small stuff, like a nice steak for one or a flawless bar mitzvah.
Your parents took in foster children when you were young. What was that like?
My parents started hosting foster kids when I was in third grade and I think that’s sort of what directed me on to the social-work path. A lot of social workers work in the foster-care realm, and a lot of the children would see counselors, so it really planted that seed. We’d have one or two kids in our home at a time but we probably had about 30 come through our house over the years.
It made me more empathetic. If there were kids I didn’t especially love, my mom would tell me to consider everything they’d had to go through. I think that taught me to learn and care about other people’s experiences from a younger age than some other kids.
Is your work stressful?
It can be. Because I’m working in the substance-abuse field, the rates of success are pretty low. Some statistics say it takes most people seven or eight times to get sober and only 10 to 25 percent of people are successful in treatment, depending on how you look at it.
So it can be pretty frustrating to put so much time and effort into something only to have it not work out. You’re putting a lot of time in with people and it’s frustrating when there are other things at play keeping them from succeeding. There are things that are outside of your control, and that was one of the things I first struggled with, was learning that you can’t always fix people. But when you feel like you actually do help someone get sober it really reminds you of why you’re in the field.
If you had the power to change the way Virginia handles drug treatment policy, what would you do?
There really aren’t a lot of resources for people. With the expansion of Medicaid it’s getting a bit better, but there are so many people who don’t have any insurance at all. I had a client who said they were moving to Massachusetts just to qualify for treatment because they were basically homeless because they couldn’t get into a residential treatment program.
People are trying their best but there just aren’t that many resources.
What do you do when you’re not working? How do you keep the stress from bothering you?
It’s all about the self-care movement. Gotta spend time with the friends and loved ones. I keep active and make sure I’m getting some exercise on my bike. And I grill myself a steak once a week, just for me.
You once tried a cross-country bike ride. How’d that go?
I had a few months off before starting my master’s program. My friend was building his own bikes asked me if I wanted to ride across the country and I said, “Why not?”
You didn’t think about it any further than that?
I figured I’d get out of school with a lot of loans to pay off and I’d need to be working all the time. So when am I going to get a chance to do something like this again? And I wasn’t very good at riding my bike so I thought, here’s a good excuse to get good on the bike. I spent the next few months getting competent. We started in Portland [Ore.], went up to Missoula [Mont.], came down through Colorado and made it across Kansas before I hopped in a car and went home.
I was out for about six weeks and man, you should’ve seen my bike tan.
I hear you still look back fondly on your bar mitzvah.
I like to send people a picture of the VHS, like, how many people have a video of themselves becoming a man they can look at when they need a pick-me-up?
At that point in my life it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. As a 7th or 8th grader, you’re reading a language that you’re not literate in, having to memorize that and chanting, and going through puberty all in the midst of that? I’m still pretty proud of myself.
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