Elizabeth Loudon: A hands-on clinician with a passion for recovery

By Jeff Vircoe

She’s like the Ninja mother hen of Edgewood.

Unfailingly visible at the counselor’s alcove across from the nurse’s desk, at exactly the time when the inpatients head for the common area or a smoke after morning lecture, Elizabeth Loudon’s eyes see all. Who’s acting out? Who is isolating? Who’s being flirty? Who needs a chat?

Yet, while standing at that alcove, she’s also assigning clinicians to group rooms. Answering non-stop questions from staff and patients as they buzz by. Giving feedback. Directing traffic, if you will, in the busiest part of a busy building.

Elizabeth Loudon

Once smokes are butted out, coffees chugged inappropriately, white binders stashed in rooms and the patients are headed for one of eight group therapy rooms, bam! She’s gone. Off to another traffic circle in another part of the Edgewood campus. Maybe it’s Ferguson Building. Perhaps the Insite Family Program room. Or her office with the bright red leather couches. Just one more stop in the complicated world of one of Canada’s top treatment centers.

If you’ve spent any time in an addictions treatment centre, it’s pretty obvious the life of a clinical director is non-stop. The lineups at Loudon’s office door bare that out. Sometimes they are three- and four-people deep. This clinician. That food service supervisor. This extended care supervisor. That accountant. This psychiatrist – all wanting and needing a piece of her time. And that’s when she’s on campus. Often, others further abroad need her time. Or she’s busy gathering ideas and credentials for providing better service to those whose lives depend on it. This week it’s Hazelden in Minnesota.  Next week Toronto and Vancouver. Last month it was Florida. Loudon says it comes with the territory and she loves it. She must. She’s been here since 2001.

With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in counseling, and in the process of being certified as a sex addiction therapist, Loudon oversees all things clinical.

“I know I have a written job description but, realistically, I’m in charge of all the clinical programming and all the clinical decisions that happen here at Edgewood,” she says with a look that says where do I start. “My job description is I come to work every day with the mind of how do I improve and maintain clinical care, while at the same time caring for all my clinicians, as well as admissions folks, making sure that they are coming to work healthy as well. My office is constantly a revolving door.”

When not skyping with the Edgewood Health Network head office staff in Toronto, or coordinating with one of the outpatient clinics across Western Canada, Loudon is often on the phone with insurance companies, psychiatrists, psychologists, interventionists, families. Edgewood’s own doctors beat a regular path to her office two doors down from the lecture hall. Nobody comes into Edgewood for treatment without connecting to Elizabeth Loudon and the medical team first.

“Doctors [Mel] Vincent, [Gary] Richardson and [Charlie] Whelton are amazing at triaging the medical and psychiatric issues clinically. And I have to be able to make sure that we can treat them.”

Born in Nelson, B.C. and raised all over Vancouver Island, Loudon is a 43-year-old woman with a lot on her plate, both at work and at home. At work, there’s her title and all that comes with it. At home, her respite, a whole other bunch of activities keeps her hopping.

“I am somebody who spends a lot of time with my family,” she says, offering this scribe a few moments to get behind the curtain. “My mom passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. She always tried to keep us kids together as much as possible. So, my family is my sisters and my nieces and my husband and our dogs,” she says.

Married to Rob, a glazier (glass expert) since her first year at Edgewood, the couple has no children but two “large, menacing but friendly dogs” and an ever-growing bundle of nearby family members and their children who live up, down and across Vancouver Island.

Though she’s always just one phone call away from any clinical issues at Edgewood, Loudon is strong in her boundaries when it comes to protecting her off-site life.

“I’m pretty laid back. I like to cook. I like to read. I get out there and try to learn to play golf. Which is horrible, but there’s lots of laughter,” she says. She won’t fess up to any off-the-wall hobbies or quirky likes.  “No, I do not have any wacky hobbies like pole dancing … but I probably need some wacky hobbies, truthfully. I’ve thought about taking up knitting but, so far, because I’m left handed, nobody will agree to teach me how to do that. And I also don’t think they want to give me large, sharp, pointy objects. But I’m always looking for new hobbies that are exciting.”

In all seriousness, she’s one who can dive into a book-reading coma and leave the world behind.

“What I do here is a difficult job,” she says with a shrug. “So, I’ve got to have that balance of self-care and downtime, reflection time, care time.”

Loudon came upon Edgewood while looking for summer work in 2001. She was fresh out of university with her degree in psychology and applied for a support staff position in Nanaimo. She intended to peruse her Masters in Statistical Analysis.

“I always liked the concept of kind of working with psychologists [not necessarily patients],” she says. “It was a safe way of working with people. I was going to go get my Master’s in Stats. I would get to work with all the research and good stuff with looking at human behavior, but not actually have to work with human behavior.”

In other words, not getting into the muck. And, in her life to that point, growing up there had been plenty of muck. Addiction ran deep.

Raised by a mom who worked in the retail industry and a father who wore many hats, not the least being his addictions to alcohol and cocaine, Elizabeth was the baby of the family. Finding her place in a chaotic world, including two older sisters and one older brother, she went to a half-dozen elementary schools and two high schools.

“My dad was alcoholic and a drug addict. So, it meant unsafety. It meant fear. I used to read the signs [at] my house, walking home from school. If the curtains were all closed it meant that he was drunk. If the music was on it meant he was using cocaine that day. If he was deep frying things, it was just marijuana. I say just marijuana because that was the safe one, right?”

The roles she took on are classic in the world of chemical dependency.

“I knew what addiction was when I was five years old.  My dad would disappear on binges. My mom had four kids she was raising by herself a lot of the time. So, I did what every good family in addiction does – I took on my family role. I was the good kid. I didn’t party. I got good grades. I volunteered. I took on summer jobs so I could give money to the family. Anything I could do so that, in my mind, it would make my dad not drink and use.”

It didn’t pan out that way. He continued to binge. The family continued to survive as best it could until her parents split for good when Elizabeth was 18. A quarter century later, she and her father have a bumpy, infrequent relationship as he has not found the way out of his lifestyle. She last saw him two years ago and last spoke to him several months back, but only to check up on him after a rumor about his passing made its way to her.

“It’s really hard having an alcoholic/drug addict dad, knowing what we do here and the hope that we offer families. He’s never wanted help,” she says quietly.

Having had a front-row seat to addiction and armed with a degree in psychology, Loudon was still mostly unprepared for what awaited her when Edgewood materialized as a career choice.

She recalls a key moment in her early days at Edgewood. She had been asked to do the six-day Insite Family Program, which most staff are obliged to complete. It often alerts attendees to any issues they may have surrounding their own relationships with addicts.

“I was sure I was going to get fired after Insite because I cried so much. I thought, ‘This can’t be what they want me to do here.’ The day after Insite, they called me into Jane’s office.  Jerry Blackburn, Mary Anne Myers and Jane were all there. I was like, okay, here it comes. I’m going to get fired because they found out about all of my mess.”

Quite the opposite happened. She was offered a Counselor’s Training Program position at the centre. And she’s never looked back.

“I always say [Edgewood founder] Jane [Ferguson] kind of lured me in,” says Loudon. “She saw something in me that I definitely didn’t see in myself.”

Like many of Edgewood’s 150 employees, Loudon moved laterally and up the ranks. Support staff to Maple team counselor. Counselor to supervisor.

When the day came that clinical director Mary Anne Myers retired in 2011, Loudon had been at Edgewood a decade and was an obvious choice to step into those shoes. Though the learning curve was certainly steep, she hasn’t looked back.

“The learning curve of working at Edgewood is like running up Calder Hill in Nanaimo,” she says with a smile. The hill she refers to has a gradient of 26 percent.

“It’s that huge hill in town that I would never walk up because it would kill me. But it’s like trying to run up, or do a marathon up a steep hill. Because it’s difficult. Edgewood has its own way of doing treatment. It’s a very specific task-centered model, but then we individualize the treatment as well. We are probably one of the only places that says don’t make any decisions on your own. We always make it as a team. We really encourage our staff not to be lone wolves. So it’s difficult.”

Whether she’s dealing with patients and families, or serving up meals at alumni events, Loudon usually has her hands in the middle of things at Edgewood.

As anyone in the addictions field can attest, there are also plenty of moments when your own personal ghosts can rattle you.

“You’ve got to deal with all your stuff,” she says, shaking her head. “All the buttons of mine that got landed on the first couple of years. The many days I spend in Mary Anne’s office in tears, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this reminded me of this,’ or, ‘I just had a group where this came up.’ She would always remind me to continue to go to therapy, do lots of Al-Anon, and take care of myself.”

On personal and professional levels, the journey of an Edgewood career comes with plenty of peaks and valleys, to be sure.

“We work with amazing people to begin with. The Edgewood team itself is safe, it’s caring, and it’s supportive. I watch people, the staff, have very similar transformations as I did. Finding out about themselves. Jane helped me find my voice. My strengths that I didn’t know I had. I think we still do that today. I think that’s amazing.”

The uniqueness of the job is not lost on Loudon either.

“There are not very many places you can work where you can walk into your clinical director’s office, or your executive director’s office, or your supervisor’s and say, ‘I’m having a bad day,’ or, ‘I’m feeling resentful,’ or, ‘I’m really struggling with this patient. They remind me of X.’ There [are] not very many places you can do that, and you can do that here. It’s amazing. You can talk about the stuff that goes on for you on a daily basis.”

And getting to help others is the gold.

“I love watching our patients get well. It was Cake Night last week and a few of my old patients came back. They reminded me of the kinds of fights that we had when they were in inpatient,” she laughs. “And how grateful they are today. Two of those people that came back are now 14 years sober! They aren’t living in hospital rooms or dying. They have grandkids. They are riding their motorcycles. Going to meetings. They have lives again. It was just so amazing to see what happens in inpatient, and the great work that they continue to do after the gifts that we give them.”

And then there is the harsh reality. Many do not make it. Relapses aren’t always just setbacks. Sometimes they are finite. The most difficult, heart-wrenching truths of life inside a treatment centre.

“For me, it’s still watching the people walk out the doors that aren’t ready. As well as the people that choose to go back using and relapse. And then … dying. That’s horrific,” she says somberly, explaining the process that often occurs when a newly-sober addict struggles to face his or her new life – a life without the numbing comfort of their two-faced friends: substances.

“We do whatever we can to try to stop somebody from making the decision to walk out or get discharged. So, it’s those times when we’ve been working with them for six hours, when we’ve had every member of the family on the phone with them, the family members are in tears, they’re sobbing, begging them to stay. And, yet, there’s that delusion in the addict that still says, ‘I can do it my way,’ and they walk out of here – that’s the part that makes it a bad day. Because you don’t know … I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know who’s going to make it and who’s not going to make it. But the fear in that moment, when they are not listening to people, they’re not listening to people [who] know them and love them. They’re trusting that brain that has got them loaded over the years. And it’s scary.”

Years later, weeks, days, sometimes hours, even the prognosis of what most addicts face is hammered home.

“The worst part of my job is when I get a file on my desk that says ‘Deceased’.  We always reach out to the families, and that piece when the family member picks up the phone and I say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ [The] sobbing that happens. It’s the worst thing ever. I would rather that they were mad at Edgewood.  I would rather [that] they get angry with me. But, often, it’s usually like, ‘Thank you so much for what you guys tried to do.” Or, we still had a couple of weeks, or a month, or six years, whatever, with them. They’re still grateful. But so much loss and grief. That’s the worst part. That’s the challenge of this job, definitely.”

Like anyone who has spent time working in the trenches of addiction treatment, Loudon needs to reset, surrender to it and get back up on the horse. She does. And, as their clinical leader, she shows her staff how to do the same. In the end, it’s an honorable profession that saves lives.

“Counseling addicts is about having that balance between showing them their behavior, but at the same time coming from that strength-based perspective of showing them their assets and what they can do to change that behavior,” she says.

“Counseling in general, there is a lot of in-depth work, but it’s not as specific. At Edgewood, we’ve got a captive population in here so we do a lot of work with them. Whereas, in outpatient or in a one-on-one session, you might not get into the deep stuff because you’ve got to bandage them up before they leave. You can’t talk about a traumatic childhood in 40 minutes and then make sure the person is safe enough to leave. In inpatient, if somebody brings something up in group, they say, ‘Group goes on all day.’ So, they can keep getting support from the evening counselor. They’ve got their peers who know what’s going on. They’ve got their group counselors. They’ve got a counselor on call [who] can come in if necessary. There’s always such a safety net here that’s not necessarily out there in the world.”

And it pays off in spades some days.

“I remember one of my first Sundays working here. I was standing at the sign-in podium, looking all official.  There was this big lineup of people. And there was this little kid, she must have been like three, she comes running by me. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to sign this kid in!’ I look back and her dad, [a patient], is standing behind me. He opens up his arms and she jumps into his arms … I think the mom was like 20 people back. But that moment when that dad was able to see his child … and be there. And that little girl felt safe enough to do that that day. That was a beautiful moment. I got emotional standing there. I had to look away. I’m trying to sign people in and look all official. Yet, I’m welling up with tears because of that beautiful moment that I just got to watch.”

Being on the front lines, at the podium, at the nurse’s alcove, hearing the tears of patients, family members and staff, that’s all part of the attraction Loudon has to this job. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I start at work at 7:30 in the morning. I’m here an hour before my shift starts because I’m getting ready. I’m spending time with the staff. I’m reading the patients’ significant event sheets. I’m making plans for the day. And I’m hanging out, having some laughter with my team. And, then, the day starts. I leave, sometimes at 5 p.m., sometimes at 6, 7 or 8, it depends. It’s not about punching a clock. It’s about I want to do things until my work is done, what I can do. So, do I love my job? Do I love the pace? Of course I do.”

The Ninja mother hen of Edgewood laughs and shrugs when teased about her hands being in many places at many times. It’s just the way it is.

“One of the best compliments that I ever got from a clinician was from Nelson Sacristan in our EHN Vancouver clinic, who used to be a counselor at Edgewood here. He said to me, ‘It’s like there’s two of you, Elizabeth. You always know everything that’s going on in here. You’re everywhere.”

“He’s right. I always want to be involved. I don’t like it when things happen and I don’t know about them. Ultimately, it’s my name on the license. It’s my name that families are going to call about anything of concern. I want to be able to keep our patients safe and make sure we are giving our referrals the best treatment we can.”